lust a desire to
as a wish for
lust a desire to
as a wish for
I’ve been thinking a lot about intergenerational trauma. Like how someone might be abusive because his father was abusive because HIS father had untreated PTSD from going to war as a teenager.
Then I think, as I often have, about how a privileged person might look at a population of indigenous people and wonder why they “haven’t got their act together” without taking into account what might happen to a people when they have, in recent history, the collective trauma of an entire stolen generation.
I think about how I am someone who has had a relatively stable, middle class upbringing, with access to books, family, love, a roof over their head… and how those things can give one a belief in their right to love, to education, to a voice that should be listened to. I think about someone who has been through a broken home, poverty and homelessness and how that might cause them to believe that they are unworthy of education, of security, of love.
I think about how our self-perceptions inform our decisions and how the outcomes of our decisions inform our self-perceptions. I think about poverty traps. I think about the ways in which we discuss the privileges of money, gender, race and so on… but what about the privilege of love? What about those who haven’t had love in their childhood? Isn’t love a privilege that not everyone is given?
Those who go unloved, or are badly abused or neglected when they are small, when their beautiful brains are still developing… what an incredible, long-lasting trauma that must be. What a tremendous setback at the very start of your life, like the race has begun and your legs are already tied together. How hard that must be, how brave and resilient such people are for pushing onward.
I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion and empathy. How undervalued it is. How desperately we need to cultivate more of it. How many more discussions we have to engage in about the way pain breeds more pain. How someone’s bad decisions might be the result of the only coping mechanisms they were capable of coming to when they were small and vulnerable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how much healthier we’d all be if we funded better mental health care, if we listened to more stories of people who aren’t the same as us, if we simply sat with ourselves and practiced loving kindness directed both outwards and in.
When I see someone behaving in ways that seem stupid, baffling, or infuriating, I try to ask myself where that comes from. So often, the answer is pain. There is so much pain residing in the hearts of our species, I hope never to close to it but to remain open, to sit besides it with empathy and compassion.
At the start of the year, I made a Spotify playlist called “2018 will be magic”. It was a desire, a decision, a hope. 2017 was a year of trauma, of mental health collapse, of emotional abuse, of the worst sort of suicidal ideation, of conflict, of loss, of feeling the pain was forever and hopelessness was the only truth, of grief, of decisions, of bones and muscles cut, of hope, of hope, of growth, of change, of love.
2018 would be magic, not matter what. Something had shifted within my eternal landscape, with Buddhism teaching me about the ways in which self-awareness and self-compassion compliment one another, with the realisation that generosity, empathy and kindness are not character traits I had to be ashamed of (how strange and sad and sick our society is that somewhere along the line, I eternalised the idea that these traits of mine made me weak) but that if we give our light openly, it only grows. Light only grows.
Emotional abuse combined with chronic pain and depression showed me what the worst sort of self-loathing feels like which nearly culminated in a cessation of my own existence. Learning the skill of self-love was not as a thing of scented candles and Instagram capitalism, but a thing of valuing and caring for oneself with the same compassion and understanding that you would show a dear friend or precious child. Learning the skill of self-compassion taught me to be better at sitting with the pain of others, while also becoming better at understanding my own boundaries and limits of what sort of behaviours I will accept in others. Brene Brown was right, the most empathetic people are the best at practising boundaries. Love the person, don’t love the behaviour.
And I’m learning to practice empathy for my need to hate, also. Learning to value and protect my right to anger. I still think of my ex at times and have these spikes of pain and rage that anyone could ever call me the love of their life and a piece of shit within the same day. I still feel confusion and hurt, sometimes, when a sense memory reminds me of how I felt so utterly alone and abandoned in New York. I still can’t look at photos and footage of the place without feeling nauseous and shaky. One day my heart will heal and let him go entirely, but I am kind to myself about the effects of trauma and if for now, hate is what my heart needs, I hold that emotion gently, carefully, cautiously, examining it, letting myself know what that feeling is and the grief and pain that lies underneath. I honour the child contained in my heart who cannot understand – even long after I feel I’ve processed it on every other level – how eyes that looked at me with love could suddenly burn with disgust and loathing.
2018 would be magic, no matter what. But actually, it’s been the most amazing year of my life so far. There is new love opening up parts of myself that had previously been unexplored and unarticulated, as well as old love deeping, ripening, strengthening. New friendships blooming, others growing as I learn to better open myself to people with personal truth, vulnerability, sublime stupidity and joy. The have been supremely fulfilling artistic collaborations, absurd, colourful, sexy parties and adventures, a reconnection with my love of nature, learning how much I love my friend’s children, exciting new projects on the horizon and clown school.
