Category Archives: Opinion

Every (Modern) Political Campaign Ever

Photo by Flickr user Derek Tam

Photo by Flickr user Derek Tam

“My friends, if we do This One Thing, it will lead us all to a better future.! Vote for our party and we’ll make sure This One Thing gets done. This One Thing is more important than the relative morality of any individual in our party, so don’t be distracted by anything the other party may tell you. Simply vote for This One Thing!”

“The other party is morally bankrupt! Even they know it!  This one time, one of them lied, and I’m going to remind you of it every time I speak to you! If we let them do This One Thing, our way of life will be destroyed! Every time the other party gets elected, they change our great nation, and everyone knows that change is bad. In fact, change is so bad that we should immediately go back to the way things were fifty years ago! NATIONALISM!” 

“Things were much worse for over half our people fifty years ago; everyone knows that. But we can make the future even brighter than the present if we do This One Thing. Everyone will benefit. Fairness! Equality! Hope! Trade! Globalisation! Diversity!”

“FEAR! Fear the unknown! Fear the outsider! This One Thing will destroy our economy and make you poor and miserable! Foreigners will take your jobs and change the law so YOU are the persecuted outsiders! If you vote for This One Thing, our great nation will be destroyed! DESTROYED!”

“Uh… Actually, twenty-seven economists have said that This One Thing will improve the nation’s economy and create jobs. And 95% of health professionals say that This One Thing will increase the health, happiness and wellbeing of our most underprivileged citizens. Also, here’s several dozen research papers proving that diversity strengthens a nation.”

“This One Thing will destroy our national identity! You won’t be allowed to do the thing you’ve always done! FEAR! HATRED! FLAGS! LOOK AT MY FLAGS! SO MANY FLAGS! The great people of this nation are sick of ‘experts’ telling them what to think. They’re sick of ‘facts’ being paraded in front of them, making them feel stupid. The people of this great nation know that This One Thing will destroy their way of life, and they don’t need your educated puppet-masters pulling their strings. TERRORISM! TERRORISM! TERRORISM!”

“Hang on, This One Thing has nothing to do with terrorism. But, if we must talk about it, I suppose This One Thing will probably help prevent terrorism. Remember: The only positive way forward for our nation is to vote for This One Thing. Even my cute puppy agrees!”

“The other party doesn’t even know what This One Thing will do to our great nation! First they say This One Thing has nothing to do with terrorism., then they say This One Thing will stop terrorism. Well, which is it? That’s proof that  you can’t believe anything they say. Also…. THAT’S NOT EVEN REALLY THEIR PUPPY! SHOCK! HORROR! SCANDAL!”

“Look, forget about the puppy. It belongs to a friend of ours, and we thought it would be cute. It’s really not important. The important thing is This One Thing. We trust that people will understand that This One Thing will have vast economic, social justice, health, education, fairy, and unicorn benefits for all of us. Vote for This One Thing!”

“This One Thing will destroy us all! FEAR! HATRED! TERRORISM! NATIONALISM! PUPPIES! FREEEEEDOOOOOOM!”

“Well, I know who I’m voting for. That first party made some good points, but you can’t trust somebody involved in a puppy scandal. Also, they lied that one other time. If it’s a close election it will send a clear message to both parties.Besides, everyone knows that one vote doesn’t make a difference.”


I didn’t originally plan to write this post today. Nor did I plan to publish a day earlier than usual. But the #brexit result has left me shaken, anxious and bewildered. I’d never even entertained the notion that the ‘Leave’ campaign may be successful. And yet, here we are, global markets in freefall as the UKIP celebrates their groundless, fear-based campaign triumphing over logic, facts, and common sense. All of a sudden, I feel a deep unease about both the upcoming Australian election and the prospect of Trumpageddon. Perhaps fear will triumph over facts after all. The thought is terrifying.


#allvotesmatter

 

 

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A Few of my Favourite Things

Picture by Flickr user Osman Sozer

Picture by Flickr user Osman Sozer

First of all, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who reached out or left comments on my last post. I really appreciate you taking the time you comment here or on Facebook — and thank you in particular to those people who sent me emails or PMs letting me know how my post had helped them, or reminded them of their own struggles. I write articles like that one to help people understand what it’s like living with mental illness, in the hopes that it will help sufferers feel less alone, and bring understanding to the friends and family of sufferers. It makes me happy to know that, in some small way, my words have made a difference.

Despite the emotional turmoil and difficulties of the last six months, however, there are a number of things I achieved or attempted that I’m very proud of. And, today, I’d like tos hare them with you.

Writer Unboxed

Being a contributor for Writer Unboxed, the best darn writing site on the web — and the best writing community anywhere — is a huge thrill, and I’m always deathly nervous and proud to be able to write an article for them. This year so far I’ve written six posts. I’d love for you to go check them out.

Overcoming Fear: On how to overcome fear when facing writing goals and resolutions — or, in fact, when facing anything.

Writing Supporting Characters the Matter: What can the movie Cast Away teach us about writing powerful supporting characters?

The Writer’s Mind: An Insatiable Appetite for Understanding: On asking questions, and how they help the writing process.

Writer vs. Storyteller: Are you a writer or a storyteller? And what’s the difference, anyway?

Writing When it’s not like a Movie: On writing when you have aphantasia, and some tips on writing descriptions that everyone can use.

In Defence of clichés: clichés get a bad rap, but are they all bad?

Study: The Final Frontier

After a twenty year break in formal study, I also decided to return to University this year. (Thank goodness I live in a country where I don’t have to pay for Uni up front!) So in February I started a degree in Sociology, with a minor in English Literature.

