Category Archives: Random Stuff

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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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

Cottage Living

It’s hard to believe that a few weeks ago, I was happily living in a caravan & tent set-up in the middle of a paddock. Or that a couple of weeks ago, I was homeless, and struggling to remember who I really was. Time flies past, and a new normal asserts itself, and the past is suddenly a distant memory.

Okay, not that distant.

Have you ever stopped to consider what a miracle of modern life plumbing is? I mean, really, it’s freaking amazing. Water comes into your home, and just sits there, quietly, waiting for you to turn on the tap. And then? BAM! Water! And turn on the other tap, and BAM! Hot water.

Hot. Freaking. Water. At the turn of a tap. How amazing is that?

And, showers? Showers are like heaven. Seriously, when was the last time you stood in the shower and truly appreciated the range of human accomplishments that have taken place to make that experience a reality?

And let’s not even get into the wonderousness of having an indoor toilet. And electric lights. And, oh my goodness, MY OWN BEDROOM.

Seriously, I haven’t felt this way about having my own room since I was 15, and I finally stopped sharing a room with my little sister. I feel an overwhelming urge to make a “Keep Out” sign for my door. Possibly with a skull and crossbones.  But I refrain, because, as it turns out, a Mum Look is equally effective.

More effective, actually. I don’t remember my little sister being at all cowed by signs.

But, moving on. Since my last post, a lot of people have asked me to share some pictures of my little cottage. And so, without further ado, I give you…

Jo’s Amazingly Awesome New House
Now in Pictures!

That's my little cottage, looking all farmy and flat.

That’s my little cottage, looking all farmy and flat.

There's nothing quite like having cows a few steps outside your door.

There’s nothing quite like having cows a few steps outside your door.

"Good morning."

“Good morning.”

The kitchen (Ignore the dishes stacked on the sink!)

The kitchen (Ignore the dishes stacked on the sink!)

The dining area

The dining area

The lounge room (or living room, for those with an American bent)

The lounge room (or living room, for those with an American bent)

The library  Okay, fine, it's just the other side of the lounge room. Whatever.

The library
Okay, fine, it’s just the other side of the lounge room. Whatever.

The boys' bedroom

The boys’ bedroom

The playroom (I cleaned all the Lego off the floor for this shot)

The playroom
(I cleaned all the Lego off the floor for this shot)

My bedroom (It's MINE, see, ALL MINE!)

My bedroom (It’s MINE, see, ALL MINE!)

I also have a desk. Trust me, it's exciting.

I also have a desk. Trust me, it’s exciting.

So, that’s the house. What do you think?

Oh, wait. I forgot one thing.

How about that view?

How about that view?

 

 

 

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Filed under Random Stuff

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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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

Random Thoughts

A few months ago, I promised I wasn’t going to disappear from the blogosphere. Well. Technically, I haven’t. In that I’m posting right now. (That counts, right?) Life is way busier this year than expected, and I’ve had a few ups and downs that I won’t go into now. But rest assured that I’m still alive, still writing, still parenting, and still being my generally awesome self.

Oh, and still writing my newsletter. (Did you sign up?)

But for now, I give you some random thoughts that have been going through my head lately.

1. If a vampire transforms into a bat, what happens to all that extra mass? I mean, it’s either going to be a really, really big bat, or it’s going to be a normal-sized bat that weighs as much as an average human, and therefore can’t actually fly. I’m not sure which option is more comical.

I just... can't... get airborne...

I just… can’t… get airborne…

2. I’ve just started advertising to run a 6 month long writing course for beginning writers, designed to take students from “I have an idea” to “The End”. It’s super exciting, and I’m hoping to have at least half a dozen people sign up. Putting the course together meant spending a lot of time thinking back to those early days in my own writing journey, and making a list of everything I wish I’d learned right at the start. It was interesting to note that, of all the writing classes and creative writing workshops and library-run writing events I attended as a beginning writer, few (if any) of them touched on the elements of novel writing that I really needed to know.

3. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend a day living like a sitcom character? Never saying goodbye or hello; not engaging in small talk unless it somehow moves the story forward; never having to wait in line for anything unless doing so allows for a not-small-talk conversation; skipping effortlessly from scene to scene without having to live through the commutes, inanities, and boring bits in between; and, most importantly, having a soundtrack announce your arrival in every important locale.

4. We recently adopted a new dog to join our family, which has been an adventure all in itself. She’s a 4 1/2-year-old Ridgeback x Boxer, and is absolutely beautiful. Her name is Ninja. And she’s scared of the dark. (I’ll leave you to have your own little giggle at the irony of that.) I’ve never had two dogs before, and I have learned many valuable things. Such as, it’s impossible to get angry at one of them without both of them sulking, and fitting two dogs and two children (and myself) into a 5 seater sedan for a six hour journey is…. interesting.

