I always brake for puppies

Almost two weeks ago, I stepped on the first of three planes with two suitcases and six laptops and started my journey to teach in Nauru.
I took a deep breath – a very deep breath – and stepped on the plane.

And then spent a significant part of the journey terrified of losing six laptops and being aware of all the luggage.

And now – almost two weeks later – here I am. Sitting in my little apartment, typing away in a dressing gown. All of which is not too dissimilar to what I was doing in Australia – minus a small cat who would be typing with me too and is now being loved by a friend and his dog and cat while I am here.

When I last wrote, I wondered about making new rhythms to my days. Then I had no idea of what Nauru would look like or what my life could look like. Pictures and other people’s stories aren’t always the same. They’re not always quite real. But now that I’m here, it’s a real world. Nauru is my real world now and it is all sorts of fascinating and challenging. This change is a good thing.

So, in moving overseas and starting new rhythms to my days, I have discovered a few things about myself:

I really will happily, willingly, without question pay extraordinary sums of money for fresh fruit and veggies if the alternative is to go without. The cashiers in the shop now laugh at me as I arrive with a basketful of veggies and a wallet full of cash.
If I run out of the peanut butter left in my fridge by a friend and discover that there is no peanut butter in the shops, my heart does break a little, and I begin to plot how more peanut butter might come into my life.
This is also the same with Kewpie mayonnaise, which people either worship or have never tried. A friend told me I should pack more but I had run out of space. Next time, I am packing more.
(The obsession with food is admittedly not at all a surprise or even a vaguely new discovery.)

I have also discovered the art of the List. Lists ground my life now. Lists for what to do in class. Lists for what needs to be done outside class. Lists for weekly reports. Lists of what I need to bring with me next time (mostly food-related if the earlier passages hadn’t hinted that). Lists of ideas for where I want some writing to go. My phone resembles little more than an electronic post-it note of reminders – some practical and pragmatic (‘Remember to finish slide 6’), others more ethereal where I struggle to remember what on earth I was thinking (‘She shouldn’t walk through the door’).

Yesterday though, as I was driving home from a meeting, I discovered that I will always brake for puppies. Not that that’s a surprise in itself – I am a sucker for strays, always have been. Dogs wander about the place all through the island but they tend to be deeply road sensible. This one, however, had found something in the middle of the road that needed to be sniffed and eaten without any disruption. So I braked to see what the dog was going to do so I could pass it without harm. I braked early and clearly, this wasn’t a screeching halt – these are hard to do anyway when no one drives more than 50k an hour. But the car behind me potentially did not feel the same way about braking for puppies and so overtook me, almost hitting the dog, which thankfully used its road sense to get out of the way. When I got home and told my cleaning lady, who is teaching me all about Nauruan culture, she laughed and said that I was “a very Australian girl”. Apparently, we brake for puppies.

When I was trying to imagine what living here would be like, I didn’t imagine some of this – I didn’t imagine being very Australian in a way that’s not so much recognized back home. But, as I find my way around this new home – and recognise my new rhythms and undertake adventures like going into different shops – remaining a sucker for strays feels deeply OK.

In just under four days time

In a little less than four days, I’ll be on my way to Nauru to start a new job teaching a community health diploma (both job and diploma have far fancier names in the contract). I’m equal parts excited and nervous about the new job. It means not having a permanent home in Australia this year as I’ll spend 36 weeks on-island – and a move from Armidale to Brisbane as a base in a few weeks time. It means foster-homes for my little cat while I’m away and I’m deeply blessed to have two amazing friends who will take her into their homes (and hearts) during the year. It means big changes and big learnings and big adventure – and who could say no to that? There’s a chance to make a real difference so why not dive in to the opportunity – especially when Laks will be cared for while I’m away.

 

But leaping in to this opportunity has meant moving and packing.

And more packing because I think I may own all the stuff in the world. Stuff seems to just appear in unexpected places that I didn’t realise existed in the cottage or in places I swore I checked yesterday.

There is just so much stuff.

But – no permanent home this year means I can no longer keep all of it. So I have read Marie Kondo, and I have piled clothes and books and things onto my dining room floor to hold individually and discard if it didn’t make me feel a spark of joy. While deeply cathartic, it also made me realise how much stuff I had that didn’t spark – not that I actively didn’t like them but just that they weren’t so valuable.

And I discovered that I will get rid of almost half my wardrobe but can’t part with any of the artworks I’ve collected over the years.

Books too were far harder to get rid of – and far harder still to not take with me. I’m packing 8 books (somehow) to take with me to Nauru because they’re the ones I read and re-read – they’re the ones that will make me feel brave and safe on the days when I may not feel either.

