“Slow down, you move too fast,” the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s Feelin’ Groovy, have struck a note with me lately. As a person who suffers from anxiety, I am conscious of my tendency to rush through life without taking a breath, shortchanging myself of the full benefits of life’s simple pleasures.
A friend of mine admitted to me recently he is not attending social events anymore if some loud-mouthed fuckwit – with whom he has crossed paths before – is on the guest list.
I understand. I’m completely behind removing toxic people from my life. But that does gets harder in middle age when many of us – myself included – begin to like the sound of our own voice.
While I love a good political debate, but not at the expense of respect
In my view, these spats happen more often in middle age for the following reasons:
1. We seem to believe that our age and experience gives us more credibility
2. There’s a noticeable switch in the middle-aged brain towards intolerance
3. We are becoming more aware of our impending mortality, so we feel a sense of urgency about imparting our newfound wisdom – even if it is a load of old bollocks.
4. And, finally, we become set in our ways and closed off to new ideas.
The biggest problem, however, is we stop listening to others
Countless times, I’ve had to listen to some idiot make sexist comments in front of me when they know I’m a feminist. And if I dare to argue back, they backtrack with platitudes like “I was only joking” or “I was having a laugh.”
Not to mention the times our older generations feel the need to justify their archaic – often racist and sexist – views about political correctness, or indeed any change to society from what they know and understand.
‘The world has gone mad,’ they say… as if greater compassion, equality, and scientific progress are bad things
I understand our frustration with the world not being quite where we want it to be, and I’m not pointing the finger. I get as irritated as the next person when things don’t go my way. Thanks to menopause, I have an embarrassingly short fuse when it comes to people who walk slowly along footpaths, neighbours who fire up leaf blowers before 8am on the weekend, and hospitality workers whose service is slow. And don’t get me started on people who refute scientific evidence.
But unlike my friend, rather than isolate myself from the torture of listening to more vomit come out of the mouths of idiots, I’ve chosen to do my best to educate them. Not in terms of their political persuasion, I hasten to add – after all, we live in a democracy – but in terms of their compassion, listening skills, and basic manners.
That may sound arrogant – and I am fully aware that leopards don’t, in general, change their spots – but after years of countering stupid comments about the terror men feel about engaging with women since #metoo, or the rights to women’s bodies and the difficulties around consent – not really – and even why the mentally ill can’t just “pull themselves together”, I’m determined to help them see the light.
Evidently, these people are threatened by equality, and desperate to remain in their vacuum of privilege. But I would love one of them to educate me about a) the benefits of hating on people for no real other reason than their difference, and b) the ways equality and social inclusion actually affect their lives.
‘The world’s gone mad,’ they say, while the rich get richer, our environment continues to suffer at the hands of the wealthiest corporations, and the poor are still treated like second-class citizens.
There was a time when I believed everyone had a right to an opinion…
But maybe not. Not when we’re talking about the kind of ignorance and filth spread by religious nutters and conspiracy theorists about proven FACTS – like the different gender identities, climate change, and life-saving vaccinations – which have the potential to harm others.
Personally, I have never condoned censorship or cancel culture. As long targets like Chrissy Teigen show remorse for their past demeanours, I believe justice has been served. After all, having made a shitload of mistakes in my own youth, who am I to judge the mistakes of others? And yet, as per the message I saw on a poster recently that was promoting safe practices in the face of Covid – WE’RE ONE DICKHEAD AWAY FROM DISASTER.
So, maybe there is one case for discrimination – discrimination against dickheads.
I caught up with an old friend recently and when the conversation turned to the inevitable topic of menopause and weight gain, I was surprised to see her stroke her belly and proudly flaunt it in my direction.
She told me she’s decided to embrace the menopause belly – a brave choice, I thought, in a society that chooses to celebrate youth and beauty over experience and wisdom, and the reason many of us struggle to adapt to the mental and physical changes caused by this stage of life.
And I’m not talking necessarily about the well-documented changes caused by menopause, such as hot flushes and brain fog. I mean the symptoms that not even women are comfortable discussing until we’re halfway down a bottle of Chardonnay and someone blurts out they’re incontinent.
Not to mention the increase in facial hair, the decrease in libido, the thinning of the hair on our head, joint pain, and for some of us, the impact on our digestive system.
I thought hot flushes during meetings were bad, until menopause attacked my digestive system
A short time ago, (and in spite of a healthy diet), there was a period when I could have powered myself to work, such was the intensity of my intestines’ reaction to certain foods I’d previously eaten without any problem. Fortunately, I managed to reduce my mortifying excess emissions by switching to a Low-FODMAP diet, but I haven’t been quite as lucky solving my memo-pot.
In spite of eating less, dosing up on turmeric, and exercising like Jane Fonda on Speed, my belly still looks like a five-month gestation
I understand our metabolism slows down in middle age – although, recent scientific research suggests that increased weight gain has more to do with a reduction in our activity patterns rather than chocolate, because as Erin Brodwin points out in an article she wrote about the problem, “As we age, we also get less active while sticking to roughly the same diet.”
And I’m also fortunate that Facebook reminds me daily about my problem area with its clever promotions of the latest pills and exercises to combat bloating. And yet, in spite of trying just about everything to tighten up those loose folds of skin left by two pregnancies – short of a tummy tuck – nothing gives.
Why do I care so much, I hear you ask?
Well, if I’m honest, I care because the media tells me I should care. Apparently, women are expected to have a flat stomach – even though the majority of men my age walk around proudly with bellies the size of small beer kegs, and the average woman’s clothing size in Australia is a size 16.
And when I struggled to find an image of a “mummy tummy” for this post, it became even more apparent to me why women struggle with body image issues.
Last Christmas, I experienced this type of gender inequality firsthand at a drinks party, when a male friend of ours greeted me with, ‘You’re looking nice and slim, Lou.”
I’m still not certain if the implication of his words was that I was a bit porky the previous time we met, or if I was finally meeting expectation, but I suspect he thought he was being polite. Whatever his reasons, I can’t imagine ever greeting a man like that.
But life’s too short for crunches, pills that make you constipated, and wearing Spanx each time you want to wear a dress
And fortunately, one of the benefits of ageing is the wisdom that comes with it, which helps us appreciate the privilege of wrinkles. And so, instead of sacrificing the last chapter of my life to the knife or the gym to get back into my size 12 jeans, I choose to be a bit more circumspect about my priorities.
I choose to carry on eating good food and drinking good wine with good people
I don’t need to fit into a bikini again. EVER. I am actually really enjoying my middle-aged invisibility at the pub and on the beach. And I’m grateful for the extra time (I used to waste on the most minimal amount of pampering) to keep challenging my degenerating brain.
That’s not to say if I woke up one morning with a flat stomach I’d demand the old one back. But there’s an old quote about controlling the things you can control, and that’s where I’ve drawn the line with my belly. Like my friend, I’ve decided to embrace its wholesomeness in celebration of my age and maturity, its awesomeness in nurturing my two babies, and its visual presentation of a middle-aged woman’s right to be who the fuck she wants to be.
I went through a “thing” last month. A health-scare that came out of the blue and made me look at the world through a different lens.
Followers of my blog will be aware of my propensity to over-think and many attempts to find my new “normal” in this middle-aged stage of my life. Hence, it will come as no surprise to you to hear that when my doctor called me with “bad news”, it kicked off a truly marathon session of overthinking about my life and its fuckeries.
Fortunately, on a scale of 1–10, my health scare was in reality a 1 in terms of seriousness — when compared to sufferers of terminal illnesses, and especially during these difficult COVID times, when their treatment has been compromised. And my treatment, while invasive, was marginal in terms of discomfort in comparison to the procedures some have to endure to simply stay alive. Nevertheless, it was scary enough to provide me with an insight into the question of how best to manage whatever time I have left.
