The Mighty DeCluttering Project and that KonMari book

I have had quite the obsession over the past few weeks.

I tend towards hyperfocus on projects – I work a lot better when I have one major task to focus on rather than several little tasks. This is one reason why I have to set aside specific times for “deal with emails and committee work” otherwise my current Super Project will just steamroller everything.

My obsession is decluttering. And reorganising. And tidying.

My obsession – to those not currently blessed with access to my excessively voluminous Facebook presence – may come as a surprise. I’m not generally a domestically inclined person. I like things to be nice and clean and organised – and food mess makes me gag – but I’m rarely willing to put in much effort to make that happen (except for cleaning up food mess, because of the gagging).

Partly due to my natural character, and partly due to my chronic illness / fatigue load, my response to an unmade bed is usually “Well, bugger” and falling into it face first; my response to a pile of clean laundry is generally “yup, it’ll fit” and shoving it into the drawer in whatever way manageable; and my response to clutter on my desk getting in my way is to open the nearest drawer and shovel it in. Life is too short to waste time being neat.

That has often been how I roll. Eventually the clutter and the crap and the chaos (ooh, alliteration!) builds up to a point where I crack. I can almost feel it happen. There’s a little snap in my brain, as of the high E string on an acoustic guitar snapping, a little “ting!” followed by whiplash and a sting on your hand and suddenly everything must be just so or so help me God I will fucking end you. And I go on a cleaning warpath, until my energy runs out, which is usually about six hours. Anything not tidied, organised, washed or thrown out after six (very intense) hours hits a “Meh” button.

Given this tendency, I seem to be the kind of person for whom the KonMari book (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising” by Marie Kondo) was specifically written. Too lazy to maintain a complex environment to a high standard, but desperate to have a simple environment to deal with? That’s me. All me.

I admit I was skeptical at first as to how a book could teach me to tidy – isn’t that like teaching me to wash my hair? Who doesn’t know how to tidy? – but after recommendations from two very different friends, I caved.

Apparently, the answer to “Who doesn’t know how to tidy?” is “pretty much freaking everyone.” Apparently, there is a way to tidy your house that means you don’t have to do it over and over again – so you avoid “rebound”, as Ms Kondo refers to it.

The number of times Husband and I have rolled up our sleeves and sorted out our house, and then looked at it with sighs of satisfaction and declared determinedly that now we will keep it this way are uncounted. We both respond badly to mess. It makes us irritable and depressed and makes it hard to concentrate on any task at hand. We both have a habit of removing to a café or a library to work when our own space is disordered (or even if we just need a change of scene, to be honest, but in my case there is often a stylised “I am an artiste! I cannot work under zese conditions!” response).

And I’ve been slowly becoming aware over the past few years that we have too much crap. Way too much crap. Ludicrous amounts of crap for two people with no kids. We moved from a medium sized flat to a large-ish house with lots of storage to a much smaller house with almost no storage and in that time my Mum moved into a retirement village and suddenly I had to deal with all the crap I’d been stashing at her place and that process has wreaked some havoc upon us.

So what’s the basic secret of this KonMari decluttering method? What are the key features that prevent what the author refers to as “rebound” and what I refer to as “wait a minute, didn’t we tidy this two weeks ago”?

As near as I can tell, there are basically two broad issues (there are other details that I shall delight in writing about, but these are the take home messages).

  1. You have too much shit and you don’t even like most of it that much

KonMari does not phrase it this way. She is very polite. This is Kate-phrasing. This describes about thirty combined years of Kate-and-Husband shit, brought from various sharehouses over the years and acquired as gifts with good intentions and love or just somehow accumulating and breeding over time (three pocket knives? What are they, self-cloning?). This is study notes, conference programs, birthday cards, old essays, records, two record players (one defunct), old computer software and games (floppy discs, people. I’m not even kidding), soft toys, knick-knacks (“And the dust. OH THE DUST.”), worlds of excess clothing, manchester (how many towels?!), board games that we never play (some we fully intend to), DVDs from childhood, jewellery that I never wear, posters we will never put up (but in that process we have found some to set aside for framing).

In short, I have filled our car – a Subaru Forester, no less – five times with things to be taken to the charity shop (I like Parents Without Partners in our community) or the transfer station. This includes the passenger seat. I actually put a seatbelt around boxes, leaving only enough space for me to actually drive the car, and see out the side view windows. The seatbelt is there to prevent bags and boxes from toppling and also to prevent my safety conscious car from shouting at me to belt in my “passenger” (I call him “Mr Crap”).

I have found a local muso to take my Rolling Stone and Audio Tech magazines; Husband is certain he can find someone to enjoy the old Hyper magazines we have (they’re in excellent condition); and, after seeing what they go for, I plan to sell my N64 on eBay.

Basically, it’s impossible to keep a space tidy when it is full of shit. So we need to get rid of that excess shit. That turns out to be about 90% of the work. The “KonMari” method recommends focusing, not on deciding what to discard, but on deciding what to keep. The things you keep are supposed to “spark joy”. I feel this is a bit too specific, and ignores things that do not spark joy but which are necessary, otherwise our horrendous electric stove would be sitting on the nature strip, alongside two boxes of tampons and three bottles of insect repellent, but it’s basically a good principle. Due to cash flow issues combined with weight loss, I’ve also kept my really boring $5 t-shirts from Target, as I like to not be naked. These do not spark joy. They do spark non-nakedness and a lack of arrests for public exposure, which I suppose are joyful things in their own way.

  1. Your shit is disorganised and you don’t have a system

“Keep things with other similar things.” It doesn’t matter if it is annoying to get something out – you need to get it out, so you’re going to do that anyway, and you spend more time with it not being out, so it’s more important that the storage system actually works. Don’t go nuts on storage solutions – you won’t actually need most of them after the Mighty Decluttering.

One good example of the disorganisation is our kitchenware drawers and cupboards. We did throw out a good deal of it, but to my surprise, when actually stacked systematically (and it took me a bit of fidgeting and planning to come up with a system that fit the dimensions of our cupboards and categories of cookware), our pans and trays and tupperware and mini-appliances do actually fit in our cupboards. All it took was proper stacking and a good notion of what goes where.

The key here is that we have maintained this system for four weeks. Husband is in charge of the kitchen in our house, and he is not greatly inclined to spend ages stacking things (I can get quite stuck into it), and the kitchen is still really tidy. The kitchen. Still tidy. For four straight weeks. That’s a record for us. I feel a trophy is necessary, except that would be more clutter.

One other example is the bathroom cabinets. I would basically go through these once a year and reorganise all the medications and whatnot (I have trays in the drawers for this, because otherwise a pain-filled Kate cannot usefully tell a solicitous Husband where the codeine is, especially if one requests over the counter codeine and instead receives prescription codeine. Oh, that was fun. Also, I couldn’t drive anywhere for several hours), and they’d get messy again.

It turns out that, after a rapid whirlwind discard of expired and near-to-expiry things (cough lozenges. We always buy these and never finish the packet), it was much easier to reorganise. I also threw out a metric fuckton of makeup I never wear that had gone crumbly. I probably wear make up about four times a year. I really enjoy it, but only when I’m in the mood, so it’s not worth keeping more than foundation, a couple of lipsticks and a few shades of eyeliner.

I can even keep the drawers tidy. I fold clothes now – and not just in an immediate burst of enthusiasm, but consistently and when I’m not in the mood as well. I’ve maintained a clothes-folding habit. More on that later.

It seems to be about being realistic, about being honest with yourself – not “I might use it or wear it one day” or “it might come in handy”, but “okay, I’ve had this for how long and it has not been of any use to me at all.”

How I have departed from the KonMari method

I haven’t taken all of the book as gospel, although it is all basically good advice and even the parts I have ignored are supported by fairly compelling arguments (except possibly all the animism, but that’s adorable and I like the idea of it anyway).

One of the ways we departed from the method was that, instead of just doing all the discarding first and then tidying, we discarded and then reorganised what we kept as we went. This made things take a bit longer. Also, once things are tidy, you suddenly start to get more annoyed by remaining flaws in your house, so we’ve taken advantage of this deafening roar of motivation to fix things that have been irritating us: the fly screen window in the dining room has been busted ever since we adopted Abby (that correlation does imply causation; we witnessed it personally). I’ve now fixed it (embarrassingly, it took about five minutes and no equipment at all). The doorknob on the front door has been wobbly and loose and becoming increasingly likely to detach over the past year. Husband has now replaced it. Other doorknobs in the house have worn out their threads to the point that you can get trapped in various rooms. They have now been replaced. We even started dealing with car issues we’d been putting off – service for the Ford, wheel alignment and new tyres for the Subaru.

Basically, once we started putting our house in order, we started to feel the urge and the space to put the rest of our lives in order. This is actually exactly what KonMari predicts in her book, but we did it simultaneously with the decluttering.

Also: we didn’t discard CDs. We keep those as backups. We didn’t discard (many) books. I got rid of a few that I don’t feel emotionally attached to in their paper forms, which cleared up a shelf in my study (actually, desk space. I was using it as a “bottom shelf” but it made my desk feel very cramped and cluttered, so I’m pleased to have that space back), but the vast majority of books have been kept. They make us happy. I kept probably about a hundred times the memorabilia that you’re supposed to keep – because I found that handling it did “spark joy.” I have two plastic crates of memories that I genuinely enjoy going through. How often will I go through them? Probably not often, but I am delighted that they are there.

What I learned was that I know that. Previously I felt guilty and grumpy about having all that crap down in The Vault (the downstairs storage area). Now I feel good about it. That’s what I decided to keep, rather than just keeping it by default. I did get rid of about two thirds of it, but what I kept matters to me.

I don’t empty my bag out every day as KonMari recommends. I’m considering making it part of my routine, but as an absent-minded person I think it would be too easy to forget all the things I have to carry with me. Not just “keys, phone, wallet,” but extra things like medications, painkillers, salt for adding to water, sunglasses (prescription), handkerchief, thing for cleaning glasses, earbuds, pens, diary, Kindle or current paperback – all things I carry and actually use on a daily basis.

The thing is that, while KonMari recommends getting rid of most of your books (you already have the information, apparently) and various other things, she also acknowledges that different things bring different people joy, and if those things bring you joy, then by all means keep them! Just make sure you’re not keeping things out of habit: things that will not make you happy, that will just take up space.

Surprising Consequences of Decluttering

When tidying was described as “Life-Changing Magic”, my initial response was to make a loud raspberry noise. I am very mature that way. It’s cleaning, for God’s sake.

Except… it does seem to genuinely function as described. Having a streamlined space makes my brain feel more streamlined. I feel like I have more space in my head to think about my life. It’s hard to describe, but now when I walk into a tidy, organised bathroom, there’s a happy little sigh in the back of my head. The same with my study, with the kitchen, with the dining room. There’s a bit more of a struggle with the bedroom and lounge room – very “lived-in” spaces – but even they have been profoundly improved by the process.

The motivation to tidy up and organise other aspects of our lives has come as a surprise to Husband and myself. We didn’t expect to suddenly book in the car services we’d been putting off, or replace the broken door handles, or nail down the damaged boards on the back deck properly – those things just suddenly seemed worth doing and perfectly manageable. Some things are natural consequences – you cook more when your kitchen is clean – but others are genuinely surprising.

Another one is folding. I suddenly decided that I would try to fold clothes. KonMari said that “folding clothes can be fun!” and I thought immediately “What a load of horseshit!” but decided to give it a try anyway. I wouldn’t describe it as fun.

I would describe it as extremely mindful. When I lay out a piece of clothing, be it t-shirt, pair of socks, or jeans, and then work out how to fold it in and roll it up (I tend to roll things up), I am focusing solely on the feeling of the fabric in my hands, the colours and images on it, the neatness of it. Once it’s done, I place it in the drawer such that I can see all my t-shirts at once. No more rifling through a pile looking for that one black shirt with the design on it that I want that looks like the other black shirts I have without designs on them. It’s just there.

Instead of a frustrating task that I want to put off (mostly because of over-stuffed drawers that won’t close), I now look forwarding to folding and putting away laundry. I close down and just have a quiet sensory experience, just me and the fabric and the drawers. It won’t work that way for everyone, but for some of us, it might turn into a mindfulness exercise.

Another surprising consequence is that my resting heart rate has gone down about five bpm on average since I began this project. Some of that will be because I have such a specific ongoing project – I get stressed when I don’t know what I’m doing the next day, so ongoing projects are very good for me – but some of it is because I don’t have that constant itching at the back of my brain that says “you should tidy that. You should clean that. What’s that doing out? Where is that thing you were looking for? Why is that out where you tripped over it?” and so on.

I am happier with less stuff. This surprises me because I unashamedly like stuff. I like gadgets and books and pictures and memorabilia. These things make me feel comfortable and safe. It turns out that more was not better, and I have not only decluttered my house – I have decluttered my head.

It is immensely satisfying.

Now, onto the rest of the home improvements… (clean roof. Clean gutters. Clear back deck and paths. De-cobweb house. Re-do weatherproofing of house. New oven/stove unit. The list goes on).

 

Diagnosis Roulette: My Pain Vocabulary is Fundamentally Flawed

“So, based on what you’ve told me, I don’t think you’ll need a laparoscopy at this stage. We can revisit that later, if things get worse.”

As I sat in the office of my newly-referred ob/gyn, I felt a sense of relief. At this stage, I’d either recently had or was booked in for: emergency surgery to correct a problem (successful), day surgery to try and prevent that problem from recurring (successful so far), and a colonoscopy to see if we couldn’t find the ultimate cause of that problem (not successful. The mystery remains). I’d come to see this fellow because I’m 34 years old and I have three chronic illnesses and I’d like to have a kid at some point and I wanted to know whether there was anything in that combination of issues that was going to make the process tricky.

I really, at that stage, didn’t want another laparoscopy. I felt I was at capacity for anaesthetics. I didn’t want to recover from surgery, with little holes going through my abdominal wall, and not be able to work out or move around properly, or the massive three-week fatigue and depression that is my response to general anaesthetics.

“We can revisit that later.”

We are damn well going to revisit that.

I am going back to see this fellow on Tuesday to say that now I really, really want a laparoscopy. It’s not that I get off on abdominal wall perforation or passing out or being stuck in bed with a heat pack for a few days. It’s that I’m in pain. Almost constant pain.

