Author: napkinpoet

Moving

I’m moving house at the moment. In January I moved from Sydney to Melbourne. And now it’s November and I’m moving back again. Now that I’m moving interstate for the second time, a few people have asked me how the first move went. I never told anyone how that went. I was too traumatized to relive it. Have you seen ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles”? Know that moment where they’ve nearly had a major car accident and they thought they were going to die? And then John Candy’s character is all, “We can laugh about it now!”

Well we didn’t nearly have a car accident. But some seriously bad things did happen. So here is my first interstate trip story in full. For your enjoyment. So that we can laugh about it now. Together.

My fiance at the time had been applying for jobs in Sydney, where we lived. One company had passed his details on to their Melbourne office, who then called him on the Friday to ask him to start work on the Monday. They seemed to think one weekend was a reasonable amount of time to give a couple to move interstate with no notice. Thankfully we talked them into giving us a few extra weeks. We found an apartment in Melbourne to move into and packed up our whole lives. The removalists took most of our things, but I packed up my tiny little car with my most fragile belongings, plus my cat and of course my partner. And off we went…

car

Just packed a few extra things into the car. (Source)

We were only 10min down the road when we realised that there was a freak heatwave brewing. The cat was yowling and panting uncontrollably. We were sweating. We briefly considered turning the car around and waiting it out until the cool of the afternoon. But we were on a tight schedule as fiance needed to start work in only a few days’ time. So we continued on. Like fools.

It'll be fine. (Source)

“Looks alright to me.” (Source)

Soon enough, the cat took a turn for the worse. She was panting quite seriously now and her eyes were rolling back into her head. We tried giving her water to drink, but she refused. She was seriously dehydrated. The only way we could keep her cool was to drench her with water. It was enough of an ordeal getting her out of the catbox. But then we’d have to pour an entire bottle of water over her and stuff her back in. It was most unpleasant for all involved. But it was the only thing we could think of.

Insert wet pussy joke here. (Source)

So undignified. (Source)

We made it to Gundagai. That’s four hours south-west of Sydney. That was where the car broke down. We stopped in the sweltering heat to let the sweat sluice off us and buy some more water. You could see the heat shimmering off the bitumen. My hair was glued to my face. We felt like hell. The car was overpacked and overheated. The cat was quite seriously ill. We both felt stressed and anxious. And then the car wouldn’t start. This was most definitely a sign of worse to come. This could have been a good moment to give up on the whole venture. But someone kindly jump-started us and we figured that’d be the end of our car troubles. You know, maybe that big ole ball o’ sun will provide much-needed solar power for the purposes of battery-charging and everything will be fine. Right…? Oh the fools. The fools.

g (Source)

If only there’d been some kind of sign. (Source)

Then the aircon went.

And we were up the proverbial creek without the appropriate rowing implement.

Then the radio cut out. And the lights faded. And the whole dash went dark. I didn’t have too long to react to this new development as the car slowly decelerated of its own accord and I veered it gently to the side of the road.

So to recap: the car had broken down completely. The electrics had gone. We were about an hour south-west of Gundagai. We were both dehyrated. The cat looked like she was dying: her tongue hung limp from her open mouth and she’d lost her voice from yowling. We stood in the narrow strip of shade provided by a long-abandoned overpass and surveyed our kingdom. We were in the middle of nowhere. We had no phone reception. We were running out of water. It was 40+ degree weather, but it was closer to 50 degrees standing on the scorching highway.

We realised then, in most profound seriousness, just how easily people could die out here.

g (Source)

Like, seriously hot. (Source)

We walked in opposite directions to each other, hoping to either get a bar of reception or find an emergency roadside phone. After a blistering walk up the highway, I found signal. I called NRMA Roadside Assistance. I was put in their queue. My reception wavered. As soon as I got through to an operator, my phone cut out. It took 3 calls and waits in queues until I got through successfully. I blurted out all my details without taking a breath. I couldn’t give them a crossroad as we had no idea where we were. I was hoping they could gps my location from my mobile phone. But their response was “Just wait by your vehicle. We’ll drive along the highway and hopefully we’ll see your car.” You know, like maybe we won’t drive past you and miss you completely.

g (Source)

“Stay on the line, we’re tracing the call.” (Source)

I can’t even remember how long they took. Was it an hour or two hours? Who knows. It was an eternity. Thankfully another car stopped in the meantime. They were a really lovely couple. They didn’t have any water to spare, but they gave us ice packs. Nice couple stayed with us for a little while. The woman consoled us while the man looked under the hood and pretended to know what he was talking about. “Probably your engine,” he said. “And there’s no sense replacing that. May as well just abandon the car. Get NRMA to tow it and just buy a new car from somewhere.”  They were also very concerned about our cat, who was most definitely dying by this stage. Then they suddenly remembered they’d left their baby in their car with the window cracked. We were highly anxious that they were neglecting their newborn for the sake of our cat. So we encouraged them to continue on their way.

(Source)

“Looks like your car has a serious case of the breakdowns.” (Source)

There were many things running through my head at this stage. If the car was indeed a lemon, I couldn’t afford to buy a new one. I’d have to just leave it on the roadside. Or pay to have it destroyed. And what then? Would we hitchhike to Melbourne? With an entire carload of all my most precious possessions and a half-dead cat? We tried not to talk about what would happen if the cat did die. We couldn’t bring a cat corpse with us to Melbourne. Especially if it came to hitchhiking. We’d have to just bury her in a shallow grave on the side of the road. I did a mental inventory of my things and figured losing my all valuables would be insignificant compared to when my brother died. Oh god. If I died out here, what would my mother think?

Let’s skip forward to when the NRMA showed up. Turned out the problem was the alternator. Bonus points to anyone who guessed that from the symptoms listed earlier. Good news was it was totally fixable. Bad news was NRMA didn’t have a spare alternator and couldn’t get one. He offered to tow us, but could only tow us to Wagga. That’s over an hour west of our journey. So completely in the wrong direction. The only other suggestion he had was that we could just buy a new battery from him and drive until we drained it. We’d have to hope that it’d get us close to Albury. Or at least far enough south that if we broke down again, the NRMA there would tow us into Albury and not back up to Wagga. There was also some further complication where the NRMA dude didn’t have a spare battery and had to return to his depot or had another urgent breakdown to take care of. (I was so dehydrated by this point I was hardly creating long term memories.) So we had to wait another hour or so on the melting highway for him to return with a battery. With depleted water supplies. And a mostly-dead cat.

Not looking too good, there, catface. (Source)

Catastrophe. (Source)

The NRMA dude’s parting advice was “Don’t use any of the electronics. I know it’s hot but don’t use the aircon. You’ll just have to drive with the windows down and hope for the best.” So there we were, hacking through the heat at 110km/h with the windows wound down. Blunt force of the wind slapping us in our faces and whipping across our ears. If you’re following my “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” motif this was was about the equivalent of the burnt out car. Just substitute the icy snow for liquid magma.

Or better yet, this:

And we got to Albury. How? I don’t know. Magically, the replacement battery held out until Albury. That’s still only about halfway to Melbourne. But we’d booked a motel. We couldn’t risk asking them permission to bring the cat in and having them deny us, so we just snuck her in. Luckily she was too hoarse to meow, so no one could complain they’d heard cat-noises coming from our room. But we did have to constantly herd her away from sitting in the windows.

We were stranded in Albury. We’d moved over a weekend and no mechanic was open until Monday. Even then we figured it may take a few days to get the part in. Fiance had to leave a message to call in sick to his new work before he’d even started the job. We had no money. And there was nothing to do. We spend two days watching the three channels tuned in on the tv and eating vending machine food. Only one of us could leave the room at a time for fear of the cat freaking out. We were so relieved she’s survived that we almost didn’t mind the cabin fever.

g (Source)

“I don’t know babe, the chips seem more like a dinner meal. I’d go with the cookie for breakfast.” (Source)

A few days passed and we finally we got the part. The car was fixed. The cat was alive. My possessions were in tact. It was just over 3 and a half hours to Melbourne. Things were looking up.

We held our breaths for that last stretch, not daring to use the air con. But we made it. And fiance was only a few days late for work. I convinced him to stay at a friends’ house for the night so that he could use their showering and ironing facilities. We left the cat to explore the new apartment and dragged ourselves into the main street of our new suburb to get a much-deserved dinner out. We ate some flash-fried chicken thing as entree and noodles for main. I dropped him off at his friends’ place (so sick of driving, oh god!) and came home to the abandonment-issues cat.

I wish the story ended here. Isn’t that enough?

But that’s when I got food poisoning. The flash fried chicken thing had clearly not been cooked through, so I spend the whole night with my head over the toilet vomiting. Again there was indignity. And fears of dying. And fears of someone having to tell my mother her other child had died. Can this story get any worse? Oh yes! Much worse! Much!

"Why does god hate me?" (Source)

“Why does god hate me?” (Source)

Between voms, the removalists called me. Instead of coming at a reasonable time, like during daylight, they were going to be turning up during the hours of 2-4am. Why? WHY? I can’t answer this question. No one can.

And so they came. At 2am. Banging and clattering, and giving a horrible 2am first impression to my new neighbours. They unloaded things and dumped them at the entrance to the block of units. My apartment was on the first floor, so up 1 and 1/2 flights of stairs. But they were dumping my things on the ground floor outside the door to the building. I questioned them on this. They said they were pressed for time. They had another job to go to at 4am and didn’t have time to unload my things. I said that I had paid them to deliver my things to my apartment. They replied that no, I only paid them to deliver things to my address. I insisted they bring all my furniture and boxes upstairs to my apartment. Up the stairs that I had paid extra for per stair. They said that they would just dump my stuff on the side of the road if I didn’t cooperate. I’d been puking all night, I was exhausted from the car/cat/motel ordeal. I just wanted this nightmare to end. They finally compromised saying that they would bring as much as they could upstairs into the apartment, and then at 4am anything left over would be dumped on the roadside. I was exasperated. I couldn’t argue. They were holding my possessions random.

Trust the professionals. (Source)

Always trust the professionals. (Source)

I helped carry as many things upstairs as I could just to make the most of the time. It’s hard walking up and down flights of stairs while carrying heavy boxes after you’ve spent the whole evening with your head in the toilet. It’s hard enough lifting your head off the bathroom floor let alone do the removalists’ job for them.

Should have gone with Ace Ventura Removalists:

In the end, about 40 boxes were left outside my apartment building. They were only slightly out of view of the street, just down a driveway. But they were there for the stealing. Who needs to break into a house when the tenant has already boxed up and labeled their possessions for you? And I’m not talking boxes of clothes and cutlery. This was our tv, game consoles, dvds, my jewellery … things of resalable value that had virtually fallen off the back of a truck.

So picture me now. It was 4am. I was drained and exhausted. From driving, from throwing up, from carrying heavy boxes. Oh yeah, and I have a long-term shoulder injury. Did I forget to mention that? I couldn’t possibly bring another damn thing into the apartment. But I couldn’t leave my things there. I crawled back into my apartment and collapsed face-down on the floor. I figured 7am was about the time people would be getting up and heading off to work, thereby discovering the treasure trove of packaged items on their doorstep. So I slept for three hours. I woke up at 7am to the sound of rain. Yes rain. It was now raining on my earthly possessions. God truly hated me.

g (Source)

“Why me?” (Source)

I have truly never wanted to be alive any less than in that moment. I just wanted to not exist anymore. Not existing would be better than this. I couldn’t just lay there and feel sorry for myself. I had to get up and move the boxes. It would be bad enough to go through all that and just lie there crying. But I couldn’t even do that. To have to get up and continue dealing with it? Oh I wanted to just blink out of existence.

So what happened? Cavalry came. I called a distant relative who I knew lived in Victoria and she drove two hours to help me. She, her husband and another friend of mine all moved my things up while I sat shaking and rocking in a corner. My friend brought me the most wonderful care package: a red knit cardigan, a box of white peony tea leaves and two valium. And eventually I slept.

I couldn’t tell anyone about the ordeal. It was so traumatic, it took me weeks to recover. This is on top of the grief that regularly put me into catatonic and dissociative states. But fiance and I unpacked and made the place a home. Our neighbours turned out to be psychotic junkie hoarders. But they didn’t steal any of our things. And the removalists hadn’t broken anything. And the cat, the car and I all recovered from our afflictions.

(Source)

Cuddles. (Source)

Epilogue

Things didn’t work out with my fiance. We split up a few months ago. Neither of us were able to take the cat for different reasons, so we found her a new home. I’ve just moved all my things from Melbourne back to Sydney. I did the move very differently this time. Incidently, I highly recommend Kennards for boxes and Taxibox for moving. Kennards just lent me their company ute for free when the boxes I bought didn’t fit in my car. And the Taxibox people were really caring human beings. In fact, the move back was rather pleasant. I even stopped for tea and scones in Glenrowan and stayed at a beautiful B&B in a converted church in Gundagai. And my car miraculously made the drive back without any problems.

I’m trying to move on from trauma. You might think that leaving your fiance, moving interstate again and saying goodbye to your beloved pet would be horrifically stressful. But I coped. I’m proud of myself. And I’m moving forward. Maybe we can even laugh about it now.

[Featured image source]

Criving

I tend not to cry as much as I used to. I still have my moments though. I sometimes cry in my sleep and wake up with wet cheeks. Sometimes it all wells up under my eyes but I get a handle on it and it subsides. And sometimes I have those epic biblical cries with the gnashing of teeth and the rending of cloth.

Stella

Stellaaa! (Source)

But I really don’t cry all that often anyway. It’s just kinda sad all the time, so there’s not really any point crying. Crying is such a reactive thing and the grief is always there. If I cried every time I felt sad, I’d hardly get anything else done.

The only problem is the car. When I’m driving, I have enforced alone time. An hour’s drive is a whole lot of unwanted thinking time. I’ve tried listening to music, talk-radio and podcasts. Nothing is a big enough distraction. If I’ve got a passenger, I’m fine. But if I’m on my own, I’ll be crying while driving. Or criving. Having a big old crive.

b (Source)

She should really have that on speaker. (Source)

It can get pretty bad sometimes. Especially when I don’t realise I’m doing it at first. It’s not the big gasping, sobbing sadness that overtakes me. It can just be a steady stream of tears leaking out of the old tear ducts. Like a leaky tap. I remember one drive where I had the windscreen wipers going for a few rounds before I realised that it wasn’t rain that was blurring my vision. It was in fact a completely sunny day.

Maybe this would help? (Source)

Maybe this would help? (Source)

If I really want to torture myself, I put on the CD of music we played at his funeral. That’s a kicker. It’s actually some really beautiful music. The kind of stuff I would listen to ordinarily. But there are still a couple of tracks I skip every time. There’s one in particular that I can remember him singing along to, and I can’t help but hear him singing whenever I play that track. It should be something that makes me smile. I’m sure I’ll get there one day. But it’s still a torture track at the moment.

Playing it on repeat was probably a mistake. (Source)

Playing it on repeat was probably a mistake. (Source)

I read recently that different kinds of tears look different under a microscope. The photographs are the most beautiful artworks. Check out a post about it here. So ‘tears from laughing so hard you cry’ look entirely different to ‘tears from cutting onions’. They’re almost like snowflakes. I’d love to see a series of each kind of tear to see how much variation there is. Whether ‘tears of elation at a liminal moment’ look the same every time. And whether that’s the same for every person. Here’s what tears of grief look like.

g (Source)

Shiny. (Source)

It’s strangely comforting to think that my tears of grief look so beautiful magnified under a microscope. Perhaps I’ll try to think about that next time I’m criving. To be perfectly honest, I crive far less often that I used to. But it still happens often enough to warrant a term of its own. Feel free to use it.

I like to think of Rob McKenna as I drive. He’s a minor character is Douglas Adams’ ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’. He’s an ordinary lorry driver who can never get out of the rain. It’s raining on him every moment of his life. He knows that sunny skies exist because he can see them in the distance but, by the time he drives there, it’s raining there too. He even begins to catalogue different types of rain, like ‘breezy droplets’, ‘dirty blatter’ and ‘light pricking drizzle which made the roads slippery’. He absolutely hates the rain and is always sad and cranky. But the chapter ends in the most gorgeous way: “And as he drove on, the rainclouds dragged down the sky after him, for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God. All he knew was that his working days were misterable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him, and to water him.”

Why does it always rain on me? (Source)

Why does it always rain on me? (Source)

Isn’t that glorious? So I think of the Rain God who doesn’t know he’s a Rain God. And the clouds wanting to water him. And I wonder that perhaps I’m not some kind of Grief Goddess. Like Nienna of the Valar. Obscure Tolkien reference, anyone? Though I always thought ‘Lady of Mercy’ was a big of a raw deal when all the other gods and godddesses has such sweet powers. Maybe I should catalogue the tears. Or imagine the tears under a microscope. Or maybe I should just start taking the bus. I don’t have any answers for this one. As always, it’s just going to take time.

Time? Or perhaps some sweet Lichtenstein inspired makeup. (Source)

Or perhaps just some sweet Lichtenstein inspired makeup. (Source)

[Featured image source]

The Winter I Chose Happiness

The thing about happiness is that it feels abnormal.

I was out with a friend recently and before I even realised quite what I was saying, the words slipped out of me. I said, quite naturally, “I feel happ-” before I suddenly clapped a hand over my mouth.

Did I say 'happy'? I meant 'I'm feeling crappy'. (Source)

Did I say ‘happy’? I meant ‘I’m feeling crappy’. (Source)

I managed to recover my composure before my friend even realised what I’d said. It didn’t seem to resonate with them as being anything out of the ordinary. But it shocked me to the core. Happy? What is this ‘happy’ of which you speak? I haven’t felt happy since my brother died. And may never again. Certainly not until the grief fades and I recover my sanity. That could takes years yet. It must have been some mistake. I must have been in Pretendland too long and was just feeling a bit calm … or vague maybe?

But the very next day, I found myself blurting out, “To be honest, I actually feel happy.” My friend smiled, “That’s great!” I shook my head, “No. Not so much.”

I thought maybe the feeling was specific to that weekend. To being out with friends. To straying too long in fairyland with spritely, lively people who don’t share my problems. I figured that getting home, settling back into the drudgery, would return me to the comforting normality of grief and depression.

But I stayed happy. It bled into my week like indelible ink across paper. It soaked into my hands and for the life of me, I couldn’t wash it off. It wasn’t just me that saw it. I met up with a few friends and family members who, all independently of each other, commented that I looked happy. Or at least looked different. Even my psychologist remarked that he hadn’t seen me laughing and smiling so much in all the time he’s known me. Scary when even your psych notices. I thought I was going there to vent all the sads. Who laughs their way through their psych session? Crazy people like me, clearly.

b (Source)

Oh god get it off! Get it off! What gets happiness off? Turps? Methylated spirits? (Source)

It’s strange that I should have such an aversion to feeling happy. I mean, it’s just an emotion. Completely natural. But after more than a year and a half of being perpetually depressed, down to the depths of despair … happiness just doesn’t seem like a very natural feeling. It feels fake, forced and like a betrayal. Is it betraying my brother to feel happy? I’m really not into the whole “your brother wouldn’t want you to be sad” as I tend to respond with “yeah well, my brother wouldn’t want to be dead. But he doesn’t have a say in the matter. And he certainly isn’t here to tell me to feel otherwise.” But truly, is it even okay to feel happy now? Is it too soon?

I disagree with the concept that grief is a linear experience. As though you get through a stage of denial, then anger, then bargaining, then a long stint in depression, and then find yourself at the sweet endpoint of acceptance. In fact someone even said, in all seriousness, with no hint of irony, “So which stage of grief are you up to?” Seriously? Do you think that I just tick them off the list on my way back to sanity? Gosh that would be a hell of a lot easier than actually living with grief. At least you’d know where you were up to and how long you potentially had to go.

b (Source)

“Your ignorant question is taking me back to my anger stage!!!” (Source)

So I can’t just say that I’m finally up to the shiny acceptance stage just because I’ve been feeling a bit clearer. I mean, my head’s restored some clarity. I can think a little clearer. I still haven’t recovered the memories and the dreams are still as bad. In fact, the night terrors got so bad I woke up one night screaming and then the next night choking. But the tiny space I’ve managed to clear in my mind is wonderful. I can go and sit in the corner and look out upon the clutter with some hope that I can chip away at it over time. Make that tiny space bigger. Liveable. So I’m not hiding there, but actually living there. In an immaculate mind.

b (Source)

My mind is a mess! (Source)

But the thing is, I have no idea how long the happiness will last. It’s been fairly consistent lately. And not dependent on external factors. I have had some of the worst panic attacks since the event in the last few weeks. One of my most recent ones lasted for about 3 or 4 hours, after which I became virtually catatonic. And yet I sort of bounced back to a happy state once it was finally over. It seems that my base line has lifted just a little. I still get just as despairing and wretched. But maybe now I’m not entirely inconsolable. But who knows? This could be the eye of the storm. I’m trying really hard to believe that I’m healing. But like I said, it’s not linear. And it’s been really hard to tell anyone that I’m feeling a bit better because I don’t want people to just assume that I’m cured and not take any subsequent depression seriously.

b (Source)

“But I thought you said that you were cured. You can’t just keep playing the grief card to get attention, you know.” (Source)

It’s been really lovely being able to default to a kind of contentedness. But I think my doubts have been eating away at it a little. I’ve been resisting it, shrugging it off, playing it down. And I think if I kept this up, eventually I could whittle it down to nothing. And retreat to the safety of grief. I know grief. It knows me. We don’t like each other. We loathe each other. But we’ve tolerated each other for so long now that I don’t really know how to be anything else. It would be so easy to carry the grief around forever. Become one of those bitter people that others look at and whisper, “Why are they like that? What happened to them?”

And so I find that happiness is a choice. My base mood might have lifted, but it’s a daily choice to keep it there. Not to let it slip back down. I’m not going to be happy everyday. I probably won’t be happy most days. But the days that it seeps back in, I need to embrace it. It’s the last day of winter as I write this. And it will be the first day of spring when I post this. It may be completely arbitrary but it seems rather poetic that a change of seasons should represent a definitive change in self. Grief isn’t a linear journey. But maybe it’s seasonal. Maybe I can leave winter behind and move into spring. Growth. Rebirth. The frost melts from around my heart and I find it’s replaced with blossoms. Much like the honey-smelling white blossoms that used to adorn our old plum tree.

I’ve been listening to “The Winter I Chose Happiness” by Clare Bowditch as I write. The album ends with her singing, “are you ready yet / are you ready yet / to be happy?” And I can honestly say yes. Yes I am. I choose happiness.

[Featured Image Source]

“Let Me Know If There’s Anything I Can Do”

The thing I hear most from people is “let me know is there’s anything I can do.” This is such a lovely thing to say. Many people have said this to me, even as recently as last week. And it truly is a caring, generous sentiment. The only trouble is that we tend to say this to people who aren’t in a place where they’re capable of answering. When my brother first died, I was unable to eat or look after myself physically. Much less delegate tasks or make specific requests. And so the responsibility of asking for help is on the person that’s suffering. In fact, I was reading one article that said that not only is it difficult to work out what you need, but it’s hard to remember who offered help and to work out who would be the right person to help with that particular task.

I still find it hard to ask for help now. But I’m realising that so many of us want to help but have no idea what would be helpful. And so I started to wonder whether, instead of wanting to know if there’s anything you can do … to just do something of your own volition. Or to just find a thing that needs doing and do it. So here’s me saying , “Yes there are anythings you can do. These are things. See things now. Do things do.”

Listening

I think that absolutely above all else, listening is the most helpful thing. A lot of my friends have taken me out for a hot beverage and asked, “how you are you really?” It’s been rather a pleasure when we’ve got passed all the “fine thanks, and you” pleasantries and  they’ve been genuinely interested to hear how I’m coping. And some of the most significant experiences were when people asked follow-up questions. I didn’t just vent and then they swiftly changed the subject onto happier things. They listened. They responded with further questions. And then they listened some more. And they didn’t try to summarise what I’d said and contextualize it as being a stage in a linear grieving process, as though abject despair can be repackaged as “just something you’re going through, but it’ll get better soon”. Instead they agreed that things were just really bad. One of my closest friends said several times: “That’s really shit, lady.” It totally is.

Sad Panda is sad. (Source)

Sad Panda is sad. (Source)

I think what deters proper listening is not wanting to mention the war. I had another friend who took me out for hot beverages and was very adamant that they wouldn’t bring up “the whole grief thing” so as to provide me with a nice happy outing where I didn’t have to think about it for a while. I can totally understand that people would want to avoid “mentioning the war” so as to not upset me, not make it worse for me. But it just doesn’t work like that. I always think about it. Constantly. And NOT talking about it, actively avoiding it, is harder. Not mentioning the war makes it worse.

There’s an episode of Fawlty Towers where some German guests have arrived at the hotel and Basil, after receiving a serious concussion, is trying desperately hard not to mention WWII. But the more he adamantly tries not to mention it, the more it slips out in completely inappropriate ways. Until the woman in pink is sobbing loudly into her plate.

I think people get a bit “Don’t mention the dead brother. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it alright.” Well let me just totally fix a misconception here. DO mention the war. Do ask me how I am really. It’s ok to ask me questions about what happened. And it’s totally ok to mention my brother. I love hearing stories about him. In the time between his death and the funeral, the only time I came out of Catatonia was when someone found a video of my brother dancing like a complete fool. It was lovely to see him in glorious 3D again. I try so hard to keep him in my head. I try to animate the photos I have of him. I try to bring the memories back. So telling me things you remember about him, your memories … that’s what actually jumpstarts my brain. He may be gone from the world, but he still lives in my head.

bird brain

I hope he likes living in these birdhouses I found. (Source)

Care Packages

In the first few weeks when I needed round the clock babysitting, I stayed with some friends of mine. They asked me what they could get me. They were going up the road to buy some things. I said that I had absolutely no idea what I needed. They responded that they were just going to buy some random things and they didn’t want to get the wrong random things … so I may as well put in a request. “Uhh… iced tea…” I stammered out, “and a jigsaw puzzle…?”. “Done,” they replied. And so they returned within the hour with many litre bottles of iced tea in every flavour and a really beautiful jigsaw puzzle of a sunset reflected over a woody lake. They said that they panicked as they didn’t know what kind of tea I liked. Luckily I like EVERY KIND. I lived on that goddamn iced tea for the best part of a month. And I chipped away at the jigsaw daily, imagining that every piece I found a home for represented a tiny piece of me that I could somehow put back together.

iced tea

“One of your best everything, very yes please.” (Source)

Care packages are such an old fashioned thing in my mind. The old cliche of the hosuewives turning up on the doorstep with armfulls of tupperweared (tupperworn?) casseroles or baskets of muffins. But they have been invaluable. A friend of my mum’s sent her a whole box of wine. What a fabulous friend. And a colleague of my dad sent him a massive box of groceries and fancy pastries. Sometimes the food that people would bring over for me would be the only food I ate all week. When you’re barely able to dress yourself, making meals out of raw ingredients is a Herculean task. I had to ask my partner to explain to me how to make a sandwich because two crackers and a jar of jam just weren’t going together in a logical way. “Honey,” I pleaded, “Why won’t it sandwich? Why does everything hate me?”

I’ve also had two different friends mail me tea. In the mail. I don’t really get excited about anything anymore. I hear that’s common with depression. But seeing a huge package from T2 turn up on my doorstep is pretty damn exciting. There was one day in particular, quite recently in fact, where things were particularly bad. Some days things are bad, other days things are worse. I don’t know why an orange cube of loose leaf tea pulls me out of that state. It seems like such a simple thing. But the gesture of choosing one, buying and mailing it to my address just means the absolute world to me. Plus T2 keeps bringing out new feature teas. That whole banana range? And now the chocolate range? When will it end? Won’t somebody think of the children?

T2

Orange (packaging) is the new black. (Source)

Days Out

I had some friends contact me who wanted to take me out for a high tea. This was no ordinary high tea. They’d booked a hairdresser and makeup artist to do proper vintage styles. We had 50s-inspired dresses, pearls and little lace gloves. We went into the city, dressed to the nines, and had a glamorous high tea at a posh hotel. And there was champagne on arrival, scones, the whole thing. It was a really incredible day out. It would have been a nice day even if I hadn’t had been grieving. But when I was suffering from frequent panic attacks and agoraphobia, it was a really gentle and generous way of coaxing me out of the house for an afternoon.

high tea

It’s harder to sit around the house and watch entire seasons of tv shows when I’m looking as good as this. (Source)

The same friends also came over to my place one day with a whole stack of baked goods and a picnic blanket. And we sat in the local park and talked about all the big things while the hot sun drifted down through the gum leaves. That was rather pleasant. One friend had brought along her young daughter who was entirely too young to understand why I was upset. At that age I would have been terrified of a noticeably distressed adult. But she came over to me, of her own volition, and gave me a huge hug. Threw her tiny arms around me. It really meant a lot to me.

Friends with children have been a haven to me. It’s something of a small relief to sit around chatting with a friend while a kids movie plays in the background and their miniature offspring entertain themselves, oblivious to the complexities of my world. My mum and I talk about having heartbeats in the house. There’s solace in being alone, but feeling completely alone can lead to panic. So it’s nice to just have someone or something that has a heartbeat in the same house as you, even if they’re in a different room. And so children are nice. Animals are nice. Or in the words of Pratchett’s Death, “Cats. Cats are nice.”