 

But, the thing is, as I’ve been packing and discarding – and boxing up my life into 9 not-so-large boxes, 4 bags, 3 suitcases, and 1 small cat – I’ve been realizing more and more how much change can be the Boggart in the wardrobe. Staying at a friend’s place to get Laks settled, I’ve watched this little cat adapt to a new house more quickly than I did – she found her comfy spaces within an hour. Admittedly, I’ve made friends with the other dog and cat but that’s because I don’t think I need to be boss of everyone. What Laks lacks in size, she makes up for with a personality and survival skills.

But within a day or so, she made her new routines and, in truth, so did I. I wake up to feed three animals following the politics of the morning. A kind-hearted dog the size of a horse comes with me on my morning walk that now goes through the Lookout. I water the garden, and feed the fish. I walk up and down an enormous hill (which feels especially enormous coming back up when I resemble a hunch-backed red-faced and huffing wreck of a person) to get to work.

I have a new rhythm to my days.

And I’ll make a new rhythm again in just under four days time.

The fear that change can bring may – at least for me – be a fear of how to fill your days again and what those days will look like. It’s a fear that looms large in the days before a change (like right now, with just under four days to go) but it’s also a fear that will disappear a week or so from now. When I have the rhythm to my teaching and my days.

Practising my resolutions

Sometimes my resolution eyes have been bigger than my resolution tummy.

 

I have promised more than I could possibly achieve in a lifetime, let alone a year. I have promised things that I could do in a year if things like needing to work in order to live didn’t get in the way. I have promised things that I could do if I were an entirely different person who actually possessed the coordination to knit or do other crafty things.

 

(I seemed to always veer into Etsy and fitspo territory with a lot of my resolutions of the past. You should have seen how I was going to change the world one green juice in a knitted drink holder at a time.)

 

But last year, I sat with my little cat and made resolutions that felt calming and positive – and that required little else of me other than to continue being me (and required nothing of Laks because cats are too sensible to get themselves caught up in resolutions).

I resolved to write as bravely as I could and still press ‘publish’, even if I closed my eyes doing it. I resolved to be open to new experiences, and new people. And I resolved to be mindful of, and grateful for, the beauties in my life. And, apart from a few bumps here and there when life got a bit tricky, I kept to them.

 

And it felt amazing for two reasons. Firstly, because I didn’t feel like I’d failed at anything, which is always a positive place to exist. And, secondly, because those things made me feel amazing – they were things I could easily and naturally do, and enjoyed doing.

Writing makes me happy. New people and their ways are endlessly fascinating. Looking for beauty means you’ll always find it somewhere, even if it was just Laks snoring on my lap after a yuck day.

 

And so this year – facing a new job in a remote location – challenging and exciting but just a little bit scary as well – the need for resolutions that again feel calming and positive (and practical for living in a remote location while undertaking a new job) feels all the more important. There is so much to do already – so much to plan where every decision at the moment requires meetings and discussions and more decisions – that adding anything more that isn’t intrinsically part of me would be too overwhelming. The adage of doing the things that make you scared can be an inspiring thing but it’s not always a bad thing to also want to do the things that don’t twist your tummy either. The big things this year are big enough without adding more drama to them for the sake of making a cooler inspirational quote.

 

So – this year – some of my resolutions will stay the same as last year. Bolder and braver. Beauty and inspiration.

New people and new places are coming regardless so embracing them is not only positive, but also deeply sensible.

But new resolutions too.

To forgive myself when I stumble, and to be peaceful with myself when I feel anxious about all the changes. To trust that I’m better at breathing and stopping now – and seeing the beauty – which makes all of that other negative stuff disappear more easily.

That it’s OK to not always be brave and that there will be days when I disappear into a good book or the Buffy series or my own writing – another resolution is to actually finish writing a book. To let myself have those less-brave days in order to be brave on all the other days.

 

There is something exciting and powerful when change comes rushing at you – change is always a good thing, no matter. So my resolutions this year let me meet the changes with clear eyes and a full heart, and this can never be a bad thing.

Why the perfect red lip matters

2015-11-26 08.05.25So until this past Sunday, I had never really worn red lipstick properly before. Flirted with it just a little, tried red tints, but nothing that was boldly, unashamedly, absolutely red.

Red felt too much. My lips would all of a sudden be ‘HELLO!’ like a slightly drunken aunt in heels she can’t walk in after too much gin on a hot summer afternoon. While that is absolutely my future ambition for when I turn 70 – I will wear kaftans, and dye my hair pink again, it will be brilliant – it’s not quite right for where I am now.

