When the going gets tough, the tough get huggy

There’s so much to be angry about these days. There are terrorists. There are people saying stupid things about terrorists. There are people saying stupid things about people who aren’t terrorists. There are people saying stupid things about people who probably weren’t terrorists before but are getting really cranky now. There are politicians saying stupid things about absolutely everybody, even themselves.

And then there are personal things, much closer to home, that really make you want to haul off and hit someone. Sometimes it feels like the world needs a damned good pummeling to teach it a lesson.

Yesterday, feeling miserably ill, I wound up shouting at my kids like a feral monster. And they went forth, no doubt, feeling angry and miserable. Maybe they passed it on, or maybe they didn’t, but the start of their day kinda sucked, and that must have all kinds of flow on effects. All because I was angry and miserable and shared it around.

We all have angry moments. And it feels good, no doubt about it, to lash out when you’re angry and hurting. But lashing out, in the end, leads to more lashing out.

And the one mistake you made was just enough.And that one mistake was, Boy, you talked too tough.Only takes a single bulletBring the fastest trigger down.

Heartbreak Kid, Icehouse.

A single bullet brings a bullet in return. A slap breeds another slap. Anger is like a virus, self-replicating until it overtakes the entire organism, killing it and moving onto the next host. Goodness knows we’ve been feeding the virus all kinds of nourishing fodder for quite some time now.

Pauline Hanson. Donald Trump. Even Tony Abbott. They’re all signs – vituperative, execrable signs – that we’re mad and we’re not gonna take it anymore.

And we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t take it anymore. But by slapping, hitting, even just shouting, all we’re doing is asking to be slapped, hit, and shouted at more.

So I propose we stop. We take a deep breath. And we ask if the world would actually like a hug.

Yep. It hurts. So many things hurt. Let’s not hurt even more. Instead let’s pause, open our arms, and say “Yep, it hurts. I hear you. Tough times, sure enough. Wanna hug?”

Shouting, slapping and shooting? I think we have an oversupply. But the world can always use more hugs.

 

 

Stranger Danger Danger

“Mummy, why did you talk to that lady? She’s a stranger.”

The question nailed me to my chair. I had been idly chatting with a fellow passenger in an airport, and my daughter found it difficult to reconcile this with what she has been told (not by us!) – “Never talk to strangers!

I always talk to strangers. I smile at people. I strike up conversations. And I have made personal, professional, and profound connections this way. When I was 15 I started writing to a complete stranger in Germany, and we just spent a week visiting him and his family, absolutely enveloped in love.

Some of my best friends now are people I just started talking to at random. In fact, if you think about it, everyone is a stranger at first. When you first start school. When you start a new job. When you move into a new neighbourhood. If you followed the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, it would be an extraordinarily isolated and lonely life.

But this is what we are supposed to be teaching our kids. That strangers are dangerous. That you should never talk to strangers. That strangers are scary.

Although the official messages, such as those you find on kid safety websites, have mostly shifted to identifying troublesome behaviours (such as asking kids to keep a secret from their parents) rather than avoiding strangers, apparently my 9 year old still knows that you don’t talk to strangers.

And where has this led us? This has led us to lifts where we rigidly face the front and don’t make eye contact. This has led us to neighbours who remain strangers to each other forever. This has led us to a distressing, and indeed hugely damaging, lack of community.

“Make sure that you are the kind of person who is positively contributing to your neighbourhood. Smile at everyone. Don’t ever stand at the bus stop with a stranger and not say ‘looks like rain’ or ‘why is the bus late?'” Hugh Mackay, DumboFeather Podcast, July 2016.

It’s true: Strangers can be dangerous. So can family. So can friends. But we would never teach our kids – or ourselves – to avoid family and friends. We are social creatures who need community in a very visceral way. And by teaching our children to fear the world, to believe that anyone they don’t know is dangerous to them, we are harming them profoundly.

We should be nurturing our kids’ ability to form connections, and to build networks. These are the skills that will keep them safe and make them fulfilled and productive adults. These are the skills that can even save our world and enable people to work together to solve our greatest problems. Yet we are actively teaching kids to repress their instinctive urge to talk to people, on the tiny chance that those people turn out to be dangerous.

I married a man who was once a stranger (very strange indeed). Strangers are just people we haven’t met yet. Some of them will hurt us. Some of them will love us. Some of them will save our lives. By closing ourselves off to strangers – building walls, not making eye contact, and preventing ourselves from connecting – we are killing ourselves emotionally.

Talking to strangers can, indeed, be dangerous. But not half as dangerous as never letting them in.

 

Trippy

I’ve learnt a lot in the past two weeks, which we spent staying with friends in Germany and France.

I learnt that the intensity and quality of a friendship can’t be measured in hours. I learnt what it is to be welcomed with open arms and loved with whole hearts.

I learnt that friendships conducted largely online can be a source of incredible comfort, humour, and strength, especially at odd hours of the day and night.

I learnt that it’s possible even for someone who hates cities to love Paris, and be swept away by her passion, intensity, and beauty. I learnt that no matter how many people tell you gluten free is going to be hard in Paris, it is possible to sit down at a random creperie and have a magnificent gluten free meal without any problems at all. And that this may cause unreasonable amounts of excited squealing.

I learnt that you can have Grandparents who are not related by blood, and I learnt that love laughs at language barriers.

I learnt that there are friendships that even 14 years of separation cannot bend or break.

I learnt that the brain is truly an extraordinary thing, but that three languages in one week is one too many (for me, at least).

French Alps

I learnt that life is too damned short and friendships too damned precious not to grab them with both hands.

I’ve learnt that hands, eyes, and smiles can speak volumes, and for the rest Google translate can provide some… interesting outcomes.

I learnt that Germans don’t know who The Doctor is. They kept asking me why I had a phone booth dangling from my necklace. I had to reconsider my plans to move there at that point…

I learnt that travelling with children is both infinitely more stressful and infinitely more rewarding than travelling alone, and also infinitely more likely to leave you quite gurf#fl!wardl# schl@eps.

I learnt that some friendships come and go but others will always be with me, one way or another, and these are the absolute core of my heart.

I learnt that it is possible to wholeheartedly embrace someone the first time you meet, and that this can last forever.

I learnt that into two short weeks you can cram a lifetime’s friendship.

I learnt that although there is a lot of evil and sadness in the world, there are also many people with huge and generous hearts.

I learnt that I am not very good at ceding control, but that sometimes it is worth it.

I learnt that the French have a rather more cavalier attitude to high speeds and tiny, narrow village roads than I am entirely comfortable with.

I learnt that the curative powers of ice cream should never be underestimated, nor should the restorative powers of renewed friendships.

I learnt that most of what my mother taught me of love was a lie. Friends can be relied on. Friendship can strike suddenly and last forever. And I am worthy of love.

I learnt that, although I already knew most of this stuff, being reminded of it in this way can be overwhelmingly transformative.

I hugged. I laughed. I loved. I cried. I learnt so much. Life will never be the same, and I am so very grateful.

The Heartbreak kid

Have you ever noticed how, when things get really bad, sometimes it’s not the blows that knock you down? Sometimes you get hit, and hit, and hit, and stay standing, right up until someone asks if you’re ok – and then BAM! You’re down for the count.

This morning I got a package from a dear friend in Queensland. I shared a pattern on Facebook ages ago for crocheted sandals made out of thongs, and she had made me some. It made me a little teary. I’m very lucky in my friends. I had a visit to Mum planned, so I resolved to hug the thought of those sandals to me, to remind me to smile.

I knew when I called Mum this morning that it was a bad day. She couldn’t hold a thought even for a moment. Meaning eluded her. She wasn’t sure who I was, or what was happening. Her conversation, usually fragmented, was in a lot more pieces than usual.

I think I’ve already lost you
I think you’re already gone
I think I’m finally scared now
You think I’m weak
I think you’re wrong

“If you’re gone” Matchbox Twenty

When we left her house Mum pointed at the possum box in the tree and asked me if I knew who had put it there. “It was my Dad,” she said proudly. “It was a long time ago but he must have been quite old when he did it.”

Her dad died twenty years before Mum and Dad moved into that house. I’m pretty sure he never installed a possum box in his life, and he certainly didn’t install that one. On the way to the cafe she pointed to a bench that she keeps telling me her Dad used to sit on, but this time she had an elaborate story about how he helped them move in and then sat on that bench. It’s as though she’s papering over the holes in her memory with stories that never happened.

We had lunch. I ordered something I thought she would like, because she couldn’t make sense of the menu. Chris and Bruce, the cafe owners, know what she has anyway. They treat her like royalty – which is nothing unusual, it’s the way they treat all their customers. She kept fretting about whether she had enough money to pay for lunch. I showed her some photos and she remembered some people but not others. She must have told me 15 times over a half hour period that she had a dog called Toby when she was little. I smiled, nodded, died a little inside, and kept it together.

Then, when I went to pay, Chris quietly told me that Mum has been coming in every Sunday for some weeks now, looking to buy a paper and some chocolate. Chris was so sweet about it, he said he just takes her next door, to the general store, and makes sure she’s ok, but he and Bruce wanted me to know. We talked for a bit about how Mum is deteriorating, but because she won’t see a doctor or let anyone into the house there’s nothing we can do. Bruce said “as long as she’s happy and not distressed.” But of course she is distressed quite a lot of the time. I think she only ventures out of the house when she’s in a positive frame of mind.

And then Bruce said “and as long as she’s not causing you girls distress” and it broke me. It absolutely broke me. I joked that that was a much longer conversation that would need something stronger than tea, but when I got back to the table I had tears rolling down my cheeks.

Where do I even start? How can I tell him about the hysterical phone calls demanding to know where Dad is? How can I tell him about the tears when she is looking for her parents? How can I tell him about the way my heart shatters when she doesn’t know me? Or about the times she gets angry over things I can’t understand? How can I explain how desperately we want to get her help? How helpless and alone we feel, unable to access any support services, because we can’t even get her assessed? (We really can’t. Believe me. We have exhausted every avenue. Don’t even go there.)

Things with Mum are so hard. Others only see a fraction of the story, but there are so many people who look out for her, and for us. There is so much kindness woven through our trauma. So many hands waiting to catch us each time we stumble. But here and now, today, I’m not sure I can keep doing this. How many pieces can get torn out of your heart before it stops beating?

I’ll be over here, clinging to my slippers.

Do you know where you’re going to?

My sister, Jane, has reminded me twice this week that today is 4 years since my Dad’s death. The first time I quickly forgot. Maybe that was the chaos of term 2, exam & assignment marking, report writing, plus fighting off the inevitable end of term virus. Or maybe I didn’t want to remember.

Today, though, I had just finished my reports when Jane reminded me again, and then in one of those quirky twists of fate that suggests that my music player has a hidden agenda, my shuffled music started playing a Tina Arena song that we listened to the day Dad died. We were on the way to pick up Mum, it was a long drive, and these songs are burned into my brain.

I found myself singing along, and then playing it over and over again. Of course, singing with a virus is a risky affair, and I should probably apologise to my family and the neighbours for the raucous squeakings that issued from my throat, but I couldn’t help myself. The song was bubbling up from my heart, and it had to come out.

Do you know where you’re going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you
Where are you going to? Do you know?

Do you get what you’re hoping for
When you look behind you, there’s no open door
What are you hoping for? Do you know?

The day my Dad died was pretty tough. We had been expecting it for years, but its arrival was nonetheless a deeply shocking blow. I had been flinching at every unexpected phone call for some time, but the call when it actually came knocked me flat.

God knows we had a complicated relationship, my Dad and I, and the last few years of his life took a relationship with cracks and turned those hairline fractures into ravines that neither of us could ever quite cross. It has taken me four years to start to see past the anger and devastation of that time through to the love and laughter that we used to share.

I hoped for his death. Longed for it. Not because I was angry, but because he was in so much pain. Insisting daily that he was fit as a fiddle and expecting to live forever, any fool could see he was dying by degrees. His cancer was consuming him, and deny it though he did, in the end it was undeniable. His death, when it came, was mercifully sudden – a heart attack in the street. The long, traumatic downward slide halted a long way from the horror that we saw in our nightmares. He was spared that, and so were we.

Now looking back at all we’ve planned
We let so many dreams just slip through our hands
Why must we wait so long before we see
How sad the answers to those questions can be
?

Do you know where you’re going to? Masser & Goffin

I’ll never forget that day, or the days that followed. But looking back what I find woven around every step, every phone call, every heartbeat, is the support of the people around me. I remember rushing to the only private place in my workplace – out the back with the admin staff – and receiving hugs, cups of tea, and time to breathe. I remember the dear friend who drove me home, and the hugs I received by text on the way.

I remember the messages on Facebook before the news became public, and the cards from my work friends offering food, hugs, and anything I needed. I remember the casserole on the doorstep, and the purple frilly scarf. I remember cards, flowers, and pots of orchids that still bloom from time to time in my living room.

I remember emails, phone calls, and endless hugs. I remember my car breaking down on the day of the funeral, and the kind soul who gave me a lift to work. I remember everyone who came to the funeral. Above all, I remember knowing that whichever way I turned, whenever I faltered, someone was there to catch me, hold me, and help me up.

I miss my Dad. But I remember the love.

To sleep, perchance to bounce

I didn’t think anyone would be particularly interested in my sleep medicine saga, but I wanted to write it up because that’s one of the ways I process things. So I wrote it as a really long facebook status (I know, I know, facebook is not far from public) and figured people could choose to read it or ignore it. I expected most to ignore it, and I was therefore fascinated to find that it got a lot of attention. Maybe there is a hitherto unexpected hunger out there for information on sleep disorders and doctor shopping. Or maybe my facebook friends are just weird. You decide.

For those interested in tales of bizarre sleep therapies, read on. For those who are not, I’m sure there are some cat videos further on in your feed. Move along, and whatever you do don’t make eye contact with the crazy lady.

My sleep is lousy and has been for a very long time. I went to one sleep specialist who agreed there was a pretty severe problem. He did a sleep study on me (which involves being wired up like a processor board and then told to “sleep normally” in a hospital bed) which proved that, yup, my sleep is woeful.

IMG_2370
“Just sleep normally,” they said.

The study showed mild sleep apnoea and a whole lot of unexplained, but extraordinarily poor quality sleep. My doctor therefore declared that there was no real problem, and very helpfully suggested I lose weight. Let’s not even talk about how hard it is to diet when you are beyond exhausted. That’s only a minor issue. It turns out that sleep deprivation actually changes your blood sugar regulation making weight gain more likely.

Let’s just say that particular specialist didn’t get another visit (except in my dreams where I shouted at him a lot). What I was dealing with wasn’t the problem he was looking for (severe sleep apnoea), therefore as far as he was concerned there wasn’t a problem. This seems to be a surprisingly common attitude among specialists. “You don’t have my problem, so you don’t have any problem.”

I felt utterly defeated,and quite desperate. After doing a lot of reading, and against the advice of my specialist, I treated the mild sleep apnoea with a CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Air Pressure), which helped a lot, but didn’t quite get me over the line. The initial bounce eventually settled and I remained exhausted. Not as exhausted as I was before, but it was still dragging my quality of life way down. In despair, I slugged about feeling rotten for months. Feeling exhausted all the time is second only to being in a lot of pain all the time – I have tried both, and I really don’t recommend either!

Finally I decided to try a different specialist. I went back to my GP who didn’t know who to recommend, so we perused the list and eventually chose one for the very technical reason that he was nearby. Well. That turned out to be an extraordinarily good move. This guy listened. And cared. And talked about evidence. While the previous specialist seemed rather disconcerted by the way I turned up to our first appointment with graphs, and horrified by the way I wanted access to the data from my own sleep study, this new doctor actually seemed to find my nerdy, data-centric approach useful. After a full, frank and quite entertaining exchange of views, and a few attempts at more conventional therapies, he suggested sleep restriction – basically an attempt to persuade my body to maximise its sleep quality by restricting the amount of sleep it has access to. Not for the faint hearted!

Taking an exhausted person who is getting  around 10 hours of sleep per night and suggesting she cut back to 6.5 is a brave move – my kids were concerned it was some kind of oblique murder attempt aimed at them – but I was desperate enough to try anything. In a move that endeared my doctor to me no end, he was quite open about the fact that although it is well studied and documented for insomniacs, there is limited evidence for sleep restriction in cases like mine, where the sleep quality is poor but getting to sleep and staying asleep is not a problem. He was very clear that it was a long shot, but I figured it was worth a try. I’m a sucker for scientific honesty.

So for 2 weeks I cut back to 6.5 hours of sleep per night and went quite spectacularly mad… and then, quite suddenly, it started to work. Subjectively I was feeling a lot better, and objectively my actigraphic sleep tracker was actually showing flat spots – I was lying still! – as much as 75 minutes long. This is something I have never seen before. My usual sleep pattern has no flat spots at all. Constant movement is my theme – I sleep like a threshing machine.

Interestingly when I extended the sleep back out to 8 hours the wheels fell off, so it’s back to 7.5 for me, and maybe 7 if that’s no good. I can tinker with it from here to get it as close to perfect as possible. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had a couple of days of bounce – and it’s been a long, long time since I have bounced. If this really works my students are in for quite a shock.

There is one chief lesson I take from this, which is that when a doctor tells you that you don’t have a problem, or that nothing can be done, you have only his or her word for it. Doctors are as fallible as the next person, and the human body is far more complex and variable than we really know how to admit. Just because one doctor is stumped, or uninterested, doesn’t mean that there is no-one out there who can help you. Finding a doctor who takes you seriously, listens, and is willing to experiment, is sometimes a challenge, but it is definitely worth the struggle.

The second chief lesson is that your health is in your hands and nobody else’s. You don’t have to do what you are told by a doctor, however eminent, and you are always entitled to a second, third, or even fourth opinion. Medical professionals may rail against “Dr Google”, but an educated patient is best equipped to participate in his or her own treatment. I don’t have medical training or specialist knowledge, but I need to understand my own condition and explore my options. A doctor who doesn’t think that’s a good idea is not someone I can work with.

The third chief lesson (I’ll come in again) is that quality sleep is the foundation of absolutely everything, and more sleep is not necessarily the answer. I was tired, so I slept more, which worsened my sleep, so I slept more (I think you can see where this is going). I needed expert advice to fix that, but I needed a good relationship with that expert to make it possible. Some relationships are never going to work, in which case you should not hesitate to move on and find one that does. It can change your whole life.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some bouncing to do.

 

 

In your corner

There is nothing quite so precious as someone who is unequivocally in your corner – every time.

Someone who, when you are afraid to admit how crazy you are, has evidence that they are crazier (there’s nothing quite so entertaining as a crazy-off).

Someone who, when you call them up to say something terrible happened pauses to check if you’re ok before demanding to know who they need to attack on your behalf.

Someone who, even though they live on the other side of the world, always reads your email regardless of how busy they are, and replies straight away when you need them.

Someone who would never believe anything bad about you, and will do battle with anyone who says differently.

Someone who, in loving you absolutely, is also not afraid to wield the frying pan of enlightenment when you’re not thinking straight.

Someone who will tell you you’re being an idiot – and they should know, because they have been that exact type of idiot many times.

Someone who listens to you pour your heart out about negative feedback, sympathizes just the right amount, and then makes you look for the positives, because she knows they’re there somewhere.

Someone who brings out the best in you, just by knowing it’s there.

Someone who can make you feel the sun behind the clouds, even during a rainstorm.

Someone who is some of these things, or all of them.

Someone who reminds you how lucky you really are.

Someone who reminds you that, actually, your corner is quite full of the most amazing people, even on days when you were feeling most alone.

There is nothing quite so precious as the people who are unequivocally in your corner – every time.