Theory of writing

Until my most recent post on house sharing, I had not posted anything, or even felt like looking at this blog, in a long time. My blog has no real shape or purpose (for now) which sometimes excites me (think of all the possibilities) and sometimes makes me hate it (how can I ever create something wonderful, new, important and interesting? It’s too much pressure.. maybe I should just leave it for today). I write partly to see if I can, egged on by colleagues, friends and my partner, who say I write well. I write partly because it helps me. I have always written. Not always for public consumption and not always well but I have always written. I’m not sure what exactly started me off as a teenager. My friends and I used to write long notes and poems to each other in class and I can remember enjoying that – the actual act of writing something and reading what I had created, not just the feeling of interacting with my friends, certain that we had outsmarted the teachers. I definitely had a diary which I wrote in religiously from the age of 13 but it is possible I had it even earlier. I wrote everything – trips to the mall, family fights, heartaches and insecurities with the intensity that only a teenager can experience. I never thought at the time of why I was doing it but when my parents divorced a few years later it started to become more important. I wrote every day. My feelings and thoughts would pour out of me, starting to make sense and to form ideas and opinions I had not known I’d had. Importantly, I was able to write things down that I couldn’t say to anyone – there was no judgement and there were no repercussions, just clarity.

I still sometimes feel that need to just write in order to make sense of things – to grab a book and start writing, to let it all flow out onto paper. In an effort to ‘write properly’ (i.e. on a computer where the words can be manipulated, copied and pasted with more ease and a back up copy) I downgraded myself a while ago from a proper bound journal in favour of the digital diary. This obviously backfired and I now have four or five active ‘diaries’ lying around my room (notebooks borrowed from work which I started writing in when I needed physical paper to write on). These sometimes go a year or two between entries (this drives me mad but I never seem to be able to successfully amalgamate them all – due mostly to the denial of telling myself it should all be digital anyway). The plus side being that when I pick one up at random to start writing, I find myself reading an entry on the previous page, from a sad day in 2016 or 2017 (sad days are when I find myself writing in my journal most often). Whatever frustration I am feeling in the moment ebbs away with this strange new collection of feelings – heartache for past Elli, mixed with pride and satisfaction that I have done so much work towards getting myself better. Because my diaries enable me to write without much thought or editing, they have a beautiful flow to them. I often think of publishing my most depressed entries in some sort of ‘depression diary’ which I hope would help others to know that they are not alone with those awful feelings and beliefs about themselves. It is the ability to document everyday life, thoughts, feelings and emotions that makes me think that I could write more. And it is the importance I place on doing this in a way which is relatable and helpful that makes me think I should write more.

It wasn’t until years later that my interest in writing took on another angle as I became posthumously obsessed with Carrie Fisher. The year that she died I had put my hand up to be part of the skeleton staff over the Christmas break (I highly recommend doing this if you’d like to experience what true and absolute boredom feels like). I had known very little about her but started consuming every single obituary and article about her after reading about why she wrote “I always  wrote. I wrote from when I was twelve. That was therapeutic for me in those days. I wrote things to get them out of feeling them, and onto paper. So writing in a way saved me, kept me company. I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn’t know.” 

And so, thanks to Carrie Fisher, I started to think about the why and how of my writing, for the first time. I understood what she was saying and I felt such a connection to it – it was what I had felt about writing, although I had never put it into words. This theory of writing developed further for me when, having read an interview with Taiye Selasi, I found this absolute gem:

I’d just read one of your Instagram captions, which, like much of your prose, seemed to have flowed perfectly formed from top of mind to tip of finger. “It so clearly comes so easily,” I marvelled, not without some envy. You smiled, and asked, “How do you know?” How do we know that the casually composed photograph, the hastily written paragraph, is the fruit of instantaneous revelation and not of assiduous labour? Is perhaps part of the genius of all great artists their ability to hide their sweat?

I love this because it describes an aspect of admiring other people’s writing which I had never verbalised and I had never realised that other people might feel. When I read a writing style that I truly love, I end up comparing myself unfavourably. There is no point in trying because I will never be able to express myself that beautifully, easily and eloquently while also being so relatable. Surely, I think to myself, talent like that is innate, rather than coming from practice and hard work?! What the insight from Taiye Selasi reminds me is not only that talent usually is not innate, but also that I am not the only one who suffers from this nagging delusion that others are better than me. It may seem like all the things I want come more easily to others than to me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try anyway.

