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My life with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has placed a strain on the very relationships that once gave way to warmth. It holds me close and tight and doesn’t let go until I am left feeling the brunt of its cruelty.

I suffer from disturbing, intrusive thoughts, over which I have no control. These intrusive thoughts can be cruel, and invade my brain throughout the day. With no warning. They threaten the very foundations in which make my life bearable – friendships and relationships.

These destructive thoughts hold me back from enjoying existence. They make me question who I am.

I feel there is something wrong with me.

I have OCD.​

I know the shame that intrusive thoughts bring about. So, I understand that only one-third of the 500,000 OCD sufferers in Australia seek treatment. For a long time, I refused to discuss it with anyone, but it becomes overwhelming and too difficult to keep locked away in my brain.

OCD calls on the demons hiding in the most remote corners of my brain to come downstairs and ruin my optimistic outlook on life. They convince me that I’m a despicable human and a danger to myself and others.

I won’t discuss in detail the context of my thoughts, what I will say though is that they cause such immense grief, I often feel my stomach may very well expel from my body.

The thoughts come in tsunami-like episodes, getting worse as time moves on, leading to one of the most heartbreaking episodes of all.

It had been a long night. I had been locked away from the outside world for just over a week. One could call it a self-isolation of a brain, my brain. It had been occurring for months, years even, somewhat episodically, but this time, it was all too much. I couldn’t handle the strain my brain placed over me. I had called a few helplines who suggested going to see someone but little did they know I was already in the process of finding someone. But as it was approaching Christmas, the wait for an appointment was well over 3-4 months.

My friend and I had planned to meet up for dinner and dessert, however, my eyes, stained red from distress, gave way to crucial evidence. She had been there for me two years earlier when the thought of still being around in 2019 felt like a mere fantasy.

It wasn’t an ideal situation. I sat in my car for 15 minutes trying to calm myself down. Once I felt the air float back into my lungs, I escaped the confinements of my car and made my way to her work. The sun, in its slow process of setting, shone a light shade of pink throughout the plaza.

“Just keep looking at the sunset,” I thought to myself. “It’s going to be a new day soon and this will all be a distant and faint memory.”

When you’re about to panic or on the verge of crying, the best thing someone can do is ask “R U OK?”, but I’ve found that this causes the flood gates to burst open, leading to a tsunami of emotion. The tsunami releases all the negativity trapped inside, explosions and cascades of gasps and tears tearing through the silence of their response. This occurred that night as I waited in the empty plaza outside the department store. Waiting. Breathing. Silence.

“Hey!” she said.

“Shit,” I thought.

Her smile often brings joy and the warm fuzzies, but on this day I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming army of joyless demons crush against my chest. The infection spread from my chest to my stomach as my hands started to tremble. I let out a nasty cry and fell into her arms.

She was the first person I told my thoughts to.

Everything spilt out in a rapid eruption of words and tears. I told her of the thoughts that caved away into the deepest parts of my brain, and how I had no control over them. These thoughts, intruding around my body as if on vacation refused to withdraw.

After 30 minutes of ugly crying, my friend thought it best that we call a mental health crisis helpline. Another 30 minutes went by. My ugly crying grew stronger and my friend performed her duty as a translator, relaying information onto the mental health officers.

I was too busy attempting to breathe. By 9:30 pm we were in the hospital’s mental health ward. Unfortunately, not my first time sitting in an emergency department due to mental health complications. What felt like a 30-minute wait turned into a 6-hour wait.

A lengthy couple of months ensued. I saw several mental health officers including a psychiatrist who put my mind at ease, informing me that these thoughts weren’t me. Asking me a very important question:

“If these thoughts, in any way, represented the type of person you were, then why would they cause you so much distress?” He said. “So much distress that it caused you to question your place on this earth.”

I finally had the answers, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

It was a relief when I finally had an answer for the thoughts. These maleficent thoughts were so overwhelming that I questioned my place on this earth. And for the week leading up to that night, my brain spun into what felt like a never-ending cycle. Continuing to ask the same three questions:

Why are these thoughts in my head?

Why are they coming back with more ferocity than the last time?

Should I still be alive if I have these thoughts?

The truth is, at that time I wasn’t sure why I was having them; I didn’t realise that OCD could bring about such nasty thoughts. Thoughts that made me feel physically sick. It was as if a hand had made its way down my throat, stuck these ideas in my gut then withdrew in a hurry. Scurrying far away, leaving no evidence it was once there. It left doubt in the pit of my stomach. I asked myself – Am I this sick? Am I capable of these ideas? Is this me?

If these thoughts did in any way portray the kind of person I was, then in no way did I want them to be true. This is why that night I was in such distress. Once I was suffering from this “episode” it felt as though the thoughts would never end. With my previous episodes, I had managed to force the ideas to disappear after 2 or 3 days, but I couldn’t this time.

When I realized I had no control over them a wall of shame crashed into me. This was the moment I decided to lock myself away. Fortunately for me, I had already planned that dinner date with my friend. My stomach wanted to stay locked away, but my brain saved the day. My body activated the “Save Sarah Mode”, hoisting me up, out and into the car. On my way, I went.

