Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bless This Mess


No Homeland in this post - Emma, you can read!

One of my best friends and I had a drink yesterday. He is unexpectedly going away for two and a half months (lucky bastard) in Europe (I kind of hate him right now) and so we hastily decided to plan a catch up. T. has attempted to break into the academic world in a related field, and he did everything right. But still – no guarantees in this game. He’s just finished a publishing degree, which is kind of funny given that it’s as much of a gamble as academia, I think, but he’s seriously talented and he has a really good chance of making it work. He gently tried to prepare me for this life I have chosen, not in any negative sort of way but because he doesn’t want me to get hurt, especially given he has only known me in the time I have been very sick and then while I was getting better (we were just becoming friends as my life was falling apart in earnest in the second half of 2005). In some ways he knows more than most about just how bad it got.

‘I know it will probably take me about twenty years to get even close to the sort of job I want, an associate lecturer position or something similar,’ I said.

‘Twenty years?’, he almost gasped. ‘I’ve waited two and a half years and it seems like forever. I can’t imagine waiting much longer.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I can do this. It might take that long to get really, really good at it. I know I have to get better at a lot of stuff, and most of it scares the hell out of me. But I can do this.’ And I smiled into my glass of wine, and then at him.


I need to hang onto that knowledge. I somehow know that I can do this, what I’ve chosen, and I know there’ll be a lot of times when it doesn’t feel like that and I will doubt myself into a well of complete despair. However there’s also a part of me that knows I am very well suited for this lifestyle and what it entails. I haven’t had the guts to ask my mentor yet about teaching specifically, but I can learn. (I can I can! [Keep telling yourself that!]) I’ve also met a lot of postgrad students who aren’t anywhere near as thirsty for this as I am, and without my skill set or natural ability. (Half of you must be wondering if you’re actually reading my blog right about now. Such positivity and slight arrogance!) And I want this. I can wait it out. I can practice and get better and hang on until it happens.

My illness has taught me patience, it seems. I took a very long time to pick what I wanted to do with my life, and as I don’t envisage myself ever getting a lot of the big stuff right, it has been especially important to me to pick the right career. It’s not like I have a family to support in the immediate future, and I know that I can make ends meet no matter what. I was paying rent to my parents, for almost all of my own living expenses, for my music lessons and for school stuff when I was earning $6.89 an hour and going to school five days a week at 16 and 17. I can survive. I’m not saying it won’t be hard, but I can cope. (I might need you all to tell me that sometimes!) I can bite down and not let go. (Like a dog, I say!) While ever it is just me I am OK just getting by until I make it happen, even though I know there is a modicum of luck involved here too.*

This has been the most mad, complicated, joyous, impossible, ridiculous year. It hasn’t gone the way I hoped – Frankie remains unwritten and no tangible things to show for it, and when friends were posting Honours results all over facebook I felt crappy as hell. Not finishing on time feels like a failure and I have so much to make up for, so much left to do. But I’ve started. I am part way there, and this doesn’t happen overnight, or even within a year, it seems.  I can do this, all of it. (Eventually!)

At the beginning of the year I said I wanted to work harder and be more adventurous. This year I saw my name on a conference programme for the first time. I essentially ran a seminar on my own and I did it well. I met up with friends with some regularity and so often felt like we were closer at the end of the meal. I made new friends and tried new experiences. I didn’t do as well as I wanted, but I did better, and I think that’s enough. I will do better next year, next time, next everything. Maybe I’m not such a pessimist about myself after all. (Or maybe at 29 I finally know the crap I have to tell myself to keep going.)

This time of year there is a lot of stuff written about how we’re too consumerist, which is true a lot of the time, and that buying presents for one another is subsequently unethical, wasteful and really irresponsible, which can be true but doesn’t have to be. I think that it’s possible to buy things for one another, or make things for one another, that are meaningful and which honour how we feel about one another, without filling our lives with plastic crap and ‘stuff’ that has no purpose or sentimental value. I love making the mix CDs for people I care about, and I love choosing gifts for people that I know will be used and loved. I searched for ages for the perfect Christmas ornaments for my mother and for my mentor. One of those I chose for the latter was a small, white owl that was the best on offer at a small shop I love near my uni, and it was perfect. Owls symbolise wisdom and protection; I held it in my hands, its cold clay comforting in the summer heat and couldn’t think of a better sign that this was for N. His gift also includes some very good quality coffee, but I like to think he can hang this and the other ornaments I gave him on his tree every year and remember that they came from me and smile. The gift also included a card with lots of nice things written on it that might be over the top, but life is fragile – we should tell the people we love how we feel and why. These things matter. This card, and this gift, matter.

So at the end of this crazy year of bad decisions and modest good fortune, I think about what really matters and I say the words that lead this post: bless this mess. I am grateful that it is hard, that it is messy. I don’t pretend that there is method in the madness and that there is a meaning for all the craziness, both that without and that within. But my life is meaningful. I trust that I am going somewhere and that I can do this, and I am grateful for the people who love me and encourage me, as well as those who don’t. Slowly, too slowly sometimes, I am making my life into what I want it to be.

Bless this mess. Happy Christmas, friends xx

*Anyone who says otherwise is either naïve or a liar.
Friday, November 30, 2012

Acting Crazy


This post contains spoilers for both Homeland and Six Feet Under. Also M*A*S*H, but given that M*A*S*H ended 29 years ago I think the ship has sailed for spoiler alerts on that particular show.

A few days ago the lovely Britt beat me to the punch and posted about Carrie from Homeland and what an important character she is, not simply as a complex, interesting woman on TV but also her status as a leading lady with a mental illness. If you have a few minutes it’s worth reading, as well as the piece Britt links to as inspiration for her post.

I have mixed feelings about Homeland. Mostly I think it’s over hyped and not nearly as good as some other shows still in production. I love some of the actors involved (it’s great to see Mandy Patinkin and Damien Lewis working regularly, Talia Balsam has a small recurring role, and I’m seeing a better side to Claire Danes than just about all the work she’s done before) but mostly I find a lot of it implausible and a little silly, and I feel like the creators have played all these moves previously on other shows.  However I keep watching, because I love seeing a character with a big, lifelong mental illness being portrayed on a major TV show.  Moreover it’s written sympathetically, in a way that hasn’t been done since Hawkeye Pierce ranted and raved his way through M*A*S*H. (‘Am I ranting? I hope so. My ranting gets raves.’)