My four children. A couple of them just have two extra feet.

My four children. A couple of them just have two extra feet.

5. Writing for Writer Unboxed is infinitely more stress-inducing than I expected it to be. Before I write my post each month, I find myself falling into a pit of Imposter Syndrome and struggling to get out. But stress is good for the soul, right? (If not the heart.) My recent post was about using profanity in writing. You can read it here.

6. I’m turning 39 in a few months, and have reached that point where I look in the mirror and realise I’m older than my parents. That is, I’m older than (or the same age as) my parents were when I moved out of home, which is the way I always imagine them in my mind’s eye. It’s sobering and scary. When my parents were my age, they seemed to have everything figured out. They owned a house, they’d settled in a town they wanted to live in for the rest of their lives, they were financially stable, and happy in themselves and their lives. Sure, they’ve changed jobs and moved towns and bought and sold multiple houses since then, but they’ve always seemed to be “together”. So when I look in the mirror and realise I’m their age, and I own next-to-nothing, have no life plan, my finances are a jumbled mess, and I alternate between feeling like an Awesome Harbinger of Awesome and a lowly imposter with no real world skills, it leaves me feeling like I’m failing at life.

7. And then I remember that I’ve got two wonderful, sweet, caring, frustrating, healthy, energetic children, two loving dogs, a roof over my head, creativity running through my veins, and the best friends a girl could ask for, and I remind myself that one person’s “together” is another person’s “trapped”; that one person’s “haphazard jumbled mess” is another person’s “creative connected life”. And then I feel better. (With thanks to my BFF Pauline for reminding me of this when the voices in my head get a little too persistent.)

I hope you’re enjoying your haphazard jumbled mess, or your togetherness, or whatever brand of living you prefer. In parting, I leave you with the words of my four-year-old son last night.

Make my shadow stop copying me!

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Coming to America! (With a Little Help from my Friends)

Yes, that’s right my friends, I’m coming to America. Just like this guy:

Coming-To-America-1998

Okay, maybe not exactly like Prince Akeem, but very close. And I’ll take with me all the lessons I learned from watching the movie.

  1. If you want to meet a future Queen, you go to Queens. (duh!)
  2. New Yorkers are ready to steal everything you own at every moment. Unless you’re in a barber shop. Barber shops are super friendly.
  3. Eddie Murphy’s smile is bigger than his face.

But enough of that.

So, I’m coming to America. To be more specific, I’m coming to Salem, Massachusetts. To be even more specific, I’m coming to Salem, Massachusetts to attend the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference from Monday November 3rd to Friday November 7th.

Now, I’ve talked about Writer Unboxed here before. I’ve mentioned the blog (Look, it’s right over there => on the blogroll!), and I’ve talked about the Facebook group. Both of which are awesome. I’ve been an active member of the FB group for a few years now, and an active participant on the blog, and so when I heard about the Un-Conference, I decided there was nothing more important in the world than for me to attend this not-a-conference-conference.

And then, you know, my life imploded and changed significantly, and I found myself a single mother, living in a caravan with two small boys, with little to no income. And I had to regretfully admit that I just couldn’t afford to goto the Salem this November. With flights, insurance, accommodation, meals, conference fees, childcare arrangements, and the need to eat actual food (rather than just dine on the writerly ambience), the price was going to run to thousands of dollars.

But put away those violins.violin

No, seriously, put them away. Because just at the point where I was feeling a bit like having a wallow in my own misery — and bemoaning the fact I live in FutureLand, rather than downtown Salem — a team of Superheroes came to the rescue.

A group of online friends — all of them women writers — decided to take matters into their own hands and do whatever it took to get me to that conference. And not just me. There were five of us in all. Five of us who desperately wanted to attend, but just couldn’t get there for financial reasons. And we all have a few things in common.

  • We’re all writers. (Obviously.)
  • We’re all women.
  • We all have small children.
  • We are all passionately involved in helping and supporting our fellow writers.
  • We all have the bestest friends in the whole entire universe.

And thus, the WriterMamas fundraiser was born.

And this is where you come in, my dear friends. You see, at the time of writing this, we’re about halfway to our fundraising goal. Halfway. Which means that, at the moment, when I board that plane in November, I’ll be thrown out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And I’m not much of a swimmer.

If I’m lucky, I’ll find an island nearby. A few days later, I’ll look like this:

castaway

Yes, beard and all. What happens on the island, stays on the island.

So if you’d like to prevent me from turning into a grizzled, mostly-naked man with nothing but a volleyball and my own psychosis for company, please jump on board the WriterMamas fundraiser.

There are four ways you can help.