The metamorphosis of my mindset over the three weeks was also an interesting experiment in resilience
As you would expect, my initial reaction to the news of my diagnosis was one of fear, anger, and self-pity, but that quickly involved into a need to be hugged, held, and sympathised with, until finally I reached a level acceptance – where I could joke about my plight and even discuss my cremation and my controversial choice of “Light My Fire” as the opening number.
My senses were heightened
But the real surprise — and I know it’s a cliche — was the way my potential, early death sentence made me look at life so differently. I was expecting to be racked by despair, for everything to suddenly appear bleak, when instead I started to view the world with rose-tinted glasses. My senses were heightened. The fear of time running out made me focus and appreciate the colour in my life, the simple pleasures, and the relationships I am often guilty of taking for granted. My doctor had switched on a timer that propelled me to cram in as much living as I could before it stopped.
There have been many times over the past few years when menopause has turned me into a cranky old bitch (my husband’s words), made me irrationally angry and resentful about unimportant stuff, and my scare provided me with the perfect reminder of what I have rather than what I don’t have.
Not that I needed it, but my scare gave me another lesson in gratitude
I can only describe the experience as a brief glimpse into how I would grieve for my own life. My mind wandered from a state of total numbness to self-pitying sessions that focused on my regrets and dashed hopes, an obsession with my bucket-list and a greater appreciation of minimalism — a lifestyle I have been drawn to in middle age — to, finally, some level of acceptance.
It’s impossible to list everything I took away from the ordeal, but below are 7 surprising truths I discovered:
- The realisation I don’t want to die — which for someone who has experienced several depressions was an awakening — and yet …
- The discovery that I’m also not afraid of dying. I came to the realisation that I am grateful for my half-century when so many others are cheated.
- The understanding that no one can understand the emotional battle you experience, unless they’ve been through it themselves. And nor will they handle the news particularly well that you have a potentially life-threatening illness. No one wants to believe the gravity of your situation or can really identify with the whirlwind of emotions that come with the territory. That’s why it is easier to limit those early days of processing the news with close family and friends.
- I felt ashamed. Inwardly, I felt responsible and judged for my situation, which is a horrible feeling when you are already coping with a potential fight for your life.
- My legacy is not what I believed. I came to the realisation that the legacy I want to leave behind is not about the paltry list of my professional achievements, it’s about my acts of service. It’s about the people whose lives I’ve touched by telling them I love them, remembering their birthday, calling them (when I hate the phone), and been there for when they needed me most; and my services to charities or the awareness I’ve contributed to charities through my writing.
- The need to change the narrative around death. I discovered the danger of the media’s drive to corrupt the meaning of death by making us believe that living longer and looking younger are what really matters, when all that does is increase our fear. Our culture’s fear of death is discriminatory and isolating for those who are nearing the end of their lives, when what they need is support.
- The importance of an equal healthcare system. True to my leftie principles, my experience cemented my belief in equal healthcare for everyone. Our system here in Australia isn’t perfect, but not only was I made to feel confident in my level of care, my scare was dealt quickly, professionally, and with compassion. That support helped me cope with the mental fear of the unknown.
Has anyone else experienced a health-scare serious enough to change the way you live?
Anna Spargo-Ryan spelt it out clearly in her article for The Guardian last week.
Women are tired.
And while there’s nothing particularly unusual about feeling tired in middle age, I sense there’s more to my dwindling energy levels than the depletion of oestrogen in my body.
The emotional exhaustion caused by COVID and the back and forth swing between daring to believe that our lives will return to some kind of (new) normal, to having our hopes dashed again, has been superseded recently by the continued ignorance of men in regard to consent and sexual abuse.
When a new cluster of COVID appeared in Melbourne a few weeks back – bringing with it the inevitable disruption of border shutdowns, flight cancellations, and wedding postponements – we stopped breathing again.
And while I, for one, have nothing but praise for our nation’s response to the virus – because I still believe that health should be our priority – this stop/start way of living is taking its toll. Every time, we have to put our lives and businesses on hold, with little to no warning, our confidence and mental health are knocked.
According to Tara Healle, who wrote this post on Medium about why so many of us feel so bloody tired at the moment, we are suffering from a lack of the benefits provided by the initial shock of the pandemic.
She says that ‘In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using “surge capacity” to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But, natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.’
Which is the stage we find ourselves in right now – a stage of permanent flux.
And that flux feels particularly relevant to our government’s lethargic reaction to the latest accusations of rape and sexual harassment levelled at two of its ministers. Their attempts to downplay the trauma of the two women involved feels like a kick in the teeth to women, particularly to survivors. For, it seems that in spite of the education that came from the #metoo movement, little has been learned, women’s voices are still being muted, and our right for equality is still moving too slowly.
I am surprised by my fatigue. Prior to COVID, I used to think I cope well in a crisis. Not when blood is involved, admittedly – as proven by my embarrassing reaction to a fall my husband had a few years ago, when the sight of abrasions to his face had me running to the bathroom. But in grave situations, (that don’t involve bloody, broken body parts), I perform at my best. I am more logical in a crisis than in normal times, and I am not afraid to make a call under stress.
Hence, I felt relatively calm when the virus first hit our shores. I don’t doubt that my reaction had something to do with my anxiety – which meant I was more prepared for it than most – but I found there was something almost reassuring about its sudden appearance.
It provided a kind of validation for all the years I’ve wasted stressing about potential catastrophes.
And so, I didn’t rush to the supermarket to panic-buy – although, the same can’t be said for the bottle shop. And when our son returned to the family home to live with us, and the nature of my job changed, and then I had to cancel Christmas – I accepted our new normal with stoicism.
I know that Australia has been fortunate. We haven’t experienced the impact of the virus in the same way as some other countries, hence I haven’t had to homeschool children or try to maintain some level of professionalism as I work from home. But no one has truly escaped the wide reach of the virus.
I wasn’t surprised by my lack of focus in January – because everyone struggles to focus in January – or when February disappeared in a blink of an eye, and now we’re in March in the midst of the next crisis to hit women.
Because trust me when I say, that although the virus killed more men, it hit women harder.
And as I struggle to find my direction, all I can assume is that the shock or surge capacity that helped me cope with the outbreak of the virus has disappeared and I am transitioning into the next stage of what I can only describe as a type of grief. Grief for normality, and grief for the millions of women who have been abused by men for so long – whose sharing of their terrible personal stories appears to have been for nothing.
I feel like I am climbing up a steep hill towards some kind of acceptance of 2021, that I’m not fully committed to.
I’m still trying to accept the reality that I don’t know when I’ll see my UK family again. It’s unlikely to happen, but there is a chance my my father will die before I get back there, that my nieces and nephews won’t recognise me, and my old friends will forgot me.
I’m scared that my kids may move to another state in Australia and get stuck there in the event of another outbreak.
I’m terrified that my daughter is growing up in era when women’s rights are moving backwards. At twenty-six, she is already tired of defending her rights and demanding her voice, and that’s not right.
I know we’re not living through a world war, and that not seeing my children for a few months at a time is a first-world problem (when the children of others are actually vulnerable to this virus), but the uncertainty caused by this pandemic and the ongoing discrimination towards women is exhausting.
Anyone else feel tired like me?
I imagine there are many “boomers” and middle-aged parents out there who have been forced to ask their kids the meaning of the term “woke”. Which is why I wasn’t ashamed to admit my ignorance when a young family member introduced me to the word “sonder”.
Have you heard of “sonder”?