I’ve noticed some commentary that complains that Carrie isn’t written sympathetically at all. But she is – if she wasn’t, we’d be watching a show where Carrie is completely wrong about everything all the time, or at least most of the time, and as we know, she has been proven right about quite a few things along the way in almost two seasons’ worth of a cable show. Yes, she cries a lot – anyone would who sees the things and does the things that she’s done. But mostly she’s written as a strong, decisive, clever and mostly compassionate woman. This is still not a common occurrence on TV, even though things are a hell of a lot better than they were prior to The West Wing and The Sopranos.

Now there are problems with this. I think Estes is right to have thrown Carrie out on her arse when he discovered her condition, although he didn’t need to be so horrible about it. But there are very serious and legitimate reasons why people with mental illness do not work in intelligence and in the army. It’s different if it happens after they join up, but truthfully it is a completely understandable policy. It is because those of us who suffer from mental illness do not respond well to stress on a reliable basis. A very popular and much visited wedding blog ran a piece about two years ago in which a woman revealed that both she and her husband, who was suffering from serious depression, hid his condition while he was on the front line in Iraq. This is just negligent. I consulted an American friend who used to be a lawyer for the army and the guy would not have been discharged dishonourably, as his condition developed after he joined up. I understand the impulse to hide it - God, I’m not in any hurry to admit my illness to people in the department at my uni - but the difference is that the job I have chosen to do does not mean that my depressive episodes might get other people killed. I’m lucky. But even if my dream was to work in intelligence, it’s a dream I couldn’t make come true, because people who have what I have shouldn’t be in situations where people live and die by my decisions. The reason I am so hard about this is because I know what it can do.

In the article Britt links to Leila mentions that Carrie teaches us to trust our instincts. Mostly I agree, and I certainly need to trust my instincts more and I’ve been trying to do so. But you see, those of us with Bipolar also have impulses that aren’t so great, and we see that with Carrie all the time. Sex in the car with Brody in the rain? Reckless. A reckless behaviour that is classic for someone with Bipolar I or II. We have paranoias that shouldn’t be indulged, we have addictive personalities. Sounding like Carrie? I’m not saying she’s wrong all the time, but clearly these flaws can cause a lot of problems, for her and for others, under the duress of active duty.

I’m going to switch gears here and talk about another show I love, Six Feet Under.  I really do love this show and mostly think it’s a hell of a lot better than Homeland. Well written, the most perfectly cast show I have ever watched and full of interesting storylines (albeit some very melodramatic ones, Lisa anyone?), it’s not a lot like Homeland. Still I hated the portrayal of people with mental illness in this show. Billy Chenowith and George Sibley are often complete bastards without suffering from their respective illnesses, but Billy especially is just awful.* This show goes to the extreme, where people with mental illness are dangerous and annoying, all the time (even when they take their medication), and just not to be touched. So we need people like Carrie who, with all her faults, is someone who can get stuff right and is a reasonably likeable character (although some people disagree on that). I just hate that she’s in intelligence, because I really don’t think she should be and I’m willing to bet most mental health specialists agree with me.  

There has to be a middle ground, ironically enough – it’s what those of us who have Bipolar are always trying to find. We have big problems, and there are certain jobs we just can’t work, but we’re also all not dangerous when we look after ourselves and do the right thing. And yes, I can have it both ways.  We have stuff that is very serious, but it doesn’t make us all dangerous arseholes.

*In Brenda’s words: ‘They should call it Bipolar asshole disorder’. 
Sunday, November 25, 2012

Just A Memory



I briefly refer to a key event in the Homeland season 1 finale. If this is a show you haven't seen and want to get into you might want to skip this one. 

Over the years I’ve become familiar with what I call the ‘eye pop’. It’s an expression that will pass my companion’s face at some point in a conversation after I have surprised them by remembering something, anything. It’s a mixture of incredulity, shock, embarrassment and fear. It’s the look that says ‘How can you possibly remember that?/What else do you remember?/I need to stop telling this crazy girl stuff’. It’s the look that reminds me that I need to practice what Emma calls ‘faux- forgetfulness’*.

I’ve often wondered why people are so shocked and unnerved that I remember stuff about them, sometimes the important chronological details, sometimes the usual trivia shared in long term friendships, sometimes even the details shared in a chance meeting or at a work function. I find it sad that people are so surprised by what I remember about them and others. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s so uncommon for people to remember things, or whether because they think they are not worth remembering. Either is quite depressing and I just want to hug everyone in turn and say ‘Yes! You are worth taking up space in my overcrowded database of a mind!’ Mind you, I tend to hug people I care about anyway (if they let me). And this action usually solicits more ‘eye popping’ and more wondering as to who the hell let this crazy woman loose on the streets.

As a way of explaining the sort of details I mean I include a list (from memory) of random examples of this that have taken place in the last six weeks:


*Lyn was talking about food on twitter and I remembered that her favourite sandwich used to be prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and basil with honey mustard and possibly other things I don’t know about. I know this because she ate it the day of her wedding and tried not to get the mustard on her dress.

*My old choir conductor from school had tea with me and I remembered that she takes it with 2 sugars and more milk than the usual person. I have not seen this woman in 11 years and I made her tea once.

*I had a meeting with the head of department and we talked about his old place of work when he was a student, his wife’s preference for a certain type of coffee and how his mentor taught him the perfect way to cook broad beans.  I can count the conversations we've had on one hand.

*Any number of instances involving my supervisor. At some point the poor guy really will stop telling me stuff and so I’m hoping I do this to someone else in front of him to show it’s not just specific to him. He gives great ‘eye pop’, though, it’s kind of funny.