1. Make a Donation

It’s pretty simple. Pop on over to the WriterMamas GiveForward page and make a donation. Even if all you can spare is $5, we would all appreciate it. I would appreciate it. I really don’t want to be stuck on a remote island, slowly turning into Tom Hanks…

Of course, you’re welcome to donate more than $5. Any and all donations are gratefully accepted.

2. Buy The Successful Author’s Toolkit

Okay, this is an absolutely awesome parcel of writer’s resources for a fantastic price. All of these products have been donated to the WriterMamas fundraiser by the authors, so 100% of the price you pay goes straight towards helping me avoid a long and lonely swim in the Pacific Ocean. The Toolkit includes:

  • “Got High Concept?” by Lori Wilde
  • “Writing Active Setting” boxed set by Mary Buckham
  • “Rock Your Writing” complete set by Cathy Yardley (including her never-before-released marketing course)
  • “Write. Publish. Repeat” by Sean Platt and Johnny Truant
  • “A Writer’s Guide to Blogging” by Dan Blank
  • “Your First 1000 Copies” by Tim Grahl (including a usually not-for-sale bonus podcast)
  • “Prowriter: Secrets of an Author Entrepreneur” course by CJ Lyons and Joanna Penn
  • “The Career Novelist” by Donald Maass
  • BONUS: 50% off Cathy Yardley’s amazing editing service on a single project
  • BONUS: Live chat or phone call with Shelley Souza, an experienced editor, to discuss the first five pages of your manuscript.

The whole package retails at well over $200 — and that’s not even taking into account the bonus offers — but it’s available as part of this fundraiser for $100. Go and read more about each of the resources here. And then buy the toolkit, either for yourself or for a deserving writer friend.

3. Buy cool Writer Unboxed merchandise

This fundraiser has inspired some of the most amazing people to dive in and help. And so you can buy cool caps and t-shirts, and all the profit goes back to making sure I don’t have to spend the next two months practicing my breaststroke.

Check out these great baseball caps, available for a limited time for $30.

Or, if you’re not into baseball caps, you can pick up a limited edition Writer Unboxed t-shirt for only $23. Don’t they look amazing?

 4. Spread the Word

Seriously, tell everyone. Share this blog post. Share the individual links. Tweet them, FB them, G+ them, Pinterest them, scrawl them on bathroom walls, do whatever the cool kids are doing with links these days. Go crazy and tell your friends in person. Sky-write it. Shout it from the rooftops.

If you’re not interested in writing books or merchandise, and you can’t or don’t want to donate, that’s okay. You can still help just by clicking a few buttons. Spread the word.

Any other ideas?

And if you’ve got any other fundraising ideas, hit me up in the comments.

I am ever so grateful to the original organisers of the WriterMamas fundraiser, to all the other people who’ve come on board in the last few weeks and turned this dream into an almost-reality, and to everyone who has already donated, purchased, and shared the love. Without friends like you, the world would be a darker place.

And with that little piece of nostalgia, how can you do anything else but help?

I assure you, you’ll make me smile even bigger than Eddie Murphy. And that’s no small task.

eddie murphy

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Filed under Random Stuff, Writing

The Myth of the Helpless Female

Barbie WorldOne of my neighbours, a 60-something country guy named Paul, came over recently to say hi and offer me some firewood. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I’d been fixing my lawnmower.

“You need any help?” he asked.

“Nah. I just had to replace the starter cord. I’m putting it back together now.”

“Huh,” he said, looking impressed. “You’re not one of the usual useless females, are you?”

I muttered something along the lines of: “I can usually figure out how to do things… I don’t like useless people…” But I was flabbergasted as to how I was supposed to respond to his comment.

I’m pretty sure — no, I’m positive — that he meant it as a compliment. But it doesn’t feel right to say thank you for being essentially told that I’m not like most women, because I’m not “useless”.

This is not the first conversation I’ve had with someone about repairing the lawnmower (which, incidentally, is not actually mine — it’s one I borrowed from a friend). My other neighbour, an almost-deaf man in his late 60s with a heart of gold and the gender-bias of someone from the 1950s, laughed when he saw me working on the mower. The conversation went something like this:

Him: What are you doing?

Me: Fixing the mower.

Him: *laughs* You?

Me: Yes…

Him: *smiling patronisingly* What’s wrong with it?

Me: The starter cord broke. I was just replacing it.

Him: Well, what you’ve got to do is–

Me: It’s alright. I’ve done it.

Him: You?

Me: Yes.

Him: …. Maybe you should have a look at my car. *laughs and walks off*

Which leads me to believe, of course, that fixing a lawnmower is somehow related to having a penis.

Either that, or there is a large subset of the community that believes that to be the case.