And then I met the very lovely Mel at Mecca Cosmetica in the Myer Centre in the middle of Sydney. This reads like an unabashed plug but she really was brilliant (and very very patient) given I wandered in akin to a small duckling with a vague sense of wanting to try red lipstick and holding a fear of becoming a drunken aunt. Mel tried different textures and intensities of colours and ranges of red from berry to blue-based to hints. And after trying a whole bunch of lipsticks where my lips were stained with the remnants (which actually made a pretty fantastic colour), I chose the first one.

A matte, creamy, grown-up, unabashed, blue-based red.

It’s called Rita which just feels magnificent. Rita would absolutely wear a kaftan.

And I know the perfect red lip – in the grandest scheme of things – isn’t important. Unless you stretched your long bow to ‘self esteem’, it doesn’t factor into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are many far more important things to be concerned about, and to think about, and to write about. And I am and I do. I can easily, happily live without red lipstick.

The thing is though – I don’t really care about those arguments. Sometimes you need silly and frivolous and a lipstick named Rita. A little while ago, the beauty writer Sali Hughes talked about how beauty products, and the rituals around them, can be these small beauties when life becomes decidedly less beautiful.

And there is something very powerful in that in terms of identity and wellbeing.

The mornings where I’ve taken the time to do the new lipstick properly, I’ve walked out the door differently, even though nothing else is different. Like a good dress with pockets and properly-brushed hair, Rita has been added to my armoury of things that make me feel confident and capable and happy. These are things that no one else will notice – and far more often than not could care less about – but can make an enormous difference to how I feel presenting, or participating in a workshop, or waiting for my flight home at the airport lounge scribbling down ideas for a paper. It can be hard enough sometimes to find your voice, and make in loud enough to heard, in such a big and hectic world – why not embrace the things that help?

These are small beauties and they work in small ways, but if I only waited for the big beauties and the big changes, what opportunities would I miss? It extends the idea of embracing yes to always being open-eyed to what’s out there and not assuming that something has to be ‘important’ for it to make a positive difference in my life.

 

 

Embracing Yes

Shonda Rhimes is a bit of a hero for me; her writing, her vulnerability and fearlessness in speaking out and challenging norms, and her way of seeing a long-term narrative into being.

She is deeply awesome.

(Plus Scandal has the best coat porn of any show ever.)

It’s a bit over one year today that the Thesis Whisperer blog, run by the wonderful Inger Mewburn, published a piece I wrote about the struggles about being an early career researcher in an uncertain role. I felt so scared – so naked – publishing that piece but met some amazing friends on Twitter through it – with their own fantastic blogs, see here, here, and here for just a few. That vulnerability was worth it. In it, I wondered about the practice of always saying ‘yes’ and how many yes-es could be balanced at any one time without being dropped.

And in her new book ‘The Year of Yes’, Shonda Rhimes talks about what she experienced in a year of saying yes – new experiences, new ways of being and doing, a wholeness of life uncovered.

And in the year since the Thesis Whisperer piece, I’ve also begun to truly believe in the power of saying yes.

I have this fear of losing myself in work sometimes where I get stuck in how I do something – too comfortable, too tunnel-visioned. That one day the words ‘but that’s how I’ve always done it’ will come out of my mouth when faced with a new, maybe better, way of doing something.

In saying yes, I feel less at risk of that, simply because I’m always around people who do things differently to me and so always explaining why I want to do something a particular way – and then smooshing both ways together to create something new and workable.

In saying yes, I work with extraordinary people who do work vastly different (and sometimes really similar) to my own but who are also fascinated in seeing the world just slightly differently to how they saw it before.

In saying yes, I am writing this in a university space in a small country town a few hours away from where I live, working on a project where I have learned about Aboriginal history, community-embedded art studios, and the politics of playgrounds. And seen more art deco architecture than I was ever expecting here.

Saying yes has been pretty brilliant.

But its brilliance has also been brighter because I have also discovered the power of saying ‘yes but…’

Yes but can I have another week to do the analysis so I can finish marking assignments…

Yes but if we start the analysis this way, it will be easier to pull together for a paper…

Yes but if I go adventuring to small country towns, coffee is vital.

Thankfully, I have yet to meet someone for whom coffee (or at least a cup of tea) has not been vital.

And in this way, ‘but’ has brought a balance to the excitement and inspiration of ‘yes’. Passion alone is sometimes not enough when you’re tired – it doesn’t get you through every challenge. What passion does do though – when you balance it with ‘but’ – is allow the colour to stay in everything – allows you to work through the night when there’s a deadline, to balance what needs to be balanced when there seems to be quite a number of balls in the air.

Passion nourishes you in ways that pragmatism could never do, but pragmatism keeps your feet on the ground, reminds you to eat, and keeps your iron levels from dropping.

Passion gives you the courage to try something completely new – even if it doesn’t work – just to know that you’ve tried it. And – as fellow academic nerds will also know – when something new works, it’s the best high.

Saying yes has made me more creative, bolder, and braver in my work. It hasn’t always led to success but I’ve felt proud of everything I’ve submitted this year and attempted to do.

And that nourishes in both a passionate and pragmatic way.

Pink hair and the zen of blah

This is always a rough time of year. Anniversaries of people I’ve lost, deadlines, marking, and end-of-year existential lala all seem to come together in October.

This week particularly has just been blah.

And it’s not that I don’t know how to self-care. I’m much better at it than I used to be, and I’m much better at recognising when I need to take more care than usual. Slowly, slowly stumbling my way towards grace as always with that one.

I run. Walk. Bake. Write. Sit in the sunshine with my small cat. Do breathing exercises.  Go to the foot man. Read books (in the sunshine if possible). Coffee (and skype) with friends as we dissect the world, and The Bachelorette. Sing loudly in the shower.

Occasionally sing loudly out of the shower.

Write some more.

Acknowledge my blessings, because there is no question of that. Remember that there are small beauties and small loves, great beauties and great loves, everywhere. Be present with the sunrise.

Get my hair cut/coloured (my hair may be more pink than ever before right now). Get something pierced, or cry in public at art exhibitions in Derry (hypothetically speaking)

You know, all the things.

I’m not sure there’s an article on stress or wellbeing that I’ve not read, just to make sure there’s not something I’m missing in the quest to keep on being well and happy. To make sure I am as OK as can be, as productive and as creative as possible.

I know I’m not the only one reading everything that comes their way on this.

But sometimes, it all feels a bit blahblahblah. That cogs are turning, and things are whirring, but that nothing actually shifts or changes. Movement and motion, but no action. All of Shakespeare’s sound and fury still signifying nothing.

As much as running is fantastic for relieving stress in the moment and it seems to be the best time for ideas to pop into my head (as an aside, why do ideas only appear best formed during a run or a shower?), all the running in the world won’t make my heart break any less for the anniversaries.

No matter all my insight and self-care and learning, this time of year is always hard. And I was talking to friends yesterday that it’s not that I miss the people I’ve lost in a way – they stay frozen in death whereas I’ve changed. I had to – I grew older. The person I miss isn’t the person they’d be now so that feels a false emotion for me in a way. What I grieve and miss – what breaks my heart – is the loss of that potential. We lost who they could have become, and what they could have been in the world. That I will never know who they could have become, for better or for worse or for all those in-betweens. And that breaks my heart every year.

And I realized yesterday that nothing can make that heartbreak better because how can you fix that loss of potential? There’s nothing that will bring them back.

But, strange as it sounds, yesterday’s realization gave me a freedom I’d never explored properly before. I sat in that rubble and mourned my loss. I had made myself a jam-packed day so did interviews and meetings and things. But I let myself grieve and feel heartbroken. And today I feel lighter for it; this morning I woke up lighter for it. Quiet still, but lighter. Almost as though giving myself over to heartbreak fully yesterday (and these last few days) was enough of a penance – not a penance for sin but one in memory, so maybe that’s not quite the right word – and this morning I could breathe with the weight that has shifted if not entirely gone.

I wonder sometimes though – in our quest to frame everything positively and to retell mantras – that we’re losing our ability to be OK with the blah. That maybe sometimes we need to sit in the rubble with our heartbreak and just be. Be present with our ghosts and make peace with them, because not all of them are scary. Some are just sad. That giving ourselves over to grief, just for a moment, allows us to then cleanse ourselves of it a little more. One week out of a year rather than a whole year. A week to feel the pain, and acknowledge its presence, rather than carrying the load all year in silence, hiding a broken heart.

I could out-PollyAnna a lot of people but, more and more, I wonder whether we strengthen our positivity and our resilience by feeling the hurt – and shouting out to the world that it bloody hurts – rather than coating it in inspirational sayings, rather than giving ourselves a narrative that we would be better if only we did this one extra thing or tried hard enough or read one more article. Maybe we can be OK almost all the time, and still sometimes be sad. Maybe being OK also involves being sad as well….? Maybe some times are just blah and you trust (and you know) that these blah times will pass.

I’m trying to figure this out and so far this is as articulate as I can be about it. I have pink hair as a result of trying to sit with my feelings and make myself feel better so this is certainly a grace I’m stumbling towards. Certainly there’s a line between sitting in the rubble and being drowned by it, just as there’s a line between one week turning into many more. But I think as well, when you travel with your trauma every day, you can also allow yourself to learn its ways as well. I know to surround myself with people I trust on the anniversaries. I know that I will be quieter and there will be some work I struggle to do in that week. So I make allowances and am kind to myself because – as long as everything gets done – what does the order matter?  I arrange this week so I can grieve and function all at once – a whole of life.

I’m not sure whether this will work all the time but it’s a process that I know now works for me after a long time now. I take all the bits that work and make a tapestry to protect myself and my inner PollyAnna, because she knows that everything will always be alright in the end.

Buffy, the invisible girl, and the importance of being seen

Back in the day, a million years ago, I did a law degree, and was taught by a professor who inspires me still. He was tremendously charismatic: this brilliant mind able to both race in front of you but look back to make sure you were at least still running to catch up with him. He was one of the most well and widely read people I had ever met, and still know.

We all adored him. And distrusted any other student who didn’t get him.

I had never watched a single episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ until I took one of his classes – because obviously this is where you expected the story to go.

He argued that Buffy was the post-modern Antigone, and this way of thinking completely opened my eyes. I’d never properly realized that you could pull all these different sorts of cultures together and unpack them. Outside of obvious remakes, I’d never looked at something so modern and pulled the narratives across to something both so much older and seemingly so different. Reading Sophocles felt like reading another world, whereas I wore similar clothes to Buffy. Well – similar-ish. It was amazing.

So, while I have never practiced law, yay my law degree for giving me Buffy and a whole world of textual analysis.

So, this afternoon, snuggled up with my small cat and lots of cups of tea, I indulged in way-back-when first season Buffy and the ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight, episode struck me. In this episode, the ‘bad guy’ isn’t a vampire but a girl who’s become invisible as a reaction to never being seen at school. It’s more than being labeled an outcast – you have to be noticed to be other-ed. It’s less active in a way. You are simply never seen, never noticed; conversations happen around you but never with you. You may be there but you don’t figure in anyone else’s world.

And so, because she is never in anyone else’s thoughts, she is overtaken by invisibility. Here, a name as signifier isn’t enough – the girl has a name – rather the argument here is we don’t see what we don’t remember exists.

And I wondered, in the aftermath of WSPD and RUOK (a sea of acronyms), how many people are never seen, how many people we don’t remember exist. Study after study demonstrates how important connection and belonging are to not only living well, but staying alive. We need to be seen in order to live, in order to remain visible. We need to have conversations with people and interactions with them that are real and whole. Not that every conversation with every person has to change the world, or that we have to interact with everyone. But that we really look at every person we interact with, look in their eyes, and connect with them – even when it’s just smiling and saying thank you to the person at the check out.

I wonder sometimes when so much effort is put into grand gestures, that we’ve forgotten just how important the small, everyday ones are. That words aren’t always necessary; sometimes just being able to sit in the quiet is all that is needed. But we need to be able to follow through with what is needed, and not be frightened about more words or about silence (whichever it is that frightens us the most at that particular moment).

It’s a brave thing, a vulnerable thing, to see people and allow ourselves to be seen. To talk to people and smile at them, make real eye contact. And it’s an easy thing to not do now. I’m hopeless at it sometimes – I’m reading blogs and catching up on emails on my phone the second I hop on a bus now, while I do my grocery shopping, while I’m waiting in a queue, wherever. But I wave and say hello to fellow runners on my morning run; a camaraderie there that feels old-school and special.

Huffing and puffing though I may be, and wishing desperately to lie down on the grass because running is hard, this is still a space in which I see people, and am seen. And there’s a preciousness in that.

So have a I deeply over-thought Buffy?

Safe Spaces and World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. I was asked to give a talk this morning (as a researcher) for a community event. I wrote something more personal -decided to be a whole person, and not just a ‘researcher’. This talk went through several iterations as it felt increasingly necessary to be fully human with it. Practicing in the early morning with a tremendous human being half way around the world made me remember that we don’t change things by half-speaking. Sometimes we can only make change – and be truly heard – when we let ourselves be vulnerable and trust that our story can find its place in the world.

So, below, is my talk:

This has been a tricky talk to write.

Not because I’m not used to talking about suicide – I am. I’ve been a researcher in suicide prevention for a few years now.

This talk was tricky to write because, this morning, I’m also talking as a sister and as a friend. I was 16 when I lost a close friend; 21 when I lost my brother. I can tell you the exact moments I found out about their deaths because these were the exact moments my life shattered. I’ve re-built a life since then – re-built a great life – but a life without these two men I loved. And it’s a journey I still work on even more than half my life later. Mark and Michael still exist in every heartbeat, and they always will.

So I didn’t want to give a talk full of rates and numbers because, if suicide has touched your life – whether it’s because you work in the field, or are bereaved, or have been suicidal, or all of those things –  whether you’re used to talking about suicide or if you’ve never told your story before – if suicide has touched your life, you know rates and numbers don’t matter. Not really.

Because one preventable suicide is too many – the deaths that you’ve experienced are too many – the grief that you’ve experienced too much. In focusing on rates and numbers, I’m afraid that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that every suicide statistic was a person, and every person has left someone grieving. That every person who dies by suicide had a story, and every person left behind has a story too.  We need to start talking about suicide where we focus on its human-ness because that’s what really matters in the end.

So this morning – speaking as a researcher, a sister, and a friend – I want to ask two questions.

First, do we actually talk about suicide enough? Do we talk about suicide openly?

I work in the field; I talk about it all the time now. But I’m also asked about it all the time now because I’m recognised as someone safe as soon as I mention my job – I’ve had conversations on planes, in pubs, almost anywhere where a conversation can be started, where people have told stories of their suicidality, sometimes for the very first time.

But it took me a good 12 years to talk really openly about my brother. I was well into my PhD by then. I could find the words to describe other people’s experiences, but not my own. I could listen to other people’s stories but didn’t feel I could find the words to tell mine. No words seemed enough. I’ve foiund them – found some – but it took a long time.

Because talking about suicide is not easy. Suicide can be a scary thing to talk about. It’s a big thing to talk about. In order to talk about suicide, we have to admit that sometimes people feel such pain that they can see no other way to end it; that people can experience this type of emotional pain every day of their lives, no matter how much help they seek. That the life that works for us may not work for everyone – and we can so easily walk past someone every day and not know how they feel. I think for my family, and for me, the hardest thing we had to make peace with, the most confronting thing, was that we weren’t enough to save my brother. Over the years, in different ways, we’ve made peace with this.

But it’s been a confronting thing.

But just as we may struggle to find the words to talk about suicide, so too do people who are suicidal. In studies that have included people who have attempted suicide – and these are only just beginning – people have talked about how they struggled to find the words to describe their pain. That suicide was a selfless act for them because they thought they were too much a burden. And when they did find the words, they weren’t always heard or taken seriously. That it wasn’t always enough to be told ‘not to worry, that things would get better’ – sometimes people needed their pain to be truly recognised and acknowledged – they needed to be seen – and this could make people feel uncomfortable.

But discomfort isn’t enough of a reason to not talk about suicide. Discomfort silences not only the person trying to tell their story or ask for help – but it also silences us as a community. It’s so much harder to hear what we are scared to listen to. When we still face stigma about suicide – where people who die by suicide are still sometimes described as mad or bad or selfish – where there is stil, a perception that suicide doesn’t happen in ‘good’ families – silence only makes stigma worse. We need to start talking about this discomfort in a way that lets us make peace with it– where we can sit in the rubble with someone, and not feel the need to talk over them, but rather let them tell their story in their own words and at their own pace. Where we can sit in the rubble with someone and let them find a peace amidst all the uncertainty – their new normal – without having to say anything. Sometimes being quiet but present with someone is enough.

Which brings me to my second question, how do we make a safe space for someone to talk about suicide? A holding space to talk about the things that matter – so people feel supported, to ensure people feel safe rather than judged, and to help them heal?

Here maybe, we need to start looking at the small things. The small kindnesses that make a big difference when someone is hurting, when they need to be seen. In the same studies with people who had attempted suicide, they talked about being brought proper coffee while they were in hospital, a change of clothes, someone who just sat quietly with them to keep them company. They did not talk about being brought all the answers by a program, or a magic pill that solved all their sadness. There were no easy solutions. Rather, the people in these studies talked about finding people who got them – whether they were family or friends, or a health professional or someone else with lived experience – who understood that there would be good and bad days, who helped them find ways to better deal with the issues that made them vulnerable – whether it was counseling, or medication, or exercise, or art and writing, or mantras, or tattoos, or (most commonly) a mixture of all these things.  And different mixtures for different times, depending on what the person needed at the time. This was never an easy or straight-forward journey.

They talked about someone not only asking whether they were OK on a bad day but acting on the answer – spending time with them on days when they were not OK. And not just waiting until a person was not OK before doing something as well.

But also – and importantly – not presuming they knew all the answers. In areas like this, I think sometimes we are afraid to admit we don’t know all the answers. I will never know all the answers to my questions as to why I lost Michael and Mark. But this humility makes us better listeners, better health professionals, better researchers. We can make meaning out of uncertainty and shades of grey and spaces in-between – we can find peace with this – and admitting that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions also means that we acknowledge that people experience suicidality and bereavement differently. They will all tell their stories differently and take different journeys of healing. And these stories will be messy and raw and full of emotion. And acknowledging this makes a safe space for people to tell their stories. We have to trust sometimes that just listening to someone – being there for someone – without doing all the talking – is enough to make someone feel better. A might even be enough to save a life.

This can be a tricky day emotionally for some of us – it can be a tricky day for me emotionally too. World Suicide Prevention Day makes us realise how global suicide is – the experiences we share with millions and millions of people around the world regardless of culture and geography and everything else that is usually used to distinguish people. Far too many of us share stories of suicide bereavement and grief and suicidality. The person next to you, behind you, in front of you. Far too many of us are trying to tell stories that can feel unspeakable at times. It took me 12 years to find my words and I can still feel them in the pit of my stomach. In our stories of bereavement, we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories. But it is important to keep trying to tell these stories in the hope that they might help someone else.

So today, we need to be kind to ourselves, and kind to others around us, as we honour those we have lost, those who still struggle with suicidality, and those who are bereaved. Days like today are important in remembering that we need to talk about suicide and we need to make sure that we are always safe spaces for people who want to share their stories.

A pirate, a question, and feet

Apart from sky-diving, I am usually pretty open to trying new things.

(I have friends who adore sky-diving but I can’t understand it at a fundamental level – it’s scary enough to get on a plane in the first place, I am not jumping out of one.)

So, earlier this week, on a recommendation from a friend, I started some biodynamic craniosacral therapy sessions. Essentially, the recommendation was: “this guy holds your feet and it’s really intense but you feel amazing afterwards”.

How could I not try that?

If you want to know what this therapy is, have a look here:

http://www.balancedintegration.com.au/biodynamic-craniosacral-therapy.html

My paraphrase would probably get a bit too tongue-twisted if I tried.

So I went there for the first time this week and told my usual story of anxiety (hello researcher), and digestion issues (hello anxiety, hello researcher). It’s not an uncommon story, certainly among my peers. I have written more food diaries than actual life-story diaries; take all sorts of supplements; have given up loads of different ‘trigger’ foods at different times to see if that made a difference.

For those of you who’ve done this food journey, you’ll know how boring it can get – trying to replace and reintroduce; wondering why you feel awful after a meal that only included ‘safe’ food; searching for ingredients you can barely pronounce, let alone spell.

I can bake a dairy- and gluten-free brownie with the best of them now, but it’s been a journey.

So, why not try the foot-holding guy?

And, I totally understand why I was given the explanation above. I can’t explain it much more than that – although, he does more than hold your feet. It’s just that I’m not concentrating on that; I focus on my breathing with a visualisation and lose myself in that.

After the first session, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My throat had felt constricted – I’d been holding my breath for too long so was given the breathing visualisation to calm it down. I felt hot, like I had a temperature. Walking home was a slow progress – I felt fragile and entirely spent. I got home, had a shower, and was in bed by 7:15pm. I slept almost straight through until my alarm rang the next morning, and I felt better. Lighter.

He’d made another appointment for Friday. I was afraid this was because I was completely wonky (see: anxiety).

But last night….

Last night, was completely different. There was a drumming music on when I arrived and my heart raced to its beat. Usually a racing heart is an anxiety thing, but not this time. It didn’t feel the same way. My throat felt different but not constricted, and my whole body tingled just under my skin, like a current was racing through it. I felt like a friendlier, less scary Frankenstein monster. Life via electricity.

And I felt amazing afterwards; my body moved more easily. I felt – if not peaceful, at ease with things.

He told me to take care of my throat: my voice would begin to come back this week.

And I got home and sang while I made dinner – much to the sadness of my small cat who went and hid in the bathroom, paws over her ears. I talked with a friend – one of those fantastic conversations that swing around with ideas, and highlight just how much the universe really can have a big stick to get you to realise things.

I realised just how much anxiety can exist in holding your breath; how much you hold your breath when you’re anxious. And how much, at least for me, those two things are very much chicken-or-egg. I know when I became anxious; I can’t remember when I started holding my breath but, in beginning to unleash it now, I know I’ve been doing it for far too long.

And this now opens my eyes far wider to what can be, and what could be. What exists in my life that makes me swallow my breath, and what exists that brings out the music.

And it’s the music that makes everything brighter, even on a cloudy day, reminds me the sun always comes out. It’s not that this is a magic cure, or that I’m seeking one. Rather, it gives me a new way of seeing things, and a new peace in which to see them. And that is something quite precious.

Connected to this – the universe and her big stick and all – is Amanda Palmer’s new book ‘The Art of Asking’ which has been inspiring me this past week or so as well. That there is bravery not only in asking, but bravery in being OK with the answer as well. Even if the answer is not 42, even if the answer feels wonky, it’s always better to ask, rather than silence the question, rather than hold your breath.

So, I am asking things of people now. Not necessarily asking them for things, but asking how they feel, and what they want – and whether they want to write with me. And sometimes the answers have been disappointing. But, other times, the answers have just been interesting and wonderful and made me feel connected to the people I love and adore in my life.

Sometimes, the answer has been yes as well. Because yes always appears eventually, and always when the time is right.

So, right at this very moment, I am thinking of a pirate called Tadhg, and all the adventures he could have with a kitten on his shoulder and flowers in his hands….

When the answer isn’t always 42*

A few weeks ago, my Fitbit broke.

This caused a few minutes of anxiety. I was so used to knowing that I would usually walk around 20,000 steps today (I walk everywhere) and, in doing that, there was a sense of reassurance. That this amount of steps would keep me well; whereas any fewer would obviously let the wolves through the door.

After these few minutes though, I remembered that I would still be doing however many steps without a Fitbit. All it did was record; it didn’t determine or judge. There were no wolves, not really, that weren’t simply products of my self-judgment. A Fitbit alone wasn’t going to keep me well.

And anyway, two days later I got a tattoo on the wrist where my Fitbit would have usually sat. I would have had to take it off anyway. In the end it really didn’t matter.

But I got to thinking about the reassurance of quantification again a few days ago when I was unexpectedly asked to give a lecture on suicide prevention – what we know, what we don’t, and studies I’ve worked on that have given some answers which have led to more questions. I was asked questions during and after the presentation and most of my answers were ‘It depends on….’, ‘It depends but…’ Simply because we don’t know enough to give many definite answers. But more than that – simply because something so very human means that its not easily definable or quantifiable – or the same depending on time or space or place or person.

So much depends on the particular person at a specific time within circumstances that may never necessarily be repeated for anyone else.

But this wasn’t enough for some of the students; it never is for some. They wanted sureties and tick boxes and linear ideals where A would always lead to B but not straight to G. When I couldn’t provide this, some of them became a little frustrated. How could I be an expert if all I knew was ‘It depends…’

Friends in similar sensitive, human fields have had this same experience.

But being human doesn’t always equal tick boxes, or either/ors, or yes/no.

Being human can equal open-ended questions and both and maybes.

Being human can mean that there are few certainties, no answers that will always be right, no superheroes fully assured at the very last moment.

Sometimes we will be uncertain, sometimes we will be wrong, and sometimes we will fall and not be caught.

Sometimes our hearts will be broken and sometimes we will break hearts. And we won’t always be able to predict either, even if it’s of ourselves.

Sometimes the answer will be 42.

But sometimes – because we are all so beautifully, so magically, so brokenly human -we will want the answer to be 42 and it won’t be at all, no matter how much we play with the maths.

Sometimes there won’t be any answer and we could easily spend lifetimes chasing something that simply doesn’t exist. Or deciding that the answer is 42 regardless and wondering why nothing seems to work around it and all our fears and flaws don’t magically resolve.

Except that knowing the answer is 42 can make life seem simpler. There is a calm in knowing that 6×7 will always equal the same number. There are questions that have right answers and definite answers. Unchangeable answers – as unchangeable as anything can be. And these are brilliant because we can move onwards and upwards from them. We can build bridges from them. We can fly planes. We can see stars and find dinosaurs.

These are all entirely inspiring things.

But there will always be things that can’t be quantified. Can’t be numbered.

The feelings that get right to the core of being human – that can make a heart beat or make it stop. And it’s our very humanity that makes everything so complicated because how do we see inside our very selves?

How can you measure love? Or make a numerical comparison of that moment when you look at someone and realise you don’t love them anymore?

How can you measure anger between a fleeting feeling to something that causes irreparable damage?

How can you quantify how much you miss someone who’s gone?

How can you value how much a heart can break?

How many times can it heal over and over?

How sometimes it won’t?

None of these will ever add to 42. None will ever have a definite answer, a consistent one, one that will be the same over time and space and person.

No one thing that will always make a heart stop hurting, or someone return, or whatever it is that we’re searching for to make us feel whole.

And it’s this uncertainty that can cause discomfort. It’s this discomfort that makes it seem easier to search for bones and name the planets rather than sit in the rubble. But it’s this ability to sit in the discomfort – to be peaceful with it in some ways – that’s important. Here it may not be that answering questions is the ultimate goal but rather creating a space that allows for the discomfort and the uncertainty and the multitude of greys in-between.

Maybe we need to truly trust that there are more than 50 shades of grey and not all of them are fucked up by any means. That we can make meaning out of certainty without having all the answers. That we can give kindness, spread compassion, so good work, based on depends and maybes and sometimes.

That humanity is allowed and accepted in all its 42s and heart beats and heart breaks. That we don’t search for answers where there may not be any. That we trust the wolves won’t only not come to our door but trust that they were never there to begin with.

But that’s harder to teach. Harder to put on a band around our wrist. This peacefulness sits inside us, waiting to be recognised and nurtured, if we could only trust ourselves to believe in it.

*Apologies and credit to Douglas Adams – if only the mice were right.