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Posts Tagged ‘personal growth’

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental illness and creativity. Specifically, my own. I have been uncommonly balanced for four years now – those who know me as friends and intimates now would perhaps not recognise who I was before. Though I’ve had periods of reactive depression, I’ve never reached the terrible depths of despair that used to be my default.

I also, during those times, was at my most creatively prolific.

I wrote during the periods when I was despairing, when I felt trapped and hopeless. I wrote because I hurt, and if I could just get it out of me, like bleeding a bad humour, then perhaps I would feel better. Perhaps the world would not seem so bleak. I wrote when I was suicidal, when I was suffocating with anxiety, I wrote when I felt helpless and hopeless and when I was having existential crisises about god and identity and the self. I wrote because I wanted other people to feel what I felt, to feel that sharp turn of emotional agony, like a knife in the belly, twisted hard.

If I examine my work from that period, it’s no surprise that I wrote almost exclusively about women whose power was taken from them, and their subsequent deaths.

Writing as creative catharsis became my norm, so when I balanced out after finally finding the right medication combination, I struggled, for years, to write again. I mean, if you’re not borderline suicidal and obsessed with the concept that your work will only gain value posthumously, what’s to write about?

The last major play I wrote before the depression lifted is about loss of hope. About fractured minds, delusions, the shifting nature of memory, but really, about the loss of hope. Because that’s where I was when I wrote it. After ten years of seeing doctors and other medical practitioners, after ten years of therapy and bouncing from drug to drug, I was losing hope. Had lost hope. It had been slowly torn from me, like stitches that rip thread by thread. All the drugs, while making minor improvements, still failed to stabilise me and often came with intolerable side effects.

There were times I hallucinated, or spiraled into mania, or felt cripplingly exhausted and unable to move, as a direct result of the drugs that were supposed to improve my mood. And every time I changed drugs, I faced the prospect that washing out from one drug before starting another would leave a small window when I was at my most vulnerable, when I would try to kill myself.

Did. Did try to kill myself.

I wrote all that out, let it fall onto the page in an attempt to be done with it.

Part of maintaining my mental health now is recognising who I was then, both as a writer and as a person with a debilitating mental illness. Though I’ve been well for several years, I will never really consider myself cured. I still take the drugs, after all. I call it a remission. I am a recovering depressive. Mental illness controlled and shaped me as an adolescent and young adult, moulded me and guided my steps in life. I am who I am because I grew up trying to manage an illness that refuses to be neatly boxed and put to one side. It hurt me. It hurts me to remember it, to know that without the right medication and strength of several years of mental wellbeing, I could be that person again.

That person who wrote all her pain on a page and sent it out into the world, away.

Now I think I write from a place of strength, not illness. It’s taken me a long time to start writing again, as though recovering from mental illness also meant putting away its crutches. And I missed writing, but I missed it like cigarettes. Because it came from an unhealthy place for the longest time.

A few days ago I put my fingers to the keys and wrote a piece of flash fiction for a competition. I don’t care if it’s never seen again – the important part was I wrote something, and it didn’t feel like bleeding. It didn’t feel like an uncontrolled gush of emotion, it felt like a regulated, modulated trickle. It felt like letting out a memory rather than drawing on something entirely present.

Afterwards I did not feel stunned and empty, like I used to. I felt calm. In control. Balanced.

I learned to be a creative person as a way of coping with mental illness. Now I find I can still be a creative person, and I don’t have to be sick or sad or suicidal to do it.

Good.

forevermore

 

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I live with a constant and crippling fear of failure. I live with it every day. It tells me things, creeps up on me in the night and curls around me like a sleeping cat. Not good enough, it says. Never good enough. Might as well stop trying.

It is for this reason that I often don’t write when the mood strikes, or inspiration hits. It’s the reason I don’t send my short stories off to competitions, why I don’t pitch to magazines, send my plays for assessment or ask other writers to look at my work. It cuts me off, shuts me down and silence. My fear. My self-sabotage.

Better not to try than try and fail. Better never to submit my work than submit it and face rejection. Hurts less. Costs me less. This way I still keep my pride and dignity.

All of these thoughts, that have wound up around me and strangled my ambition for a lifetime, they are tangled up with depression and anxiety and low self-esteem. The steel blade piercing my resolve.

I have worked and studied almost half my life to be a writer, and yet I hold the inherent belief that I am not good enough. Not compared to other writers whose work I read and admire. I am not eloquent enough to be printable, and not determined enough to be successful.

Better not to try than try and fail.

Better not to try.

The horrible little voice in my head that talks in the background, that provides a constant litany of reasons why am no good, it uses my voice. It sounds like me, works from my vocabulary and with my turn of phrase. Trust your inner voice, right? My inner voice tells me, often, that I am worthless as a writer. That I have wasted my life doing this. That I will never amount to anything, be a success, be noticed or published or respected or heard; that to keep going is pointless, to procrastinate is best. Better not to try, not ever, better to save face rather than deal with assured dismissal and be shattered.

I see other people who are productive and determined, inspired and adaptable, who work on and on while overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and that little voice simply says, you could never do that. You are not that person. You are not that motivated. You are not capable or competent.

Better not to try.

I’m not writing this as a cry for help, or to be told what I am or am not. I’m writing it to exorcise a demon. To expose this terrible doubt that lives inside of me, masquerades as the best advice I could give myself. Because I don’t want to live like this, crippled by an inferiority complex that targets my dreams.

I’ve decided. This is worse, living like this. Worse than rejection, worse than the possibility of failure, worse than loss of pride and dignity.

Better now, I think, to try.

 

writingonthewall

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I’ve learned, after 10+ years of dealing with depression, that preventative measures can make a huge difference when it comes to mental health. This is generally called self-care, and I have certain self-care measures I start pulling out whenever I feel my mood is fragile, like now. Self-care can sometimes mean maintaining rather than declining, I’ve found. I want to go into detail on more of these in future posts, but here’s just one or two to start with.

Maintaining a routine. This one is so important for me, or I drift. I am more than capable of doing nothing for days on end while the chores pile up around me and I get nothing done. My mood can spiral because of the sheer nothingness of my days. With kids, maintaining a routine happens without a lot of effort from me – my days are defined by meals and naps anyway, so I put the effort in to keeping up regular activities like play dates, grocery shopping and outings. I try to keep active when the kids are sleeping and I’m not having a sleep myself.

Keep order in my environment. For me, this involves running the dishwasher once a day, trying to vacuum at least once a week, staying on top of the laundry. A cluttered environment clouds my mind, and it’s hard to stay positive and active when I’m feeling overwhelmed by mess. I’ve taken this a step further, and recently cleared the clutter out of our bedroom and set up a little dressing area for myself, with my jewellery and hair stuff organised next to the mirror. It’s a small space of calm that I focus on keeping tidy, so my bedroom feels like a positive space rather than just one more room that’s stressful for me to be in. No kids’ stuff allowed. 

My little corner of neatness.


Create small goals. Making small, attainable goals can be incredibly helpful for me. Rather than a big, looming five-year-plan type deal that seems both far away and unreachable, I like to create small tasks for myself, or break bigger projects down into smaller tasks. For example, I’ve been sewing a lined swaddling pouch for the baby – this is a project that doesn’t take forever, I enjoy and can work on in small bursts. Tidying all the clutter out of the bedroom was a goal I banged out in an evening, and part of our larger project of getting the house organised. I century organised all my sewing and craft gear, which I’ve been meaning to do forever. Small goals don’t overwhelm, and yet give a sense of pride and satisfaction when they’re completed, which is helpful to my mental health.

 

This isn’t prescriptive by any means, just some things I’ve found have worked to keep my mental health on an even keel. Sometimes depression happens no matter what, but sometimes I can hold it off by being careful, sticking to habits that I know keep me focused and calm. It’s when I start to drift into overwhelming stress and anxiety that my mood spirals very fast. Right now, because I’m aware that I’ve been feeling down and that can easily lead to depression, I’m pulling out all the self-care stops. 

What are your techniques for self-care?

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There are things I would say if I had a voice.

I don’t, you see – have a voice. Not an individual voice that is mine and that matters and can be heard over the din. Because it is put down, or written off, or labelled in a way that makes it worth less. Not worthless maybe, just worth less. I am told I am a mummy blogger, and maybe I am – but I am also not a writer, I am a woman writer. A woman who writes, predicated on gender; an aside, behind the hand, good at what I do for a woman. ;

There are moments in every woman’s life when she is both confronted by her womanhood and reviled by it – when it beats on her like a hammer, a mantra, a reminder of all that she is, all that she is not, all that is expected of her and all that is not allowed of her. To be a woman is to be mired in contradictory social conditioning that both contains us and undermines us.

(I am 13, walking to a fete on a hot day in a singlet and shorts, and some hoon drives past slowly, leaning out the window, making a lewd gesture. I bloomed late – I have no breasts, no curves, no signs of womanhood other than I am taller than I used to be. This is a rite of passage all young women face – this moment, of being unsure if this is a compliment or an insult, or somehow both. Feeling raw and slick with disgust and heat and shame and yet somehow pleased too, because only attractive girls get leered at, right? Right?)

I am a mother now, and this is an extra caveat to womanhood, an extra characteristic that defines me as Other. I am a mother with that this pertains – the guilt, the boredom, the terror and fleeting moments of joy; joy so sharp and poignant it is more like a bandaid being torn off than any permanent emotion. Like a quick rip through the heart that leaves you blinking back tears, because this joy feels almost like grief too – I get this, yes I get this joy but the compromise is so great. There is so much I lose. The cost is so high. Motherhood is another way of losing one’s voice, after all.

I had no voice today in the shopping centre – the mother rocking a wretchedly sobbing infant in her arms – while in the pram, a toddler mimics the wails of the infant. An old man walked past, staring at me like I’d ruined his day, like I’d brought my children into his space and deliberately upset them, so the shrieks echoed through the vaulted mall in a way that is perfectly toned to make your ears itch. If I spoke then, my voice would have been lost in this old man’s judgement. Mothers are not supposed to inflict their children on public spaces, THEMSELVES on public spaces. Do not be a mother in a shopping centre doing her shopping for dinner, trying to get out of the house for an hour, to make the scenery change for a moment of a day otherwise filled with childish chatter. Do not be a mother whose children are not perfectly silent and still mannequin models of good behaviour. Do not be a mother who is trying her best, getting through the day, trying to cope. Do not be a mother, because mothers have no voice.

Mothers are in the home, most often, because it makes sense after a traumatic or exhausting birth, or a c-section, to be the one to stay home. It makes sense, being the one who breastfeeds, or even bottle feeds; it makes sense when doing the night wakings. It makes sense for me to stay home now with the second baby because I stayed home with the first one, and after several years of a slow domestic tilt where everything slides in my direction, it makes sense that it is my studies that stop, my career that grinds to a halt, my earning opportunities that pass by unnoticed because I am a mother, and this is what mothers do. I stay home and contemplate the scars on my body, the medicalisation of my genitalia, the baby on my breast. I stay home because it is easier, and anyway mothers who don’t stay home are judged too. ;

If I talk too loudly about my needs and wants, if I try to speak up about equality – for any woman who speaks up about equality – there are other ways of being silenced. There is the label of ‘feminist’ – not the meaning, just the word – the label that some say needs ‘re-branding’, as though it is an item for sale rather than a thought or a need. There’s the ubiquitous, ‘but I’m not a feminist’, as though it’s a club you sign up for a membership for rather than a way you live your life, a definition of your core beliefs. So this word, feminism-in-quote-marks, it comes to represent all of these things that it does not actually mean, it becomes an insult and a pejorative explanation, a political ideal and a movement that is picked over by those against is so they can say, ‘feminism has failed’, like it were a child, when really this is just another way of shutting us up. By saying ‘feminist’ as though we don’t matter. ‘Feminist’ as though our words have no import – after all, it is only a feminist who is speaking.

(It is 2009. I am in a relationship with a man, watching the slow wince form on his face when I speak too long and too loud on the gender pay gap, on domestic violence statistics, on cases of sexual assault. I am in a relationship with this man who professes to love me but at the same time, would prefer it if I didn’t talk about the things that matter to me, the life I live and the fear I face simply by being a woman. I am in a relationship with a man who wants to play ‘devil’s advocate’ and try and tear holes in the things I say or deny my experiences because he can. And one day I wake up and realise I don’t love him, I don’t want to be with him, I shouldn’t waste anymore of my time on him because someone who would rather I be silent is not someone I can trust. I end it, but he won’t ever understand.)

There are things I would say if I had a voice, but I don’t by virtue of being a woman. By virtue of being a mother, a feminist. I am categorised and allotted a certain space in this world, slightly over and above those who do not have the privileges that I have (the right skin colour, the right gender identity, the right sexuality, the right socioeconomic background, the right abled body, et cetera, et cetera), and I, like most women, am told I will be assigned someone to speak on my behalf, to choose my reproductive rights, my pay grade, my career opportunities – and when I look up to see whose voice will actually be heard, it is usually a man.

As it has always been men, a whole establishment of them. Calling us ‘feminazis’ with a sneer. Legislating our bodies. Marking us down on a list, splitting us into little categories, some with more privilege than others, deciding our rights and where we fit, writing us off as good at what we do ;for a woman. ;

Telling us where we fit. Mummy blogger. Woman writer. Just a stay at home mum. Just a woman. ;

Which might as well be nothing at all.

;

;

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Balancing act

Family


Of course, because I blogged last week about getting the hang of things, life had to tear me down. Last Wednesday I got very, very ill, and by Thursday I felt incapable of doing anything other than lying in bed and yearning for death. Conveniently it was a public holiday, so Alex was home and able to look after me/the kids. On Friday I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with tonsillitis and laryngitis and given some rather impressive antibiotics.

I was feeling better over the weekend when Morgan came down with a head cold. Sick newborn babies are the worst – you can’t explain anything, or give them pain relief, or tell them they’ll feel better soon if only they can deal with you spraying saline solution up their nose at uncomfortably regular intervals.

Sebastian went with his dad to see family on Sunday and got worn out, probably quite over-tired, and so for the last few days has been very cranky – not sick, although his nose has been runny, but just run-down and irritable, as though he was fighting off the sickness that Morgan and I had come down with. And today, while I am mostly better, Morgan remains sniffly and Alex came down with a head cold. Sebastian was cheerful all day, thankfully. 

I had energy for once, and so I cleaned – tidying away toys, doing mountains of laundry and putting even more away, vacuuming, doing dishes, cooking a casserole for dinner, sweeping the kitchen and doing groceries. I so rarely feel rested and energised to really get to much housework, so it was wonderful to get a lot done one hit. Of course, it was followed by the guilt for all the other things I wasn’t doing – not blogging, not crafting, not writing or researching. Not doing a hundred things in the limited timeframe on one day where I happen to have some energy.

I keep thinking about motherhood as a balancing act, but really it’s not me that’s balancing – it’s all the things in my life that I need to do or achieve to keep me, my little family and my aspirations running. It’s spinning plates – frantically running from one to another to give it another whirl, to keep it spinning in the air; all the while conscious that while I spin one, another is slowing down and starting to wobble. At any moment it feels like all my plates could crash to the ground.

Today I kept a few plates going a little longer by doing enough chores to keep me sane and to keep the house running smoothly. Right now I’m spinning another plate by writing this blog entry. But while I do this, I’m aware of others starting to slow down – plates about craft projects and gardening, researching and writing articles, photography or writing fiction. They’re starting to wobble because I only have so much time, energy and opportunity and I have to choose where I invest it.

The trick is not to let those plates fall completely. Keep spinning. Keep running from one to the other and hope for the best.

 

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On the 86 tram in Northcote, I remember I used to live just near here. A few streets away in a little semi-detached unit with a friend. That supermarket was my supermarket. I worked on a theatre show right nearby. Used to go for drinks with friends at that pub. One time this whole street was closed for a festival and people wandered across the tram tracks, now where the cars are, and I was buffeted by the crowd and saw a friend, or a friend of a friend, some guy I used to play cards with.

Going farther back, I used to take the 86 tram to work. I lived a few suburbs back in a tiny one bedroom flat that I loved to pieces. In the hot weather I would sleep all day and stay up all night, chain smoking and writing and feeling so grown up (all of nineteen years old) and so cynical, like life had already rolled me over and pushed me aside. I was so very, very young then.

Now I take the 86 tram with my mother, toddler and infant son. The toddler has never been on a tram before and it’s a special treat, rather than the way I get places. How long since I have been in Northcote? How many years since that was my supermarket? In a way this is my life all the time now – walking streets and places I used to know, remembering how my life used to be and realising how quickly it changes. How different I feel now.

You don’t know how good you had it, I want to say to nineteen year old me, who stays up all night writing.

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Stay at home parents like me spend a lot of time doing things that are observed and judged by other people. I take my toddler and baby with me when I go shopping, the groceries I choose are visible in the basket or cart; the way I speak to my children and react and interact with them can be viewed and listened to when I’m out in public. Who they are, how they act and what they wear can be taken as a direct reflection of me – I’m the one they will spend the most time with at least until they start attending school. I choose their clothes, organise their haircuts, feed them and wipe their faces after. It’s with me that they will do a lot of their learning – my voice and words and behaviour they emulate. 

Being their mother is my job right now. Someone has to do it, and I want to, don’t get me wrong, but its a job. Unlike every other job, however, there’s no clear reimbursement for services rendered, no start and finish time, no set goals and achievable outcomes. But everybody, and I do mean everybody, thinks they get input into how I do my job. Everybody is my boss.

I found I got really defensive a few days ago when my partner innocently requested that I do something (to do with our grocery shopping) differently than I’ve been doing it. I got angry, because this is a task that I do 90% of the time and it makes sense for me to do. I have the time, the inclination, I know what needs to be bought and what foods the toddler is happy with fit now. Generally I have a fairly accurate idea of the contents of our fridge and pantry as I do a lot of the cooking too. 

A perceived criticism in the way I did this really got to me because its part of my job. I already feel ongoing Mama Guilt over the toddler not eating enough vegetables, or too much sugar, and that I don’t cook enough, or cook enough variety, and we don’t eat organically, and I buy snacks often without paying too much attention to the sodium or sugar levels, and none of this would be so bad if only we all watched a lot less telly which is probably evil.

I see articles online, and tweets and Facebook posts, that judge mothers, that make commentary on how they parent and how their children behave. Because society thinks it is my boss, that it gets to decide if I’m doing a good or bad job parenting, and those parameters change with who you’re speaking to. 

its hard because this is my job but my partner is parent too, he lives in this house too, and the things I do every day affect him. Where is the line for what is entirely my say and what we have equal input into? If I make most of the decisions because I’m the one that’s home, can he question them? How do you balance that, being fair to his personal investment and my need for autonomy? And sometimes I make so many of the decisions that I don’t want to make all of them, but they’re like cascading dominoes – I know what is in the pantry/fridge because I’m the one that did the shopping so I should decide what we eat for dinner even when it’s not my turn to cook. 

I think we don’t talk about this enough – that when one half of a couple stays at home, they become entirely responsible for the home, even when the other partner spends all their off time there. It’s then easy to become resentful over household and parenting responsibilities, because of lack of autonomy in some areas and far too much autonomy in others. This then affects the relationship, because that relationship exists within the context of the household and parenting, and its sometimes easy for us all to forget: this might be my home, but it’s also my job. One of us Goes out for work and comes home to relax, but I must somehow do both in the same space, when there is no 9-5 definition of start and finish for each.

A balancing act, and one I don’t know I’m particularly good at. 

Eagle_eyes.JPG

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