Mental Illness: Love and Acceptance Must be The First Line of Treatment

Our son recently returned for a restorative stint at home, bringing with him the latest addition to our family, Sammy the cat, or “The Meister” as we call him.

Image of post-it notes with the words accept, love, empower and advocate on them
Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

He acquired Sammy during one of the COVID lockdowns last year when he was experiencing burnout. He was living alone and at a particularly low ebb because he unable to work at his job in hospitality. Not eating properly or taking his medication, the environment provided the perfect conditions for someone with ADHD to slip back into depression.

The idea of a cat didn’t appeal to me

Admittedly, when he first suggested acquiring a cat as a companion, I was resistant. Many friends of mine are now raising the pets of their adult kids and after almost thirty years as a pet owner, we are now looking forward to a period when we can rent nice properties again and go away without the worry of leaving them with strangers.

But despite my many (illegal) visits to my son’s apartment to try and keep his mental health in check, I could see that he was slowly sinking under the strain, and it didn’t take long for him to embroil me in an illegal mission to collect Sammy from a western suburb of Sydney with some of the harshest lockdown restrictions. Masked up, heads down, we drove through the unusually quiet streets to be introduced to the newest member of our family.

“Scaredy-cat” is an understatement to describe Sammy

Sammy is the most anxious cat I have ever met. He jumps at the sight of his own shadow and the noises his own body makes when he moves, and there were times in the early days when I visited our son’s apartment when he hid in his litter tray to avoid me. Although he was never aggressive each time my son foisted him onto my lap, it was clear from the way his body turned limp that every second he was there he was planning his escape.

Fast-forward a few months and I was still struggling to warm to him. His clear refusal to acknowledge me as the matriarch of the family (with the respect I believe I deserve) or to cow-tow to my many innovative attempts to connect with him were part of the reason, as was the later loss of our son’s deposit on his apartment for the cat’s damage to the carpet.

Nevertheless, I like to think I am the bigger person and when he turned up at the family home, I welcomed both my boys with open arms, even providing Sammy with a safe space (from me) – a furry cat cube to hide in.

He didn’t leave his box for the first month

The only time he left the cube was when our son’s bedroom door was shut, and each time I ventured into their space and tried to stroke him in the box, he did an impressive Houdini impression to avoid my touch, either by hiding under the cushion or pushing his body so far back against the wall it was impossible to reach him. Nevertheless, he was productive during his transition to our home, developing a handy left hook as an additional mode of defence.

There were a couple of occasions when I enticed him out with toys or expensive treats – because for a street cat, Sammy is surprisingly gourmet in his choice of cuisine – but each time I thought I was making progress, he reverted back to his street behaviour and slapped me back down where he has decided I belong.

It was more than a month before curiosity got the better of Sammy and he began to venture beyond the boundary of our son’s bedroom door, but this time rather than his own fears, the territorial behaviour of our terrifying Spoodle thwarted his progress. Luna is used to our undivided attention and each time he got close to the living area, she chased him away and set Sammy’s intrepid exploration back another few days.

Then one day he appeared on my husband’s desk chair in the study, which was helpfully tucked under the table and out of direct reach of our jealous dog. And even though physical contact with him was still a risky venture, occasionally he allowed me to stroke his paw gently before swiping it away aggressively – I should point out here that my son calls this “playing” and that Sammy is more Jekyll than Hide with him.

And slowly, over the past month, Sammy’s steps to integrate with our family have gone from strength to strength. It goes without saying that they are ALWAYS on his terms – he is a cat, after all – but suddenly he is everywhere, from the bench top when he is waiting for his food, to sitting outside my bedroom when he doesn’t think I am looking.

This morning we caught him checking out our dog’s bed

Evidently, whatever trauma Sammy experienced before the RSPCA found him on the streets had a lasting effect on him and he is learning how to trust humans again – something that can only be done with patience, love and understanding. And though it is frustrating when animals don’t behave the way we want or expect them to, people with trauma behave the same way. FYI, The perfect human example of this is the character of Marianne in “Normal People”.

Several times a year, our son experiences burnout and needs time out to recalibrate from the sense of overwhelm caused by trying to meet the weight of expectations that we (inadvertently) and society place on him. His ongoing battle with his mental health issues mean that he reaches a point when he can’t leave the house without feeling nauseous and feels permanently angry and fatigued. Because he doesn’t look disabled, there is little compassion for his struggles. Others see him as lazy, entitled or weak in some way.

People who have lost trust are often defensive and oppositional

But with love and acceptance – what I believe should be the first-line of treatment for people with mental illness – people like him feel less isolated, judged and ashamed. Though “tough love” may be the gold standard approach to care for some mental illnesses, it is a risky choice and one that doesn’t necessarily work for people who have lost the ability to function completely. It is not an easy route, either, because people who have lost trust, like Sammy, are disillusioned, and often defensive and oppositional.

