Monday, September 15, 2014

Helping people with mental illness into the workforce

How can we encourage people on disability support pensions to work more while not hitting them with the big mean stick of loss of income support? Here's an opinion piece I've written on this question.

Please feel free to comment and share!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dreams Hold Key to Life's Puzzles

Pic: La Citta Vita
This morning I woke with the gradual wash of a dream pulling back its hold on my brain so slowly that I was able to catch the salt granules of its content before they dispersed.

It was a healing dream, creating a synthesis of past and present in an elegant, compact way. Everyone’s unconscious is a skilled novelist in its ability to find patterns among all the disparate memories and sense impressions that people our minds.

The dream took me to a disco nightclub that was incredibly fashionable, and there I swanned around with two people from my past – yet it was set in the present. My age didn’t stop me from being relevant and accepted in this ubercool place. The two people I was with were among those I shared a house with for a short time in the then edgy suburb of Fitzroy in 1983. I have fetishised the inner city ever since this time. It represents my personal Eden, my lost paradise, my Shangri-La.

I suspect most of us have more than one of these lost worlds. My dream brought two of them together and in doing so it allowed a psychic healing.

For this dream nightclub was located in the daggy suburb of Glen Iris. In real life this was where my maternal grandparents lived when I was growing up. Their tiny orange brick veneer not only housed the remains of their own family (my mum was the oldest of eight kids) but hosted a growing horde of grandkids. The suburb was boring and middle class in that unpretentious seventies way that is gone forever – hardly the place for a nightclub!

But Glen Iris was more significant than that, because my grandfather ran a tennis clinic every Saturday morning at the tennis courts of the parish primary school. The famous ‘Mister Mac’ taught kids from all over the area, and from all social classes. Some of them came from the posh private schools, some from the humble Catholic schools and some from the ‘state schools’ as the public schools were called.

This was a cushion for a shy child. Not only did my older sister attend the clinic but some of my cousins. I had a secure base from which to socialise.

This earlier childhood experience, I now realise, is why I have obsessed about Fitzroy and its gentrification for so long. Fitzroy represents a  part of my past that I will never get back – a communal household that only lasted six months but was a cushioning influence on a harsh and lonely life in my final year of a university arts degree, where I struggled with lack of motivation, immaturity, social terror, loneliness, undiagnosed eating issues. The decrepid terrace house, before it too became frightening, was a social refuge.

The dream was bringing these two, seemingly disparate periods of my life, together. It was telling me not to worry about my own personal loss of the inner city any more, as well as the larger cultural loss caused by gentrification. For that seminal experience in Fitzroy – that unique sense of community – had already been experienced, much earlier, in a much daggier suburb. And I could therefore experience it again.

I don’t have to live in the inner city to experience community. Thanks to my peer support program, my growing up is happening right now, right here, in Gardenvale and Elsternwick.

The unconscious is incredible in its ability to show us what is happening on a psychic level. Once we start paying heed to its puzzles it rewards us with greater detail, more overt symbolism and sharper recall.

But the dream also gave me another gift. I have started writing about the social causes of mental illness. Not that there aren’t biological and genetic elements – of course there are – but a return to biology, which some psychiatrists are keen on to the exclusion of other factors, would be  a hugely backward step.

Lack of community is one of those factors, perhaps the most vital.

The dream – not just its content but its healing and synthesising qualities – seemed to be telling me I am right to pursue this line of thinking.

Because in those two different stages of my life, I experienced the strength and ballast of true community, and it gave me some protection.

And now peer support is performing this function once more as I slowly, gingerly, reluctantly, take my hesitant steps into the wider community, even as I witness that fragile community being fractured, thinned, diminished by the log cutters of neoliberalism.

Community on the macro (government policy and spending) and the micro (peer support and self-help) levels is worth not just safeguarding but enhancing. It’s not just a tool in mental health, it’s the very basis of it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Back after a Blog Break


Apologies for the long gap between blog posts of late. And for also deleting a previous post – something I’ve not done previously, as far as I remember. An explanation for both is needed!

First, about the break. I’ve started to get a couple of my comment pieces published online. This is fantastic – however, a few caveats. I’m not getting any editing work, and the number of hours that go into an article isn’t commensurate with the pay (who’d have thought?).

I’ve had three articles published in online newspapers/journals, and two of these were on paying sites (well that’s what they’ve promised). Of course two paid gigs do not a writing career make!

If the editing work starts back up (and it’s usual for me to have gaps, especially at the beginning of the financial year) then it would be a nice little combination – the writing satisfying the creative genie, the editing work channelling the left-brain-dominated control freak (and paying much better per hour).

But it is great for my confidence. Truth is it couldn’t have happened earlier.  I just wasn’t ready. I can’t help wanting to use the word ‘maturity’ at this point, which is a bit sad considering that I’m 51 years old.

Blogging alone has helped develop my writing – just doing it – but the willingness to bend my own concerns to the needs of the journals just wasn’t there earlier. Getting my point across in 800 words or less? Where did these people get off? Any subject I was interested in required at least 2500 words.

Now I am slowly developing the art – not unlike haiku, or any kind of poetry – of making my points succinctly. After a while you realise that it actually takes less time to write a short article than a long one, so it’s an advantage.

But it’s bloody exhausting in a way that blogging is not.

Now about the little um blog entry deletion. Self-censorship? Perhaps.

The entry was about the revolution underway in the mental illness treatment community. These changes are both exciting and controversial. (As an aside, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus in the psychiatric community at the moment about what causes mental illness, and this in itself is all at once interesting, promising and disturbing.)

I originally started the article before moving house in May, and then other concerns intervened. When I went back to it a few months later I didn’t really think the issues through before completing and publishing it. Much of the impetus had come from reading the book Anatomy of an Epidemic and the blog Mad in America.

But the issues that these changes bring up are challenging and potentially life changing for many people. As someone with OCD, who is always concerned about the effects her writing may have on others, I’m more aware now of the caution that it is preferable to exercise when covering this area.

I’m probably overly cautious, but that’s my hang up – the internet is scary in its ability to disseminate information, and change the way people behave, very quickly. When it comes to mental health, that makes writing about it a big responsibility.

The other thing that made me pause for thought was that the health system in Australia is so different from the American one. The Australian system is a chaotic hotchpotch of public and private services, and everything in between, while the US system is, in my understanding, almost completely controlled by health insurance companies.  It’s quite possible that there is more mismanagement and a greater reliance on drugs in the US, and therefore much more angst among consumers. In fact in Australia some of the new approaches, such as peer support, are being adopted by mainstream services, which is very exciting.

This doesn’t change the fact that the public system in Australia is desperately under resourced. My impression from the limited reading I’ve done is that psyche hospitals, which should be soothing, welcoming havens for recovery, are for the acutely sick only, and that after being stabilised on drugs you get kicked out quickly, leading to a revolving door syndrome for those without adequate community support (there are good community services available in some areas, but I’m not sure how comprehensive these are, and they are in flux right now).

The other problem is that I don’t find myself in either of the major narratives – the biological idea of illness and the anti-psychiatry push. Not that the anti-psychiatry movement denies the existence of acute mental suffering at all. It's just that for me, labels themselves aren't the problem - it's the kinds of treatments that they too often give rise to which need monitoring and review.

Anyway I am not going to weigh into any debates for the minute. I am very interested in writing about  new treatments, but my OCD is a factor that I need to take into account. Still, it is an exciting time that may well lead to a synthesis of the best of old and new treatments.

And whether my other writing leads to a new 'career' is something that only the future can reveal!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Why I Called My Memoir Love Shy

Picture:  Tambako the Jaguar
My memoir, which I first self-published back in 2012, is called Love Shy. As a confirmed commitment phobe I only settled on this title after going through a string of others, starting with the first one, Splitting.

I settled on Love Shy because it suggests my main disorders while acknowledging that there was a familial and psychological aspect to my illness, a basic problem with the formation of self – it wasn’t a case of a fully formed ego being hit by a breakdown out of the blue, which is how mental illness is sometimes represented in memoir.

But the term 'love shy' is now mired in controversy and I feel the need to explain why I used it.

Love Shy is the name of a forum, now notorious, that is the voice of the Incel community – a group of primarily men who are, to put it primly, unable to ‘get any’. Incel stands for involuntary celibacy. These are men who try their luck with women, and get nowhere.

The forum received worldwide attention following the horror of the Elliot Rodgers mass murder in Isla Vista, California. Not that he was on that forum as far as I’m aware, but there is a strong anti-feminist movement associated with particular Reddit groups that some men on the Love Shy forum subscribe to. Before the shooting spree that he carried out on 23 May, Rodgers had aired his revenge manifesto in a chilling video. In the video he expressed disdain for the women who had rejected him sexually over the years, and his intention to punish both them and the sexually active men whom he despised.

The misogyny of Rodgers’s thinking would have fitted in perfectly with those of many on the Incel forum. (Which is not to say the Incel community are potential mass murderers – in the light of the murders the internet exploded with debate between those blaming the murders on mental illness and those pinpointing the structural misogyny that made Rodgers’s views mainstream thinking. It’s worth mentioning that Rodgers killed five men, including himself, and two women.)

I’d looked at the Love Shy forum before the Rodgers murders, of course, but not analysed it in any depth. The forum seems to equate love shyness with involuntary celibacy. But my own definition of love shyness is the opposite of involuntary celibacy. The difficulty in making a distinction between the two terms indicates the difference between the unconscious and the conscious minds.

My memoir details how I ran away from love and emotional involvement. It’s not that I didn’t have opportunities – of course I did. And if asked at the time I would have said that of course I wanted a relationship. But I had a phobia about love and sex, so everything I did ensured that I obtained neither. The unconscious forces within me were stronger than my conscious wishes.

Committed relationships are quite different from casual sex. In fact as a young person I was very phobic about the latter too. There was an inner saboteur (which my psyche saw as a protector) that kept me away from both love and most sex.

Those who grew up with the internet won’t understand how much harder it was then to negotiate sex in real time, without the mediation of electronic devices to let one’s wishes be known at one remove. Before the rise of the internet, when you had to have some social confidence to negotiate casual sex, involuntary celibacy was the consequence of love shyness but for me they were not the same thing.

For me, the internet made it easy to get around that saboteur because meet-ups could be neatly arranged. I can now cope with the anxiety around casual encounters, although I’ve pretty much lost interest in them for various reasons. But the internet didn’t change the fundamental problem. Nevertheless I became more open over the years, and have begun to believe that fate itself has played a role in my more recent lack of long-term relationships. I had rejected the major loves of my life over a period of years and before the advent of the internet as dating platform. Perhaps these earlier rejections of love have created such bad karma that, willing or not, real relationships do not come my way.

As I've said, I found the internet amenable to ‘hooking up’ – although unless you’re at any age where a large pool of your peers are unattached, actually finding suitable candidates for even casual encounters is not that easy. But what I realised from these experiences, as well as countless celibate ‘pre-dates’ with both men and women, is that whether you find a relationship or not is ultimately out of your control. Sure, you can increase your chances by frequent dating, joining interest or hobby groups and pursuing ‘personal growth’ (using your intuition to avoid time-wasting and dangerous situations) but, at the risk of sounding hippy-dippy, it’s really up to the universe.

My date-to-relationship ratio has been about 60:0 (this excludes casual short term relationships). Sex may seem available at the drop of a hat, but bad casual sex can actually reduce your chances of a future relationship because not only will you will need time to emotionally process the negative experiences, but they could damage your level of trust in the future. Which is not to say all casual sex is bad of course – intuition is the key here.

Some people are simply frightened of their own inexperience, or just very shy, and have been able to use the medium of the internet to start off with casual sex and then move onto relationships once they got the chance, without having any deep-seated fear of involvement. Good luck to them.

It may even be true what the male incels say about women – that most can get sex if they really want it and therefore can’t rightly be called incel.

But to my mind a phobic fear of love, intimacy and the often wordless courtship rituals that surround those things is not the same as the fear of casual sex, a fear that may be more controllable now that sex can be neatly arranged beforehand via dating sites, email and texting.

Despite what some incel men believe, it’s therefore quite possible that there are love shy women out there (using my definition)  who can get casual sex if they want to, but flee potential relationships – not that I think my level of phobia was or is very common.

I doubt very much whether most of the men on the Love Shy forum have the kind of problem that plagued me. They seem to be willing to approach women, and to ask for what they want. In their own narratives, they just keep getting rejected. Instead of thinking their own approach might be the problem they therefore conclude that women are castrating bitches.

But in a great irony, this is itself a form of self-sabotage. Patriarchy is a psychological construct and never just a social one, but male power is contested these days. Patriarchal masculinity and its manifestations, ranging from old-fashioned views on rape to the extremities of domestic violence, are often evidence of crippling psychic terrors to do with fear of abandonment and fear of female sexual power that are beyond my powers of analysis (and may also be related to early trauma).

Clearly it is not just the misogynistic views of these men but the psychic defences that underpin them that are the problem.

So perhaps these men are in fact closer to me than I would like to think, to the extent that both they and I employ psychic defence mechanisms (albeit very different ones).

Patriarchal machismo is a powerful psychic defence – but this is not immediately clear because in so many circumstances it is socially sanctioned.

The more embittered men on the Love Shy forum might do well to go into therapy with qualified psychologists who could help them to challenge their fears of genuine involvement with, and commitment to, people of the opposite gender – as well as the distorted ideas about women they have picked up.

As for me I can rail against fate all I like but the fact is that what we have done in the past always affects the present. My rejections of love have helped make me the person I am today. Being in Grow has enabled me to adopt a more philosophical approach to life, and to accept that if I follow my path I’ll be okay. But my past actions with significant others continue to haunt me.

Love Shy: a Memoir of Social and Sexual Terror is available as a Kindle e-book on Amazon. It's available on  the UK Amazon site here and on the Australian or US Amazon site here.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Familiar from a Different Angle - Renting, Moving and Disorientation


Last week I was planning to go to a yoga class at a neighbourhood house in the adjacent suburb of Elwood. It's a place of picture-book picturesqueness with narrow winding streets and rows of art deco apartments and intimate shopping centres with independent boutiques and an oversupply of cafes (there's also a flashy, beachy aspect that we won't go into). It is heavily freighted for me because I lived at the Elwood end of (then ultra-hip) St Kilda for one year back in 1988. Nowadays both suburbs are just ultra-expensive, but they still carry for me the weight of the bohemian romanticism that blinded me to the necessity of home ownership for so many years. Much of the charm that attracted the young to these suburbs in the seventies and eighties came from the strong presence of Jewish people from Eastern Europe who had settled there after the Second World War, bringing their rich artistic and culinary cultures with them.

I mapped out the route I would take to the yoga class using Google maps. It was a trip of only seven or eight minutes, but I have lived in Melbourne all my life and although I am not really familiar with Elwood's mish-mash of streets it is not as if they are foreign either.

Yet I could not find the place in time for the class. I drove up the wrong street and then I was in the right street but with not a clue which section of it the neighbourhood house was in. The class started at 6.30 pm. At 6.45 I turned for home feeling cheated, my attempts to reforge my life in this new place stymied. Yet there was a deeper problem. I couldn't really imagine myself at the yoga class. There was something fairytale for me in my mental image of it. As if I was fated not to make it there, because it wasn't quite real.

This raises a mild mental problem that I don’t think or talk about that much because it usually doesn’t involve suffering. It's the place in my experience where dysthymia (mild clinical depression) meets depersonalisation.

I managed to get to the yoga class the following week – I had done the trip in daylight the Saturday before, determined to know in advance exactly where the centre was. And as I waited to give my money to the short, sweet-looking female yoga teacher with the kind, lived-in face and the Eastern European features – the sort of person I associate with my traditional idea of Elwood – I started to feel slightly removed from the situation. For a few seconds I felt as if I was experiencing a memory of this event – but not in the sense of deja vu; rather, in the sense that the emotional content was simply not strong enough for the episode to be taking place in the present. It had a recycled quality. I mentally shook myself and was back in the present again, but a little unnerved. It was as if I could not take in the reality of having managed to join the class.

These feelings are not acute or frightening. They hark back to my nervous breakdown at the age of 21, when they were infinitely stronger and more threatening because I fought them ceaselessly, scared shitless as to what they indicated about my mental state. They were accompanied some of that time by the distorted sense that everything around me was contaminated by being a manifestation of capitalism. Not contaminated in the OCD sense, just completely engulfed by this overarching political reality.