Between these two vastly different and (for me) vastly important lessons that I have learnt on the theory of writing, I find myself believing more fervently than before, that there is something to be gained by writing. Whether it is a blog, a journal or maybe even fiction. I do believe that I have something to say and I know (even if my own doubts prevent me from openly admitting it) that I have a skill – whether it be a ‘way with words’ as they say, or, through lived experience, an empathy and understanding which allows me to communicate with others. With enough practice and with the encouraging words of wisdom and experience of others before me, I can continue this hobby, hopefully getting better and more confident as time passes. So next time those same old frustrations and fears rear their heads (how can I ever create something wonderful, new, important and interesting? It’s too much pressure.. maybe I should just leave it for today) I will remember that others before me have felt this way and they have gone on to create beautiful things.

 

Share housing – a hippy alternative or the housing solution for the future?

This year marks my tenth anniversary of share housing. That’s a decade! A decade is longer than most of my adult friendships, longer than I’ve ever held down a job, longer than my longest relationship. A decade of anything is big for someone who hasn’t even hit 30 yet. I know that a lot of people hitting my age would prefer to live in more intimate houses than mine (a five bedder with seven people) and that my choice is not something everyone wants – however, given the amount of time it has been in my life, house sharing now has a very special place in my heart. It has always been an affordable and more social option which has given me comfort and companionship through pretty scary times in my life (like starting work and moving to new cities) and the more I think about it in different contexts, the more I am convinced more people should be doing it. As more and more young people move to big cities far away from home and as housing prices continue to soar, living with other people continues to be convenient and fun and to deal with some bigger issues like isolation and financial security. With all this in mind, I started to think about the stark contrast of how much living arrangements (and conceptions about them) have changed over the past 30 or 40 years – in other words, from when my mom was my age, to now. How much of this is influenced by societal changes and in response to modern dilemmas? What are the benefits of the living alone or with family vs with friends? Why do some people, and couples, put off ‘grown up’ living while others still prefer to pay through the roof for the luxury of living by themselves? The more I consider it, the more I think of share housing as being an excellent solution to all of modern society’s biggest issues. From isolation to cheaper housing all the way to community inclusion and the ageing crisis, I believe that share housing is the modern answer to many of society’s currently unanswered questions.

Back in the 70s, living with other people was so radical it was considered a political statement or social experiment. These days it’s so normalised that it has made its way into popular culture, from the beloved Friends to the 2002 film L’auberge Espanol. It is generally assumed that young people in a new or big city will live with others. Unlike our parents’ generation, circumstances in the workforce (as well far, far cheaper travel) mean that we are now much more likely to leave the town or even country we grew up in to go off to study abroad, or in search of work. A shift in priorities means that we value travel, as well as focusing on gaining more education and experience before settling into a career and starting a family. This gives us a lot more time in between leaving the parental nest and starting our own family in our 30s or 40s – a stark contrast to the days people were expected to find a job, settle down and start a family right out of school. This is fantastic for our liberty, our education and our culture. I also expect it’s fantastic for our parenting – it stands to reason that, having collected more lived experiences and waiting til you really want children, you will be a more patient and wise parent.

More often that not, moving out of home to find a job or study involves moving to big cities with lots of opportunities. When you’re navigating a new city, dealing with the harsh reality that is your work life for the first time and learning to budget, it can be a godsend to have a warm home full of people your own age to go home to each evening. In my early 20s I moved to Sydney. I knew absolutely no one but was lucky enough to move into a share house with a very varied and awesome group of people. There was always someone to have wine with after work, always someone going out that I could join if I didn’t have plans and importantly, we got to throw epic parties. The house was HUGE and because it was shared by five people, I was still paying just a quarter of my salary on rent (the general recommendation is that you pay no more than a third). It was a huge part of finding my feet in a new city and I know that without it, the whole process of feeling at home and comfortable could have taken a lot longer, if not evaded me completely.

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Living in a big city for the first time can be tough… and lonely.

