Hello, and welcome back to my blog – follow this link to the audio version if you prefer to listen. I hope you’re doing well.
Keeping the past behind closed curtains
I’ve been grappling with hard stuff. It’s been sneaking out from behind the heavy velvet curtains that usually keep the stage of my past hidden from view, a stage where painful memories play out. The dialogue is incessant and impossible to ignore. Conversations had, things said, people I’ve failed, others who’ve let me down, unmet needs. It’s easy for people to tell you to just ‘forget the past’. But it doesn’t work like that. The past is part of us. There are moments when I think that it’s all too hard and I could murder a strong drink or other mind-altering drug. But I know this won’t solve the problem. The only way out of the discomfort is through the pain.
Desperately seeking peace
The heat has been stifling here in Perth recently which has prevented me from taking the long walks that are my panacea. Instead, I’ve been sitting in the air-conditioned kitchen, trying to train my brain to shut up, and desperately seeking the peace of meditation. Of course, when we desperately seek anything, it rarely comes! So, instead, I’ve had to plod along in earnest, keeping house, feeding the family, cuddling sulky house-bound George, being an understanding ear for my husband, supporting my kids as the new academic year begins, fighting the demons that tell me that I’m not good enough which is holding me back from starting my counselling practice, and doing my best to deal with resentful thoughts about the past that often paralyse me. I keep telling myself that I am better than that. While I know that I can choose to let them go, they still shake me up every time. I realise that the stored memories of the past will always be there and will regularly be stirred up by certain triggers. There is still much work to be done to ensure that I handle them differently. I can’t keep letting them creep in uninvited, without having a strategy in place to address them when they do. More on that later.
Despite the mental unrest of late, I have been lucky that peace has been coming to me in the form of sleep. Until Sunday night, that is. My daughter rushed into the kitchen in a state of utter disbelief and shock. We had heard on Saturday’s news that a 16-year-old girl had been mauled to death by a shark in Perth. It wasn’t until Sunday that I learnt, from my daughter, that the victim, Stella, was known to us. My daughter and Stella did gymnastics together when they were little, and in more recent years, played on the same hockey team. I know Stella’s parents to say hello to, and have always admired them as caring, loving parents. I cannot get their beautiful faces out of my head, and find it impossible to imagine how they will cope with the grief of losing their eldest daughter. Then I think about Stella’s younger sister and how she must be feeling. The story is dominating the news at the moment, so it’s impossible to get away from it. Everywhere I turn I see images of Stella and I think about the bright future she had ahead of her. Gone in one single encounter with a shark. Stella had been swimming with her friends in the Swan River on a scorching hot day, doing what thousands of other young people were doing at the same time all around the country during this typical Aussie summer. To think that her life could be taken so tragically, in front of her friends, is incomprehensible. It’s been over a hundred years since a person was killed by a shark attack in a river. Such a rare and random thing to happen. I cried into the early hours. I cried for the parents, for the sister, for her friends, and for poor Stella. I prayed that her suffering was short. When I did manage to sleep, it was disturbed. I woke to the story being told again on the 6am news which serves as my husband’s alarm clock. I wish he would find a gentler way to wake up!
On Monday morning, I emerged from the bedroom in autopilot, without taking the time to gather my thoughts or meditate. I went straight into supporting my daughter who I could only assume was still finding it hard to come to terms with the news. Her way of dealing with strong emotions is to go on her phone and escape. I tried to encourage her to talk. We both unleashed our feelings and created a bit of emotional mayhem between us. Sadness, fear, and anger engulfed the kitchen air while we both tried to make sense of what had happened to Stella. Before I knew it, the time had slipped by, and we were running late. We hurried out the door and met with Monday morning rush-our traffic. My daughter was worried that she was going to be in trouble for being late for school. I decided to take a detour to avoid the big queue at the traffic lights. On a side road, sitting behind a woman who wasn’t in any rush at all, generously giving way to other cars, I lost it. I beeped at her aggressively, shouting at her to get out of my bloody way. I had a fit of road rage. She stopped her car in front of mine, impeding my way, walked up to my window and yelled at me. I put my window down and told her that she doesn’t own the road and that some of us are in a hurry, to which she replied, ‘You need to grow some patience, and be a better role model for your daughter.’ I looked at my daughter and burst out crying. I couldn’t speak. I was shaking with rage. What hit me the hardest about the whole incident was that I had lost it. That I could not think clearly.
I was in the wrong. If it hadn’t been for my heightened emotional state, I would’ve handled the situation very differently. I know because I have been in all sorts of situations before, some a lot worse, where I have managed to keep my cool and let it all go over my head. Instead, my lack of emotional regulation meant that I behaved like a toddler, throwing a tantrum. I kissed my daughter before saying goodbye to her at the school, drove home mindfully, knowing that I’d had my wake-up call and I needed to take care. When I got home, I felt the familiar tightness in my throat that comes when I struggle to deal with my feelings. My heart was racing, my nerves felt frayed, and I wanted to scream. A part of me wished I had a pill I could take to just calm me down, to take the edge off. George came to me. He must have sensed my angst. He looked at me, then looked outside. I followed his gaze and saw that it was cloudy. I checked the temperature and discovered that it was only 26 degrees and immediately felt a ray of hope that we could walk to my happy place without fear of George burning his paws. And off we went. To begin with, I committed to not think about what had happened. I counted my steps instead, and grounded myself in the present moment, studying the trees and admiring the native parrots. By the time we reached my happy place, under the paperbark trees, I felt calmer and in a better state to meditate. A trick that someone recently taught me is this: stand with your feet hip-width apart, feel steady with the ground beneath you. Keeping your arms straight, lift them above your head, pointing your hands to the sky. Stand like this, breathing mindfully, while counting slowly to one hundred. I can’t tell you why, but it soothes me. Then I was able to sit with my eyes closed, my internal gaze focused on my higher self – that part of me that can observe what’s happening in my mind. I watched thoughts come and I let them go. With a calmer mind, I began to accept that negative thoughts and feelings will crop up from time to time, but it’s how I respond to them that counts. The secret is to be aware of them in the first place. Then we can choose what we do with them. It’s not always possible to forgive and forget, but it is possible to accept and move on.
Work in progress
I will never be perfect. I am the kind of person who wants to do better, but I sometimes take a few steps back before I can move forward. What’s important is that I am moving in the right direction, even if it doesn’t always feel like I’m doing it quickly enough. Life is all about the journey, much less about the destination. I am a work in progress. I wonder if I didn’t have 1,366 sober days under my belt how different would my take be on all of this. I reckon I’d be beating myself up much more and feeling shameful about my thoughts and feelings. But I know better than that now. I know that I’m on the right track. One of the most powerful things I read during my early days of sobriety is this quote from psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl, ‘Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ It’s important to remind myself of this as it’s not funny how easily I forget it. Today I choose to say hello to unhelpful thoughts, memories, and feelings. I choose to acknowledge them, understand where they come from, and then let them go. I know it’s easier said than done, but ultimately, I also know that it is a choice. I am not a victim of my thoughts; I am their master!
Rest peacefully, beautiful Stella. In your memory, I vow to take more moments to ground myself in the present and to savour the life that I have.
Thanks for reading this far. Hope you found it helpful. Love, Gill x