The little details of a good life

It’s been a hectic few weeks. Tonight I’m finally playing catch up with the ever growing collection of socks I keep ignoring when folding the washing. It’s a peaceful enough job, especially if you have company on the phone.

I recently had a particularly fun evening. Poppy scooped a handful of petroleum jelly out of a tub, and ran shrieking around the house wiping out over everything. Rose was napping in the bedroom so I put Poppy in time out in the bathroom for 2 minutes. She was not impressed about this and locked the door in protest. When allowed out, her hands were too slippery to unlock it. I grabbed a screwdriver but the lock jammed! Fortunately Star was visiting and climbed straight through the window and into the sink like a champion, saving the day.

Speaking of sinks, every evening when we brush our teeth together, Poppy insists on putting the sink plug in and leaving a little pool of water “for my leopards”. I have no idea what the leopards are about, but sometimes it’s best not to argue.

We had a lovely time out at the local waterfall recently. Winter had been dry but it finally rained enough to wet the creek briefly which was fun.

In and around the big things in our lives are these little ones, cooking meals, hanging washing, looking for opportunities to have adventures or learn something new, to wonder or find gratitude and beauty. It’s very hard work but also such a good life, so wanted. The joy is in the details, these so forgettable tiny moments of day to day life. Making a starfish together from playdough.

Chopping ingredients for dinner together. Sitting on the couch with Rose at the end of a long day and holding hands. The little squeeze that says I see you, and I’ve got you. The highs and lows of the big dramas of our lives, and the little bumps and dips of the daily mundane world. They all add up to something incredibly precious. Life lived deeply, breathed into, not flinched from or dulled down.

Here it is, my little girl brushing her teeth and carefully making a pool for the leopards. Washing the same 10 mugs for what must surely be the millionth time. Making time to cry when there’s sad news. A hot cuppa and a journal to write in in a quiet moment. Talking with a friend online. Noticing how beautiful the clouds are, the feel of sunshine on your skin when hanging yet another load of washing. A stem of jonquils from the garden, filling the whole house with perfume. The last winter rose and the first winter lily. Going to bed at night with a very good book and a very fluffy cat. This is a very good life.

My New Studio

I’m part-way through the big move and it’s glorious. Twice the space, two walls for my own artwork and plenty of room for inspiration images too. A full set of windows, with a door that opens to a first floor balcony. In the evenings the sun sets to the right and casts golden light onto my glass art desk.

Carpet protects the floor boards and keeps me happy as I’m always barefoot here. I’ve claimed this red wool coat for art as I wanted something warm but with a little more romance than my practical camping gear. When I need to step into another world I set myself up on the floor with my brushes and a cushion and a cup of herbal tea. It’s essential to create divisions between admin and art, even between craft and art.

I do most of my study for public health here now, and I’m continuing to explore the monsters that sometimes wait for me here, and the nature of safety in a creative space. It’s complex and fruitful. Several times recently I’ve had bad experiences and run to the studio as a refuge. It’s never been that reliable for me but it’s emerging as a place my heart is at ease. There’s still monsters some days but I’m learning to check in before I get too naked and vulnerable. Some days are for craft, sorting, cleaning, the joy of using my hands. The monsters will devour me whole if I try anything else. Some days I can strip off and find that wild place, the other world, where the poetry lives. I’m learning to pick the difference, and that’s making me stronger.

We are all multiple, and so are the people who hurt us

This morning was a rare one, everyone in my little family home for breakfast. I cooked pancakes and realised my heart is never so full as when we are together. My girls are so precious to me, I feel warm, strong, fierce, joy-sadness when I’m with them. Their happiness is my happiness and their hurts break my heart. It breaks and mends over and over.

I am different with them. There’s a theory about the ‘self’ which states that who you are is not a fixed thing, like a rock or a plant. It’s a unique dynamic. That ‘self’ is what emerges in relationship with another. So each ‘self’ in each setting, each relationship, is slightly unique, and has aspects that may differ from all others. This is both separate to and part of multiplicity. I experience this in both which parts are brought out and also the different selves we all have. This is an aspect of multiplicity which is universal to all of us.

This dynamic also goes in two directions. We ‘hook’ each other into roles. When I feel young I bring out the parent in you, and vice versa. You may recoil from my aloofness or warm to my charm. Relationship dynamics bring out age old stories and patterns between us. They move us deeper into the grove of who we have been accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being, or bring to light new aspects of ourselves we had forgotten or didn’t know were there.

This curious TED talk “Rethinking Infidelity” explores the idea that being in search of a self we have lost for a long time is an aspect of why we are unfaithful to each other. (jump to 9.30 if you want to skip to this part) That in time we put away the parts of ourselves that don’t fit with our partner and community. And a new, different person can bring to light a self that makes us feel more vital and alive than we have in years. Unable to see that this is a normal challenge of navigating community – finding the balance between the social homogeneity and the wild individual – we embrace the new person as a salvation and shatter everything we’ve build and loved until now. And then we do it again.

It isn’t that we are looking for another person, but for another self.

Esther Perel

Integrity is about the threads of beliefs and values we hold through these transitions. The nature of universal dissociation is that it is entirely common to have three beautiful relationships and one in which we are horrifically abusive. Some nazi guards came home from violence and were loving to their families. A man may be kind to his children and friends and brutal to his wife. A mother may love three children and hate and abuse the fourth. When you think of self as one static thing this is horribly confusing and we keep trying to understand which story is true and which self is real – the kind or the vile. When they are understood as both true, real, genuine, there’s both a kind of devastation and a relief in being able to hold them equally in mind. No longer are they different sides of a coin that cannot be viewed at the same time, they are different aspects of the same person and both true.

So the abused person who struggles to find their way to the ‘truth’ of their situation – wrestling with competing stories of who their abuser ‘really’ is, finds a way out by embracing the whole of them. They are both Jeckyll and Hyde. They are sweet, wounded, sincere, and savage. It’s all real, inasmuch as any self is real. You cannot have a relationship with only one of them, however wonderful they are and however much you adore them. And you cannot soothe the savage ones through further abasement, sacrifice, and suffering. Until and unless the sweet ones take responsibility for the savage ones, they will continue to let their demons take their pain and rage out on you, debasing and destroying you both in the process. In some cases the savage selves use the sweet selves as little more than bait to trap the people they envy and wish to harm.

Some relationships – and these are the precious ones – help us be our best selves. With my girls I have the opportunity to parent, mother, mentor. There’s a groundedness and centredness I feel in that role that I treasure. An opportunity to be someone I have always wanted to be. I am incredibly lucky to have the chance to help them grow up and find who they are.

Finding Ways out of Burnout and Overwhelm

Poppy and I went adventuring in a creek recently. It was so peaceful. There are struggles and difficulties all around, then there are these islands within it all that are so precious, where everything is still.

I clear a space and ignore my phone. No multi tasking. The curse of the freelance life – work creeping into every waking moment, is deliberately put aside. I don’t problem solve, plan dinner, handle admin. There is a rare clarity, ice clear and deeply refreshing.

Since I last burned out a couple of years ago, I’ve been quietly exploring a private project: what creates overwhelm, and what reduces it? Burn out is bigger than overwhelm, but for me it was the biggest and longest issue I had to deal with. I see overwhelm everywhere, not just at work but in everyday life, most especially for parents. It’s often framed as part of various mental illnesses and disabilities, but it’s such a common and difficult experience I feel it needs its own name and space to be understood.

For me, overwhelm is a chronic state of exhaustion, scattered thought, poor concentration, emotional intensity and changeability, and inability to grasp or manage tasks.

Reflection

I’ve been borrowing ideas from many sources, and using my own therapy as a kind of compass to treat my own overwhelm. I try things out and notice if my overwhelm deepens or eases. I’ve found reflective journaling is ideal for this. Each day or two I journal and notice what’s helping and what’s making things worse. I get an overview that’s nearly impossible for me to find any other way.

Some days when my overwhelm is high, I can barely walk into my shed. It’s way too much to handle, a million things all needing organisation I simply don’t have and I feel such panic that even opening the door makes me want to cry. Other days when my mental space is going well I can walk in and my mind is clear. It’s really not so bad, just a few bits and pieces. I can see what needs to be culled or sorted, packed better, given away. It’s so manageable. The difference can be startling!