So share housing is good for a few years in your early 20s or to navigate a new city… then what? Well, I am 29 and in a long term committed relationship with my partner. We live in a house with five other people, ranging in age from 27 – 36 and including another couple. We’re not students, just seven professional adults who share a home and, if we feel like it, get to enjoy each other’s company.
For us, and many others like us, the most obvious reason for continuing to live in share houses is money. Populations in desirable cities are growing at a faster rate than we can build infrastructure and accommodation, which results in exorbitant housing prices. It’s harder than ever to buy your own home and as people come to this realisation they focus their income on experiences and lifestyle (the whole smashed avo debate tends to rear its ugly head around this point of the conversation). Whether you agree with it or not, the modern 20 and 30 something isn’t saving all their expendable income to buy a house – they are getting used to renting and to sharing the space they live in. Even if you do manage to somehow get onto the property ladder, it’s much easier to make your monthly mortgage repayments if you are able to generate extra income, for example by renting out the spare room.

Even renting, I could never have afforded to live alone – think double or even triple the rent for the benefit of living alone in a matchbox marauding as a ‘studio apartment’ – and I have never wanted to. When it does work, I love the social aspect of share housing. That’s not to say that it’s always an easy ride. I’ve had loud housemates, dirty housemates, obsessively clean housemates, housemates who pick fights over tiny little things. But the positives have always far outweighed the negatives and I have never once wished I lived by myself.

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Some share house experiences can leave you feeling a bit out of sorts.

All of these changes to the way we live our lives (and where) have much larger impacts than I think we’re currently aware of. In days gone by, grown up children would probably still be living in the same city or not too far away from their parents. Today, old people are increasingly isolated and are suffering financially and with their health. New studies show that loneliness can increase your chance of an earlier death by 26%The 2018 budget in Australia has set out $1.6 billion specifically for aged care facilities and a further $82.5 million to look after people in aged care facilities over the next four years. Apart from the economic ramifications, it’s pretty unpleasant to think that we are abandoning people in their old age. A recent report showed that 40% of aged Australians living in residential facilities receive no visitors , another study conducted in February 2017 showed that ‘one in four women and one in three men report that they did not have someone to help them out if in need’. Numerous charities promote initiatives like inviting an isolated old age person for Sunday dinner or Christmas dinner so that they don’t eat alone, as well as programmes encouraging volunteers to spend time with old people and where possible, to get younger people cohabiting with isolated older people. Research shows that isolation can only be cured by long term and meaningful relationships – simply being around other people doesn’t stop you from being lonely. So could share housing for the aged be the solution? The current generation of pensioners are unlikely to want to open up their homes, due mostly to the fact that it isn’t seen as normal or the done thing. As someone currently living in a happy share home, continuing this way of life into my 80s is far preferable to getting old and lonely, feeling more and more isolated as my friends die and after my children have moved away and forgotten about me (I’m sure there are some old people who don’t live like this – we just never hear about them). Financially it also seems preferable to trying to pay for a spot in an expensive old people’s home. For those who are able to get past the ‘image problem’ and for future generations, sharing a home (and potentially a live in nurse or carer) could be a great way to encourage and prolong more independent living while staving off isolation and boredom.

Ultimately, everyone wants to feel happy and comfortable at home. While there are advantages and disadvantages to both living alone and share housing, it is still a very personal decision to make and there are no right or wrong answers. However, population growth and migration may mean that the structure of cities and living arrangements change so much that this is no longer in our control. Share housing in a much more economic way of living in modern urban areas as well as dealing with many modern issues like isolation and lack of community cohesion. As the current rate of urban growth shows little chance of slowing down, cities continue to grow at an alarming rate and housing continues to be a problem worldwide. Share housing is becoming less of an ‘alternative’ option and more of a necessity or pragmatic answer. Share housing and options like co-housing are billed as being the greener, more sustainable options for cities of the future.

Why do we have hobbies?

When I was a teenager, I thought hobbies were lame. I, of course, had it all figured out. The pinnacle of cool was dressing up, going to parties or getting into bars and drinking with my friends. Everybody ‘cool’ was into it and aside from taking up all of my activity time, I also spent a lot of time and energy talking about it and preparing for it. Fast forward 15 or so years and binge drinking had definitely lost its appeal. When this happened, quite suddenly, a few years ago I had built almost all of my identity on being the loud party girl with a drink in her hand. When my physical and mental health forced me to take a hiatus from drinking all the time, I had to look at the world, and myself, in a different light. I had to find different ways to relax, unwind and enjoy myself. I don’t want to say that my whole life changed overnight but it definitely changed from that point. My life now is unrecognisable from the one I had before and I proudly, and for the first time, have hobbies. I’m a hobby advocate and I recently got to thinking about this – why do some people have hobbies and others not? Do we need to go through huge life changes before we can get hobbies? What happens if we don’t have any? And what does it all mean (if anything) in the bigger picture?

I see it as starting at school. From day dot we are pushed out of our comfort zones and forced to develop. It starts with learning how to play nicely with others, through to learning to read and write all the way up to studying for exams and applying for university. All the way through school you are learning and evolving, which is an awesome confidence booster and just all round good feeling. By the end of our formative teenage years we have spent our whole lives changing and generally getting better at a vast range of things at a unprecedented rate. And then we leave school and suddenly, for a lot of people, that’s the end of that. Queue getting a job that pays the bills, figuring out after a few years it’s not really something you’re ‘passionate’ about and realising that leaving and starting again in another industry would mean taking a huge pay cut and a lot of insecurity. So you stay, always wondering what might have been…
Of course, it’s not always that dire. Some people just don’t know what they want to do. Others have a clear path in their minds but it involves having to work for years in a number of less desirable jobs first. For many, a job is, and always will be, merely a source of income. Whatever the scenario, school seems like a wonderful but all too distant memory by the time we get to work and real life can feel dull and pointless. So how do we keep up our spirits up and stave off the existential ‘why am I here’ type questions?
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What the hell am I doing here?

This is where hobbies come in – if you aren’t so sure what your vocational calling is, or what you want to do with ‘the rest of your life’, doing something that makes you happy and surrounding yourself with like-minded people is a sure way to get form a path or, at the very least, help you to feel better about yourself and about your place in the world. Start by volunteering in your spare time, signing up to local open mic nights or whatever else it is that takes your fancy. The longer you do it (and better you get at it) the more you will experience those feelings of unbridled pleasure and achievement we lost after graduating from high school. It may just be that doing something with passion and enthusiasm in your spare time, for free, could help you later find a way to make money from that thing.

If you already have a hobby and can’t/ don’t want to do it for work, I would again stress that your hobby does not need to be related to your work, in fact I think that it’s a bonus if it’s not. It gives you a sense of purpose and enjoyment, a way to relax and unwind outside of  your job. What if you’re one of those lucky buggers whose hobby also has the potential to be a lucrative and enjoyable career ( I’m looking at you artists, comedians, film-makers, dancers, and people who genuinely love their job) and don’t see the need for another hobby? I would say that in your case, the benefits of having a hobby outside of work becomes purely about passing your spare time in a productive manner and being a more well-rounded and interesting person.  These are both massive bonuses as far as I’m concerned.

But there’s more to it than work, or what you do with your time. Over thousands of years we have devoted whole hands-woman-hand-girl.jpgschools of thought (and even religions) to finding out the reason we’re on this Earth. I saw a talk a few years ago by philosopher A.C Grayling, the summary was ‘there probably is no God, so the net worth of the existence of mankind on Earth will boil down to how much good we do’. This and Bill Bryson’s fantastic introduction to A Short History of nearly Everything ( which you can read here) have stuck with me where this is concerned. My resulting view is that we’re on this planet because of a stroke of dumb luck and that what we do here is ultimately not that important. Rather than feeling sad and insignificant as a result, I believe that being the best person you can and enjoying each moment of your life is the best way of saying ‘thank you’ to the universe for the absolute miracle/ mistake of your own creation. Obviously if you can do something ‘good’, that’s ideal, but in my mind anything that you work hard at, improve yourself through and find enjoyment in serves a purpose.

running-runner-long-distance-fitness-40751.jpegNot convinced by the aforementioned benefits for your career and existential mental health? There are other reasons that having a hobby can be good for you. You may have heard of terms like being in ‘the zone’ or ‘flow’. This gets talked about a lot with athletes but can apply to almost anyone doing something they find both challenging and enjoyable. Flow was studied by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (watch his TED talk on the subject here) who noted that money alone cannot make us happy and that we need something else to bring us joy and meaning in our lives. His research shows that people who experience flow report feelings of elation, of feeling like they are having an out of body experience, where time stands still and activity comes automatically. He calls flow ‘the secret to happiness’. Csikszentmihalyi looked at large numbers of people from all walks of life and found an undeniable connection between happiness and success and those who regularly experienced flow in their life.