And I wonder if that was true even then, but I didn’t acknowledge it, or know how to talk about it; or if the condition has actually progressed; or both.

The problem when talking about pain is, for me, multifaceted. I have numerous friends with chronic pain issues (mostly women or trans, just thinking off the top of my head, and this is relevant for reasons I’ll get to later), and I’m curious to get their input on this issue.

Firstly, as a redhead and a hypermobile person and a person who makes their comfy home on a certain spectrum I don’t talk about publicly very much, my pain processing is… wonky. I wrote about that here, but in a quick summary: I have both a high pain tolerance and a high pain threshold, and often I don’t notice I’m in pain until it gets bad enough to cause nausea or dizziness as a shock response. This is something my body does – I am convinced – to get my attention, because the usual methods haven’t worked (I anthropomorphise my physiology all the time. It keeps things interesting).

Basically, the signal gets lost in the static, and my body has all the symptoms of someone in pain as far as the autonomic nervous system is concerned: blood pressure, heart rate, hormonal fluctuations, etc. The only thing missing is the part where my brain tells me what’s going on. When I do get that signal, it’s kind of muted.

This does not mean I live some gloriously pain-free life. Far from it. I absolutely feel pain. I hate it, the way that most people do. I just don’t always feel it exactly when I’m supposed to or as intensely as I am supposed to. It also varies by the different kinds of pain; I am, as most redheads are, a little more sensitive to pain of the hot/cold variety (although, again, I suspect that hypermobility and ASD issues mute it a little). Acute stabbing ice-pick pain is usually sharp enough to cut through my static (so to speak). As for throbbing, cramping pain, or the burning pain I relate to leg-waxing (which I have not done much of, because blond leg hair gets you out of many feminist quandaries), well, these things don’t really get through properly. The pain of a broken bone, it turns out, falls into this category. Having fractured my finger and my big toe, I found the pain bad enough to distract and upset me (the finger was much worse; I felt nauseated), but not anywhere near as overwhelming as it apparently should have been. I couldn’t even tell the doctor exactly where it hurt when I broke my toe. I had to show him. My hand knew where the pain was. I could find it by touching it. The entire rest of my body was unable to articulate the sensation in any useful way.

So what does this have to do with my vocabulary of pain?

Well, this makes things really difficult in a diagnostic sense, since “where does it hurt?” and “how much?” are pretty basic first-stage questions to ask.

It also means that I can work through a great deal of pain without making a fuss. I do get fatigue from it. I do get grumpy. I do get distracted. Because of these symptoms, Husband often knows I am in serious pain before I know it myself. Then when he asks, I stop, think about it, listen to my body, and I sort of go dowsing for the pain signal. “Oh! There it is. Yes, I have an owie.”

Recently I got cross at Husband, because he was frustrated (on my behalf) by the amount of pain I was in. He kept describing it as “debilitating” and “crippling” and I kept wincing and getting upset, because my standard for “debilitating pain” is either passing out, throwing up, or the acute stabbing pain I described above. If it’s none of those things, it’s not that bad, and I feel that when he describes it that way, I must have been complaining too much or making a big fuss about nothing. This ties into another issue below – but all Husband is doing is describing the effects of the pain, which, essentially is: “I can get nothing done and can’t concentrate.”

But I’ve had a bit of an epiphany.

I was going to write an entirely different blog post this morning. I’m sitting outdoors at a café at Circular Quay, Sydney, on a beautiful sunny winter day, appreciating the bridge and the harbour. I live in Melbourne, and my trips to Sydney are few, and the train always goes past Circular Quay and I see the sun hitting the water and get incredibly wistful. Today I had time before my flight, so I got off the train and sauntered to a café.

I was reading blogs on my phone when I started shifting my body weight uncomfortably. Then wincing. Then taking slow deep breaths through the cramp. I think it was a full ten minutes before I stopped and realised how uncomfortable I really was, and made myself take painkillers (I have painkiller problems. I can’t take NSAIDS – ibuprofen, etc. – because I may probably have Crohn’s. Paracetamol itself does nothing for me. This leaves codeine, which makes me fuzzy, and which I don’t want to become dependent on, so I have to make myself take it with stern internal diatribes).

I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. I was trying to read a blog post about American history and its influence on current politics, and the entry kept swimming in front of my eyes. A few minutes ago I’d been following the implications pretty well. Then I was re-reading paragraphs over and over again to try and make the words make sense. Then I was just breathing through the pain slowly.

And then I realised that it hurt.

It is, to use Husband’s words, genuinely debilitating. It is stopping me from doing basic things that I want to do.

And that’s when I started to wonder if I really had been reporting pain honestly as far as my pain processing is concerned – or if I had been downplaying it. Not on purpose, certainly, but in that kind of instinctive way that women tend to do.

There have been quite a few surveys and studies that reveal the fact that women tend to go to the doctor more than men do, overall. Men tend to try to “tough out” illness and pain, and this usually has pretty disastrous consequences for their health. They end up missing the early intervention stage and ultimately have to take more time off work – and that’s the most benign outcome. While this data could be interpreted as saying that women overreact to illness, most medical professionals make it clear that the opposite is usually true: men tend to underreact, and this is easily linked to some fairly toxic tropes of masculinity and the pressures on men to present a stoic and invulnerable front. Admitting to illness, pain and injury is a vulnerability, a sort of fragility, and there are overwhelming social pressures on men to avoid it. I won’t even go into issues with mental illness stigma. Our male suicide rate is as nasty as it is for good reason.

But women have their own problems with underreporting. We’ll go to a doctor, often feeling guilty for taking their time up with our trivial problem, half-wondering if we shouldn’t just stay home and work through it, and not bother anyone, but you know, what if it gets worse? We should get it checked out now, to avoid trouble later.

Why this guilt and self-doubt? We aren’t subject to the same pressures of performing masculinity – but it turns out we are subject to something else.

We are subject to dismissal. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that, when women say that they’re in pain, and give a rating, doctors instinctively knock it down a couple of notches in their assessment. Not just male doctors, either. The overwhelming instinctive response to female pain is to dismiss it – our understanding of feminine identity is so intertwined with a notion of weakness and fragility that, even when we should know better (“we” meaning “even women” – I’m not a doctor. Well. Not a medical doctor…), we assume that pain is being overreported. We assume that the pain a woman worries about is pain that is not worth dealing with.

I’ve been there. When I was trying to get my mysterious pelvic pain diagnosed (turned out to be endometriosis), I got diagnosed with various things from sub-acute appendicitis to severe constipation. One doctor started to hint at mental illnesses, starting to ask if, well, was I under a lot of stress lately? And I started to wonder if basic PhD stress would cause breakthrough bleeding that I’d never had before, or stabbing pelvic pain, or for me to burst into tears in the middle of a Pap smear from agonising pain which had never ever happened before. I thought that probably that wasn’t the issue.

I switched to another doctor, and she did take me seriously, and thought maybe I had PID, so she sent me off to the Mercy, where an intern said that I absolutely did not have PID but had anyone told me about endometriosis?

That’s a total of four accomplished medical professionals to suggest a condition that is estimated to affect ten percent of women – a disease that is staggeringly under-diagnosed and takes an average of over a decade to get diagnosed, because no-one takes period pain seriously, because bitches be crazy and hysterical, am I right?