I wonder now whether the content of that distortion was less significant than it seemed to be at the time. Perhaps I have a constitutional inability to fully come to terms with life as it is without experiencing it as some sort of system that represents a threat to me. I wonder whether my ingestion of the bizarre worldview of Irish Catholicism at such a young age has forged this inability. Because now the distortion has a different theme. It’s been there for a few years but has grown stronger since my move – I see everything in terms of Melbourne’s stratospheric property prices.

The social and economic aspects of depersonalisation


The homes around me don’t seem quite real, because they are unattainable – completely so in my case, but also increasingly to people of the younger generation. The houses and old-style flats in Elwood seem to have regressed to the fairytale world of my childhood that I never really left. They are, in fact, fairytales because they look and sound like real homes while being the residences and future homes of millionaires, or the playthings of rich investors. (Mansions don’t have that effect on me, probably because they represent a class that has always been there and whose wealth has always been unattainable to most.) My continued romanticisation of places like Elwood is both a defence against the realities of Melbourne real estate and an acknowledgement of how surreal house values have become in relation to daily life.

It’s confusing because the architecture of where I live has very distinct delineations depending on the area. My suburb, Gardenvale, is more ‘comfortable’ and established than East Malvern, the suburb I left, yet it’s also much less showy (a large Jewish population; people who have bought there simply because they like the beach). But Gardenvale also has elements (architectural as much as anything) of Brighton, the posher suburb over North Road, which is different again (old money and cricket stars). Then there’s Elwood, to which yet other kinds of money are attracted (rock stars, rich new agers, young professionals who love the outdoors, wealthier young families).

Yet Gardenvale itself has felt fresh so far, a place in relation to which I have no emotional baggage. I have commented on the strange foreignness of this suburb, the sense that I have moved to another country rather than an area that is 15 minutes drive from my folks' place. This has also been profoundly disorientating, but not in a bad way.

There is a further complicating factor. When I lived in inner city Carlton for five years in the nineties I was always bumping into people I knew (I’m sure this still happens to younger people who are willing to pay inner city rents). I’ve long moved from Carlton but on my fairly regular visits there I rarely bump into people I know. So there’s a feeling that I have lost my peers, and a sense that they have all moved to the inner north and left me alone (Coburg, Preston and Reservoir, inner northern suburbs which were affordable in the nineties but a long way north of Carlton, spring to mind). I think this loss of community strengthens my feelings of confusion and disorientation when I go back to old stamping grounds like Elwood. Perhaps there’s an age factor also – does depersonalisation get more acute with age, as the brain tries to process an increasing bank of memories while also taking in the present?

Perhaps my dysthymia and depersonalisation are also due to my precarious place in the social fabric. For a while I seemed to be experiencing them less often since joining Grow, but since moving house they've come back. Perhaps they are the way my mental weakness expresses the fundamental puzzle of where I fit in now. Is there any of the old St Kilda and Elwood left? Even if there is, is it actually relevant to me? What am I doing here? What does it actually mean for me to live in a particular location as a childless single woman in her fifties, who’s on a low income?

But I shouldn't talk only of my disorientation and failures to arrive. I now live about five minutes closer by car to the centre where my weekly Grow meeting is held. And only one or two weeks after I arrived in Gardenvale I managed to find my way on foot to a local Buddhist temple that I'd found on Google Maps. That first walk there was taken with the near-certainty I'd get lost but luckily as I approached the temple, a white neoclassical mansion with a park behind it, other people were converging on the property. So there was a feeling of mastery, triumph almost, at having made it to the temple – a sense that I still had it in me to settle in a new place and find new places to go.

But the sense of formlessness still returns, especially on these winter nights that fall so quickly, so early. Who is this new version of me who lives in this in-between suburb yet rushes off to Elwood? How can she relate to anyone living in either area when most of her peers will have kids and own their places? Is she ever going to stop romanticising suburbs over which real estate agents have been greedily rubbing their hands for decades, or is it possible for a suburb to retain some kind of identity beyond real estate values, a retention some Elwood and St Kilda residents seem determined to achieve?

Ah what the hell. I'm going to give up analysing and join the artists.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Farewell to Jordan

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
Jordan, my beloved friend, is dead. The lines from Wordsworth are perhaps a little hyperbolic, but seem to fit. The insult of death, especially when it’s sudden, has a melodramatic aspect to it.

Jordan (a pseudonym) was the ginger-coloured spaniel of my elder sister and her family. Only seven years old, he had a tumour on the liver. It wasn’t diagnosed until a few days before his death – he'd stopped eating and had no energy. My brother-in-law rang me on the Tuesday night at about six pm and told me that Jordan was going to be put to sleep the following day. Would I like to come over and say goodbye?

When I got there an open fire was burning in the lounge room and a lamp cast a soft light. Jordan lay on a rug in front of the fire, surrounded by his immediate family along with another of my sisters and her two daughters. At the sight of me he lifted his head and his bushy tail wagged for a second or two. I sobbed into his fur. But he was not the playful puppy I loved. He was a very sick dog who was focused on the business of dying, and who had to be stroked carefully for fear of hurting him.

For the first few years of his life I walked him twice a week, usually in mid-morning, at the nearby Ainslie Park. This was the source of the intimacy we shared, when we revelled in the wind and the trees and the feeling of freedom. I wrote a few blog entries on our fun times and travails, and the ongoing conflict with my sister and her husband over their treatment of Jordan.

I taught him to heel and to stay, and unsuccessfully tried to teach him to return the ball. Whether he would do the latter was conditional on whether you had a treat ready to give him – he’d have ‘a bob both ways’, throwing the ball down with his mouth and then quickly nosing at my hand for the treat, then picking the ball up again if the hand was empty. ‘Jordan, the point to giving the ball back is that I can throw it again!’ But all my efforts were in vain. Still, he heeled and stayed like a true champ.

On one of our typical walks, we stagger along the picturesque walkway with its crunchy white gravel, cross narrow Ainslie Road and we’re at the park entrance, Jordan pulling at the leash and frantically sniffing any dogs arriving and departing (his heeling skills would manifest in inverse proportion to our closeness to the park). Passing under the winding avenue of large elm trees, I tell him we are nearing the oval, knowing that dogs understand some English (the average number of words is apparently 165).

When we get there I lean down and unclip the leash from his collar, feeling the little torso quiver in anticipation. ‘Free!’ I yell like a demented army sergeant, wanting to make the distinction clear between the discipline of the paths and the liberty of the oval. He dashes off for a while as if I’m his sworn enemy and then slows down and seems to lose focus. He is caught by the rich cocktail of smells locked in the grass. From now on he will alternate between a complete absorption in these messages and a focus on me and the other dogs.

He is always a little lost, a little confused, a bit ADD. I don’t think he’s dumb though – I think it’s a case of overstimulation. There are too many messages pinging across to those extraordinary olfactory nerves. One of his favourite things to do in the park is to roll on the grass, bathing himself in the scents of manure and whatever else he can smell (apparently wolves do this in order to bring information back to the pack). He always has a far-off, blissed-out expression when he does this.

Under my uneven supervision, Jordan cheated death a couple of times, disappearing in the direction of busy Wattle Road on one occasion, and dashing across the quiet street at the back of the park on the other, when there luckily happened to be no cars on it. (The risk I took in regularly walking someone else’s dog – I shudder at it. There were other incidents too – dogs, people and sometimes kids and babies make for scary combinations and I was out of my depth sometimes.)

The saddest thing – which I don’t want to write about but must – is that I had abandoned Jordan before his death; put the relationships with my sister and her husband in the too-hard basket, and therefore my friendship with him. It was part of my growing ‘maturity’, to accept that I wasn’t close to the family and therefore couldn’t hope to be close to their dog. (Meanwhile my interactions with the neglected puppies in the semi-detached next door were childishly passive-aggressive towards their owner.)

But it was true, I didn’t feel welcome at his house. And his life was sad; he told me as much the last time I took him to the park. I think it was January, I don’t remember exactly, when I decided on a whim to ring up and ask to take him on a walk and the answer was yes, of course. He wasn’t getting enough exercise at this point and by the age of about six had become portly, as well as stiff from a disc injury. We had a lovely roam that day, but at one point he grew sad and we sat on the grass and he looked pensive, slowly blinking those impossibly long eyelashes.

That walk was the last time I saw him well, as the Jordan I knew and loved. I found his life hard to witness; easier to stay away and whinge about the way our society treats dogs and congratulate myself on not having one myself.

How much did my early support make his loneliness harder to bear? Did he wonder when I was coming next? How much did he suffer and how much of that suffering was related to me? There are no answers to these questions.

Yet it’s not guilt I feel exactly, just regret. What this has taught me is that you cannot simply sever a connection of longstanding with someone just because they aren’t human. The connection remains. I have no doubt that Jordan remembered me and regretted my absence from his life.

My initial grief was quite bitter and full of despair for the loneliness of his life. But now, less than a week later, I’m able to take a more balanced view. His life wasn’t all sadness. There were family holidays to the New South Wales coast, walks with my sister, and pats in the evenings in front of TV. He had wormed his way inside the house from being an outside dog, and for the last six months of his life slept in my sister and her husband’s bedroom. Also, various renovations of my sister’s house have been going on for years, and the builders often brought their dogs along with them (tradies often seem to have strong bonds with their dogs). And even though he was alone too much, he lived in the moment, and could rise to puppy excitement as soon as the prospect of interaction presented itself.

One impediment to the grieving process is that no memorial service is planned. In the absence of that, my perfect funeral for him is played in my head, a mixture of inspiring songs and stories about his escapades.

I sit at my computer and play those songs on YouTube. The following have provided much comfort: ‘Short note’ by Matt Finish, ‘I sing the body electric’ from the film Fame, and ‘The valley’, soulfully sung by the inimitable KD. Leo Sayer in his early emo period has been helpful. The soppiest Barbara Streisand standards have been inevitable.

The absence of a funeral also sent me on a return visit to the park last weekend, to see what it was like without him and to understand. I sat alone on a bench at the edge of the oval in my sunglasses, melodramatic as a movie star. The dead leaves from the elm tree above me tinkled down a few at a time. The sky couldn’t decide what it was doing – there were long brushes of cirrus as well as bits of cumulus cloud. The light felt wrong – overcast and glare-y at the same time. The few dog owners and their dogs seemed a long way away; the dogs looked like yearlings, just overgrown puppies. I didn’t know any of them. None of the people I had got to know at the park were there. The sense of time having passed was excruciating. I realised that the park and Jordan and I had long finished – and I was mourning that period of my life for the first time.

It’s the very physicality of dogs that makes it harrowing to mourn them. Our relationships with them have less cerebral content than those we share with humans, and are based on the shared experience of the moment. I find it hard to picture Jordan’s face, and although I hadn’t seen him for ages until the night before he died, part of the reason for the lack of a mental image is the sense that his essence was expressed in motion rather than speech. Jordan's essence - that of a sometimes daffy 'people person' with a stubborn streak, who knew his own mind, was loyal to a fault and endlessly optimistic - is still with me and I hope always will be.

Farewell, my darling. Thanks for the happy times. Your aunty misses you so much, but she knows that you're no longer suffering and is endlessly grateful for your loving friendship.

PS: The photo above isn't of Jordan, but is an uncanny likeness of him as a puppy from the Dogs Trust website.





Saturday, May 17, 2014

Moving Up in the World - Literally!


Here I am, finally, post-move. Transported from a huge, mouldy, freezing cold, art deco semi-detached in stuffy East Malvern to a relative balmy first-floor medium-sized seventies flat in quiet, unpretentious but prosperous Gardenvale. Oh, it hasn’t been easy, but it is slowly proving to have been worthwhile.

Moving is just rife with metaphors: I got here in one piece but my sense of self is higgledy-piggledy. I am seeing already how a different space makes you a slightly different person. Your brain is forced to forge new paths to map out daily routines, for example.

It is quieter than living on busy Wattletree Road, despite several major arterials being close. The acoustics of the building itself are pretty bad but the other tenants are relatively quiet (except for last night when the people downstairs had their mates over – why are so many Australian males so boorish, loud, and unaware of themselves?) – Normally these people take to their beds at around 11 pm. One of them seems to get up at 5.30 am to go to work, but I am already up at that time with menopausal insomnia anyway!