Apart from my all the above, the final reason that I would highly recommend finding a hobby is that they’re just plain cool. Teenage Elli was clearly very wrong. Far be it from me to tell you what kinds of hobbies to have – I know people who are into everything from online gaming to Viking Mythology to stamp collecting. And everything in between. The older I get the happier I become when I meet someone who has a really interesting or unique hobby or passion. The way they light up when they tell you about it is, I’m convinced, part of the charm of the human experience and well worth taking part in.

 

 

Feeling appreciated

Last week I got a call from my temping agency – I was being awarded their Temp of the month! I was flattered but didn’t think too much more of it until Tuesday morning, when my consultant came over to my workplace and, along with HR, presented me with a bag full of goodies, thanked me for all my hard work and took a photo of me at my workstation to put up on their website. The whole day was filled with praise from everyone at work, HR saying that I should celebrate with some bubbles and reiterating just how much they appreciate me and a really sweet email from my agency saying that working with me makes their lives easier.

I should add that I’m temping on reception…

It feels crazy to receive such high praise from so many people for a job which gets forgotten so much of the time. A part of my brain keeps telling me that I ought to move on and do something more ‘career focused’ but the truth is, I’m really enjoying being this relaxed and happy.

In November I quit my job. Getting into a taxi with all my belongings and feeling like I was leaving the city for the last time was equally liberating and terrifying. I had felt for a long time like I didn’t belong there – the corporate uniform made me feel increasingly uncomfortable and I realised with each passing day that I had little in common with the people I worked with. I know that a lot of people feel these ‘imposter syndrome’ type feelings but this was really different. I had realised some time before that recruitment wasn’t what I thought it would be – I wasn’t really ‘helping people’ to find meaningful and enjoyable work and my lack of sales drive (no matter how hard I visualised the house I would buy if I made all my bonuses) meant that I was never able to make any truly decent headway.

That’s not to say I wasn’t appreciated. I had been there for almost three years (a lifetime, in recruitment) and I was respected, even liked, by my colleagues. My boss, sensing that he was losing me, had recently fought to give me two raises so that my base salary was now fairly decent. I would even win sales competitions from time to time. And so it was, the recruitment high life – sipping champagne with the winners, going on beautiful boat cruises, looking out from our beautiful sky prison down on to the city. Champagne and razor blades goes the saying. Appreciation there felt very… strained. It’s odd, being appreciated for doing something which so goes against what you genuinely enjoy and are good at.

Of course, I still don’t know what I genuinely enjoy and am good at. I just now know that it’s not recruitment. It’s been a long journey – a lot of unsatisfactory jobs, even a move to the other side of the world in the hopes that I would feel more ‘myself’, hoping that cold, rainy London was the problem and not me. And while I haven’t yet found ‘the one’ when it comes to my job search, it now at least feels like I’m looking in the right direction. Now I find myself in quite a new position. I have worked hard and gotten my visa, so I am allowed to stay, indefinitely, in this warm, sunny country that I have called home for five years. And I am no longer tied to a job I don’t like.

It was freeing at first, then scary. I enjoyed doing nothing but looking after my mental health – doing exclusively the things I like to do. Then I needed some money so I took on a few temporary reception jobs – it was only ever going to be a few days here and there – and I discovered that the assets of my personality I had been covering up for fear of retribution in recruitment, actually make me good at this job. Where, in recruitment I was surrounded by people who regularly told me I was ‘too happy’ – I am now told often how lovely it is to walk into the office to such a lovely greeting, or that the tone of my emails is so fun and uplifting. I like to help people and make sure things are done properly – in recruitment this was considered a waste of time (the ‘time is money’ mentality on steroids), here it’s part of the job description and there are no targets keeping me glued to the phone if I feel like getting up and actually showing someone where something is, or going above and beyond to follow a task up to completion. I don’t get the feeling that I’m boring anymore. In my old job, even the most well-intentioned colleague would casually check their emails while I was mid-sentence. I hated it and constantly felt a mixture of belittled and massively anxious. Here people actually come and talk to me. They ask me how my day is going and stay to chat – they ask me to go for coffee and don’t check their emails even once while we’re out. Most importantly – the organisation I’m in now does actually help people, without a shadow of a doubt. And that feels really good.

Saying all that, I probably won’t temp on reception forever. I do still think of this as a rest and recuperation period before I go on to something else. But now that I’m here and have experienced all this, I have a different idea of what my next job will look like. I’m starting to see more clearly that a satisfying job will be one where I can be myself and let my true personality shine through – it’s an addictive feeling, being myself after being camouflaged for so long. It will be somewhere that I am surrounded by people who have, if not a similar world view then at the very least, a similar set of core values.  An organisation that helps people – that’s very important to me; five years in sales has shown me beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are more important things in the world than making money. And above all, it will be somewhere that I am appreciated.

