Unbearable stillness of being

When I am stressed I find the constant noise and activity of my 4 and 8 year old daughters irritating in the extreme. I find myself wishing I could teach them to be still. To listen to the wind, the rain and the birds. To see the patterns of sunlight and shade, and the spectacular colours of this year’s autumn leaves.

I am a teacher in a senior secondary school, and I see my 15, 16 and 17 year old kids display the same nervous energy. Whether listening to an enthralling talk, or working hard on a tricky problem, their bodies are constantly in motion, even when their minds are thoroughly engaged. Legs jiggle, heads bob, and they are constantly asking to be allowed to use headphones while they work.

As a teenager I was much the same. I was never so happy as when I was immersed in a book. Moments between things to do, or books to read, existed only to be stuffed with anything I could find – re-reading an old book, raiding the bookshelves for something – anything! – that I hadn’t already read, or playing with the dog. Stillness, far from being something I craved, seemed like something to be avoided at all costs.

pond

Then someone taught me to meditate, and while I still find it incredibly difficult to switch off and truly let go, I have discovered the bliss that can be found in pure stillness. At first my mind roams around, ceaselessly picking at the fabric of my life, unravelling and re-ravelling all my stress and fears.

Writing is particularly good for short circuiting this phase, as I can dump all those whirling, chaotic thoughts out as words. Expelling toxic trauma from my system has always been a verbal act, for me, and writing is a powerful way of cleansing my system. Once I have vented all the hopes, fears, and traumas onto my keyboard, it is possible to set my brain free.

Given the (rare) opportunity, I sit beside our pond and watch the ripples in the water. I breathe deeply and allow myself to become aware of my inner state, instead of frenetically running away from it, which is the typical rhythm of my days. These days it is known as mindfulness, but I think of it more as self-awareness.

Tuning in to yourself is often regarded as wasted time. We fill our kids’ days with homework and extra-curricular activities, and then wonder why they lack the ability to be still. There are few gaps in our lives for unexpected visits or visitors, impromptu outings (perhaps to stomp in unexpected puddles), and breathing space of all sorts.

The technology that once promised to fill our lives with leisure time, by removing tedious chores from our lives, instead crams our existence with ceaseless demands for our attention. There is always something beeping, clanging or buzzing to notify us of an update to our world. It takes a huge effort of will to turn away from it all and give ourselves the breathing space that we don’t even realise we crave.

20 years ago my best friend regularly reminded me to breathe. I think perhaps she was prescient.

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Secret women’s business

Over the past few months I have experienced the agonizing, sometimes breathtaking pain of endometriosis. The only way endometriosis can be diagnosed is by surgery – if you’re lucky it can be treated at the same time – so it wasn’t until I had a laparoscopy yesterday that I knew for sure that it was, in fact, endometriosis. It comes as a huge relief to have a diagnosis, but what has really amazed me is the number of women around me who have heard my story and told their own tales of secret endometrial woe.

Endometriosis is when the endometrium – the layer of tissue that grows inside the uterus each month, and sheds during the menstrual cycle – appears in places other than the uterus. It can grow and attach anywhere in the abdomen, and the level of pain and other symptoms that result seem to depend more on the location than the amount of endometriosis. (Find more info about the condition here.)

A friend of mine who moved to Melbourne years ago from Perth says that the one thing that’s always true about Melbourne weather is that “it’s not normally like this” – regardless of what “this” actually is. The same seems to be true of endometriosis. No two stories are alike, and the level of pain can be anything from zero to exquisitely unbearable. Where there is pain, it can be anything from 3 days of trauma per cycle to month-long agony. It can even cause digestive symptoms, and masquerade as irritable bowel syndrome. Endometriosis is such a variable beast that it can be a nightmare just trying to find a diagnosis.

Like period pain, endometriosis tends to be seen as a shameful secret. Anything to do with a woman’s reproductive organs must never be spoken aloud, particularly not in public, and certainly never in front of a man. Why is that, exactly? What shameful truth will my male colleagues learn if they find out that I have endometriosis? I’m pretty sure they already suspect that I’m female. They are probably bright enough to work out that I have female reproductive organs (especially since I have kids who are obviously genetically mine). Why should I be secretive about my reproductive systems going haywire, as opposed to say, a dodgy ankle, asthma, or some other, publicly acceptable health complaint?

There is no question that endometriosis has had a profound impact on my family, as much as on me. I have been exhausted and cranky, from constant pain. It has impacted on my work and my colleagues. It seems only sensible to be open about what is going on – yet there is this shocked reaction when I talk about it. I know that I am rather more open than your average bear, but I don’t understand what is shocking about being open about your health. Far worse, I’d have thought, to hide it and try to pretend all is well when you’re in pain and performing under par as a result.

Women often complain that men are not understanding enough, yet how are they supposed to understand something that we refuse to even admit to, much less explain? Regular readers will know that I am impatient with gender segregation, particularly as I often feel myself to be on the wrong side of the gender divide. I prefer engineering to make up, and network connections to royal hookups.

Men are affected by endometriosis, when it affects the women in their lives. By not discussing it and failing to let them know what it is really like, we sabotage our relationships (by which I mean working relationships and friendships just as much as partner relationships), and deprive them of the opportunity to understand and empathise. Men who don’t have female partners still have mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, female colleagues, and friends – in other words, women in their lives.

I am open about my endometriosis. It may make the men in my life squirm, but I suspect they’re used to me doing that. I think it means that those men are more in my life than they would otherwise be. Better able to understand what it’s like to be in my skin. I think that’s worth a little squirming. I’m not about to shout it from the rooftops with a megaphone. But when people ask me how I am, I tend to tell them. I wonder what the world would be like if we all did that?

The naked truth

Bookshops in the US have apparently censored images of Andrej Pejic bare chested, because although he is a man, “customers might think he is a woman”. And apparently the sight of female breasts is offensive and horrifying to their clientele. Sadly, they are probably right that leaving the image uncensored will cause screams of horror. Yet I would make a fairly large bet that there are magazines with blood, dead people, or other images of gore and violence, that are happily displayed front and centre in those same bookshops.

I find this deeply puzzling. There is a lot of screaming about the sexualisation of children, but much less about their exposure to violence and gore. My 8 year old’s teacher recommended that she watch the news and read newspapers to extend her reading and current event knowledge – but we won’t let her watch the news. It is far too distressing, and she does not yet have the skills to process it, or understand that the bad stuff gets reported and sensationalised because it sells, and that there are good things happening every day that just aren’t “worth” reporting.

I have often felt out on a limb because our children watch very little television – and what they do watch is carefully selected. At 8 and 4 they have never watched commercial tv, and we switch the radio off when the news comes on. I felt somewhat vindicated when I read a recent article in Melbourne’s Child in which an academic described research that shows that children who watch the news often wind up more anxious right into adulthood, and that they become hypersensitized to the possibility of bad things happening to themselves, and the people around them.

The Age today has a headline on its website about a grandmother being beheaded. In Spain. It had a different headline yesterday, no less horrifying, about the same story. We hear all about traumatic things happening all over the world, with no perspective. Headlines screaming about people dying in horrific ways tend not to specify that it was a long way away. And you know what? I don’t think it’s only kids who become anxious as a result.

We are bombarded with violent, horrifying images and stories every day. And each one that happens is rehashed repeatedly, before it is allowed to fade from the headlines (until the 1 month, 6 month, and 1 year anniversaries, and so on ad nauseam). But breasts – oh my goodness, please protect us from those! (To say nothing of bottoms.)

My 8 year old gets very grumpy on hot days, when she sees boys going about shirtless, because she feels it is massively unfair that they can, and she can’t. And I can’t explain to her why it’s fair – because it is manifestly not. It’s a weird, artificial construct. It’s ok to show blood, gore and guns, but save us from skin – that stuff’s dangerous.

If I were to put an image of a breast on this post, I would probably get into trouble for not having an adult-content warning on my blog.  And yet naked people are something all of us will encounter in our lives (we hope!). Nakedness is as natural, and harmless, as a newborn baby. Violence, on the other hand, is something we hope not to encounter, and that I think we’d all prefer to protect our children from. So why do we allow images of that everywhere, and wildly censor the human body?

I just don’t get it.

The painful truth

Chronic pain is an insidious beast. Though it may not incapacitate, even in milder forms it is debilitating to a degree that many people never understand. It is difficult to comprehend that someone who can walk and talk and move perfectly well is being eaten away from the inside – dragged down, mauled about, and forced to struggle through every waking moment.

In my early twenties I had chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). In my case it didn’t involve a lot of pain, but it was incredibly debilitating. CFS shares with chronic pain the problem that you can pull yourself together and look “normal” from time to time, and this makes it difficult for people to wrap their heads around the severity of the condition.

For the last few months I have been having a run-in with chronic pain. In my case there is a light at the end of the tunnel (albeit faint and flickery), and there is a good chance I will be free of it after surgery in a few weeks’ time. Unfortunately many people with chronic pain are not so lucky, as they have conditions that really can’t be tackled in any definitive way.

Arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, fibromyalgia, and many, many more conditions can cause constant, debilitating pain. Sometimes the pain is low level, sometimes it is fierce, but in all cases it has a profound impact on quality of life. Modern medicine is not as good at pain management as we would like to think. Opponents of assisted dying often argue that palliative care is perfectly adequate. No-one needs to suffer, they would have us believe. Yet the pain management available even for low level chronic pain is simply not adequate.

Strong painkillers cause drowsiness to the point where life has to be postponed until the effects wear off. Milder painkillers are woefully inadequate. All painkillers have side effects that increase dramatically with frequent use. And this is for low level pain. The intense pain that can come with terminal conditions like cancer is a whole different class of opponent.

Despite the scientific tendency to separate mind and body, pain is a clear example of how inextricably intertwined our minds and bodies truly are. A psychologist friend of mine sums it up beautifully: “We believe in mental health that about 50%* of patients who present to GPs with pain are actually showing signs of clinical depression. In some cases the depression causes the pain (psychosomatic) and in the rest the pain causes the depression!”

Pain drags you down, both mentally and physically. It makes it harder to sleep, wrecks concentration, and makes getting through life a constant battle. You wind up sleep deprived, exhausted and irritable. The irritation is a feature both of the pain and the sleep deprivation. It makes parenting an even bigger challenge than usual, as your fuse becomes shorter and shorter. It makes work incredibly difficult – particularly work that requires a high degree of either patience or creativity. It takes a massive toll on relationships, both personal and professional.

Pain pushes you closer to the edge. It makes otherwise bearable situations unbearable. It makes tempers shorter and perspective much more elusive. It is, in short, incredibly difficult to live with.

The bright spot in my current brush with pain has been the support of the people around me. I find magnificent solace in the colleague who takes one look at me. says “you’re in pain today, aren’t you?” and subsequently takes unobtrusive care to lighten my load. In the friends who check in to see how I’m going. In the way my husband takes on the lion’s share of work around the house without complaint. In the myriad of small but poignant ways in which people express their sympathy, concern and support.

Now *that’s* pain relief.

*figures are a rough estimate, not experimentally tested

Image is everything

Yesterday I bought myself some roses. I was out to lunch at the most magical cafe I have ever been to – a combination of gallery, garden, florist and restaurant, with mosaics, murals and fascinating objects in every direction. Simply going to the toilet was an aesthetic experience worth writing about (but you’ll be pleased to know that I intend to refrain – from writing about it, that is).

I have had a particularly rough couple of weeks, and wanted to spend my one day off being distracted. This was the perfect place to do it. My 4 year old and I met up with a dear friend and spent a delightfully long lunch exploring the garden, lounging on couches, and chatting.

After lunch we succumbed to the lure of the florist and bought ourselves a magnificent bunch of perfect roses.

roses

Tightly furled, they are just beginning to contemplate opening into their native splendour. The bunch is multicoloured, beautifully warm, cheering and festive – feelings I am inclined to cultivate, particularly now. Sitting in pride of place on our dining table, they cheer every meal, and spark many discussions on the relative merits of the different colours. None of us can quite warm to the green roses – there is something a little wrong with the whole idea – but we are agreed that in the context of the bunch they all work some magic.

I love flowers, yet I could count the times I have bought them for myself on one hand – several times. For some reason flowers are meant to be supplied by others. They are a completely artificial expression of romance and affection, imbued with all kinds of complicated meanings that we tend to regard as a natural extension of the plants themselves. Yellow flowers for friendship. Red for romance. White for death.

I’m sorry, but says who??? I have written before about the myth that romance equals roses and candlelight dinners, and contemplating my roses has made me wonder why it is that the buying of flowers has become so significant. What is so wonderful about receiving flowers, rather than buying them myself?

They have become a potent, yet very misleading symbol. Does a man buying me flowers mean he loves me? Does the fact that my husband never buys me flowers (ok, I exaggerate, he bought me one bunch, around 16 years ago – but who’s counting?) mean that he doesn’t love me? How could I stack up the buying of flowers against the way he looks after me when I am sick, makes me laugh when I am sad, and knows what I am thinking – sometimes when I can’t articulate it myself.

Sometimes I think that we fixate on symbols at the expense of real meaning. We judge relationships by the number of flowers, jobs by the pay, and friendships by gifts. Sure, it’s nice to get flowers. It’s a thoughtful act, and it does make me smile. But sometimes a rose is just a plant. So I now declare myself free to buy my own flowers.