In the three months since my son and Sammy returned home to live with us, we have watched them come out of their respective boxes and flourish. Slowly, we are reintroducing boundaries – which for Sammy means not scratching my rugs or chewing the leaves of my artificial plants – because we know that they are as important for them as they are for us. But the hope is that with some time to heal and just “be”, both will find the confidence and strength for the next period of their lives.

Trusting The Journey: The Secret to Happiness in Middle Age

Being in constant control of everything. The older we get the more we realize how little we actually control. And there’s no good reason to hold yourself down with things you can’t control. Learn to trust the journey, even when you do not understand it. Oftentimes what you never wanted or expected turns out to be what you need.”

Neon sign in shop window that says "I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring."
Photo from Logan Weaver on Unsplash.com

The above is a quote from Marc Chernoff’s article, 20 Things That Will Matter A Lot Less To You in Twenty Years. I assume Marc is younger than me and is predicting the wisdom that often comes with someone my age – 50+ – but clearly I’ve been a slow learner, and it’s only recently that his ideas have started to resonate.

I’d recommend you read the post in full, because there’s tons of great advice in it, or at least advice I’m finding relevant to my life right now. But the one that struck me the most was this one, because I was/am a control freak who tries to fix everything – as my sister recently informed me.

Trust me, you can’t fix everything

It’s only now, in middle age, that I’m finally accepting that I don’t have the superpower to fix everything – no one does, not even those with the money to buy (in theory) whatever they want or need. Money can buy rockets, but it can’t buy your health, for example – as Steve Jobs found out – or love and loyalty.

Money can’t buy everything

This is why we have to learn to trust the journey, as Marc says, and not let the frustration of not being able to control what we can’t make us unhappy or bitter.

To put this idea into context, I have realised that two things have held me back in terms of accepting my lack of control:

  1. The first has been my preoccupation with the past and the victim persona I have allowed myself to adopt as a result of of the trauma I experienced in my childhood. Perhaps, the tendency to self-pity is ingrained in my character – because I can clearly remember an aunt once telling me that I whined a lot as a child, but that may also have been a symptom of my undiagnosed anxiety, feelings of insecurity, or need for perfectionism to feel in control. What I do know now is that those “why me?” feelings aren’t helpful and I allowed them to detract from my happiness. I’m not negating the emotional impact of childhood trauma, but constantly looking back means you get stuck in time and struggle to move forward.
  2. The second is the amount of time I have wasted trying to change my son. I wish I could say that I have spent a lot of time trying to understand his differences, but that would be a distortion of the truth. For too long, I have tried to change him to the son we anticipated – a clone of us, I suppose – and that has caused an enormous amount of pain for both of us. My abortive attempts to change him, fix him, and make him fit into the hole we expected him to slot into have threatened our relationship and I see now that I have tried to carve out his future for him to validate our lives in some way – like there is only one way. It has taken me almost twenty-five years to understand that he must make his own journey, take responsibility for his choices, and I must trust his journey.

I could ask myself why I had to go through that challenge, and trust me, I have, many times. But what is the point?

However, if someone were to ask me if I have learned anything from the experience of raising our son, I would say, hand on heart that it has made me a better person.

Trusting the journey is a simpler way of defining the best way to make the most of this precious opportunity of life. And what I love about the expression is that rather than define our mission around the social construct we have been sold in the west – that success is intrinsically linked to financial success – it redefines it as learning to accept whatever journey life gives us.

I now understand that happiness is directly linked to accepting whatever life throws at us

It is about making the best of the hand you are given. It is accepting that there is only so much you can do to control your life and the lives of others. I’ve had countless why me? moments during my journey with our son and there’s no way I could have prepared myself mentally for the anguish we have experienced, but when I look back on the aspirations of my twenties, I realise I was lucky – I got what I wanted. I have been happy and loved, many times over.

So maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. Maybe, we should set ourselves a lower bar and measure our success by whether we can meet our basic needs, like so many people in the world must. Can we put food on our table? Is our health good? Do we have a roof over our heads?

Because once we meet our our basic needs, surely everything else is a bonus?

The wisdom of middle age and the experience of a decade of renting houses have shown me that material things, and in particular where I live, are minor contributors to my happiness. Living in Australia, a rich country where the main focus of the lifestyle is outdoors, may make that easier, but for me the value of my home is in its functionalism. It is somewhere to invite family and friends and it protects me from the elements.

“‘The good life’ begins when you stop wanting a better one.” (Nkosiphambili E. Molapis)

And ‘experiences’ are where I am choosing to place my time, money and energy in the future. Because, finally, I understand the power of a beautiful sunset, a walk in nature, a check-in from a friend, a new food, a new cocktail or an impromptu gathering of friends to reset me, which why all those things hold so much more value than the size of my living room.