Self-discovery and the lack of patience

There is one virtue I recently discovered I don’t have. It’s not like I ever thought I had an abundance of it, I just hadn’t given it much thought and really didn’t know enough about myself to realise how much it was lacking. Now that I know, it has become so glaringly obvious that I can’t believe that there was ever any doubt in my mind. And I love it.

I don’t see it as a bad thing – I mean, it’s not great but everyone has their flaws. If anything, I’m grateful that I know myself well enough to be able to happily identify this for what it is. The journey of self-discovery even just to this point, took a long time (objectively – even someone with the patience of a saint would have found this to be a drawn out process) and this is one of my favourite discoveries. In the way of an old, eccentric woman who no longer gives a shit, I can now excuse a number of feelings and annoyances to myself. Feelings being the operative word – this doesn’t mean I get  to be a massive bitch and use my impatience as an excuse – I just want to be able to not overthink and feel guilty about how annoyed I get in certain situations. I can finally say, like one of those people who knows themselves “I’m just not patient enough for that” and work around it rather than berate myself.

That’s the thing – when you know you have a flaw, you can work with it. For me, being impatient doesn’t mean I can never show any patience, it just takes a little extra thought, willpower and direction. I have trained for and run a half marathon, I have waited out a job I didn’t like in order to get the work visa I needed, I quit drinking, I have changed up my diet and exercise enough to lose 16 kgs. All of these things take patience and so I know that I am capable of it. But it requires concerted effort and determination. It doesn’t come as easily to me as it may do to some others.

The impatience shows itself when I try something new and I’m not good at it. All of a sudden I feel immense annoyance at the activity and at myself, usually followed by giving up and proclaiming that I hate said activity. It doesn’t matter that I know that only practice makes perfect, I want it straight away. It happens when things don’t go my way as soon as I’d like them to, or if something I think should happen in a certain way, doesn’t. I feel it when I have to sit and make awkward conversation at the beginning of the evening before everyone really feels comfortable and the party has warmed up – I used to respond to this impatience by just drinking through the awkward stage. As a result I’m not really sure what’s supposed to come between awkward beginning of a party and the end of the night. Outwardly you may only notice a slight change in my mood and reactions. I don’t like to be excessively mean but it can be hard to conceal when something is really not happening the right way, or as quickly as I want it to. I may become short or even make snarky comments, alternatively I could withdraw entirely.

The why doesn’t seem as important – maybe it’s because we moved around so much when I was a child. Maybe because I never stuck at any one sport or team. It could be all sorts of reasons. Or it could just be inherent. It doesn’t seem to matter as much. It’s something I can handle. Just a little quirk which makes me me and which I can now learn to accept.

 

Temping

I’ve spent my whole life temping. Of course, at first I didn’t know that’s what it was.

I was born in Belgium to European parents, one of whom was Belgian. We had family nearby – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. It seems as good a place as any for a baby. But it was short lived. Within my first year on Earth I went on my first plane ride to the other side of the world – Botswana.

I didn’t know it, but this was to be my longest temp stint.

We spent ten years there – a beautiful childhood, happy afternoons, playing in the pool, riding our bikes, dancing in the rain. When we left they told us the next place would be permanent.

Namibia. We made friends right away, fit right in. It’s the kind of place you want to stay for your whole life, unless you’re a teenager. The other teenagers were so jealous when we were going to England. ‘Think of all the bands you’ll see there’ they said. But I didn’t want to see the bands. I wanted what they had.

In England they could tell that we were temps. That we were different. It took us longer to find our friends. No one wants to waste their time on someone who’s just passing through. We didn’t want them either – we wanted to be back in Africa. But England was just a short temporary position.

Next was Serbia.

We hated everything by then. The temp life was too much for us. We made friends easily – we were becoming expert at that, but it didn’t make us any happier. We spent the days in bed, we each had a double bed but we shared them every night – we felt so alone. Otherwise we went to the park, drinking when we should have been at school. This was cool, right? The other kids would be so jealous – our friends, from Namibia, those we kept in touch with from England. We were just starting to fall into a pattern when

We went back to Namibia. Just for a holiday.