Holy fuck, clown school. Where I discovered things about my physicality that brought me joy and insight and a love for my body and movement when a lifetime of chronic health conditions had left me feeling disconnected from my body at best and like it was my enemy at worst. Where I learned to be more brave and vulnerable and open to the stuff of myself than I have ever been. Where I learned how to breathe into the energy of a moment, of an audience, of a feeling. Where I learned to take the energy of fear and ride it like a wave. Where I had moments of feeling myself to be utterly fucked up, utterly insane, a complete snivelling, disgusting, abject mess… and instead of hiding away, I stood up in front of my classmates and rode those energies. Not mental illness, not at clown school, just extreme states. Glorious, invigorating, terrifying, exhilarating and addictive extreme states. Clown school, where the teacher confirmed my belief that you can get so much more out of people if you practice empathy, remain open to their energies and critically engage in their art in a way that is generous and open, without treading on their heart and soul. Everyone got a turn to shine at clown school and it further deepened my belief that we shine so much brighter when we shine together.
2018 has confirmed my horror at the capitalistic and individualistic concepts that permeate our culture, attitudes, relationships and souls. It was an antidote to so much of that. It was a year of sharing, of collaborating, of helping and letting myself be helped. It’s been a year of learning all the ways in which I am privileged and how deep the systems of inequality and oppression are and affect so many living beings. It’s been a year of opening myself, properly, to my joys, pains, fears, darkness, hopes… and of opening myself, properly, to that of others. This process of openness, of not clinging to a fixed identity, of not shutting down to pain or the discomfort of conflict and of growth, it’s a constant one and it requires the right combination of discipline and gentleness. It’s the work of a lifetime, really.
2018 has contained the continual discovery of how my surgeries have transformed my life. The process is imperfect, my structures are still a struggle and the neuropathic pain has become it’s own disease. Nonetheless, my capabilities have been increasing and I have slowly, steadily, been spending more time in my studio. The feelings are mixed, sometimes it’s joy and freedom and an overwhelming sense of gratitude at my unbelievable luck. Other times it’s guilt, anxiety, fear that I’m too far behind my peers after so many lost years, frustration at the ways in which pain still holds me back, fear that I’ll fuck this up and wreck my body again, guilt that I still get depressed and anxious and whingy when my life is so much better than it was. But I breathe, I give myself compassion, I gently move myself back on track. It’s ok, I tell myself, it’s ok.
It’s ok. It’s better than ok. This year has not been without challenges, deep fears, so many tears and I know the way that life works, I know that it isn’t just an upward trajectory. I read the signs in the air, I smell the warnings in the wind and worry for the entire goddamn world. But I’m resolved to keep fighting for the values I have defined for myself, those of light, love, hope and art.
I’ve made myself a new playlist, it’s called “2019 will be beautiful” and it will. No matter what. No matter what waits in store. Even if I have to frame a steaming pile of shit and blood in plastic op-shop gold, 2019 will be beautiful.
There have been many times in my life when I have hovered on the edge of my own existence but the closest call I ever had was last year. I was in New York and in the depths of shame and despair, I was only seconds away from jumping in front of an incoming train. The only thing that held me back was the thought of my partner, Wes, having to spend all this money having my mangled body shipped home.
I spent several months after that navigating my way through the murk and though there were a multitude of things that helped me out of the darkness (community, compassion, Buddhism, books, medication, therapy) there were some words I would often scrawl on my hand, on my studio wall, above the toilet and so on…
“No feeling is final” was something I’d heard my friend Honor Eastly say and it became a mantra for me. It became a reminder that though everything felt completely bleak and hopeless, though I felt completely pathetic, defeated and helpless… I hadn’t always felt that way and that someday, the weather of my life would change and a new season would begin. This is the truth of reality, that everything is in constant flux, including our internal landscapes and our very selves. That reality can be horrifying, terrifying and devastating but it can also be liberating, beautiful and comforting.
“No feeling is final” was a perfect way to gently remind myself that nothing ever stays the same, not even the most profound pain, shame, heartbreak or grief. Those words were a part of what helped to save my life and now those words are the title of Honor’s new podcast on her personal experiences of suicidal ideation, mental health and existential agony. It is so profoundly moving, kind, generous and brave. I would like to implore everyone to listen to this beautiful, compassionate, lovely, important podcast because I genuinely believe that it is going to help save lives. Search your podcast player for “No Feeling is Final” or follow this link. I definitely recommend starting at the beginning of the series.
My psychologist says that my pain is a trigger for me. He’s right. It happens when my arms and neck burn for weeks with neuropathic pain like hot needle pricks bubbling and fizzing ceaseless and seizing up my muscles so my hands grow tight and numb. This is when I start the stories about blame and shame and name myself the number one culprit the cause for everything that ever goes wrong.
I overdid it underdid it tried too hard tried too little didn’t try quite the right way at quite the right time. I’ve blown it broke it wasted the chance I was given watch as all that money and love and patience you gave me goes gurgling down the drain and you realise that the ones who said nasty things about me were right all along and they were the only ones who spoke the truth. I’m a piece of shit. Was is always will be. Shit.
“Pain is not a punishment, pleasure is not a reward” I repeat the words of Pema Chodrom in my head as I turn with hope to self-compassion and the kindness I know I need. But the voice that feels more honest tells me if only I had more self-discipline, if only I were a better version of myself, stronger, calmer, smarter. Get your shit together piece of shit.
Pain is not a punishment. Pleasure is not a reward. Pain is not a punishment. Pleasure is not a reward.
This body and brain are the body and brain I’ve been given. They have no inherent value, they simply are. These are my resources. I must work gently with them. I must remember that below the anger, self-blame-loathing-hatred-shame lies grief and even deeper than that is a calm sort of acceptance of the nature of reality. All that all this is is this right now. Tomorrow won’t be the same. It’s not even the same in my head since I first started writing this.
I’m not a piece of shit. I’m flawed and brave and beautiful and trying.
Pain is not a punishment, pleasure is not a reward.
I’ll repeat it until I believe it.
Just around this time last year, my husband Wes whisked me away in an aeroplane for an emergency holiday in Bali. I say “emergency” because that is how it felt to him, digging deep into his tax return, he flew me to a place that was tropical and vibrant as a means of emotional resuscitation, a life-saving procedure. We were lucky to be in a privileged enough situation to be able to do so and I am lucky to be so loved.
Only a few months earlier, a different lover (Wes and I identify as polyamorous, that is to say we are in an open relationship where we both have multiple loves and yes thank you we’re very happy that way) let’s call him Pete, had flown me to holiday with him in New York where things between us had gone incredibly sour. Upon my return, I was diagnosed with a sort of post-traumatic syndrome and my therapist and my closest people were telling me that Pete was behaving in ways that were emotionally abusive. Combine that with the depression, chronic pain condition and suicidal ideation I had been struggling with for the last couple of years and you’ve got yourself a recipe for someone who doesn’t really want to exist anymore. Suicide was constantly on my mind, I had planned how and had come close one too many times. The light within me was flickering dangerously and Wes, who knew and loved me best, was terrified.
So he flew me to Bali and just as he had hoped, the change in the air and colour and the company of my beloved quickly had me waking up. I adore the tropics like no other place and the ugly beautiful intensity of Bali mirrored something within my own internal landscapes. I started to feel excitement again, particularly as we were to do a diving course which would have us realising one of my lifelong dreams of scuba-diving in coral reefs.
Except as I already knew too well, life doesn’t always go according to plan. On the first day of our diving instructions, an over-eager instructor gave us flawed lessons which caused us both to sustain inner-ear injuries which we only became aware of late in the day. That night, Wes and I sat in a restaurant overlooking palm trees, chickens and tourist resorts and realised we were not going to be able to complete our diving course.
Heart swamped by bitter disappointment, the vision of my green cocktail blurred with tears. I felt miserable and I felt stupid for feeling so miserable when here I was drinking a cocktail in the tropics, a vision of privilege and good fortune. I felt ashamed of myself for feeling so unhappy when our holiday had only just begun. Optimistically, Wes said “Hey, no need to be upset, we’ll still have a good holiday, you know?” and at those words, something inside me clicked and, emotionally, angrily I snapped “I know, ok? I know it’ll be a good holiday! I know we are lucky to be here and I know we will find other things to do but right now I’m really fucking disappointed because this is something I’ve always wanted to do and now it’s just another fucking broken dream, you know? Just another thing I can’t do to add to the giant list of things I can’t do! Can I just wallow in this misery for awhile? I’ll be okay but can I just fucking be upset for awhile?”