Her use of the word was in response to the meme below that I had posted on Instagram – a self-deprecating way of summing up my feelings about our return to a social life (or not) after COVID restrictions were downgraded in Sydney.
Clearly, the meme was the perspective of an introverted, socially anxious person who gets through most social events by drinking heavily. But evidently, she didn’t get the memos about my social anxiety, and because it’s always a tad embarrassing for a writer to admit it when they don’t understand a word, I had to check out its meaning in order to make an informed response.
According to Wiktionary, the definition of “sonder” is:
“The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own.”Wiktionary
In other words, it is the knowledge that everyone has a story, and (in theory) it should prevent us from “judging books by their cover” and our compassion. On a personal level, it also links to a piece I wrote a few months back about the masks people wear – particularly those with mental illness – in their struggle to fit in with the expectations of society.
We need to have a “sonder” moment, where we realize that we aren’t the only ones with feelings, dreams, regrets and hopes.Annie Cohen
In short, there is an obvious link between being “woke” and “sonder”, although that’s not to say that we should have to be or experience either to feel compassion for those less fortunate than us.
Our “stories” come in many forms, nevertheless, it is always surprising to learn about how life has f*cked over someone who doesn’t obviously fit into our stereotype of “damaged”, like the wonderful Grace Tame, winner of this year’s Australian of the Year award.
Some of you won’t know Grace – an engaging, Australian woman in her twenties whose courage and determination to fight the Tasmanian legal system is currently inspiring abused women across our nation. For, in spite of the fact that Grace does not look like the stereotype of victims of rape, she is living proof that 1) everyone has a story, 2) no one is exempt from trauma, and 3) most victims are nothing like the visual we carry in our heads of trauma – in much the same way that rapists don’t necessarily look like rapists.
Grace is the perfect example of someone with a story, that is not necessarily pretty, but needs to be heard.
Sharing our experiences of trauma helps the healing process, and was one of the reasons I started this blog eight years ago. The original premise for My Midlife Mayhem was to journal the unravelling of my life as I entered peri-menopause, whilst juggling our son’s struggles with mental illness, and in that time I’ve lost count of the number of times that readers have reached out with their own, similar experiences of “mad” uncles and “different” siblings.
And to encourage women to reach out and share their experiences of sexual assault is one of Grace’s main objectives. However, as she pointed out on QandA last week, it’s not always an easy process for victims to revisit those places of trauma and talk about them publicly, hence it requires a level of patience, lack of judgment, and compassion from those with whom they engage.
And whilst we have seen a marked increase in awareness about previously taboo topics like mental illness, we continue to skirt around other confronting topics such as child abuse – especially when it comes to discussing them with children.
And that worries me. Because I have learnt from experience that in shielding our children, we risk stunting their emotional development – something I was guilty of when my kids were younger and I allowed my anxiety get in the way of common sense, potentially setting them up to fail.
By shielding our children, we risk disempowering them, making them less resilient, less empathetic, and more entitled.
I noticed that type of “helicopter” parenting when I worked in education, in particular each time we ran through our lockdown procedure and several parents voiced their concerns about the use of the word “lockdown” – a word they believed was too frightening for their children.
But, Karen, (I wanted to say), what happens if your child finds themselves in that terrible situation and doesn’t recognise the danger for what it is?
I like to think I am “woke” and aware of issues of social and racial justice, and I also believe that certain personal tragedies have shaped me to become a more compassionate person. A large part of my job as a writer is to analyse people and their circumstances closely, to peel back the layers and discover what challenges they have overcome to achieve their goals – like Joe Biden, for example.
I would add, however, that I have also learned the importance of recognising that some people who experience trauma never overcome it, no matter how hard they try, and it doesn’t make them necessarily stronger, either. And we shouldn’t punish them for that.
Suffering does not automatically make us stronger. For some, trauma stops them from reaching their full potential and from functioning on a daily basis. Which is where the importance of “sonder” comes in. It’s also why, when I started to share my parenting struggles with others, one of my objectives was to offer an indirect source of comfort to them, to make them feel less alone. A virtual hug, you might say. From a selfish perspective, I wanted to meet other parents who were dealing with the same shit as me.
I still believe that by sharing our secrets and traumas, we help remove the shame and stigma of those experiences, in the same way we have with sexual harassment, menstruation, and transgenderism.
And like Grace is doing in her work.
Sharing our struggles helps lift the weight of shame, makes us feel less isolated, and strengthens our commitment to keep going. And I have the utmost respect for those who reciprocate, who find the courage to rip off their mask for me, to expose their vulnerabilities for my benefit – because I know that’s no easy feat.
Clearly, being “woke” and “sonder” are vital for the growth of society – especially in our current, conservative climate, where inequalities are so easily brushed under the carpet. And yet, I am continually amazed at how defiantly resistant some people are to basic kindness. Which leaves the job of effecting change to those already who have suffered already.
Which is exactly what activists like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Malala Yousafzai did. In spite of the loud voices of their critics – who accused them of being hysterical, emotional, attention-seekers, and lefties – they had to stick their necks out for their beliefs.
“Sonder” is the knowledge that everyone has a story. And whilst I am aware that keeping an open mind and listening are overrated qualities in our society, is it really that hard to pause and think about the bigger picture before we judge?
Do you think that getting older has stopped you being so quick to judge?
I’ve made some pretty awful decisions in my time. My ankle-length wedding dress springs to mind, as do the countless times I chose to carry on drinking when I needed to be a responsible adult the following morning. However, very little compares to my recent decision to take up hot yoga in menopause .
My gym describes hot yoga in the following way:
Hot Flow Yoga is practised in a room heated between 32 and 35 degrees to warm up your muscles and joints, encourage blood flow and increase flexibility. The heat also intensifies the practice and aids detoxification, creating a practice that is deeply cleansing.
WTAF? I hear you ask.
Here’s my excuse. Having been laid up for a good part of the past two months with Bursitis in my foot – Yes, I can confirm that in spite of the skepticism and complete lack of sympathy from my family, I do have a bonafide diagnosis for the excruciating pain between my toes – I have had to consider alternative workouts.
And I’m not saying that the name of the class didn’t have some bearing on my decision, either…
Although, unfortunately, it turns out that hot yoga teachers are almost as rare as hot ski instructors these days – and so in hindsight, it was probably a good thing that our teacher was the psycho from Yin rather than the Russell Brand-esque guru I was anticipating. For even I have to concede that my resemblance to a wrung-out dishcloth by the end of the forty-five minute class was not exactly my best look.
And while, yes, I don’t know why anyone (whose body seems to be permanently stuck at the highest temperature ever recorded for the human body) would ever contemplate an exercise class with the heating on max – although, brain fogginess is also another symptom of this stage of life – the sad fact ism I need my fix.
And I also like to think that thrashing out my anger on a yoga mat increases my husband’s longevity by a few more years.
So, what possible reason could there be for contorting my old body into all kinds of dangerous twists and poses – none of which can be classified as “natural” at my age – in the geyser heat of a sauna? Well, if you read this blog, you will know that after years of persistence and failure (mostly failure), I have finally reached a point in my life where I almost enjoy exercise – mainly because it keeps those pesky middle-aged kilos off my meno-belly, and the anxiety gremlins out of my head.
And, frankly, doing a few grapevines around my living room while the dog passes sniggers at me, just doesn’t cut it anymore.
I know that yoga looks like the exercise choice of stoners – and in a past life, I would have been as sceptical about it as I imagine you are – but I can assure you it works, and hurts, and not in that pleasurable way those skinny, influencer types would have us believe.
It pains me to admit it – and it also means I’ve had to set this post to self-destruct before the old man sees it – but I WAS WRONG when I thought it was an exercise for lightweights.