A minimalist lifestyle is the key to happiness

I have a habit of saying annoying things like “It is what it is” and “What will be will be”, but those expressions don’t mean I’ve given up on my dreams, they mean that finally I am trusting my journey and I’ve never felt less pressure in my life.

Travelling Solo In Middle Age: Why It’s A No-Brainer

2022 is looking as unpredictable as the past two years. Just as we’re getting some handle on COVID – we hope – we are now facing the threate of a global war over Ukraine and the escalating effects of climate change, with little hope of any real improvement from either Australian political party at the next election.

COVID has left many of us feeling shell-shocked and a little uncertain about our place in the world

On a personal note, we’ve also recently experienced several health crises amongst friends and family. Nothing major, but enough to remind us that life is short and that we need to drag ourselves out of the lockdown lethargy caused by COVID and start living again.

Travel is my top priority for the next year

Sadly, however, travel doesn’t rate as highly on my husband’s agenda – a Cancerian with an abject terror of finding himself more than five kilometres from our suburb, which he refers to as “the safety zone”. And so, a few months ago, I decided that the best way to give him a gentle nudge back into the outside world was to organise a mini-break for the two of us.

Woman looking out at view
Photo by Djordje Petrovic on Pexels.com

Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly in the mood for anything super-adventurous either, especially with (what was then) the recent arrival of Omicron – which, even though I’ve reconciled myself to catching it at some point, I’m still not foolhardy enough to court.

However, the mere mention of the idea to my husband – albeit a short trip to a neighbouring suburb – was like pulling teeth. Each time I went into my his study to show him some fabulous boutique hotel with an alluring “special offer”, he planted his fingers in his ears or made those humming noises I make when he wants to discuss our finances.

Frankly, he sucked every ounce of pleasure out of planning something that in my mind should have been fun

When my husband decides he doesn’t want to do something, he reverts back to the single-mindedness of a toddler – like many middle-aged men, it seems – and it became obvious pretty quickly that he was depending on his strategy of laying as many roadblocks as possible to change my plans.

To start with, he set a ridiculously low budget that would stretch to some tiny home in the middle of Woop Woop if we were lucky – and I don’t mean those pokey dwellings that are now deemed a luxury destination, I’m talking about a 3-star motel on the outskirts of some mining town. Then he insisted that the accommodation was walking distance to the beach on aforementioned miniscule budget.

But the biggest problem was the difference in our priorities over the break

We couldn’t even agree on what we would do once we got there, if we ever got there. My perfect break incorporates fancy dinners and long lunches spent in a more eclectic range of restaurants than those offered in our area and the chance to dress up – because although there are benefits to the relaxed lifestyle on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, sometimes I want to put on some lippy and heels.

His biggest fear was what exactly he was going “to do” for two days with his wife of almost thirty years

Hence, top of his requirements – thanks to a second La Nina year in which all his favourite pastimes have been compromised by rain – were good internet reception, a pub with a wide selection of craft beers, single beds and a lock on the mini bar.

The other problem was that prices of holiday rentals and hotels outside of Sydney have increased drastically since the last time we went away. Many of the Airbnb properties in our price range had stopped offering full refunds for cancellations, which made the risk of spending money (we don’t really have) on a cheeky weekender even more like Russian roulette – especially with Omicron biting at our heels.

The fear of disappointment was palpable

But, finally, after a full risk assessment of bush fires, floods, poisonous snakes and jellyfish and a full scale search of locations within a 2.5 hour drive of Sydney, from the beautiful Kangaroo Valley in the Southern Highlands – prior to the realisation on closer examination of the “dairy conversions” we could afford that their vintage styling reminded me too much of my various uni accommodations – to areas closer to home and the ocean.

Finally, I booked

I found an apartment approximately an hour down the road in an area close enough to home for hubby to run back to if he got too homesick, in a suburb close to where we used to live. That meant, that in spite of the rainy forecast, there were many places we could revisit as well as Barangaroo, a new waterfront precinct in the city to visit for dinner one night. I won’t deny that what sealed the decision was the hotel’s motley selection of sports facilitites which I knew would appease hubby’s need to get an hour away from me do some kind of exercise each day.

And we had a lovely time, BUT…

When you really think about it, isn’t life too short to travel with someone who doesn’t enjoy the same things? Especially, when you spend the rest of the year together?

Travelling solo or with like-minded people at this stage of our lives has to be a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

  1. You get to spend time with people who feel as passionately as you about the trip which ensures less friction and a REAL holiday,
  2. Your friends tend to be more respectful and less resentful of your choices, i.e., you don’t get bogged down in the petty-mindedness that can sometimes be symptomatic of a long marriage, and…
  3. Travelling without your partner means you get a break from each other.

A large 2018 study conducted by Booking.com found that 40% of 55 to 64-year old’s had taken a trip alone in the past year and a further 21% were planning to take one in the future. British Airways reports that more British men and women were over 50 on their first solo trip compared to any other country.” (The Flashpacker)

Surely, marriage doesn’t have to be about compromise all the time?

