Summer Fetishising

Summer is coming and for me that’s meant sitting around friend’s lounge rooms, switching from bourbon to Moscato, planning trips to New Zealand and a long train ride to the north coast in December.

This summer is adding colour to my wardrobe, cutting my hair, going back to blonde, festivals and gigs, gin and tonic, snorkeling and jogging, sitting on the hill in Sydney Park and watching the sun set with ciders.

Spending time with my fur child, NYE parties in the backyard, fire twirling in the alley, listening to P.O.S and Astronautalis and Aesop Rock and Cat Power and Bat For Lashes.

It’s about heading into the city late at night to see friends, sitting in sea breezes, walking home in the dark with blue lights flickering out through neighbour’s windows when it’s too hot to sleep and late night TV provides some distraction.

It’s about sitting on my porch and enjoying the silence after a day that’s felt full and it’s about not wondering what anyone else is doing because I’m fine alone again.

The Black Keys

Here is a list of things I don’t know about The Black Keys: I don’t know where they come from, the names of the band members, indeed even how many band members there are. I don’t know the name of any of their albums or singles. I don’t even know what they look like, so sitting in the nosebleed section without my glasses, I decided they probably look like Kings of Leon.

All I know is that they’ve written a handful of really catchy songs I’ve only ever heard in the bathroom of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment where he listens to most of his music to kill time because he insists on drying each one of his toes individually.

To say I had no expectations of seeing The Black Keys would be a lie. I hoped they would be more entertaining than watching wet toes being dried.

The Entertainment Centre is a bloated monolith in the middle of one of Sydney’s many misutilised tourist ‘hoods, a place best known for its pleather designer bag knock-offs, fake Von Dutch caps and a bulk-billing medical office where I get what may or may not be legal CAT scans. The building itself has never lived up to what must’ve been grand plans at some stage. It’s a atmosphere-less place, looking graceless with age, staffed by ushers who are already thinking about the post-show cleanup while they’re showing you to your seats.

It would be easy to be cynical about The Black Keys, they are a band with obvious influences, blues-based rock that smacks of Led Zeppelin and Free and I doubt they would deny it, ‘Little Black Submarine’ basically is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ after all.

However, watching a crowd solidly enjoying themselves, kids on dates and couples two or three generations older enjoying a throwback to music of their teens and 20s, it felt like cynicism would be obvious and lazy. The gig was about waving your arms loosely in the air, about laughing as more people pulled out iPhones than cigarette lighters during the slower songs and smiling as conspicuous clouds of pot smoke rose from the crowd. The night was about not thinking about Gillard and Abbott, about pay day or feeding the cat, about the work meeting the next morning.

The night was about having a fucking good time and not questioning why.

Whether they are your cup of English Breakfast tea or not, there is no doubt The Black Keys do what they do well and I enjoyed relaxing and not being invested in the reasons why.

A + D

Earlier this year I had a kind of nervous breakdown. I can’t tell you what caused it because I don’t really know. I have a history of low periods, but none has ever swept me off my feet like this one did and previously I’ve always been able to pinpoint a reason.

All I can do is tell you what it looked and felt like.

I was in a new relationship and I was feeling a little anxious and unsure about about what the future held, like most people seem to be at the start of any new relationship, but it wasn’t crippling or particularly worrying to begin with. I went on a road trip to the US for a month, I came home and decided to move, work was fine, friendships were fine. If anything I was more social than I’d been in years.

Yet within the space of about two months I spiralled into an extremely suffocating pattern of depression and anxiety. The depression exhausted me physically, but the anxiety would not let my brain shut off.

Within another month I was taking medication and seeing a psychologist to find ways to prevent crippling panic attacks which left me locked in toilet cubicles at work for up to an hour at a time. I took a week off work, but by the time I came back, the panic attacks were lasting for up to 16 hours.

At my worst point, I stopped being able to get undressed before going to bed. One afternoon I crawled into bed at about 4pm and the best I could do was remove the rings I was wearing. I woke up about 8am the next morning, so tense that the rings were still clutched in my hand, leaving marks on my palms for hours. This panic attack had been set off by reading about a writing project a friend was working on. I’d stopped being able to write and the idea that someone else could was enough to make me burst into tears in the street. Something as little as that.

I took another week off work. I lost ten kilos in the space of weeks. I could not shut up or control my thoughts. Everything seemed bleak and I needed to tell as many people as possible, in minute detail, over and over. I didn’t realise that while I believed I was talking myself out of having negative thoughts, I was just repeating my anxieties over and over, I was obsessing about terrible things happening in the future because I thought it would prepare me for them.

I hated what I became. People avoided me and I started feeling immense guilt for neglecting others, for not being able to remember to ask how they were. I would sit across from people and not be able to concentrate on what they were saying, I would instead compulsively check my phone and the time. Phone calls to my parents would start normally enough, but would often end in tears because I stopped being able to tell the difference between what had happened on any given day we spoke and dark parallels my brain created about what might happen the next day.

But I couldn’t stop it. I knew the levee would break, but I didn’t know how and I wasn’t sure which way everything would flow. I talked about moving in with my parents, just in case.

I struggled to explain to people how I felt, particularly with the anxiety. I found the depression to be much better understood, but the anxiety was compulsive and overwhelming and absolutely hypnotic. It stripped me of my ability to communicate efficiently, I could not discuss it succinctly or explain my concerns in a way that didn’t seem overinflated. It was incredibly frustrating and isolating.

Someone thanked me for sharing a little bit of this story recently, so I wanted to write something about it in case anyone else has experienced this, and to remind myself of what things look like when they were really, really dark because now that I’ve started to feel better it seems almost unbelievable that I sank so low and for no apparent reason.

I’m still taking medication but I’m no longer depressed. My anxiety is at a much more manageable level. While a lot of my psychologist’s advice wasn’t working when I was at the depths of things and I stopped seeing her (both because I believe/d her advice was probably geared at someone with much lower anxiety levels and because I was too anxious to see her), I use her advice regularly now and am going to book a follow up session with her soon.

I am still exhausted a lot of the time, and have trouble concentrating but I spend a lot of time with friends again and wake up happy most days. I’m slowly piecing together triggers and am getting good at recognising them before it becomes an issue. I’ve kept most of the weight off and have taken up running, starting the C25K program, something I never imagined myself doing.

Most of this year feels like a very complicated and tangled mess, most of it a blur. There were days and weeks and months at a time where I wasn’t myself and I struggle with not feel guilty about that and for being such a burden on some people. Mostly I don’t want to let this have happened without learning from it. While it felt like it came out of nowhere, I know it didn’t, there were internal and external forces and I want to be strong and smart about them if I ever have to deal with this again.

Probably my biggest pieces of advice are as follows:

Know your triggers

There were some bigger triggers I faced, but some were as little as only listening to particular music or watching particular movies. Anything that made me feel overwhelmed had to go, I ditched plans to travel and study this year or organise a large 30th. If I couldn’t answer the phone, I didn’t. I tried to avoid anything I felt I was getting too compulsive about.

Get professional help.

In my experience, friends and family can only do so much, not through lack of trying. For a start, dealing with a mentally ill person is hard work, secondly, the people closest to you can’t always give objective advice. I went to my GP and got referred to a psychologist with a mental health plan. It was good to know what to expect: your GP will get you to answer a set of questions and will then refer you for an initial six sessions which are partially covered by Medicare. If you don’t seem to work well with who they refer you to, go back and ask for a new referral.

Don’t leave this too late. My mum had to come all the way to Sydney to sit in on an appointment with my GP at one point because I was so sure she was going to think I was faking being unwell. In my experience, GPs can be a bit rushed, but they’re not going to turn you away. And if they are a bit blunt, so be it, you just need the piece of paper and advice.

Check any medication you’re on.