Clearly, when I was younger (and free from the debilitating type of muscular pain I get these days from simply rolling over in bed), I underestimated the bodily trauma our dog experiences each time she stretches her body in a downward fashion. But since I’ve started yoga, I have a whole new level of respect for the flexibility of her lithe body, and that’s without even thinking about the enviable way she can roll her head backwards.
But I won’t deny that yoga hurts.
There is a huge difference between the level of soreness in your body after a yoga class and a low-impact workout. While you leave low-impact feeling nicely sore with a vague sense of achievement, yoga makes you wish you’d died in your sleep the morning after a class.
And hot yoga cranks up the pain another level, because the heat increases the flexibility of your muscles and makes them believe they really can “do it” – even when you’re middle-aged and wise enough not to believe Nike’s hype.
I imagine the class is somewhat easier to follow if you know the lingo, i.e. your Garurasana from your Tuladandasana – which I don’t. But, luckily for me, I have managed to latch onto a lithe Millennial at the front of my class, who has been (unknowingly) gracious enough to let the boomer with the permanently confused expression on her face behind her – who can’t even do a child pose without creaking – copy her moves. Her generosity reminds me of the friend whose work I used to copy in maths class, back at school.
And the heat does add an interesting dimension to the experience – if you want to refill your water flask without the risk of catching COVID at the communal water cooler, or if your active-wear needs a quick wash.
Admittedly, I’m still waiting to see the evidence of an increase in the suppleness of my joints and muscles. But I have noticed an increase in the number of times I say “fuck this!” in this particular class, particularly when my body is dripping so much sweat, I struggle to maintain my grip on my mat.
But I will persevere, because according to an article in The New York Times:
Bikram yoga…improves balance, lower body strength and range of motion for both the upper and lower body, and might even help improve arterial stiffness and metabolic measures like glucose tolerance and cholesterol levels, as well as bone density and perceived stress.
Anyway, no pain, no gain, and all that. If you’re a Masochist like me and prepared to give most things a shot – just not paddle board yoga, Emma, for obvious reasons – what have you really got to lose?
Hell, you might even find you love it as much as I do.
Anyone else tried hot yoga?
Compared to many people, I was fortunate to emerge from 2020 relatively unscathed. Admittedly, certain elements of our brief lockdown in Sydney tested me, but because my job carried on pretty much as usual (and I don’t get out much anyway), there were few noticeable changes in my day-to-day life.
However, I don’t think anyone resurfaced from last year’s unprecedented event without some restructuring of their lives. And so, at the start of 2021 and what we hope will be a better year – we may have to pretend for a moment that last week’s antics at Capitol Hill never happened – I’d like to highlight some of the positive ways the last terrible year altered my perceptions.
The most notable change to my lifestyle in 2020 was that I learned to relax. I’m not sure if I am naturally a productive person, but keeping busy distracts me from overthinking – which in turn keeps the “black dog” from my back door. So when I woke up in this new, threatening world that offered no certainties, i.e. I didn’t know how our income stream would be affected by the virus, or when we would see family and friends again – and curtailed my movements, I discovered the enjoyment of greater balance in my life, and a desire to use my time more wisely.
2020 was definitely an education that made me pull my inner sanctum closer and helped me let go of the dead wood.
Not only did COVID teach us a new language – where words like “restrictions”, “isolation”, and “seeding” took on new meaning – lockdown provided many of us with more time to self-reflect, to look at our lives more closely and gain a better understanding of what gives meaning to them – and I’m not talking about alcohol.
These are 9 surprising truths I discovered about myself:
- I enjoy my own company is a surprising admission from a Leo, however, I am a lion with anxiety, which adds another dimension to the attention-seeking stereotype. With the curtailment of my social life, I had to learn not to feel guilty about doing and achieving nothing and I saw a noticeable improvement in my mental health. Nowadays, I try to dedicate at least an hour each day to read or watch something vacuous on Netflix, just to switch off. It’s called self-care.
- I’m quite innovative. I am more resourceful than I thought and I’m not afraid to try out new things. Many of my friends struggle to fill their free time – especially when their partners are busy – whereas I discovered a plethora of new interests. I completed an online marketing course, I learned how to crochet, and I even gave Pilates another go. And while it’s unlikely I will continue to crochet in my retirement, I am more confident I won’t have to take up golf anytime soon either.
- I need routine. I have never lacked self-discipline, but I am easily distracted and so I need structure and accountability in my day – even if that’s just a to-do list. I’m certain that the necessity of a daily routine is symptomatic of my age and anxiety as much as COVID, or even a coping strategy I’ve picked up to prevent my brain straying into dangerous territory, but I am much more productive when I set myself goals. Now I just need to work on some flexibility.
- Friends, family, and community are important to me. During lockdown, we relied on our friends and family like never before, and everyone – even the socially anxious and introverts among us – was forced to make an effort to maintain connection, whether that was via a quick text to check in or a full-blown Zoom call. Small talk has never been one of my strengths, and prior to COVID, it was rare for me to instigate a group chat about the mundanities of my day. However, last year forced to do just that, and I saw for myself the benefits of those interactions in terms of the mutual boost to our morale.
- I need to exercise. I have hated sport for most of my life, which proves just how much we change with age. I don’t exercise to lose weight, I do it to keep my brain healthy and to maintain a positive outlook. I never understood how addictive exercise was until a recent sports injury affected my mobility and the mental health benefits I derive from nature and the great outdoors.
- Exercise doesn’t help me lose weight. However, as much as I’d love to eulogise about the resulting weight loss from my gruelling workouts and pathetic little runs, I finished the year at the same weight I started. I am fitter, my joints and muscles are (presumably) stronger, and a recent heart check gave me the all-clear, but I have also had to resign myself to the fact that I will never be a size 10 again. And that’s OK. Weight loss is about diet, and I love my food too much to be a skinny Minnie.
- I’m an empath. I discovered that an increasingly unhealthy compassion towards pretty much everything and everyone means that daily doomscrolling and watching cute dog videos are not great for my mental health. While I am proud of my compassion for those less fortunate than myself, I need to control my emotional investment. I can’t let the misfortunes of others paralyse me to the point where it prevents me from doing my own work to create awareness about the stuff that is important to me. Basing my own happiness on the happiness of others is an example of “interdependence”, according to my therapist.
- My emotional triggers. Last year, I gained a better understanding of what triggers my anxiety: my son’s mental health and its ramifications, a latent problem with rejection (that I’m still trying to understand), and the pressure of working for other people (whilst trying to balance my other responsibilities, in particular, my son’s needs). Now that I’ve identified them, I feel more confident about moving forward with my therapist to develop coping strategies. “What happens is not as important as how you react to what happens,” (Ellen Glasgow) is great advice that I intend to heed in 2021. In simple terms, it means I will stop taking responsibility for everyone else’s problems and choices and I will be my son’s supporter rather than his enabler.
- The true meaning of gratitude. It has been heartbreaking to watch the toll of COVID around the world, particularly from my place of privilege. And yet, I’m embarrassed to admit that I still have those why me days. I have never taken anything for granted, but in 2021 I am even more resolved to make the most of each day and be grateful for what I have.
What did you learn about yourself this year?
Three days ago, I was putting the finishing touches to a post for you about Christmas party dresses, of all things. To my shame, I was bemoaning the limited choice for those of us middle-aged women who aren’t a size 8, don’t have legs as long as a giraffe, and who may not feel flashing their arse cheeks to their boss at the Christmas office party.
Three days ago, I was almost completely removed from the impact of COVID as I sat drinking coffee with close friends in a beach cafe. Naively, we chatted excitedly about our forthcoming festivities, our own private celebration in the middle of next week, and the end of this horrible year.
Twenty-four hours later, our provincial world was shattered when we became the latest hotspot in Australia for the virus.
Our hospitals are now on major alert, our borders have been shut down, stores and pubs are closed, and Christmas drinks cancelled. While friends of mine try frantically to get their children back from other states and countries, Kurt and I find ourselves in self-isolation.
Christmas is effectively cancelled.
Only the day before the news, I splurged on the turkey for our seven close friends who were joining us around our table this year. Now it will feed three, because not even our daughter is not allowed to enter our “dark side” of Sydney.
This new cluster in a handful of Sydney’s smaller suburbs has come as a nasty shock to a country that was never smug about its quick suppression of the virus, but was perhaps guilty of an element of complacency over the past few months.
COVID isn’t picky.
As such, it is with a much heavier heart than I expected that I wish you a Merry Christmas this year – a year that has provided us (and many others) with the usual bag of mixed blessings.
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been quieter on this site than usual this year – mainly because I decided that life had thrown more than enough shit without the addition of mine.
However, like you, I continue to fight through each day, to take each as it comes, and to control what I can. An I know that’s not always an easy task, so for anyone out there feeling a bit blue at the moment, please remember that tomorrow is a new day, and to hang in there.
The only way to fight this virus is to keep listening to our scientists, and to put our own needs aside for those more vulnerable. Christmas will be different this year, but some things won’t change – I’ve no doubt I will lose the plot sometime before lunch reaches the table, I’ll fall over at some point during the day, and the odds are also pretty high that I’ll leave one bowl of vegetables in the microwave – that we won’t discover until Boxing Day.
But imagine what Christmas will be like for those who have lost someone, those who are quarantining on their own in self-isolation, or those who are sick and live in permanent fear of catching the virus. And let’s be grateful for what we have.
It would be much easier for me to stake my claim to the big sofa for the next couple of days, crack open the box of Quality Street, and feel bloody sorry for myself. But I won’t.
I’ve decided not to let this thing beat us. COVID might have won the battle, but it ain’t gonna win the war. So let’s get our boxing gloves on and fight this virus in a common sense way. During the Second World War, Churchill promised that we would “never surrender”, and that’s my approach for next year. So wear your mask and wash your hands.
I’ve already lit the torch on Christmas at our house. I’m not suggesting that we fight the virus with mince pies, but I’ve already tested the Aldi ones and the marzipan topping was a nice touch. The Turkish Delight and chocolate-coated pretzels are next on my hit list.
The presents are wrapped and under the tree, the karaoke machine is charging, and the Baileys is cooling in the fridge for later this evening when I begin my research into the best turkey recipes.
And once everything is set, I’ll start to think seriously about how I can hold my loved ones even tighter next year.
There was a point when I was going to name my manuscript, Grave Expectations – a wordplay on the title of the Dickens novel – that, initially, I thought was really clever. You see, one of the main themes of my story is the impossibility of living up to expectation – the expectation on the mother to be the glue of the family, the expectation on the father to be the breadwinner, and the expectation on the children – on the son to toe the line of convention, and on the daughter to compensate for her brother’s challenging behaviour.
The difficulties of trying to live up to expectation feel particularly poignant right now. Middle age has given me a clearer insight of the way that society measures “success” and its distorted values. I can see now why so many of us end up in jobs or relationships that don’t suit us, or in a permanent fug caused by a sense of failure.
Looking back, I spent my twenties trying to carve out the life my parents wanted me to have, and my thirties and forties trying to be a perfect parent. It’s only since I reached my fifties that I’m actually making decisions for ME, doing what I want to do – and only because I’m privileged enough to have the financial security to change my course.
I find it strange how we associate men with the midlife crisis – caused by the realisation that this is the last chance to make changes – when, in my experience, women experience a similar mental shift, spurred on by the same awareness of time running out.
That’s why divorce is so common in middle age. Women reach a point when they are exhausted by the pressure to be everything for everyone else. It’s not only career expectations we have to worry about. We live in a society that expects us to stay young and beautiful, to be perfect mothers, lovers and carers, and somewhere in that mix we are also expected to make a mark in our career.
The expectation to remain sex sirens – beyond our reproductive years – is the most ridiculous one to me. I don’t think I’m imagining the pressure on some women to remain available for their (more highly sexually driven) men at all times. Nor the trope of the stereotypical middle-aged woman as a moody, dried-up shrew, whose decision to batten down the hatches provides men with the perfect excuse to hunt elsewhere.
Conversely, middle-aged men are portrayed as George Clooney types – silver foxes who are still rampantly sexually active and attractive to women half their age, rather than the needy, pot-bellied, miserable gits that most of us know and love.
Very little is said about the men who lose their sex drive in middle age.
Caitlin Moran mentions the reality of middle-aged sex in her latest book “More Than A Woman”, and her description of what she calls the “maintenance shag” – the shag many couples (who have been married FOREVER) force themselves to endure to meet society’s expectation of a healthy relationship – is, frankly, hilarious. While her comments about anal sex made me a little uncomfortable, her dissection of the planning involved to get the weekly/monthly/annual/Christmas maintenance shag over and done with to prove to ourselves we’ve still got it – is something I can definitely identify with.
I feel that pressure to maintain a level of intimacy with my husband, that goes beyond him flashing his penis at me in the kitchen at every opportunity, or dry-humping me each time I bend down in front of the dishwasher. But the truth is, after more than thirty years together, I get more turned on by a Marion Grasby cooking video than the sight of my husband’s drooping balls.
And why should we feel bad about not shagging as much as the next couple?
Obviously, social media doesn’t help with the guilt. Images of women in their fifties who continue to look fabulous – and I don’t just mean young – pile on the pressure. As does advertising that blatantly targets our insecurities. Beauty companies are relentless in their quest to make middle-aged women question if they are living up to their responsibilities as perfect older women.
Personally, I refuse to believe that the majority of those middle-aged women, who have spent more than half their lives with the same partner, are really rooting like rabbits.
And in case you need reminding, there is absolutely nothing wrong with contentment. Sometimes, a marathon session on Netflix is far more fulfilling than a quick poke and associated muscle strains the following morning. And if the only intimacy you share with your partner is holding hands on the beach, that’s okay too. I suspect it’s way more intimacy than many couples experience.
No one leads a charmed life – you only have to look at what celebrities Chrissie and John Legend have gone through recently to realise that.
And on the subject of Caitlin’s sage advice, another piece that resonated with me in her book was “don’t marry a cunt”. Suffice it to say, there is no perfect man either – which is the most important nugget of wisdom we women should share with our daughters, after the truth about childbirth. Fortunately for me, I had a father who thought with his penis and I learned early on that serial Romeos can rarely be tamed. Hence, if I’ve done one thing right in my life, it has been to marry a good man.
Not a perfect man, but a good one.
Life is about making choices. If I really wanted to have hot sex every night of the week, I could probably find someone to deliver the goods – although, admittedly, I might have to pay for it. But would he be a world authority, i.e professional mansplainer about pretty much everything I need to know in life?
More importantly, would he have been there for me all those times I’ve fallen?
Middle age fucks with our bodies and our minds. It throws up all sorts of questions we stuffed away in the too hard box during those crazy years of young adulthood and parenting. And yet, it also opens the door to self-reflection. We can’t change the past, but we can make meaningful choices about our future. Self-evaluation is the path to that freedom. More time to think about what I want has given me freedom from toxic relationships, unnecessary anxiety, and the constraints of the ridiculous beauty standards demanded of women.