Men and women change as they get older, and research suggests that many men prefer to settle down and enjoy a quieter life in retirement. Fair enough! But equally, many women are searching for new activities to challenge and empower them at this stage of their lives.

So, surely, travelling solo or with friends makes sense?

Overall, our weekend was a success and even met our budget – something to do with the hotel’s location slap, bang in the middle of a small business district which is a ghost town on the weekend, I imagine. I got to wear my heels, sleep in crisp white sheets and fill my washbag with freebie bathroom products. Hubby got his gym – albeit his workout gear never left his suitcase.

But the organisation to get us there was painful reminder of why, prior to COVID, I had started to travel solo, and why my husband was so supportive of that decision.

Anyone else decided that travelling solo is easier in middle age?

Does Pain Make Life More Meaningful? How I Navigated The Shit Show That Was 2021

I have been sitting on this post for several weeks. Partly because I am struggling to write anything cohesive at the moment, and partly because I can’t make this a “things I was grateful for in 2021” post with which to wrap up the past year.

Not even the most optimistic blogger could reframe 2021 as a great year. Months of lockdown, fears about catching COVID, distance from family and friends, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness have ensured that the past twelve months were a shit show for many of us.

Girl leaning against tree looking empowered, resilient

The Australian government did a reasonable job of tackling the pandemic, but who knows what the real, longterm cost will be to our mental health and the economy. And it is terrifying to think about how many other important policies have been sidetracked to save us from this virus, not to mention their lacklustre approach to climate change, their ongoing lack of commitment to women’s issues, and the arrogance of our PM on the international stage.

But this isn’t a political blog and several personal challenges last year, that started with a serious health-scare in February, have been followed by a problematic transition into semi-retirement.

Did I really feel optimistic in January?

But we were in a different situation back then. Our family had just survived a lockdown Christmas and re-entered the world with the excitement of William Shatner on his descent back to earth, optimistic and eager to move onto the next phase of our lives.

So blinded was I by the excitement of what semi-retirement would bring me, I forgot that the finger of fate is always on the button and that it would take more than a fancy-pants new computer to fulfil my grandiose intentions of becoming the next Sally Rooney. Hence, when the emotional ramifications of the pandemic dried up my creative juices like a harsh summer in the Northern Territory and I couldn’t string even a few words together or achieve anything other than watching back-to-back episodes of New Amsterdam, the year started to unravel.

I wondered whether my lack of motivation was caused by menopause or if some greater force was at work

Was I suffering from a case of minor PTSD related to COVID, or had I simply underestimated the disparity between the expectations of retirement and the reality? Whatever the reason for my lethargy, my focus went out the window and I spent most of the year wandering aimlessly around the apartment.

The difficulties that some people experience during the infamous transition into retirement are well-documented, but in my defence, what the brochures fail to mention is that you don’t suddenly land in some nirvana after your last day at work. You still have to balance the books, care for those in need, and worry about the unknowns, currently under the permanent shadow of a pesky virus that appears to morph into something even scarier each time it mutates.

Then there’s the overthinking that accompanies your approaching mortality. I mean…don’t get me wrong, I am inordinately grateful to be still be here with a wealth of choices, but what has materialised so far will require some adaptation. For example: Having waited my whole adult life to implement a proper fitness routine, my body has conveniently decided to degenerate with the speed of light since I acquired my new gym membership.

And I’ve lost count of the number of conditions ending in itis I’ve suffered from this year, none of which I’d heard of before

But my biggest bete noire has been my preponderance to overthink. “Existential crisis” doesn’t cover the number of Camus moments I’ve experienced in my quest to work out exactly what my purpose is now. I have days when I feel guilty about not being productive enough and days when I feel guilty about taking on too much and not making the most of this wonderful privilege of free time. The only thing I have recognised is the underlying pressure to reinvent myself and redefine my purpose.

I would struggle to answer the question of what I do right now

Like most retirees, when people ask what I do, I bore the pants off them with how busy I am. And I am busy: I write a lot – although, very little worth publishing; I read and file a lot of research; I try to stay fit within the allowances of my degenerating body, and I attempt to live vicariously through the lives of my children – albeit, they don’t seem as keen on that idea.

But what am I actually achieving? And do I need to achieve anything?

My single accomplishment from this year’s shit show has been my clearer understanding that LIFE IS HARD for everyone, an acknowledgement that has carried me through many difficult moments and highlighted the importance of resilience to me again.

Fundamentally, I have always believed that resilience is the key to happiness but in the past I struggled with the in-egalitarianism of that idea, i.e., why some people (seemingly) sail through life whilst others struggle through no fault of their own.