My GP, though incredibly blunt, is really thorough. As well as suggesting a medication for my anxiety, she also checked all possible side-effects on other medication I was taking and discovered my blood pressure medication can cause panic attacks, so moved me to one with beta-blockers in it. That was a bit of a turning point.

Medication is a personal decision, but make it an informed one.

I’ve been on medication a few times now and have had varying amounts of success with it. I’m don’t feel like I’m qualified to give advice, but it’s always worth discussing with a GP, especially if you have concerns about side-effects, because there are heaps of options now and my psychologist told me that on average, people typically try three different medications before finding one that works for them. One piece of advice I will give is don’t come off them cold turkey unless you love going through withdrawal. Which sucked. Big time.

As much as I hate to say it, exercise works.

I hate when people say, ‘Oh you’re feeling down? Go for a walk in the sunshine!’. It’s not that easy, cheerful people! However, it does actually work and I do now exercise regularly and enjoy it, which means I now have a whole arsenal of lazy jokes I can no longer make about myself.

Do not ever just sit and wallow. I don’t care if you only intend to do it for five minutes, or 16 hours. This was the absolute hardest thing I faced and now that I am well, I see how stupid it was to do and I try my very best now not to do it, so just do something. Read a book, vacuum the floor, have a shower, play Mario Bros. Just don’t lie in bed if you can help it, because it is very, very hard to get up again.

People can’t always understand.

There were some people I am very close to and who I love very much who I just couldn’t talk to about this, because it was either too much for them (which I actually very much understand), or they just didn’t have the experience to understand how crippling it is.

Don’t be bitter about that.

Sometimes help comes from the strangest places. Sometimes the last people I would have ever expected to be understanding were the best people to talk to.

The part where it gets better, yay!

The levee breaks. In my experience it happens fairly suddenly, but I still feel like I have to keep looking over my shoulder for a while. I have bad days every now and again and end up on the phone to my parents, but I can identify why I might feel a certain way if I’m tired or had a stressful day at work.

I’m building up my mental tool kit with things to help be prepared if this every happens again, and to prevent it as best I can.

I read a lot of books about anxiety, meditation and depression. I exercise a lot and I try and have good sleeping patterns. I try not to beat myself up about what happened and not to feel guilty for some of the things I said or did when I was in the middle of this spiral. I try and remember what my dad said, I was sick and when you’re sick you need treatment and he’d never not help me if I had a broken leg and he’d never not help me with depression and anxiety.

I’m looking forward to this summer a lot. I can’t wait to swim and go on road trips. I want to treat every weekend like the Christmas holidays from school. It’s a nice way to feel and I’m confident I can maintain it now, but every step is a little one.

30th Birthday Weekend

I’ve never been much of a birthday celebrator and this year was no exception. I briefly contemplated having a cocktail party at the farm with a large group of friends and family and then I remembered that I have a hard time organising myself to get out the door on time, so trying to put something like that together was a task for a much better woman than I.

Instead I went to the farm with three friends and spent the weekend relaxing, breathing clean air, drinking wine and having a series of telephone conversations with my nephew that consisted of ‘Julia!’ ‘Vincent!’ ‘ … Julia!’ ‘ … Vincent!’.

On Friday night Mush drove us to Orange. I packed thick stockings, wine, a book (Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, which I can’t recommend enough) and snacks, of which we ate a grand total of none, as well as 46 pairs of underpants because you never know what might happen in two days.

We got to Orange around midnight, our ears ringing with the quiet.

On Saturday Mush and I headed into town, where I showed her the main attractions of Orange (Best & Less! Big W! Donut King!) ran a few errands and visited Cook Park, which takes up a whole city block. I’ve lived in Orange twice and I still remember Cook Park from when I was about three, drinking from the bubblers and watching the fish in the ponds and getting the cockatoos to say ‘Hello cockie!’. It’s had a few renovations, but not much has changed, it’s still a serene and quiet place.

