Before I get started, I thought I’d play Alleluia sung by Ed Sheeran. Get you in the mood. The last week has been deep, dark and philosophical punctuated by blasts of Spring sunlight and tail wags from the dog.
Actually, the last couple of months have been “challenging” after the death of our Border Collie, Bilbo. We’ve had him since our daughter was crawling and he’s seen us through so very much. Moreover, I’ve also had another brush with severe asthmatic coughs and chest infections, which get me every August.
Not unsurprisingly, the kids have been distressed and shaken up. They’ve had questions, and I’ve had to come up with the answers. This included a particularly curly question, which I decided to share. It’s big and it’s important:
Why should we stay alive when life is painful, when we could be in heaven where there’s no pain, no troubles?
I hadn’t quite thought of heaven as the ultimate “grass is greener” before. However, I suppose it is. Otherwise, why would it be called “HEAVEN”? Furthermore, why wouldn’t you, I, want to get there on an express trip? Why do we fight so hard to stay alive, when we could be living up there in the clouds? Even Cloud 9?
While I’ve had my dark moments, and even extended interminable stretches of raw anguish, I haven’t really thought of heaven as my greener pasture. At least, not in the here and now.
I’ve known too many people who’ve lost someone to suicide and am very conscious of the anguish suicide leaves in its wake… an anguish which has no end for the multitude of people who get touched by even one death.
So, I guess for me, particularly when I’m in a level-headed state of mind, knowing that I’d be going to my ulimate happy place when everyone who means anything to me gets to suffer, doesn’t add up.
At the very least, it’s not a very nice thing to do.
However, that’s not something I would share with someone who wasn’t in a particularly level-headed state of mind. That’s something I might now start putting out there on one of my routine drives with my kids, now they’re my son’s 13 and my daughter isn’t far behind him.
As a parent, I’ve been wondering how to talk about sex, dating, periods, condoms, relationships, drugs, but amongst all of that, I’d forgotten all about the other fairly “normal” aspect of puberty…the E-word. EMOTIONS. Thinking back to being a teenager myself, I don’t believe there was any such thing as “an even keel”, being “level-headed”, “grounded” as as for balanced? HA!!
At least speaking for myself, my emotions were extreme, even turbo-charged. Well-intentioned comments like “there’s more fish in the sea” fell flat. My parents meant well, and believe me, I’m getting a better understanding of what it’s like to be a parent scraping the bottom of your psychological and philosophical barrell. When your child is combusting and you’re trying to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Trust me. That whole “bird and the bees stuff” is a veritable piece of cake compared to discussing emotional equilibrium.
How do any of us venture and and carpe diem seize the day and all that entails, without getting hurt? We can’t live our lives in bubble wrap and while you can have safe sex, there is no condom you can quickly wrap around your heart and it’s way too easy to get burned.
I’m not a psychologist. I’m no statistician either. I don’t know what it is which causes one person to take their life, while others persevere. What I do know, is that it’s not straight-forward. I also know that we can’t control someone else. We can’t stop someone else from taking their life. And yet, we sometimes can. Here, I’m speaking about the more collective we, but sometimes, it does come down to the individual. At times, we do become that person staring despair in the face, and it is up to us to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Or, I guess if I was some kind of professional at this, you’d be trying to get the person to find their own reasons for living. Or, at the very least, find a shift in gears.
A friend of my parents used to call the teenage years: “the swirling vortex of pubescence”. He was a very charasmatic gentleman and he’d roll this phrase out like a showman on stage. I always pictured these wild churning seas with the damsel in distress thrashing around in the waves. Never sinking, but not getting out either. I always found that phrase rather entertaining, although on reflection that note of humour, has it’s sting. Tony also put me onto a poet who knew those waves. Knew that intensity of emotion. That was Nan Whitcomb in her “Thoughts of Nanushka” and I’ve since found another kindred spirit in Australian poet and cartoonist, Michael Leunig. Of course, there was also Keats and I’ve always questioned the merits of studying his Ode to Melancholy while studying for our HSC (final school exams = HUGE stress!!)
- “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
- And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 20
- Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
- What thou among the leaves hast never known,
- The weariness, the fever, and the fret
- Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
- Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, 25
- Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
- Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
- And leaden-eyed despairs;
- Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
- Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.”
- John Keats, Ode to A Nightingale.
I also remember listening to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. That song needs no introduction.
The trouble is, that when you’re caught up in the more turbulent passages of that “swirling vortex of pubesence”, you have no idea how the story is going to play out. Speaking of myself, I was so caught up in the immediate present, the current devastating disaster, that I lost all sense of perspective. That it morphed into some kind of hellish bubble, my world. I couldn’t see it was a storm in a tea cup. I couldn’t see, that perhaps being dumped by “the bastard” was the best thing for me. That it really was a case of there being millions of fish in the sea, and I only needed to find one. That I wasn’t trying to catch the one, last surviving fish in an empty sea.
I never saw my life as a novel back then. Indeed, it’s only been this past week, that I’ve appreciated the close parallels between real life and the structure a novel or play where the main character (protagonist) has their difficult person, adversary (antagonist) but after a few rounds, they come through. There’s usually a twist at the end, and more than likely, real life doesn’t turn out quite like you expected either, but you can still live happilly ever after. Well, at least until the next challenge fires up. Bearing this in mind, you have to make the most of those high notes. Carpe diem seize the day. Gobble them up with a cherry on top. Yet, you also have to be prepared for troubles. Expect storms and rainbows, as well as sunny, blue skies.
If I was going to talk to my 13 year old self. Or, in my case, it was more my 16 year old self which was really doing it tough, what would I say?
Firstly, what I would say, wouldn’t be something eloquent, well-written, or an outstanding piece of philosophical writing with all the answers. It would be more of a stuttered, muttered and garbled story about how if I’d pulled the pin then, I wouldn’t have gone on to experience the highs of my life. For me, like so many others, the school days weren’t the best days of my life. However, they were the necessary precursor to getting into university which I loved on so many levels. I went through many relationship ups and downs and had way too many friends run off with the guy that I liked. I also spent all the years from my birth until I was 27, living with undiagnosed hydrocephalus or fluid on my brain, which really did make me “different” in a myriad of ways I am still trying to get my head around. Yes, I wasn’t “unco” and more than likely, the intensity of my emotions weren’t just puberty either. The inside of my brain had been flooded, and I was under an entirely different kind of “pressure”.
So, if I’d pulled the pin at 16, I wouldn’t have known that I had this underlying condition which was greatly relieved through surgery. Yet, even if I hadn’t had that or if there had been no “magic fix” to my problems, I still believe that it’s worth persevering through the very darkest of challenges and fighting hard to find any glimmer of light which will lead us out of the tunnel. Why? Because there just might be something better ahead. That you could well resolve your current troubles through whatever means. a change of curcumstances, meeting someone else. Another door opens.
Indeed, I still remember the night I met my husband. A friend of mine was holding a New Year’s Eve Party in another friend’s apartment in Wollstonecraft, which had a view over the back end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was supposed to going to that party with the boyfriend I’d had throughout the whole brain surgery saga and as you could imagine, things were rocky on so many levels I don’t know where to begin. Anyway, he dumped me just before the party and I really didn’t feel like going. However, it was only more of a soiree with only a few of us going and so I went. My husband opened the door. Now, I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight. However, we talked a lot that night and he gave me some really good advise and I thought he was wise. Obviously, it was that old thing of crying on someone’s shoulder. I also remember standing out on the balcony together and I would’ve been photographing the fireworks, and he told me that he was also into photography. I clearly remember making a mental tick in my head. He also drove an Austen Healy Sprite, which he described as “English and tempremental”. I remembered that when we were driving through the Tenterfield Ranges in pouring rain to avoid the Grafton floods, and the exhaust pipe fell off on a pot hole. BTW, we’d been wearing raincoats in the car on that trip and had been soaked by the time we’d reached Newcastle. (We had been driving from Wahroonga in Sydney to visit his Mum and sisters family in the Byron Bay hinterland. It’s about a 10 hour drive.)
The ironic thing is that it can be these very worst moments, our greatest disasters, that we turn into our funniest stories. It’s often these moments which we’ll share around a barbeque laughing our heads of and entertaining the crowd, rather than the good times. I am now thinking that part of that is that we later find out these disasters weren’t so bad after all. Indeed, sometimes they proved to be a blessing in disguise. Or, they were a necessary step to get us to a better place, or to our ultimate destination.
So, now I would say that instead of pulling the pin, who have to keep breathing so you can keep living the book. Find out how you’re own story unfolds. Just one point here, too, and that is that you are not a passive player in your story. You are helping to write the script, as well as all the other characters. This is a team effort. You are empowered. However, you are empowered to do the best for yourself, AND the worst. Too often, it’s not the bully or our nemesis we need to watch out for, it’s our own selves. We shoot ourselves in the foot way more often AND we need to own that. Take responsibility. Not necessarily in a guilt way, but in an empowered driver’s seat way. JUst like if you were driving and made a wrong turn, you’d do a U turn and try again. You hopefully wouldn’t just sit in your car hoping it would magically take you where you want to go.
The ironic thing for me these days about people taking their lives, is that I am fighting with all I’ve got to save my own. This July marked 20 years since I had the brain surgery which saved and changed my life. This coming Tuesday, marks 10 years since I was diagnosed with a systemic auto-immune disease, dermatomymyositis which has left me with 60% lung capacity on a good day. I am getting through flu season again this year but again it’s been a battle. Three years ago, I had chemo to knock the disease on its head and fortunately that worked. I’ve had multiple times where I’ve been staring death in the face, and trust me. Not once was I thinking: “Heaven, bring it on!” No, despite being a Christian, all I was thinking about was my kids, my husband, my Mum, Dad, Brother and my friends. Giving them that kind of bad news, is devastating. The fact that I’ve survived, doesn’t negate that. We have lived through it and we continue to live with it.
So, this brings me to the very real need to talk to those we love about those times when the swirling vortex has taken hold, and give them concrete proof that they can get through it. That it’ s not only worth persevering through the hard times, that it’s possible to get there. Achievable. Moreover, they are not alone. Not only in the sense that we are with them now. Not just us as an individual either, but us as a community. The many layers of the onions…family, friends, teachers, pastors, the person you need down the street while walking your dog. But, we also need to make that time available. Leave enough space inbetween the words, the lines, the busyness that someone can sit along side us and be without being rushed, sped up, or brushed off.
I am not someone who has ever professed to have the answers, but I’ve always had the questions and I guess this is where they lead me now. But before I head off, another word just popped in my head. That is gratitude. While it’s not often possible to feel grateful for our let downs at the time, that can change through hindsight…especially with many of those heart breaks, which were the end of the world at the time. I wouldn’t be where I am now and while some of those guys were great people and simply not right for me (or me for them), I’ve been married to Geoff for 16 years now. We’ve survived some extremely hard times and miraculously stayed together. We hae two beauti ful children who can stretch us beyond the very brink at times, but who we love more than life itself. Sometimes, when things have been so hard, it’s hard to comprehend how the sun still rises in the morning and how life goes on. Yet, I’ve often found that very annoying and harsh reality, provides the momentum to keep me moving, which is ultimately a good thing.
I didn’t intend to write about this when I woke up this morning. I haven’t edited more than a couple of words and this is how my thoughts have landed on the page, or to be precise, my laptop screen. All of a sudden, in bright neon signs, I’ve realized that we as a society don’t talk about hard times. The cultural rhetoric is all about making it happen. Being whoever you want to be. It’s almost like you’re expected to find happiness in a fizzy drink…or a pill. Rather, what happens WHEN your journey through life hits the big snake just when you’re about to reach your goal and your sent straight back down to the beginning again? What happens when you’re a marketing executive and you’re diagnosed with hydrocephalus and you end up having brain surgery, getting a blocked shunt and requiring more brain surgery, the person you thought you were going to marry, dumps you because all of that’s too much and you’ve moved back home living with mum and Dad and going to rehab with the elderly at 28? BTW, that was also when I went to my 10 year school reunion. That was two weeks after the second brain surgery and I had no hair under one half of that bob. Indeed, there was a scar. I made it through that reunion and I was triumphant. Despite brain surgery being a much more sensitive embarrassing thing that the bad haircut. I also had friends whose lives were picture perfect either. Some had divorced and one of my class mates had tragically died from cancer, which shook me to the core.
The fact that I’m still here, isn’t because I have some uber-amazing coping mechanism and I’m “Tonka tough”. I’ve had breakdowns. I’ve fallen face down in the mud and refused to get up. I’ve had days where I’ve stayed in bed and wrapped myself up in my doona and refused to get up. I’ve thought about how. I did jab myself with a pair of kindy scissors once when I was struggling to learn how to drive and fighting my brother for access to the car. That’s the closest I’ve come in a physically crossing the line sense, but these lines resonate: “hello darkness my old friend”.
Somehow, the collective “we” needs to have more of these conversations. The “where I was, how I found my way out and some of the joys of life we’ve experienced since” type. Talk about how life is ups AND downs. That we have to keep walking, dancing, flying, dragging out feet, sleeping, talking, dreaming.They’re all part of it. Share and model that there is no magic pill, which will give you perfect, lasting happiness. However, there could well be multiple pills of darkness, which we need to approach with caution. Walk away from jealousy, envy, wanting to be someone we’re not, putting our value on stuff instead of relationships, replacing people with work. The list goes on.
Now, I’m turning it over to you. What has your experience been? I would like to invite you to share as much as you like in the comments below. What would you say to your teenage self about the dark times you’ve experienced? I could even see these becoming a series of posts. It would be truly beneficial to get a swag of letters together on this very important subject.
Love & best wishes,
PS I just had to drop my daughter off at meditation of all things (our dance school is running a session for kids followed by a session for parents so I’ll be heading off next). Funny how walking and driving gets you thinking. Pops something so obvious into your head, which you’d missed entirely while tapping away into the screen.
My other advice to my teenage self, is not to put all my eggs in one basket, and to remain diverse. I had very good friends out of school and I’ve encouraged this with my own kids since dot. However, as someone with a fairly obsessive, driven personality, I’d like to share that focusing all your energies on one thing, isn’t a good idea. If something happens to that one thing, whatever it is, then you’re devastated. You’re left with nothing. There is no “Plan B”. You have no identity left. Naturally, I was devastated when I couldn’t work after the brain surgery. I had grief counselling where I was told “We’re human beings, not human doings”. It’s taken me a long time to get that. In the aftermath of the brain surgery, I turned to photography and although it wasn’t making me any money, I found it was a great topic of conversation. Far more interesting than work. These days, writing is my main thing followed by photography. What you might not know, is that I started learning the violin four years ago, and last year I started dance classes and have made my way through short adult courses in ballet, contemporary, lyrical and tap. I’m not even keeping up in the dance classes, but dance is now part of my psyche. Who I am. It’s added another string to my bow, and exercised more than a few neurofibres as well. It’s very important not to get stuck in what I’ll call “bubble worlds”…becoming “a dancer”, “a lawyer”, “a mother”, a “father”. Rather, ideally, we’d be more of a spangled web or texture, colour, sound, taste and smell stretching somewhere over the rainbow and back again. We must wear many hats, to be fulfilled, and really just to survive.