“You know what, you’re right. That’s fair. I’m upset too. This fucking sucks.” And so when we went back to our hostel, we wallowed. We ate junk food, drank beer and I cried in Wes’s arms. I cried giant, heaving sobs of bitter disappointment that were a little about the ear injury but much more about the broken dreams caused by my chronic pain condition and disability as well as the deep hurt I was feeling over the betrayal of trust and emotional violence enacted upon me within my relationship with Pete who I was still deeply in love with. I allowed myself to feel sorry for myself, really, truly sorry.
Wes held me and I bathed head to toe in the bitterness of my disappointment and misery and after only an hour or so of wallowing… I felt fine. Better than fine, I felt good. Better than good. And happily, we planned out the rest of our holiday, adjusting our plans, discussing possible new adventures. We then went on to have an incredible holiday, one that was full of exploring, eating, fucking, nature, beauty, art and healing. During that time, we read Buddhist books together and I discovered the philosophy which has helped me develop a deep compassion for myself and a capacity for coping with my struggles with greater equilibrium.
So I learnt something really important through that experience. I learnt to take my emotions seriously, to stop judging them and stifling them and instead to let myself feel them completely so that they might pass through me and shift and metamorphose into something else. My therapist spoke of that phenomena as the idea that we experience both primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the first emotions we have in response to the phenomena of our lives and those emotions are understandable, reasonable things to have. Secondary emotions, the emotions we have in response to our emotions, more often than not, those guys are cunts. In my experience, secondary emotions tend to be judgemental emotions, the guilt that says “I shouldn’t be feeling this, I’m stupid for feeling this.” Secondary emotions are perhaps useful in helping us keep some perspective on our emotional landscape. Maybe secondary emotions are like our conscience, but left unchecked, they’re the jerks that stop us from giving ourselves the compassion and mental space to actually process what we’re feeling.
Similar concepts are described in Buddhism. My friend, Chance, explains it well in her excellent writing here:
“There is a Buddhist parable (or koan) about “the second arrow”. In short, the parable says that if a person is shot with an arrow, there is no point shooting a second one. The teaching is that sometimes in life you will get hit with an arrow. But many of us then shoot one at ourselves in response.
Buddhist teacher Tara Brach uses this parable to explain the phenomenon of blame – the human tendency to react to painful events by blaming others, or blaming ourselves. I remember when I first heard this parable (not from Tara but another teacher, Gil Fronsdal), I was struck by the idea that we could separate feeling awful, burdened or weary from being angry with ourselves for feeling those things. Perhaps it would be easier if we could just feel them.
This is what often happens with depression: we feel like crap, and then feel ashamed of feeling like crap, partly because we see the impact of it on those who love us. Sometimes shame is useful, and there is room for looking for answers, but if you are already wounded, injuring yourself further doesn’t help. It makes it doubly hard to put the pieces back together.”
So when I experienced the disappointment of not being able to complete the diving course, my habitual pattern was to emotionally attack myself for feeling disappointed, to tell myself that emotion was self-indulgent. But this time, I allowed myself to indulge that emotion, I validated the reasons I was disappointed and gave myself the compassion and space to feel unhappy for awhile. Through the act of doing so, I was amazed to see how quickly the miserable feelings passed and how quickly I was able to go about the task of having an amazing holiday with my gorgeous husband.
When we returned home, I ended things with Pete via email because I realised that there was no reason I should have to endure another verbal sparring match with him, no reason I had to listen to another cruel word. It would still take me over six months to start taking seriously the depths of the hurt his emotional abuse had caused because of course his default position had always been that I was overreacting and playing victim. Gaslighting is like the externalisation of the second arrow – your abuser shoots you with the arrow of their initial violence and then the second arrow is their denial of their responsibility, their insistence that you, in fact, are the one to blame for their bad behaviour. Their stubborn belief that your recovery from their wounds is your responsibility alone. For a long time, I internalised that message and in fact I’ve only recently allowed myself to feel the deep rage and disgust I have towards him for his behaviour. That has been healing as for a long time, I denied myself my fury.
Several months after returning from Bali, I had my first surgery for my thoracic outlet syndrome, a scary prospect with no guarantees. After my surgery, the surgeon came to me and said that mine was the worst case that himself and his assistant surgeon had seen and, after thanking him for such incredibly validating news, I broke into tears while my mother and husband held me and cried with me. After many years of not being taken seriously by a great multitude of medical professionals who made me feel as if my struggles with my health were just me being a hysterical woman, or incompetent, or crazy or just overreacting to my pain, after so many years of essentially being gaslit by medical professionals, to discover tangible evidence of the reality of my experiences was profound. And healing.