Trying harder doesn’t help

For example I’ve found overwhelm is often embedded with false beliefs about productivity – that doing more and working harder and longer are essential to productivity. So my intuitive solution for the early signs of overwhelm (one of which is reduced productivity) is unfortunately to do a bunch of things that are likely to make it worse.

As counter intuitive as it feels, rest, doing something completely different, and setting aside proper time to deep dive instead of scattered multi taking are all very useful for productivity.

Understand the weight of the invisible mental load

One of the challenges about burnout in life rather than work is how difficult it can be to get a break from it or even see it clearly. Some of us find a lot of our work isn’t only unpaid but unrecognised, even by ourselves. We feel exhausted but can’t name what we’ve done all day, can’t take time off but don’t use the concept of being ‘on call’, and end up fitted to the gaps in the somehow more important activities of study or formal paid employment being carried out by those around us. Being able to notice what we do and who we do it for can be essential to recovery. I have found simply tracking my time has been eye opening in terms of things like how much sort work I do for others on a daily basis. This isn’t a bad thing – unless I don’t factor it in. This is a very interesting article on the topic of invisible mental load.

Executive function capacity is a limited resource

I’ve also found it useful to consider ideas around ‘executive function’ from the autism community (here’s a great post about an adult autistic’s perspective on his struggles with executive function limitations). Executive function issues also turn up a lot for folks with ADHD, trauma, and dissociation. They relate to our ability to plan, sequence tasks, keep track of time, and prioritise.

Many higher level brain processes are limited resources. If I’m living such a chaotic life that I need to use a lot of thought to plan hanging out my washing, that’s a lot of capacity being used up on tasks of daily living. Routines, structures, and rhythms are ways I can take those tasks out of intense intellectual activity and into habit, which is largely mindless and takes little mental energy. (which can help explain why some folks become very wedded to routines – if you have limited executive function your routines are your safe way of keeping life going)

It’s the same process that makes driving an intense intellectual process for a new driver, and something that can be done on autopilot for an experienced one. Autopilot frees up capacity for other tasks, or mental rest.

The impact of decision fatigue

Decision fatigue is also an important aspect of overwhelm, and one that burdens those of us in poverty much more than others because poverty involves constant trade offs – and these are the most mentally exhausting decisions we make, between two or more important things when we can’t have both (like food or medicine). There’s a great article here that unpacks this more as well as a lot of interesting research behind the ideas.

Sometimes the job is impossible

Overwhelm is often a response to a catch 22, or an impossible ask. Parenting through adversity of any kind often involves trying to accomplish very challenging tasks, such as supervising very young children while severely sleep deprived or ill, or trying to provide quality childcare and household management simultaneously,or meeting the physical, social, and emotional needs of several children of different ages/needs, at the same time.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of parenting as if it was a job, and thinking about what my union might be asking for when they want better, safer conditions. Do I need less tasks? More time? More skills? Rest? Support? All of the above, of course, but some weighed more than others, and some easier to find solutions to.

When I ask myself ‘What’s usual in thr paid versions of this role?’ sometimes the pressures and catch 22s emerge in a way I couldn’t see before. It can also help me to see and articulate difficult concepts such as I love being with my kids but I hate trying to create fun safe times together and also sort out all the washing. When everything merges together it can hard to figure out where things are actually working because it all feels awful.

‘All or nothing’ is a game you always lose

Another thing I’ve been finding helpful is to watch out for the ‘all or nothing’ mindset that kicks in when I’m overwhelmed. I know I need a break and I’m dreaming longingly of the weeks away on camp, but turn down the opportunity to have ten minutes to myself because frankly, what’s the point.

I have been finding it difficult to make ‘wild time’ since the kids came along. I miss my long late nights writing poetry, driving under stars, and sitting by the sea. For the last month I’ve experimented with 10 minutes by myself in the bedroom each night, with candles and my journal. Part of me hates this – where’s the spontanety? The stars overhead? The long hours? How can wildness be scheduled?

That part is right, it’s not the same.

And yet, it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s still a candle, a bone pen, a sacred space. It might be a snack instead of a full meal, but it still nourishes my soul. And a nourished soul speaks its needs louder, is more playful, resilient, and certain. It keeps seeking a heartful and passionate life. 5 minutes of painting is better than not touching the brushes for 5 years because you don’t have the time.

‘Freeze’ is a type of threat response that looks like overwhelm

I’ve found helpful with overwhelm to understand what scares me. This is much harder than it sounds. Sometimes I know I’m scared, sometimes I just get sick, or develop new pain or symptoms. As someone with childhood trauma I have the common but deeply frustrating experience of sometimes learning about my feelings through problems with my body and health. This means having to interpret the myriad of random symbolic issues that turn up. It can be a slow and frustrating process.

Other times I’m well aware I’m stressed, panicked, frozen, blocked. But I often have little idea why or how to get past it. Why is it that some days emails make me freeze and are impossible to reply to? I’m sitting at my desk in tears, humiliated and full of frustration and self loathing, but I cannot make myself do the un-doable task. We’ve all heard of flight and fight but are less familiar with freeze. If you are scared and don’t feel up to a task you are facing, some of us freeze and shut down.

Overwhelm can be a response to abuse

Not being able to think straight, remember, plan, or use higher mental facilities around an abusive person has long been recognised as a common problem for people being harmed. Making plans away from them is often essential because deciding what to in the moment can be impossible. There nothing wrong with you and it’s not unusual

It’s also not uncommon when the abuse is internal. For example, if I’ve often used a ‘stick’ to motivate myself with, forcing compliance even when I’m frightened, tired, or overwhelmed, using meanness and bullying to push myself through hard tasks, I’ve set this scenario up. Overwhelm at some point is as inevitable as a plant wilting without water.

Empathy is restorative

Making safe spaces to deeply listen and empathise with myself has been crucial. I’ve been working with an art therapist on this, instead of trying to push through or problem solve, instead to deeply and non judgementally listen. It’s harder than it sounds!

Deliberately seek the opposite

There are many opposites of overwhelmed such as calm, content, flow state, and confident. Some of them will resonate as more important to you than others, and you can explore more about those ones.

For me one of the biggest costs of overwhelm is in my confidence, so a side project that’s developed out of this one has been: what builds my confidence? I’m finding resources like this TED talk insightful. Repetition builds confidence which is useful to be aware of given how often I work at edge of skill, seduced by the appeal of a challenge. I adore challenges but I’m also anxious, vulnerable to imposter syndrome, and discouraged by failure and rejection. Learning to pull back on the challenges a little and build on more successes is helping greatly. Intentionally working to reduce my overwhelm this way has been incredibly helpful for me.

If you are struggling with overwhekm or care about someone who is, take heart. I hope there’s been some useful food for thought here. Our interdependence is invaluable in situations like this. Someone we can swap scary tasks like booking each other’s dentist appointments. Sometimes the one with more executive function can help break down a task or sequence a series of goals for someone struggling. Many articulate people with these challenges are sharing their strategies so others can borrow and build on them. You can tweak and change and develop things so that the overwhelm eases and you can think again. Best wishes.

TACSI Project: Chronic illness research

I’ve started a new project! This one is with TACSI, as a peer researcher, drawing on my lived experience of chronic illness. I’ll be conducting interviews, writing reports, and participating in the co-design process over the next few months.

If you meet the criteria above, please consider reaching out. All the interviewers are peers with lived experience and pretty amazing folks. I’m really pleased to be on board, TACSI have a fantastic reputation and I’m a long time admirer of their work – check out some of their other projects here.

Gender, diversity, and health

Recently in my public health studies, I was asked to explore some ways in which gender has an impact on health. Here’s some of my thoughts:

Experiences, health conditions, or personal identity that deviate from cultural gender norms can expose people to considerable health risks. Stigma, rejection and/or victimisation from family, peers, and community, and lack of access to resources such as education, work, and medical care, each compound in a vicious cycle for many people. As a result, they then face all the health risks of people exposed to unemployment, loneliness, poverty, mental illness, and so on.