You’d think that with a memory like this I could remember routes and directions but no way in hell! Getting around and having a sense of direction just isn’t in my skill set, it’s like there’s a big hole in my brain where that should be. You can also tell from the above list that it’s the personal details I tend to hang onto. I do not tell these to show off but rather to illustrate how useless a lot of this information is. Mostly my memory pisses me off, it’s just a box full of unrelated pictures and songs and stories, mine and others’, with a rotting animal underneath. The trauma of my past has finally seeped through everything else and tortures me at random and inconvenient moments. Some of those moments I can anticipate, but mostly they catch me unawares and every time, every damn time, the memories and flashbacks take my breath away. When you’ve had some seriously bad shit happen to you, a good memory for detail can be torture.

This post is turning dark, but bear with me. The reason I raise this subject is because I was watching Homeland and, as those of you who have seen it know, the main character has Bipolar and subjects herself to Electro Convulsive Therapy at the end of the first season after her life comes apart at the seams. For a long time this is something I have thought about, I have entertained the possibility. I don’t know how common this practice is in the States, but I do know that here it is not an option floated very often. I met one guy in hospital some years ago who had the treatment regularly, but to the best of my knowledge it is not something the average patient is offered, let alone chooses. But part of me wondered about it, whether it was something I might have done. One of the big casualties of this treatment is the patient’s memory, at least in the short term, and there are usually long term effects too. Although it looks much more humane than it was 50 years ago, this is still a very serious thing to do.

I have a love/hate relationship with my memory. In many ways it simplifies my life, as I can marshall details to my front of my mind quite easily. It often allows me to be a better student, a better employee and, despite the instances of freaking people out, a better friend. I can almost always remember a dozen things I need at the shops without a list. I can memorise facts and figures and equations with comparative ease. However it also complicates my life enormously, especially when I am suffering from manic or depressive episodes (which is, you know, most of the time). To try and illustrate, a more innocuous example is when a quote from a film or movie or poem or song jumps to the front of my mind and I can’t remember exactly where it comes from and it bothers me quietly and slowly, like when you have something stuck between your teeth that the floss can’t get rid of.** Thanks to the internet I can usually track it down, not just the origin but also the context. But there are times when this fails and I spend hours of sleeping time trying to track down where the damn thing comes from. Last week I spent a sleepless night trying to track down a John Berryman line. This is one of the silly examples, but there are other more serious things that can be dangerous. Practices as a pedestrian or commuter, for instance. And as I explained before, my memory likes to torture me with the really bad shit too, and often at the worst possible times.

This is one of those times when I know I sound like an over privileged white girl, and I apologise for that. I don’t think for a second that I have it worse than everyone else, I really don’t. The reason I’m talking about this is that I wanted to talk about how the thing that allows you to thrive is also sometimes one of the biggest impediments to your health and happiness.

Do I hate my memory? Yes indeed. Would I ever have ECT and potentially jeopardise its power? Not in a million years. Because it makes me who I am and how I relate to people. I usually hate who I am and how I relate to people, but I guess I’m more afraid of how I could function without it. It’s not that I take pleasure in freaking people out, it’s that my memory guides how I treat people, it allows me to know them and read their behaviour better, to give them what they need. I hope that it makes me a better person.

Still - fucking memory. 


*Emma knows this because she too has an excellent memory.
** I always think of this line from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:  ‘He searched his name for “Siegfried Saks”, shuffling through the cards, trying to pop the ace that he knew was in there somewhere.’ Perfect, right?
Thursday, November 8, 2012

Casualty

I apologise in advance for this post, which takes the form of a letter to someone who will never get to read it. I feel the need to post it, to say it to *someone*, because he will never get to read it. Feel free to pass on today's post, it is narcissistic blogging and I apologise. 


Dear C.,

This is a letter I have been carrying around inside of me for years now. We haven’t spoken in more than eight years and we haven’t really been friends for closer to nine, but I still miss you dreadfully. Not every day, but several times a week at least. Most of the missing is because it’s you, but it’s also because ours is the only friendship I have ever lost through my fault. It was all my fault, I have no trouble admitting that, and ours wasn’t a friendship that probably would have drifted with age. It was real and I fucked it up.

It’s weird to use that sort of language given that we only met and became friends because you and G. went to school together and neither of you had anyone else, not really. Of course I didn’t meet you until three months after G. and I started dating because you were having some really stupid fight that even then I knew wasn’t your fault, and I could never understand why someone as wonderful as you was so terribly lonely. With G. I always felt like he revelled a bit in being ‘alone’, even as he protested he wanted to build a community around him. I think he wanted both, but you and I, we wanted love. And we were both OK calling it that baldly, without specifying what sort, it was about love. And we were lonely down to our bones, you and I. We wanted better and we deserved better. I knew that as much as I loved G. (and how I did!) he really wasn’t all that great a person and I knew that you were, I knew that. I knew that unfortunately I was in love with the lesser guy and that you and I were a cross between siblings and best friends. While G. and I fought our way through months of being together while not being together, you were always there to talk with and share with. And when you smiled at me it was always genuine and I never had to doubt how it was between us. It was safe, and safe was not something I understood or experienced much up until that point in my life. We loved each other, for real.

I fucked it up. I told the dumbest lie ever told to G. and it ended up fucking things up with you. It was a lie I told before you even came into my life! You initially told me it was OK and you still loved me, but then Kat died and our worlds shifted. Then G. and I broke up again for the final, spectacular time and it was too much and you went with him. We still talked a bit, especially after he spent the night with the girl on whom you had a long established crush, and I came to your concert the following August. I think you only thought I came to piss off G. who ended up bailing that night anyway, but I didn’t, I came for you. OK, I dressed up for him, I bought an outfit and had my hair done for him, but I came for you, because you are an amazing musician and I loved you so much. I told a lie that became other lies to cover it up and that ended up breaking the trust I so valued. Our friendship was the biggest casualty of the most stupid lie ever told.

I can’t remember the last time we spoke. I can’t remember exactly when it was. Which means it must have happened after I started to get sick, so certainly after December 2004. I can’t remember the last time we spoke, when it was real and we were friends.