I’ve always been an emotional person, as a child I was told by adults that I was too sensitive, and as an adult I have often been told the same thing. After the experience in Bali, after the experience with Pete and after the experience with my surgery, I resolved never to disregard or minimise my emotions again. Yes, it is true that I feel emotions with perhaps more intensity than many and it is important for me to regulate and manage my responses to them with self-awareness, however emotions are a type of intelligence and more often than not, a reasonable response to the circumstances of our lives. We do not have to be controlled by our emotions but nor do we have to deny them, our emotions are a fundamental aspect of our lived experience and they have a great deal of wisdom to impart to us.
From now on, I am determined to listen to my emotions. I am determined to sit with the truth and wisdom and beauty of them. I am determined to give myself the compassion I deserve when I struggle because life is goddamn hard sometimes. And I am determined to do the same for others. Contrary to the belief of some, becoming better acquainted with emotions does not weaken me, in fact I have never felt stronger, never felt more resilient.
You’re treading water in a vast and dark ocean full of sunken memories and shipwrecked dreams. I’m in my little boat with my little lamp, a carefully protected firelight. Dotted in the distance I can see other boats, other little lights that bob up and down. We communicate with words that float across the water and with body language flickers. Sometimes, many times, our speaking shifts in shape as it travels from one vessel to another, lost in transit our tools for communication are imperfect but necessary and so we keep calling out to each other. We tell stories to share our pain and joy and we cultivate these fierce fragile fires that keep the cold dark at bay.
My eyes are fixed upon you as my mind scans the black, murky water. My body shudders with the memory of the time I too was treading water and how the only thing that got me out was the small cluster of boats that appeared around me. Arms reached down and pulled me out of the water over and over until I had gained enough strength, filled up with enough warmth to once again man my own vessel. I can feel the ghosts of that cold, of those waves, I can remember the fog of my perception, how I saw nothing ahead but the endless treading of water and how I began to close my eyes and let go. Oh the relief of sinking, oh the beauty of surrender.
The horror is bile in my throat. That wasn’t my time. My time will come but that wasn’t it. That would have been unnatural, wrong, ugly. That wasn’t the way I was supposed to go. That wasn’t my time. I still had light to shine in the world.
You’re gasping and choking on icy salt water and you flicker like a firefly. I look down at my hands and see traces of your phosphorescent moonlight which has entered my skin, I watch it travel through the rivers of my veins. I realise that my own light has grown and that the colours and textures revealed can only be observed or occur under the particular phenomena of our light in unity.
My vision of you blurs with the miniature oceans that spill from me and into the infinite everything. I’m calling out to you, imploring you to wait, to hold on, to trust me and to let me help. It doesn’t feel like a choice I have, it feels like I am trying to salvage some precious part of myself.
We only just met.
I pause. Instantly everything is still and quiet and barren and dry like a desert. Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck am I to think I can help? What do I know of the world? Of you? Of your struggles? Is my desire to help you ugly and stupid and selfish? Would it be more humane to let nature take its course? Is this what you actually want? Or is this foolish and naïve? Am I putting my own light at risk? Will I also be sucked down into the murk? Will all of us? What the fuck do I know of anything or anyone besides myself? Who the fuck am I to try help you?
Waves crash across the deck and I am soaked ice cold. My light doesn’t flicker, instead my skin is electrified and my heart pounds and my focus grows more fixed. Who the fuck am I to try help you? I don’t know. I know I’m just one small beacon of light with arms that are weak and easily tremble. But I know that even if I turned around and navigated my vessel elsewhere, every time that I closed my eyes, I would see you treading water and I would never be the same. I don’t know what I am but I know I don’t want to be that.
And I know that I love you.
And as I observe the particular beauty of your flickering light… it doesn’t feel like this is your time to go. Your time will come but I don’t believe that this is it. My heart tells me that you still have light to shine in the world. Phosphorescence, luminescence, moonlight.
So I remain here in my boat that bobs up and down, I remain here with my arm stretched out and my hands open to you. I hope you have the strength to hold on. I hope that I can provide you with enough warmth and light to sustain you and strengthen you so that we can make maps together and navigate us all to warmer places where our fires can grow.
We are weak. We are strong. We are scared. We are love.