Kitty hug

“Ok hoomin, but dis is last hug.” (Source)

Free Things

Can’t afford to take your friend out for a spa day or throw a box of wine at them? Free things are just as meaningful as non-free things. Perhaps even moreso. A few friends wrote me letters. Getting mail, actual handwritten letter with stamps on the envelopes, is a thing of joy. You don’t even have to write about things if you want to avoid mentioning the war. Just shove some shiny pictures you cut out of magazines that you stole from the doctor’s waiting room into an envelope and splurge on a postage stamp. I love mail. Mail. Love.

g (Source)

Handwritten letters tied up with string. These are a few of my favourite things. (Source)

I also had friends and relatives who would just post funny cat pictures, links to knitting patterns or memes of my favourite shows to my Facebook wall. I think it’s just that basic human contact that counts, you know. It almost doesn’t matter which medium you contact me through or exactly how your communicate. It’s just reaching out at all. So call me. Check on me. Let me know you’re still out there.

Leaning Out

A friend sent me this article about ‘ring theory’ which basically suggests that when someone is in a crisis of any kind, they are in the centre circle. If you can imagine concentric circles around the centre, then everyone else in their life fits into rings around them. So the person who is suffering is in the centre. Their partner or immediate family is in the next ring out. Their close friends further out than that. Then even further is perhaps extended family, acquaintances, colleagues, neighbourhood gossips, lackeys, flunkies, minions, exes. Or whatever. Look at the picture. The picture explains.

Now I am the Lord of the Rings! (Source)

Now I am the Lord of the Rings! (Source)

The whole point of this is that people in inner rings can lean outwardly for support. But you can’t lean on the people in smaller rings than you for support. So people in my extended family shouldn’t really be leaning on people in my immediate family for support. They need to lean outwards to their own support networks. And likewise, you need to offer comfort inwards. So if you are on, say, the fifth circle out … it’s unreasonable to be calling up someone on the third circle in and dumping all your fears and worries on them. They might not be the person most affected by the tragedy, but they still need comfort. And they’re probably being a pretty big support for the people further inward than themselves already. It’s a useful theory I think. Does it work for you? I’d be interested to hear what you all think of it.

And another thing … if you’re still interested in the ‘what not to do’ side of things, the best article I’ve read so far has been this Cracked article called ‘The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React To Tragedy’. And believe me, I have heard all five of these responses many times over in the last 18 months. Including the “If I had been there, this wouldn’t have happened’. Seriously. People have said that to me.

In Conclusion

Maybe just check on the people in your life who are going through things. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re really going. Buy them flowers. Or steal a few sprigs of lavender from a neighbour’s garden. Write them a letter or just hand them a post-it note saying ‘U OK?’ Never underestimate the power of turning up with cupcakes. It doesn’t really matter what you do in the end, just do something. I’m loathe to say something as trite as ‘it’s the thought that counts’. The action still counts. But I guess it doesn’t matter how grand or small the action is so long as there’s thought behind it.

Also I now want lavender cupcakes. Ending post here. Need to bake!

[Featured image source]

The Leaderboard

The leaderboard began as a joke. It then became a morbid competition. But ultimately it’s a way of coping with some of the truly awful things that people say to us.

I remember standing around my mother’s kitchen drinking huge mugs of tea: my mother, my sister-in-law and myself. This was only in the first few days after he’d died (her son, her partner, my brother). There had been a lot of phone calls to inform people of his death. Endless phone calls. Each one distinctly traumatic. Not a single person reacted to the news in quite the same way. We all got very good at framing the story and I can tell it now without any emotional involvement. But it never gets easier dealing with people’s reactions. They’re always unique. They always ask different questions. They always need different details or different reassurances. It’s draining. There’s got to be an easier way. I mean, do people still use singing telegrams?

barbershop_quartet_walking_right

“Hello my baby, hello my honey, your childhood friend is dead.” (Source)

I spent a few hours pacing up and down my mother’s front lawn until I wore a track into the grass. All the while, I called just about everyone in my phone from A-Z. It seemed slightly callous ringing people in alphabetical order rather than in order of importance or immediacy. But they all needed to be told. And I wanted them to hear it from me. So starting with ‘A’ made just as much sense as anything else.

nokia-7610-supernova-and-confessions-of-a-shopaholic-gallery

“Hello? Amy Adams? I have bad news… Also do you have Zachary Quinto’s number?” (Source)

I guess, statistically speaking, after that many phone calls you’re bound to get a few unusual reactions. But there were some that were unpredictably unfeeling. One of my friends told me that they were saddened by the news and in the next breath said, “Oh did I tell you, I’m planning a trip to Europe!” Someone else remarked, “Funnily enough, this is the second bit of bad news I’ve heard today!” And another friend stammered out in monotone, “There’s nothing I can possibly say to that, so maybe I’d be best just not saying anything. Goodbye.”

And so we met back in the kitchen with our respective teas, our mobile phone screens fogged over with tears, and shared some of the worse responses. At some stage incredulity turned into exasperated laughter, until one of us said to the other “I think you’re winning!” And so the leader board was born: an imaginary scoreboard that kept a running tally of who had had the worst thing said to them.

b (Source)

“Hooray! I’m winning at the game of having friends who lack empathy! Woo-hoo!” (Source)

I found it easy to forgive some of the more inappropriate responses that I’d heard in the first few days. I had to remind myself that people were hearing the news for the first time and were clearly in shock. So when they needed me to stay on the line to console them until they stopped crying (rather than them asking me how I was coping), I tried to remember than none of us had really done this before and we were hardly going to be good at it. But it’s the outrageously insensitive things that people have said to me in the months since that I find harder to forgive. Would you like examples? Would you like examples organised into categories?

Pets

“I know exactly what you’re going through. When my cat died, I was so traumatised. I even had to take a few days off work.”

“That is such a coincidence. My next-door neighbour’s dog actually died last week.”

“I hope you sleep well. If you get lonely during the night, just remember my dog is watching over you. [She then points to urn of dog’s cremated ashes on the mantelpiece.]”

b (Source)

Yeah well, my brother left paw prints on my heart too. (Source)

Relatives

“It was a really bad year last year, as you know. Yours was worse. Oh no, actually mine was just as bad.”

