The Art of Anticipation

I’ve got a golden ticket.

It’s a ticket to a magical place full of wonder. There are edible plants and astonishing creatures. There are mysteries. There is magnificence. There are strange and unpredictable events. Some of them benefit me, some leave me feeling like I’ve been blown up into a giant blueberry and sent to the juicing room to be juiced.

I began my journey to this place, filled with wonder. I licked wallpaper, ate dog biscuits, crawled into tiny spaces and was in awe at every turn. The further into this place I’ve ventured, the more cautious I have become. I don’t laugh as much. And, I don’t lick wallpaper or eat dog biscuits anymore. Partly because wallpaper tastes disgusting and I realised dog biscuits were for dogs, but the point is, I once was curious and adventurous enough to try them.

Although it bares a remarkable resemblance, my golden ticket is not to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Had you fooled there for a second, didn’t I? In actual fact, my golden ticket is to life. And, there are no guarantees in this place. I keep thinking there are though. I keep expecting guarantees. Even when I don’t think I am, I am. And when things don’t turn out as I think they should… that’s when find I get blue (and need to be sent to that damn juicing room). Expectations are my kryptonite. See the chart I created below for a breakdown.

Expectations, Reality & Resilience

I’m not saying that it is wrong to have expectations. In fact, we need them. It is important we have high expectations around how we are to be treated, for example. Similarly, plans, goals and dreams are an essential part of being a vibrant human being.

Where things can go awry is when we get formulaic about life: If I do x, then I should and will get y for a result. I am a total sucker for this, and like Julia Stone, I blame you, Hollywood. I have had to do a lot of unlearning in this department. The pentecostal prosperity message I was accosted with as a child certainly has not helped with this either. No. But, that’s another blog post.

I like to think I am a realist, but I’m not. I’m a depleted romantic trying to clutch onto the security of certainty. Following dreams gets to be just exhausting when you encounter what feel like endless valleys. I tell myself, just stop expecting anything too much and you’ll be fine. But when I do this, I die a little bit inside. I don’t want to be fine. I want to be alive. I want to hope and dream and become.

Lately I’ve been looking for a full-time job. I’ve always landed on my feet in this area. Always managed to find interesting and satisfying work with ease. This coupled with the fact that we recently had a door slammed in our face direction-wise, meant that I would snap up a job immediately, as that was what I was owed, right? Wrong. It hasn’t happened like that. As a result, I’ve experienced some inner turbulence, which has reminded me of a tune my brother, 11 years my senior composed on the piano in response to his frustrated efforts to break into the IT sector as a graduate in his early 20s. The piece was entitled Unemployed. It was a long series of dark, disturbed, disjointed, foreboding and rather hilarious crashing notes. He is not a musician, at all, but he captured the space well. The good news is I have managed to curb the self-destructive talk and become a bit more philosophical about it all.

I asked myself, if expectations are a form of belief, of faith, then how do I manage them, so I don’t feel like a deflated balloon every time things go a different way to what I imagined?

The answer to this struck me the other week, in the middle of a coffee shop. It’s not a new thought. It was something I just needed reminding of at this specific juncture of life. It was simply this: nothing will unfold as you expect it to, but it will be ok and maybe it will be even better than ok. Roll with it.  Since having accepted this notion, I have experienced an uncanny calm spread through me, like a warming mug of hot chocolate.

So, my aim is not to quash my expectations. It’s to throw them open. It’s about trusting that some of those seemingly ‘crappy’ life experiences are potentially opening up opportunities that will take me to a whole new place. When I think about the surprise arrival of my daughter and a bunch of seemingly impossible challenges that enshrouded her arrival, which ultimately were the makings of me, I know that is the case.

Life really is a little bit like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. You never know what you’re going to stumble into. So, here’s the deal, I am going to keep open, anticipate and wonder at strange and unimagined rooms, which I never thought I would find myself in. I’m not going to get fixated on the fact that certain doors led to rooms which were not as wonderful as I was thinking they would be. I’m going to keep moving through the factory and anticipate adventure.

Do you have any examples of how unexpected challenges yielded some gold? I’d love to hear about them.

MIO

Stocking up the Holiday Entertainment Vending Machine

Abundant, cheap holiday entertainment for kids… now that would be useful.
Vending Machine

Anyone else feel like an entertainment vending machine during school vacation? It’s day 6 of our term one break and I already need a refill. Sorry kids, there’s only pretzels and bottled water on offer here. The boring stuff. I’m already getting that scratchy exhausted wanting-to-exercise feeling. But instead of exercising or being stimulated and feeling useful in paid work, I am finding myself cutting up bits of fruit and sandwiches to put on the food-train that travels at high speed from the supermarket, to the cupboard, to the plate and into the tunnel of the child’s mouth faster than a speeding bullet during the holidays.

There are another 10 days or so of this to go. I’m in trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I love having time off with my little treasure, but lately, there’s been a lot of time off to fill. We just finished a very short 8 week term after a 5 week break over Christmas. So, I feel a little ambushed by the early onset of Easter. Also, due to our recent Crazy Life Tsunami experience, which includes a reduced budget and a husband otherwise engaged somewhere in Africa, we haven’t been able to get out of town for the last 3 rounds of school holidays. So personally, I’m over it.

