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.

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.

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?

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?

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?

9 Surprising Truths I Discovered About Myself in 2020

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?

How A Good Book Can Change Your Life

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.

Open book, lit up with fairy lights.
Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

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.

The 7 Changes Necessary For A Minimalist Lifestyle

“A minimalist home is very intentional,” Joshua Becker explains in an article for Good Housekeeping magazine. “Each possession is there for a reason.” 

Simplicity. A glass jar with gum leaves on a white background.
Photo by Alex Loup on Unsplash

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

The Truth About The Mask Of Mental Illness

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.

Sad woman with paper mask over her mouth with a smile drawn on it.
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash






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.

Wear A Mask, Because No One Should Die Alone

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.

Woman embracing mask wearing
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash.com

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.