“Sorry I can’t come to the funeral, but I went to one last year and I’m just a bit over it”

“You have no idea what grief is like. When I lost my [distant relative], I was inconsolable. I never got over it. And that was 15 years ago. You have no idea what that’s like.”

b (Source)

Or when I saw one of my relatives and, before I’d even walked through the front door, was told, “Don’t upset my daughter. She’s working on her homework.” (Source)

Making It Personal

“[Notices a photograph of my brother on the wall] “I hate that kind of photography.”

Friend: “Your brother wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
Me: “Yeah well, my brother wouldn’t want to be dead.”

 

“You’ve always been such a kind, gentle person. But maybe this is what you needed to harden up a bit. You know, for your own good?”

b (Source)

“It’s ok, sweetie. Your sibling died for the good of your character.” (Source)

This Morning

Friend: “You cut your hair?”
Me: “You read my blog?”
Friend: “It came up in my fb feed. Is that your blog? Cool… I’ll have to check it out some time.”
Me: “It’s about grief. Not the lightest of reads. And yes, cut my hair.”
Friend: “Hmmm maybe I’ll give it a pass. I’m more of a happy kinda guy.”
b (Source)

Pictured: a happy kinda guy. (Source)

So it looks like I’m back at the top of the leaderboard as of this morning.

The leaderboard is just a coping mechanism. It’s a way of adapting unjustifiable ignorance, cruel indifference or thinly-veiled insults into delightful black humour. It’s been the foundation of centuries of literature and theatre. And now, when met with injury and injustice, instead of bursting into tears or being jolted back into shock I think to myself, “I can’t wait to tell people about this!” So by all means, say awful things to me. Get yourself quoted on my blog. Gain internet fame. Keep me on top of the leaderboard. I’m not really winning at life at the moment and I’ve got to win at something.

[Featured image source]

 

Haircut

I’ve done it. I have cut my hair.

Well I didn’t cut it. I was tempted to. I have been cutting small pieces out when the knots have been too tenacious to tease out. It takes anywhere from 30min to 2 hours to get all the knots out completely. Daily. With my hair plaited overnight. I can only imagine the fairies must get to it while I’m asleep.

"I appreciate the gesture, guys, but maybe you could teach me how to undo them?" (Source)

“I appreciate the gesture, guys, but maybe you could teach me how to undo them?” (Source)

In moments of sheer frustration, I have stared purposefully at the scissors with malice glinting in my eyes. But the only pairs I have on hand are a pair of nail scissors that are virtually rusted shut and a pair of kids’ craft scissors that are bright purple. Hardly fitting for my glorious tresses.

scissors

“You can just cut your hair with any old household scissors, right?” (Source)

But I was patient and waited until I could see my hairdresser (thank you again, gorgeous!) so that she could work her sorcery. She gracefully and deftly hacked into my mangy mane and styled it into a thing of beauty and awe. So I went from hair that looked something like this:

This was shot for Fox in 2008.

I bet Gillian Anderson is tangle-free. (Source)

To looking something like this:

sandra bullock

“Can you style the rest of me into Sandra Bullock too?” (Source)

Funnily enough the colour has changed slightly also. I think my hair is actually the same colour it always is: a very dark strawberry blonde. But it’s usually darkest at the top. So I’m looking far more brunettish than usual. They say blondes have more fun. But redheads have the most fun. I’ve been a great many different colours in my time and the only time I have been hit on purely because of my hair colour is as a redhead. I fondly remember one foolhardy young lad sidling up to me, cocking his head to one side and dreamily exhaling, “your hair looks like a sunset…”

"Cheers, kiddo" (Source)

“Cheers, kiddo.” (Source)

So the plan is to get through this bout of corpse-hair and enjoy my healthy, shiny Sandra Bullock hair. And who knows, maybe when it’s fully recovered I’ll break out the Corvette Red dye and drive this hair into the sunset.

 

[Featured image source]

Essential Me

I am not the same person that I used to be. And that’s something I’ve been struggling to accept. I might be the same on the outside, but ‘essential me’ has irrevocably changed.

My bff and I invented the term ‘essential me’ when trying to explain how invigorated we felt after spending time together talking very openly or when engaging in creative activities that made us feel connected to our artistic selves. So your ‘essential you’ is the purest part of you. If you got rid of all the baggage, the professional persona, the variations of you that you adopt for different social circumstances … if you boil yourself down to the most essential characteristics form your identity and psyche … that is ‘essential you’. The you that you see in the mirror. The you that you come home to at the end of the day.

(source)

“Oh look, there I am! Probably should clean this mirror.” (Source)

My ‘essential me’ is the goddess, the writer, the napkin poet. I can sometimes feel disconnected from who I really am when I’m at work or around people to whom I have to present a slight variation of myself: the me that’s a bit more formal, conservative, rational or responsible. But when I’m doing the things I love: writing, reading, playing piano, singing, drinking tea, crafting … it’s then that I feel most in touch with ‘essential me’. Or when I’m spending time with friends who really let me be myself.

Essential me (source)

Essential me (Source)

But when my brother died, a part of me died too. A phone call. Two words. The avenue of ambulances. Devastation. Shock. How could I ever describe that moment to you? The moment I will relive for the rest of my life. The moment that split my whole life into two separate timelines: the time when he was alive and the time now he is dead. I can easily tell you in person all about how he died without being emotionally affected by it. But I’ll never be able to tell you about finding out and the first few hours afterwards. Watch ‘The Body’ episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or click this five second moment in ‘Pay It Forward’. Or just look at this picture:

ambulance

“Looks like it’s just you and me now, panda.” (Source)

And while I mourn the loss of him, I find myself mourning the person that I used to be. It’s apparently a common thing with grief. One grief pamphlet tells me that a typical worry is “acting out of character and being different to the way we usually are”. Which is nice and all … but there’s a bit of an expectation that things will go back to normal eventually. And I just don’t think that’s the case. I can never go back to being normal because ‘normal’ was when my brother was alive. It is profoundly abnormal that he’s dead. And just as there are two timelines, there are now two me’s. The ‘before me’ that was happy. And the ‘now me’ that will never be happy in quite the same way again.

Maybe part of me hasn’t died, exactly. Maybe it’s just that my essential me has shifted. I feel like I’m mourning a loss of self, but maybe it’s just a change in self. I used to consider myself to be empathetic, caring, idealistic and sanguine at my core; now find that these qualities have limits. I am far more sceptical and pragmatic, and my empathy does not tolerate frivolity. I can empathise with those who have suffered, but not with those who are merely inconvenienced. I might be just as amiable and kindly as ever, but I am far less joyful. The colours of the world have faded slightly and I understand the inevitability and finality of death. I am disillusioned. The essential me that I once saw in the mirror is fractured and unfamiliar.

And it’s not just me. Some of my friends have noticed that I’ve changed. One or two have mentioned that it’s now difficult to be around me. One friend even called me up to tell me that she liked the person that I used to be and she doesn’t like how bitter and depressed I’ve become. And she would really like me to go back to being the friend that I once was to her because that person was much more enjoyable to be around. While I can understand that she misses me and wants me to recover, what she actually said sounded very selfish and much more about her. Perhaps asking me how I’m coping would have been a better strategy. She will never understand that the devastation and ruin of grief will be with me for the rest of my life. My life has changed forever. The death of my brother will never stop being sad, unfair and utterly senseless. How could anyone expect me to shrug this tragedy off and go back to being blithe and carefree? I know that I will recover, that things will get easier with time. But it is either ignorant or insensitive to expect me to be happy-go-lucky so soon after this tragedy.

I know that Pretendland me is much easier to be around. It is quite nice to go out into the world and have hot beverages with friends. To sit in the winter sunshine and feel it’s shy warmth. To wander down to the beach and stare absentmindedly at the deep horizon. To hear what’s going on in your life and enjoy my stay on your islands. I’m getting better and better at being in Pretendland. Only not everyone knows that that’s what’s happening. That they’re only seeing what I’m like when I’m in Pretendland and not what I’m like once I leave their company. It’s like in the novel, ‘The Silver Chair’…

silverchair_1377190649886

No, wait, that’s not it. (Source)

I mean the book by C. S. Lewis. Part of the Narnia series. Not the Australian band. Although, fun fact: they did name themselves after the book.

silver-chair

There we go. (Source)

In The Silver Chair, our heroes find themselves alone with a knight who is under an enchantment. He explains to them that every night there comes an hour when his mind is most horribly changed. He becomes furious and wild, and in his fit would destroy all that he could reach. Fortunately he is bound by hand and foot to a silver chair so that he can not harm anyone. And each night, after the fit passes, he awakes with no memory of it. He is a rather upbeat, irreverent character and our heroes are afraid of the dark, violent person he’ll change into under the enchantment.

After a nice meal together, our heroes stay late into the day with the Knight. And eventually our heroes experience his frenzy first hand. The enchantment takes hold and the Knight goes pale, sweats and writhes in his bonds. He groans, “The heavy, tangled, cold, clammy web of evil magic … how many years is it?… Have I lived ten years, or a thousand years, in the pit? … Quick! I am sane now. Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair, it would last. I should be a man again. but every night they bind me, and so every night my chance is gone. … It is at this hour that I am in my right mind: it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.”

(Source)

“Oh, you have hearts of stone,” said the Knight. “Believe me, you look upon a wretch who has suffered almost more than any mortal heart can bear.” (Source)

There is so much that resonates with me here. I think I am that jovial, upbeat Knight that is quite pleasant to have a meal with. And I don’t think people truly understand how dark I get in the later hours unless they see it firsthand. The thing I love most about this scene is that the Knight spends his whole time trying to explain that he is perfectly normal, but he falls under an enchantment that turns him violent and insane. And yet once the enchantment takes hold, he is trying to convince them that all that niceness and happiness was the spell and only NOW is truly himself. It reminds me of old fantasy or sci fi stories where you have two clones standing side by side both saying, “I’m the REAL one!” … “No, I’M the real one!”

Pretendland is like that. I tell people that while I’m ok while we’re out in the world, later on the enchantment will take hold and I’ll be all crazy again. But it’s actually the other way around. Pretendland is the surreal, crazy place. And the time when I’m back home, tied to my own silver chair, that’s the real me. It is at this hour that I am in my right mind (albeit crying or catatonic): it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.

chair

I might need a crash course in knot-tying. (Source)

So many me’s. The now me. The before me. Essential me. Pretendland me. Silver Chair me. No wonder I feel fractured and unfamiliar. How am I to make sense of all this? I think I’ve been in denial for a long time that I’ve changed. There’s a misconception that it takes a long time to finally come to accept that someone’s died. That came very quickly for me. I heard the words, I saw the ambulances, we had the funeral. It’s a bit hard to argue with all that. Would be nice to think it’s all been some cruel, elaborate reality show. But even my subconscious knows. He turns up in my dreams quite often: in full 3D technicolor with surround sound. But even in my dreams I’m not relieved to see him. I know he’s dead. Neither of us have any explanation as to how he’s there. And each time I find myself having to sit him down and explain to him that he’s dead and that he needs to go. Fun times, right? No wonder I need to escape to Pretendland.

I accepted his death very quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to cope with the knowledge. And it’s certainly not easy to accept that I’ve changed. I really resent the consequences of his death. The effects it’s had on my family. The ensuing symptoms: practical, emotional, psychological, physical. And I resent that I’m a different person. I liked who I was. I would like to continue being that essential me. But I’m different. I’m not the blithe, serene green goddess in that picture at the start. But maybe I’m still just as green, and still just as much a goddess. Less Aphrodite/Athena, and more Hera perhaps? You can still be a goddess and have a dark side, right? We’ll just call it ‘wisdom’ or ‘solemnity’. I’ve just traded my levity for gravity. I think as long as I don’t end up being The Lady of the Green Kirtle (Narnia fans, you with me?) then I think I’ll be ok. Better than ok. And, at the end of the day, I’ll still be me. Essentially.

Lady_of_the_Green_Kirtle

You can totally trust a woman with a mandolin and magic incense. She won’t turn out to be evil. (Source)