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to go on a lovely bushwalk through a mountain-top rainforest with a close friend and her three children. Halfway through the walk, her six-year-old daughter started limping and pretending her foot was sore. “She’s copying her book,” my friend explained.

So, it turns out that there’s this book — it may or may not be part of the Barbie franchise of sparkly pink merchandise — and the story invokves a group of girls going for a bushwalk. One of them goes off on her own and wanders into a cave. But don’t worry — she doesn’t get lost. She sprains her ankle and has to be rescued.

Yes, she sprains her ankle.

Honestly, I thought we were past the days of helpless female victims spraining their ankles and having to be rescued. But apparently not. Apparently, this is still what we’re teaching our girl-children.

Girls have weak ankles. Girls need to be rescued. Girls can’t look after themselves.

I had a conversation with a friend of a friend last week, actually. An incredibly talented, creative, intelligent woman who pretended not to understand cell phone plans, because it’s easier to appear stupid and helpless than to argue with her husband — and that way, she gets what she wants, and he feels happy and superior, and everyone wins.

Well, everyone wins assuming she’s happy for her husband to believe she’s helpless.

It strikes me that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of women pretending to be helpless, which makes men treat women like they’re helpless, and so women pretend to be helpless… So much so that it’s seen as somehow aberrant for a woman to fix her own lawnmower. Or understand a cell phone plan. Or go exploring on her own and discover a rare type of fungi before being found, sprain-free, by her friends.

In fact, some of the “best” relationship advice I was ever given was about how to keep the man in my life happy. “Sometimes,” I was told, “you just have to let them open the olive jar.”

The idea being that in order for a man to feel happy in a relationship, the woman needs to ask him to help her do “manly” jobs, even though she’s perfectly capable of doing them for herself. You know, things like fixing broken things, and mowing the lawn, and lifting anything heavier than a saucepan…

I tried it. It worked. But eventually, I found myself asking:

What kind of relationship is this?

Is this the kind of relationship I want?

What am I teaching my children?

I have no interest in perpetuating the Myth of the Helpless Female.

And so when Paul, my always-helpful neighbour, told me I wasn’t like the “usual useless female”, I didn’t quite know how to respond. Should I be flattered? Angry? Grateful? Before I’d really worked out my emotions, he said, “My wife, God rest her, I loved her. But she was useless. She couldn’t do anything.”

And I felt sad. Because chances are, he never got to see the real her. He never got to see how useful and capable and intelligent she was, because she was too busy spraining her ankles and handing him jars of olives.

Just like she was taught.

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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

I Need Some Advice

Questions and Questions

Hi there. I need to ask you a question.

Well, not so much a question as for some advice.

You see, I’ve got this situation I’m dealing with, and I don’t know what I should do. There’s all this emotional sub-text, and my head is telling me one thing, and my heart is telling me another, and… Can you tell me what you think I should do?

So, the situation is this. I’m…

Actually.

Before I explain, maybe I should find out a little more about you. I don’t want to waste your time. You know how sometimes someone gives you some advice, and you listen to it, and you think: Yeah, but you’re not really someone I trust to give me this kind of advice. You’ve got your own agenda here.

It’s like asking your employer for advice on how to pretend to be sick. Or asking your Dad for advice on which mini-skirt to wear on a first date.

And sometimes people just give you the wrong advice. I mean, you listen and all, and you say “thankyou” and “that’s a great idea”, but you know right away that they’re just plain wrong.

When I was a kid, my brother and sister and I would argue over what game we were going to play. So we developed a system where we’d each write five options on pieces of paper and put them in a hat and mix them up. We’d draw them out, one at a time, saying: “This is what we’re going to do first!”

And then we’d draw one and someone would say: “No…. I really don’t want to do that.” So we’d give ourselves a break and draw the next one. And in the end, we’d find what we all really wanted to do.

Which we could have done in the first place if we’d thought and talked about it a bit more, rather than relying on a system of luck and gut reactions .

But sometimes you think and think and think, and you just can’t work out what you want to do. And so you really need someone to give you some advice. To tell you what you should do. To lay it out in black and white and give you permission guidance to do the right thing.

And that’s where I’m at. So please, help me out. I need some advice.

So, the situation is this: I’m…

Wait.

Look, there are really only two options, and if you give me the wrong advice, I’m going to either (a) feel terrible, or (b) decide you’re wrong, and start questioning your intelligence. So just make sure you give me the right advice. Okay? Okay.

So, the situation is this: I’m…

Hold on.

I don’t really know what advice I’d like you to give me.

Let me think about this a bit more and get back to you.

And then I’ll really value your advice.

Do you ask for advice from people who are going to give you the advice you want, or the advice you need?

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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff