Somehow it is March 10th and I only have two and a half weeks left in Perth before I fly to Cambodia for a fortnight, then back to London for a friend’s wedding. I feel like I’ve been here for no time at all. The first month involved me being in an intense state of shock, burnout, grief and exhaustion. However, it also a time of happiness catching up with family and other overseas-based Perthites while we had the chance. It was a time of wildly fluctuating emotions – having a really nice day-trip to Rottnest Island for example, despite hiding the fact I was silently crying on some of our bike rides. Having a ball celebrating my Dad’s birthday dinner before being hit with a wave of low mood – kind of a low pressure system for the heart, and retreating to my room in an attempt not to ruin everyone else’s night.

The smartest thing I did during that time was go and see a GP, who asked me to give him a rundown of what happened. I delivered a matter-of-fact summary of the end of 2016 re: work, money, relationship, dog and living situation (i.e. residing with my whole family in the suburbs with no car and no job). I think the poor guy thought I had finished after the first couple of things, but his eyebrows rose further up his face as I went on. I wrapped things up as quickly as I could, and he slowly leant forwards and typed into his notes ‘situational life crisis’. ‘OMG yas’ I thought,  that is exactly right. He went on to explain that as my anxiety, depression and severe stress symptoms (I did that scale thing) were due to external factors, he did not want to put me on any antidepressant medication. I was cool with that. He also said he could write me a mental health care plan which would give me six bulk-billed Psychology sessions. I was definitely cool with that! I was about to stand up and leave when he said “I’m going to write you a medical certificate for Centrelink”. Say what?! He told me that he thought it would be good for my mental health if I had a break from working…but that I needed money for my self esteem and to reduce stress. When I arrived I had sold some employee shares that Woolworths had given me at the age of 19, and that had given me a boost of cash when I first arrived. To see it steadily dwindling away, however, created a tightness in my chest about having to find a job when I badly needed rest. The thought of re-inserting myself into the Perth Speech Pathology scene when I had been out of the loop for 5 years was intimidating and triggered off all kinds of ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy’ kind of thoughts. Although going through the initial process of signing on to the dole was arguably not great for my self esteem, I can see now that it was the best thing he could have done for me and I’m glad I stuck with that plan without giving into the internal monologue of “You’re a total loser”. I started working at the age of 14 and have not stopped since (besides a few months when I was travelling), so decided to (try to) stop judging myself so harshly, let myself get better, and take that sweet sweet Government cash. I knew I had another two months to start catching up with everybody else, so besides doing a few fun things, I kept my head low and just focused on getting better. I spent a lot of time with my Mum during the day as she took some time off work, and I gladly let myself be looked after. I caught up with my friends slowly and one or two at a time to keep things manageable.

At some point in the second month I stopped carrying my dog’s collar with me everywhere I went and moved on to another stage.

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World Mental Health Day

Sometimes, life creates a perfect storm and all your chickens come home to roost. In some cases, particularly for those one in three of us who struggle with mental health, they’re demon-chickens. Of course when these demon-chickens burst into the house and start flapping all over your furniture and scratching the rug, you want them to fuck off! You’re scared of them, you make feeble attempts to shoo them away but eventually you give up, let them take over and watch them shit all over your living room.

You understand that these are now your demon-chickens. You resign yourself to living with them for the rest of your life. You start to observe them with a kind of disgusted curiosity. From their behaviour you can tell one of them should be given the name Shame; it likes to roost next to its buddies Self-Loathing and Unworthiness. You notice that these three usually take over a roosting spot from Anger. Anger paces up and down the prime perch screeching at everyone and attacking anyone who comes near, all because it thinks that will make its injured wing feel better, before it runs out of steam and hides behind the curtains.
 
You can’t help but notice a toxic pair – the Obsessive Compulsive Hen and the Catastrophising Rooster, who start off by trying to groom each other carefully and wind up plucking all the feathers off each other’s backs. One of the most horrible, ugly demon-chickens is Paranoia, who broods under the coffee table and watches the other chickens, misinterpreting all of their signals for signs of attack and lashing out unpredictably. But the hugest and most destructive of all these demon-chickens is the Avian Prince Panic Attack. This anxious fowl sleeps for days and nights at a time, hiding away in the shadows of the room. You and all the demon-chickens know he’s there, and you know that if you can keep the others under control just enough so that he doesn’t wake up, you will be able to go about your every day life, working around these unwelcome house guests.
 
For a while after they first arrive, you wake up each day and hate the fact you have these assholes living with you. You think, what did I do to deserve this? If these chickens have come to roost in my house, then I must have done something wrong…all the other houses must have looked too nice and too normal to have chickens from hell take over. They must have been giving out free chicken-wire on your street one day and you were out doing something bad, and didn’t get any. You are too embarrassed to admit to your friends, family or work colleagues that you can’t do something as simple as shooing some birds from your home. You try to cover up the signs, but sometimes you turn up with a telltale feather stuck in your hair. Once or twice you try to storm the room, swinging wildly while the demon-chickens cluck and scurry but do not leave.
 
As time passes, you realise something has to be done. From your observations you understand that the more you glare at the chickens and feel bitter about them being in your house, the bigger and nastier they seem to grow. You realise that you have been unconsciously feeding them, on autopilot, every single day. No wonder they don’t want to leave!
 
You start to see these demon-chickens, these unwanted, unloved house guests in a different light. Instead of letting Shame, Self-Loathing and Unworthiness take over Anger’s perch when he’s finished screeching at everyone, you pick him up gently and put him back in the spotlight. Why does his wing still hurt? How did it get injured in the first place? It takes a while, but you commit to making sure he won’t be in so much pain. Shame, Self-Loathing and Unworthiness start getting fed a different diet made up of little pellets of compassion and forgiveness, and they start to look a bit less demonic and more sad and in need of a hug. Eventually these four fowl decide it might be better to have a wander around the back garden rather than making a mess in the living room all day and all night. Sometimes they still saunter back in, but they are greeted, fed some healthy food and gently sent back out, where they are happiest.
 
There are still some chickens roosting in your living room. That fucker in the shadows is still there, and sometimes you walk out of the house with a feather caught up in your hair. But somehow, you know that one day you will be able to enjoy yourself in your clean living room, with a back yard full of happy chickens.
 
Happy World Mental Health Day!

Summer

As I sit here on my crisp white sheets, bright hot sunlight pouring in through the window onto the pink peonies my new housemate brought home for me, it’s hard to imagine that the last 6 months have been so grim. I feel like I’ve surfaced from underneath grimy bathwater in a sharehouse tub; the weather having the same affect on my outlook on life as it does on the London streets that in the sunlight look cleaner, longer, wider, and invite you to look up rather than down at your (wet) feet.

This ‘Blah’ period started back in January when Jim and I touched down in London after our 6 week amazeballs holiday to Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. Leaving the warmth, love and cuddles with the mini versions of my friends that had sprouted in Perth made the sting of the London chill even harder to handle. Still, Jim and I instagrammed the shit out of our huge jumpers and laughed about what a shock our bodies were going through transitioning from temperatures upwards of 40 degrees (Celsius), to subzero, ear-biting, nipple-hardening conditions (even through layers and layers of clothing – what’s with that?!).We even looked forward to the prospect of snow, since it’s still a novelty for me and really, who doesn’t like snow? I decided to try my hand at reviewing some of the exhibitions, films and theatre productions I have the great privilege to see on a regular basis, and my new goal solidified in my mind – finding a permanent job.

I enjoyed the fact that I had a couple of days off before returning to my contract work. In fact, if I had gone back the day after we returned, I probably would have died when a helicopter crashed into our street after colliding with a crane atop a high-rise building. It hit the ground at 8am, the exact time I would have been walking to the tube and passing the usual people, considering saying ‘Hi’ and not doing it. I heard it happen and at first thought the strange metallic boom was a piece of metal falling off a truck, or even worse, a piece of infrastructure falling off the railway lines that pass overhead near the crash. Then the sirens started, more kept arriving, and the traffic stopped flowing past my window. I dragged myself out of bed in curiosity and looked in amazement at the fireball burning a couple of blocks from my window. In the next couple of days it was announced that two people had died – the pilot and one pedestrian. People told stories about how they had seen the helicopter catapulting towards them and had run for their lives, narrowly avoiding death. The main footage used by the BBC was shot by my friend’s boyfriend who had been knocked off his bike by the impact. I wondered who the victim could have been, and worried in particular that it had been the bin man. On the way home from my first day back at work, I opened the Evening Standard on a busy Hammersmith and City Line train and saw the face of a man I walked past on my early starts. He was notable for his neat beard and for being morbidly obese. As the article explained that everyone who knew him thought he was a fantastic guy, I tried not to cry. I started to wonder what the point of everything was – one minute you’re walking to work, the next you’re burning to death in a pool of aviation fuel. I realised that, like the survivors, he may have seen the helicopter coming but had been unable to run away because of his size.

After the road opened up again I walked to work every day as usual, except this time through the charred remnants of the crash and the photos of the victims pinned to the buildings’ temporary walls. I diligently avoided the mysterious blackened circle on the foothpath. The crane was slowly rebuilt as every day I ducked and weaved my way through commuters into the tube. There’s something about the Underground that can really grind you down if you’re not particularly sure about your decision to be in London. I remember cramming myself into a carriage, feet barely touching the floor, the train trundling forth while everyone desperately tried to block out their surroundings with kindles, phones or bad morning papers. I was face to face with a glum (as in actual upside-down-smile) looking woman in a grey pant suit wearing ill-fitting Apple earphones that loudly blared Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham! The juxtaposition between that catchy 80s party fave and the picture of abject human misery before me made me want to either burst into tears or peals of laughter. I found out that day that my so-called accountants had been acting dodgy and had fucked off back to Australia. This meant that a) I had a massive tax debt, b)  my finances were an incomprehensible mess that I had to find another accountant to take on and c) a few of my friends were in the same boat. Great.

A few weeks after the helicopter crash, a 16 year old ex-student of one of the secondary schools I work at was stabbed to death in a street near the school in the middle of the day. I didn’t know him, but the thought of that happening to one of the kids I work with and just the fact that it happened at all made me feel sick. Some of the students put up a poster of the boy in the corridor and I couldn’t help but look into his eyes every time I walked past. There is evidence that youth offenders and people getting excluded from school largely have undiagnosed speech, language and communication needs. Obviously it’s not the only reason that kids have behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, but it’s been established that people with trouble communicating are at a higher risk for those kind of things. For a while I was looking at the young kids I work with and wondering What’s going to happen to you? I felt a bit helpless. To round it all off, Jim came home one day and told me that a lady in his office had gone down to the basement, locked herself in a rarely used disabled toilet and killed herself. My usual resilience and ability to deal with crappy things was on the verge of disappearing. One day I looked out of my kitchen window and thought Fuck this God forsaken place. I flagged with my Doctor that I wasn’t feeling the best.

Obviously some good things must have happened during that period, but misery breeds misery and my frame of mind only allowed me to see the shit. I suppose I went into survival mode, just keeping my head down and focusing on one thing at a time. Which was scarily similar to the state I was in before I left Perth. Our prolonged winter didn’t help at all – icy winds from Russia combining with grey skies sent from on high to irritate and oppress. I wrote a few pieces and waited to become the next famous blogger in London, which would obviously cure my existential funk. I went for a couple of job interviews and despite getting good feedback and gaining enough points to get the jobs, ONE OTHER PERSON would do better than me and get them. Inconceivable! I realised that up until now – all the way through high school, university and my early career (thinking about it, probably back to primary school as well), things have always come easily to me. I achieved academically whilst distracting everyone around me and misbehaving. I did well at Uni without having to try too hard and I had never, ever been turned down for a job. How things had changed since I bragged about how easy London was for me. What a naive, patronising twat.

Slowly the days got longer and the layers of clothing required to step outside grew less and less. Gradually my usual frame of mind crept back – I decided to see the position I was in regarding my career as a lesson to be learnt – instead of avoiding challenges and coasting along at a B+ level, I had to lift my game and learn perseverance and patience. On the surface I had assumed that as soon as I wanted something I would get it…though I guess deep down I had always worried that if I tried for something I really really wanted and didn’t get it that it would break me. I guess that happened on a lesser scale, but despite being rattled I was OK. And what’s more, I realised that everyone else had similar things happen to them after living in London for any period of time, and you just have to suck it up, get over yourself and get on with it. It still hurts not getting something, but it just makes me want it more and makes me try even harder. I want to do anything I can to stop kids in London going down that horrible path to crime and substance abuse, even if sometimes it’s hard. I want to dedicate myself to them and make sure they’re alright. Jim and I have finally moved in together and now instead of Sainsburys and a main arterial road, I open my window to the sounds of birds singing in the garden and kids laughing over the fence (it hasn’t gone all gross and suburban though – we’re still in Zone 2!). I understand tax better and am with some great accountants, and have finally paid off my debts. Importantly (for me) I have been on a couple of holidays, one of which I will be writing about soon. I’m writing again because it’s for me and I love it, rather than wanting to grab the attention of anyone in particular. Instead of taking the sunshine for granted I love and revel in it like other Londoners and keep in mind how different things can look in the grey. I’ll keep applying for permanent supervisory roles and when I get one I’ll appreciate it so much more. Things aren’t perfect but they’re OK and I feel like I’ll be better mentally prepared when winter rolls around again. Phew.