I completely underestimated the time it would take to study — because underestimating time is kinda my thing — but it was an absolutely amazing experience to test my mind in new and exciting directions. I loved, loved, loved studying Sociology, and can’t wait to get back into it next semester. In the future, my plan is to take my knowledge of sociology and apply it to things like pop culure and the publishing industry.

My results have been way better than I anticipated, too. I was kinda expecting that I’d struggle a bit with formal study, if only because I’d been out of it for so very long. But I averaged 88% in all my assessment, which is a wonderful feeling.

Teaching is the New Black

Last year I started teaching novel-writing to a small group of local writers. It went incredibly well, and so this year I started running my course again with three beginning writers. The program is one I developed based on what I wish I’d learned in the first six months of my writing apprenticeship — but that actually took me close to ten years to get my head around. It runs over six months, with weekly meetings to discuss progress and learn a new element of novel-writing.

Unlike most writing courses, it’s not really focused on improving your writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. Instead, the aim of the course is to (a) create a regular, life-long writing routine, and (b) teach new writers to finish what they start. The classes are focused largely on support, accountability, and community, and teach narrative structure, story vs plot, strong characterisation, and the craft of writing.

I’m currently in the process of working out how to take te program and convert it into an online writing course — something I can offer to people all over the world, rather than just the beginning writers in my local community. Watch this space!

Author in Progress

Author in ProgressOn November 1st this year, the first Writer Unboxed book is due to be released. Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published is a book of over 50 essays by Writer Unboxed contributors, guiding writers through the process of creating a novel, from pre-writing, through the writing process, and beyond to publication.

I am very excited to be the author of one of the essays in this book. I’m in the most amazing company, amongst best-selling novelists, editors, agents and lots, lots more. You can pre-order the book here, and read more about how it came to be here.

The Future’s So Bright…

Even at times of incredible darkness, there is still plenty of light — we just have to open our eyes and see it. Or, as my nine-year-old says: “The sky is always blue, sometimes we just can’t see it because there are clouds in the way.”

I’ve been through hell and back over the last six months, but I’ve also had some of the most amazing opportunities and experiences.

What have you achieved this year so far that you’re proud of? Let me know what you’ve been doing, and what your future holds. Let’s blow those clouds away!

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With a Whimper, Not with a Bang

Photo by Flickr user mattwi1s0n

Photo by Flickr user mattwi1s0n

Last November, my world fell apart.

I didn’t get sick. Nobody died. I didn’t have an accident. There was no big, explosive event that shattered the world as I knew it. No, my world fell apart with a whimper, not with a bang.

One morning, on a day just like any other, I woke up to find that the black tendrils of depression had snaked their way into the edges of my brain and made themselves at home.

Depression is nothing new to me. I have Bi-Polar Disorder II, and depression is a “normal” part of my life. The first time I had a serious bout of depression, I was eight years old. Since my diagnosis with BPD II, I’ve been aware that it’s not a matter of if I’ll ever be depressed again, but when and to what to degree. So those black tendrils didn’t scare me.

Not at first, anyway.

BPD II? Is that first-person shooter?

The world’s response to mental illness has changed a lot over the last twenty years. There’s generally a lot more understanding of depression and anxiety disorders (which I also have — gotta catch ’em all!) and a lot more acceptance of people with mental health issues. But Bi-Polar Disorder still gets a seriously bad rap.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has described how such-and-such is a bitch, and then finished with, “But she has bi-polar.” As though that explains it. As though rattling off a medical diagnosis at the end of a litany of complaints should make the truth of those complaints self-evident. As though BPD is scapegoat and divine judgement all rolled into one.

Spoiler alert: It’s not.

Bi-Polar Disorder I  is a mental illness characterised by ongoing, often alternating, bouts of depression and mania. Depression is something we all understand these days (at least, to a degree), but ‘mania’ is a little less widely understood. Basically, it’s a state wherein the person has excessive energy, needs very little sleep, talks much quicker than usual, is intensely creative, and feels euphoric and bullet-proof. It’s these latter things that can be dangerous. Euphoria and fearlessness can lead to poor decision-making, especially in regards to risk-management. Coupled with sleeplessness, they can also lead to delusions and, in some cases, hallucinations.

Bi-Polar Disorder II is very similar mental illness, however depressive episodes can actually be much worse — sufferers of BPD II are at a much higher risk of things like self-harm and suicide — and the contrasting “pole” is hypomania, rather than full-blown mania. Hypomania has many of the same symptoms as mania, however they manifest to a lesser degree. It’s unusual for someone suffering hypomania to suffer delusions or hallucinations, for example, and while they still have impaired judgement when it comes to risk-assessment, it’s more likely to manifest as lowered inhibitions than straight out dangerous behaviour.

It’s almost impossible to manage BPD I without medication. Manic episodes may require hospitalisation. BPD II, on the other hand, while often treated with medication — and I strongly encourage trying medication if BPD II is affecting your quality of life — can sometimes be managed with sleep, food, and exercise coupled with self-awareness.

Your Mileage May Vary

Personally, I’ve come to love my bouts of hypomania. That’s probably not a very politic thing to say, but nevertheless. Spending 4-6 weeks (or, occasionally, longer) filled with an unending feeling of joy and optimism while creativity oozes from my pores is wonderful. I’ve learned how to mitigate my risk-taking behaviour–I call a friend or family member before making any decisions that seem different to ones I’d usually make–and I’m energetic and enthusiastic about life.

Depression, on the other hand, is freaking debilitating.

I can usually count on two or three episodes of depression per year, each one generally lasting for 3-4 weeks. Over the years, I’ve learned how to fast-track my recovery by making sure to get enough sleep, eating healthy, and increasing the amount of exercise I do. I try not to make too many decisions while depressed, because, if I do, I come out of my depression and discover that I’ve opted out of everything and am suddenly committed to being a life-long hermit. Instead, I plod along, doing my best to act the way I remember acting when I wasn’t depressed.