Luckily for me, there are be people in my life I could and still to this day can trust. You can spill your guts to them, metaphorically that is.

Even if you feel like you are alone, stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean, someone will eventually turn up, even if they are also stuck in the middle of the ocean, maybe in a dingy. Together you will form an unbreakable bond, forced together by the wildest of fears and thoughts and anxieties that crash against you like the wild, unpredictable waves they are.

 

My friend, that night, was my lifeboat.

There is this misconception that OCD only encompasses cleaning, organising, washing hands or turning light switches on and off. Now, even though these are common compulsions, it doesn’t represent everyone who has the misfortune of living with OCD. And for me, it made it difficult to speak up about my diagnoses.

Since experiencing this terrible uncontrollable episode, I have found peace. I am now able to open up to people regarding my OCD. I am able to accept that these thoughts aren’t me. And I am not able to control some thoughts that come my way.

 

If you or anyone you know require assistance in relation to distressing thoughts and/or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Precautions taken by medical staff left new mum, Jess Bowen, feeling traumatised, “diseased” and excluded during her first birthing experience.

 “I felt like I was diseased. The doctor would whisper to the nurse that I should have my mask on like I had the Corona Virus. It felt awful.”

Credit: Jess Bowen

Melbourne mum and hairdresser, Jess Bowen, gave birth to her first baby on the 28th of March this year, when the pandemic was beginning.

“My pregnancy was wonderful. I didn’t have any complications and I was excited to give birth,” shares Jess.

At Jess’s final appointment with her midwife, protein was found in the urine indicating pre-eclampsia, whereupon she was admitted into the hospital and immediately induced.

Jess laughs about not having enough time to gather her things, pack a bag or worst of all, “put on fake tan”.

Being a new mum is stressful without the added pressures of a global crisis. Jess describes her experience at the hospital as “traumatic”. She says the nurses were cold and “on edge with Covid happening. This made them short and abrupt.”

Once admitted, Jess was induced using a Foley Bulb induction, commonly known as the “Balloon Method”, where a Foley catheter is inserted into the cervix and is inflated, with sterilised water or air, over a period of time to help the cervix dilate for birth.

The nurses monitored her during the process by checking her dilation using their fingers. “It felt awful,” Jess recalls. “There’d be no warning. Just enter the room, stick their fingers in and would be disappointed because I wasn’t dilating fast enough. They weren’t reassuring me so it would just make me feel anxious.”

Credit: danielledobson_photographer

Eventually, the doctor arrived to examine her.

“He was really quite abrupt and rude. He basically told me that I had a disease (referencing her pre-eclampsia). I’m a new mum and it’s not really something that I want to hear. He just said I have a disease and we have to get this baby out.”

Jess says at one point she coughed to clear her throat, and the doctor immediately pulled the nurse aside and whispered, “she should have a mask on”.

“It was horrible to hear that. I felt so excluded and was already feeling disgusting from when the doctor called me diseased earlier.”

Jess can’t help but think how her experience may have differed if she wasn’t giving birth during these unprecedented times.

Jess rarely saw the doctor after this. Any interactions from the medical staff were limited until she was ready to deliver. After a day of the Balloon, she had only dilated one centimetre and needed to try another method.

Credit: danielledobson_photographer

 

Jess speaks highly of her head midwife, Jenny, throughout this process saying, “She was out of this world amazing, overall an experience from having that doctor, she made it so much better.”

She was then induced through the use of Oxytocin, which is a synthetic hormone that is administered through a drip in the arm to start the contractions.

Jess describes these contractions to be the most painful thing she’s ever experienced before.

 

“Immediately I felt anxious. I felt really depressed. They basically said to me that I needed to try, because at this point, I was feeling deflated and wanted to have a C-section.”

A few hours after starting the Oxytocin, Jess felt a sharp pain to the right of her stomach and had the urge to go to the toilet. The head midwife checked her and told her that she was three centimetres dilated. Jess immediately asked for an epidural, which was a 15-minute wait. During that time, Jess says she dilated 10 centimetres and was ready to deliver.

Jess went into shock and was crying through “the worst pain of her life”.

“Throughout the pushing process, I didn’t opt for any gas or pain relief because I was in such shock. It was a traumatic experience for me with everything that was going on and the treatment of the staff with Covid-19. It was frightening.”

Jess finally gave birth to her beautiful girl, Isla. Fortunately, she had her partner with her through this process.

Credit: danielledobson_photographer

“No one else was allowed to visit me in the hospital and my partner was only allowed during a small time-frame in the day, so during the inducing process and after giving birth, I didn’t have support from my family to get me through this. I just wanted my mum there.”

Hours after Jess gave birth, the nurses continued to monitor her bleeding through a weighing process to ensure there weren’t any further complications. Jess explains being “on a high with adrenaline” throughout this and wasn’t paying attention to the rising concern from the nurses as she surpassed a litre of blood.

After 20 minutes from her last check-up, Jess had sat up and explained the sensation of her “water breaking”. Jess lost 1.8 litres of blood and the head midwife called the surgeon. She recalled nurses accidentally dropping blood on the ground and described her room to be a “murder scene”.

During emergency surgery, Jess says they put a plastic box over her head. “It made me feel really small. The surgeon felt bad about it and was trying to reassure me that it was just protocol with Covid-19.”

After this, Jess was relatively okay. She had spent the last remaining hours after surgery with her partner and her new baby girl, but at 5 AM, her partner was told to leave.

“My partner was annoyed but I was still running on adrenaline, so I was less upset. I was happy and messaging my family about the good news and it was just one of those situations where ‘it is what it is’.”

Credit: Jess Bowen

When Jess was finally able to go home, Victoria’s first round of lockdown’s was in full effect and she spent her first weeks as a mother trapped in her home alone with her partner. Jess was suffering from the baby blues and wasn’t able to lean on her family for help.

“It felt like everything I was doing was wrong. I was barely sleeping, could barely walk because of the blood loss. I just didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t a single day during the six-week lockdown where I didn’t cry.”

Jess speaks about the importance of seeking help. The moment lockdown ended, she went to her psychiatrist and was put on anti-depressant medication.

“No one ever warns you about the way you feel after you give birth. I felt like it was unusual to be experiencing this level of sadness and anxiety when I have the most perfectly healthy baby girl who was gaining weight. Everyone else seemed so happy after their birth that it was hard not to compare myself to them.”

Isla is now five months old and Jess is feeling tremendously better. The lockdown had lifted so that gave her time to introduce her new baby to her family and friends.

“The medication is really helping. I’m starting to feel like myself again and my partner is seeing the improvements too.”

Even though Melbourne has gone back into lockdown again, she’s sad that her family don’t get to see Isla during some significant milestones, she feels much more prepared and stable to tackle what comes next.

We rely on health advice from an industry that simply promotes the latest fad, designed to exploit the vulnerable out of their money. Diet culture wants us to feel bad about our bodies, leading us down a dangerous path of disordered eating behaviours and exercise misuse, inevitably, only profiting those who fool us.

Weight loss TV shows, stick thin celebrities, the ‘obesity epidemic’, Body Mass Index (BMI), bad foods and ‘skinny’ jeans. As a millennial, these were terms and images I was heavily exposed to throughout my childhood and teenage years.

I was a 15 year old girl, eagerly jogging on my treadmill in front of the TV while watching The Biggest Loser. I would dream of living a life like the contestants, exercising for hours on end and following strict eating regimes to ‘transform’ my body.

At school we learnt about BMI, and were required to calculate our own measurements; an activity becoming a petri dish of comparisons and judgment.

The influences that I grew up with were seen as normal, and even healthy, but have resulted in detrimental and dangerous outcomes. I am not alone in my history of disordered eating.

Close to 1 million Australians are living with an eating disorder, with less than one quarter of those receiving treatment or support. A 2012 report commissioned by The Butterfly Foundation, found that females make up 64% of the total.

Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a mental illness which can be identified as an unhealthy preoccupation with exercise, body weight or shape, and eating habits. Eating disorder behaviours can include restricting, bingeing, compulsive overeating and purging. Purging can extend to vomiting, laxative abuse and excessive exercising.

There are also secondary eating disorder behaviours, which can often fly under the radar due to the influence of diet culture, which creates a sense of normalcy when it comes to obsessing over wellness.

Secondary Eating Disorder Behaviours

Carolyn Costin is a clinician, author and speaker, well-known for her expertise in the eating disorder field. In her book 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, she discusses food rules, food rituals and exercise dependance.

Food rules:
  • Being unable to trust internal hunger and fullness cues without a ‘rule’ or ‘guide’.
  • Limiting choices of foods or food groups based on rules.
  • Measuring foods based on numbers such as calories or time.
  • Feeling a sense of control over food, and therefore out of control when food rules cannot be followed.
Food rituals:
  • Participating in food behaviours that create a sense of ‘safety’ around food.
  • Preparing food in a specific way.
  • Consuming foods at the same time every day.
  • Eating foods in a particular order.
  • A feeling of anxiety if the food ritual cannot be followed.
Exercise misuse:
  • Compulsive exercise is a commonly justified behaviour.
  • Exercise is no longer a choice, but an obligation.
  • Exercise is linked to self worth.
  • Exercise is continued through injury and illness.
  • Social engagements are cancelled for exercise.
  • Exercise is used to compensate for eating.

Diet Culture

Diet culture has a long history, and its roots are embedded in the media, science, medicine, religion and racism today. The anti-diet movement has been established to fight back against an industry that we are conditioned to believe has our best interests at heart.

Christy Harrison is an intuitive eating coach, anti-diet dietitian, and author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating.

She describes diet culture as a system that:

  • “Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal”.
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
  • Demonizes certain foods while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of your food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
  • And oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which means you experience internalized stigma and shame—and perhaps external stigma and discrimination as well—for all the ways in which you don’t meet diet culture’s impossible standards.”

Diet culture is cunning and clever, we may not even realise when it is meddling with our lives. The identifying trends and behaviours are so normalised in society today, that it sneaks up on us in workplace lunch rooms, at social events, even through our internal voice, which may echo the food rules from our dieting pasts. Diet culture is inescapable.

“The implication is clear: eating anything other than the correct diaita made people less than fully human. The term diet, then, was bound up from the start with ideas about morality, restriction, the renunciation of pleasure, and the superiority of certain races.”

The Anti-Diet Approach

Anti-diet is anti-diet culture. The approach has a focus on overall wellbeing, rather than weight loss, and it shows us how the foods we eat and what our bodies look like, are not tied to moral virtue or social status.

Diet culture makes us believe that we have to ‘beat’ our hunger and change our bodies in order to find happiness and self worth.

Christy says, “Diet culture is a form of oppression, and dismantling it is essential for creating a world that’s just and peaceful for people in ALL bodies.”

Research supports this notion and confirms that diet’s don’t work. A 2019 study concludes: “The increases in BMI and WC were greater in dieters than in non‐dieters, suggesting dieting attempts to be non‐functional in the long term in the general population.”

To adopt the anti-diet approach, we need to keep our wits about us. Organisations know that diets don’t work, and have been moving away from language such as ‘diet’ and ‘weight loss’, instead, changing their language to terms like ‘wellness’. The diets have not ceased, they have just changed forms.

Diets are often disguised through buzz words such as ‘protocol’, ‘clean eating’, ‘health reset’, ‘nutrition challenge’ or ’lifestyle change’.

How can we adopt the anti-diet approach and fight back against diet culture? We can keep an eye out for diet culture red flags.

Diet Culture Red Flags

  • Wellness programs with a weight loss focus.
  • The use of before and after photos.
  • A program that gives food a moral value such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, including ‘traffic light’ systems and the like, that categorise foods.
  • Eliminating foods or food groups, without a medical reason.
  • Focusing on numbers such as calories, percentages, or time.
  • Buzz words like ‘cleansing’ or ‘detoxing’.
  • Tracking of calories, exercise or steps.

What can we do now to start adopting the anti-diet approach? We can identify diet culture through it’s red flags, notice our own internal dialogue when it comes to food, say no to fad and perfectionistic diets, and unfollow social media accounts that make us feel bad about our bodies or food choices. When we stop engaging in diet culture, diet culture loses its power.

“Weight loss doesn’t heal people from their internalised weight stigma. Bad body image is not cured by weight loss.” – Lisa DuBreuil in Anti-Diet.

Melbourne mother of four and body positive artist, Tania Sutton (44), shares how she escaped the shackles of the destructive eating disorder that took over her life. She recovered for the sake of her family.

*Please be aware some readers may find this content triggering.

“Ed, this was the name I gave to my eating disorder,” Tania recalls, “and for a long time Ed was my confidant, my best friend, or so I thought.”

Eating disorders creep into your life without realising it. Tania remembers the promises Ed made to her in the beginning: “It starts out like a new friend, teaching you ways to make you happier, ways to cope and a promise to you that as long as you follow all the rules, you will reach some sort of enlightenment.”

Eating disorders occur for various reasons, including genetic vulnerability, psychological factors and social-cultural influences. Figures show the prevalence of eating disorders is rising rapidly; Beyond Blue reports one in four Australians know someone who has experienced an eating disorder.

Tania struggles to pinpoint the exact cause of her eating disorder, but believes her need for perfectionism and sensitivity about her physical appearance were predisposing factors.

Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender, body size, age and socio-economic factors.

From a young age, Tania felt a constant sense of anxiety; if she was unable to do something exactly right, this fed her belief something was fundamentally wrong with her.

Tania describes an intense need to be accepted by others. “Anytime someone else was complimented on their physical appearance, it reinforced the idea I wasn’t good enough.” Yet, when she received compliments, especially in relation to her body size, it fuelled her desire to continue the behaviours that led to the compliment.

As time went on, Tania struggled to separate herself from her eating disorder. The voice of Ed grew stronger, convincing Tania to punish herself through under-eating in order to equal out all of the perceived faults in life.

“If I was thin, then I would be happy, people would like me and possibly love me.” The truth was, Tania was loved, but her eating disorder made her believe those around her were only pretending, “I felt like I didn’t belong in society, I was a failure, disgusting and unlovable.”

Tania describes how weak she became, both mentally and physically. “Starvation has horrible consequences on the brain, I didn’t have the energy to fight and my ability to think logically had gone out of the window”. She believes this is part of what makes seeking help so difficult, “My thought process was really obscure to everyone else, but to me it made perfect sense. I was convinced I could never get better, I believed everyone was out to see me fail and therefore if I gave up Ed and followed a treatment plan, I would have failed and I couldn’t do that.”

“Ed, this was the name I gave to my eating disorder,” Tana recalls, “and for a long time Ed was my confidant, my best friend, or so I thought.”

Becoming a mother and seeing her body grow and change only emphasised Tania’s preoccupation with her appearance. Feeling incompetent as a parent reinforced to Tania that she needed to keep punishing herself. The use of restrictive behaviours and keeping herself busy became a form of self-punishment she believed would somehow cancel out her perceived inadequacy as a parent.

Tania remembers trying to be there for her children and doing the best she could, but never being able to feel fully present. Tania describes her head as a “battle ground” which led to her being distracted and irritable.

Tania greatly resisted treatment for a long time, deleting her therapist’s number on several occasion. She would lash out verbally at her treatment team and remembers one incident where her GP refused to allow her to see her weight. “I was furious because in my eyes this meant I was not allowed to see what kind of a day I was going to have; at that time the number on the scale would define a good or a bad day.”

Tania’s eating disorder behaviours continued until something convinced her to make a change. Tania recalls driving home from an appointment; her daughter was going through a particularly difficult time, and despite Tania’s best efforts she felt she could not be fully there for her daughter. The eating disorder voice grew louder and louder until it was screaming in her ear, blaming her for everything that was wrong. Tania knew her daughter needed her, but she was chained to her eating disorder. It was at this point she decided to seek help.

“I couldn’t continue the same behaviours and be a mother at the same time anymore, I was exhausted and so was my family.”

“I couldn’t continue the same behaviours and be a mother at the same time anymore, I was exhausted and so was my family.”  Although she could never find the strength to recover for her own sake, her family became the motivation she needed.

Tania was fortunate enough to be referred to a psychologist and a dietitian, who each had a special interest in eating disorders and with whom Tania instantly connected.

Recovery was tough, Tania recalls. “I had to relearn to trust my body and myself. I had to let those close to me, my husband and treatment team, be in charge of what I needed.”

Tania credits her family’s support for helping her to recover; “They helped me fight when I didn’t want to anymore, they loved me at my worst and stood by my side.”

Tania says recovering from her eating disorder has enabled her to be a better mum, “we had our fourth child after I had decided to not engage with Ed and I am able to play with him much more; I played with my other kids, but mentally I wasn’t there, now I am.”

“The first time I went out in public after deciding to no longer engage in Ed’s demands, I was in a shopping centre with one of my daughters and I turned to her said ‘wow, it’s so bright and colourful in here’, the eating disorder made my world so dark and dull. The world is literally more colourful without Ed.”

Tania now has four children aged between five and 22 and uses her own experience to teach her children “to question what they see and hear when it comes to societal beauty standards in the hope they will adopt a healthy attitude.”

“Starvation has horrible consequences on the brain, I didn’t have the energy to fight and my ability to think logically had gone out of the window.”

Tania no longer engages in eating disorder behaviours. She enjoys food and appreciates her body; she no longer weighs herself, as it no longer bothers her what size she is. “I have realised my weight does not equal my worth.”

In choosing Recovery, Tania simultaneously unleashed her creative side. “Art became such an outlet for me and a communication tool, it allowed me to transfer the nightmare in my head into a two dimensional surface. Not only was that therapeutic, it allowed others to understand what I was thinking and struggling with.”

Tania uses her talent and love of painting, drawing and printmaking to create figurative and portraiture art work, t-shirt prints and bag designs that spread mental health awareness. Tania recently had the pleasure of designing the logo for the ‘Body Positive Expo’ that was held in Melbourne; an event which united hundreds of people, sharing their own experiences of disordered eating and negative body image. Tania’s eye-catching logo depicted the individuality of all body shapes and sizes to celebrate their uniqueness.

Recovery is something Tania is still working on. She makes sure she does something every day to support her mental health and reaches out when she is struggling.

“Sure I have days where I don’t feel so confident in my skin or in myself but that’s because I’m human. Now though, my thoughts aren’t taken over by self-hate.” She also describes her relationship with food as being healthier than it has ever been: “I honour my cravings and listen to my body. I trust my body and I treat it with love as it is my closest friend.”

http://www.offspringmagazine.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/yF2VFW-Q.jpg

“Art became such an outlet for me and a communication tool, it allowed me to transfer the nightmare in my head into a two dimensional surface. Not only was that therapeutic, it allowed others to understand what I was thinking and struggling with.”

 

Figures show fewer than 25 per cent of people with an eating disorder receive the care they need. Tania hopes her recovery journey and the messages she conveys through her art will reduce the stigma and encourage others to seek help.

“Mental illness is not a choice, but Recovery is. It’s not always easy to work through our struggles but if we push ourselves in a gentle and nurturing way we can come through the other side.”

You can check out Tania’s incredible and inspiring art work on her Facebook page, Tania Sutton Artworks, or follow her on Instagram, @tania_sutton_artist

If you have been affected by any information in this article, please reach out to your GP, health professional or contact an organisation such as the ones listed below:

www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

www.au.reachout.com

www.beyondblue.org.au

Poem – written by Tania Sutton

She stands there beaming smile
There is laughter and cheer
She is so content and happy
Friends all around her

She stands there panic stricken
There is turmoil and torture
She is drowning in poison
All alone in a crowd

She stands there as the same
There are two people in one
She is only known as one
The other is a secret.

LOCKED IN A BUBBLE
You have me locked in a bubble
I can see what you are doing
Yelling out for you to stop
My efforts going unheard

You have locked me in a bubble
Sometimes I see a faint glow
Mostly just darkness
Trying desperately to find the light

You have me locked in a bubble
I want to trade places
But I can’t find the key
Please let me out.

The Resilience Project holds speaking events and is a curriculum that is aimed at using gratitude, empathy and mindfulness to fight mental illness, with the program implemented in hundreds of schools Australia wide.

“If this book wasn’t written, my sister and I would have never actually sat down and had a conversation about our relationship,” says Hugh Van Cuylenburg, creator of The Resilience Project.

At three years of age, Georgia Van Cuylenburg had been playing alongside her brother, Hugh, when a man picked her up, took her out of sight, and sexually assaulted her.
Her innocence of childhood taken in one fell swoop, and a wound that bleed into many facets of her life for decades, was brought to life. This trauma explaining why the darkness of anorexia had chosen her as it’s host, stripping her down to skin and bones.
“I remembered it happening and when my sister told us as a family I went ‘oh right really’ I didn’t even say I remembered it, she continued to feel alone through that trauma, we never talked about it,” says her brother, Hugh.
Hugh was inspired to create The Resilience Project and write The Resilience Project: Finding happiness through gratitude empathy & mindfulness.   
During his time researching his book, Hugh read a lot about vulnerability and shame. “Shame is what locks us up, and really makes it hard for us to be happy and feel well.”
“My shame lied in my relationship with my sister,” said Hugh.
As Hugh showed his family the first copies of his book, he eagerly awaited their opinions and critiques. Georgia was devastated at what her brother had written about her. “She said, ‘when am I going to get that vulnerable side of you?.'”

For Hugh, his book became much more than helping millions of Australians who struggle with mental illness, it became a tool for healing his broken relationship with his sister, a shame he had carried for many years.

Hugh changed his book last minute and worked on his relationship with his sister, deciding that his novel was to focus on human connection and the people that have moved him.
Today mental illness has become an epidemic, taking our youth one by one – an insidious disease that has crept into our society and been given the freedom to flourish, due to stigma, lack of resources and communication. Even today mental illness is not treated the same way that other life threatening illnesses are.
Mental illness is very common in Australia, with one in five Australians experiencing mental illness in a year, meaning that 20 per cent of the population is battling a disease that their family, partner and employer cannot see and might not even believe.

Further statistics show indicates that 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental illness at some stage in their life.

In 2008, educator Hugh had been teaching young teens in Melbourne when his then girlfriend asked him to accompany her on a trip to India. In India, Hugh taught at an under-privileged school in the Himalayan desert area and with approximately 150 children enrolled, his job was to teach English.
As he began to know his students better, many of whom were living in extreme poverty, Hugh became inspired by his student’s happiness, gratitude and lack of mental health issues that had become so prevalent in the Australian schools where Hugh taught. Returning to Australia, Hugh took with him the local children’s insights, practices and wisdom, and he slowly created The Resilience Project.
The Resilience Project began as a talk that outlined Hugh’s research and experiences with mental illness. Today, it is a school program and curriculum that reaches schools, sporting clubs and workplaces all over Australia and now New Zealand.
In The Resilience Project curriculum and speaking events, Hugh explains how incorporating gratitude, empathy and mindfulness (shortened to GEM in his book) can prevent mental illness and provide happiness.
As many parents know, the most influential years of a person’s life is their childhood,with studies showing that 50 per cent of all mental health conditions a person experiences in their life will have started by age 14.

During his time in India, Hugh noticed how the children were very grateful to be at school and practiced mindfulness every morning before their classes began, incorporating all this into his program for schools and youth, with the feedback having been phenomenally positive so far.
After years of implementing this program, Hugh wrote The Resilience Project: Finding happiness through gratitude empathy & mindfulness,releasing the book in November 2019.
Since the book’s release Hugh has had an influx of positive feedback, and is still as humble as ever; with a warm energy and healing nature, it is easy to see why thousands flock to hear him speak and line up afterwards, telling Hugh their troubles and how his words have helped them to heal.
“We have had incredible feedback, I just saw this morning that it is Number One on audio books, which I can’t believe.”
“I’ve had a few really beautiful personal messages from people.”
Hugh recalls one recent message he’d received from a reader who had been feeling suicidal and after reading the book felt so grateful and positive about his life, telling Hugh how his words had saved his life.

“Honestly if he is the only person that reads this book and that’s the only feedback I get, that’s a worthwhile six months writing,” Hugh says.

On a mission to promote gratitude, empathy and mindfulness, Hugh tackles the tricky topic of social media and parenting in his book, describing the rise of social media as only showing ‘the greatest hits’ of life, and how damaging this can be for young minds.
The Resilience Project: Finding happiness through gratitude empathy & mindfulness includes a lot of tips and ideas for parents, who have found themselves with children inundated with technology and social media that teaches them validation is found through a screen.

“The best way to help your kids is to start modelling better behaviour, you can’t say to your kids ‘stop being on your phone all the time’ then turn around and check your emails,” he says.

The book is full of strategies to help parents put their phone down with one of the easiest to grasp, yet hardest to implement, simply being to leave their phone at home.
Hugh states that this simple task can leave us more focused on others around us, increasing feelings of connection and togetherness, which are two big ways to fight loneliness and mental illness in this increasingly busy and digital world.
Hugh believes that the less a child is on a device the more aware they are to their surroundings and community, leaving more time to be grateful for the society we are lucky enough to have in Australia.
As for fostering GEM into daily life, Hugh says it’s all down to practice and implementing these small practises into your families every day.
For mindfulness, Hugh suggests going for a walk around the block and focusing on what you can hear, an exercise parents can easily make into family time. Hugh also suggests at the dinner table to reflect on the good in each family member’s day and to share what they are grateful for and looking forward to.
“Look out for opportunities to be kind to people, you watch how happy that makes you and if you do it in front of your kids, that’s the most powerful thing of all,” says Hugh.
“You will have an enormous impact on them because they’ll start to copy you, they will start to be someone who is kind to other people.”

Castelmaine Steiner School is located in Muckleford, VIC and offers education from kindergarten to class 8 and is growing fast.

Commencing as a Kindergarten in 1988 in the home of one of its students, The Castlemaine Steiner School & Kindergarten is now a thriving school of approximately 230 students. In 1995, the school moved to its current location, which at the time was 18 acres of flattened sheep grazing land. Today the site is a stunning sanctuary of indigenous flora and fauna, featuring a bush tucker island, beautiful walking tracks and is home to diverse birdlife. Situated approximately 7 mins drive from Castlemaine, the school has transformed itself with biodynamic practices and permaculture design.

“Steiner education is recognised internationally as a valuable approach to helping young people develop flexible, agile thinking, alongside an ability to collaborate and thrive in a 21st Century world,” said Principal, Brian Dodd.

The school offers programs from Playgroup to Class 8, following which, students can then transfer to the local Steiner Stream at Castlemaine Secondary College for Years 9 & 10. Many families begin learning about Steiner education and philosophy by joining the Playgroup program. It is a much-loved weekly 2-hour session for children aged birth to 4 years. It includes activities such as scone baking, outdoor & indoor play, crafts, and circle time for singing & storytelling.

The Early Childhood program continues into Kindergarten & Prep, where foundations are laid for later learning and healthy development, including life-long physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth. They believe an atmosphere of loving warmth and guidance provides the optimal environment for healthy development, and that educators have a vital role in modelling and scaffolding a child’s natural urge to explore and experiment. Young children are given time to play, enjoy childhood and build strong foundations skills before formal academic learning begins.

Acknowledging the Traditional Owners of this country, the school has strong connections to the local Dja Dja Wurrung people. Their culture and story is meaningfully woven throughout the curriculum and Outdoor Education program. The Outdoor Education program is designed to develop the student’s understanding of their place in the natural world, through immersion in it. As children develop their sense of adventure confidence develops, connectedness with the environment and a sense of stewardship toward the natural world.

Music is incorporated through all levels of the school, with formal tuition commencing with a stringed instrument in Class 3. Music tuition is compulsory and continues through to Class 8, with students encouraged by opportunities to play in ensemble groups and learn multiple instruments. The benefits of music are well documented and the school utilises music as further way to develop social learning, fine and gross motor skills, and build on maths concepts.

A new Scholarships program provides a limited number of partly or fully subsidised places for students who meet eligibility criteria, and is open to entry at any year level.  The school is committed to creating a socially inclusive and diverse community and via this new Scholarship program, is pleased to continue promoting and encouraging the benefits of Steiner Education across the region. Principal Brian Dodd says “We want to ensure that that the benefits of this schooling option are more broadly available to children in our regional community. This year we also introduced a 25% fee discount for families with a Health Care Card, and have for many years offered sibling discounts, fee assistance and bursaries to reduce financial barriers to enrolling in the school.”

The school welcomes visitors each week for tours with the Principal and offers free trial sessions within its Playgroup program to anyone interested in witnessing the benefits of Steiner education. Contact the Enrolments Officer, Tracey Robertson on 5479 2000 or Traceyr@cssk.vic.edu.au for further information.

“Those that teach Reading for Sure are rewarded everyday with smiles from students as these students learn that reading and writing well is possible for them.”

Literacy is a fundamental skill that everyone needs in order to access education, work and the community. With modern digital devices being able to read and write is now even more vital, not less as was once thought when computers first arrived.

Literacy is not an intuitive action, unlike walking and talking; it is a human construct that requires the building of new connections in the brain.

There are a variety of reasons why someone does not develop good literacy skills. The most commonly recognised cause of delayed or poor literacy skills is Dyslexia. Other learning difficulties also impact, and these include dysgraphia, dyspraxia, hearing issues, ADHD, Autism, Global Learning delay, short, and long term, memory problems etc.

A lack of good early play and language experiences impact on a child’s ability to cope with literacy, concentrate, sit at a desk and to write.

How a person is taught to read is slowly being recognised as significantly impacting on a person’s literacy development or lack thereof. Like all learning one size does not fit all.

Scientific studies tell us that the best literacy programs will develop a student’s ability to sound out and sound blend a word, ensure the student understands the meaning of all the individual words and derive meaning and information from the sentences formed from these words.

Learning to spell, read and understand words allows us all to communicate with others and to enjoy the wonderful stories and information available in books and other forms of text.

Learning to read and write English does not come easily for everybody as it involves many complex interactions in the brain. When foundation skills are missed it can cause significant difficulties later.

Students struggling with reading become anxious and can turn away from literacy and education as a result.  A student who struggles with literacy often begins to feel that they are dumb because they can’t read. Nothing is further from the truth. Many people with exceptional IQs have struggled with literacy. Unfortunately, without correct instruction to help their brain develop the pathways needed to work with the written word these individuals may not develop their true potential.

With an understanding of how the brain develops and learns to decipher the written word the Reading For Sure program was developed to quickly help the learner build the foundation skills and brain pathways needed for literacy. The Reading for Sure program uses unique teaching tools to continue to develop these skills so that the learner can achieve in all areas of English Literacy.

Our recent study of 180 students, with a broad range of difficulties impacting their literacy acquisition, showed excellent improvement for every hour of tuition. The 180 students included students that were not learning via standard teaching methods, dyslexia, English as a second language etc. and started tuition at ages ranging from 5 to 20 years old. The students were taught by one of four Reading For Sure teachers.

The data showed that not only did every child improve their literacy, but that on average for every hour spent with one of our teachers, the students improved 1.6 months in their reading age. The data for the spelling was not complete for all the 180 students but, using the data available, the average gain in spelling was 0.4 of a month improvement for each hour of tuition.

Within just a few lessons parents and students see the difference. The student’s confidence blossoms, and they begin to enjoy the reading and learning process once more. This reading gain also quickly equates to better outcomes in their education environment. Literacy is the core skill needed for all subjects and students enjoy school so much more when they are not struggling with their literacy.

“Finding the Reading for sure method was a relief. To discover a method that works and makes sense to my dyslexic daughter, has not only greatly improved her reading, it has given her confidence and a sense achievement” says Mrs. Clements.

With the correct program and teaching methods no person young or old needs to struggle with literacy.

Those that teach Reading for Sure are rewarded everyday with smiles from students as these students learn that reading and writing well is possible for them.

Visit the Reading for Sure website and see our new blog series about how parents can help their young children develop the pre literacy skills they need to be able to learn all the literacy skills when they go to school. This free blog series will give parents hints and ideas about the activities that help the brain and body develop ready for literacy and learning and what to look out for if things may not be developing as they should.

Reading For Sure is an Australian program with its office in Perth. www.readingforsure.com.au

Spiritual teacher, healer and medium, Oscar de Souza, shares why we need to acknowledge and nurture our emotions.

Experiencing emotions is our soul’s purpose, according to spiritual mentor and medium, Oscar de Souza. Honouring our emotions can also help us maintain positive relationships and manifest our desires.

We arrive here alone with nothing, and we leave alone with nothing, except the emotions we acquire, says Oscar de Souza, speaking from the Spirit Energy Centre on NSW’s Central Coast.

Acknowledging our emotions prevents us from offloading them onto others, especially our children and partners, and subsequently them rippling through society

Most excitingly, working with our emotions, rather than ignoring them, helps us manifest what we truly desire.

Despite the importance of valuing our emotions, Western society teaches us to disregard them, and worse, to feel ashamed for having them, which is not something we want to be infiltrating to our children.

The best way we can become attuned to our emotions is to observe ourselves, says Oscar. [Meditation is a great way to develop this skill.]

He says we need to be observant of the emotion that’s resonating within us, rather than being subjected to it controlling us, dominating us, and enticing us to act out.

Oscar’s been told by his guides, “Emotions are variable frequencies of energy operating simultaneously”, which is why some people can feel various emotions at the same time.

Oscar says, “The simplest form to expand the neurological system of the conscious brain to be able to harness, access and be attentive to the energy that resonates within us that’s constantly, forever fluctuating, is to first observe our mind, observe ourselves and not be puppets on a string.”

If we acknowledge our emotions, even understand why we feel that way, and to honour them, we are less likely to be puppeted by them and lash out at others. Unfortunately, those we love are often the first to be hit by our emotional releases.

“Instead of articulating what we’re feeling, we’re often being controlled by what they’re feeling”

Oscar explains a typical household scenario:

“The husband (or wife) comes home stressed. They’re going to be communicating on that level of emotion. We’re not usually observant and noticing these emotions inside. We don’t decide to calm them down or be attentive to them, so we don’t impose them on our children or each other (we don’t impose them consciously, we don’t even know they’re doing it).

“We get home, our own fuse is already at the end of its tether. Perhaps we’ve been treated badly at work, there’s traffic, bills, expenses, and then we have to clean, cook, wash up … it’s all putting you on edge.

“It’s then easy to turn around to your child and say, ