I now know

Nineteen days ago, at 6:18pm, my eyes lit upon a piece of my heart that I’d never known had been missing until we met.

She was tiny and perfect and couldn’t possibly be real. Couldn’t possibly be something my partner and I had created.

She couldn’t possibly be a soul that I would be priveleged enough to spend the rest of my days loving in a capacity that is so sacred, you don’t ever understand the infinity of its depth until you step into those same shoes yourself – the shoes of a Mother.

It’s all you hear during pregnancy – “It can’t be described”, “You’ll know it when you feel it”, “It’s different for everyone”.

Those vague responses are all used to describe everything from labour to breastfeeding to the concept of motherhood itself and I’d always found it to be a cop out… until now.

I think the simple truth is that words just aren’t enough. Words have power, but not here.

This place – motherhood – is enormous. It’s terrifying, confusing, depressing, filthy, humiliating, wounding, and wonderful. It heals, it fulfills dreams, it overwhelms and it brings you undone, both in sadness and in a happiness you never thought was possible.

With one wind-powered smile from my daughter, every single scar left open from my past no longer exists. It’s just gone. It doesn’t matter anymore.

And with one pained scream erupting from her sad little mouth, every single fear I’ve ever had in my life comes together in a great wave to crash over me and set my heart racing.

I spend hours staring at the monitor watching her breathe, or counting the wrinkles on her hands – those perfect little hands, so inconceivably small and delicate.

She overwhelms me.

There are so many things about her existence that I never expected…

I never expected pregnancy to be so empowering. I never expected the sight of my giant belly to bring me peace, to make me feel whole – I’d never realised there was a part of me that seemed to need that confirmation that I was, in fact, a woman capable of nurturing life – but it seems I did because pregnancy gave me a confidence I’ve never experienced before – a confidence where truly, nothing really mattered except my family and our security – outside influences, opinions, rumours all went by the wayside and suddenly, I felt capable of anything – if I can nurture life, I can do anything.

I never expected labour to be anything besides painful and undignified. I had no concept of what it would involve – no way to predict the pain – and sure, it certainly was painful. There were moments when the contractions were one after the other, on top of each other, two at once, almost… and in those moments I wanted to give up, to give in – oh god, take me for a c-section, anything to stop this!

… but in those moments I also realised that there was no longer room in my life to do that running away I’d become so good at. Here, now, I had no choice – there’s no going back when you’re in labour – you have to keep going through it, even though it hurts and you’re exhausted… because very soon (you hope), you are going to have to push through the things you don’t want to do on a regular basis. You’re going to have a tiny human who is entirely dependent on you for their survival – there’s no room whatsoever for “I’ll feed them later. I’ll just watch two more episodes of this and then feed them”.

And so the contractions kept coming, and I had to keep breathing. And pushing.

And then she was there, and her father was smiling and I was exhausted, confused, and in love.

Then everyone went home, and it was just Alia and I, alone in our hospital room. I stared at her, marveling at how much she looks like her father. Even her sleep-smile is his.

Then I remembered the needle thing in my arm, and how it was attached to a big walky-around thing which was plugged into the wall because the battery was flat, and it dawned on me…

she was staying in my room with me. Motherhood had begun.

I was exhausted from labour. I’d been unable to keep my eyes open to enjoy her when she was born and now I was only going to get a couple of hours sleep before I had to feed her? Change her?

Suddenly, I was terrified, and had to call the midwife to do it for me until that needle thing was able to be taken out in a few hours.

My first job as a mum and already, I had to get someone else to do it.

… this was the other stuff I never expected. That confidence I’d had as a pregnant woman was gone, and had been replaced with a feeling I’ve known far too intimately for far too long – fear and insecurity. I can’t do this. I have no idea what I’m doing. What if it’s wrong? They will judge me and I will get in trouble.

This feeling increased over the next few days and tears would just fall out of my eyes at random moments. My heart had never been so sad in my whole life. It felt that my entire body was built solely to house sadness, and it was full of it – it had no room left for it, so it just spilled over, onto my crisp hospital sheets, onto my failed boobs that my child couldn’t latch onto properly, and, if I’d been able to bring myself to physically touch my child – they would have fallen on her, too… but three days into her life, I didn’t want to hold her, change her, bathe her – I let my mother and my sister do that, and when everyone left at night, the walls would close in and I would fill up with that sad fear again.

Just you and me, kiddo.

I never stopped loving her. I never had mean or negative thoughts about her – she was still the most amazing little creature that has ever existed – it was me that was the problem.

But days passed, and with the incredible support of my family and my partner, sunshine crept back into the room and I was able to cope with the rollercoaster I was beginning to ride.

Now, nineteen days into her life, my little girl is feeding well, sleeping well and filling my entire family’s hearts with a light they haven’t known in many years. Our cats – the previous leaders of the house – have reacted in ways I never imagined – they run to check on her when she cries, and boycat even shared a cuddle with her and her dad yesterday.

Things are coming together…

Out of everything that I never expected, despite the constant warnings given, I never expected to find a love like this. It isn’t just love for my daughter, or a greater depth and passion that I hold for my partner, but an overwhelming awe for my own mother and every single thing she has done and continues to do for us – her children – that has astounded me the most.

I now know what she went through to bring us into this world, physically. I now understand the fear that would have flooded her each time our safety was in question, and I now know that it is impossible to measure the depth of her love for us, and just how overwhelming that is.

I now know that I will never be able to show her how grateful I am because she wouldn’t accept it – wouldn’t deem it necessary – our very existence gives her no choice – she does what she does because we are more important to her than she is.

I now know that that’s what parenthood is all about and that it lasts forever.

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The Little Things

There are always little things your significant other does, which elicit an uncontrollable response in your body.

They are tiny things, things that no other person outside your bubble would ever understand, or react to. Things that are yours alone…

Like the way you can tell which footsteps are his in a crowded room.
The way you can sense that he’s coming up behind you to rest one hand on your shoulder as the other stretches out to shake that of the person who has just introduced himself to you at the party.
Or sometimes it’s the sight of his keys in the change bowl when you come home which causes your heart to flutter and skip a couple of beats.
What about the way that you know exactly how he is going to react to something based solely on the manner in which he has removed his shoes for the afternoon?

For some of us, these things bring warmth and love and gentle sunshine smiles that fill up all our corners.

For some of us, these things are catalysts that elicit the fight or flight response. They fill you with fear – Fear of the known, but unpredictable. The fear of his raised voice, or that quiet, cold one he gets when he pierces you with his eyes. The dread that fills you when he places his hand on your shoulder while he shakes the hand of that man who introduced himself to you at the party.

… the fear of a man introducing himself to you at a party.

You ignore them, at first. If you do mention them, you are embarrassed to be informed that you merely overreacted. Sometimes this news is given to you with an indulgent smile and a little pat on the head as your significant other walks out of the room, silently letting you know that the conversation is over.

So you shrink away from the world. Away from the people asking the odd question here and there – Are you okay? You’re very quiet tonight. Is Significant Other okay? He seems a little cranky. You run out of excuses and cover stories quicker than you’d suspect.

So you shrink into your bubble with him, where you can somewhat control the environment to limit the things that cause his hand to ball into a fist and find that soft spot just to the left of your spine.

Your voice becomes small and your vocabulary shrinks to “please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry”. You ask for permission to read your book, to shower, to go to your family’s house or a friend’s birthday. Your every move and every thought, handed to him in the hope that by asking for his permission, you will not only be allowed to apply for a new job but will be rewarded for your obesiance.

You think about leaving. You do. It crosses your mind a lot, but then you hear his gentle arguments, explaining why you deserved it. You feel his fingers brushing your hair back from your face, the tendrils stuck to your wet cheeks, cold ropes of hair being tucked behind your ears as he whispers all the ways in which you wronged him, and do you understand now? Do you understand what your actions did to his feelings? The way you confuse him? You can be so loving sometimes, and then you disrespect him like that. Or sometimes you just imagined it, you must have been having a different conversation with a different person because that’s not what was said in the one you had with him.

You stop listening to any voices who try to convince you to end it. You don’t have the energy to listen to them, your energy is all gone now, it is constantly being used to predict his next outburst, to tiptoe through your own life and make as few ripples as possible to mark your passage.

Eventually you can’t even hear your own voice, begging. You hear it through his ears where it has become an ugly whine, a pathetic whimper from a useless, weak, ugly woman who will never amount to anything.

It is by this point that nothing in his behaviour shocks you anymore. You are used to the fear that fills you when he does something nice for you. You know that you will have to pay for it one way or another. You are used to him dangling carrots of hope before your eyes and the enjoyment he gets when he takes them away from you. You are used to your place in the world, now, curled at his feet, covered in dirt, ready for the kicking.

You are used to feeling like a spider, stuck to a tiny strand of web, floating on the whim of a breeze with no idea where you are going to land or what you are going to be faced with when you get there.

And you don’t deserve anything better.

You don’t even remember the girl who once knew she deserved better. You don’t think of her because, like everyone, she is judging you and finding you wanting.

And still, you can pick the sound of his footsteps in a crowd. Your heart still skips a beat when you return home to see his keys in the bowl or his shoes lined against the wall. Only now, your heart is always hammering, your breath always catching in your throat, and the only reason you now use the word “please” is to place it before the words “I’m sorry, don’t hurt me”.

The world outside knows there are troubles. They know he can be a little bit cranky. That he is a little stingy with money, or that he doesn’t like you to go out without him, but the world doesn’t know that every time you feel him lift the covers to climb in beside you, your entire body goes rigid, tense and fills with a blind, raging hatred that finds you clenching your fists and digging your fingernails into your palms to give some kind of voice to the invisible, voiceless pain you feel at not just losing your soul to the whims of another, but handing it over, willingly, to gutlessly save yourself from whatever may happen next.

It wasn’t always like that, you know? That’s what we always say when asked why we stayed.

Because it didn’t start that way.
It started with The Little Things. 

She is my light in dark places

You know that place where the feelings disappear?

Where there’s nothing but silence, a companionable silence that has no meaning behind it, just acceptance of whatever is, and that vague sense that what preceded this place was the snapped-elastic sensation of giving up on everything, all at once? And now there’s no resistance, just a weightless silence of nothing mattering anymore.

You feel relief wash over you, like you’re bathing in it, swimming in it, just floating in freedom from yourself, but there, under the water is a current. If it had colour, it would be a cartoonish wisp of blackness that tickles your toes and reminds you that this isn’t a dream.. that this is real. You’re finally here. You’re at the place where the noose hangs from the tree, the poison sparkles in the bottle, the pills pile up in your hands, the gun glistens in the moonlight.

It’s when that brings no fear that you have to tread most carefully.

I was lucky.

It was the feeling of pure calm that made me realise it wasn’t me who was holding the reins that night. No, they were being held by The Girl Who Lives Inside – the little downtrodden one who finds her voice when I find the middle of the bottle.

I used to feel sorry for her, when I realised she was in there. She’s the little girl me, the girlfriend me, the one who kept trying to tell me to leave these harmful people and I kept telling her to shut up.

I don’t feel sorry for her now. She isn’t a nice girl. She is made out of knives and bee stings and hatred and vomit and just like those people she kept warning me to leave, she also tries to hurt me.

She hates that I know about her now. She hasn’t been allowed out because I haven’t opened a bottle. I haven’t left the shores of sobriety for seven months – not a single escape tool has passed my lips – no cigarettes, no alcohol, no drugs.

I suppose she’s in there just biding her time, knowing that in a few very short months, my main reason for keeping the lid on the bottle will be out in the world, no longer sharing my blood, my oxygen, my body.

And I wonder if she will pounce. If she will take me back to that weightless place a month or so into my lack of sleep, when the sound of crying causes me to do the same. When the responsibility of being someone’s world becomes too overwhelming, will that elastic snap again? When it all piles on too heavy, I know she will be there with her bee stings and dagger-eyes, laughing at me for thinking I could get away.

What she may not have taken into account is something I’ve just realised – She’s never met me. Not this me.

This me is someone who is now needed by someone who won’t go seeking a better version of me elsewhere. For someone, I am finally going to be enough. I’m going to be their mum. And nobody is going to make me feel like she would be better off without me.

Trigger Warning – Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Cannot Help and Yet Continue to Fight Against Daily

Clearly the author of this list, Amy Morin, hasn’t heard of Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD or Complex PTSD, just to name a few trauma-induced personality disorders. Many of the behaviours on this list are symptoms of those disorders, as people who suffer them are given no choice but to do whatever it takes in order to physically survive the situations they have no escape from, or control over.

While the things she advises in this list are, of course, stepping stones to freeing your psyche from the burdens that disable your ability to analyse and recover from life’s difficulties, the tone with which it is written is extremely offensive when you consider that millions of people in the world suffer extensive trauma on a daily basis – trauma which often results in the manifestation of those disorders previously mentioned – these are not disorders that one is born with, they are disorders developed following trauma.

That is the key message that must be heeded here. People who suffer these disorders didn’t have a choice in their abuse, and they don’t have a choice in the symptoms they experience as a result of that abuse.

I think it is incredibly irresponsible for a “licensed clinical social worker”, as Forbes describes Amy Morin, to completely disregard the personality disorders which are comprised mostly of the “13 things” in her list, when mental illness is still so incredibly stigmatised in society.

I’d love to see Amy Morin read this list, out loud, to the face of childhood sexual assault victims, or those who have grown up in or endured abusive environments for years on end, where every ounce of power was stripped from them, forcing them to adapt their thoughts and behaviour permanently, in order to survive.

Recovery from these disorders requires the sufferer to spend every single moment of their day fighting instincts they were conditioned to experience in order to survive their physical, mental and emotional traumas – instincts which are no longer required when the traumatic situation ceases, but instincts that remain part of their psyche and their body for the rest of their lives, thus impacting the way in which they interact with and navigate the world.

Recovery requires the sufferer to ACCEPT and FORGIVE themselves, whilst REWIRING EVERYTHING THAT THEY HAD TO BECOME IN ORDER TO PHYSICALLY REMAIN IN THIS WORLD. They have to take responsibility for what was done to them, as well as the way they reacted. They have to take responsibility for keeping their natural instinct at bay as it is generally not appropriate for their current situation and can have a profound effect on the people in their lives.

So you’re sort of right, Amy Morin: mentally strong people don’t 1. “waste time feeling sorry for themselves”. What they do is feel sorry for the horrendous abuse they had to endure at the behest of someone else. And then they turn themselves inside out keeping the effect of that away from other people, whilst recalling that abuse over and over and over.

They don’t 2. “give away their power” – their power was stripped from them – they never had a choice in the matter.

They 3. “shy away from change” because they are terrified by change -their lives have been spent following strict rules of survival, and many “changes” they experienced quite often signalled a new form of abuse, often in the form of gaslighting.

They 4. “waste energy on things they can’t control” because their abusers ensured they didn’t HAVE control. Many of them NEVER had control, so when they escaped their abusive situation, they had no idea how to make decisions for themselves, they were used to being controlled at all times so they find tiny things that they can control and they focus intently on them.

They DO 5. “worry about pleasing others” because pleasing others was what may have downscaled their beatings from “life-threatening” to “permanent scarring”, for example.

They 6. “fear taking calculated risks” because every single chance they took to escape their abuse resulted in some form of “punishment”. Everything, except allowing the abuse to continue, is a risk to people who have endured trauma. Clearly, allowing the abuse to continue is also a risk, but it’s one they know better than freedom.

They certainly 7. “dwell on the past” because despite being conditioned to believe that they deserve everything committed against them, there is a voice inside that screams at them, asking them to explain why they “allowed it to happen”. There is a voice that doesn’t let them wholly accept that they deserved their abuse – a voice that tells them “something isn’t right”. And they dwell on the past because in most occasions, their abuse wasn’t acknowleged, either by the perpetrator or those who could have helped them. The ongoing effects of that abuse also aren’t being acknowledged as something they can’t control, rather they are being blamed for being a bad person because others do not understand why they act in certain ways. Even when the abuse by the perpetrator ceases, the behaviours learned in order to survive, remain, and these behaviours do not fit with normal, healthy relationships. The victim is viewed as a perpetrator as their behaviour can sometimes unfairly affect the people in their lives. Consequently, they spend much of their time explaining their past, to justify their current behaviour.

They most definitely 8. “Make the same mistakes over and over”, because safe environments feel unsafe. The whole “Better the Devil you know” scenario. They spend the remainder of their lives in a state of hypervigilance, waiting for the penny to drop, for the rug to be pulled from under them.. if they’re in a situation they know (abusive), it feels like home, despite “home” being the least safe place for them. They are conditioned to accept abuse because they’ve been conditioned to believe they don’t deserve otherwise.

Some of them 9. “Resent other peoples’ success”, particularly those suffering Borderline Personality Disorder, because they can’t fathom what is so intrinsically wrong with THEM, that they were made to suffer at the hands of someone else. Many things feel like a personal attack. When you haven’t done anything to deserve the horrendous way you’ve been treated, you in turn can’t understand why others have a seemingly blessed life, free from hardship.

Many 10. “give up after failure” because their entire everyday life is spent in a state of “trying”. Trying to please their abusers, trying to avoid the next beating, molestation, or phrase that might trip your paranoid, psychotic partner into gaslighting you to ensure your continued compliance. Trying to navigate the world with a head full of trauma. The idea of trying something outside mere physical and mental survival is overwhelmingly exhaustive, and to be frank, not a goddamn motherfucking priority when simply making it to the shops without breaking down is something that takes 2 hours of intense “talking yourself up” to accomplish. Any sense of failure carries with it the weight of every other failure they have experienced throughout their lifetime.

A lot of them 11. “fear alone time” because being alone means being left with memories. Being left with self-hatred. It means staring at walls because you don’t know how to make plans because someone made them for you for 5 years and if you dared to make a decision for yourself, you were punished. A lot of them also fear being with other people, or being around a particular scent, or sound, or time of year, because it triggers horrendous memories and emotions that overwhelm them.

Some of them 12. “feel the world owes them something” because nobody protected them from the trauma in the first place. It isn’t always that people ignored them, many simply weren’t aware, and the abuser ensured the victim had no voice with which to seek help. Once they leave that abusive situation, and begin to comprehend what was done to them, they get angry, and they  demand recompense from whoever they can get it from.

Many of them 13. “expect immediate results” because simply comprehending their life, their abuse, the effect it has had on their psyche, is a long and exhaustive process, and they are desperate for the pain, anguish and exhaustion to disappear. They want to be normal, to be happy, and it feels extremely unfair that despite all they’ve gone through, the only way to reach a sense of normality, where their instincts and lives can become part of the world again without it wreaking more havoc, is a long, drawn out one where they often have to examine their abuse in detail and wonder whether they’ll ever reach the end of that road. They want immediate results for the other aspects of their lives because simply existing as they are takes everything they have.

While I do see where Amy Morin is coming from with this list, I feel very strongly that she has done a sincere disservice to people who not only have to suffer the results of their abuse on a daily basis, but also the stigma that surrounds the resulting mental illness, and the incredibly difficult task of surviving life, even when they have managed to escape the abuse.

If a person genuinely wishes to help me in my recovery, I ask them to first and foremost do some research on Complex PTSD.  I am happy to answer questions and clarify the ways in which this affects my life, as the purpose of recovery is to establish and maintain healthy relationships – healthy for me, and healthy for the other people involved.

Mental illness is already difficult enough to live with, without the stigma attached. I’d like to see the world working to break down this stigma, rather than reinforcing it. 

People cannot help their mental illness. That doesn’t take away their responsibility to manage it to the best of their ability. Blaming them for being who they are, however, helps no-one.

Following footsteps

Today, I officially became the reincarnation of my grandmother.

She was a formidable woman, under 5 feet tall, and about that wide. Her bosom was enormous and forever covered in flour from the scones or pies she was baking.

I always think of her when I see an old lady throwing a tantrum in public – for a woman who used a walker, she could storm off in a damn hurry, when she wasn’t getting her own way.

She was flirty and cheeky, her mischievous cackle would light up her eyes, her perpetually high-heeled shoes tapping out of time to the music her voice was trying desperately to sing to – there was great musical talent in her side of the family.

None of it belonged to her.

Her voice was this high pitched, nasal assault to your ears, but in spite of the nails-on-a-chalkboard shudder that rippled through you, it made you smile because it was patently evident that she loved life and was not hindered by self-consciousness.

She lived to party, and had to be the centre of attention – this is where she and I differ greatly. The place we join at the seams is our obsession with our cats, and also in the way we keep the house tidy. Or, in the way we don’t keep the house tidy.

I had always said that my cat obsession would cease at owning living, breathing cats – two at the most. I would not follow in her footsteps and start collecting feline figurines, filling display cabinets with items that would soon be coated in a thick film of dust that I would never bring myself to clean.

But, umm. Today I just followed in one of her other footsteps in a purchase that completely blindsided me.

I just bought a tea towel. A display tea towel.
With cats on it.
One of them is wearing a monocle.

In my defense, this is one amazing tea towel and Nan would totally agree.

For my nan. Who won’t read this. Because she’s 80 today.

What do you say about your grandmother, the woman who helped raise you, on her 80th birthday?

My nan loves her footy and cricket with passion, but dislikes people in general for no reason she can pinpoint (“there’s just something about him/her”).

She is always buying us things. You have to be at least four doors down before you even whisper that you need / have been looking at buying something. If she hears you, without fail, she will turn up at your doorstep a couple of days later with exactly what you were saying you needed.
Apparently it was “just laying around”.
At the shop.

The woman has a giant heart and an even bigger stubborn streak. Like my sister, she’ll argue that the sky is green even if you’re staring right at it, and clearly, it’s FUCKING BLUE. No backing down. She’s the right woman to have in your corner if you ever need someone put in their place.

Just don’t get her involved if there’s a slight chance you could be wrong.
Like that time I thought I heard the bus driver say there’d been a fire on the bus. That totally didn’t go down well when Nan started going off about it and it turns out I was way, way wrong.

She has been there through everything I’ve experienced.

She looked after us as babies, and even in my last year of High School, I was still going to Nan’s after school, instead of home or out with friends.

So many of my warmest memories are in her kitchen, sitting around the dining table while Nan and the Four Daughters of the Apocalypse (my mum and aunts) ALL spoke at once – Three different conversations being held, with all women participating in each.

When Nan and Aunty Helen have different opinions, that’s when it gets really loud.
Aunty Sue tells them both to “wake up”, Aunty Fiona does her Muttley laugh, and mum asks who wants coffee to try and diffuse the situation.

There is honestly no place like inside the arms of your grandmother. The problem arises when your head height is their boob height – both my nans were blessed with ample bosoms and it made for some very awkward greetings as your head had to be turned on this awkward angle so you could get your arms around them.

Now my nan’s arms are thin and bony but they still feel like one of the safest places I’ll ever know.

And, thanks to her, I have started checking the outdoor furniture for spiders before letting any visiting children sit down.

So here’s to Old Rathy, the woman who says “bullshit” in my favourite way, the woman who taught her entire family how to have anxiety, and the woman whose face, voice, arms and kisses make up most of my life’s memories.

Happy Birthday you old tart. I love the shit out of you.

In which I discover I may have actually crossed the line and turned into an actual cat. In the head. I don’t have a tail (yet).

I love cooking for people.

Listening to very loud metal while I make salads or marinate all manner of delicious meaty things. People sit in the backyard, shifting chairs beneath the sun, the weather in that annoying stage of the sun being too hot but the shade being too cold.

People laugh, bubble-wine sparkles, and mini stories are told in small conversations between friends.

Autumn barbecues are the best ones of all.

bbq

After hours of hungover waiting, it all came together – the meat, the salads, the donated rice, that glorious centrepiece – Shan’s Terteh Behrk.

And then it happened. That warm, comfortable silence that descends upon a dinner table, declaring the meal a triumphant success. The delicate symphony of cutlery on plastic plates, of exultant sighs or declarations of pride at someone’s ability to eat their entire plate before anyone else (Maddie).

It was, she declared, her favourite day.

It even included Surprise, Chicken! from our neighbour-cousin. She was right. A favourite day indeed.

Who needs troubles when you have tummy-friends and heart-friends all in the one place, all at the one time?

It’s cold out there now. 24 hours after it all began.

Today is the day for a sunny-corner picnic, but I’ve already been into the leftovers.

Maybe I’ll just copy the cats and go and curl up next to the fence. Those weeds do actually look really soft.