But, here’s the thing: It is an act.

When I smile, I’m not feeling happy. I just remember that I would usually smile at that point.

When I laugh, I’m not amused. I just remember that I would usually laugh at that point.

When I suggest that we get together for a coffee, I don’t really want to spend time socialising. I just remember that socialising is something I usually enjoy.

Now, this normally passes without anyone being any the wiser. I mean, anyone can pretend to be themselves for a few weeks, right? Going through the motions of life is easy enough when I can still remember what that life is usually like. And while I get a few twinges of guilt over my act, a lifetime’s worth of experience has taught me that faking it is easier on everyone.  No one except the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Woods or Fraggle Rock willingly chooses to hang out with someone suffering depression. So even when I bravely tell people that I’m “a bit depressed right now”, I laugh at their jokes, and tell some of my own, and agree to social encounters that equally terrify and exhaust me.

Last November, my world fell apart

So, what was different last November?

At the same time that the black tendrils of depression invaded my brain, I suffered a foot injury. I developed plantar fasciitis, which is a relatively common soft-tissue and tendon issue that makes walking — or putting any weight on your foot — intensely painful.

So, as the black tendrils invaded my mind, I became physically unable to use my go-to depression-minimising activity of walking. I found myself locked inside a depressed mind, trapped inside a wounded body. I was doubly confined. My anxiety disorder reared its ugly head, and I found myself tag-teamed by Depression and Anxiety until I could barely breathe.

“It’s only for a few weeks,” I told myself. “Just fake it for a while, and the depression will go away. Just like it always does.”

So I smiled and laughed and went out for coffee with friends. I had a girl’s weekend away. I went home for Christmas. I enroled in a University course. I did all the things I new Normal Jo would want me to do, and I waited for the depression to pass.

But it didn’t.

It only got worse.

January

I was in my room one night, staring at my computer screen, trying desperately to figure out whether the FB message I’d just got from a friend meant what I thought it meant. Did they really hate me? Or was I projecting? Was it real, or was it the tendrils talking? An itch spread across my body, and centred itself on my foot. I scratched at the itch, still staring at the screen. Tears started to roll down my face. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to respond. Suddenly, I felt a weird, sticky sensation on my fingers.

I looked down to find the whole top of my feet was bleeding. My fingernails were coated in blood. A wave of relief hit me, and tension drained out of my body in time with the blood flowing freely from my wound.

A second after the relief came the terror. I’ve been down the self-harming path before. I cleaned and dressed the wound, cut my fingernails, and removed all potentially sharp objects from my room.

February

School started for the year, and I was forced into the social nightmare of school drop-offs and pick-ups. Twice a day, I sat in my car and forced myself to breathe deeply and find the strength to enter the throng of parents surrounding the classrooms. People I know and like were transformed into terrifying caricatures of themselves by my tendril-filled mind.

When they looked at me, their eyes were full of judgement. Their smiles hid barely-contained hatred. I tried to fake it, but it had been so long since I felt like myself, I couldn’t remember how people behave in social situations. It took all my mental energy not to turn and literally run screaming. I was a pinch away from pure panic at every moment.

March

I stopped trying to fake it. I felt like a monster trapped in an alien world. Nothing around me made sense. I had no peripheral vision, and was seeing the world in chromatic tones of misery, through a tunnel of pain. I didn’t know how to smile. People spoke to me, and I’d forget how to make words, my mouth opening and closing like that of a drowning fish.

I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake in bed at night, my mind forcing me to relive the most traumatic times of my life. Around and around and around. I’d fall asleep somewhere between four and five in the morning, exhausted, and drop into anxious and confusing dreams, only to be woken from them at 6:30 when my alarm sounded.

I couldn’t eat. The sight or smell of food made me retch. I made dinner for my children, and pretended to pick at my food until they’d finished and gone away and I could dump mine in the dog’s bowl. I drank coffee and forced myself to nibble on dry crackers — the only thing I could eat without immediately throwing up.

I was in agony. The pain in my foot from the plantar fasciitis wasn’t getting better. If anything, it was getting worse. I was in constant, chronic pain. I couldn’t walk through the house without crying. I thought about stabbing myself in the foot just to release some of the pressure — to feel something different to the constant aching pain — and I removed myself from sharp implements.

April

After months of averaging less than four hours sleep a night and not being able to eat, I was exhausted. I’d developed the shakes, and couldn’t apply eye makeup without getting it all over my face. Not that I wanted to apply eye make-up anyway. I was barely even aware of the meat-suit wrapped around me as anything other than a conduit for the pain in my foot.

I didn’t feel anything. Physically, I felt the pain radiating from my foot. Mentally and emotionally, I was numb. I was separated from existence by the smoky glass wall of extreme depression. Nothing felt real. I wasn’t even sure if I was real. Maybe I was a figment of my own imagination, trapped in a dream of a world that had never existed….

Help! I Need Somebody.

Eventually, I hit rock bottom. I needed help. If I didn’t do something, I was going to drown in the darkness. I called my doctor and made an appointment to go see her. I got a referral to a podiatrist to help me with alternate care options for my foot. I got sleeping pills so I could get some rest. And I started to see a psychologist to help me through my depression. And I started to get better.

During those months, I struggled with some big stuff on top of my depression. I lost friendships that I thought would last forever. I watched my son go through trauma associated with bullying, and was unable to help him. I suffered financial setbacks and lost faith in my writing ability. Would those things have happened if I hadn’t been depressed? Would I have recovered more quickly if those things hadn’t happened? Chicken and egg. Impossible to know.

58 Days Later…

I’m doing better now. I’m still healing — some of the emotional injuries are still raw — but the black tendrils of doom have withdrawn from my brain, and I’m no longer feeling disconnected from the world. I’m back. The depression has receded. And it feels good.