But let’s talk about what endometriosis pain actually is. Endometriosis is a condition wherein endometrial cells – the cells that normally line the uterus, and are shed monthly in a hideous glory of blood and inflammation and pain – start hanging around outside the uterus. They wander around the abdominal cavity and form lesions behind the uterus, on the small and large bowel, on the abdominal wall, and basically anywhere they turn up. They then get inflamed and bleed and cause immune responses and other issues. Inside your abdominal cavity.

Then, of course, the repeated attacks from the immune systems eventually cause scarring. When scars form, it’s a form of healing. When things heal, they seal up. They fuse. So your organs stick together in ways that they are not supposed to do, meaning that every time you move, they stretch and pull inside you. Your organs. Tugging at each other. On scar tissue. This is considered quite an advanced state of endo; not everyone has it; and it’s not required for pain.

But when you describe this sort of systemic breakdown, the response you get is usually not “Pfft, that doesn’t sound like it would hurt much” or “yeah but it’s totally natural and women have been doing it forever so why are they complaining.” It’s usually “HOLY FUCK, THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS? WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? GET THAT SHIT SORTED.”

If, of course, all you say is you get bad periods, you’re much more likely to get one of those first two responses. Especially from other women who don’t get “bad periods.”

The pain I’ve been getting is – at least I think – endometriosis pain. Curiously, there’s no correlation between the extent of endometrial lesions and the amount of pain. Women can have extraordinary organ fusion and no pain to speak of; or a couple of pathetic little lesions hanging about and crippling pain. This condition is not well understood at all. When I had my first laparoscopy, I had a few pathetic lesions myself, and pain that was consistent enough and unusual enough that I went through multiple doctors trying to figure out what was wrong.

So, to bring things back to my point: in spite of my determination not to do so, I instinctively underreport pain. I try to describe it by “I am stuck on the couch for multiple days.” I don’t mention the days where I can work through it – even though the only reason I can work through it is because of my messed up pain signalling. I don’t want to push it. I tentatively do push it. I say “Well, it’s pretty unpleasant. It’s not fun.” But I don’t push as hard as I should.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t know how to talk about pain. As a person with chronic illnesses that come with chronic pain (seriously, hypermobility – I usually just ache in my joints and my back, and that’s just normal, and I don’t pay attention to it), and as a woman who has been taught that her pain is irrelevant, and that she should never make a big fuss about her own problems – I don’t have the vocabulary. I don’t know how to understand it or think about it, and that’s ignoring the fact that I don’t even feel it properly half the time. We also don’t remember pain well. This is a perfectly sensible evolutionary strategy, but it means that if I’m not actually in pain at the time that I’m talking to a specialist (and you take what appointment you can get, so there’s every chance a chronic intermittent problem might be in abeyance by the time you get to see them), I have trouble coming to grips with how much pain I was in prior to the appointment, and thus would likely be in again later on.

And when I think about it, I come back to a conversation I had with a GP I didn’t know, at a walk-in clinic, where I’d turned up to ask for Panadeine Forte and my usual pill script that would actually work to manage my endo (up to a point). I explained about my history with endo and how hard it was to get a diagnosis, and the things I went through before anyone even suggested it; and his understandable instinctive response was to defend the medical profession with how hard it is to diagnose endo.

He’s right. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion. The only way to definitively diagnose it is with a laparoscopy, which is also a treatment.

And yet. Ten percent of women. He said “There are so many other things it could be!” and I asked if perhaps we shouldn’t suggest endometriosis after we’ve ruled out those things, instead of going straight to an assumption of mental illness – no, let’s call that what it is: hysteria.

He blinked a bit, agreed that made sense and then said, “But women don’t say they have painful periods. They don’t complain about it.”

Then I unloaded a bit. Politely, as I tend to do. I said, “We don’t know we have painful periods. You can’t compare pain from person to person. There’s no way to share that experience. You just have what you have, and since we’re told from the word go that it’s supposed to hurt a bit, that pain is normal, we just think that’s how it is supposed to work. Literally no-one has told us that it’s okay to complain, that you are not supposed to feel sick and exhausted or pass out or throw up or be unable to move. So no, we don’t say we have painful periods, because we don’t know, and even if we did know, no-one seems to care.”

After that, he asked me many questions about how endo felt, and what books I’d read on it, and said he was going to go away and read more about it, because he really didn’t know much about it. I recommended “Endometriosis for Dummies.” I am not joking.

So I guess, sometimes it is okay to unload and complain about pain.

Good to know. I just wish I knew how to do it more effectively.

 

 

Grief and Guilt

I have only ever lost one human that was close to me. It was pretty brutal. Six months from prognosis to death from terminal lung cancer. It was my first experience with serious human grief. I think I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’m 34 years old and that’s only happened to me once.

That was when I learned that grief didn’t follow the precise, linear pattern I had always been taught to expect by popular culture. I learned that when it hit, it hit hard, and everything stopped, and it was difficult to find your breath. I learned that there were good days, and in their own way, that was awful.

What I didn’t expect was the guilt. I expected some guilt, of course – I felt so guilty that I hadn’t visited more often, that I hadn’t made the time, that I’d taken so long to warm up to her in the first place (I actually take a lot of time to really get close to people. We’re talking years), that I spent more time being shy and wary in her presence than I had being open and genuine. I felt guilty that I didn’t know what to say. “So you’re going to die! Wow. That’s… really shit.” That sort of guilt, the guilt based on awkwardness and regret? It was dreadful but I sort of expected it.

The surprise was the guilt I felt about how I was feeling. On bad days, I felt guilty that I felt so bad. I hadn’t been close to her for a particularly long time; I barely visited; she wasn’t my wife or my mother; I felt like feeling such intense grief was unfair, like I was stealing the feeling somehow from people who had a real right to it. I felt like I was a fraud, an imposter wearing a cloak of pain.

On good days, I felt guilty that I didn’t feel worse. What sort of cold-hearted monster was I that I was able to go about my business, keep troubleshooting my constant PhD lab issues, keep going out with friends, when this monumental thing had happened? Surely, there was something wrong with me. Was I some sort of robot, lacking all human feeling?

It turns out that’s just how grief works.

Grief, of course, isn’t just restricted to the loss of beloved humans. The magnitude and intensity and impact is different with pets, but it’s still real grief. I’m going through this with Jabba, even though it’s only been two days, and of course the guilt takes a different shape. I should have picked a more aggressive chemo protocol, even though we couldn’t really afford it. I should have got the MRI sooner. I should have put him to sleep sooner rather than letting him suffer for three days in the hopes that the recommended shot would have helped him (vet staff were very surprised when it didn’t work. Apparently, it usually does). I should have spent more time with him before he got sick, rather than constantly juggling the demands of cats and dogs and work and family and friends and exercise. Again, that guilt? I was sort of prepared for it.

The guilt I wasn’t prepared for – again – was the guilt about how I was feeling – again. In bad moments, I feel guilty that I’m feeling such things for a cat. I adore my pets, and most of my friends are animal lovers, and no-one has dared to say to me or even imply that it’s just a cat. Most of the people in my life – whether close friends or online friends in forums – know what it’s like to connect with an animal. They get it. But I’ve internalised a lot of the bullshit about how people should feel, how they’re supposed to feel when things happen, and I feel guilty that the loss of a cat – an old, sick cat – is affecting my work output. My diet. My motivation to exercise and take care of myself. At the same time, and perversely, I feel guilty that I dare to feel grief when I spent so much time frustrated that he peed on my things, yowled for attention, kept me up at night demanding affection (as adorable as it was). I don’t deserve to work through grief when I didn’t appreciate him.

In good moments, again, I feel guilty that I’m coping. Because I’m a cold-hearted monster and I shouldn’t let him go so easily in those good moments.

I look back, and I’ve felt the same for the loss of my other pets. I felt guilty about our dogs, Meg and Max, who died when I was in high school and early uni, because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t spend enough time with them, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I felt guilty about my budgie, Bobby, who was only two years old when he died, because I was fourteen and I didn’t pay enough attention to him either.

Going back to the first time: I felt guilty about Baron, who died when I was seven years old. I didn’t recognise it at the time, the squirmy uncomfortable feeling when I thought about him, the fact that for over a year I cried whenever he was mentioned to the consternation of friends and family. But I did feel guilty. He had just always been there, this big black comforting shadow who followed me around in the yard and made sure I didn’t do anything I shouldn’t (he used to block my path to the fernery when I was too small to get down the steps safely, just by sitting there). I was a little kid, and I assumed he always would be there, until he wasn’t, and then I felt like I hadn’t got to say goodbye; and if I’d known that some day he wouldn’t be there, maybe I would have patted him more and thrown his ball for him more. I cried for over a year because I missed him, and because I wasn’t prepared for his death, and also because I didn’t have a name for the guilt that I felt and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Grief isn’t even just about death.

Grief is about relationships, and the loss of them. We expect a certain amount of guilt in those situations, the feeling that we could have or should have done more (whether or not that’s rational or fair), so maybe we don’t analyse it quite as much, or feel so uncomfortable looking at it. But again, after I ended my first serious relationship (five years), I felt guilty. I didn’t have a right to be bawling my eyes out, feeling like my heart had been ripped out, because I was the one who ended it, and I ended it because I wasn’t in love any more. How dare I grieve the loss of a relationship! How dare I miss his friendship! How presumptuous of me! And then on good days, when I went out with friends and had a good time, I felt a little guilty then too – did this mean it hadn’t meant so much to me? That it wasn’t a big deal?

I feel guilty about my relationship with Abusive Parent (or lack thereof). I grieve for the relationship that it isn’t, the relationship that it should have been; I feel guilty that I haven’t tried harder, been more compassionate, cut more slack; I feel like a cold-hearted monster for drawing such a hard line in the sand to protect myself, for saying that “If you continue to hurt me, I won’t talk to you. Ever.”

Grief is a vicious thing, and it’s not at all linear, and it takes different forms. We have to wear it, and feel it, and work through little pieces of it, and in some cases it never completely goes away.

The guilt, though.

I think we need to knock that on the fucking head.

The Jabbanese Empire: Saying Goodbye

The appointment is for 5pm, and it’s 1:30pm now.

He’s sitting next to me in the little heated dome my husband bought for our other cat (and promptly had to buy a second one, because Jabba kept kicking Lestat out and taking it for himself). Occasionally, he purrs. He has once crawled out, half-heartedly, to sit in my lap. Sometimes I put him there and he lies there limply for a bit. I pet him, and he purrs a little bit more.

He smells like cat piss, because it’s reached that point.

He’s 13 years old, maybe 14. I forget exactly. People tell me that’s a good run for a cat. It doesn’t feel like enough, not when Lestat is over eighteen years old and – notwithstanding some arthritis and early cataracts – still in robust health. Sure, Lestat has slowed down a lot. He needs help to get off the bed as well as get back on it. He cuddles under the doona more now because he feels the cold in his joints more and more as the years go by and the winters up here in the ranges just kick him in the teeth – but he’s healthy. He doesn’t have aggressive lymphoma the way Jabba does.

The dome is right next to me, a fluffy little covered cat bed that Jabba hasn’t emerged from since we brought him home from our friend’s place. We were on holiday. He was losing weight, but the chemo seemed to be helping. He was mostly symptom free.

Apparently the drug we chose wasn’t aggressive enough. We came back, and in spite of my friend’s best efforts, he still wasn’t eating much, and his face was swollen. I panicked. Took him to the vet that day; then the specialist the next day.

The lymphoma had spread to his neck. There was a shot we could try, that could make him feel a bit better. Improve his quality of life for a couple of months. It was horrible to see him so miserable, burrowing into my belly for comfort, so I said yes.

As sometimes happens, it didn’t work.

Sometimes I look across at him, and he just looks like he’s sleeping normally instead of lying still, too sick to move. Sometimes I look, and he’s purring again, and I can’t quite grasp that he’s beyond help. He jumped off the couch before, and looked around in confusion before falling over, and starting to crawl. Then he just stopped moving, one paw splayed out sideways. I picked him up, and gently put him back in his fluffy dome.

Those moments are both awful and a relief. They’re awful because he’s so sick, and he got so sick so quickly. It seemed like one minute he was alright, just a bit skinny, and then he was uncomfortable, and obviously miserable, but he was still sort of okay – and now he’s pissing himself and he can’t move.

But those awful moments are a relief because I’m making the right decision. I haven’t known whether I’m making the right decision since we first found out he was sick and we didn’t know what was wrong. I can look back and see moments where I feel like I made the wrong call – we should have done the MRI earlier, and not worried about the general anaesthetic. Maybe we should have tried a more aggressive protocol for chemo. It might not have worked. Maybe it would have.

But we didn’t do those things.

What do I do now? How do I say goodbye? My last dogs died when I was in high school and early uni, and I wasn’t around for either of them. I didn’t learn until afterwards, and the last one – Max – died of natural causes, old age, all by himself. When Baron, our first dog, was put to sleep, I was seven years old, and again I didn’t know about it until it was done. I didn’t even know he was sick. In fact, when Dad said “I had to put the old boy down,” I didn’t know what he meant. My brother started crying, but I just looked at Dad and said “Down? Down where?”

I hate euphemisms sometimes.

My budgie died when I was in year eight, but I wasn’t anywhere near as attached to him as I am to Jabba. I know that people can have a very strong bond with their birds, and I certainly liked him, and I cried when he died, but there wasn’t this same sort of ache.

Jabba just stuck his head out of the dome, resting on the side of it (he can’t really raise his head. He could yesterday), and looked at me. I pulled him out to lie on my lap and he seems content. I do expect him to piss on me at some point, but that’s okay. I think on your last day in the world you’re allowed to lose control of your bladder and no-one’s going to hold it against you.

It’s 1:46pm. Husband is coming home, and we will probably leave for the vet at about 4:45pm. So I have three hours with my cat, in the house. What do I do? I’ve put the dogs outside so I can just sit quietly with him on the couch. It sucks for them – it’s raining and it’s been raining all day – but they’ll have all the tomorrows to be inside and be cuddled and walked and played with, and Jabba won’t, so I’m just shouldering the guilt and moving on with it.

I’m petting him, and watching TV half-heartedly. I can’t quite find it in myself to do anything else. Occasionally I pause the show to pet him, get that rewarding little purr that he has always been so generous with, and wonder how I let it get this bad before I decided to let him go. I wonder how I could have let him go without it getting this bad first, without being sure it wouldn’t get better.

I was never a cat person. I like cats, but I’ve always been a dog person at heart. I don’t quite understand how cats work, even though I find them fascinating. Jabba was the first cat I completely loved. He attached himself to me so thoroughly that I couldn’t help but love him back.

There will never be another cat like Jabba. Not one so sweet and needy and talkative exactly like he was. I’m so glad I got to have a cat who killed a toy mouse and brought it to me (I threw it, thinking it was a game, but apparently it was a present), who pounced on the mattress when I turned it while making the bed, who loved to play with dried spaghetti and crawl all over me in pursuit of my breakfast bowl; who let Amos know that there was a Zone of Clearance beyond which dogs would not be permitted, but tolerated him from a distance of greater then three feet; who even in the last few weeks would sit at the little baby gate separating Dog Territory from Cat Territory and sing the song of his people until I gave him yoghurt; who would cuddle onto my lap in forty degree heat, debunking the myth that “Cats are aloof and don’t care about affection; it’s just your body heat that they’re after,” while I sweated profusely but didn’t kick him off.

They’re all different. I know I’ll have to go through this at least three more times, and the thought is so awful, but for now, it gets to be all about Jabba.

Who, for the next few hours, is still my little fluff elemental; and always will be.

Addendum: Jabba died in my lap about twenty minutes after I wrote this. At least it’s over now.

The Jabbanese Empire: Cancer Cat, Chemotherapy Cat, Happy Cat

At the time of Jabba’s diagnosis, there were several Facebook updates, and nothing on the blog. I’m in a position now to continue the tale of “The Rise and Fall of the Jabbanese Empire.” It has been an emotional rollercoaster for a pet-lover like myself, but it has taken us to a surprisingly mellow place.

When we last left our fluffy little grey hero, he was covered in snot and blood on a daily basis, losing weight, and snorting constantly. Cleaning his face, nose and fur were daily tasks, and he smelled like death. We had tested for everything the vet specialist could think of that didn’t involve a general anaesthetic, but we’d come to that pass: it was time for an MRI (and a possible rhinoscopy).

So I dropped off my cat, gave him a cuddle, and went and sat around in Burwood, twitching and upset. Eventually a friend asked if I wanted to come and keep her company while she walked her puppy at the dog park and, since it was less than fifteen minutes away, and I wasn’t getting anything done in Burwood, I said yes, sure, brilliant. Also – puppy!

Eventually – after hours that felt like an eternity – my phone rang.

Jabba had woken up from his general anaesthetic, bright eyed and bushy-tailed (snotty tailed?), even perkier than most younger cats that don’t have a heart murmur, so the vets were pleased. And surprised. We can confidently say that he doesn’t have a problem with generals.

He needed a couple of hours to recover, so I sat and visited with my friend and her puppy before heading back to collect my fluff elemental.

It wasn’t good news.

They didn’t even get to the rhinoscopy, because as soon as they looked at the MRI, they saw the giant tumour behind his nose. This meant he didn’t spend too much time under, and the bill was a few hundred dollars less, but really, that was the only positive.

Husband and I were pretty devastated, and we still had a few days to wait for the biopsy results which would tell us what treatment options – if any – were appropriate. We cuddled our snotty, stinky cat, and eyeballed our bank account wondering what was going to happen.

The biopsy results came back: feline nasal lymphoma.

Okay, the first two descriptors were pretty obvious, but lymphoma – as aggressive cancers go in cats – was good news. It’s one of the easiest cancers to treat in cats (especially nasal lymphoma). It’s by far the most common cancer; and it doesn’t tend to spread, meaning that Jabba wasn’t likely in pain from it.

The enormous relief I felt upon hearing that last item is indescribable. I felt dizzy with it. I didn’t even know how much it had been weighing on me, thinking that my cat was suffering from his cancer and I didn’t know how much and whether or not it was time for euthanasia and how would we tell anyway since cats are so stoic, and I didn’t want to let him go and I didn’t want to let him suffer either but… not in pain. In fact, probably just cranky about the snot and discomfort and difficulty breathing.

It also turns out that being on steroids helps with lymphoma, and it just so happened that Jabba was already on prednisone. This was to treat his allergy to the felimazole, which was to treat his hyperthyroidism (“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…”). He was also on Norvasc, to treat his blood pressure. Three pills, daily. We were working out a system.

Our lovely specialist vet (who I refer to as Super Vet) gave us our first estimate for chemotherapy – the most intensive and well-studied protocol.

For anyone else doing research, I will share the number, which normally I wouldn’t do, but I was trying to find information on this and I couldn’t.

$7000.

That’s for a really intense protocol, with a cannula and transfusions and sedation and blood work. It has an average two year survival period for feline lymphoma.

That… was not in the realms of possibility for us (not at this time). It also sounded incredibly stressful for Jabba, with constant sedations to allow long-term infusion of chemotherapy drugs. I asked if there were any other options, and there were, but they needed to be costed out.

Super-vet went away, and came back three days later with two more protocols. The major drawback to the two of them is that they were less aggressive, and so presumed to be less effective, but more importantly, there weren’t major studies with good sample sizes to tell us how effective they could be. One protocol – the pills, which we have ended up adopting – had been shown to be effective with intestinal lymphoma, but obviously that behaves differently from nasal lymphoma.

A word, here, on chemotherapy for pets. You can find this information by Googling widely, but the take-home point is this: chemotherapy for pets is not like chemotherapy in humans. Chemotherapy for humans is incredibly intense. We essentially torture humans in the hope of a cure, and we sign up for this, knowing that the potential benefits will hopefully outweigh the costs. We understand that we are suffering in the hopes of survival, or at least an extended lifespan.

You could never explain that to a pet. They would never understand. Their suffering would be horrible and to them would seem endless. It’s an ethical disaster.

Chemotherapy for pets is a vastly reduced regime relative to what humans go through. The dose (relative to size and metabolism) is titchy. The goal is to get them remission, and a couple more years of good quality life with their humans. Because of this reduced goal, a lot of pets are much happier and healthier on chemo than off chemo, because the cancer effects are reduced. You can’t really say that about humans on chemo.

I mention this because when you tell people you’ve got a pet on chemotherapy, they look at you like you’re a little bit mad – essentially, why are you torturing your already suffering animal? And that’s a fair response, and speaks well to their humanity and compassion. It’s just inaccurate in this case.

So we went with the pills, which works out to something much more affordable for us, and much less stressful to administer. They have to be kept in the fridge, and as they are cytotoxic, handled with gloves, but Jabba is used to being given pills so adding one more every two days (every three now, anyway) is not the end of the world. In fact, as he is slowly learning that after I give him his evening medications, he gets a giant pile of cat treats, he is getting increasingly mellow about the process.

I cannot convince him to just eat the pills. I have to shove them down his throat. He tolerates this better than he once did.

So, how has this worked out for wee Jabba?

I was actually away in Perth for work when the pills came in, so Husband began the process of administering the cytotoxic medication. Apparently, for the first few days Jabba threw up a few times and didn’t eat much, which was expected, and that settled.

After about a week and a half, Husband reported no change, and sounded worried.

Getting closer to two weeks – not far from when I was due to go home – he said “He… definitely seemed less snotty today. But I might be imagining it.”

Two days later:

“He is definitely looking better.”

Then I got home, and saw the improvement with my own eyes. I’d left for Perth with a mucous-faced, snotty, stinky, bony, lethargic cat, and come home to a clean, fluffy, talkative, but still bony, cat. Apparently while I was away, he’d been eating less. He had even been refusing his beloved treats. Husband had asked Super-vet about this, and she suggested it was separation anxiety.

This is not surprising. Jabba is an extremely needy cat, and he’s always been very much my cat. I’m the one who spent some time wooing him, luring him, petting him, and earning his affections at my mother-in-law’s house, and he pretty much latched onto me like a limpet.

I got home and he started scarfing food and treats like food was about to be banned.

The improvement continues. His fur is growing back. He’s putting on weight. We’ve taken to feeding him full fat Greek yoghurt from our breakfast stash in an effort to fatten him up, which means we’ve created a monster that constantly demands to partake of my breakfast. He sits at my study door and sings the song of his people until I let him in to lick the bowl clean. The vet nurse fully endorsed the yoghurt, adding that the cultures would probably do him some good while he was on chemo as well.

I am so, so, so glad we did this. I’m so glad we didn’t decide that chemotherapy was a bad idea, and that we didn’t listen to people who were saying “but he’s thirteen! Why put him through that?” as it turns out we really haven’t put him through that much and he is so much happier now. To anyone who is not sure about chemotherapy for their cat, well, it will depend on what type of cancer and what your vet recommends, but – if you can afford it (and vet care is really expensive, there is no judgement for not being able to afford it) – I highly recommend it.

I don’t know how long this will last. I don’t know what remission will look like, or when we will finally have to say goodbye to my little grey cat and let him return to the Elemental Plane of Fluff, but in the meantime, he is back to his old snuggly, purry, fluffy self.

He is so much happier on his poison pills.

 

O Bendy Gymster: That Kid

Remember P.E. in high school? Or primary school?

Remember how there was always one kid who struggled? That kid who got picked last when there were teams, that kid who couldn’t field a goal if their life depended on it and honestly wasn’t sure what “field a goal” even meant, that kid who always tried to get out of it by “being the scorer”? Maybe one day you were having trouble with the drills or the exercises, and you looked down the row and thought, “Well, hey, at least I’m not as bad at it as [That Kid].”

Or maybe you were That Kid. Hi! I’m That Kid too!

I was chubby, which makes running around uncomfortable sometimes – sometimes that’s just psychological, because kids can be gold plated arseholes. I was also hypermobile, although I didn’t know it, and looking back I now know that’s why it hurt so much just to move sometimes, and why I couldn’t move fast enough or well enough to do the things other kids took for granted.

Maybe you weren’t chubby, or bendy. Maybe you had some other issue you didn’t know about. Maybe you didn’t have any physical issues but you just didn’t like doing this stuff in front of other people, or maybe you were just a bit of a late bloomer with physical coordination, or maybe – just maybe – as it is in so many cases – it was a total self-fulfilling prophecy, with other kids giving you shit to the point that you couldn’t even remotely believe in yourself. Or maybe you had the kind of physical issue that makes the whole thing doomed from the very beginning.

There’s a whole club of us sedentary kids. Hating P.E. is not uncommon. I get frustrated when I see a lot of ranting about childhood obesity (oh for so many reasons, but I will only touch on one aspect of this today – trust me, there’s so much else to get angry about) and how kids “don’t want to move and they only want to play with their iPads or Playstations” or some other kind of generational judgemental wankery.

Have they considered that there is a reason kids don’t want to move that has nothing to do with laziness?

Have they considered that “going outside to get fresh air” might actually involve getting picked on by other kids?

Or feeling really stupid and sore when they trip over or bump into things?

Maybe the reason they like playing games, or reading, or whatever indoor sedentary thing they are doing, is that they are good at that thing and it is fun, and being good at things is fun, and doing something you are not good at that is physically painful is really not fun.

I just get a bit tired of this judgement.

I wasn’t completely inactive as a kid. I did like riding my little white BMX with purple tire rims. I came off it many times, but the whoosh of riding down the hill or the driveway was unbeatable to me, so I actually kept it up in spite of the pain. It was an activity that didn’t pummel my joints (not that I knew that was the problem back then). It was amazing. It was the only exercise I did for many, many years, and even then I walked my bike uphill (because riding bikes uphill messes with my hips).

The problem can also be with the system. The P.E. teachers that I had in primary school and (with one exception, which I will talk about in a moment) in high school didn’t seem to know how to deal with kids who didn’t want to participate. They didn’t seem interested in finding out why kids didn’t want to participate. I did have one teacher in primary school who let me score more often than he probably should have, and I suspect it’s because he noticed how much shit I got when I actually participated in the games, and took pity on me. It probably wasn’t an ideal solution, but he noticed, and that was something. I don’t even know if I could have articulated why I hated moving so much – I honestly thought I was a freak for feeling sore and uncomfortable, and that it was my fault for being lazy or fat, so I didn’t really engage with that feeling much – but not once did a sports or physical education teacher ask why I didn’t want to do it.

Remember this was mostly over twenty years ago, and maybe things have gotten better. Maybe P.E. teachers today are more in touch with the problem. And I’m not a teacher. I’m guessing this stuff is pretty challenging! All the same, I’ve seen maths teachers get really passionate about trying to get kids to engage, about finding out where the problems are coming from, about acknowledging when it is a confidence issue and trying to deal with that – as difficult as it is, and as impossible as it might be for one teacher to resolve such a huge issue – and I wonder: I had one P.E. teacher like that.

I had one P.E. teacher who, when she noticed how low my fitness test score was, took me aside and asked what physical activity things I liked doing, and could I make time to do more of those things? Were there places near where I lived where I could do that? She did not pressure me, or hassle me, or pick on me in front of the class. She waited until the end of the class and took me aside for a moment just as the bell rang. She did not make me feel like a failure, or harp on about my size, or emphasise what a terrible score I had gotten. She didn’t have to. She knew I was aware of these things and there was no point making a fuss. What we wanted was a way to make things better.

I rode my bike nearly every day after school for half an hour, and I got my score up by 45%. I still couldn’t run to save myself, but in every other area I experienced massive improvement.

Sadly, that’s not a “local girl makes good” story. In spite of my good intentions, the minute I wasn’t doing P.E. anymore, I was doing VCE (that was year 11 and 12 hell in my state at that time), and time or inclination for exercise – which was, on the whole, still uncomfortable and embarrassing – fell completely by the wayside.

The good intentions stuck around. In early uni, when I still lived at home, I’d go for occasional Very Long Walks (living in the hills has some bonuses), although that was less about exercise and more about ESCAAAAPE, FREEEDOM, AAAAIR, and getting out of a household that was genuinely frightening a lot of the time. When I moved out I’d go for occasional bike rides, and getting around just involved a fair chunk of walking. It never really moved beyond that, though.

What I really wanted to do was scuba dive. It’s funny, looking back on it now (I actually get paid to dive), that I felt like the major hurdle wasn’t money (I was living off student assistance and data entry work, so it was a major hurdle, and it would be some years before I did manage to get my Open Water certification). I felt like my major hurdle was fitness.

I’ve written before about being “diving fit”; the only actual requirement in terms of certification is being able to swim 200m, any stroke, without stopping to gasp for breath. While I can do this now without a problem, at the time the prospect was terrifying. It wasn’t just the idea of flailing about in the water trying to get my body to cooperate with me- it was the idea of people watching me and judging me on my ability to get my body to cooperate with me. I remembered how it felt to have my body watched and judged on its movement from primary school and high school. I remembered that my body pretty much always failed, and I remembered how horrible it felt.

I now know that I have a bit of an advantage on this front, having grown up in Australia. In Australia, we take for granted that kids will learn to swim. They might not swim well, they might not be strong swimmers, or fast, but they’ll stay afloat and be safe in the water. The vast majority of our population lives close to the coastline, and we like to go to the beach when we can (even in Melbourne). We prefer not to drown, so we teach our kids to swim. It’s a part of the school curriculum. Looking back, I also know that swimming was a great place for a hypermobile person to start.

But at the time, I didn’t think of things in that light. I knew I could stay afloat and get from A to B, presuming that A and B weren’t too far apart and there wasn’t much of a current. That was all.

So there I was, early twenties, and terrified of the limitations of my body in light of what I felt were its past (and apparently inexplicable) failures. And yet I was determined to do this thing. I just needed a push to get started.

I’ll be honest. If it hadn’t been for my one supportive P.E. teacher in high school, I wouldn’t have had even the shaky faith I did. She had supported me, and gently nudged me, and taught me that if I did push my body a little bit, it would get better at doing physical things. It could learn; it could get fitter and stronger. Before that, I honestly believed I was stuck. That it could never get better.

Enter my friend-who-would-probably-prefer-not-to-be-named. She was a serious gym junkie. So many classes, so little time! I told her I wanted to swim, and I wanted to get fitter, but I was really nervous and anxious.

She gave me a big spiel about how fun gym was, and how I should totally do Body Pump (which I eventually did) and Body Combat (which I also did, although in the first class I actually did have to sit down because I thought I was going to throw up about halfway through), but when I said I was too scared to do those things, she just said that was fine, she was happy to drive me to the pool anyway, because that was where her classes were.

It turned out all I needed was company, and a lift. I swam while she did her classes, and she drove me home, and we chatted.

That was all that happened for a while. Then I thought, “Well… I did do a little kung fu when I was fourteen…” and did Body Combat. When no-one made fun of me for having to sit down halfway through the class, and the instructor just accepted my “I’ll be fine in a minute” with a shrug and a wave, I thought, “Oh. It’s true. No one actually cares that I suck!”

And I kept going.

And then I did Body Pump, which I widely consider to be a gateway drug to free weights training.

And it went from there.

This was how I learned that my body could get better at moving. This was how I learned I could get fitter, and stronger. I needed the support; I needed the encouragement, the nudge, the lift to the gym and the company; and I needed enough of those things to offset the toxic experiences I had in my earlier years, living in an uncooperative body in a highly competitive sporting culture.

So, maybe next time you’re tempted to say something about how “kids these days” don’t move enough, or go outside, or whatever the relevant complaint is – maybe consider asking why exercise and the outdoors aren’t fun for them. Maybe consider that there’s a reason they’re making these particular choices rather than just assuming they’re lazy. We need to make movement and the outdoors fun for everyone, not just the kids who were going to do it anyway. We need to make it fun for the heavy kids, the uncoordinated kids, the short-sighted kids, the dorky kids, the disabled kids (for whom relevant or useful exercise is already a minefield). We need to learn not to turn a blind eye to the problems. We need to acknowledge them and solve them.

We don’t want people to have to wait until they’re 23 years old to cultivate a half-decent relationship with their body in motion.

Were you That Kid? Did you know That Kid? I’d love to hear stories and opinions in the comments.

Whimsical Banality: How I Find Coffee

I’ve just returned from spending two weeks in Perth, followed by a weekend in Sydney. During that time, I drank a fair amount of coffee, and I did not have a single coffee that was even average, let alone bad. They were all excellent. I manage this by a combination of Zomato and shameless profiling (my “get coffee from the first Middle Eastern place you see” strategy has yet to let me down).

I used to drink cappucinos with three sugars, many years ago. I now drink short macchiatos – or long blacks – or espresso shots – with no sugar whatsoever. This is what happens when you discover that, not only are you mildly lactose intolerant, but you hate the taste of soy milk, and sugar is actually making you feel sick in the long run. To be fair, I don’t mind soy milk in chai, but these days even chai lattes are too high in carbs and sugars for me to safely consume.

The problem with the “macchiato or black” coffee preference is that, for reasons I don’t quite understand (not being a barista), most average to half-decent cafes mess them up horribly. Burnt milk. Bitter beans. It’s the kind of experience that makes my tongue want to curl up and die in my mouth.

In fact, since I moved to the hills, this experience has become so common to me that I’ve started wondering whether I actually like coffee. Maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ve been fooling myself this whole time. Maybe I just thought I liked coffee, but was addicted to the caffeine hit, and perpetuating a cycle of sensory punishment: imminent tongue death.

Then, of course, I went to Perth, and stayed above a hipster “Breakfast Bar.” Not only did they do marvellous spanish baked eggs, but their coffee was exceptional. Every day. Every single day I got a “traditional long mac” (Perth has this weird “topped up” macchiato where they basically fill it with milk, which makes me wonder why you wouldn’t just order a freaking latte, but they can have whatever weird coffee practice they like when they give me such excellent coffees). Or maybe two. And they were unerringly awesome.

When I stopped off in Sydney “on the way home” (it wasn’t really on the way, but hey) to visit a friend I sorely miss, I consulted Zomato, which reliably steered me to the Harika café in Ashfield, which not only had marvellous coffee, but really good baclava (yes, I broke keto that weekend. Long story).

Once again, I had amazing coffees. I had two, because they were so good I needed a second one.

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So, I thought, I’ve confirmed that I do actually like coffee. And I really do like macchiatos. What’s going on back in Melbourne?

Melbourne has an understandably bloated reputation as the coffee capital of Australia. We are – justifiably – proud of our hipster cafes and the glorious influence of wave after wave of European immigrants who brought with them various styles of tasty bitter black brew.

So why can I find good coffee when I travel – nearly anywhere in the world (with the exception of most of S.E. Asia, where instead I mostly drink amazing tea, because why miss that opportunity?) – but at home, I end up stuck with coffee that kills the inside of my mouth?

I’ve found good coffee in Amsterdam, in Scotland (admittedly that wasn’t easy), in Norway (to be fair, I had a friend guide me), in America (Boston and Portland also kind of make it easy), in Indonesia. I’ve had quite passable coffee in Thailand and Malaysia (although, as stated above, I am inclined to take the opportunity to drink tea).

I should be able to find good coffee in the suburbs of freaking Melbourne, but off the top of my head, I can think of one café which usually gives me a good long mac (but about a third of the time will burn the crap out of it. Their food is excellent and the staff are amazing but hell, guys), and one which so far has always given me a good long mac (but it’s a fifteen minute drive away from my house and the food is quite expensive. It’s an indulgent trip, that one).

Don’t get me wrong. In the inner city, I have very little trouble.

But honestly, the suburbs need to lift their game.