Slowly, I am silencing my inner judge that used to tell me I wasn’t good enough. At fifty-five, I can be who I want to be, and I’m enjoying the experiment. I don’t aspire to look forty, but neither am I ready for fluffy slippers and herbal teas. Right now, I want to be different things on different days, so long as I am me.
Are you meeting society’s expectations of the perfect middle-aged woman?
In the months I’ve been labouring through the latest edit of my wretched manuscript, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the writing process and the impact that certain books have had on my life.
I would like to clarify that my desire to have my own book published isn’t a narcissistic dream to become successful, living in LA and directing the movies to my stories. My motivation has always been to help other parents in our situation and to destroy the stigma around mental illness, i.e. to increase education.
And likewise, to learn about something new remains my main reason for reading.
In hindsight, I suppose I could have written a non-fiction account of what to expect from our situation – which, I imagine, would have been slightly easier to get published. However, I wanted to create a fictionalised account because 1) There are few fictions out there about ADHD, and 2) I believe that a good story resonates so much more. To tell my story in a non-fictionalised account, I would have to mask parts of the truth, to protect the privacy of others; in a fictionalised account, I can make my readers privy to the true feelings of the protagonists’ experience.
The power to change a mindset is crucial to me, because I am used to being on the other side of the reading process, and so many books have influenced my path.
I’ve missed books. And sadly, as a result of too many house moves, a shortage of space, my husband’s obsession with clutter, and our recent attempt at a minimalist lifestyle, we don’t own many any more.
That’s something I intend to change in the future: Firstly, because the living rooms I am always drawn to on Pinterest are the ones with metres of bookshelves; secondly, as much as I love its versatility, I’ve decided that the Kindle is a poor imitation of a book – God! I miss book covers – albeit that the screen version is much cheaper here in Australia; and thirdly, now I’ve seen how much pain the authors go through, I understand what a sacrilege it is to chuck them out.
We’ve kept certain books that mean something to us on a personal level. The old man has a dog-eared copy of some guide to golf by Nick Faldo, and a copy of Sapiens – a recent read that he believes changed his life, although not his ability to wipe down a bench top. And I have a copy of Little Women – which gave me so much pleasure as a child for the simple reason that the author had the same name as me. And The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion’s story of a neurodivergent mind – that resonated with me so much it inspired me to write my own interpretation of life as a kid with ADHD.
In fact, I loved “The Rosie Project” so much, I sent Graeme a fan-girl tweet about it that made it onto the inside cover of the UK version.
Then there’s Schindler’s Ark, a book the old man recommended to me when we started dating. The story of Schindler was undoubtedly my awakening to the imbalances in the world and the start of my crusade /against them. It was also kind of a freaky choice, because several years later when I was three months pregnant with NC – a very ill-thought-out plan in the first trimester of a pregnancy when you are permanently tired and cannot drink – we found ourselves watching the movie in a theatre in New York.
Clearly, I was very hormonal at the time, but the memory of that experience at the movies will always haunt me.
The story is obviously highly emotive, but when you watch the movie in the company of a mainly Jewish audience, their reaction stays with you. For that reason, I couldn’t watch it again, although I do believe that stories such as Schindler’s Ark have their place on the high school curriculum.
There’s a finale to this story. You see, a few years ago, I persuaded the old man to accompany me to a talk at the Sydney Writer’s festival where Thomas Keneally (the author) was interviewing another author. I wanted to put a face to the words of a book that had been so influential on me in my younger years. Back in my twenties in the UK, little did I know that the author was Australian, and lived a stone’s throw from where we live now.
And I would like to add that the man is a true character in every sense of the word, fully befitting of his reputation as a national treasure. He is one of those writers who sits passionately and publicly left of centre and is as compassionate and funny as you would hope.
You can imagine how appalled the old man was that I had (inadvertently) booked front row seats to the event, and yet during that hour in Thomas’ company, I didn’t even notice his awkward wriggles in the seat next to me as I hung onto every word that came out of the author’s mouth. It was one of those rare “moments” in life where everything felt like it had come together – literally from London, to New York, and finally, to Sydney.
Imagine if I had known as a child that one day I would find myself at a writers festival, sitting metres away from my icon. Le destin, as the French call it.
I do have one terrible admission when it comes to books, however. I am one of those awful people who can never remember authors’ names or the titles of their books – which, as you can imagine, has worsened in menopause. I couldn’t even tell you who wrote the book I’m currently reading, or its title, even though I am thoroughly enjoying it. And often, I will start a book, only to realise a third of the way through that I’ve read it before.
And yet, there’s something quite wonderful about that, as well. It’s like bumping into an old friend, who gently dislodges those precious memories that I filed away in another era, and takes me back to a place I wouldn’t ordinarily choose or have the opportunity to visit again otherwise.
The power of a good book to change the way we think is why I will continue to read and live vicariously through the lives of the many fascinating characters out there. It’s why I will always buy books. Minimalism is about spending money on experiences, and books fit that idea for me. They can be expensive, however, their ability to change the way we think in a healthier, organic way than social media, for example, is why they will be at the top of my Christmas shopping list this year.
“A minimalist home is very intentional,” Joshua Becker explains in an article for Good Housekeeping magazine. “Each possession is there for a reason.”
I’ve spent the past six months bogged down in the restructure of my manuscript, hence why I’ve not been as vocal on this site as usual. Anyone who has been through the visceral pain of editing 90,000 words understands the need to isolate yourself, without distractions.
However, you must also balance that sacrifice of your free time with the reality that years of hard work may ultimately amount to nothing. That was one of the inspirations for my last post, in which I purported the idea that there’s nothing wrong with contentment – a state of mind that seems particularly relevant right now.
Learning to be content with what you’ve got is important if, like me, you are the sort of person who is pulled in lots of directions, and regularly feels in a state of overwhelm.
That’s why why I’ve decided to take the idea of contentment a step further and I’m endeavouring to create it through the idea of living with less – the principles of which can be applied to every facet of our lives.
This approach is called minimalist
Minimalism, as most of you will know, is a style employed in interior design and decoration. It embraces a modern, clinical feel, with no place for clutter – and you can adapt it to your lifestyle as well. These days, the term is being used more broadly to promote the appealing, pared back lifestyle many of us aspire to live, thanks to the stress caused by COVID.
Joshua Becker describes the meaning of minimalism in his article What Is Minimalism? in the following way:
“It is marked by clarity, purpose, and intentionality. At its core, being a minimalist means intentionally promoting the things we most value and removing everything that distracts us from it.“
I could argue that this new idea appeals to me because I’m a middle-aged woman, sensitive to my invisibility, and it’s much easier to simply opt out of society than fight the ongoing ageism and gender discrimination. Or perhaps it’s because, financially, we have cut our cloth accordingly in line with our personal decision to semi-retire early.
Both reasons are valid
However, it is obvious that younger generations are also embracing this idea to change their priorities, and while I admit that in the past I ridiculed couples on those sea-change shows who opted out of the rat race, I think they may be having the last laugh.
Our priorities change with age
And what’s not to love about a way of life that promises more time to do the things we love and happiness, and contributes to the protection of our environment at the same time?
So how do you become a minimalist?
“The minimalist lifestyle is about living with only the things you need. Minimalists are free from the desire to buy and accumulate more. Instead, they find happiness in relationships and experiences.” Joshua Becker
It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But it’s not simply about sacrificing your day off for a spring clean in your home – although, that’s a good starting point.
No, there’s a little more to simplifying your life than decluttering. There’s a lot of mental work that needs happen and ingrained habits that need to change. And for some people, it can be hard to know where to start.
So to help you out, below are seven changes that are working for me:
- Being more intentional. First of all, you must really think about the purpose of your decision and what you intend to gain from it. Intentionality means basing your changes on what you want in your life, not what your kids or friends expect from you, or even what your partner wants. This is your life – and if your partner doesn’t agree with your choices, remove them with the rest of the clutter.