When you’re a temp, you can’t go back. You need to keep going forwards, it’s an unwritten rule. Everything keeps going on and you don’t have the power to change that. But we didn’t know that then. The holiday was supposed to be a good thing but it plunged us back

To Serbia. More alone.

Then England, again. A different England. Oxford Grammar and Bridget Jones and pomp and circumstance. Interjected with bits of Serbia. It seemed better then – it seemed more permanent. They both did. Everyone was settled and at home.

Next was university. I stuck it out. I didn’t have my sister, my parents. All around me people were doing it right – making friends, fitting in. I knew so many people. But I was so lonely.

France, for a year. A year long holiday. Connecting with my culture, a summer with my Belgian family. Thank god I didn’t grow up there.

Back to uni. This time it made sense. If I had known to look I could have seen a pattern – that it takes longer than a year or two to make yourself at home, dig your roots in.

London. The shortest, the worst. So cold, so dark. So lonely. At least I wasn’t the only lonely person there – millions of people, crowded onto trains. So close you can smell each other. But all so lonely – don’t look them in the eye, don’t talk to anyone. At least we had that in common.

Sydney. So sunny. Like a holiday all the time. But then it all came back to me. When you spend all your life temping you never build the skills to make lasting relationships. Eventually you don’t know how to act around people you aren’t leaving. You misbehave, act outlandish – who cares, they won’t be around for long, because I won’t. It’s hard to get people to stay when you act that way. Friendly and life of the party on the outside, lonely, selfish, on the inside.

And now I’m temping in work, too. I’ve never done a job that I liked so I have become afraid of commitment. Being somewhere you don’t like starts to feel like a prison. So I jump from place to place. I tell them I’m ‘in between things’ as though that’s something I’m experiencing for the first time.

Itchy feet. Not long until I leave again. But to where. Do I carry on? Or pretend that if I started now I could learn to be permanent. To be ‘present’ as they like to say. I don’t think I’ve ever been present. Always looking back, or ahead.

‘I really miss…
Oh! Where to next?’

 

 

What is a mental health ‘journey’?

A blog post recently popped up in my Facebook feed which caught my eye –  in honour of National Eating Disorder week and helping to spread ‘awareness’ about the disease, my friend Aoibheann had written an open and honest post about her struggles with anorexia. It shocked me that she had been going through this for so long and that I hadn’t known anything about it. Her story stayed with me because the more I thought about it, the more I identified with it and thought about the decade that I have been struggling with my own mental health concerns – in the form of depression. I agreed with her focus on awareness in a more proactive way than is usually used in the contexts of mental health, and by challenging what we actually need to be aware of. My generation have been talking about mental health for a while – we’re all pretty aware that being affected by a mental health issue doesn’t make you a weak person, that it’s an illness like any other and that you shouldn’t be ashamed of going to your doctor to seek treatment. And while these are all incredible advances and it’s so wonderful that we’re at a stage where people are accepting this as the norm, there are some areas that we seem to have completely skipped over. We’re not generally aware, for example, of how long it all takes. Or how to know when you’re in the thick of it – that you have one of these illnesses. With all the goodwill in the world I think the current conversations make it sound like the ‘illness’ will have a very specific diagnosis, cure and end. Illnesses have cures, right? Reading Aoibheann’s post made me realise that it’s not just depression where the beginning and end are so vague. I started to think about the similarities of our very different illnesses and what that would look like for others with similar experiences.

The aspect of secrecy struck me as an interesting similarity. With eating disorders you may commonly think of the secrecy of hiding how much, or how little, the person is eating. This very secretive act comes part and parcel with eating disorders but does not end here. In these instances I think of the illness as taking over, changing an individual’s behaviour to keep its existence a secret. You have heard of ‘high functioning’ alcoholics or drug addicts. It’s a sort of self-preservation for the illness. Depression is similar. I can hide it, I may seem a little awkward in a conversation where I’m unable to speak because my head is so busy overcrowding my normal thoughts with negative ones, but people generally won’t assume depression from that. I’m a ‘high functioning’ depressed person. I get out of bed and go to work, even on the days I don’t want to. Which also makes me feel like I’m not experiencing ‘real’ depression – and leads to this dilemma, this Catch 22 of it being ‘all in your head’ and being so hard to diagnose.