A lot of the kids I teach have parents who are rolling in cash (or rolling in debt), as they head off to Europe or Aspen or somewhere else fabulously inaccessible for us, which is definitely the optimum way to capitalize on school being out. But, what if you, like the other 99.9% of the planet don’t have the money for that kind of extravagance? How do you stop the, “I’m bored” commentary without spending all of your already stretched grocery money? Especially during the colder months. Holidays in the cold, sans snow, are almost certainly always harder to deal with, as the gloriously exhilarating and exhausting effects of rivers, pools and oceans become sick-inducing. We don’t want holidays and sick. Noohohoho. That’s not what we want at all.

I’m an ideas gal, so I’ve decided to sit down and generate a list to top up the old entertainment vending machine. It’s probably going to suck, so, if you have any further suggestions, I’d love to hear them. My daughter is 8 and an only child at present, so this has some baring on the activities I’m cooking up. Plus, I’m trying to avoid screen-time. Lord knows there is too much of that in all of our lives. Here goes…

Dry Weather Activities

  • Friends to play and visa versa – I work on the principle that more kids are less work, as they entertain one another
  • Organise a camping trip – with friends, a cheap way to get out of town
  • Feeding the ducks at the botanic garden
  • Bush walking/strolling
  • A back-yard camp out
  • A picnic
  • Gardening – pruning and/or planting – have kids help you with sweeping and clipping. Or gather some cuttings from a friend’s garden and plant them.
  • Hit the Parks –  playgrounds, skate parks, basketball courts
  • Do a park crawl of all the best local playgrounds
  • Look for freebee events at the Art Gallary etc
  • Hit the beach and collect some shells – make something with them or use them decoratively in your garden
  • Chalk on the pavement – create a mural or play hopscotch
  • Create movies – requires a camera – could edit on iMovies or another editing suite, teach them and they’ll be away
  • Get around and visit your friends living in obscure country locations
  • Lemonade stands or some other enterprise – my sister and I made chocolates and sold them to the neighbors as a way to earn pocket money when we were children.

Wet Weather Activities

  • Sleep overs – pajama parties
  • Visits to grandma/other favorite person
  • Organise some time volunteering together – for an opportunity shop or soup kitchen – I had this idea the other day and would really like to do it, as a way to help encourage my daughter to focus on helping others.
  • Baking – always a hit
  • Play ‘Restaurants’ (tie in cooking dinner with a game – great to incorporate social, literacy and numeracy skills with recipes, menus, sevice etc)
  • Trips to the library
  • An indoor picnic or tea party with teddies
  • Create a book reading cave with the couch in the lounge, a torch and some blankets
  • Choreograph a dance
  • Craft Activities (not my favourite pass-time, but Magic loves these)
  • Pull out the dress up box
  • Board Games
  • Visit the local pet store

Entertainment that costs, but not too much

  • Go dress-up shopping at the local thrift store
  • Trout fishing
  • Strawberry picking
  • Museum, zoo, aquarium, hobby farm visit, miniature train ride
  • Mini Golf

Now just for someone to organise and implement them.

Let me know if you have any creative, simple and cost effective ideas up your sleeve.

Links welcome!

MIO

Long Distance Relationships: Keeping the Home Fires Burning

This was originally written just before my husband returned from a 14 week stint overseas and recently appeared as a guest post on Wanderlust, as a twin to Morealtitue’s wonderful post: In Which an Expat Talks Long Distance Relationships. It received such lovely responses that I wished to share it here also.

Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Original artwork by UK Artist Natasha Newton

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

I put my husband on a plane to Ethiopia over thirteen weeks ago. This is our longest stint apart yet, never ever to be repeated. He has missed our second wedding anniversary, Christmas, the new year, his birthday, the birthdays of most of his family and the Mayan End of the World. (This was the sort of event I would have really liked my husband around for, as you may have gathered, he is handy in a disaster.) He arrives back the day after Valentines Day. So we miss that too. Yes, there is a strong theme of missing here.

Sigh.

Morealtitude asked me to write something on maintaining a relationship long distance from the perspective of the home-front. Ultimately, there isn’t anything unique about our general situation, as demonstrated by the 2000+ hits Morealtitude’s last post generated in the first few days of its release. Long distance relationships are as ancient and common as our need to hunt, gather and go to war. Recently I read Charles Frazier’s, Cold Mountain; an achingly beautifully tale of two lonely hearts living through a separation during the American civil war. Phew. It hurt. The mutual throb of longing, the challenges for the vulnerable Ada, left to fend for herself with no food, no money, no knowledge on how to run her farm, waiting, watching the horizon. The struggles, snares and wistful yearning on the long road home from war for Inman. No way to connect. Hoping. Longing. Striving. Both finding a way, but not without significant struggle and grief. We are lightweights comparatively, but some of those feelings are universal. Despite the fact that we have more props than ever to manage separation from our loved ones, being apart is still fraught with challenges.

There is just nothing that can replace the physical presence of your dearest one.

In saying this, I actually really enjoy my own company. I’ve lived and traveled alone and my dad traveled extensively whilst I was growing up. And, while these experiences have helped in equipping me to survive our time apart, I love hanging out with my husband. I really really don’t like it when he’s gone.