There’s a range of ways people can violate gender norms. The norms themselves vary from culture to culture and at different historical times. Cultures are more flexible about some variations and more rigid about others. Some cultures have more overlap between qualities seen as ‘male’ and those seen as ‘female’, and the value placed on each varies. Many cultures have third gender, transgender, both gender and other options. When gender is a rigid organising principle it often determines opportunities, risks, and the power permitted in various life spheres.

In many cultures ‘female’ identified skills, roles, and behaviours are associated with less power in their personal and political lives, less access to the market economy, and are seen as less essential. Some cultures (such as ours) permit women to identify or behave in ways seen as ‘male’ more readily than the reverse because of this disparity. So it is now largely acceptable for girls to wear trousers, while boys wearing dresses/skirts/kilts is a source of controversy.

Women are more likely to operate in a gift/barter economy alongside the men in their lives, performing more unpaid work such as child raising, care giving for sick and elderly, housekeeping. When women are employed they are more often part time and unemployed, and more often working in the lower paid ‘welfare workforce’ using ‘traditionally female skills’ such as child care and support work. They are more vulnerable to poverty, domestic abuse, depression, homelessness, and lack of control over their bodies and choices.

In such an arrangement, men are less socially connected, have more options for education and wealth without having to choose between paid work and having children, and are less likely to participate in unpaid work. They are more vulnerable to loneliness (particularly once retired), less likely to seek support, slower to access health care particularly in matters that contradict ‘male’ stereotypes such as for concerns about virility or mental health, more likely to be assaulted by other men, and much more likely to kill themselves.

The health risks and vulnerabilities are considerably higher for those who do not or cannot fit this binary. Binary transgender people (those who were identified as male at birth but experience themselves as female, and vice versa) for example are at much higher risks of suicide, violence from strangers and family, rejection, homelessness, mental illness, and unemployment. Non-binary people (who identify as agender, gender fluid, both genders, multiple, and so on) are likewise disadvantaged. People who are attracted to their own gender are often also the recipients of social rejection and stigma as attraction to the ‘opposite’ gender is often a key aspect of the gender norms: ‘manly men’ are ‘supposed’ to be attracted to women, not men, for example. Same sex attraction violate gender segregation norms that presume same sex spaces are free from attraction. People who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth but who diverge from it in choices such as career, interests, or appearance also face risks.

Intersex people and those with hormone variations and disorders can experience severe medical trauma within health services that seek to ‘normalise’ them and fit them back into a gender binary they may not identify with.

Many of the groups already experiencing some other form of disadvantage are more represented in gender diverse communities, such as autistic people. Experiencing more than one form of diversity such as being disabled and queer, or indigenous and queer puts people at much higher risk due each community not understanding the other. For example for many years ‘bisexual privilege’ was spoken of with the assumption that being able to blend in and ‘look straight’ gave bisexual people an advantage over monosexual queer people (lesbians and gay men) who were constantly dealing with the stress and risks of being outed. More research suggests the opposite, that the stress of being invisible and feeling unwelcome at times within both straight and queer communities seems to be the cause of the much higher rates of physical and mental illnesses suffered by bisexuals than straight or queer monosexuals. Bisexuals who are in same sex relationships and are validated as queer face fewer health risks than those in binary relationships who are usually assumed to be straight.

This suggests that not only does each gender experience health risks differently, but some forms of divergence from gender norms are associated with greater risks than others. Some resources are safer and more accessible for some forms of ‘validated diversity’ and may be hostile or harmful to others who are divergent in other ways. There is for example, conflict at times between binary and non binary trans people about the legitimacy of their identity and how they are perceived by the wider community.

A final group who face severe health risks due to gender are often forgotten about. In the book ‘Dead Boys Don’t Dance’, a study found that suicide rates were higher for queer boys than straight boys. But the highest rates of all were in a largely unstudied subgroup – boys who had been perceived as and labelled by their peers as gay, but who did not themselves identify that way. These straight boys experienced all the risks and rejection from the straight community suffered by queer boys, and also lacked the protection of a sense of engagement and belonging with the queer community. Their invisibility, misidentification, and lack of peers was frequently a lethal combination.

So when we talk about gender and health, the costs of a rigid gender binary, norms, roles, we are talking about costs for all these people. Different levels of risk and types of vulnerability, but no one escapes a troubling cost to losing access to some aspects of what it is to be human and what we need in order to thrive. There’s no winners in this list,but some of the people paying the highest prices are also the most invisible and overlooked in conversions about gender and health. We can do better.

Acing Public Health

Happy Dance! I got back my grade for my major assignment of the trimester, a report into the health impacts of different systems of income redistribution (welfare). The subject is at Masters level and I was given 96% for the report! 91% for the overall subject. That’s despite wrapping up the trimester with pluerisy.

I am so happy to have found Public Health, the bigger picture thinking suits me so much and it links across all the projects I love, whether that’s policy level advice or direct client work. All of them need to be underpinned by this understanding of the context in which people are crushed or thrive. Social determinants of health are so crucial and I’m stunned there wasn’t a whisper of them in my mental health peer work trainings.

So that’s a big confidence boost! I’ll be graduating at the end of the year and then will have the option to continue on to the grad dip or Masters – or go sideways into a different field like philosophy which is also pretty tempting. There’s a lot of philosophy in what I do, really we’re all philosophers at heart in some way even if we never verbalise it. We hold beliefs about people and life and live to them. I have very fond memories of some of the conversations with the hearing voices group around a campfire in my backyard, that rare space in which it was possible to break the social conventions that normally silenced us and talk openly, if we wanted to, about how we experienced the world. Even if it was just to have a whinge about the stress of being on welfare.

Studio as a sacred space

Glorious studio days recently. Even by artist standards, I have a pretty intense relationship with my studio. Moving into this space, it took me a long time to let go of my previous space and fall in love.

I will be moving to a bigger, brighter, better space in the same building in July and I’m so excited about it. It will also mean I can integrate my office and studio spaces together and have everything under one roof. This should stream line all my processes considerably, mean I don’t need a lot of duplicate stationary anymore, and make it easier to move between admin and art on the same day.

In preparation I’m sorting, tidying, and planning. I have a pinterest board of studios for inspiration. I’m keen to create something both functional and aesthetic. One thing I’ll make sure to do is set my oil palette up on the right hand side of my easel, so I’m not constantly crossing over myself for new paint.

As part of this preparation, I’ve overhauled my watercolour and oil painting set ups. A friend suggested standing for my large watercolour paintings and I’m already noticing the difference; more confident gestures, better blending, and finally making progress on an image I’ve made 5 versions of that I wasn’t happy with so far.

This drawer beneath my glass desk keeps my palettes and paint protected from dust while I’m not there. The large white palette on the left was an op shop find, a flat porcelain plate which is is wonderful for watercolours and much cheaper than specialty art palettes. Watercolour handles so much better on porcelain than metal or plastic, it’s much easier to mix colours and shades accurately.

My oil paint set up is also much better now. This little glass top table was a steal from the local garden supply store. I lifted out the glass and backed it with a few sheets of neutral grey pallet paper for easier colour mixing. It cleans off while wet with a baby wipe, or once dry, with a wall scraping razor.

I had partly completed this artwork in a class last year about painting in the style of the Old Masters. It’s a copy of a painting ‘Arachne’ by Diego Velazquez. This week it was time to finish it.

She still needs a few more glazes but I’m very happy with her.

It was fantastic to get back into oils, I’m looking forward to my next one.

I have a number of irons in the fire at the moment for my next projects and so far there’s promising feedback on a couple of them. I’m excited about starting the new financial year with a better working space to meet whatever comes. 🙂

Poem: Walking with the Wind

I went walking with the wind last night
Under the white and golden street lamps
Ears pricked with excitement,
My spirit dog went before me.

Behind me, just out of sight
Followed the ghosts of old friends and lovers
The wind spoke to me of the night
My spirit dog inhaled the grass.

Music poured from a shuttered house
We circled the ruined incinerator
Time wheeled overhead with the stars
My spirit dog dug under the trees.