I never quite understood the “pain makes you stronger” theory because I allowed the traumas of my childhood to define me. Unlike some people, I struggled to harness my pain and transform it into a strength. Instead, I chose to wallow in it, allowing it to weaken and control me.

I chose to be a victim

Unfortunately, victimhood has served as the perfect excuse for my inadequacies, my fragility, my tendency towards mild depression and my struggles with work and parenting. It makes sense that if your emotional battery has never been fully charged, you go flat much more quickly when faced with challenging life situations like parenting, relationship disharmony and rejection, which must increase your predisposition to mood disorders. And as I discovered recently, difficult transitions like middle age – when there is more time to overthink the meaning of life – can also be a trigger.

The struggles of people who have suffered trauma are valid – as proven by research into the longterm effects on their potential and mental health – but I’ve come to understand that being a victim is neither a healthy option nor a solution to my low moods.

So how do you stop the pain?

For years, I masked my low-grade depression with self-medication. I still do, to a degree. I had to, because despite my awareness that no one leads a charmed life, my anxiety-induced perfectionism and hypersensitivity ensured that the knocks hit me harder.

But this year, I had the time for an epiphany. Tired of wondering why the fuck I couldn’t enjoy what (by most standards) is a pretty good life, I spent the year experimenting with different strategies and medications – HRT in combo with my anti-depressants – in an attempt to change my outlook. I took the opportunity provided by COVID’s restrictions to rest, exercise harder and create boundaries in relationships that were becoming toxic. In brief, I sought a way to approach the rest of my life in a way that suits my brain.

I chose to live by two maxims:

1) “Life is shit and then you die”. Because when you expect the worst, (which you do when you suffer from anxiety), things can only get better;

2) And “Tomorrow is another day”. Because time does indeed move relentlessly forward and dwelling for too long on the unfairness and the absurdities of life is clearly a waste.

Now, I realise that to the optimist that those maxims sound ridiculously defeatist, but they work for me.

Which brings me back to the question of whether pain makes life more meaningful?

Maybe. I haven’t experienced life from the other side, so I suppose I will never know what might have been. What I will say categorically is that my pain has shaped me in many ways for the better despite my moans about the negative impact of my trauma. I believe the knocks have shaped me into a kinder, more compassionate person – if not a happier, stronger one.

The writer, Paul Bloom, an advocate of this theory, agrees. He says:

“Some degree of misery and suffering is essential to a rich and meaningful life.”

And I think he has a point. Maybe we do have to experience pain to understand our purpose here. The gift of semi-retirement has given me the time to look at my life more closely, to separate its different elements and compartmentalise. All those cliched strategies for people with depression – walking in nature, fortifying relationships with family and friends, standing up for my rights, and being more self-compassionate – have helped me develop more resilience and autonomy.

Anxious people like me place an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves to lead perfect lives and then, when they don’t succeed, they see themselves as failures. But as Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe’s points out in her article on Medium, though many of us may have come through the past twelve months without any outstanding achievements, we must remember that some of us have “fought different, less glamorous battles…clawed through {our} own darkness and now {we’re} standing in the light.”

Every year brings a mix of highs and lows, and good stuff did happen to me this year: I caught a potentially life-threatening Melanoma in time, I watched my children continue to grow with pride, I discovered what I can only describe as the spirituality of swimming in cold water, and I fell more deeply in love with my husband. I have also been fortunate to live in a democracy that provides a wonderful healthcare system and (for the most part) promotes values I agree with.

And so, I will leave you with one final, simple quote which I hope inspires you as much as it did me, or at the very least helps you reframe your pain if it is holding you back.

“Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” Gratitude Addict

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash.

I’m A Feminist, So Why Won’t I Allow Myself To Age Naturally?

When we came out of lockdown, I broke an Olympic record for the speed with which I booked my colour at my hairdressers, hence it was reassuring to see Melburnians bang down the doors of their salons when their Premier released them from the longest lockdown in the world.

Ageism has a lot to answer for, proven by a recent study by Australian Seniors that showed the drastic lengths middle-aged women and men go to – from hair colouring to plastic surgery – to remain visible, relevant, and employable.

Ageism has a lot to answer for

Woman with blonde hair blowing in the wind.
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

I’m lucky, apart from basic body hygiene, I don’t have to maintain any particular beauty standards for my job, and neither am I high maintenance when it comes to my appearance. That may be why I transitioned so smoothly into living like a slob during our restrictions. Living in lounge wear day and night was a dream come true for me, and that extra layer of hair on my legs made the switch from autumn to winter much less painful.

But it was a different story with the hair on my head. Like many middle-aged women, I went through the seven stages of grief as the visible signs of my age crept through my parting.

Hats and scarves helped, but my biggest low point – at the Mare Sheehan stage of rootage – was when I succumbed to smudging my roots with mascara. I wouldn’t recommend it.