As was mentioned, we find that any time apart under 2 weeks can be deemed as somewhat healthy and manageable. Beyond that, forget it. Five weeks out from sharing life with my numero uno compadre, love and life mate, we’re seriously stretched. Maintaining contact with Morealtitude at odd hours of day or writing lengthy emails gets difficult to fit in with the demands of doing everything. A disconnect sets in. My legs officially turn to jelly from exhaustion. All the meals in the freezer mysteriously disappear. My old friend, adrenaline abandons me and I crumple into a weary little shell of a person, rather than the otherwise required ‘Mama Extraordinaire’ persona.

I was a solo parent for 4.5 years, so I thought I would take slipping back into this over-functioning space on occasion in my stride. Not so. The issue being that as a family we establish a healthy rhythm and interdependence with each-other and when MoreAltitude boards a plane, we wave goodbye to both him and our rhythm. I handle the initial shift with relative ease, however our daughter does not. Suffice to say, having children and needing to maintain a long distance relationship makes things much trickier to manage. Morealtitude and I never had the luxury of courting each other without the additional needs of a little person in the mix, so I can only speak from this perspective.

I must say, I have great admiration for my own mother, as she brought up four children, whilst my dad travelled regularly, loving (and hating) his various international adventures. My Mum was the stabilizing influence in our family. I credit her with any semblance of sanity or consistency I may possess as an adult. It has also become very clear to me that she played this irreplaceable supportive role to my dad’s travel at great cost to herself.

However, there was also a cost for my dad. In order to provide for us, he missed out on milestones and cuddles and the comfort of home cooked meals with his family around him. He slept poorly on lumpy pillows, in stark hotel rooms or with strangers and had to power on, despite a weekly scratchy phone call with his wife saying she had no money for groceries or that the children were sick. Not being able to physically be there for your family in a crisis is a very frustrating, even heartbreaking thing for a functioning loving adult to deal with. Dad always came through though. Always. He was ultimately motivated by his love for his family.

My husband also has such noble motivations. Although there are some serious questions emerging around the reality of continuing this line of work with the, at times, conflicting needs of a family. He is an amazing person and a wonderful husband. He puts us at the centre of everything he does. He is generous and caring and wise beyond his years in knowing how to nurture a family. His advice around maintaining long distance relationships is fabulous. He has taught me a lot. He is a brilliant communicator and despite whatever stresses he may be experiencing whilst in the field, he has an excellent ability to be present and understanding of whatever issues are occurring for me a million miles across the oceans. He still manages to be right there in spirit. Many times, I have felt the challenges on my side of the world are petty or mundane compared to fighting poverty or implementing medicine and food distributions. But Morealtitude is always genuinely interested, appreciative and validating of my experiences and will indulge them more so than I will let myself. This is marvelously helpful. I imagine it would be very easy to get resentful or feel insignificant if he could not do this. After all, challenges are challenges, no matter where you experience them.

And there are genuine challenges with being the one left behind. It can be difficult not to feel as though you are missing out on the adventure. Difficult at times not to detect pangs of resentment, when your life resembles your own version of the set of Groundhog Day. Particularly between the hours of 5-9pm when dinner needs cooking, the kid gets whiney and wants entertaining and feeding and attention and washing and, and, and. And there’s just you with your two hands, one in the sink, the other manning the stove; probably an additional foot artfully applying a band-aid. It becomes exasperating when your kid refuses to sleep alone for the 95th night in a row, but you know they will immediately right themselves upon your partner’s return. Doing those evening stretches alone night after night can be overwhelming and a more than a little lonely. I’m talking specifically about a loneliness that can only be quieted with adult company. That variety of loneliness tends to surface during those marathon evenings, or when an important decision just has to be made without the consultation or inclusion of your humanitarian husband who is in a 6 hour meeting with the United Nations several continents away. A very real exhaustion can set in from doing everything solo, where you had a partnership before.

I try and offset this by using the opportunity to invest more into my family and friendships. I find it easier to do this in summer than in the hibernation months of winter. I’ve been asking myself to watch that I’m not completely holding together all of the relationships my husband is absent from and unable to fully invest in, although my being anchored at home inadvertently maintains a connection and may help his return home to be a little more seamless. That is okay with me, but I have seen this dynamic become unhealthy when the traveling partner loses meaningful connection socially at home. I think this is a strong reason for jobs requiring extensive travel have an expirey date.

As time wares on, daily details can really get swallowed up by the miles between us. Details of which we would normally share or witness together can be vaporized by opposing schedules and time zones. We have to work hard to keep the intimacy from flailing – which we absolutely do.

So, you might ask, how exactly does one keep healthily connected to their crusading globe trotter and keep the home fires burning without getting resentful? A few thoughts…

  • Empathy: I’ve covered this one a fair bit already. Empathizing with what your significant other is experiencing is profoundly important in managing your relationship long-distance. Our communication centers around this. Honestly expressing, listening to, connecting with and validating each of the other’s experiences is vital. That is not to say that we don’t sometimes talk utter nonsense and laugh and joke. We just talk – or write. For the most part, words are really all we have. We keep building shared experiences this way. We do this on a daily basis. If I ever start feeling sorry for myself or resentful of the distance, I just think about the hard stuff my other half is experiencing and what he is sacrificing. And, if he is enjoying himself, I am grateful, because I like him and I want him to be happy. That usually sorts me out. We are in the same boat. We’re just at opposite ends of a very very large canoe. Oh and if you are the one away, try not to post your experiences on Facebook before you have had a chance to tell your partner what has happened. I’m talking specifically about pictures and captions like this, Morealtitude:
For those who noted my comments about flying in and out of Somalia on a jet with a shattered windshield, THIS is what I was referring to. Yes, at 22,000 feet. Thank you, UNHAS.

For those who noted my comments about flying in and out of Somalia on a jet with a shattered windshield, THIS is what I was referring to. Yes, at 22,000 feet. Thank you, UNHAS.

  • Maturity: Own your reactions. Ultimately your responses to the separation are only in your control. Do what you need to do to look after yourself. This might mean seeking extra support from family, friends or professionals. In doing this, look after your partner as well. Express your feelings, but don’t hurl them at your loved one as something they need to fix. Try not to blame or punish your partner or freeze them out while they are miles away – or in the same room for that matter. That stuff is really unfair and destructive.
  • Be Deliberately Active: Know what you need to get through, make plans, so you don’t slump into sad-feels and find it all too much. I like filling my house with people – our daughter is happiest when surrounded by energy, I also like to cook, so I try and hook up lots of dinners and visits in advance. We had a lovely friend staying with us this time and her company made a world of difference. Take the empty spaces and fill them with other things. Things you like. Get out. Exercise. See friends. Meet people. See a show. Do the art gallery. Be spontaneous. Take the kids to eat ice-cream on the beach. Then keep doing that stuff when your other half gets back, but include them. It’s a nice way to bust out of a rut and experience your hometown anew.
  • Be Flexible: Go with the flow. Some days, connection may not be possible. It just is. Save up your stories for when it happens. Similarly many of the routines that we establish with Morealtitude home just don’t work when he is gone, so we shake them up, mix them around. Things are a lot more fluid, including meals and bedtime. Our daughter sleeps in with me at nights. It drives me crazy, but not as crazy as having her scream and whimper half the night for weeks on end because she is scared and she misses her step-dad. I pick my battles.
  • Sleep: Obviously this is a corner stone of sanity. However, I have somehow found myself becoming a terrible sleeper when Morealtitude is away. When he is gone, I avoid bed because I am wired and anxious and struggle to wind down. I’ve found a few useful tools. These include completing a relaxation meditation – free from the internet and, my most recent find, audio books. These are calming, they slow my thoughts down and stimulate my imagination in a healthy way. The more I sleep, the better I cope. It’s not rocket science, but it gets mixed up when you’re apart and you need strategies to help make it happen.
  • Visit: If you can make it happen, it is incredibly useful to get out to the field and take part in your partner’s world. Obviously it is not possible on most trips. It has taken us over 3 years to make this happen with all the various pieces in play. Recently I visited Morealtitude in Ethiopia. The first hand insight I gleaned from this trip into his work and all of the various complexities he faces was invaluable. It has made a HUGE difference, as it has helped me gain a more balanced perspective of humanitarian work and our situation on the whole. I connected with my husband’s daily realities with all of my senses. In that 10 day trip, I witnessed the impact my husband was having on huge programs – which made the struggle of the previous 8 weeks worthwhile. I also saw the nuances of the aid industry. The questions. The two steps forward, three steps backward daily dance of humanitarian work. I ditched my first world guilt, as I realised that human suffering is human suffering, no matter where it occurs – this sounds obvious, but it was an important perspective shift for me. Just, if you can, DO IT!!

What about when they get back?

Of course you are beside yourself with excitement and relief to have them back. But, it can be a bit weird and take a bit of adjusting to. You’ve just spent the last X amount of weeks figuring out your own systems and making it all hang together without your partner and suddenly they are back ready to slot into all those spaces you’ve managed to fill. The systems you had together have been remodeled. I have friends who need to spend a couple of days in a stand-off-ish space until they readjust, as they feel a sort of resentment at having been ‘abandoned’. I personally don’t experience this, but I think it’s very understandable. My parents used to have a ripper fight after every trip. That is not our style of re-entry, but it shows it can be turbulent.

It just takes a few days to reconnect properly, there is probably jet lag and fatigue in the mix. We just try and be gentle and patient with each-other. And, yep, you guessed it. We keep communicating. The shift to having more modes of communication other than words at our disposal, is um, advantageous. We can give gifts, we can do stuff for and with each-other, we can say how much we appreciate what the other has done for us whilst we’ve been apart (recommended) and we can touch (highly recommended).

Dagnamit. It is so much better to have the full suite of expression available; to physically share spaces, dreams, doldrums, laughter and life.

So tell me, why do we do this apart thing again?

Mind Mending: 4 Foundational Tools to Combat Depression

I’ve majorly stalled in getting this ‘series’ going. Sorry ’bout that. It is for good reason – to be outlined in my up and coming post, entitled, Crazy Life Tsunamis.

I happened to have created a juicy list of tactics to tackle depression, complete with anecdotes, but it’s been pummelled up amongst the debris of the Crazy Life Tsunami (CLT), along with a bunch of other nice plans. This has bothered me, but I have decided that this is something I can do something about, so I will.

I must admit I have felt some reservation around not wanting to just dish out a set of trite formulas for ‘fixing’ depression. Let me highlight, there is no one formula. There are a general set of human experiences that we categorise under depression – causes, symptoms and severity differ for us all. Your experience falls within a unique part of the spectrum. Similarly, the combination of tools to release you from this place are also individual.

I hope to provide my fuller list at another time, when it bobs to the surface of my hard drive or my mind.

So, if you are weathering a version of low life-ebb, I humbly offer some of my foundational mind mending strategies.

1. Acknowledgement is power

I know this is Captain Obvious, but it’s so very important to start with. I have found that the sooner I acknowledge that things are out of balance and shift my life around to accommodate some introspection and find some remedies, the better chance I have of addressing these imbalances without a major life-halt. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. It actually robs you of getting in touch with your authentic self and living life to its fullest.

So if you can tick off a number of these symptoms or get a high score on this test, chances are you are not doing so well and need to take some action.

2. Surrender, Fight and The Prayer of Serenity (or Sanity)

serenity-prayer

In amongst the debris of our Crazy Life Tsunamis, I have been floating on a small but practical raft: the serenity prayer. This eloquent little prayer is so very powerful. As our own whiskey bottle has taken a little bit of a beating – I can see that there is a reason that this prayer is the creed of Alcoholics Anonymous. In our CLT situation, there are things which we need to fight for, there are things that we need to make happen and there are things that we need to surrender. It’s taken us a while to figure out which is what, but with this plea at the heart of our decisions, we have got somewhere and remained remarkably sane as a result. Thus far it has helped us avoid a depressive wipe-out.

The serenity prayer is not THE answer, but it is definitely a kind of map to getting through darker days.

Many times we get in slumps because of our expectations not matching up with our reality.  There are many ‘un-changeables’ in life and it would seem in my experience that identifying, accepting and surrendering these will set me on my way to inner peace. Recently I discovered an un-changeable and it has been excruciatingly painful. Someone very unhealthy has a lot more power over the life of my family than I would have ever chosen to give them. For the time being, I have to surrender this to this harsh reality and I am needing supernatural doses of serenity to do so. Whiskey will never fully cut it.  It is encouraging to me that even with the un-changeables, we can do something – we can become serene… What can I say, Ghandi is my hero at the moment.

Recently I was reminded of this jewel of a quote from Gregory David Roberts’, Shantaram,

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.”

There are many things that we can and need to change. It’s not always easy to do so, as it probably also means letting go of something, perhaps a fear or a comfort or a belief or all of the above. It means accepting change or fighting for it. That wrestle is often a part of the cognitive dissonance that comes with depression.

We can’t change the past. We can’t change the un-changables. We can accept these. We can change our focus. We can change our future.

Yes we can. (Thanks Obama)

We can’t change somebody else’s misery, their choices or their actions which may continue to make our life hard, but we can always work on our own needs and responses. If we feel miserable about stacking on weight or disappearing in our marriage or feeling purposeless or having had someone leave us, we can do something – lots of things about those things.  We can stare them in the face cold and we can grow beyond them.

For these reasons, this very simple prayer is a phenomenally awesome philosophy to hold close in combating depression.

3. The More Decisions I Make, The More I Become

Once you have decided to recognise that you are in Struggle Town and you have put yourself in a place of surrender, half the battle is won. You then need to make another decision to do something about it. Something. Anything. Everything. But, just start with one thing. It might be saying the sanity prayer. It might be talking honestly to someone you trust. It might be booking an appointment with your GP. It might be stopping and sitting by a moving body of water to think about what is really going on and what you might need. Be really proud of yourself once you have done that. Then, make another decision. Then make another. Then another, then another. Keep being proactive. Before you know it you will be moving through the paralysis, one decision at a time. Be brave. Keep gently moving forward. On that note you may need to…

4. Slow the Frack Down

The first time I found myself in a depressive slump, I was 17.5 years old. Did I even recognise what was going on? No. No I did not. I ate  my feelings, started drinking coffee, kept really super busy by putting all of my effort into achievements and cried my way all the way through every fantastic accolade of my final year at high school. During the following year, I ramped it up and kept myself extraordinarily busy with university, 4-5 different jobs, a trip to Nepal and Thailand and voluntary youth work at my local church.

Naturally, I got sick (with glandular fever) and burnt out. I kept ploughing on and soon after, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.

If you don’t know this already, burn-out leads to the dark side. If the burn-out doesn’t stop you, the depression that follows will absolutely force you to a grinding halt. I was completely stopped in my tracks for months on end. This was my first lesson in maintaining mental health: if you’re not so okay, steady your horses and be gentle with yourself. Even if you are okay, steady horses and be gentle with yourself. You are a human-being, not a human-doing. You need maintenance and servicing and tender loving care to thrive and when you don’t get this, just like your car, you will break down.

So these are my long awaited, all natural foundational tips for combating depression.

Acknowledge. Surrender. Accept. Make space to take stock. Get proactive.

Have the courage to face your dis-ease and make the changes you need.

M.I.O. x

 

 

 

Mind Mending: going from grey to technicolor, naturally

I’m back.

I have managed to get my mind out of it’s flannelette shirt and into a bright summer frock of expectancy.

Albeit, it was a brief brush with the Black Dog. He’s now curled up harmlessly on the floor, peacefully sleeping. This recent soul-venture has made me realise that as a result of all of those intermittent dances with despair, I really do have quite the carpet bag of tricks to help me shake off the space. I was also reminded by the lovely Viv McWaters that tomorrow is National Are You Okay? Day in Australia. In light of this notion of creating connection and as an advocate of hope and healing, I want to share some of the tools I have found useful in rediscovering my joie de vivre .

A Word on Anti-Depressants 

None of my methods involve medication. I’ve been prescribed anti-depressants a number of times; I have never used them. Partly because I’m a bit of a nature-loving-earth-child and prefer to do things as naturally as possible (yes, I did use crystal deodorant for a while and no, it did not work). Also, because I’ve known that, for me, facing off the pain has been a rich source of personal growth if I allow myself to go to it’s depths, understand it and move through it (sometimes I do this more effectively than others). For me, the arrival of the black k9 is telling me something is out of balance – be it within my mind, body, spirit, direction, relationships, environment or a cloudy cocktail of them all. In saying this, I am rapt to hear when people find anti-depressants positively life altering as the paralysis inflicted on their mind is ceases to be. Release is wonderful! A fellow Melbournian, Mark Pacitti has exuberantly and articulately documented his brave break-throughs with the aide of anti-depressants in his blog and generated excellent awareness around the dis-ease.

As you may know, when experiencing a bout of depression, among other things, the colour drains out of everything. I liken the difference between taking medication for depression and not to the difference between the old and new processes of colourising black and white movies. The old process is tedious – you have to work on the movie (your life) frame by frame, adding the colours one at a time to each part of each individual frame. It is initially slower and a lot of work – but you can really gain great awareness and shift major life-blockages quite effectively with the motivation of your limited colour palette gradually being remedied. Sometimes you miss a frame and you have to go back, but boy do you get to know yourself inside-out. ;0)

The new process of colourisation (medication) uses technology to speed things up. You scan your film (life) into a computer (a balanced chemical filter), it shows each frame clearly on the screen, you direct the outline for each area that needs colour and the computer fills it in. The essential thing is that you still take an active role in outlining what the medication is remedying. Obviously the later method is more efficient, especially if you have a lot of footage to cover, the weight of responsibility and you don’t have the luxury of time to process things completely manually. Someone once described anti-depressants to me as being like a crutch for your mind while it mends – just like when you break your leg; the ultimate goal being that you gradually ditch the crutch and work through the residual pain until you have full usage again. This may not be possible for some of us, as Rob Delaney highlights with his experience of clinical depression, but it is the ideal result for many of your garden variety depressions.

Either mending or using a limb or a mind that has been ‘damaged’ requires extra care; strategies to make and keep them vital. Over the next two weeks, I will be posting a series on some of my personal tried and tested natural remedies for dealing with depression and creating balance.

So if you’re not feeling so ‘okay’, come and ride it out with me.

**Please, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, contact your GP and/or a mental health professional for a clinical diagnosis. If it’s urgent, please google for a hotline in your area and chat it through with someone who cares.

A Letter to The Black Dog

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Dear Black Dog,

We used to hang out a lot. Remember? Yeah, that’s right, back in my early twenties when I was wearing my poo-goggles on a bit of a full-time basis. In the beginning, we’d sit paralysed on the couch at my parents place together for hours. Me staring into space, with a mind that was simultaneously racing and empty. You would sit on my lap. Or was it my entire being?

One thing is for sure, you were a crushing son of a bitch.

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I’m trying to remember how it was that you came to arrive in my life. There are a number of events and triggers; like a bad heart break or two. Like being misled by mentors and having my wide-eyed youthful trust bruised blue. There was the burn-out from studying, working and volunteering as a youth leader. A disconnection with my passion for performance and writing. Oh, and the tsunami of cognitive dissonance with my faith, followed by the alarming rate at which my friendships dropped away when I expressed anything about it.

Really, when I think about it, your presence was a formative part of my early adulthood.

I’m also trying to remember how it was I got you to leave my life. You were around for a while. Years actually. Sometimes it seemed like you had disappeared, but then, when I wasn’t really looking, something would happen, and you would appear. I tried a lot of things to get you to leave. You weren’t exactly welcome. I read books about you and therapy helped some. I wasn’t interested in anti-black dog drugs. I wanted to work you out. I sat with you. I looked deep into the pit of your hopeless tar eyes and attempted to make friends with you. What was it you were trying to tell me? Was I on the wrong path? What was the right path?

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When the answers came in the form of your black fog breath, I began to make a series of drastic decisions to move you out. I quit university, left church leadership and took up a full-time job – but you stuck around. I decided to test my faith by taking it to an extreme; I found a crazy missionary lady, travelled to Burma with her and smuggled Bibles – turns out I was smuggling Black Dog in my bags as well. Trying a new tact, I quit church, started studying Social Work, moved out of home and found some open minded friends. Still, you were there – to the point where I couldn’t even write an essay. You had set up camp in my mind.