I smiled to myself and turned towards home
Back to the house that would open to me
The light and the warmth of the living world
My spirit dog pissed on the neighbour’s daisies.

Ink Painting: Flight

I have greatly enjoyed creating in a range of other mediums lately; white ink over black, watercolours, even posca pens. But there’s something deeply satisfying about coming home to my teal ink paintings. They are my oldest and most familiar medium, started back in the days when I could only afford one colour of ink, a fountain pen, and a single size 6 brush.

When I sit down with my ink, I don’t know what I’m going to create before I start. I create the opportunity and something emerges. It’s an incredibly precious process for me, a kind of therapy. I love that spark, the uncertainty, the sense of not being in control and planning it out but rather, letting go and allowing space for what comes. It’s reflective and magical and sometimes extremely painful, depending on how safe I feel and how well I can process what comes. Sometimes nightmare images take me more than 6 months before I can look at them. More rarely, I connect with the work right away. Often they tell me than one story and I learn more about them over time or find different stories in them. I usually work at night, often by moonlight or candlelight, in a space full of poetry, a kind of altered state. Sometimes I can see parts of the artwork in the white paper as I begin, not a true hallucination, but yet real enough to trace the path.

‘Flight’ builds on a theme about wings that was present in my work back was I was 16 and used to dream of myself walking alone in school with vast useless black wings trailing behind me. Too freak to fit in, but not freak enough to fly.

They remerged at points throughout my life, such as when I gave birth.

I’ve been exploring my giftedness lately, what it means to not be neurotypical but function differently in ways there’s almost no research on for adult populations. It’s taken me a long time to own it and acknowledge how much it impacts my life. Unlike other differences such as my chronic illness, speaking about being gifted brings with it a taint of bragging and a memory of making others feel threatened and rejecting me. It’s vastly misunderstood and surprisingly vulnerable.

There’s little to guide someone struggling the way I do. Speaking to a gifted specialist recently I asked about the adult population, where can I learn from others who struggle? Ah, she said, there isn’t one. Gifted adults who succeed don’t come to see psychologists. Gifted adults who struggle usually assume their struggles prove they were not gifted after all. We know almost nothing about the needs and best supports of the gifted struggling adult.

We know what puts gifted kids at higher risk, such as not having friends or peers, not being academically challenged and getting used to the feeling of being a student who must learn, bullying, perfectionism, performance anxiety, feeling valued only for their grades and skills… We know they are often emotionally intense, vulnerable to existential crises very young, sensitive, and asynchronous in development. But we don’t know much about how to reverse harm or support adults to thrive. I’m trying to figure out that pathway.

Wings, useless, broken, or bound emerge as a metaphor for thwarted desire and unrealised capacity.

I’m glad of my strange, wild art. It was important to me to protect it from college and other artists and the homogenisation that happens in exposure to others. It’s not the only way to make art, even for me, not the best or holiest. At is made in many ways and meets many different needs, it’s a form of mindfulness and intense observation, a emotional catharsis, a complex development of artisanal skill, a way to play, and more besides. All are real. I was speaking with a lovely artist recently who is going through something tough. I mentioned that I explore terrible pain at times in my art and suggested they could do the same. They gave me such a brief hunted look, a flash of anxiety and an absolutely closed door that I understood immediately: art is their happy place, where the joyful and whimsical live. It would be a kind of sacrilege to take their darkness into it. For me, I adore darkness and love in art, all the notes of the song and colours to paint with. Lightest to darkest pitch. It’s what feels authentic to me and it heals something in me that otherwise merely bleeds.

Podcast: Keeping Mum

I’m excited to share this project in which I played a small role.

This beautiful podcast sensitively explores the largely untold story of the experience of children of LGBTIQ parents. It’s a lovely interview of the now adult child of a lesbian mother who navigated raising her family in a conservative community. The marriage equality plebiscite in Australia last year often aired concerns about the effect on children of being raised by queer parents. While there’s excellent research that shows these families are just as safe and nurturing, it’s also helpful to hear personal experiences and accounts.

Produced by Suzanne Reece who conceived the idea, conducted the interviews, edited, and created the sound scape.

I provided a voice over for Suzanne’s poem, some of the background chatter, and the illustration.

First aired on Radio Adelaide, you can find ‘Keeping Mum’ here. Please feel welcome to share it.

Autumn

It’s late Autumn, cold and grey. The last sunshine is stunning, delicious and golden as warmed honey. Last night I snuggled down into my bed like a happy burrito. I’m creating daily at the moment, a flurry of painting, writing, sewing. Today I baked delicious chocolate chunk peanut butter cookies. I’m still buzzing from making it through my uni trimester despite so many setbacks. A wonderful win to soak up.

My beautiful mural is progressing, albeit unconventionally given the frequent rain. I’m lucky Rose is still a romantic and doesn’t mind ink on the bedsheets or unexpected murals in progress on the oven.

I recently found the notes I took at the beside of a sick friend following an awful psychosis. Back then we discussed an illustrated booklet to help people better understand how to support someone so vulnerable. We spoke about it again today given I’ve recently completed my first short ink illustrated booklet, and I think I’m ready to consider the next booklet project.

It’s evening. Poppy and I are at the park. She is a red smudge in her raincoat, dashing about the green in the fading light, blowing raspberries at me from the top of the playground. The sky turns from baby blue and peach to soft greys and yellow. Birds flit everywhere, looping from tree to tree and weaving a song all around us. The last dogs go home. Poppy falls and runs wailing to cry in my arms. When she quiets the birds have stopped and we can hear the wind sweeping in through the trees. Night gradually deepens and the trees wave slowly like underwater grasses. We find helmet and boots and belongings and cycle back home.

Art as Liberation

Charismatic and flamboyant local artist Fruzsi Kenez is running a series of illustration classes, so I’ve signed up. A couple of years ago I carefully broke down all my business expenses at the end of financial year and discovered that art lessons are one of my favourite things to invest in. Private art lessons rather than college art lessons are balm for my heart. I don’t need to prove anything or agree with anyone. I can come and connect and take what suits me and wrestle with it, love it, hate, reject it, refashion it. At no point do I need to parrot it to pass assignments or mimic it to graduate. Those running the classes tend to be highly engaged and engaging, they don’t have a captive audience they can denigrate or reject. Considering that my art was largely loathed by tutors in uni, this is refreshing.

These art classes are about illustrations in journals. Creating fast, loose, fresh illustrations of items and people around us in ways that bypass careful planning and tap into fearlessness and the joy of markmaking. It’s the artist’s version of automatic writing and just as playful and intriguing.

I used to art journal ideas in ink with the hope of one day having a studio where I could translate them into ‘real art’ – paint. I had the opportunity to show the journals to a couple of established artists visiting the shelter I’d stayed at one day. They were kind and encouraging and told me the ink paintings were themselves ‘real art’. It started a train of thought I’m still exploring today.

Recategorising my journal work as real art – and later cutting images out of the journals to display – was refreshing, a change of perspective that liberated me from restrictive ideas of what ‘real art’ is (large, painted, formal). It helped me treat my passion for ink and paper as a genuine avenue of exploration and has largely created my current arts practice. However there was also a downside, which is that my arts journalling practice froze up. If any artwork I made might now be ‘real art’ that I wanted to exhibit one day, it had to be made using quality materials and with that end in mind. Tension exploded into my arts practice. The combination of pressure to make each work ‘real’ and poverty meaning resources were so limited killed my arts journals. I couldn’t play or practice or pretend. Worse, I became bound up in a need for each artwork to be entirely individual and refused to allow myself to replicate my own works – feeling that this was somehow vaguely theft and plagiarism. How could I sell an original and then devalue it by painting something similar? Not that I could sell those originals, because the first years of artworks were made with inferior products that are non archival and I wouldn’t ethically sell.

There’s not much play in that space, not much riffing off themes or techniques, or even really learning. Art becomes a stab in the dark, sometimes coalescing into something amazing and sometimes falling far short. It carries my heart and rides those winds with so much vulnerability. There’s no second take, no confidence, no mastery. It’s like painting in the dark.

I love painting in the dark. It’s raw, wild, unpredictable, unsafe. It touches things I would never have consciously brought to light and tells stories I don’t know the end of. It is linked to my survival, my psychosis, my deepest self. I tell secrets, break rules, speak unspeakable things.

It is also painful. Sometimes sanctuary and sometimes hell. I have learned that some days craft is better, more what I need. I use my hands in something creative but without the vast emotional risk. I mend clothes, embroider, colour in. My arts practice has this vast gulf between the pleasure of using my hands and the taking of huge emotional risks. Journaling might be a third space for me – personal, playful, creative, mindful, safe. There’s more shades to explore than just palest and darkest.

Parenting with Trauma

Having our whole family sick together is an exercise in the logistics of rationing and portioning a tiny amount of energy to extract the maximum benefit. If I take her for an hour late tonight, then you do the morning, I’ll get you a nap at noon then you take her to the park for two hours so I can work on my assignment… The shifting priorities of dishes, doctors, meals, laundry, and mental health. It’s considerably more exhausting than being sick without kids, largely because of the difficulty of getting enough sleep to properly recover.

Monday Poppy and I went into the city. Rose had important appointments and Poppy was full of restless toddler energy. We had an argument on the bus about her not biting me which concluded with her screaming while strapped into her pram and me not making eye contact with a bus load of strangers. She got her own back by refusing to fall asleep for her afternoon nap. Usually she’ll snuggle down in her ‘cave’ made by covering the pram with a cloth, and knock off. That day she leaned as far forwards as her pram seatbelt would let her to fight sleep. 4 times she gently drifted off anyway as I paced around Rundle Mall rocking and circling the buskers. Each time she’d slip sideways as sleep relaxed her, clonking her head on the frame of the pram and waking up with a howl. Gently tipping the pram up evoked rage rather than sleep, and the fifth time she started to fall asleep I stopped and tried to gently settle her back which cued 20 minutes of hysteria.

I thought she might fall asleep in the art gallery but unfortunately that was the end of the whole idea. She talked to the other patrons, wanted to know all about the art, and once we found the kid’s studio space spent a happy hour cutting a sheet of paper into very tiny pieces.

The studio was set up to invite self portraits, with mirrors and oil pastels. This was mine:

I was glad of the space, it’s the most at home I’ve felt in the gallery.

I’ve realized that PTSD has interrupted our usually very calm parenting approach. Kids this age can be intense, they have huge feelings, test boundaries, and have way more energy than seems sensible. Poppy is fearless, explorative, passionate, creative, and stubborn. Generally Rose and I navigate these traits patiently and with appreciation of their positive aspects. But when she hurts us deliberately we’ve both struggled and the conflict has been charged and difficult to resolve. We’ve been worried about what it means and stressed by our own responses. I in particular lose patience and get angry, but Poppy isn’t easily intimidated which leaves me in a bind where I either behave in more frightening ways until she’s cowed and takes me seriously, or I find another way of approaching this. It speaks to the heart of parenting approaches to obedience and discipline. Do children follow instructions because they are frightened of us, or of the consequences? Or because they are connected to us and trust us? Is it appropriate to scare your child? If so, when and how much? Are boundaries about anger or love? Is breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries about immaturity, defiance, conflicting needs, forgetfulness (it’s easy to over estimate the memory capacity of a small child), or something else?

I’ve been starting to do a bit more reading on parenting her age group and it occurred to me that Rose and I are generally excellent at not taking difficult behavior personally, setting boundaries with warmth, and redirecting troubling behaviors. So when Poppy was getting into constant trouble for climbing furniture in the house, she now has a climbing frame outside for her to monkey around on. But when she hurts us there’s no such framing. We see no positive aspect to such behavior, no legitimate need looking for expression. We talk instead about her being mean, we privately discuss her sensitivity to our stress, her restlessness, her trying to get our attention. We’re troubled by a normal child behavior and framing it as lack of empathy. It’s triggering, evoking memories of being hurt by others and we both move into threat responses. Rose tends to freeze and withdraw, I get angry.

It occurred to me recently we’re misframing the behavior due to our histories. Most children this age want to roughhouse. Wrestling and tumbling and play fighting is a normal developmental behavior. Engaged with care it’s a place for learning about how to hold back and not hurt each other, how to apologise and caretake when accidents happen, and it satisfies the touch hunger and intense energy of very young children. Learning how to wind down into calmness following rough play is a key part of regulating such excitable and energetic kids.

Last night when Poppy started to get rough with Rose who was crashed out on the couch with a migraine, I didn’t get charged. I chose to see her inappropriate behavior as a need for rough housing and set a boundary with patience rather than frustration. I told her Mamma was sick and could only have gentle play around her. When Poppy kept being rough I removed her to the bedroom not as punishment but as an appropriate location for rough play. I gently with her permission threw her onto the bed, threw a big stuffed lion at her and told her this was where the fierce and grouchy creatures play. She was thrilled. She ran growling at me to the edge of the bed, waited for me to put my hand in the centre of her chest, then braced herself for me to gently push her back, screaming with laughter.

Later that night with Rose asleep and me exhausted on the couch with Poppy, she started to rough play again and I forbade her from getting on the couch with me. For the first time she was easily redirected into quiet play and spend a calm hour making complicated meals with her toy food instead.

There’s no problem with her empathy, Poppy is an incredibly affectionate and loving child. She’s not unusually aggressive or showing signs of attachment damage or deprivation. In mislabeling her normal needs as something that disturbed us, we introduced a charge into our relationship that she gravitated towards. Kids do this without knowing why, they can sense it and it’s irresistible. It’s why they do mad things like grin at an adult who’s already at the end of their rope and angry with them. They are still getting a sense of their own power in the world and what they can and can’t do. Navigating our own trauma as parents is about recognizing blind spots like this, paying attention to threat responses needlessly activated, and prioritizing basic needs like sleep, connection, and companionship so we function as best we can. For me at the moment on bad days I’m dealing with chronic irritability and low grade suicidality. Sleep deprivation and feeling isolated turn my world black. Over and over in a thousand little ways we choose safety together, celebrate freedom and autonomy, look for loving ways to speak about the unspeakable things, and link into the world around us. Without our wider networks of friends, family, therapists, without kids rooms in art galleries, and foodbank, and doctors who see trauma survivors rather than welfare bludgers, we couldn’t do this. But together there is so much strength, sufficient grace. Enough to let us all grow.

Reclaiming Self Care

I meditated this morning because I couldn’t sleep. I’m still sick and low on coping. Curled into a tiny warm nest alone in my bed I would drowse to sleep then wake with a tiny start a moment later, like surfacing from warm water into a cold breeze. I needed that sleep, so badly. Heartbroken I settled for rest. Finished my ebook – re-reading Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, translated by Felicity David, which is both lyrical and brutal and contains lines such as


Deep inside I know that trying to fathom things out leads to blindness, that the desire to understand has a built-in brutality that erases what you seek to comprehend. Only experience is sensitive.

Peter Hoeg

Stunningly succinct. There are many ways of knowing, none of them are complete and few can even be translated.

There’s no simple arithmetic for life’s distribution of happiness and sorrow, no such thing as a standard share.

Peter Hoeg

How often are we told this when we talk about resilience? How often is resilience treated as an individual heroic quality when it is about invisible resources of community, about the luck of the share of sorrow allotted us.

Mother’s Day yesterday was strange, full of unexpected things. We all have the flu or some mix of head colds, flu, sinusitis, tonsillitis. Rose and I woke up to a cold sunny morning still full of the stunned wonder of being parents and no longer feeling like our hearts have been raked over on this day. There has been so much illness lately our gifts were small. We are too contagious to join any gathering, too exhausted to make any fuss. We spoke to mothers and daughters on the phone, exchanged a small painting and some warm socks. Tag teamed Poppy all day who is better enough to need activities but too sick to have much cope. It was not a bad day, if a little lonely, constricted by the weather, slightly sad. I kept myself busy with a movie while Poppy and Rose napped in the afternoon and when it ended found myself down a rabbit hole of the mind and feeling suddenly skinless, vaguely suicidal, and terribly vulnerable. I woke Rose and we played a small card game and the world tilted back on it’s axis and normality returned.

A friend once told me at the point of not being my friend anymore that it was obvious I hated being a mother. I find myself swallowing protests when I share about illness – I adore her, I adore being her parent. I wish I was less ill. It has been a hard 6 months for my health. I find myself trawling social media feeling heartsick and alone and diffused with a vague bitter resentment. Catching no flies with vinegar. Trying to hide my rage at what’s been allotted me. Remembering the way the boy who stalked me returned to my school and how we each in our pain asked different things of our mutual friends: me for them to see the profound changes in me, imperfectly labelled ‘PTSD’ and stand by me, connect me to my world again, be comforting.

His silent plea was for a closed door behind us. Let us never speak of it again, let things be as they were before.

How could my need ever be honored over his? It wasn’t and it rarely is. The one who is ashamed asks so little, aligns so well with what we already want – silence, disconnection, ‘moving on’. The one who is suffering needs so much of us, unbearably too much. To find words for unspeakable things, to see the wounds.

I am reading about Indigenous history and health in public health and touching the vague shape of a most terrible fury and despair of the colonised. The tiny words pinned to pages trying to explain the ravages of racism are like withered brown leaves trying to evoke the shape of massive trees. There’s a desolate rage under everything.

I am constantly confronted with the phrase to ‘ask for help’ when in trouble. It is a papercut, a stinging pain, a gathering storm. I recall the diversity of suffering beneath the behaviours of eating disorders when I was a peer worker in that sector. Under one common banner were so many wounds, children staggering beneath the weight of ill parents, domestic violence, sexual abuse, poverty, deep unspoken grief. I would so dearly like to ask for help, some nights. To lay myself to rest in the care of people who will tell me what to do, and I will follow the advice and be healed. But obedience has never led me true.

I can never forget my first efforts to heal from trauma, being given a meditation CD by the psychologist and told to listen to it twice a day and follow the instructions to relax my body, step by step. I did so as my guts churned and the hairs rose on my arms. The choking sense of oppressive control crept over me like a weight. I went back in distress saying the CD was making me feel worse. I was told to try harder and listen more often. After weeks of distress I gave up. The psychologist was frustrated with me. I crept away from therapy feeling like a failure. Years later I read 8 Safe Keys to Trauma Recovery where Rothschild calmly mentions that about one quarter of people with severe trauma find calming/relaxing exercises distressing and need a different approach. Rage bottled in my throat.

Last night at 2am with Poppy still sleepless I exploded from patience into furious, helpless, ashamed meltdown. Rose tagged and took her back to the lounge while I sobbed hysterically in bed, PTSD pulling every tendon in my body so tightly they thrummed. Irritability and anger pushing away people I love and making less safe those who depend on me and should never be made to feel responsible for my feelings.

You cannot exercise enough self care to accommodate being in a house on fire. Rose has had a long road back from the kind of mental health care that medicated her as an 8 year old and left her convinced of her own brokenness, hyper vigilently monitoring her moods and mind, utterly cut off from the story that would have saved her: you look crazy and your abusers look sane. This is the heartbreaking reality.

They are more successful at forgetting, you, despite the pathological blindness of an entire industry intended to address human suffering, you cannot forget entirely. That industry, mental health, can save you. It has the power to see what you cannot and patiently, lovingly, help you reframe what you see as personal weakness. To give context – like a forensic process. This is shape of the knife that made that wound. This is why you are hurting. This is why you hurt those around you. This is how to stop.

When it is blind the power is also blinding. Suffering is stripped of human context and relabeled as illness. Self care becomes a parody of itself, a deepening of this willful not knowing. Meditation as rejecting of the disturbing thoughts, the messages from nightmares. Eating salads and taking antidepressants as an obedience to the social contract that sees health as a virtue, a sign of strong individual moral character, determination, self control.

The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. 

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

Asking for help evokes the most powerful rescue fantasy I’ve ever known, paralyzing me. Self care is an easily corrupted concept, containing excuses for ignorance by the comfortable, the exploitation of the vulnerable by those who wish to offload responsibility for productivity and efficiency without providing for needs, and the severed mechanical meeting-of-needs of the ‘mentally ill’ who are trying to atone for their inexplicable brokenness.

I meditated this morning not to make the pain or the anger go away but to help myself make room for it. To ease the frantic despair that seeks solutions, resolution, answers where there are no quick fixes. So that I could sit at my table this morning and see the light falling through the leaves of my tree onto my keyboard and feel one tiny step further from shame, a tiny step closer to accepting who and how I am in the world and shaping my ‘self care’ to fit me, rather than change me.

Today it was enough.

Medieval merriment

I currently have pluerisy, a very painful inflammation of the lungs that can happen when an infection hangs around too long. Rose kindly helped me get to my favourite fair of the year anyway and I did my best to stay warm and avoid too much smoke from all the cooking fires. Poppy went as a dragon, and apart from being unpleasantly car sick part way there, had a great time watching the dancing and fighting and playing in the skate park and a big burned out tree. It was lovely to touch base with friends and familiar faces. The campfire space looked after by two Aboriginal women is one of our families favourite places to rest. Today we ate damper and yarned and felt at peace amongst the hubbub. A friends dropped in this evening for 5 minutes and stayed for 3 hours while we ranted about health and science and parenting at each other. 💙 I’m crawling into bed exhausted but sated. Today has carried me along like a leaf in a river and tumbled me gently into exactly what I needed. Rare and precious.

My journal and bone pen are calling my name. Nights like this alone in bed for a little while in the shadows I find myself breathing sweeter air.

Participatory Research

My favourite article of the week has been this one on Community Based Participatory Research by Green and Mercer. I particularly like the discussion on the first couple of pages about the common subjects of research getting entirely fed up of the process and refusing to be involved unless they were treated as knowledge holders themselves rather than merely objects of study. As a person who lives at the intersection of multiple forms of disadvantage, I feel this! I’ve witnessed many people become utterly fed up with being part of research into their experiences and despite their passion for learning and knowledge and health, step out entirely. I’ve participated in a great deal of research myself and it’s incredibly uncomfortable how frequently my experiences don’t fit the framework provided, or are distorted by underlying assumptions I can’t correct.

For example, as a voice hearer I am often invited to be involved in research about voices. Most is predicated on the idea that voice hearing is a harmful experience or that voices are either helpful or harmful in a simple, fixed binary. For those of you who know, my voice is neither. She generally speaks the same phrase on a loop (“I hate myself”) and I would describe her as profoundly distressed. Trying to answer questions about her and my balance of power in relation to her often means I’m aware my data is being warped to fit a theory that was conceived light years away from my experience – and worse, that will not be impacted by my actual experience in any way.

So, participatory research. Fascinating, collaborative. Like so many of these things, it often works better on paper than in practice where lofty words like collaboration and community become code for collusion, petty arguments, and the plundering of the cheese board at the meeting. It’s harder than it sounds and like any genuinely collaborative venture, it’s easy to derail if anyone involved wants to poke a stick in the wheels.

Some of the better research I’ve been part of has given me space somewhere to share what I think and feel or how my experiences do or don’t fit. It also follows up in some way with the conclusions. There’s a relationship, a sense of reciprocity at least in the process even if we don’t agree at all about anything else. It doesn’t have to be participatory to be collaborative in that sense. Nor does participatory research bypass issues of exploitation or harm in and of itself. The nature of community is the diversity of perspectives and voice – it is rare to be able to accomodate each of them.

The other kinds of research (and I include interview here) feel exploitative. My experiences are collected as evidence of ideas I don’t agree with and contorted to fit arguments that don’t include me. Or they are simply inept, using my time to educate themselves on matters they haven’t bothered to read about. If I had a dollar for every interview that began “So, what does it feel like to have DID?”…

Research fascinates me. It’s something we all do in our own way, whether it’s asking our friends online, checking out a review, reading a memoir or book, we are all constantly in the largely unconscious and informal process of gathering data and testing hypothesis. How did they do that? Does it work better if I do it like this? Perfecting a recipe, buying a car, learning to ice skate, dealing with grief. We navigate experiences, community, and skill building. Sometimes giving a little thought to that process can hone it in powerful ways for us. Who are we looking to? What questions have we not thought to ask? What’s unsayable? And how do we relate to each other, as objects of study or scrutiny, or as people who likewise are looking at us?