- Forget about owning stuff and consumerism. This is difficult for me. When I’m in a funk, my weakness is my compulsion to buy new things for that sense of instant gratification. As a creative, I also get a huge kick out of simply wandering around to mall and looking at beautiful things. Where I am making changes in this area is by buying less crap and only quality things I really need or recycled goods.
- Change your mindset and your priorities. A bout of depression or serious anxiety is the best push to make changes in your life – but I don’t recommend them. Instead of waiting for either of those to happen, prioritise things in your life that promote wellness and good health. Step into nature as much as possible, listen to inspiring or entertaining podcasts, exercise or meet up with friends for some free therapy. Make the time to switch off and relax, and don’t feel guilty about it.
- Stop worrying about what others think. Remove toxic people from your life. People who don’t understand your choices, value your opinion, or who you can’t have a discussion without them shouting back at you, are not conducive to a minimalist lifestyle. Your friends should treat you with the same consideration you treat them.
- Stop competing with others. Forget about the Jones’. The ugliest part of our consumerist society is the way we pit people against each another, and social media has exacerbated the problem. In my thirties and forties I made myself miserable by comparing myself to others who had more, and when I attempted to keep up with them, all that did was make me unhappy. The qualities I envy in my friends now couldn’t be more different to the ones that impressed me when I was younger.
- Be grateful. I have why me days, where all I do is moan about what I haven’t got, or why shit seems to always happen to me, but I’m getting better at putting those negative thoughts into perspective. Feeling sorry for yourself is completely valid, as long as you don’t let the negativity overtake everything else.
- Create processes – I have a scatty brain, particularly right now, during menopause, and the days I don’t organise myself and write a to-do list, I achieve much less. Of course, it’s much easier to get distracted when you work from home – like many of us do now. One minute, I’m writing, the next I’m flicking through social media, the next I’m playing with the dog. But you must be accountable to yourself for how you prioritise your time. You don’t have to be productive all of the time – far from it – you just need to be productive when you must be. Having processes means you’re not always chasing your tail, and you’re more likely to feel a sense of fulfilment at the end of each day. The old man and I share the chores in our home – like walking the dog, emptying the dishwasher and the cooking – and being organised prevents resentment building, and makes that first Gin and Tonic each evening even more special.
In my experience, the best therapy comes from friends. During a recent walk with a couple of mine, at a time when one of us was experiencing a family crisis, another made the comment above and it got me thinking.
Often, when the proverbial shit hits the fan and I am struggling to know which way to turn, I yearn for a simpler life – to jump back into the womb or retreat from modern society’s expectation to keep all my balls in the air.
And that’s especially true for women, who not only hold down jobs like men, but tend to pick up the slack when it comes to the emotional labour of most families.
Hence, we are more prone to find ourselves in those lonely, moments of vulnerability, when we question what it’s all about. And those experiences are even more common during this middle stage of our lives when our confidence may be shattered by hormone imbalances, the impact of ageism on our careers, and changes in our family dynamics.
However, in my experience, while the thought of an enforced recalibration can be scary, taking the time to sit back and reflect on what’s important is a good thing.
Which is what has surprised me most about the legacy of COVID – an unprecedented event that, sadly, appears to have had little effect on our our view of the world – in spite of the job losses, the devastating effects on our economies, and the appalling number of deaths. For in spite of the benefits of social distancing – and there have been many – I see very little evidence of any longterm change in habits of people in relation to the frantic pace of their lives.
Perhaps it’s an age-thing, but I like to think that this virus has taught me a new appreciation for the simple pleasures in life – a kind of enforced mindfulness. Whereas in the past, my dream holidays were about soaking up the fast-paced culture of foreign cities, these days I find Eat, Pray, Love types of experiences more appealing. And where once my diary was booked up months ahead, recently I have taken a much more organic approach to my social life.
Of course, some of us are still in survival mode. Here in Australia, Melbourne remains in lockdown, whilst in other parts of the world, the second wave of Covid gathers pace. And yet, for those of us for whom normal life has pretty much resumed, many have returned to it with little consideration for the lessons provided by COVID.
I mean, surely, some good has to come from this terrible reminder of the fragility of life.
Perhaps, it’s too soon to judge. Like misplaced insects, many of us have gone straight back to the safety of who we were before. And yet, it seems likely that Trump will maintain his presidency; the rights of women have taken a step backwards; there continues to be very little evidence of diversity in the media, in spite of the Black Lives Matter protests (WTF! ABC); and politicians still behave like kids in a high school playground, putting their personal agendas ahead of ours. The Australian government is pushing for a gas-lead recovery, FFS! (SMH)
I understand that change takes time, but I can’t stop thinking that COVID should have been the wake-up call we needed to prioritise compassion over power?
I want to believe that the world is fundamentally full of more good people than bad, so why do we keep electing the same narcissistic leaders who prioritise nationalism over equal rights, and rich over poor? Surely, if we can find the money to fund abortive space missions, Olympic Games, and – I don’t know – study the effects of the sun UV rays on the eating habits of the maggot, surely we can keep our social benefits at a humane level? If we can build casinos, and replace perfectly-good sports stadiums, surely we can build more social housing?
COVID highlighted the important things in life – friends, family, and our health. It showed that it is possible to be happy with less and that there’s nothing wrong with simply being content.
So it turns out I haven’t quite finished writing about masks. Today, however, instead of talking about clinical masks, I want to talk about a different type of mask – that is, the mask that society forces people with mental illness to wear.
It’s the mask of being well – that many of us expect them to wear, even now, in spite of the progress made in terms of awareness.
You see, mental illness is still viewed by some as a made-up illness, or a weakness, or something we should feel ashamed about. And while there are all those wonderful memes that float around the Internet to remind us to be kind and empathetic to sufferers, the reality can be very different.
It might surprise you to know that it is still rare to find a work environment in which you can admit openly that you suffer from depression or a neurological disorder
I’ll be honest, each time someone admits to me they don’t believe in mental illness, I want to scream at them for their arrogance and ignorance. And here’s why. Because, today, with my son’s permission – I’m going to give you an insight into what it is like for him to live with it, and the effect it has on his loved ones.
A few weeks ago, we planned a long overdue family weekend away. It was overdue for many reasons, such as Covid, the cost of taking away a family of four adults (and our very practical concerns about our bar bill), and our annual leave restrictions. However, the main reason the trip was short was because of Kurt, our twenty-three year old son.
He hasn’t really left Sydney over the past two years for all the usual reasons: his bartending job as a casual – which makes it hard for him to make his rent (let alone splash out on weekends away); the organisation involved in planning and booking time away with his ADHD; as well as, erm, certain dependencies he uses to alleviate some of his ADHD symptoms, that are not (shall we say) very transportable.
The main ones, though, are his crippling anxiety and OCD
The outside world may not see what it takes for people like him to leave the house, but trust me, it is no mean feat. There are rituals that his brain insists he must carry out before any transition, there is his fear of change, his laundry (so much laundry), sensory considerations, and an elevated sense of imposter syndrome. In other words, as soon as he steps through the door, our son has to put on a mask.
In other words, he looks like a normal, functioning Millennial, who smiles a lot and converses seemingly naturally. The truth is, however, he would prefer to never have to leave his bedroom.
Few would be aware of the rituals that chain him to his home, his fear of change, or the mental effort it takes to keep himself on track
The reality is, our son doesn’t travel much because his mind won’t let him and last weekend was as much about celebrating mine and our daughter’s birthdays as it was a test for Kurt. It was an attempt to get him to push back from a negative way of thinking that is getting stronger by the day, and as a fellow sufferer (but less severe), I am aware of the dangers of letting anxiety win.