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So, I had to quit that course. Hoping to ‘experience’ a course worth of essays, instead of writing them, I picked up a job working in a Detoxification Unit with drug addicts and criminals; the homeless and the helpless. Exposing myself on a daily basis to a number of your larger relatives, you seemed like a puppy. Having had you around made me more compassionate and gave me a depth, a humility and an understanding I may not otherwise have had. This job provided perspective of sorts. It made me feel important. At the tender age of 21, it seemed like a solution; to bury my black dog with other people’s bigger meaner black dogs. Yes. Finally. A way forward.

Seeing as this strategy was working so well, I stepped it up by dating a co-worker. He had a beast of a Black Dog, and, being that he blocked it out with marijuana and alcohol, I made it my mission to focus all of my attention upon dealing with it, ignoring that you were right there feeding off of the angst.

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And so began my lessons on the pitfalls of playing the ‘Rescuer’ and ‘Wounded Healer’. Four and a half tumultuous years and an unplanned pregnancy later, I sat in a field on the first birthday of my first child, alone, watched a sunset and realised I could never be responsible for someone else’s black dog. And, I realised I still had one of my own. You had grown, but so had I.

This was a pivotal moment.

Today I heard someone talk about choices as being like steering a ship. I like to think of the Spirit of Tasmania, as I can hear it honk every night from my house. If you steer that ship just one degree differently, nothing much will change in the next two days, but over the course of 2-5 years, you will be on a completely different trajectory. You will not end up in Launceston, you will potentially wind up somewhere much more perilous, like Antarctica… or possibly somewhere much milder, like, oh, I don’t know, Vanuatu. This shift in perception did exactly that for my life.

Armed with sobering fragments of truth, I made some more drastic decisions. Some of those choices meant I had to painfully learn the same lessons again. Such is the nature of one rehabilitating from any pattern of escape from their demon… I mean dog. However, mostly, they were good decisions. The decisions to go on alone as a parent and to complete a double degree in Education and the Arts were foundational.  Five years and what felt like several hundred thousand hurdles later, I graduated from that marathon chapter of my life. I met and married a wonderful man, got a job and fell in an exhausted heap.

Here’s the thing though, last night, my husband plucked a short black hair off of my tear stained pyjama sleeve and, despite the fact that I have a beautiful family, great work and I’m not living in a caravan in some God-for-saken suburb in the Boganisphere of Melbourne (as I may well have if I didn’t shift that degree), I realised you’ve caught up with me.

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I stopped running, you see. I removed all the distractions and now I can see we’re still rather attached.

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So I know you’re here, buddy. But, guess what? I’m bigger than you and I have faith in something even bigger than me. That’s the order of things. With our eyes wide open, we are going to figure out why it was you came in the first place. We are going to stop trying to bury you in tasks and achievements. We are going to find that passion and sense of purpose I lost a long way back, together.

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Acknowledging pats from,

M.I.O.

P.s. I am going to share this letter, because it has helped so much for me to write it. Hopefully it comforts someone else out there. Let’s face it, most of the time we only provide the highlights reel.

*** Many thanks to the very talented illustrator, Matthew Johnstone and the following sources for providing the poignant imagery in this post: Black Dog InstituteJourneys with the Black Dog: Inspirational Stories of Bringing the Black Dog to HeelI Had a Black Dog and Living with a Black Dog. 

Alphabet Soup

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Last year we had a dream run with Magic’s first school teacher. We watched her blossom under the warmth, care and guidance of someone who knew and delighted in all of the little quirks and special things about who Magic was. She was busting to read and write when she came home, she became more confident and she missed her teacher on the holidays. This was a miracle for us. It was a hectic first year of marriage of which we jumbled our way through, but for Magic, the year was a triumph.

This year Magic has struggled.

While we successfully made changes to create a more balanced and enjoyable life, Magic’s progression with literacy took a nosedive. Apparently it is common for children to regress academically a little after the summer, but she did not pick up. She became resistant to practicing any form of autonomy when it came to reading and writing. I would volunteer to read with the children in her class and was shocked at how ‘far ahead’ many of her classmates were, whilst Magic stagnated. She just would not even try. It was baffling. Her teacher expressed concern, told us to do more at home and said she thought she had learning difficulties, which she wanted her to get her tested for. This sent me into a spin.

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Thanks for the tips, but I’m already an expert.

Firstly, I did the thing that all well meaning, but not necessarily constructive mothers do. I blamed myself. Then, I helpfully heaped an extra measure of guilt and failure on, because I am an English teacher. It often seems that whatever your profession, you will face a personal experience of the area you are supposed to have some expertise in and find yourself floored. I suspect this is life teaching us to be human.

Anyway, this reactive cocktail led to a series of anxious encounters between myself, Magic and her take-home reader. As, naturally, my child’s refusal to read a simple sentence, I can jump, meant that I had failed as a parent and a teacher and my existence was therefore meaningless.