Good research is powerful. May there be much more of it.

Poppy’s green pigs

Poppy and I had the most impossible adventure day of all time recently. My phone gave out. Our bus tickets ran out. All plans went astray. I tried many things to fix our situation and merely wound up feeling incredibly stressed at not being helped by people who could easily have done so. Cried all the way home.

Rose sat with us while we tried to put my head and our day back together. Poppy found a texta and drew me on my left arm. Mummy being sad. On my right arm she drew Mummy being happy. Then she covered the drawing in hundreds of green dashes. According to Poppy, this is why Mummy was so happy. Because she was covered in small pigs. Ha! She’s glorious.

I am so struggling with depression at the moment. It’s invisible one moment and drowns my whole world the next. I feel so alone in it, thrashing in so pain I can’t seem to ease. It’s frightening to show it, to feel like I’m a bad actor trying to play myself and it’s leaking around the edges, ready to overwhelm and terrify people. I feel so angry and disconnected and frustrated. And yet there are green pigs. And tonight, watching Brene Brown on Netflix and laugh-crying at her experiences, feeling her pronouncements – if you are brave you WILL fail – soothe a deep pain in me. It’s raining, the light is strange and stormy. We’re sleeping with the window open, the cold night breeze full of wet garden smells. It’s a beautiful world here. Listening to Rose argue with Poppy about getting into her pajamas. Ruminating on research I’m doing about universal basic income schemes for an essay. It’s good to be able to stretch my brain when my heart is feeling so bruised. At least something makes sense to me.

For a little while the pain eases. I can breathe again, can see in colours other than blood red. Breathe them in, my lovely ones. Try to give them what I have, not only pain but poems, laughter, clean washing, so much love.

Community Mural in Development

At my birthday party last weekend, my friends started this mural with me. I’ve wanted to paint murals for a long time, and trying to think of something fun to host it seemed like a good idea. I bought a panel of marine ply, undercoated with Rustoleum, and we used house paint brushes and bulk size artist acrylics in a limited palette (blue, red, yellow, brown, and white). I mixed the colours people chose and gave a bit of instruction on using brushes but that was it. The design – children playing in a tumble of autumn leaves – I drew on freehand with a sharpie.

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Those who wanted to join in chose whichever part they liked and painted. It was cool to see people experimenting with textures and brush stroke styles. The limited colour range keeps it all cohesive despite many different hands, and the limited palette means all the colours relate well to each other. The only thing I’ve noticed so far is a tendency for not a lot of variation in value (darks and lights) which doesn’t matter so much in such a cheerful piece.

I was hoping to create something fun and heartfelt to display in our backyard. It will cheer up and add colour to the play area for Poppy, and remind me of my friends and family who’ve added to it. I know it’s often stressful to make art when you haven’t done it in a long time, so I wanted to make it feel safe and meditative. Creativity loves a bit of challenge, but too much is inhibiting and creates frustration. I also reassured folks that I will be going over the design when it’s finished and outlining everything so there was no need to worry about imperfect edges or the odd smudge. They really do add to the texture.

I have been doing some research in the local hardware store and I think for future murals I will consider buying exterior paint for the added UV protection to help it last. I’ve been making more artwork on board rather than canvas lately, which I prefer for indoor or outdoor larger scale artworks, so this was a fun way to explore that.

I’m looking forward to finishing this and fixing it in place. Probably another 2-3 arty afternoons will have it done, weather permitting.

My birthday was harrowing this year, I spent half of it crying and was horribly suicidal. I’m glad it’s behind me and I’m going to put some real thought into understanding how I can deal with it differently for next year. So far none of my approaches have been great.

But my favourite part of this was those small moments when I could see someone else disappearing into the art, the steady even brushing of paint, blending into paint. Those moments are a kind of meditation and they are precious. May we all have many more of them.

Shadows

Locked for precious moments alone and naked in the shadows. I’m safe at last among my ghosts, dreaming of the moments where art is as easy as vandalism. Running laughing along the edge of night with paint and knives in my hands, every window smashed behind me. All the trees burning. The smell of it. The apple trees on fire.

It’s a glorious day indeed when I don’t miss you. My pen runs away on the page, speaking atrocities with a blue black forked tongue.

There’s a wind on my back. Paint under my nails. Crushed by love and broken by hate there’s no trace left here of any of it, absolutely no scar, no signature. I’m free to start again.

I find the truth in the old words, and my hands come back from the netherworld, flickering between broken and whole. There’s sweetness like honey on my tongue, bitterness like tears.

I am not her. We are not her. We are not always her. She is us. Waiting like a skin slipped out of. She lingers in the shape of my mouth, the way one foot slips shyly beneath the other. The season turns. The lightning comes. I remember so many other nights like this.

Uncountable nights where I could not be captured. I ate the world and it ran wet down my chin. In the company of nightmares is the only safety I’ve ever really believed in. The only place I’m whole.

To not be here for a little while, please

I would like not to exist this week.

My birthday continues to be one of my most vulnerable times of the year.

I’m not all that adult around my birthday. I’m 10 years old and so lonely I want to die. I’m traumatised and confused and out of step with everyone. I’m surrounded by people I can’t seem to connect with. I’m alien. No one speaks my language. No one touches me. My loneliness and vulnerability mark me as rejected and make me a target for bullying.

I have built so much since that time. My advocacy and this blog has been a huge part of that. I have a community.

Respected is not quite the same as loved.

I am in so much pain.

I am hiding it because I have learned to be ashamed. Because I am afraid of being hurt. Because I don’t want to pressure anyone. I don’t want to take, devour, consume. I don’t want charity, pity, resentment. I want to share, to be connected. To give and be given to.

There’s times I feel myself part of the world, woven into a web of many people’s lives, seen and seeing, connected, useful, of worth, wounded and imperfect but sufficient and loved.

There’s times I free fall. I can’t see or feel anyone. I’m alone in the dark. There’s a memory of pain in me so huge it blots out the sun. I was a child who wanted to die. My birthday is reliably a time I fall. Every year I’ve tried a new approach and every year at best it partly works. There’s no hole deep enough for me to hide from it. I can’t bear to ignore it, to mark it, to celebrate or hide. There’s no right answer, no way out of the pain. It’s miles of barbed wire and the only way out is through.

I wish it was different.

But I can find a way out of the shame and the silent trap. Hey there, lovely ones. This is me right now. I’ll be okay. Don’t panic. It’s not the end. I don’t need to be rescued. Don’t overwhelm me with eulogies. But be kind right now. My moon is dark. Drop me a line. Offer a hug. Invite me for coffee. Send me a sympathetic we’ve-all-been-there nod across cyberspace. Tip your hat in the street, give me that goth-kin wink.

I know I’m incredibly weird and intense. I know I’m not the only one with my heart broken, baying at the moon. I see you too, I see your bewildered and terrified 10 year olds, being eaten by the night. It will pass. We’re all just holding on, my friends. Together and apart, friend and freak.

I would like not to exist this week. But given I’m stuck with it, how then shall we pass the time? I’ll bring the accordion, you bring the tambourine. I’ll bring the communion wine, you bring the hymns. I’ll bring the black lipstick, you bring the fishnets torn at the knees. I’ll bring the pack of cards, you bring the cheeseboard. We’ll meet under the bridge, in your dining room, on the front line, out back of the hospital. I’ll check you out of the ward for the afternoon and we’ll bum a few smokes. I’ll come to tea in a ridiculous hat and sit with my knees together. I’ll read you Keats and Slessor on the jetty over the water and we’ll cry into the wind. You’ll take my hand and I won’t feel a thing. Not a thing.

Using language to support parent infant bonding

Language is so powerful. When Poppy was born we found many people would frame our experiences or her behaviour in ways that were not helpful for us. It’s amazing how many of our common phrases ascribe bad intentions to the child. It may seem like nit picking to fuss over a word, but words build the story that impacts how we understand each other. They create the filter through which we interpret each others intentions.

I first learned about attribution theory in uni, studying psychology, and a lot of things clicked in my mind about people I’d known. Most anyone when depressed or overwhelmed sees the world and other people through a filter that makes the innocuous seem hostile and the mildly difficult downright sinister. Some of us are more prone to this more of the time, living in a world where grey runs to black. How we feel can strongly change the way we interpret others and the world around us.

Many of the stories created by common phrases used about children would pit Poppy against us, as if she was indifferent or even cruel. People would say things like she was “being a jerk” if she wouldn’t stop crying, was “too smart for her own good” if she climbed something and fell off, “had us wrapped around her little finger” if we went to comfort her after she fell over.

On one level this is a way to be light-hearted about the stress of parenting, laugh it off, and validate how awful and exhausting it can be! But for some, in the context of stress and sleep deprivation, this can also take the relationship between parent and child into dark and risky places.

It can be difficult to understand just how painful things can get if you haven’t been there. In the early months of Poppy’s life, I was often sick, very sleep deprived, and feeling at the end of my tether. I’ve noticed that a kind of flip in thinking can happen when things are really bad. If you feel stretched past capacity enough, at some point it feels like it’s not possible for everyone to survive. Survival instinct and maternal instinct start to contradict each other. The maternal (or parental) impulse to protect and nurture is powerful and we tend to see it as the norm. But it’s not always the way, and when threat levels are high and bonding is distorted it may diminish or become secondary. The impulse to protect the child may dissipate next to the sense that there’s simply not enough resources for everyone.

Things can get really desperate if the child’s behaviour is framed as a threat in some way to your own survival. The shift in thinking from ‘we are all in this together, having a tough time’ to ‘they are sucking me dry’ is a risky one both for the relationship and the child.

This interesting article, the neuroscience of calming baby explores what’s going on behind a common phenomenon – babies are calmer when carried and held but will often become distressed when put down. It talks briefly about how important it is to understand that this is an inbuilt mammalian response, to “save parents from misreading the restart of crying as the intention of the infant to control the parents”. Soberingly, this is important because “unsoothable crying is a major risk factor for child abuse”. This is not in any way to blame a child for being harmed, or to excuse harm done to children. It is to examine the context in which otherwise devoted, well intentioned parents can find themselves struggling with furious impulses or not coping.

Ascribing bad intentions to a baby starts to activate a sense of threat, that the child is wilfully harming the parent, deliberately denying them basic needs of food, sleep, and relief from distress. When bonding is good and parent needs are getting met, these things don’t matter so much. But in harder times they can contribute to a sense of being tortured by the child rather than by the circumstances. It’s desperately important to see a child’s distress as distress rather than an attempt to control, manipulate, or do harm. Language is part of how we do this, helping to interpret and contextualise so we don’t distort what we’re experiencing.

It’s also critical not to set up impossible expectations such as “when you cry I will make it better for you” with a child. Overburdened by this sense of responsibility, parents are at risk of feeling intense distress in the form of failure, agitation, and frustration if confronted by distress they cannot sooothe or silence.

Rose and I translated a lot of common sayings when we encountered them. Someone would say to us things like:

  • “She’s fighting sleep” and we would agree but shift the intention- “yes, she’s struggling to sleep today”
  • “She’s not a very good baby” becomes “she’s having a hard time settling at the moment”
  • “She’s got you wrapped around her little finger” becomes “she sure is a little cuddle-bug”

This was incredibly helpful for me in a few instances where I was struggling. In early weeks I was prodromal (warning signs of psychosis) partly due to severe sleep deprivation. I would get Poppy confused with Tamlorn, the little one I miscarried. Rose and I would tag team Poppy all night to give each other some sleep. There have been times I’ve handed Poppy over in sobbing distress and Rose has taken her out for a morning drive because my nerves are shredded by her crying and my nipples are mangled from her biting and I’m losing it.

It makes a difference to understand that Poppy is behaving as she is supposed to, not to harm me. Human babies often want to be held all the time and use crying to signal fear, pain, hunger and every need they have. It’s also a biological norm for infant crying to send us round the twist, and being able to see our own limits coming up without hating ourselves for them is valuable. Infant needs can be more than a parent can meet, or impossible to understand at times. Nurtured infants need nurtured parents and few of have invested in those kinds of communities before bringing a baby into the world.

Parent needs are deeply important to meet in order to buffer that sense of threat and reduce the fight/flight response being activated in distress. Staying out of crisis mode is partly achieved by treating adult needs as real and significant, and using language wisely to tell the most helpful story about the situation.

So we found it helpful to say ‘squeaking’ instead of ‘screaming’ for example. “Our little person is squeaking again” sounded less dramatic and helped us keep perspective. We talked about “witching hour” and planned around the time every evening that Poppy would be overwhelmed and inconsolable. We used baby wearing to manage her desire to be close in a way that reduced our fatigue and back pain, learned how to rest her face on our shoulder so her screaming didn’t go right into our ear, and use as a mantra “I’m here with you, you’re not alone” in place of wanting to fix it when nothing was working.

In our case, ‘colic’ was managed by reducing stimulation. The lights went off every night at 6pm, Poppy had a warm bath as soon as she started becoming distressed, and we didn’t go out in the evening for many months until she passed through the phase.

Language is a big part of what helped us navigate these huge challenges well. The risk of psychosis in the early days, serious difficulties with breastfeeding, and a baby with undiagnosed functional lactose overload and colic caused by sensory overwhelm. Combined with 2 deaths in the family and a range of illnesses for Rose and I, it was not an easy start. We were and are ecstatic to have Poppy, she is an absolutely beautiful, loving, curious, adventurous child. Tending to the stories we told and the language we used helped us to bond together during those difficult times.

Many creative projects

I made it into my studio for a few precious hours today. I bought this lovely drying rack for hanging wet artworks, and worked more on my illustrated poem project. You can see some of the pages drying on the new rack here:

I have been often ill lately with high pain levels and have not had as much art time as I’d hoped. The top priorities I’m keeping up with: my time with family, my studies, work gigs of various kinds.

I was very pleased to collaborate recently with the Greens SA and paint creatures of the Great Australian Bight during a listening post. Illustrating campaigns that are close to my heart is a special joy.

I was also honoured to be part of a panel at Uni SA about alternative responses to psychosis. I spoke from my Psychosis without Destruction perspective. I gave a brief illustrated presentation using journal entries from my first two episodes, and the body painting I did during my second episode which resolved it.

I am keeping up with my public health studies and learning French. I’ve just handed in an assignment exploring the social determinants of health and proposing an intervention intended to reduce cardiovascular illness for people with severe mental illness.

I was planning an exhibition for my birthday but I’m going to push it back a month or so and see how my health goes. I’m happy with my priorities right now. Family, study, and work are all going well and art and other projects fit in where and as I can. 💜

Poem: Leaving open the doors

Recently, I sat in an office and unraveled a complex dilemma. 
The woman sitting me responded, saying “What I’m hearing
is that you are trying to find a way to engage health
without colluding with those who have oppressed you,
and without contributing to the oppression of others.”

I blinked and then
Cried.

Yes. Yes that’s what I’ve been trying
To put into words the last 10 years.
My refusal to cut the tie
That binds me to the common humanity
Of the most irrelevant and destitute because
They are me.

When I manage to find a door
Through the insurmountable obstacle
I try to leave it open
Behind me.

This blog has been my public road map
Not as a set of instructions or moral imperatives
Or proof of my superiority in some way
No more no less than an honest account of how and where
I found the doors
And the courage to walk through them.

The times I succeeded and the ones I failed. 
In honest truth telling, I believe we are set free. 

You are skilled, she said
At behaving ethically despite being outcast
You are afraid and uncomfortable of the challenge
Of doing so when you are embraced and approved of.

Ah.

All the long years, trying to get in to the town
The truth is I’m also terrified of it
And run back to the wilds, alone but free.

This is about oppression, she said, and power.
My teeth lengthened in my smile
And I promised
To write and paint
The unspeakable things again.
To hold fast to the light burning
To speak my name with blood, pride, and dark joy.
To break the invisible all powerful rules
Seek life
For me and all my kind.