I imagine there are people who will read this and say: “I had no idea you were depressed! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because, yes, life kept going. I kept loving and caring for my children. I kept posting status updates on Facebook. I kept writing articles for Writer Unboxed every month. I kept entering writing contests (although I didn’t do well). I kept teaching my novel-writing course and participating in my monthly writing group. I kept studying, and did well at Uni. I did my absolute best to maintain the appearance of being me. And it largely worked.

So, why didn’t I tell anyone? Because, for all the general awareness of depression, people are still uncomfortable with it. They don’t know what to say to someone who is depressed. They don’t know how to react. And I feel guilty and pathetic enough when I’m depressed without having to watch the discomfort on someone’s face when I explain that everything is grey.

Telling someone you’re depressed doesn’t feel like telling someone you’ve injured yourself. It feels like unwinding the bandages covering your injury and forcing them to stare into the wound, in all its horrific grossness, while simultaneously telling them that you did it to yourself on purpose.

What if someone I know is depressed? What should I do?

Look, I can only give you my perspective on this; I can tell you what I need. If you know someone with BPD or someone who suffers from chronic depression, try asking them this very question while they’re not being eaten alive by the darkness. But if that’s not possible, here’s some general guidelines.

  • Acknowledge that they feel depressed, and accept it at face value. Don’t question whether it’s real or serious. It doesn’t help to have someone ask if you’re really depressed, or whether this is serious depression or if they’re just tired. The fact that they’ve even told you means they trust you implicitly. That’s a big deal.
  • Accept that there is no easy fix to depression. You can’t say the right thing and magically cure your friend. What you can do is be there for them, as much as they want you to be. But (and this is important) their depression is not about you.
  • Please don’t ask what you can do to help. If they knew what would make them feel better, they’d do it. As soon as you ask what you can do to help, you put the weight of your assistance on their shoulders. I know that’s not your intention, but that’s how it feels. Instead, tell them what you can do to help, and then ask if that’s okay. “I’m making a casserole for dinner tonight, is it okay if I drop some off at your place for you?”
  • If you offer them help and they say no, accept it. Just let it go. There are a whole range of reasons they may have said no, and none of them are about you. Just make a different offer next time.
  • Accept that social interaction is hard for someone who’s depressed. They are rarely, if ever, going to initiate conversations — whether in person or via text/online — and will opt out of as many social situations as possible. This doesn’t mean they don’t like you. In fact, it’s still not about you at all. It’s about them protecting their fragile sense of self and hording their limited energy for more important things like breathing and not self-harming. Don’t make them feel bad if they can’t participate the way they normally do, but keep letting them know that they’re welcome to join in when/if they’re able.
  • Let them know that you’re happy to listen, even if you don’t understand what they’re going through. And then actually listen. Don’t try to cure them, don’t tell them that it’s not as bad as they think it is, just listen.
  • Encourage them to seek help, but don’t push them into it. No one wants to be depressed. Everyone wants to feel better. But getting help is scary, and they may need your non-judgemental support to be able to do it.

The main message here is that your friend’s depression is not about you. About fifteen years ago, someone said to me: “So, does that means you’re allowed to treat me badly when you’re depressed and I’m not even allowed to be upset by it?” No. No, it doesn’t. If your loved one is depressed and treating you badly, then you should absolutely call them on it. (Although be prepared for them not to know with how to deal with that.) But, first, ask yourself if they’re actually treating you badly.

If your friend developed a physical illness or disease, their behaviour would change — and you’d accept it without question. You wouldn’t expect them to keep partying with you on Saturday nights, or calling you every day to talk about your latest date. You’d undertand that they needed time to heal, you’d worry about them and offer them help, and you’d be there for them when they recovered. If your friend is suffering from depression, the same things apply. Depression is not a state of mind or an inconvenience, it’s a real, debilitating sickness.

That’s why they call it a mental illness.

To everyone who stuck around for this whole, insanely long post, I thank you. I’m doing much better than I was, and continuing to heal from what was the worst depression I’ve suffered in at least ten years. I know my blog has been abandoned during that time, but I’m hoping to post once a week from now on. There’s been a lot happening in my life — beyond my mental health — and I’d love to share it with you.

Happy travel, my friends.

 

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Drop the balls, Stay on the tightrope

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicolopaternoster/3933549608

Photo by Flickr user Nicolò Paternoster

Like most of us, my life is a constant juggling act. I’m a writer, mother, teacher, worker bee, friend, sister, daughter, confidante, mentor, community member, and probably a whole host of other titles that don’t immediately spring to mind. I have a lot of balls in the air, and I keep them there through sheer force of will — and a willingness to forego sleep when necessary.

That’s normal. That’s life. We all do it.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last six weeks — particularly over the last week — it’s that sometimes you need to let all the balls fall and focus on staying on the tightrope.

We’re all walking one of those, too. Sometimes it feels like rolling hills. Sometimes it feels like you’re on the razor edge, barely keeping your balance.

That’s where I’ve found myself over the last six weeks.

Six weeks ago, my dog died. Her name was Ninja, and she was a good girl. I loved her dearly. And I had to make the difficult and heart-breaking decision to end her life. It wasn’t an easy decision. In the end, it wasn’t a decision at all. It was just something that had to be done. But I’m the one who did it. That decision, and the aftermath of helping my boys through their grief, felt soul-destroying. Grief vied with guilt. Sadness vied with shame. I carefully put down a couple of balls, put a tearful smile on my face, and took another step forward on the tightrope of life.

Five weeks ago, all three of us succumbed to a terrible bout of Influenza B. I’d like to think that it was just “one of those things”, but it’s hard not to feel that, without the added shadow of grief hanging over all of us, we would have avoided it. Or, at the very least, shaken it off more easily. As it was, Master Eight had a mid-level fever for eight days straight. Master Four had one for five days. And I was shaking and shivering for four.

By the time we finally recovered from the worst of it, we were all wrung out and exhausted. Fortunately, some of the wonderful members of my community provided cooked meals for us each night for a week. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have had the strength to prepare food.

Three and a half weeks ago, both boys had recovered and returned to their normal lives — albeit with a bit less spring in their step than usual. But I hadn’t recovered. My fever had gone, but I was still exhausted and pale. I developed tremors in my hands, and a wracking cough. My throat was swollen and sore, my arms and legs ached. I was pretty sure I was dying. Okay, not really. But that’s how I felt in my more melodramatic moments. My doctor diagnosed tonsilitis, and prescribed antibiotics. They made me so sick I could barely get out of bed. But I just dropped a few more balls, plastered an unconvincing smile on my face, and took another shaky step forward on that damn tightrope.

Three weeks ago, after a series of tests, I was diagnosed with glandular fever, aka mono. There is no treatment for glandular fever, save bedrest and stress avoidance. I dropped quite a few more balls, taking the doctor’s advice to do the bare minimum required in every aspect of my life. I started getting B12 shots weekly to boost my energy — or, at the very least, take the edge off the extreme mental and physical exhaustion I was feeling — and bunkered down to wait it out.

One and a bit weeks ago, things got worse.

It was Saturday morning. Master Eight went to pour himself a drink. But when he touched the fridge door, he got an electric shock. It was strong enough to make his hand hurt, and leave him feeling tingly all over, and “a bit weird” for quite a while. And it freaked me right the fuck out.

Thinking I’d play it safe until I worked out the problem, I went to turn our power off at the main power board. Since we were living in a caravan on a block of land, that meant going to the house next door to access the main power. I grabbed the handle of the cupboard housing the power board, and got an electric shock. Strong enough that I felt my heart jump, and I had trouble breathing. Strong enough to really scare me.

And so I packed up the boys and we left. We drove away from our home — a home that had suddenly turned dangerous — and went to a hotel until an electrician could fix the problem. I tried to make it seem like a fun adventure for the boys, but I was scared and uncertain, and it didn’t take them long to pick up on it. I forced myself to smile, to downplay the fear I’d felt in what should have been our sanctuary, and hoped it wouldn’t take long before we could go home.

The next morning, my landlord contacted me to let me know that all electricity to the property had been disconnected pending a large and costly repair. With the electricity off, that left me not only without power, but also without water. And while camping without power or water may be fun for a short time period, it’s no way to live. It’s no way to raise children.

It’s no way to avoid stress and recover from glandular fever.

And that’s how I found myself homeless.

I could have raged at the heavens, screaming that it wasn’t fair. But I didn’t. I could have felt afraid, or angry, or resentful, or distraught. But I didn’t. What I felt was ashamed.

There’s a whole lot of stigma attached to the word “homeless”, and even though I found myself in that position through not fault of my own, I was filled with shame. There I was, a strong, independent woman of 38, the mother of two children, completely and utterly powerless to provide a place for my children to live, play, and sleep.

I had money in the bank, and friends who wanted to help. I had people offering to put me up for the night — for as long as it took me to find a place to live. But as much as I appreciated it (And I did. A lot.), there was a part of me — and not a small part — that took every offer of help and seamlessly translated it into a feeling of helplessness. I felt incompetent. Incapable. Unable to provide for my children.

 

The shame made it hard to think; hard to plan; hard to breathe. I couldn’t move without doubting myself. I threw myself on the mercy of the community, reaching out to everyone I knew, because it was my only option. But every time I explained that my children and I had nowhere to live, I knew I was being judged. And I cried rivers.

The boys sensed what I was feeling, and they suffered. More because of my emotional uncertainty than because of the circumstances, I think. Master Eight was weepy and anxious. Master Four reverted to talking in baby talk and needing to held all the time. They argued constantly. They clung to me. And every time I hear the word “Mummy”, I cringed. I hate that I felt that way, but it’s the truth. It was so hard, so very, very hard, to keep putting one foot in front of the other on the razor-thin tightrope, keeping those last few balls spinning and spinning while I tried and failed to pretend I was smiling.

I had to let the balls fall and focus on the tightrope.

On Wednesday afternoon, I sent the boys to their Dad’s house. I stopped pretending I was in any state to teach anyone anything. I made a conscious decision to avoid social media (although I hadn’t updated anything since the Saturday when my life fell apart). I withdrew from all social contact except the few friends who stayed so close I couldn’t avoid their offers of assistance. I dropped all the balls.

And a miracle happened.

Through the magic of social media, someone I didn’t know told me about a cottage that was for rent. Wednesday afternoon, I contacted the real estate agent looking after the property. An hour later, I met her at the cottage. It was perfect.

Absolutely perfect.

If I’d sat down and written an itemised list of everything I wanted in a house, this cottage would have met every single bullet point.

Two hours later, the agent called me to say my application had been approved, and I could pick the keys up in the morning.

I had a home.

I was no longer homeless.

Relief washed over me. It tasted like hot apple pie and new beginnings.

I was only homeless for five days.

It felt like an eternity.

And it gave me a great deal of empathy for anyone who finds themselves in that situation. Through a series of fortuitous events, and the benefit of living in a highly supportive community, I found a home for my family. But when I was in it for those few days, it felt inescapable. It felt hopeless. It felt like failure.

So I’ve made a vow — one which I am putting in writing right here and now, so I can’t forget it. Once I’ve finished moving in to his new house, and when I’ve once again picked up all those balls I juggle, I’m going to find a way to make a difference — even if only a small one — to other people who find themselves in a similar situation. I don’t know how, or what, or where. I just know why.

And, in the meantime, I’m going to get my children settled into their new home, I’m going to try to get some bedrest and avoid stress and recover from this illness, and I’m going to count my blessings. And while I do that, I’ll keep singing the refrain that has been stuck in my head for a week and a bit.

“Closing Time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
— Semisonic (Closing Time)

 

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2015: Sign me up, Scotty!

Happy New Year!Celebrate

About this time every year, I sit down and write a blog post detailing my goals for the year. This year, I’m going to break from tradition and not do that. Why? Because my overall theme of 2015 can be summed up in three simple words:

Be More Awesomer.

This is going to be a big year for me; a great year. A year of Adventure and Authenticity and Awareness. Yes, a AAA-rated year. And while I have my own smaller, bite-sized goals, I don’t need to share them to make them a reality.

(Look, I’m getting all grown-up-ified.)

There are some exciting things on the horizon for me, and I’m looking forward to sharing them all with you — and, of course, to continuing to share the occasional foray into writing about parenthood, social justice, and world events.

But, for right now, let me stick to my announcement of the day. I am incredibly excited and proud to say that I am a new monthly contributor for the amazing Writer Unboxed — a blog that has been named one of the top websites for writers by Writer’s Digest for the last eight years in a row. It is a HUGE honour to be there, and I am alternately overwhelmed with joy and positive the writer-police are about to show up at my door and demand to see my credentials.

WU

My first post went live today. Click here and have a read. I talk about ants, naked druids, and flash fiction. And then I roll out a year-long Flash Fiction competition. I’d love to see you over there, and would love it even more if you’d participate in the contest.

But wait, there’s more. (And no, it’s not steak knives.)

With so many exciting things on the horizon, I’ve decided that it’s time to take the plunge and set up a mailing list. If you enjoy my writing, are interested in what I’ve got going on, and would like yet another way to keep in touch, I’d love it if you would sign up for my newsletter: Words and Stuff.

“But, what’s in it for me?” you ask.

Well, aside from all the stuff I just mentioned, here’s a brief FAQ:

Do I really have to do this? I mean, my email inbox is always so full…

No, of course you don’t. Signing up is completely optional But I guarantee that if you do sign up, you’ll never regret it. (Not a guarantee.)

You’re not going to email me every day, are you? Because that would be super-annoying.

Really, who has time for that? I’ll be sending out a newsletter twice a month.

Give it to me straight: You just want our email addresses so you can sell your mailing list to some big multi-national telemarketing conglomerate and use the proceeds to buy yourself an island paradise, don’t you?

Uh…. I don’t know what planet you live on, but I’d love to come and visit. No, I won’t give or sell your details to anyone else. Even if they offer me an island paradise in return.

Will your newsletter include the same stuff as your blog? I already subscribe to The Happy Logophile.

No, my newsletter may touch on some of the same things, but it will be an entirely different animal. Possibly a bat. So if you want the whole picture, stay subscribed to my blog (or subscribe now — there’s a button just over there on the right sidebar) as well as signing up for Words and Stuff. And, while you’re at it, you may also want to follow me on Twitter and/or Facebook. Let’s share the love, people.

So… a newsletter means I get Free Stuff, right?

Actually, yes. Each edition of my newsleter will give you exclusive access to a piece of my short fiction. It’s quite a while since I’ve posted any fiction on my blog, and I know you’ve been missing it, so consider this the carrot to encourage you to sign up. (Sadly, I left the stick at home.)

This all sounds too good to be true! How do I sign up?

I’m glad you asked. Just click here and fill out the sign up form. It should take about 5 seconds (unless you’ve forgotten how to spell your name).

Thanks for all your support throughout 2014. Let’s have a great 2015, my friends!

What do you have planned for this exciting new year?

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Filed under Opinion, Writing

A Lone Gunman, Racism, and Australian Pride

Monday morning started just like any other. I woke up, had some coffee, and cooked breakfast for my children. I had a headache — the remnant of the World’s Worst Hangover that I’d suffered through the day before — but I was awake and alert and happy. I sent a few emails to friends, and lurked around social media for a while.

And then, suddenly, my timeline was full of pain.

A gunman had taken up to 20 people hostage in a Sydney cafe. The news broke with the picture that was everywhere. The picture of two hostages holding a black flag with arabic script against the window of the cafe — a cafe that was, conveniently, directly across the street from the Channel 7 news room.

Sydney Seige

As I read the news, and stayed abreast of what was going on, my heart was in my mouth. I sat in front of my computer, tears streaming down my face, fear coursing through my veins. And so I did what many others were doing. I took to social media to share my thoughts and my hurt.

I’m terrified. I’m terrified for the hostages in the Martin Place siege, and for their friends and family. I’m terrified for the police responding to the siege. And, most of all, I’m terrified about the impact this attack will have on every Australian, particularly Muslim Australians, regardless of how it turns out. May this situation be resolved without loss of life, and may all Australians remember that hatred is not a cure for pain and anger, but a fan to its fire.

The day stretched on, and nothing changed. No, that’s not true. Nothing changed at the Lindt Cafe, Martin Place. But the media had a field day. The flag was identified as an ISIS flag. Then it wasn’t. Then it was an extremist terrorist flag. Then it wasn’t. The speculation about Evil Islamic Terrorists hit fever-pitch in media channels. Radio hosts claimed to be talking to people inside the siege. Police maintained that they hadn’t yet made contact with the hostage-taker. And Murdoch’s ridiculous newspaper (and I use the word “news’ in the loosest possible sense), The Daily Telegraph, released a special 2pm edition with the headline: “DEATH CULT CBD ATTACK”. All of it was conjecture. None of it was helpful. And, in my anger and frustration, I took to social media again.