Obviously, I had not read enough to her in the womb or taught her the alphabet as early as I should have. Clearly studying, working and being both Mum and Dad to her for the bulk of her life, along with all of the recent changes had taken their toll. Finally that big night out I had before I knew I was pregnant was coming home to roost. She was doomed and it was because of me…

That emotional chamber within, entitled “Mothering Department” was working around the clock to get this thing nutted out and some of the responses were desperately irrational. You get that.

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Fortunately, I quickly figured out that holding up my child and peering into her like a mirror, then having my ego crushed when I did not see an exact replica of myself at the same age, with all the things that made me feel okay and special (such as praise for my academic ability) was in fact not helpful or realistic and a rather unhealthy manifestation of emotional fusion, I changed tact.

The words of the prophet Kahlil Gibram echoed in my mind;

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Children are wonderful teachers.

Magic is in fact her very own person. Which is to be celebrated. She has her own unique needs and strengths. How could I help her express them?

This became my quest.

I diligently sought the expertise of Dr.Google. I talked – and listened to a lot of people. Teachers, psychologists, welfare coordinators, other mothers old and new, and Magic herself.

Magic did not have a lot to say. Her behavior told the story. She was demonstrating regression in a number of areas. Her sleep was disturbed. She was having nightmares and wanting me like she was an infant again. She was flighty and demanding. Magic was highly anxious. What on earth was going on?

This resistance to reading and writing seemed like the tip of the ice-burg.

Never-the-less, I continued tackling the literacy stuff head-on and it proved to be very pivotal. The key ingredient to my strategy for improving Magic’s reading and writing?

Love.

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Whilst I began unpicking some of Magic’s issues, I found a book by Paul Jennings, a popular children’s author. It was entitled ‘The Reading Bug… and how you can help your child to catch it‘. There were many gems within, but the one that struck home was the idea that reading to or with your child is an act of love.

Without words you are saying, ‘I am not washing the car, reading the paper or watching the news. I am sitting here with you, reading a story about a little dog whose family don’t recognise him when he gets dirty. I am enjoying the fellowship of this magic moment. You are the center of my world…. This act of love forms an association between the child and books. The word book brings pleasure. The feel, look and smell of books is forever linked to the feelings of warmth, security and love. You have started a lifelong love affair between a child and reading.”

Reading needed to be entwined with love and connection – not struggle. We were going up the wrong path by pushing through her reader every night. Jennings says, “Make sure the word book gets as big as an emotional response as birthday“. Heck yes!

It made me reflect on my own childhood (helpfully this time). How did I come to love books?

It was my mum curling up in bed with my sister and I, reading us into another world with her soft and expressive voice. It was visits to the library. It was my Dad’s noisy praise after I read my first novel. It was the joy of reading to my toys. The reward of getting a picture book my friends and I wrote on fairies put in the library. The pride of helping my sister to write her first poem. It was curling up on the holidays in New Zealand with novels, fairy tales and Reader’s Digests from my Grandfather’s bookcase and having the time to devour them. It was the clever poems he sent us for our birthdays and the funny stories he told us, whilst we sat with him on his lazy boy. It was absolutely the emotional connection. Books became a haven.

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Books to me are as nourishing as a warm soup on a winter’s day. So that is what I focused on giving to Magic. A kind of metaphysical alphabet soup.

We skipped her reader for a good month. No use pushing the proverbial up hill. We hit the library once a week and brought home a stack of new books for me to read with her. Her choice. I made colourful special pin up sheets and snap cards of commonly used sight words. I sat with her between my legs, all snuggled up close and we went through them. There was praise and stickers. Every small victory celebrated. I made a travel diary for our trip to Thailand and helped her write her own story. I downloaded the audio version of Andy Griffiths’, The Day My Bum Went Psycho. Knowing it would appeal to Magic’s wicked sense of humour. And when I run out of fresh picture books, I read whatever is on hand. The night before last, it was a travel brochure about Rio De Janeiro.

Progress has seemed slow and, at times painful, however we have noticed a shift. Not only does Magic delight in story time at night, but her confidence with reading independently has gradually improved.

Interestingly this shift has coincided with a change of classroom teacher. As the year progressed, we observed that her previous teacher had a rather ‘chilly nature’ and seemed to have a knack for discipline, but little else. I was so busy blaming myself, that I neglected to question the person she spends the bulk of her productive waking hours with. There is more to say about that, but I’ll keep it simple by saying her new teacher is wonderfully warm and cuddly, approachable, funny and encouraging. Magic bounces out of class again. The classroom is filled with colour and noise and the kids have been told it’s ok to laugh (yes, I know!). Magic has been talking a lot about how much she loves, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which her new teacher is reading to them. She is also sleeping. She can focus more. She is asking to read her reader.

I am convinced her new teacher has added a pile of wholesome metaphysical vegetables to the broth.

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Okay, maybe not the asparagus. He looks a little off colour.

As I am learning, it takes a village to nourish a child’s passion for reading. So, do me a favour, grab the nearest child in your life, snuggle up and enjoy sharing the reading of a story today. It is a gift that will strengthen bonds and help them grow into healthy, imaginative and confident members of society, who know they have a place.

After all, metaphysical alphabet soup is not made up of stock and ABC pasta, it is made of stories… and the A-Z of Tender Loving Care that goes with sharing them.

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