In retrospect, though, I handled the ever-widening salt and pepper line down the centre of my scalp with stoicism, and the return to my mousey roots didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. So much so, the closer we got to the magical seventy percent vaccination rate required to open our salons, I began to seriously toy with the idea of ageing naturally.

Which makes my midnight vigil outside my hairdressers all the more perplexing. Not to mentiion that as a feminist, dying my hair is a surrender to the blatant gender inequality around beauty expectations, and each time I agree to pay through the nose to highlight my hair, I’m giving into the narrative that youth trumps pretty much everything.

The sad fact is, for any chance of staying visible, I am not allowed to look my age

That is why so many women cannot give up on the last bastion of their youth.

It’s not like I enjoy the experience of sitting still in the hairdressers for two hours, staring at myself whilst I pretend not to be appalled by the cost of my foils and the special shampoos and treatments required to maintain my hair in some vaguely manageable condition. Not to mention the social anxiety I experience each visit a propos of my hairdresser, a lovely Millennial who has quietly surrendered to my refusal to talk to her – although, I’m still not sure if that unspoken rule has made our two hours together more honest or more awkward.

It’s just that I can’t chit-chat inanely about the mundanities of life with a woman whose biggest daily conflict is the straightness of her hair

I know other women my age can, but I cannot pretend to have anything in common with a twenty-something who goes out for the night at the same time I’m going to bed. Perhaps, if she had something to add about vaginal atrophy or grumpy, middle-aged husbands, we might have something work with, but I’m just not that bothered about Tik Tok and online dating at this stage of my life.

I realise I could buy a lot of new lounge wear with that extra $200 every eight weeks, but I like being blonde and evidently, I’m not grown up enough yet to come out as an old person. Perhaps, if I was a good feminist, I would feel proud of this ageing body of mine and what it has achieved, but the shame of it is that though I can’t control what happens to my face, I can still control the colour of my hair

As I left the house for my appointment, my husband told me how beautiful I looked with my new “natural” look. But the comment came from the accountant in him rather a man who has any real desire for his wife to turn into his mother.

Why Did It Take A Pandemic To Make Me Slow Down?

“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.

I’m semi-retired, but most days I still feel like I’m chasing my tail and there aren’t enough hours for everything I want to achieve

Girl lying down on the grass relaxing.
Photo by Eunice Stahl on Unsplash

Admittedly, my inability to say no is a big part of the problem – because I do waste hours of my week on unnecessary activities, and then get cross with myself for compromising what time I have left to do what I enjoy.

But even when I’m walking the dog, my mind is often elsewhere, thinking about that email I need to write, the call I need to make, or the machine load that needs to be emptied.

But the world won’t stop turning if I don’t empty the washing machine immediately

And on the rare occasions I allow myself to breathe, to throw the ball to the dog on the beach, or take in the natural beauty of where we live, my head clears, and I kick myself for not doing it more often.

Because, relaxing is easy, and doesn’t cost very much, and aside from my new hobby of swimming in the ocean, I’ve rediscovered many long-lost passions recently, like reading, walking, and listening to podcasts, not to mention my love of watching mindless tv series on the sofa.

I’m not saying I walk happily to the trolley bay when it’s on the other side of the supermarket car park or I don’t grit my teeth when the traffic lights ahead turn red, but I am making a conscious effort to try to walk rather than run.

Sometimes, it’s enough just to be. To be me. To be happy in my skin

I’m sure spiritualists have some fancy term for the art of “enjoying the moment” – something like unconscious mindfulness, I imagine. But each time I’ve tried to be intentionally mindful in the past, I’ve struggled to close down the tabs in my brain – this, despite my belief in the importance of living each day as if it is your last – an awareness of the unpredictability of life that was foisted on me by the loss of my mother in my teens – although, I don’t recommend it.

But if you don’t believe me and need any more convincing about the right order of your priorities in life, check out the biggest regrets of the dying, because one of the top five regrets is how much time they wasted on work rather than spending it with family and friends, or doing things that made them happy.

Unfortunately, a clink in the armour of the human brain is that many of us only realise what we have when it’s gone

Fortunately, COVID has rammed the importance of the philosophy home for me, and the physical effects of ageing are helping with the slow down. While I moan about the limitations of my body – and this year has been a real test – I am beginning to understand its language. When it lets me know I’ve pushed it too hard, I’m learning to listen to it, because those minor pains and aches quickly evolve into costly issues when they aren’t addressed.

Admittedly, it is easier to switch off or recalibrate physically than it is mentally. But another benefit COVID has gifted many of us is extra time at home. And although I’m certain my lockdown existence looks very different to the parents of young kids or essential workers, I don’t believe slowing down must necessitate being alone.