“Avoiding what makes you anxious provides some relief in the short term, but can make you more anxious in the long term. Try approaching something that makes you anxious – even in a small way. The way through anxiety is by learning that what you fear isn’t likely to happen – and if it does, you’ll be able to cope with it. ” Beyond Blue
A few days prior to our departure, he decided not to come and I persuaded him to rethink. Genuinely, I believed the change of atmosphere would do him good. As a result of changes due to Covid, he has spent a lot of time on his own of late – which is not good for over-thinkers – and I was excited at the prospect of exploring antique shops together, experiencing the hotel’s leisure facilities, and enjoying the sense of togetherness that other families appear to enjoy.
I’m his mum and selfishly, I suppose, I wanted him there with us, not only to push back his anxiety, but to help me complete the faux image of the perfect family unit I aspire to
Mental illness is often inaccurately portrayed in film. Many films focus on the quirky charisma of the neuro-diverse or mentally-ill characters, rather than the often terrifying complexities of mood disorders. While we are shown aspects of the darkness, there’s very little of the day-to-day reality of living with the illness – the self-harm, the anger, the police involvement, the desperation and the tears.
When our son is on form, he lights up a room; but when he is overwhelmed, it’s like waiting for the White Walkers to break through the wall
I don’t have any photos of the first twenty-four hours of our trip when Kurt couldn’t look at us or speak to us because he was so angry with me for persuading him to come. He was even madder with himself for “being such a cunt.” (His words).
Ahead of our trip, I thought I had prepared for every eventuality and nothing could go wrong. And yet on our first night, I booked a table at a restaurant in town (because the hotel restaurant was extortionate), and that triggered Kurt’s anxiety. He joined us, but he sat in the restaurant, stony-faced, his earphones in, and as soon as he finished his food, he left by himself. Returning to the hotel bar, he set himself up at his own table and refused to join us when we returned.
I know better than to think I can prepare for every eventuality. The unpredictability is, perhaps, the hardest part about mental illness. The three steps forward, and the inevitable four steps back
That night he texted us to say he would take the train home the following morning.
Even now, he cannot explain what triggered his overwhelm and need to isolate, but it lasted until after lunch the following day, when somehow he managed to pull himself back and block out the voices. He apologised to us profusely, told us how much he loved us and hated himself for his behaviour, and our second night together was memorable – one of the best nights we’ve shared as a family.
When family and friends ask us how Kurt is doing, we put on masks too
We wear protective masks as well – from the judgement of being bad parents, weak, enablers, and pushovers – even though we can’t fully defend our actions, out of respect for Kurt’s privacy.
What I will say, though, is that unless you walked in our shoes, you cannot understand – in much the same way that I would have a limited understanding of how to cope with a child with a physical disability or terminal illness.
A person with mental illness may look exactly like you and I most of the time, until the mask slips
That judgment forces people with invisible illnesses to wear masks, and when they slip, society is unprepared for what lies behind it, in terms of both support and resources. But in the same way that there is no shame in having gastro, there is nothing wrong in admitting that your head isn’t well. Everyone feels sad or anxious at times, but it is the magnitude of those emotions that is so different for people with depression and anxiety, or with neurological conditions that make normal life more challenging.
They can’t “snap out of it” to make the rest of us feel better
Most of the time they don’t ask for our help, nevertheless, they deserve our compassion. My desire to paint a perfect family picture of our weekend away made my son very unhappy and his mask slipped – like he warned us it would. Fortunately, this journey together has made us stronger. We have learned not to blame ourselves (or him) for poor decisions, and I’m certain that sometime in the near future we will give the experience another shot.
The outcome may be similar, but the hope is that each experience is one step further away from surrender, and one step closer to recovery.
A week or so ago I went into my local hospital for a day surgery that required a general anaesthetic. I’m certain that a colonoscopy is a rite of passage for every hypochondriac, although I don’t recommend it unless you are truly dedicated to the cause.
The preparations for the procedure are brutal. I don’t want to scare off anyone from having it done – it’s a necessary invasion of your body if you experience any sort of bowel change over the age of fifty – but they made a mammogram feel like a walk in the park.
Put it this way, I acquired the skill to jet-wash the garden patio from my anus.
The fact is, bowel and colon cancer are on the increase, so I decided it was worth a prod up my ass to make sure everything was okay
Needless to say, my family was as supportive as ever. NC nicknamed me “poopie” as a result of the hours I spent expelling every last piece of sweetcorn from my colon, although her suggestion afterwards – that her father and I refrain from anal sex for a while – was less funny.
But this post isn’t about the state of my rectum. It’s about an experience I had in the hospital, just prior to my procedure, as I awaited my fate on the gurney.
Hospital procedure is fairly standard, I imagine: you get admitted, you get dressed into one of those silly gowns that reveal your saggy ass each time you go the bathroom – which is a lot before a colonoscopy – and then you wait for a theatre nurse to come and collect you.
For a hypochondriac and over-thinker, that waiting period can be a moment of reckoning
It is the will I, won’t I die moment we’ve been preparing for our whole lives. And to be honest, I thought I was good with it. I had accepted I was either going to die on the operating table or be diagnosed with some horrible, terminal illness.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the life-flashing-before-me moment just before I went in
I know it’s a cliche, but as I lay there under my heated blanket, desperately trying to ignore my niggling bladder, I couldn’t help thinking about what I’d do differently if I had my time again. You know the kind of stuff: I wouldn’t smoke; I wouldn’t go to uni; I’d be a better advocate for my son; I’d maybe learn a musical instrument and how to whistle. Then, fortunately, some positivity kicked in and I switched my focus to what I’d done right which carried me on an interesting detour to the realization that I wasn’t actually ready to die after all. That I’d miss my little provincial life, no matter how fucked up it seems at times.
More importantly, I didn’t want to die like this, alone, in a stark white room, with my bum hanging out
My care was first rate that day. I was treated with as much dignity as you can expect when a handsome young consultant is about to inspect your ass. But, albeit a minor procedure, it was still a scary moment. There are few good reasons to find yourself in theatre at my age, and as such, the experience felt rather like a transition, like COVID-19 does. It was a disruption that I neither expected nor wanted, that provided me with an unsavoury reminder of my mortality.
That hour in, particular, gave me a better understanding of why many elderly people choose to die at home.
Lying on a hospital bed surrounded by strangers and beeping monitors is scary, and certainly not the way I would choose to leave this earth
Many of us, young and old, are facing that terrifying situation right now. Not my privileged peace of mind day surgery, but a very real fight for their lives. Each day around the globe, people are catching this virus through chance, bad luck, inequity … call it what you will …and succumbing to it alone, without family and friends around them.
In terms of infection, we’ve been relatively lucky here in Australia. However, the second wave in Melbourne has shown us that it is not only the elderly who are affected. Many frontline workers have caught it this time as well, and many of them are young, with families, taking risks every day to do their job. To protect us.
All they’re asking for in return is that we show some social responsibility
No one truly seems to know how much masks ward off this horrible virus, nevertheless, it is a preventative measure that could save lives. I take statins as a preventative measure because of a condition in my family that increases my risk of a heart attack, and not once have I questioned if I should have to.
And I shouldn’t have to say it, but social responsibility also means not going on a pub crawl or to a large house party.
We’re not being asked to sacrifice our lives in battle for our country. We’re being asked to help prevent the loss of more lives.
Innocent lives. Old lives. Young lives. White lives. Black lives. And for the record, middle-aged lives.
Which is something we can do.
Because no one deserves to die alone.