The flat is also great for my allergies. My skin is clearer, my face less puffy and my scalp not itchy. I would probably have more energy too, if I wasn’t spending it moving things around!

The first week was challenging, because the forced deadline of the auction meant that everything was incredibly rushed towards the end, and because I just have too much stuff. It was impossible to find things that I needed and I kept forgetting to buy stuff at the supermarket. (Actually I still haven’t found my reading glasses, but without them my eyes are adjusting to normal type – did I really need them in the first place?)

The auction itself went like clockwork. I didn’t realise till the day afterward the extent of the sacrifice I’d made for its success. Keeping some furniture and pictures untouched for the final inspection (going against all advice!) meant that the Sunday before the move on Monday was just crazy. I had done loads of packing in the preceding weeks, and most of the in-depth cleaning (cupboards etc) but there was still an amazing amount to do. Luckily Mum and Dad came over to help in the morning, and my older sister and her husband did a couple of hours in the afternoon.

I swear having my stuff set up nicely in that sad old place must have added another 20 000 dollars to the selling price – it went for 720 000 in the end (and will need at least another 100 000 to bring up to any sort of scratch). But I am getting every cent of my bond back, despite putting my foot down about having to steam clean the carpet (this requirement is standard on Victorian rental leases but I knew the mangy, filthy thing was just going to be pulled up anyway).

Funnily enough, the move itself was relatively easy, because for a few hours we had three strong men helping us (I had booked two, but in an incredibly lucky break, a third came along for training and was more than happy to help with boxes etc). It was when the men left that the hard slog began.

There was a moment of crisis in the move itself. It rained for a short time (oh gloomy day!), and when the burly men started walking into the house they brought wet grass from their boots onto the pale, tubercular-looking carpet – calamity! Luckily when I expressed concern about this, the head honcho brought in blankets and spread them all over the floor. Disaster mostly averted.

There was a brief moment after they had put the lounge suite in when the place looked like a home and I even indulged in a brief sit-down. And then they brought in all the boxes – dozens and dozens! It just went on and on, the men bringing piles of them up the stairs on the trolleys until the lounge room was full. How had I managed to accumulate so much crap?

Gradually, over nine or ten days I cleared the mess and the lounge took on the look of a living space. There are still a whole lot of ornaments I am probably going to eBay, but it’s a really nice space. I couldn’t believe when I saw it for only the second time ever – which was after the removal from the old place was done – how big the lounge actually was.

My study is very cosy and there is a problem in this room (and the kitchen) with the slimline venetians not blocking out the northern sun. This will be a big deal in summer, but one advantage of it at this time of year is that it really heats up the room and will be great for drying clothes. In preparation for summer I intend to buy a laptop and put a table in the lounge room and perhaps work there on really hot days. I am also thinking about buying some kind of windscreen shield and just putting it on the office window.

The main problem at the moment is ongoing exhaustion fighting with a desire to be constantly out of the house (especially the beach, a shortish drive away). Physically I need to ‘marshal my resources’. I am still going constantly up and down the steps and moving things to the rubbish bins, or to the car boot for ultimate disposal at the op shop. And still there is so much stuff that I just don’t need. After giving a heap of it away in a flurry of downsizing before I moved (and wondering if I should have flogged off my comfy cream couch instead of putting it on Zilch ...) I have decided to sell off my prized (?) collection of kitsch pictures.

Which brings me to something that was a huge bugbear when I first moved in but is becoming less so. There were hardly any picture hooks and the lease requires me to ask the landlord if I want to affix anything to the wall at all – including those supposedly removable hooks – the small peeled section of wall in the lounge room testifies to the possible unfortunate financial fate of a former tenant who used  one such hook. This is the nature of the Australian rental market at work. As prices skyrocket due to insane tax breaks for investors, they get stricter about maximising the value of their lucrative investment, with the need to ensure their tenants feel at home coming a poor second.

But really, this is small beer. I know how lucky I am to be here and I’m going to make the most of it.

Being in an entirely new area is very strange. I can’t believe how different it feels from East Malvern, and that I didn’t know how large adjoining South Caulfield was. It seems now like a hidden part of Melbourne (whereas East Malvern wants to show itself off), so in some ways I feel as if I am almost living in another city. Weird and disorientating but in a good way.