Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Capture the Castle

It’s now five months since I moved to my new flat, on the first floor of a modest block about eight minutes drive from the beach – and I can finally declare the experiment a success.

The whole thing was so rushed that for many weeks it felt as if I was living on faith in the future alone. I can now report that the future is starting to come through.

For the first time in years, I chose a place using my gut feeling. I chose a place that felt right even though I could have found a million reasons to turn my back on it and continue my search.

At 51, the moving process was so wrenching that there were countless times when I convinced myself I’d made the wrong decision. And times when, if I’m frank, I lost the plot completely. As the flat revealed its myriad small faults, it seemed like I’d jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. But I was wrong.

The other day I met the owner of the flat opposite, doing some basic renovation before selling it. She lived in her flat before my time and seems to have partnered since. The family who were renting that flat when I moved in had moved downstairs to the flat below it a few months ago; since then she’s been unable to get tenants and has decided to sell (I couldn’t help wondering how much rent she was asking).

She invited me in to take a quick sticky beak inside her place to see the differences and similarities and for the first time I was able to talk to someone about how great this area is. We both gushed about its many hidden delights, and how astonishing it is that the masses haven’t yet discovered it. For her this now translates into worrying that she won’t get a good enough price for her place; for me it’s affirmation I made the right decision to move here.

‘I used to walk to the beach’, she told me. ‘And to the Elsternwick shopping centre.’ She used to study in a tiny postage stamp sized park which is around the corner, a sweet little triangle of land that features a summer house.

There’s also another park just over the main road, in the neighbouring suburb of Brighton. I’ve only just visited it during the day in the last week, although I’d walked past it on an evening stroll. She used to go there too, she said.

Being able to escape to the beach, even though it’s a bayside beach with industrial elements in the distance, is magical. In the last decade or so the various councils have put money into their foreshores and there are some lovely native grass plantings and inviting timber benches along the walkways. Sometimes I just drive to the shore, get out of the car and stare at the sea for five minutes. Other times I go for walks along it that surprise me with their length – the sea air seems to give me energy. The beach has become my sanity, my touch point.

After our chat I appreciated my place even more. My living room looks out onto two huge trees in the yard of the tenants below me. It’s a lovely view on sunny afternoons when the sun makes patterns on the opposite wall; later as the sun sets I’ll be able to see its orange aura sinking in the west. There’s so much light in this place and it is several degrees warmer than the old place so that I am saving a fortune in heating bills.

I’m so unused to feeling lucky in my life. My constant mantra is a sense of being hard done by – a classic victim mentality. It is unusual for me to feel the emotions of triumph and mastery. Perhaps I perceive these emotions as dangerous, even politically incorrect. When I ‘win’ and something good happens, there is a fear that someone else ‘loses’. It’s creepy to think that one of the hidden self-destructive ideas that I may have taken from my Catholic childhood is that it is fairer on everybody else if I take the dregs of life and don’t strive too hard to gain an advantage. Of course, things can go too far the other way – there is a balance to be struck when it comes to self-interest and perhaps I’m finding it for the first time.

Soon after I moved in to this place, one of the flats downstairs got sold to a brash thirty-something man who, without bothering to inform anyone, started to renovate the bejesus out it (this is the flat my upstairs family of neighbours would later move into, probably for the small yard). One morning suddenly the place was alive with buzz saws, crashes and bangs, and labourers chucking out fixtures and throwing them onto the skip out the front.

In the coming weeks our shared lobby would see an endless stream of noise and activity. But the owner never put drop sheets down. Workmen traipsed back and forth across the carpet and the square terracotta tiles. The tiled area starts inside the lobby, then continues outside, forming a walkway to the front entrance of the block.

The tiles and carpet would never be the same again. I surmised that all the flats in the block must be owned by investors – none of the owners seemed to know or care about the damage to the common property. At one stage the owner had a contraption set up on the patch of grass outside the security door, where the new kitchen and bathroom tiles he was installing would be dipped in cement and then taken into the flat. Drip, drip, drip on the terracotta tiles, not to mention that patch of grass turning into mud although moss and grass have since grown back.

The terracotta tiles now have cement stains and skid marks. The ones on the walkway from the street have new cracks and chips.

But the whole thing did get cleaned up. One day the daggy coronet carpet no longer had plaster flecks all over it. Same with the tiles, although to this day they’ve never been mopped. Inside the flat, though I never got a proper look, I glimpsed a beautifully renovated place with meticulously chosen fittings.

And since that day my mind has turned  the damaged terracotta and the neat but faded patch of carpet outside the front door of the renovated flat – carpet that now has a pale layer of ground-in dirt – into a metaphor.

That transformation mirrors my experience of moving house. The lack of method, the speed of it, the sense of being thrown out of one place and into another. I paid a high price for that speediness, but the end result was good.

For the first weeks there was psychic and physical exhaustion. With all the packing and lifting of boxes I’d damaged tendons in both arms, and for the first two or three months lived in terror I would lose the ability to do basic things. The damage was then worsened by RSI. Both arms are a lot better now. But even while I was most worried about them I thought of them as war injuries sustained in the process of my hero’s journey.

The roughness of things, their natural decay. I will damage this house, I accept that now. My kitchen and bathroom both have white ceramic tiles on the floor. There were already cracks on them and I dutifully photographed these when I first moved in. But I have noticed small chips since then and wondered if I did them and if so how. Why worry? Life is wear and tear. 

Things get damaged. My tendons got strained, and I escaped my dungeon.

In my twelve-step peer support group we are urged to ‘accept disorder in lesser things’ while recovering from mental illness. For many weeks I accepted a surface disorder while I was improving the underlying order of my life.

