It’s a rainy spring morning here in Melbourne, Australia. The sky is a pale, glary grey mass of sheer clouds looming over the still trees. Bright red blossoms have appeared on the gum trees on our street, and the rainbow lorikeets are chattering happily as they feed on the flowers. A mass of daffodils are blooming in our front garden, in white, yellow and orange hues. They move a little in the gentle breeze. The cats are howling in their outdoor cat run. They begged all morning to go outside and now, having been granted their wish, are begging to come straight back indoors.
It’s been a long while since I last blogged on this site. While I’ve been active on other social media, namely Instagram, my blogs have fallen to the wayside. It wasn’t intentional neglect, but perhaps that for much of this year I simply haven’t felt like I needed this format to record and create my thoughts. But as I pore over older posts, I wonder if that was a mistake. It’s interesting to me to read my old writings, to see what issues were weighing on my mind in previous years, and to see where I’ve progressed or where I’ve stagnated. I do wonder if I should end this blog because it feels like a testament to a part of my life I am no longer living, but at the same time I still feel rather attached to this space. I have, over the years, accrued a great readership. I’ve recorded so many thoughts here. I don’t want it to just fade away.
Despite the lack of social media proof that I’ve done anything with my life, it has been a very full, very interesting, and at times very stressful year. Overall, though, I think I will see 2017 as a turning point in my personal journey. The foundations were laid in the last few years, but the fruits of that are appearing now.
Since I first started blogging in 2006, most of my individual blogs have only lasted 2-3 years before I move on. As I look at this pattern, I think part of it is simply that roughly once every 3 years I go through a major shift in my thinking and worldview. Each blog seems to follow a theme.
The first blog, “A Humble Art Folio” on Blogger, began as a space for me to share my art, while also trying to show my then-friends that there was more to me than just being a “good mother and good housewife” – a label they often foisted upon me (despite my feeling very un-good at those particular roles) as a compliment, in the context of the rather fundamentalist church community in which I found myself at the time. But to make the art “valid” in the eyes of my peers, I had to go to considerable lengths to impose a spiritual veneer over them. I won’t say I was pretending or faking the religious side of things, because I wasn’t: I was most definitely a true believer. However, having to justify my creativity by being able to slap a Bible verse on every drawing sucked the life out of it.
Subsequent blogs evolved and shifted over the years as I did. I leaped from Blogger to WordPress to create “Darth Maul Makes Me Smile / The Amalgamation.” It was a continuation of my art folio theme, while also expanding to include photography, musings on Christian apologetics, thoughts on Star Wars, and musings on the intersection between Christian faith and environmentalism. It still exists, with the last update at September 10, 2011, and at last count had well over 115,000 views. (!) In that time, I graduated from university with two Arts/Sociology degrees, and with that educational journey went a huge shift in my critical thinking skills and my understanding of the world (for the better, I think).
When I look at these pre-2012 blogs, I feel like I am looking at someone else’s life. The mindset and interests have changed, while still hinting at who I am now (I am still very interested in Star Wars, environmentalism and spiritual questions, for example), and the tone seems to be like hearing it from someone else.
My previous blog, “Sunrise Over Swamps,” 2011-2014, is far more familiar in the sense that it sounds like a younger version of who I am now, as opposed to reading like a complete stranger. While I was still deeply immersed in Pentecostal Christian circles when I wrote it, my faith journey was leading me in the direction of a far less dualistic mindset and ecumenical awareness of the value of other religious perspectives and nonreligious worldviews (my fundamentalist self would have been so dismayed to see what I became!). I was less concerned about monitoring other people’s behaviours as measured against the moral judgement system enforced by my church, and more interested in how I could use my religious faith to help me be more fully who I was meant to be. I was also in a time of rediscovering long lost loves: live music, gardening, poetry and literature. I pushed aside the forced subculture of Christendom and instead of thinking that proof of my faith lay in whether I was listening to approved music, wearing approved clothes, reading approved books from the approved bookstores, I was learning about the understanding of selfhood through the ancient ways of the early Christian contemplatives. I was re-learning the theology of the Catholic faith in which I was raised and found it to be living and dynamic, and not the guilt-ridden restrictive system the caricatures made it to be.
