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.


  1. Hi Catherine,

    Re: "does depersonalisation get more acute with age, as the brain tries to process an increasing bank of memories while also taking in the present?" I suspect it does. This would make sense, given my limited training in neuropsychology. Also, in my experience, depersonalisation occurs when you are in a bit of a "heightened state" brought on by going someone new (with anticipations) after negotiating the stressors of having arrived there. It sounds perfectly natural to me :)

    I have a story to share that you might appreciate. I wrote this last night to a friend:

    "My self-preservation week continues well. We had a toolbox brekky mtg/presentation this morn on "resilience" from one of our organisational development officers ie Paul. It was really good. At one point, he pointed to the importance of having a few mins to recoup every 90 mins, as per neuropsych evidence. In response, I asked Paul how that might be implemented in the team I work in. His response was, "That's a great question, Kate. But, I don't know." I laughed and laughed (perhaps, a little too much), in response. My manager then said that she will work on figuring it out :) To be continued ... "


  2. Hi Kate,

    Love that story - and the laughter - I suspect in that situation I would have had the same instinct as you. That 90 minute thing is interesting. It ties in with the way mental illness seems to be on the rise - people don't get the chance to turn their brains off any more - or perhaps it's a matter of making the time to do that, to sneak it in?

    That idea of the 'heightened state' is helpful - sometimes that feeling makes me wonder if I am a bit 'madder' than I think so it is great to get some affirmation about it, especially in that particular situation. I am getting more and more interested in the connections between mental illness, neoliberal economic policies and feelings of dislocation, isolation etc - lots of food for thought :)