I certainly don’t want to discount the shortcomings of this place. The main one that I haven’t solved yet is sleep. There are two things interfering with this: the excessive light in my bedroom that the venetians don’t cut out and the fact that the soundproofing is absolutely non-existent – Victorian soundproofing standards became incredibly lax in the seventies, when these flats were built.

It’s not just the degree of noise I fear but its unpredictability. The neighbours are mostly quiet daring the week but every and now then it sounds as if someone’s clomping around the bedroom below mine on stilts. I was letting myself get very unsettled by this and it got to a point of crisis.

Then I realised I had to start changing my thinking about it. I had to stop telling myself how terrible it was and accept that sleep was hard for me, but insomnia wouldn’t kill me. I still sleep badly but I accept that now, and am getting better at sleeping without ear plugs. I can always catch up during the day if I have to. I know that’s bad sleep hygiene but sometimes 
I’ve just been too tired to function without a nap.

If life can get worse, I am discovering, it can also get better. I’ve still got a long way to go but moving house has definitely been a step forward for me.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: Shy: A Memoir by Sian Prior

An attractive, forty-something woman peers around a gallery, trying vainly to find her partner in the buzzing party crowd. ‘A familiar sensation was sweeping through my body’, Sian Prior writes. ‘It was as if someone had spiked my drink so that instead of sparkling mineral water I was now sipping a kind of effervescent cement’. Unable to spot a familiar face, she starts to sweat and her stomach churns. Alight with panic she flees the party, not even recognising the ‘calm, confident blonde woman’ she glimpses in a mirror on the way out.

Prior, a successful arts journalist, choir master, public speaker and media consultant, suffers from crippling shyness. But this Renaissance woman is also a published author and writing teacher, and the incident jolts her into an exploration of the paradox of her life – that someone so comfortable in the public spotlight could also be felled by terror in unstructured social situations.

That paradox makes this book unique. Its author was born to tell her own story of shyness because her professional persona is the perfect vehicle for spreading the message.

Shy is no conventional memoir, but nor is it a self-help book. Prior ditches a chronological account of her life and replaces it with a panoply of elements – interviews with psychologists (including her own mother, Margot) and her own research; playful lists; play-offs between incidents from her past and theories of shyness – to present a frank account that is often funny, sometimes poignant and always engaging.

Although the result can feel anarchic at times, it works beautifully; experience and vivid recollection step in where the research evidence is simplistic, suggesting both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific definitions.

To cope with the shyness she has battled all along, Prior developed a persona she calls ‘Professional Sian’ – a confident, polished performer who knows how to fake it till she makes it.

But ‘Shy Sian’ surfaces when there is no script, no structure. And for Prior this has meant a lifetime of lost social and romantic opportunities  – from Sally, the school friend round the corner who the young Sian is too scared to visit, to ‘the beautiful dark-eyed boy glimpsed in the stairwell of my first high school’. She has missed out not just on sex but ‘the subtle semaphore of attraction’.

For Prior, shyness is as much about fearful thoughts – what she calls the ‘what ifs’ – as it is about the intensely discomfiting physical symptoms: ‘armpits drenched, throat clenched, locked in battle with myself’. While travelling in Europe in her twenties, Prior develops a stubborn throat lump: ‘Lying on my hostel bunk in the night I would feel it resting there, nuzzling at my vocal cords’.

There is a central narrative here that anchors Prior’s account to the recent past. For ten years she lived with the musician Paul Kelly (whom Prior calls Tom in the book) – an Australia folk hero, one of our national bards. She reveals their slow-burning courtship, which blossomed into a shared life, and the cocooning effect of this relationship on her sense of self.

Her relationship with Tom and other life experiences are held up to the light to examine what shyness isn’t as much as what it is. Is it genetic? What is its relationship to social phobia? Is it the same as introversion, or can a shy person be an extrovert? How does Tom’s fame relate to Prior’s own contradictory stance towards being in the spotlight? Is shyness related to hypersensitivity? She explores the positive character traits that go with shyness, like empathy, conscientiousness and a willingness to listen.

Then the unthinkable happens and Tom announces he is leaving. Suddenly the very rejection that all shy people fear has come to pass.

Upheaval follows, but it is viewed in the light of a formative childhood event – deepening the examination of the origins of shyness in ways that take it far beyond the biological.

Prior’s writing is fresh, visual, funny. She has a sharp recall of the quotidian detail but also the insight and hard-won wisdom of someone who has battled to live a socially and emotionally fulfilling life in the midst of a sometimes crippling fear.

Yet there is something implicit in this book that Prior herself doesn’t pay much attention to. Given the rise of positive psychology, I looked for the protective factors that enabled Prior to seek out significant relationships and pursue professional success.

Without diminishing her pain, I was also interested in the class aspects of her success – her psychologist mother is an obvious factor, as is her immersion in the world of classical music and love affair with the clarinet. But what about schooling – was a private school, with its small class sizes and individualised attention, a strengthening influence?

Prior, intent on exploring a trait that has been hidden and denied in her public life, seems mostly oblivious to these broader questions, although two things stand out that will be useful to anyone who is shy. ‘Professional Sian’ first came into being because Prior was able to find, in a high-profile environmental job, a cause far larger than her own insecurities. She also singles out a passionate curiosity about other people and the world as an incentive to push past her fears.

In public appearances since writing the book, Prior has discussed how risky it felt to break the illusion of her professional competence by publishing Shy. While her discoveries did not lead to the cure she originally hoped for, they have enabled a new-found acceptance, and Prior claims she is no longer embarrassed to be shy.

While Prior’s level of professional success may seem out of reach to many of us shy people, I found this encouraging rather than dispiriting. I suspect most of us have our own version of Professional Sian, and although she may not be as reliable or fearless as Prior’s version, this writer offers a bold role model for risk taking and a path to self-acceptance that many readers will benefit from.

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.