Archive for March, 2016

All the signs were against us…

1218186Maybe it’s my Irish heritage, but I’m always on the lookout for ‘signs’. Good signs that I’m on the right track with something. Signs that things will work out. Positive vibes. Serendipitous coincidences…

Last Monday, I needed some. My colleague, composer Sally Whitwell and I were taking our first, tentative steps out of the DropBox with our musical based on my teen novel, Unrequited: Girl meets boy band. It was being featured at a music-theatre event in Sydney, called Broadway Unplugged. Oh. My. Goodness. Nerve-wracking!

Signs came thick and fast. We had difficulty with a ticketing issue and an unsettling conversation with a member of staff. Returning the car, we found a $106 parking ticket for facing the wrong way to the curb. We got lost on the way out of of the City. The highway McDonald’s had shut up shop minutes before we rolled into its car park after midnight on the way home, hoping for an injection of caffeine…

Could it all mean that we’re on the wrong track?

Well, it could have, if we’d chosen to focus on that stuff. Instead, we noticed other signs.

Sign #1

The lead character in the story, Kat, sings in the chorus of the Sydney University Theatre Company’s production of the Legally Blonde musical, held at the Seymour Centre. Driving past the Seymour Centre, we noticed the Sydney University Theatre Company is actually, right now, staging Legally Blonde.

Sign #2

Sally recounted the story of walking past the same theatre, only to see a young woman run out of it in tears, followed by someone else calling after her, yelling, “Kat! Kat!”

Sign #3

I was stopped directly outside the door of the theatre where our show would be featured, by a little old lady with a walking stick, who wanted to admire my umbrella. It’s only then that I noticed she was wearing a One Direction t-shirt (the band that inspired the book when my daughter wasn’t a fan of reading, but was a fan of Harry Styles).

We tend to zero in on anything that supports our current obsession. The more we look for ‘signs’, the more we’ll see.

We had obstacles that day. Plenty of them. But the goal was brighter, and searching for evidence to back that up was more productive than sinking into a funk.

It reminded me of the time my three best school friends turned forty, and went away together for a long weekend. I took a copy of Pam Grout’s book, ‘E Squared’, which contained a series of fun experiments designed to prove that this stuff works. One of the experiments demanded you count how many purple feathers you see in a 24-hour period.

Purple feathers? Who’d ever seen one in their entire lives, let alone more than one? Pfft!

Not two hours later, during a fireside viewing of The Importance of Being Earnest on DVD, out swished Dame Judi Dench, resplendent in an elaborate purple outfit, heavily accessorised with a hat exploding with purple feathers!

What’s more, the next morning, we wandered the craft markets in a local village. Shop after shop contained purple-feather-themed wares… dream-catchers, mobiles, scarves, hats, paintings… where the expectation had been to see not one purple feather, the reality was there were hundreds!

There are signs everywhere. Even if bad stuff happens, when we’re looking for the good signs, we’ll see them.

I read my friend’s harrowing book and I cried…

Selfless-V4c-01-193x300I started reading Kristen Holzapfel’s story, “Selfless“—an account of trauma, Depression, Anorexia, self-harm and recovery—over my scrambled eggs on Saturday morning. I planned to indulge in the first few chapters, fold the washing, write my newsletter and see if there was something I could take the kids to for the Canberra festival.

I was one of Kristen’s elder sister’s friends at school and we’ve forged our own friendship as adults. I knew much of what she’d been through already (and found myself appearing as one of the characters in the memoir, with the pseudonym “Anne”, with an ‘e’ I noticed, which made me smile).

What I wasn’t prepared for was the way Kristen dragged me into the pages and engulfed me in the red-raw anguish of her 30s, leaving me barely able to breathe. Hours passed. The book was devoured. The washing and festival plans were discarded. Kids and husband were snapped at for squawking around me like a brood of needy seagulls while I was desperately trying to get through the searing pain of Kristen’s experiences and make it safely to the ‘good bit’. The bit where my friend fought her demons and won. Where she recovered.

I’ve read books on people’s personal traumas and battles with mental illness before. They’re harrowing. Strangely compelling in a ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ kind of way.

Reading your friend’s personal story of trauma and mental illness is another beast altogether. Her fear and panic, the anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, the agony of disordered eating—it’s brutal.

As “Anne”, I found myself popping up in the pages in a supporting role I was glad to have played. The reminder that I’d been able to drop everything a few years ago and run to her when she needed a friend most made me grateful I’d done that. But what of all the other times? Reading the entire ‘unplugged’, unabridged, uncensored version of the tortured tale—I wondered if I could have done more.

At the same time I know I couldn’t have. Commitment to my family, work, health, extended family and other friends stretches me already. Kristen’s descent into mental illness was as a result of burnout and what’s known as ‘vicarious trauma’ through being a helper in her social work. Of all people, she knows how important boundaries are, and would never have expected more from any of us.

Throughout her story there’s a painful sense of ‘drifting’. Of feeling a failure. Of not ever really finding a career to which she feels truly suited. There’s a strong theme of always falling short, professionally—as front-line social worker, support worker, team leader, Human Resources officer, admin assistant…

But the more pages I turned and the faster and more deeply I fell into her agonised, brilliantly-articulated world, the more obvious the answer became.

Kristen, you’re a writer. You have a gift. You write the kind of words I read and think, “I wish I could write like this”.

Your book is complete but your story isn’t finished. Your battles may not be over. Your strength and tenacity and powerful vulnerability is astonishing.

You quote Sean O’Casey, “All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed”. You speak of your body “leaking stress”. You talk of feeling “mad”.

You say that writing wasn’t cathartic. That it was ‘exquisite agony’. You talk of sharing the draft with your family and having them read it until there were no secrets left. Writing didn’t fix anything. It didn’t undo anything. But your closing line, given all that comes before it, is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read: “Nothing anybody else says or does can make me less worthy”.

To finally feel that way is a triumph. It’s miles and miles and miles away from where you were the day “Anne” dropped everything and held your hand while you sobbed in a cafe. You have come so far, and I am indescribably proud of you for “reaching into the thick, black hole of your memory” and finding the courage to tell us about it.

Selfless: A social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery is available here. Kristen will be interviewed at the next Canberra Wise Women event on 5 April.

When Plan B sparkles!

Hannah&GemmaA decade ago, we had to give up my daughter’s gorgeous Lab, Gemma, because divorce meant moving into a small townhouse without a yard for her to run and it wouldn’t have been fair. My then-colleague, who adores Labs, adopted her and they moved to a property in Queensland, where Gemma has lived a very doted-upon life.

On Friday night, with my colleague and Gemma en route moving to Melbourne, we were able to drive to Goulburn, about an hour away, and have a wonderful reunion! It was such a happy night, and we were full of gratitude for Gemma being so well looked after, and for this opportunity to say hello to our old girl, ten years on.

It made me think about the fact that when things don’t pan out as planned, they can still pan out well. Plan B might be different, but sometimes it’s equally as good as Plan A, for an entirely new set of reasons.

Sometimes those reasons are hidden behind the murk of dashed dreams. Sometimes we’re staggering through that murk with blinkers on, determined not to make eye contact with the sparkle of Plan B.

We might do that because it means being proven wrong, or it means we can’t stay in the victim role to which we’ve become attached. Wallowing can be so attractive and such a good excuse for not getting on with things.

Plan B can dazzle if we let it. If we’re flexible, resourceful and optimistic we can rock it!