Just to clarify, the fact that a crackpot plastered a flag (not, as has been reported, the Islamic State flag) on a window after taking people hostage does not actually mean that ‪#‎sydneysiege‬ is part of a religious or political war. There’s no current proof that the crackpot responsible is even Muslim. The police are still saying they don’t know who he is. But I can assure you, the moment you put an Islamic flag on a window, you guarantee yourself widespread media coverage. Regardless of the religious beliefs of the crackpot in question, he is holding people hostage. And that’s the important part.

May the siege end without bloodshed, and people remember to hold true to their values and not allow false information, assumptions, and ignorance to push them towards hatred.

Randa Abdel-Fattah wrote a great article about exactly this media frenzy here. Go and read it. (But stay away from the comments if you value your sanity.)

By mid-afternoon Monday, I was a mess. I’d been crying for hours, imagining the trauma the hostages were facing inside that cafe. Imagining the life that led the hostage-taker to the precipice he was standing on, when the idea of taking people hostage at gunpoint, knowing that he would likely end up dead and reviled at the end of it, seemed like a good idea. Thinking about the society we live in, and the world at large, and the pain that would follow this attack.

I was watching when the first three hostages escaped. I felt the same relief as the rest of the nation. But I also felt afraid. Afraid of how their escape would affect the microcosm of the cafe. Afraid of what the gunman would do now.

But, three hours later, nothing had changed. Nothing except the conversation.

The police knew the identity of the man responsible (who I refuse to name here), and posited that he was acting alone, and not a member of any extremist group. The flag had been categorically affirmed as a general statement of Islamic faith, and not an evil portent of doom. And the chat on social media was largely full of grief, pain, and support for Muslim Australians. I added my voice to the throng.

Let me take another opportunity to remind everyone that regardless of this “lone wolf” crackpot’s race, religion, or beliefs, he is not a representative of everyone of that race, religion, and belief system. He is not a representative of every man, or of every Australian, or of every member of his nationality or religion (as yet unconfirmed). Don’t let anger at his actions influence your feelings about any person other than him. Don’t let fear overcome your reason. We are stronger than that. We are Australian.

And then, the most remarkable thing happened.

Social media exploded with the hashtag #illridewithyou.

On seeing a Muslin woman on a train sadly remove her hijab for fear of hate-fuelled “retribution”, an ordinary Australian woman  started this hashtag. The message, clear and simple. Do not be afraid to be who you are. Do not be afraid of backlash. And if you are afraid, I will ride with you.

The message was tweeted and posted and shared something like 120,000 times in the first two hours. And it’s been gathering momentum ever since.

The siege wore on. I tried to sleep, but my brain and my imagination were having none of it. I tossed and turned and tried to read and couldn’t concentrate and finally got back on the computer. Five minutes later, it was all over.

More hostages escaped from the cafe. There was a burst of gunfire. Police stormed the building. Another burst of gunfire. And then it was done.

The ‪#‎sydneyseige‬ is over with three dead, including the crazed crackpot who started all this. My heart is heavy with the knowledge that the families of these people — yes, even the gunman — will be grieving today and for many tomorrows. I feel, also, for the hostages who escaped; their lives will never be the same. May they find peace and healing. Thanks to the ‪#‎nswpolice‬and all emergency crews who brought this event to a close. Let’s remember to band together in this difficult time, to refuse to let the seeds of hatred grow in our hearts, and to continue to build such beautiful community initiatives as‪#‎illridewithyou‬.

Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson

Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson

 

Katrina Dawson was a lawyer and a mother of three. She died heroically, protecting the life of her pregnant friend.

Tori Johnson was the manager of the Lindt Cafe. He died heroically, struggling with the gunman in an attempt to disarm him while the other hostages fled.

They were real people, real people killed senselessly, real people who died bravely in the face of the kind of terror we just don’t see in Australia. They are True Blue Aussie heroes, and will forever be remembered as such. In the days that have passed since their tragic deaths, tributes have flowed in to Martin Place in their honour. They live on in the hearts of all of us. Vale, Katrina and Tori.

New Idea Magazine

The floral tributes keep growing in Martin Place as people stop to reflect and pay their respects,

In the days since the siege ended, I’ve struggled to rediscover my equilibrium. Struggled to come back to terms with the world, and to stop feeling the slow bleed of my heart. It’s not easy. It’s been a tough week. And a tougher one on the people involved. But there’s one thing that’s helped me through this time.

The solidarity shown by Australians across the country. We, as Australians of all races, religions, colours, and creeds, have come together in person and on social media to support each other, and to show solidarity with our fallen heroes. I’ve read great posts like this one, and watched #illridewithyou get global recognition. I’ve seen Australians at their best.

I’ve cried.

I’ve smiled.

I’ve found my feet again.

And I’ve been proud. We may not have it all under control — just today, an MP derided the #illridewithyou campaign as left-wing nonsense all about “hating whitey” — but we’re on the right track. We’re on the right track.

Today, I am in mourning for the lost lives of Katrina and Tori. But I’m proud, so very proud, to be Australian.

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on Earth we come
We share a dream, and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian.

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WU UnCon: A Conference of Connection

WU UnConIt’s ten days since I arrived back in Australia after attending the Writer Unboxed UnConference in Salem. Ten long days, and I’m only now posting about it. Why? Because if I’d posted sooner, my whole post would have consisted of a disjointed list of unrelated adjectives interspersed with exclamation marks and the occasional unsubstantiated claim that the UnCon changed my life.

But now, ten days later, I feel I’m ready. I’m ready to say that it was a phenomenal, transformational, life-changing, brain-expanding, emotionally-charged hot-pot of creative energy and connection, built around a series of inspiring, enlightening, and incisive workshops.

Or something like that..

Actually, I’ve pondered long and hard about how to share the experience of Salem with you. And as I’ve pondered, I’ve consolidated the things I learned in a deeper and more meaningful way. And thus, I’m ready to share.

I could tell you about the amazing workshops I did — particularly Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story”, Donald Maass’s “Writing 21st Century Fiction” and John Vorhaus’s “The Comic Toolbox” — and the ways those workshops have improved my writing and expanded my thinking.

But I won’t.

UnCon Group 2I could tell you about the deep connection I felt with the other writers I met there, many of whom I knew as icons and names online, and the long-lasting bonds that formed during those five days.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the dinner we had as a memorial to Lisa Threadgill, my dear, dear friend who passed away earlier this year, and how laughing and crying with other people who felt her loss so keenly reopened old wounds and yet helped them heal so much cleaner.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about hanging out in a bar at 1:00am on the first evening with a group of people I’d only just met, drinking picklebacks (the most revolting shot I’ve ever tried), and then asking the bartender for his shirt.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the Poker Cabin, and how it felt to be playing poker of an evening after a long day of brain-expanding workshops and conversation, and the surreal feeling of sitting next to an inspirational (and possibly super-human) NY literary agent as I confidently bluffed my way to a winning hand.

But I won’t.

UnCon GroupI could tell you about sitting at dinner on Friday night, after the UnCon was technically over, and collaboratively building a back-story for our surly waitress using all the techniques we’d learned from Don Maass during the full-day workshop we’d just attended.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about Bob Stewart.

And I will.

Before the UnCon, I knew WriterBob Stewart as a name and an icon on the Writer Unboxed FB page. We interacted once or twice, in an oblique way, and I admired his dedication and persistence, but I didn’t know much about him. As the time for the UnCon grew closer, I learned more about him. He was much older (75, I later learned), and had some health issues. He was an accomplished playwright, journalist, and novelist. And, above all that, he was funny and kind and a good and genuine human being.

WriterBobOn the Saturday before the UnCon was due to start, he was bitten by his cat. Due to other health complications, the bite got infected, and he ended up in hospital. The first thing he did was message Therese Walsh to find out if it was okay if he arrived at the UnCon a little late. Which, of course, it was. He checked himself out of hospital early, and flew to Salem, and arrived on Tuesday afternoon.

I spoke to Bob briefly. Just enough to say hello, and I was glad he could make it. But he was there — real, and solid, and not just an icon and a name. He participated in groups, and stayed for evening sessions. And Wednesday evening, after everything was winding down, he complained about feeling a little funny, returned to his room, and passed away.

We found out on Thursday.

I wasn’t having a great day on Thursday. I finished the day with an amazing session that hit me like a brick wall and made me question the validity of everything I’d ever written in my life. Then, mired in self-doubt, I found myself flicking through the memorial book that had been created for Lisa Threadgill. A book that was full of my words. A book that brought all the grief and pain I’d felt at her passing back to the surface. And so there I was, weeping in the lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, when Therese approached and told me about Bob.

WriterBob Stewart. A man who spent his last days exactly where he wanted to be — with a community of writers he’d only known online, in a beautiful little hotel in Salem.

And so I found myself, on that Thursday evening, telling the other attendees that our evening plan had changed. That instead of a discussion of craft, we would be sharing a toast for Bob, and hearing some of the pages from his latest work. And as I told them, I found myself breaking the news of his passing over and over and over.

Some people cried. Others told me stories. One person looked like she was going to faint. Another told me that he’d lost a number of family members recently, and then excused himself to find somewhere private to sit and reflect. And through it all, I hugged and comforted and listened and was present.

UnCon Group 3But once the toast was said, once the memorial was underway, I couldn’t be present any longer. To coin my own phrase, my heart was a new helium balloon floating through a cactus forest. The slightest brush — skin against skin, mind against mind — would break me. I had too much grief, too much emotion, coursing through my body. I had to escape. And so I fled the room. Quietly. Hoping not to be noticed.

But I was.

John Vorhaus*  — a man equally funny and wise — saw me going and followed me out. He rejected my claims that I was ‘fine, just fine’, and he sat with me, and we talked. We talked about loss and grief and self-doubt and pain and all manner of things. We talked until my skin no longer felt electrified, until I no longer felt I was going to explode, until I felt grounded again. And during that talk, during that conversation, he said a phrase that resonated with me both then and now, and defines the UnCon experience for me.

“Cherish your emotions’.

When JV said it, he was referring to the grief and shock I was feeling — that we were all feeling — in the wake of Bob’s death. But it means so much more to me.

he entire UnCon for me.

Cherish your emotions.

Think about it for a minute. How often do we truly cherish our emotions? Conversely, how often do we feel shame or guilt about our emotions? How often do we attempt to hide them/ To wall them away, or move on from them, or pretend they’re not there? What would happen if we truly cherished our emotions — accepted them, not as being bad or good but just as being. How would that feel?

UnCon Group 4How would that inform our writing?

How would that inform our lives?

Cherish your emotions.

It ties in to what Lisa Cron said about specificity and back-story. It mirrors Donald Maass’s talk of finding emotional resonance between our lives and our character’s experiences. It touches on Meg Rosoff’s discussions of voice. But, more than that, it is a model, a mantra, for life.

And so when I think about Salem, and about WriterBob and Lisa Threadgill, and about the close connections I forged, and the games of poker I played, and the fun and hi-jinks I was part of, and the way I got lost every freaking time I walked out of that hotel building, I think of that phrase.

Cherish your emotions.

And when it all gets too much for me, when the homesickness for an event that lasted only five days and yet a lifetime threatens to overwhelm me, I take a deep breath and cherish my emotions. And then I write.

* JV has a new book coming out. I’ve read it. It’s brilliant. And you should totally go and buy it right now. Tell him Jo sent you.

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