This blog, “Streams and Desolations,” was started in response to that shift in my journey. The title was derived from some of the language of Christian mysticism, and notions of how a wilderness journey can lead to living waters. As it progressed, it became a record of my musings on my arts and creative writing pursuits, nature, social issues in Australia (I have to use my sociology degrees after all), and faith. But it also documented my journey out of the faith that had delineated the boundaries of nearly my entire adult life thus far. With that came the difficult wilderness journey of grappling with clinical depression and generalised anxiety disorder, though thankfully with the help of qualified mental health doctors and psychologists. While this condition was something I’d journeyed with for a long time, for the first time I’d reached a place where I felt like I could write about it openly – even if it was in the sense of a relatively anonymous blog that few in-real-life acquaintances would read. As I dealt with my own mental health issues – so that after 4-5 years of medical treatment I am now a functioning, relatively happy and energetic human being nearly all of the time – I started to explore how the once useful buoyancy device of my then-church’s social structures was actually exacerbating and aggravating my condition. I began to make changes that seemed terrifying at the time, but that I now see were necessary steps to wholeness and health: I stopped tithing, I quit volunteering, I pulled my children out of the toxic private Christian school environment, we moved to a safe neighbourhood (only to be unexpectedly evicted after 2 ½ years to my great distress). I began taking my art seriously: not as a thing to pass the time, nor as a way to fill a social media newsfeed, but as a space in which I could create visual joy for other people, without needing to twist it to suit the tastes of those who wanted to make it a purely spiritual exercise; and as a way to generate an income. I was already writing a lot but now I was looking at it with a more serious sense of urgency: if I am ever to pursue my lifelong dream of writing a novel or a comic book that other people will actually read, I have to start now or I will regret it the rest of my life. I’m not getting any younger. I have passed the mid-30s age mark, and life has calmed down enough that I have no excuse to not write.
I also began to notice significantly dysfunctional patterns in my relationships, and started reading and learning all I could to help me understand how to take responsibility for my own life – whether-or-not the people around me want to grant me that autonomy. My journey of learning this information is largely detailed on this blog.
I learned that I can set boundaries around my own time. Despite what many of the people around me seem to expect, I am no longer willing to climb into the metaphorical cesspit of their making just to make them feel okay about their terrible life choices. I am not sitting around waiting for others to give me something to do – even though, as recently as last week, I was receiving demanding requests from people expecting me to reschedule my time to suit their need for company (imposed upon me externally, as opposed to being part of a mutually supportive friendship). I’ve realised that I deserve better than that – not because I’m special, but because every person deserves a basic modicum of respect and, as a reasonable adult, a certain level of autonomy. Now, I don’t then flip it around and make it all about me, or that would make me just like them. It’s not, “Well, this person has to earn my attention.” It’s more that I’m being intentional about investing in the relationships that are healthy and important and higher priority. My kids and their wellbeing is higher priority to me than, say, a distant figure who suddenly decides that I need their interference in my life.
How do I explain that without being too specific regarding individuals? Let’s consider a very generalised scenario that is like a conglomerate of multiple situations and multiple co-dependent people I’ve dealt with over the years:
Despite the high volume of posts I share on various social media, I do not share the inner workings of my life very often, if at all. It’s quite frankly embarrassing and discomfiting to look at my facebook memories and see the obvious attention seeking, depressive, manipulative, immature statuses I was writing before I started getting treatment for my mental illness. I don’t want to dwell in that unhealthy space anymore. When I do share anything personal these days, it is usually in the form of a private message to close friends, or in a face-to-face conversation – again with close friends. Trustworthy individuals who have gone through similar battles to me, with whom I can talk about my doubts, my worries, but also listen to their concerns. I don’t think anyone knows me better than The Husband, or my close friends. People outside of those inner circles often do not seem to grasp that they don’t know me as well as they think they do because they see my cat photos and occasional article reshares on facebook and assume that’s all there is to me. This is not because I want my social media to be shallow or false; it is because I now recognise that social media is not a safe outlet for genuine heart-to-heart connection (for me anyway, based on my personal experience – others may experience it as their only safe space to be truly themselves, and I respect that). Especially when one is in a context where there are a lot of unhealthy, dysfunctional, personality disordered, co-dependent people in one’s real life who are active in trying to twist everything I write to be a reference to themselves.*
But because I don’t share a whole lot, there are individuals in my life who appear from time-to-time, armed with a list of things they want me to do. I think they mistakenly assume that in the meanwhile I haven’t done anything. I certainly haven’t done anything that would interest them, which is partly why they haven’t heard about it. The other reason I haven’t told them is because I don’t want them taking a dump over the things that are important to me – like my interests in 19th Century literature, or Formula One racing, or vegan cooking. I don’t need those things met with antagonistic scepticism by some bully who can’t understand why I would read 500+ page books or watch fast cars doing laps of a windy track or how I can actually live a full and happy life without bacon. It could be anything, often a distant relative or vague acquaintance who hasn’t spoken to me in a couple of years suddenly wanting me to read a particular book or visit their church (“but we’re authentic followers of Christ, really!”), or take up an exercise regime they like. They will convey this in such a way that suggests they picture me as an entirely inert figure who has sat immobile on the couch just begging for someone to give me something to do. Or in the case of church, like that I somehow irresponsibly and randomly tossed aside my faith, as if it wasn’t a long, nuanced, carefully considered, shared journey of deep personal growth and suffering, and as if I am somehow faithless because my current religious beliefs don’t completely match theirs.
It’s unfortunate but the fall-out of living for so long with so many dysfunctional relationships (especially those with narcissistic overtones) is an increased reticence to share anything one does, because anything one does share will be distorted and inaccurately retold by those who are drawn to drama and negativity. Any labels applied to oneself will be mercilessly invoked at the slightest hint of autonomy. They will infuse my words with tones that aren’t there in the original. Like most ISTPs, if I say something at all, I mean what I say and there isn’t usually any other emotion or multilayered meaning behind it.
Like that time I was at a party feeling distressed because of something deeply upsetting that had happened earlier that day. The hostess of the party took it as an invitation to draw one of the other women aside and talk in serious tones about how my miserable face “proved” that I hated them and didn’t want to be there. It never occurred to either of them to ask if I was okay, because in my mute distress I didn’t feel like I could share what had happened. It was only afterwards when one of them sent The Husband an abusive message about what a hateful person I supposedly am that I realised they were, in their co-dependence, demanding that I prop up their sense of self-worth by pretending to be happy when I was, in fact, ruminating over something that had triggered my own anxiety and had literally nothing to do with the party’s hostess. It’s just one example of possibly hundreds, if not thousands, of times that something I’ve done or said was actively misconstrued as proof that I am a bad person. It’s only now that I realise that it’s narcissists and other disordered people who demand the people around them put on an act to make them feel better about their own lives, without the slightest bit of consideration as to how the target of their narcissism feels.
They will label you and change every subsequent action of yours to prove their point, no matter how distorted their perceptions must become.
“What’s that? You finished university? But you were always so undisciplined and lazy. I can’t believe you, of all people, would achieve something like that. It must have been a fluke!”
“But you’re such a naïve and hyper-emotional person!** We can’t possibly tell you this because we are scared of your reaction.”
“I only do these terrible things because terrible things happened to me. It’s not my fault!”***
I now realise how much of this is a form of projection and deflection. It says more about the person who says it than the person who receives it. It seems anecdotally true to me that a person who feels out of control of their own life will try to seek stability by imposing control on someone else’s life. If you can stay off their radar, it’s sheer relief to be left alone… only to have that same person reappear a year, two years, three years later, ready to try again to tell you what to do. Sometimes it’s in the form of a string of seemingly innocuous but increasingly demanding facebook event requests; other times it’s more deliberate, a manipulative email or text phrased along the lines of, “I know that you all just hate me so much but I was hoping maybe you could tolerate me for long enough to get a coffee with me.”
I’ve also learned that if you bow down to that kind of manipulation, one quick coffee catch up very quickly morphs into a series of increasingly co-dependent behaviours, until you no longer exist except as a frame to prop up and enable someone else’s unhealthy behaviour. You’re expected to keep changing your schedule to meet theirs; but the moment you ask them to help you, they’re suddenly not available. You start out feeling sorry for the person, but as the years progress you realise that for all their lamentations and tears and self-deprecating woe, they actually have no interest in being healed. They just want to fix you of all the things they hate about themselves that they see in you.
Anyone who’s gone through these battles will understand that it’s not easy. It feels horribly cruel to start setting healthy boundaries. You feel like you’re doing something terrible saying “no” to someone. You doubt a lot whether it’s the right thing. Other people will accuse you of being nasty for not enabling that person’s unhealthy behaviour. “How could you do this to them?” they cry, “You are so selfish! They’ve gone through stuff you can’t imagine. If you were a good person, you’d help them.”
But then you begin the healing journey for yourself… You get external and appropriately qualified support, if you can. It was a deeply profound relief the first time a clinical psychologist looked me in the eye and said, “This is not about you. This is about them. They are very difficult people who are engaging in psychologically dysfunctional behaviours. You can’t change them – only they can choose to help themselves. You can only learn how to manage yourself, and your own life, to minimise the negative effect they have on you and set healthy boundaries. One day you will learn to just roll your eyes and say, ‘There they go again,’ instead of falling apart every time you interact with them.”
And thus began years of journeying from a perpetual darkness and tumult into a space of light. I breathe easier these days – both metaphorically and literally, as breathlessness can be a symptom of anxiety and panic disorders.
Life hasn’t necessarily become easier; if anything, external circumstances around me in the last year have often coalesced into a maelstrom of terrifying uncertainty and chaos. I still live on a knife-edge. I still battle old battles. Like how to pay the bills or worrying whether the landlords will evict us on a whim, as they can here in Victoria. My external circumstances have improved, but not by a lot.
What has changed a lot since I started this blog is my inner life. I no longer feel like I have to do what other people unreasonably demand of me, just to make them happy. I realise that I also can’t rely on others to make me happy. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying “All people suck and if they were real friends they would do this or that.”
I’m saying, “I am responsible for my own actions, my own happiness and my own inner life. I can draw on resources to assist me, like counselling, or books, or podcasts that inform my journey. I can call on friends to whom I might vent, but in the context of a balanced, respectful and mutually supportive relationship – it is not okay to use someone else as an object to make me feel happy. That kind of happiness never lasts, anyway, and just leaves people feeling hurt and used.”
I might not be able to control everything. I can’t control whether or not the landlords change their minds on how long we can live here. I can’t control what my kids go through at school. I can’t control whether or not dysfunctional people in my life keep their drama contained (and really, they probably won’t). I can, however, take responsibility for how I respond to difficult situations, how much I choose to get involved, who I want in my house (except for the 6-monthly humiliation that is rental house inspections, unfortunately the law requires I submit to that). I can choose how I spend my money and whether I want it to prop up the sprawling edifice of an increasingly materialistic church, or whether I want to take that money and invest it in creating happy memories for my children and I so that when they look back on their childhood hopefully they will remember me as an engaged and active parent who sought to show them as much of the world as we could manage on a shoe string budget.
I can choose how I treat others, respecting that they live their own lives and that while it’s okay to ask friends out, it is not okay to require them to drop everything just to make me feel good about myself.
I can choose to keep growing and learning as an individual, to try new hobbies and interests, to actively work on my marriage, to not allow the limitations of my mental health to force me into a prison.
I can choose to push the limits of my comfort zone but only if I decide that I want to, because it’s not up to other people to do that for me.
And I have. As I lamented at the start of this year, I felt like I had spent 2016 in a state of constant stress. I avoided appearing in family photos. I didn’t do much. It was a miserable year for a number of reasons, most of them beyond my control. This year I decided to focus my energy on making memories – even appearing in family photos. We wouldn’t try to do any big holidays – that’s just too far out of our budget. But we figured that a few day trips, looking out for free events, and occasionally going to ticketed events would be a positive way to spend our time.
This year so far we celebrated New Year’s Day with a picnic in a National Park. We went swimming in the sea. The kids and I had a Star Wars and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movie marathon to mark the end of the summer school holidays. We attended an engagement party. We have had a number of friends visit – the kids play video games while the mums catch up. I’ve had coffee catch ups and dinners with friends. We’ve continued our long tradition of library visits. I’ve taken up cooking more regularly – it has mostly been The Husband’s hobby, but as his work pressures have increased, I have been cooking more often. To help motivate me, if I’m happy with the results, I will share my food photos and recipes on a vegan cooking recipe-sharing forum. It’s fun trying new ways of preparing food, and seeking out recipes, and bargain-hunting at the food stores, and trying out the incredible variety and diversity of plant based recipes out there. We went to the Australian International Air Show and the Formula One Australian Grand Prix. We’ve visited a number of National Parks. We went to a wedding, and have another one coming up in the near future. We have sat in prayerful silence at a Taizé-style service in a beautiful old church. The Husband and I went to an amazing concert with the Finnish heavy metal band Insomnium, and hope to get in at least one more concert (with another Finnish heavy metal band) before the end of the year. We went to a huge Winter Solstice celebration at a community farm, with massive sculpture bonfires and music and delicious local produce and lots of beautiful costumes. We went go karting. We saved up free movie vouchers so that we could go to the movies as a family. We went to an exhibition of Van Gogh paintings, and an exhibition of Indigenous Australian women’s art. I applied for a few part time and casual jobs to try to help pay the bills (unfortunately, so far, with no success in obtaining work – there are a lot of Aussies competing over a few jobs). We went to a big Harry Potter festival in the city, which was a lot of fun.
I’ve also stuck to my 2017 New Year’s Resolution – to read as many books as possible. At this point in time I have read a total of 46 books cover-to-cover. (I detail them on my other current blog. Yes, another blog!)
In the coming months we have piano recitals and ballet concerts to attend. We have catch ups with friends planned for the next holidays. We have personal art and writing projects we want to do, including Inktober and NaNoWriMo. We are going to try to do something fun for Hallowe’en.
For all the difficult stuff this year (a few health battles, some relational dramas, some work and money stresses, some stressful worries about housing), we have looked for opportunities to get out and live our lives to the full. Sure, we can’t afford overseas holidays like our wealthier friends and family, when we’re barely able to pay the rent and utilities bills, but there are so many free things out there. The movie vouchers were from a rewards programme for shopping at a particular supermarket. National Parks near us are all free entry, and it’s too easy to pack a picnic lunch and go find a park to eat it in. The local library is a brilliant way to get my hand on as many books as I can read. The Winter Solstice event was pretty cheap, for what it was. The Air Show and Grand Prix were admittedly pricy, but the memories and new interests they created for us were very valuable – my kids have since spent a lot of time reading and learning about Formula One cars and aeroplanes. It was a positive way to expand their interests and give them happy memories without needing to travel nor book accommodation.
As I fill my time with meaningful activities – whether reading a new book, working on my art, or going to a much anticipated concert or event – I have less and less space in my life to think about the negative stuff. Instead, I have spent a lot of time this year focussed on developing what I hope will one day be my magnum opus – which is shaping up to be a novel or graphic novel. It will likely take some years to develop, but it’s one of those things I will forever regret if I don’t give it a serious go.
And so that brings me back to my original thoughts when I sat down to write this blog post: do I still want to keep using this blog? Because as it stands, it is a bit of a monument to a particularly difficult transitional phase in my life, in which I fought very hard to keep treading water while life was particularly challenging, and making hard but necessary changes to my relationships, activities and beliefs. I feel like I’m finally leaving that phase behind.
At the same time, there is a strange comfort for me in reading my older posts that chart my journey out of that darkness. I see, through the weight of past experience, that I am a survivor; that I can get through hard times; that despite the dramas and schedules others would try to impose upon me, I am capable of creating my own life and my own happy memories.
I do have another blog but I am trying to keep that as more of a professional space, rather than confessional. Maybe, for now, I will try to keep this blog going. It might peter out eventually, but I would rather that happen deliberately, through intentional decision-making, than just because I couldn’t be bothered anymore.
*I’ve had my silence on matters close to my heart reinterpreted as proof of my naïveté, as opposed to simply a normal introverted guardedness and a healthy scepticism about the ability to convey tone and balance in a character-limited facebook post. Just one example of many irritating misunderstandings.
**The funny thing is here that as an ISTP on the Myers-Briggs scale, I am probably the least emotional person I have met (other than fellow ISTPs)…
***I am not unsympathetic to people who’ve gone through trauma in their life. But I do not have to put my own mental health in jeopardy in order to appease and mollify an adult who has access to support services but who persists in blaming everyone else for their own problems. It’s not my job to fix someone else, no matter how big a tantrum they throw when I don’t do what they say.
Old age and maturity are not, as it turns out, inextricably intertwined. I am nowadays inclined to take as truth the teachings of far more experienced people, like Fr Richard Rohr, who say that “second half of life” mature thinking is not the inevitable result of physical ageing, but rather a process achieved only through great suffering and reflection, or through great prayer (or inner journeying, mindfulness, and thoughtful self-development).
[Minor edits to original post: some links inserted; some words edited for clarity.]