For example, when our kids were small, I used to dread the approach of the school holidays. And yet, it always surprised me how quickly the three of us adapted to the change of pace. Within a week, each of us started to slow down, to get up later, to take our time over meals and stretch out activities that we normally raced through. We communicated more, and because I didn’t have to manage that precarious balance between work, school, and extra-curricular activities, I was less irritable. Rather than the cabin fever I anticipated, we had more time and energy to try out new things, and the best days were those when we did absolutely nothing without feeling guilty about them – a foreign concept in our increasingly driven society.

It’s important to allow yourself days off, when you do absolutely nothing

Recently, a friend of mine took her two weeks of annual leave at home due to the current restrictions. At the time, she was feeling burnt out at work, and I know she was disappointed she couldn’t escape somewhere exotic for “a change of scene”. Nevertheless, she approached her two weeks with a positive mindset and a list of her priorities for her time off – relaxation foremost, with some walks, swims, catch-ups with friends, and some overdue organisational tasks if she found the time.

At the end of the two weeks, she was exuberant about her holiday at home, which had given her the opportunity to explore some previously undiscovered areas of our local landscape with friends and family, enjoy long breakfasts in the sun with her daughter, eat healthily, and replenish her sleep quota with daily naps. She returned to work re-energised, and when I caught up with her at the end of her first week back, she had rediscovered her old passion for her job.

Trips abroad, where we used to cram more into a day than we would at work, are not always what our body needs

I have fully embraced the return to simple living that COVID has necessitated, and I’m feeling quite nervous about my return to the hustle and bustle of normal life. I have to agree with Michaela Coel who mentioned in her acceptance speech at the Emmys the joys of embracing invisibility, rather than jumping straight back onto the demanding treadmill of our lives prior to COVID. I am loving this invisibility that has come with lockdown and middle-age. I have no desire to leap from our current restrictions straight back into my old life. Rather, I intend to set myself a realistic pace and be more mindful of how and when I really need to emerge from the shadows.

Ocean Swimming In Winter: The Best Cure For The Menopause Blues

Sometime over the past few years, I lost my spark, and even though I wasn’t sure if menopause or the medication I took for my anxiety were the culprits, or even the amount of time my husband and I had spent together in lockdown together, I was desperate to retrieve it.

Woman swimming on her back in the ocean
Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash

Impatience and irrational outbursts of anger had become a big problem that were linked (I suspected) to menopause and poor sleep, hormone fuckery, the inability to control my body temperature, and my secret fears about the life-altering changes that lay ahead.

And, clearly, emotional eating and drinking weren’t working…

And so, as we approached our seventh week of lockdown — and I found myself subconsciously plotting my husband’s death — I decided enough was enough, and determined to find another outlet for my anger.

Admittedly, I laughed when a friend suggested swimming through winter, but I didn’t completely dismiss the idea when in the past, swimming has had a calming effect on me.

It wasn’t an obvious choice. Public indoor swimming pools had been closed down in lockdown and we were in winter in Sydney, and albeit I was aware of the health benefits of swimming in cold water, I needed more convincing.

After two years of comfort eating in lockdown, the idea of contorting my body back into tummy flattening swimmers didn’t fill me with joy

And despite living in arguably one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, I hadn’t been to the beach in a while. Two years ago, our summer was spoilt by the blanket of smoke from bushfires, and last year, my age caught up with my body — with, firstly, a painful case of bursitis in my foot, and secondly, a malignant melanoma on my arm, which entailed surgery and stitches and put an end to my weekend dips.

However, those health issues did provide an epiphany of sorts, (or the cliched “wake-up call”), about the importance of living each day as if it’s my last, being grateful, getting back to nature, and enjoying the simple things in life, blah, blah, blah

And so, I decided to take the plunge

The water temperature is not warm in winter, nor indeed at any time of the year in Sydney. In fact, the only way to swim in temperatures comparable to the Mediterranean or Hawaii’s Waikiki beach in Australia, is by heading north taking your chances with the crocodiles and box jellyfish.

Hence, I admit that the thought of my first winter swim in one of our local ocean pools— originally built to protect swimmers from dangerous surf, currents, and…ahem… sharks — was hardly appealing, and in the end it was vanity that swayed my decision. Because, surprisingly, there are benefits to the crazy activity of swimming in cold water:

  1. It improves the body’s circulation
  2. It reduces stress
  3. It boosts the immune system
  4. It rejuvenates the skin
  5. It gives you an immense feeling of smugness
  6. And it eradicates any middle-aged body image issues, because NO ONE over 50 looks good in a wetsuit

Furthermore, really “cool” people like Julia Baird, Kathy Lette, and Benjamin Law swim through winter

Convinced, I ordered myself the most fetching spring wetsuit I could find in my size, a very unflattering swim cap, a pair of new goggles, and I set about preparing myself for my new adventure.

Admittedly, alcohol may have been involved as I psyched myself up for my first swim

As one of those swimmers who lingers longer around the steps than actually in the water, I knew I had to get into the water quickly for any chance of success, but as my teeth chattered and I felt the need to wee again, I strode as purposefully as I could into the shallow end and all feeling left my lower body.

Luckily, the trickles of iced water that broke through the armour of my wetsuit restarted my heart several times

The temperature of the water was around 17 degrees, but felt closer to zero. However, my new wetsuit did a commendable job of protecting me as I submerged my body with far less grace than a submarine into the icy-cold beneath me, grateful for the odd trickles of iced water that broke through the rubber and restarted my heart several times in between my underwater expletives.

Holding my breath, fully aware of the importance of keeping my heart rate up as I doggy-paddled frantically in the direction the “real” swimmers on the other side of the pool, I prayed silently that none of the lifeguards would jump into save me as a group of kids in bikinis laughed at my progress.

But I made it

And more importantly, the anger left my body as my brain switched its focus from the inadequacies of my husband to my survival. And although the smile of relief on my face nearly cracked until I located a warm spot in the water where the kids had peed, by the end of my second length I remembered why I had married him again.

Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash

Why Do I Pee So Much? The Question So Many Middle-Aged Women Ask Themselves

In a vain search to reach the level of physical perfection required of middle-aged women, I’m endeavouring to drink more water.

My hope is that by upping the volume of water that passes through my body each day, I will drug a niggling kidney stone, transform my sallow complexion to the porcelain finish of my twenties, eat less, and sort out some digestive issues that started in menopause.

Basically, I’m expecting a miracle

Young, healthy woman drinking a glass of water
How I expect to look once I retrain my bladder. Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Apparently, water is the elixir of life, and women should drink around 2L of the stuff a day. But I don’t even fulfil that criteria by counting my coffees, Sloe gins, and the desperate slugs my body demands after every attempt at exercise.

And none of them count, anyway.

The biggest problem I have with water is my body’s refusal to retain it long enough to do any good.

It’s like I have some structural issue whereby my oesophagus extends all the way to my urethra and there are no STOP signs along the way.

I’ve worked out the issue is not solely related to my shoddy pelvic floor – from birthing two babies, one of whom weighed more than a toddler and shot from my body with the speed of a canon ball – because I can still hold on, when I have to.

Just about…

But I can literally drink a glass of water and watch it exit my body before I finish it

Fortunately, because I haven’t experienced any other side effects or discomfort, my issue points to a frequent urination problem – thank you, Dr. Google – possibly caused by an overactive bladder or decreased oestrogen, and not helped by anxiety.

A very common issue in middle-aged women.

And while I always suspected that my bladder was the only naturally active part of my body, I do need to understand how to fix the problem before I get caught in a compromising position.

So what can I do?

Obviously, I don’t need tips to get more of the stuff down me, and the suggestion of cutting back on coffee and alcohol is tricky right now – as we’re currently in lockdown in Sydney, hence not the best time to reduce two of the few remaining pleasures in my life – see self-care/mental health.

So, on the advice of a nurse friend of mine, I’m giving bladder retraining a go. I’m trying to monitor how often I go to the bathroom and delaying urination a little more each time.

Admittedly, it’s about as much fun as the name suggests and (I imagine) feels a lot like the pain addicts experience during withdrawal – my fix being the bathroom – but I am getting better at it.

There’s no easy solution, unfortunately, and in hindsight I wish I’d done my pelvic floor exercises after childbirth

But I refuse to feel ashamed about a little incontinence caused by the awesomeness of the female body. And thank God for celebrities like Kate Winslet and her confession about her problem – “I can’t jump on trampolines anymore, I wet myself” – for bringing more awareness to it.

I won’t underplay the difficulty of drinking enough water at this age, and I’m not sure that rewarding myself with food treats while I wait fifteen minutes longer to pee is necessarily helping my goal of eating less, but at least I have the clear complexion of a twenty-year-old to look forward to.

How about you? Are you struggling with frequent urination or incontinence? If so, what treatments have worked?

I Hate Discrimination, But Is It Time To “Cancel” Blatant Stupidity?

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.

Woman doing the peace sign with her fingers.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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.

GRRR!!!!

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.

Embracing The Menopause Belly

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.

Close up of a woman's belly

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.

Photo by Monika Kozub on Unsplash

7 Surprising Truths That Came Out Of My Recent Health-Scare

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.

Girl laughing at camera.
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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:

  1. The realisation I don’t want to die — which for someone who has experienced several depressions was an awakening — and yet …
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?

It’s Obvious To Me Why So Many Women Feel Tired

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.

Woman lying on bed with her hands over her face.

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?

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Do You Consider Yourself “Woke”?

Photo of happy, elderly woman.
Photo found on Unsplash.com

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?

What Kind Of Idiot Does Hot Yoga In Menopause?

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 .

Bare-chested man with tattoos in yoga pose.
The yoga teacher I thought I’d get…
Photo by Benn McGuinness on Unsplash

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?