Later that day Fi and Marty drove  up and we went to the Union Bank for wine and cheese with Mum and Dad.

The farm looks amazing after a few good seasons of rain. The grass is lush and the dams are full and the chickens are laying. It’s a fantastic place for wandering, or napping, or reading in the sun.

Saturday night we all went to Tonic in a village called Millthorpe and had dinner with Camille and Lauren, my two oldest friends from high school.

Sunday we all met up again at the farm for brunch, this time with kids in tow – Isaac, Camille’s son and Bonnie, Lauren’s daughter.

After brunch we left to head back to Sydney and for the first time in a very long time when Mum asked, ‘Are you sure you couldn’t come back here and live in the country?’ I kind of wished I could.

I had a great time and it was exactly what I needed.

And now to be 30!

October Reading List

My friend Nic recently asked to see my reading list, which up until that point was mostly a mind map in my head.

I read anywhere between 40 and 60 books a year and usually there’s some kind of theme, obvious or not, that links groups of books I read, so the list is fairly fluid up to a point. Usually I have about the next four or five books I want to read planned in my head and so far, this is what October looks like:

I don’t read a lot of fiction, I find it hard to lose myself in the writing completely. The best way I can think to describe it is the difference between watching Friends or watching The Wire on TV. The sets are very obvious on Friends, it’s always at the back of your mind that there’s a studio audience watching the shells of the rooms; whereas with The Wire, the scenery is almost like a character itself. I’ve read far too much fiction that’s like Friends, and not enough that’s like The Wire.

However, I do try because I have been knocked off my feet by books like American Gods, Middlesex and Infinite Jest.

I picked up This Is How You Lose Her after reading some tweets by Ms Anne Treasure, both of her experience reading it and links to analysis of Diaz’s use of sentence structure and I’m 18 pages in and it’s fantastic.

I’ve heard big things about The Yellow Birds, a novel set in a war zone, written by an Iraq veteran so this is next on my list.

I believe I’ve actually read all the Vanity Fair columns which make up Mortality, but I want to re-read them in short collection form, the journey Christopher Hitchens made from diagnosis to terminal illness.

Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story is a biography of the late David Foster Wallace. In the last 18 months I have read virtually everything DFW wrote that I could get my hands on. Scenes from Infinite Jest still re-visit me frequently, but his essays are some of the most incredibly writing I’ve ever come across.

Finally, Joe Cinque’s Consolation is one of my favourite books ever. I picked it for our book club and it’s not an easy read, it upsets me and makes me really angry, but the beauty of that is that the late Joe Cinque will never be forgotten.

Hexercise.

Last week I started C25K, which is designed to make people who love black bean wraps and watching Friday Night Lights in their underwear into runners, people who run (not sneakers). By the end of eight weeks, you’re meant to be able to run 5kms without stopping, so technically, by late November if you live 5kms away from me, I could run to your house. Sadly we live in Sydney and I am about to commence hiding inside for four or five months.

Week 1 is easy, run for a minute, walk for 90 seconds and repeat for 20 minutes. The only problem so far is that treadmills are really fancy these days and the touch screen does not like being touched by anyone mildly sweaty, so you’re on the treadmill practically dying to slow down and the treadmill is all, ‘Nope. Not yet. Nope, still not yet. Okay …. NOW!’ and for some reason, not being able to slow down exactly when I want to also makes me trip and I tell you what, I am thisclose to being one of those unfortunate people who falls off the treadmill.

So I do that and then I go and do weights which I’m only kinda starting to love again because my new gym has all the equipment out on the floor, where as my old gym had a different room and it was quiet and mostly ladies. However, the ratio of preening men to normal men is way better in the new gym and there’s a much broader array of people.

So I run and I have all these running clothes and I talk running stuff with all my friends who are started running too and then I go home and watch Friday Night Lights and understand why it is that some people love doing things that involve physical exertion. Yes, endorphins are making me enjoy TV more.

And that is a lesson for all of us.