I should be over this by now. Ultimately if I’ve only lost one friend through my own fault that’s not a bad scorecard. But you and I were never happy with anything less than perfection, not really. OK, OK, I was sometimes. But you weren’t, not really, not deep down. You might have written a first year music essay in three hours while pissed and with your parents yelling at you but you weren't really OK with it, you expected better of yourself and, ultimately, of the people you loved. I failed you, I failed us. 

You are the smartest person I have ever known. Love isn’t about just desserts but if it was you’d be right up there as someone who should be surrounded by good people who love you and will be there for you. I know nothing about your life now. I heard that you did some postgrad study at Oxford and I know you won the University Medal in _______ but apart from that I don’t know anything about your life right now and have no way of contacting you. I am pretty sure you wouldn’t want to hear from me anyway. Even in the tiny fishpond that is music in Sydney we still manage to miss each other and that’s OK because seeing you would just bring home to me how we’re not in each other’s lives anymore. But every now and then I fantasise about what it would be like to lie on the lawns and have a picnic that I packed just like we used to, and I could hear about all the things you’ve done and seen in the last quarter of your life that I have missed. I could tell you about getting sick, that probably wouldn’t surprise you, and then I could tell you about starting to get better. I could tell you about [the mentor] and everything he’s done for me and how I finally figured out what I want to do with my life. That I did manage to build something with my sister, the way I always wanted. That I am less lonely than I used to be, less alone, even though it doesn’t feel it sometimes. That I’m still singing. That I am trying to have hope.

Most mornings I pass right by your old home on the train, often very early, and I never fail to think of you. Most days someone will say something and you are one of the people I want most to tell. Whenever I drink too much and have the urge to sing, I think of you, because it was what you used to do too. I am writing this letter, finally, because I just haven’t been able to sleep the last few nights (what’s new? Insomnia was our shared curse….) and I had to get this out. Losing you was every bit as awful as losing G., except that I eventually got over G. Not you. You are haunting me.

My life is filled with regrets and I’m not good at moving on. This was something I knew about myself at 19 and something we talked about. It’s still true, actually even more so now. Losing our friendship is still one of the major regrets of my life and I have a feeling it always will be. I am more sorry than you will ever know.

I love you so much and I always will. You are part of my family, you are part of myself and I wish so much that we still had each other. I wish for you much happiness and for a better friend and sister than I was.

Me.

P. S.  - You are not a misanthrope. Stop saying that in your online profiles.  
Friday, November 2, 2012

Once In A Lifetime



I remember when I started reading the blogs that most of you wrote in preparation for your weddings that there was a lot of discussion about being present, about being in the moment and soaking the experience up for all that it was worth. Weddings seem to be one of those milestones where we feel like we need to enjoy every damn minute and not let a precious second pass us by.

I don’t know about you guys, but I regularly feel like I’m missing out. Part of this stems from the fact that I don’t like to go to every event, or every party, and most of my close friends don’t live nearby. I will always take a quiet couple of hours (lunch or drinks or coffee) over a raucous house party or group outing. I am at the point where I panic if I see more than three people together, and that’s if I know two of them! But it’s not just time with friends, it’s the big milestones and rites of passage that I feel like I missed. I never had close friends at school and although I attended the big functions my last few years it wasn’t wholeheartedly or as a member of true community, even though I am glad I went. I didn’t have a 21st and I don’t celebrate birthdays much, if at all (coming from a big family does that to you). I haven’t graduated yet. I have never been married. 99% of the time all this isn’t something I think about, but it’s been preying on my mind of late because I have a very big milestone coming up: the conference I told you all about. It was something I hadn’t even considered until my mentor mentioned it casually over coffee the morning after he’d read my seminar paper. ‘I think you should do this,’ he said quietly. And within ten minutes I realised I really wanted this, in a really big way.

You know how excited I was, but with the conference smack in the middle of February it is right in the middle of a prospective work contract I was almost certainly going to get (the same as I did last year), and it also rules me out of many other summer jobs I could take, so I decided to only go for what I had to go for. I was OK with this. I would go to Melbourne for maybe two days, if I was lucky. I’d miss out on a lot of the big talks, and quite possibly those of people I have been dying to meet for years, but oh well. And I wouldn’t get to see much of Melbourne, but oh well. It’s work and life and whatever. Oh well. There’s always next time.

Except there is no ‘next time’ when it’s your first time. I will never get another chance to do this over, my first conference. I didn’t make much of this when I told you all I’d been picked, but they convenors chose my work after the initial deadline had passed. I am still just an Honours student, which they knew. The fact I was chosen is a big, freaking deal. They must have really liked my work to pick me. Plus I am not used to being picked, it’s a good feeling!

I feel like I have missed a lot growing up, either because I was working or because I was sick. I am not going to let this happen this time around. There will be other contracts, other jobs. I will never get to do my first trip to Melbourne, or my first conference, over again. So this time, I am picking what I want to do over what I should do. This is too important to miss and I have waited a long time to travel, even if it’s for study purposes, and even if it’s just to the neighbouring state.

Last Tuesday I basically emptied my bank account to pay for the registration to the whole conference. In a few weeks I will do the same over again to pay for my accommodation for the six nights I am staying. I don’t think I am going to the dinner they’re holding, as I am not sure I could cope with all that small talk and being ‘on’ all the time and meeting and greeting and partying, but the rest of it I am doing, jumping in with both feet. I want the full experience and I am not going to short change myself.

No regrets.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Can't Stop The Music



Something different today. No Bipolar, no thesis, no seminar paper, no conference, no dickhead postdoctoral fellow mouthing off, no slavish adoration of nice people who pay some attention to me and my work.

It’s all about the music.

I thought I’d talk a little bit about what keeps me going from one day to the next, the songs you want to crawl inside of and inhabit that eventually become part of yourself. It’s not an overstatement to say that music and good television (hell, sometimes even bad television) kept me alive. I spent most of 2008 and 2009 hanging on for the next great album from artists and bands I already loved and some from ones I had never heard of, and seriously – sometimes that was enough to keep me here. Sometimes it was all that was keeping me here, keeping me breathing.

OK, it’s a little bit about Bipolar.

I don’t think I’m alone in often listening obsessively to one particular song or album. These all fall into that category. A lot of these have featured on the Christmas mix CD, or will in the future.


