dissociation

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]

“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 Grief Islands

Welcome to the beautiful Grief Islands where your stay is long and unpredictable!

I’ve been leaving the house more and doing social things with other humans. I believe this is a really healthy thing to do. The trouble with being social is that people assume I’ve made a successful journey back to the Mainland of Sanity. They tell me that I’m doing really well or that it’s good to see me happy. And it’s really hard to explain to them that I still live full time in the Grief Islands. Being social is just a quick trip to Pretendland and, as soon as they leave, I’ll be heading back over to the Republic of Reality.

Pretendland

Pretendland is the most desirable place to be. While here, you basically pretend that nothing bad has happened and you can socialise, drink tea and be merry. The light is brighter here, the colours saturated and everything seems to be similar to how it was before he died. You can even pretend that you are that person you used to be: happy, carefree, content.

Pretendland

All of the colours! (Source)

You can get a lot done while you’re in Pretendland. While here I like to knit socks, drink tea, play some piano, walk along the beach, sing along to music … basically do all the things that I would usually enjoy. It is possible to stay here for long periods of time. You just have to keep lining up the social activities. Much like those people that continually travel the globe season to season, living out an endless summer. I’ve actually attempted that: one most ambitious Saturday, I enjoyed breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper with six different friends (one at a time) in six different locations. That was supremely fabulous. And it’s just as fabulous with one person: recently I spent a whole day with a friend making pancakes, crafting, talking and listening to musicals. We sat in her living room while the sun poured through the windows, refracted through a hanging crystal and formed little rainbows throughout the room. And it was a really nice day. I could have stayed in that day for a whole week.

IMG_1798

Even my ‘English Toffee and Peppermint’ tea had a rainbow.

One of the positives of Pretendland is that you can talk openly about the grief without being affected by it. You can ask me absolutely anything about how he died, how it affects me and how I cope with it. I feel absolutely no emotional connection to it at all. The huge downside is that I feel no emotional connection to anything whatsoever. I don’t truly enjoy the fun activities. I don’t feel the heat of the warm sun. The colours are false. It’s not exactly that I’m faking it when I’m around people. It’s just that being this numb is the only way I can function. It would be easy to see me in Pretendland and think that I’m coping really well. But that’s only because you never see me on any of the other islands. Of all the islands, it’s the nice one to visit. But that’s kinda all it is: ‘nice’. It’s not happy. It’s not really any of the feels. It would be easier to just stay in Pretendland and never have to deal with what’s happened. But I can’t live an endless summer. I have to leave sooner or later. And if I try to stay for too long, I run the risk of slipping into Dissocia.

Dissocia Island

Dissocia is a close neighbour of Pretendland. It’s essentially the place you end up when you’ve been pretending for a little bit too long. On the outside you’re the happy, carefree, content Pretendland-person everyone likes spending time with. But on the inside you feel completely detached or dissociated from everyone around you. You smile and nod on the outside, but internally you just can’t relate to any of the humans you’re in conversation with. While here I spend much of my time trying to make my facial expressions and vocal tone match the emotion I think is appropriate to the conversation.

Dissocia

It’s so exhausting having to manually switch between all the faces. (Source)

I find that I slip seamlessly from being in Pretendland to being in Dissocia when people start talking about things that seem insignificant compared to the intensity of my grief. It’s not that they talk about trivial things, I actually find that trivial topics can be really safe things to talk about. But it’s when people trivialize death around me. When they say things like “if I had a tattoo like that I’d kill myself” or “what he said was so shocking, like a bullet to the brain” or “why doesn’t she just go slit her wrists”. I can’t deal with that. I get that we use hyperbole in common speech all the time. But some of these just seem so unnecessary when they’re said to me. So thoughtless. So callous. But I get that they slip out. I’m sure I’ve said similar things in my time.

First World Problems

What’s worse is when people start trying to compare my grief to things they’re experienced. Like they understand what I’m going through because their pet died a while ago. I get that people are just trying to find a point of reference. One of the ways we try to relate to one another is by thinking of similar things we’ve experienced ourselves. Grief of any kind is hard. Losing a pet is sad. A relationship breaking up is sad. A celebrity you’ve never met’s death is sad. But these things are not the same as what I’m going through. Not even a little bit close.

Dissocia 2

“Tell me again about how my grief is the same as when you dropped your iphone and cracked the screen. That’s totally the same amount of sads as my brother dying.” (Source)

I’m not saying that you can’t talk about your smart phone. I can even show you mine: it’s so bad that the glass has fallen off and you can see it’s inner-workings. Just don’t compare it to that time when my brother died. Comparisons are never good. Even with people who have been through massive grief and loss, it’s not a competition. Not one that anyone wins anyway. It’s very isolating to feel like you can’t relate to people anymore. I try not to stay here too long. But I find myself here unexpectedly. It’s not an island you set out to visit–but take a wrong turn and you’ll find yourself here again and again.

The Republic of Reality

This is the island of sad, stark reality where my brother is most definitely dead. And I most definitely have to deal with it. This is the place I come back to after I leave Pretendland. It’s the place I find myself in when I wake up in the mornings. It’s the island I sleep on when I go to bed at night. There’s a cold reality to how bad the depression gets. There’s a misconception that grief just boils down to a whole lot of sadness. Like if I could just remember the happy times with my brother rather than dwell on the loss that I’d feel a lot better. Or that grief is a state that I’ll come out of sometime soon and I’ll see the sunshine and things will be ok like they used to be.

Little Cloud

“Just having a bit of a sad, but I’ll be happy again in a minute.” (Source)

It’s not glamorous. It’s not a little cloud. It’s not just sadness. It’s misery, guilt, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, fear, panic. All of the things. It’s a complete loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities. It’s that black feeling. It’s that feeling that something is profoundly wrong and it will never be put right again.

I can’t explain this place to you. If you don’t know it, I don’t want to take you there. I’m happy for you to not understand. I wouldn’t want you to understand. You just have to trust me that it’s dark there and I spend a whole lot of my time there against my will. I don’t choose to be here. But the waters around this island are deep, muddy and treacherous. I’m wading my way out and holding onto all the lifebuoys I can reach (i.e. counselling, support, etc). But I’ll be here for a while yet. When I’m not slipping into Catatonia.

Catatonia Island

Reality is exhausting. Depression is exhausting. Eventually I get so tired of being so goddamn sad that I just zone out completely into something of a catatonic state. I spent the first 3 months after he died in shock on this island. And I still spend days at a time here. On this island you sleep at least 12 hours a night. Wake up after midday and move to the lounge, still in your pyjamas. You watch a whole season of a tv show on your laptop. You live on whatever food you can microwave. For those first 3 months it was just crackers and iced tea. I’m glad I can at least work the microwave again now. Between episodes you can take a break to stare at the wall for a while. Or watch the cat while she looks out the window at the birds. It’s just another version of the numbness. There’s an unsettling pleasantness to just not feeling anything.

Catatonia

“Maybe today I’ll count the ceiling tiles.” (Source)

It’s another bad place to stay. You start to not care about anything. You don’t eat properly. You stop showering. You never leave the house. You stay up so late watching tv that you become almost completely nocturnal. I stayed up so late one night I only just managed to slip into bed 10min before my partner’s alarm went off for work. I really don’t recommend a holiday here. But sometimes it’s the only reprieve from Reality. I just try to keep it to a short stay.

The Mainland of Sanity

I guess this is the place I’m trying to get to. I don’t really know what it looks like or how to get there. But I’m sure it exists for me.

Mainland of Sanity

Something like this? (Source)

The Grief Islands are pretty bleak, each in their own way. But I think the secret is not to try desperately to swim away from them, but to understand why they are so separated. Why am I unable to be sad when I’m out with people? What are the prompts that force me over to Dissocia? At what point do I slip from depression into Catatonia? I know that I can’t run away to Pretendland, but I think that part of sanity is spending more time there in a genuine, emotionally-aware state. And while the Republic of Reality is completely necessary (I shouldn’t just try to just forget that my brother died and live in denial), I need to find a way to deal with reality without staying in my depression. I think once you reunite the islands, you’ll find that the Mainland of Sanity is made up of those separated lands. It’s just that everything is so fractured that you can’t deal with all of the feels at the same time. And you need to be able to escape to the different islands to separate out the moments of denial (Pretendland), detachment (Dissocia), depression (Reality) and despair (Catatonia).

Hope you enjoyed your island tour. Here’s your complimentary kitty.