Unlike most diseases, there is no test to see if you’ve got depression or anorexia. You can’t see mental health issues in someone’s blood. They can be there for a long time and the only defining feature is in your head. You don’t feel right. You don’t fit in. Of course, you don’t jump to naming it and saying what’s wrong. You assume that the fault is inherent in you – that’s what these diseases do to you, make you doubt yourself and prevent you from getting help. It’s their self -preservation at play again. I had felt like a failure for the longest time for going through the same issues, always making the same mistakes. Mostly, I felt helpless about always coming back to the same place. Even though almost every person in my family has suffered from depression or anxiety at some point and we were all very comfortable talking about it, I didn’t connect the dots when it happened to me. The worthlessness and anxiety I felt were justified in my mind because I felt (knew, with absolute certainty) that I was the bad thing. I can see how this would happen to someone with anorexia – while everyone else is concerned about how thin they’re looking, the absolute certainty that they’re not thin enough, that they need to further curb their calorie intake is overwhelming. These thought patterns lead to the behaviours which make these illnesses so problematic.

‘It’s all in your head’ by the way, is the scariest thing you can say to someone who knows and has experienced firsthand the power your head has over you – over your moods, your ability to communicate, even move. For me the scary part is something Aoibheann eluded to in her blog post – that she had had an awful time in high school, that the whole thing was marred by her struggles. I can understand that feeling. It’s incredibly hard to be aware that is probably not the case, that between it all there must have been good days, breaks from it all. But when the black periods come, they’re all consuming. All of a sudden I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t depressed. It’s the happy times which start to seem like a trick, a misunderstanding. It seems as though I have never been away from it and the illness has more control over me, than I ever will over it. If you feel that way, I encourage you to remember that it’s temporary.

Neither of us will find an easy end to this. Mental health issues do not just ‘go away’ after you see a psychiatrist or get hospitalised. I’ve seen  this misconception play out in other people – they quit their job/ make a huge life change and are convinced that this will change their course and end their depressed state of mind. ‘As soon as this depressing thing stops happening to me I will stop being depressed’ they tell themselves. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. My own journey to try and fix what was going on in my head before I finally started getting therapy involved moving first to a new city, then to the other side of the world (‘of course I can’t be happy in London, it’s too cold, Sydney will be different’), starting several new jobs, getting a new boyfriend, a new lifestyle (healthy eating, exercise every day and no alcohol) and eventually, realising that I had a lot of work to do.

It is a lot of work. It always will be. That’s another similarity. We learn coping techniques and warning signs, we learn to deal with the hardships that we will undoubtedly come up against time and again – things like loss, stress or rejection, which happen to everyone but will encourage relapse for people with a history of mental health issues. In a way, I believe it makes us stronger. It may lie dormant but there will be something of this disease in us, all the time.

Finally – the treatment. Aoibheann talks about seeing different therapists, about hitting brick walls – it was something I could identify with because of how up and down and filled with hurdles my own treatment was. I will almost guarantee that these road blocks and ups and downs will happen on most journeys to stronger mental health. For me it included three therapists, two kind GPs, once a local women’s therapy group, multiple books and apps on meditation and therapies you can practice at home like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a whole host of different medications (and their side effects), extensive journaling and an incredibly supportive workplace, network and partner.  Each time one ended or changed it was either through desperation and a feeling things would never get better, or because I felt so much better that I thought I could do without. As far as I know, the ups and downs won’t stop completely – hopefully the severity and frequency will remain more manageable.

If there is to be awareness raised it should be that better mental health is something that everyone can work towards – regular meditation and practicing CBT can improve the way even the most balanced person interacts with the world. These are debilitating illnesses which take people’s lives all the time and need to be taken seriously. When things do go from bad to worse it is worth knowing what to look for, how to get help, where you can go and that there is no shame in receiving help or treatment, nor in how long the treatment takes you. Everyone is different and we will all respond differently. This is why I look at my mental health as a journey – it has taken me to different places – new depths as well as new heights; I have encountered new people, new experiences, new feelings and a whole new relationship with myself and understanding of my place in the world. Although we might go through some of the worst times in our lives because of these illnesses, we will find coping strategies that we can use during triggering periods in our lives, as well as getting better at recognizing when we’re falling back into bad habits. Those of us with mental health issues know that it will be a lifelong journey, that we may not ever be able to ‘cure’ ourselves completely. Writing this, right now, I feel good. I know I have learnt a lot and that there is still a way to go. If anything, that makes me feel hopeful. I feel able to take on the challenges, having proven to myself and my illness that I am strong.