The National – High Violet (album) 2010
I bought this album two and a half years ago and I have listened to it at least once a week since then. It is heartbreakingly beautiful and at the moment I’d have to say this band is the one I want most to see live. For some reason I managed to miss this band right up until this album got some really good press when it came out, and I can also highly recommend the wonderful records Alligator and Boxer. You might have caught a song or two of theirs on various TV shows, mostly ones for which Alex Patsavas is music supervisor (is it just me or does that not sound like the BEST JOB EVAR?). Their lyrics somehow manage to hit the bone and yet be completely unexpected. My choice songs from the album are ‘Runaway’ and ‘Terrible Love’.




Pretenders – Pretenders (album) 1979
This is one of those bands I loved before I knew who they were. They would come on the radio and my mother would always switch the radio station once she realised who was on (I later found out it was because they were the makers of ‘Brass in Pocket’, which my mother objected to because it was so overtly sexual). Chrissie Hynde has one of my all time favourite voices of any genre, and I have never seen her live for fear that gorgeous alto isn’t what it once was. As a teenager I eventually discovered who the band was thanks to a lyrics search in the early days of the internet and this was one of the first records I ever bought. Chrissie’s voice aches and somehow manages to convey humour and misery at the same time. This album’s chockers with hits, the spitting, snarling ‘Precious’, the bouncy ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ (a cover), ‘Kid’, which is just all kinds of awesomeness and one of the greatest songs ever written, I think (although I waited a long time to put it on a mix CD), and the joyous ‘Mystery Achievement’ at the end of the LP. This is an album I especially like to listen to when things are tricky, and it’s been getting lots of airplay of late.



Patti Smith – ‘Free Money’ (song) 1975
Oh, how I adore it. I love how it builds to a climax and Patti just throws it all out there. When I made the first ever mix CD it was a no brainer that this would be on it.




TV On The Radio – ‘Golden Age’ (song) 2008
From their stellar third record, this song just makes you want to dance. Actually, the album is full of songs that make you want to dance and dance you should. This album is my joint favourite of all time with The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, and this song is my favourite from the LP. It’s amazing live too. Apparently they’re not for everyone, but for my money they’re the most innovative band going. This album really did save my life, both the anticipation and the enjoyment of it. 



The Smiths – ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ (song) 1987
Speaking of The Smiths, they had to come in on this list, even though the list just could be full of them and them alone. This song was actually written prior to The World Won’t Listen’s release in February 1987, but the album is full of B sides and rejected songs from earlier albums. It’s not my favourite song by this wonderful band (‘Panic’ and ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ take the honours there) but I picked this song for this post because it’s the song I’ve thought most about this year as an Honours student. Admittedly it preys upon the complex created by the voices in my head, but as someone who firmly believes in rewarding myself when it’s due, this phrase is one I often think about in trying to get to that point of accomplishment. It’s possible that I just won’t ever earn it yet (baby), but that’s another post, I think. If there’s a thesis theme song, this is it.  

Also – FUCK YEAH, I AM SEEING MORRISSEY AT CHRISTMAS!




Can – ‘Mother Sky’ (song) 1970
Dance, just dance. This is finally going on the mix CD this year, sorry to ruin the surprise. I’ve listened to this more than a hundred times in the last week alone, it’s just easy to lose yourself in it.





Television – ‘Marquee Moon’ (song) 1977
From the album of the same name, this song is the song above all other songs. I had never heard of this track until early 2003, when my favourite DJ abandoned his Thursday night show on the national youth network (due to a big promotion), called the J Files, which used to focus on a particular artist or band’s work, although occasionally they did something a little different. On this, his last show, he had other people who worked at the station talk about their favourite song, and this was his choice. I went out and bought the record the next day and basically fell in love. The duelling guitars are about as good as it gets, and yes, it’s long – but seriously, just lose yourself in it. I celebrate with this song, I revel in it when miserable, and last week when I could only feel relief coursing through my veins it was what I played over and over again. It is superlative in every way.



What songs or albums do you listen to obsessively?
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

You Won't Fail


DNF.

These three letters have haunted my existence for the last 13 days. They stand for Discontinue Not Fail.

I’ll back up and explain. My mentor and I had agreed that a relatively simple extension on the thesis would be sufficient. The trouble is that I have been contending not just with one of the worst depressive episodes I have ever experienced, but some horrors of my past that just won’t seem to go away this year. The two of them together has made for a really difficult few months. Unfortunately by the time I realised I needed more time for my work, most of the official deadlines for these things had already passed and I was left with the option to apply for a DNF. This is categorically a last resort and isn’t granted in many instances.

I had solid grounds for my application and it was strong. But it wasn’t a sure thing. I really didn’t think it was going to happen.

About 14 hours ago I received an email saying the DNF was granted. It was one of the most intense moments of relief I have ever experienced and I can breathe again properly for the first time in about 2 weeks. When you’re a singer, shallow breathing is something you really notice. It troubles you, because it doesn’t quite feel right.

The DNF isn’t really what I want to talk about though, and I certainly don’t want to talk about the bad things that just won’t go away. I mostly want to talk about how, even when things got as bad as they get for me, even when I felt like I had to go to hospital, I had a support network around me. I was not alone.

I have spoken many times about my mentor and how wonderful he is and I’ll say it again – he’s tops. I am unaccustomed to being told ‘it will be all right’, but he made a point of saying it to me several times over the last two weeks. He did everything he could to get specific information about the application in the first place, he made sure to talk to me often and always with his customary good humour, if only to try and distract me, and he sounded almost as relieved as I was yesterday when the news came through. He rang me after I texted him and although it was expected, he made a point of saying he was prepared to fight hard if it hadn’t gone my way. This is from a mild mannered, gentle guy and it was as firm as I have ever heard him speak. He would have gone to bat for me, if it had come to that. He is also making sure that I don’t have to repeat the whole year and do my seminar classes over again (this is a very slim possibility – we both seriously doubt this will happen). He’s looking after it, and given just how much he has on his plate right now as Honours coordinator, this is quite a gesture.

When my borrowing privileges were cut off suddenly at the end of last week, I also then had reason to see the Head of Department, a wonderful teacher who took me for two excellent subjects in second and third year. Had I done Honours on the timetable I ‘should have’, he was the supervisor I would have had. I was astonished he not only remembers me, but recognises me. He was astonished at how many details of his life I remembered and was able to relay. I remember him as having the most fantastic laugh, one of my favourites of anyone I have ever encountered. He still has it and I got it out of him many times in a fifteen minute meeting. But the point is, the mentor had briefed him a little on there being very serious problems weighing me down. He, too, told me it would be all right and that if it wasn’t he would do everything he could to help. He also emphasised how excited he was that I will be applying for tutoring work in the next couple of years, and looks forward to fighting to have me. This is not something he had to say at all, but he did. It is just over eight year since I saw him last, and given how much has changed in my life since then, I found it immensely comforting that our rapport was still there, and that he cared. That he thought enough of me to bother. Part of this was his job (signing the form), but most of it was him actually thinking I was worth talking down from the ledge.

My other seminar teacher has also been supportive and decent.  He is still waiting on work of mine to mark, he has been there to help when I had to change topics, he has been patient about the fact that I can’t read more than about a page an hour right now, and sometimes he’s just stopped to talk in the corridor or at the coffee shop. I am so glad that he is pleased I asked him to be my associate supervisor for post grad work, that he is actually excited at the idea. Or if he isn’t he’s doing a really good job of faking it.

Now don’t get me wrong I also had an awful incident with a member of the department who I like and respect who, while not knowing specifics, told me I should just get over my problems. I thought about talking about that and bitching about it, but truthfully it pales in significance to this support offered by others.

I try and avoid saying stuff like this, but I have mostly been through the big, bad stuff of my life alone. For the first time ever, I feel like I have people around me who have my back, who really actually care about me even though they are under no obligation to do so. Skully also really stepped up over the weekend and talked sense into me, and I am eternally grateful for that kindness. A lot of my work this year has centred around different types of community. I love that I am finding such solace in different types of community this year too. It is one of the many gifts of this challenging, manic, wonderful year.

‘DNF granted.’ I hate acronyms but this one suddenly seems a lot friendlier than it did. 
Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Runaway

Early Friday afternoon I packed very lightly and headed to the bus station for a long planned 24 hour getaway.... to Canberra.* As I am sure I have said before, two of my best mates live there, as well as other assorted friends, so I try and spend some time there every few months. 

This trip was organised a couple of months back and I very nearly didn't go, given how I have been feeling lately. In the end I decided to go, given that the friends I was seeing know me pretty well and I wouldn't have to 'act' too much, although of course I wasn't planning to wallow. I spent Friday evening having dinner with M. and his girlfriend, who I'm slowly getting to know and who is tops, and then most of Saturday with E. These guys couldn't be more different, but they're both terrific and I love them to pieces. M. was claimed by our group after he dated a girl who we no longer hear from and we realised he was the better person (not that picking sides is something I usually condone, but in this case....), E. has suffered almost the reverse fate, floating to the fringes after he and his ex broke up some two years ago. It doesn't help that he isn't the best at keeping in touch with people, something I talked to him about at length on Saturday. He's moving overseas on a government posting next year, and I've begged him to try harder. I don't want to lose him. 


It was a good trip. I got to watch my AFL team get through to their first grand final in six years over a couple of very fine beers at a lovely local, and then play with M.'s cats (the house has 3 of them). On Saturday E. and I had a really lovely lunch, a walk by the man made lake that defines Canberra's landscape, and then spent the afternoon at one of the nerdiest museums going, although I did get the feeling this museum is mostly pitched at school children. When I eventually go to D.C. I will be interested to see if museums there have the same vibe; I was disappointed at how 'dumbed down' some of the national history stuff is. I think a lot of this is because Australians think we have really boring history. 


It was just nice to be with people with whom I am mostly able to be honest. 


It's the trip I want to talk about though, the running away. I really felt like I was on this trip, as I do when I head country to be with other friends elsewhere. I am running away from the person I am in Sydney and running towards the person I really am with people I love and trust. I'm aware this makes me sound dishonest, like I am constantly lying to everyone. With the exception of a close friend at uni and my sister, who I'm still building something with, it's not like I have people to talk to on a regular basis. Most of my close friends don't live here and the ones who do aren't around much. My one on one time with my friends is rare and very precious. 


There is my mentor, of course, but he's my teacher and I try very hard not to talk him to death about my problems or use him as a default psychiatrist. And here's how I know I really haven't been well lately - I have been hiding from him for almost 2 weeks. I promised both him and myself that I would be honest with him about my health this year, and it's a promise I haven't really honoured these last weeks. Truthfully I would let it go even longer, but it's mid semester break next week and I can't hide from him for almost a month, that's just wrong. Especially given we are at the business end of the year. 


One of the best things about a trip is leaving and seeing the city go behind you. I actually prefer trains as you can get lots of things done and it's more smooth, the journey, and the world sweeps past at such a rate, it's exhilarating. You also have more room to hide on a train....are you seeing a pattern here, with my behaviour? But it's a lovely thing, leaving. The worst part is coming back, knowing you're coming back into your old life, old ways, and the work that you can't possibly do right now. Plus a birthday at the end of the week. When the bus eventually got back into Sydney, and very quickly, I might add, I just didn't want to get off. 


The worst part of my illness is that my future disappears when I get really sick. For 24 hours it was nice to remember that I have people who love me, who know me, at least a little. It's what I remember when it feels like I am clinging on with my fingertips. On the trip down the guy across from me on the bus had a notepad turned to a blank page ready for something. He never wrote anything, the whole four hours. Although a blank page is an impossible thing as a writer and researcher, I'm hoping my future is still there, still blank. 


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dC4bHlNCr4


*I clearly need to perfect the art of a getaway, Canberra's rated G, well, except for being the porn central of Australia. Wikipedia can tell you anything else you want to know.

**I'm on the fence about cats - good cats I love, bad cats are just *awful*. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thank You

I am overwhelmed by the good wishes and kind words I have received these last few days about being accepted to speak at the conference next year. These expressions of support mean the world to me, and I feel so privileged to be part of this amazing community of women.

I was talking to my sister recently about my internet friends, and made the comment that my 'wifey' (Bea, the lovely @mLadyLazarus) is one of my closest friends, despite her living in Spain and us not hanging out in person. My sister protested this could not possibly be the case, that without being in the same room you can't possibly know someone.


I take her point, there is a certain extent to which intimacy relies on place and shared space. But virtual communities have existed a lot longer than we think (certainly since the early modern period) and we do ourselves a disservice if we relegate our internet friends to second class status. These last years my internet friends have saved me many a time when my friends who live in the same state weren't around and didn't make the effort. 


What I remember is that Bea and I have chatted long into the night, talking about anything and everything, for years now. I remember that Skully was the first person with whom I was able to bond over sharing the same illness, despite us becoming friends through something completely unrelated, and that we only discovered that common ground because she was brave enough to speak about it first. I remember Nina and I talking about the differences between the academic world in Canada and that in Australia, and the difficulties of blogging when you're actually a private person. I remember Lyn messaging me in great excitement when she discovered my name is a synonym for a word she looked up (so cool!), and the fact that she shared with me her dating history in a way that made me feel less alone. I think of Sarah and her family and everything they have been through these last months, and how Lyn and a few others were able to be there for her on her wedding day. (She always gives such wise advice, even if it's just about what children's books to buy for a friend.) I think of my friend Rob and the silly jokes we share. And I think of Emma and the beautiful pictures of her flowers that she posts that always make me feel better, and the homey recipes she passes on that have gone down very well in real life. 


I am so grateful for you all, and what you share with me. The internet is an amazing thing. And the only people who doubt how important internet friends can be are the people who aren't lucky enough to have them. 
Friday, September 14, 2012

State of the Nation

Oh hai, hello! Nice to see you! 

One of the problems with blogging when you have a chronic illness that you mostly like to keep secret is that you're reluctant to write and talk when you don't want to spew the blackness forth onto the internet. I know there are other who feel differently, who feel it's part of their social contract to be honest and open and all sharing. But I'm a pretty private person, something hard to reconcile with the notion of blogging, so there you are. It's not like I link to my blog on my social media (apart from a subtle link to it in my twitter profile, something no one ever sees) so the readership of this blog remains all of about 6 of you. 


The implication of the 'not posting when things are hard' rule is that things have been pretty bad. They have been, consistently, for some time now. I essentially had a three month episode between May and July, and have been up and down (or rapid cycling) since early August. This up and down is unusual for my type of Bipolar, although I used to suffer from it a bit in the early days of my recovery (beginning back in June 2010 when I started seeing my specialist and taking the correct medication). And in some ways it's the worst thing for me right now, because I never know what I am going to wake up to. So when I have a good day I feel the need to ride it out for as long as possible. Not playing to a regular pattern is really bad for me, for my sleep, for how I feel, it just sucks.


I'm working a night shift job twice a week to bring in some badly needed money. It's not difficult work, but in order to try and keep on some sort of normal schedule I work through the following day, so Tuesdays and Thursday I am completely shattered by about 4pm. The nights I work I am also unable to take my medication as it has a sedative effect and this isn't ideal, to be skipping days. 


I am not getting through as much work I need to. I am hoping to knock out my first chapter by Tuesday morning, and then I am devoting myself to the second seminar paper that still isn't written (and was due some time back). I am, to my surprise, able to get an extension on the thesis rather than dropping to part time, and the person in charge of granting such an extension is my supervisor, as he is also the Honours co-ordinater. I can get what I need, so I think I will be OK, despite the rising terror levels. 



Now for the good news, and there is some of it. Firstly, writing this blog helped a dear friend of mine feel less alone in some depression they were experiencing and have been suffering from for some time, and that can only be a good thing. 'This thing of ours' is really ugly, and reaching out isn't easy, so we have to find common experience when we can.



The rape paper (my sister HATES that I call it that) that I spoke about a few months ago has gone down very well with the markers. I don't yet know what my mark is for that seminar, but it will be one of the top marks for any Honours student this year, so 20% of my Honours result overall will be very high. It's a good feeling.


I mentioned to my supervisor that I had big plans for that paper, that I hope to develop it ultimately into a journal article. He then prodded me into entering it for a conference next February in another part of Australia. Which is how I have been chosen to speak at my first grown up, academic conference.


Most of you have seen this news already on social networking. This is a really big deal, especially as I am not even yet a postgraduate student. The initial deadline for the conference had passed, so they must have really loved my work to accept it. I have a bet going with the mentor about how many people will show up and he's betting high. It's very exciting, this is a wonderful start to my career and will help enormously when it come time to apply for the big scholarship for my PhD in about two years. Lots of conference activity, and papers being accepted for publishing, really help in getting an Australian Postgraduate Award and in, ultimately, getting positions as associate lecturers or postgraduate fellows. 


This is a very boring post, but I felt the need to check in with you. The news about the conference is very exciting, and I'm hoping to get a few days of productivity out of it. Not least because the monster on my back is demanding attention and an episode is hovering on the edges of my consciousness. 


Yeah, 'this thing of ours' is a bitch. 



Saturday, August 4, 2012

Stuff Like That There II


I thought I’d review a few things I have been consuming lately, just to let you all know I am still alive. Which I am. Hooray!

The Newsroom - created by Aaron Sorkin



Oh, I wanted to like this, I really did. I’ve been a Sorkin apologist for a long time and at his best he’s not quite like anyone else. Sadly, this show is far from his best. Everything you’ve read about the two dimensional female characters is fair, the writing is clunky and laboured, and a good cast just doesn’t haven’t enough to go on.

It’s more than just criticism of characters or writing, this show doesn’t work on an ideological level, and that’s usually where Sorkin eats (to use an expression he loves). I am deeply sceptical of the romanticisation of the media, and this is coming from a girl whose favourite book at 13 was ‘All The President’s Men’. The West Wing worked because there was a sincerity and warmth that underpinned good characterisation and solid writing. The Newsroom is just posturing; it lectures and educates at every turn without entertaining much at all. Sorkin himself once wrote that if an artist stumbles on truth they’re getting lucky, that an artist’s job is to capture the audience’s attention for however long they’ve asked for it. It’s a lesson he’s forgotten.

The show is set only twelve to eighteen months in the past and the stories coming through the newsroom are real. Unfortunately the ACN broadcast works as a retrospective way of Sorkin re-writing history, it’s a revisionism that becomes wearing. The team never miss a story, they always get the truth telling part right, and it just doesn’t work that way in real life.

There are some good moments, glimpses of brilliance. But not enough. Not nearly enough.


American Gods – Neil Gaiman



Shadow is in prison and about to get out when the news arrives that his wife is dead. On his way home he receives an intriguing job offer and everything changes.

There’s not a lot to say about this book except I really enjoyed it. It’s well written and wry and funny, although sometimes a trifle too clever for its own good and a little longer than it has to be. I love that the central narrative is of a man trying to find his way while chaos reigns around him, it’s a fitting story for the fantasy genre and the book is by turns witty and frightening.

This was the first novel by Gaiman I have read and I look forward to reading more of his stuff.


The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion



I confess this isn’t the first time I’ve read this. At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I read this when it first came out and felt it spoke to me personally. It has since gained cult status and become a one woman play performed all over the place, including at the Sydney Theatre Company a few years ago.

I find the best memoirs are focused on a particular experience or time in a person’s life, a realisation I came to after one of my best friends published a memoir of her recovery from anorexia and depression in 2009. (She hates the title too, don’t worry.) The Year of Magical Thinking is one such book, an account of writer Joan Didion’s mourning process after the very sudden death of her husband and the equally sudden and very serious illness of her daughter. Didion is a stately writer, composed and measured, and this stands her in good stead with the subject at hand. It is a sure and controlled personal account of grief.

I do find some faults with this book, as much as I like it. Unsurprisingly, given she is a non fiction writer, Didion uses a great deal of secondary material to help her come to terms with her own loss and to create the narrative for her reader. Sometimes this is to the detriment of her work, although this may just be a question of taste – I think you need to rely on your own voice and not just use others’ to make your point (thus sayeth the history student). It is true that by doing so she is trying to show that she doesn’t have the words herself, but it’s a technique that is overused in the book as a whole. Sometimes it works perfectly, especially in the first and last sections of the book. For my money, Didion speaks best when it is just her reflecting on what is happening and musing on what grief means.

A purchase well worth making, although I am not sure I would want to read this immediately after the death of a loved one.


Tulips



(Mine are yellow too.)

Things have been hectic and difficult in Moz-land, and certainly inside my head, so this morning I did one of my favourite things to do when things are hard. I wandered down to the Sydney flower markets (about a half hour walk away) with $10 in my pocket and bought some tulips.

My mentor’s mother died back in May and we, as a seminar, bought him some flowers. Tulips just happened to be part of the arrangement and apparently they’re his favourites, so we did well. He told me, when I popped into his office for a meeting and to admire the flowers, that the Italian word for them is tulipano – so pretty. It’s a pity they don’t last very long.

I don’t know why they make us happy, but they do.

What have you all been up to?
Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ain't That Just Like A Woman





One of the papers that is currently consuming my life is about rape in Renaissance Italy, a self chosen topic. It is extraordinary to me that the discourse surrounding rape has changed not at all in some 800 years. Victims are still blamed for what happens to them because of what they wear or what they say, certain groups and ethnicities are particularly vulnerable to attack, and ritual is a big part of the equation, both in the enacting of violence and in getting past it.


For victims, it is all about shame. The line that most sexual attacks, including violent ones, happen to women who know their attacker, is not a new one. Sexual violence doesn’t really have a beginning, I am finding – it has always been with us, and the way people seem to cope in the aftermath of such violence, especially if it is ongoing, is to chart it as part of their everyday existence. In my work, I characterise it as ‘the normalisation of violence’. It is desperately frightening to me how little has changed in such a long period. It is one of the times that my work seems especially relevant, even if it is about people long dead.


What is very interesting to me regarding historians of this period is that there is no one of note writing about rape specifically who is female. There are a few women who write about domestic violence and gender violence more broadly, but no one about rape and rape alone. (Admittedly it is difficult to write about rape alone, something I am finding out for myself right now.) This is not to say that the men who write about it in this period do a bad job – not at all. A friend of my mentor’s does a beautiful job of writing nuanced, empathetic history about this issue. But never have I been so conscious that I am writing as a woman, of owning the narrative I write in a very special way. What I am able to admit to my mentor (and to almost no one else) is that I am uniquely qualified to write this type of history. It is something I am planning to do long term, this is a one off, but I have a job to do here. I have a chance to write something that matters.


I haven’t talked much about my thesis in this space much. (I am likely to do much more of this once my seminar papers are in later this month.) But this is also a case of my being very conscious of being female while I write. My thesis is about a group of women in Renaissance Italy who define themselves and their communities through their writing. These women come from diverse backgrounds, but there are striking similarities in their work and how they go about it. I'm basically writing feminist history but doing everything I can to avoid the typical language that goes with it; not a mention of the word 'oppression'. It's a combination that seems to be working well and, again, I feel like there is something important to say. Almost everything you read about Christina Rossetti or Virginia Woolf is along these lines, the finding of one's worth through writing. This same line of enquiry is non existent in the time, and amongst the women, I am writing about. 


The irony, of course, is that this is exactly what I am finding out for myself. My work this year is giving me meaning, and I am discovering my vocation as a researcher, a writer and, ultimately, as a teacher.


How scary is that, friends?! I am finding out what I am good at, what I am meant to do. It won‘t be easy, but I know it is right.


It’s funny that I’ve ended up writing about women, given how deeply uncomfortable I feel as one most of the time. Or maybe that’s exactly as it should be.


One of the texts I am using as research for my rape paper is dedicated thus: ‘To women, that they may live lives of dignity, equality, respect, and safety’. It’s something I can’t get out of my head.  

I certainly hope that for all of you.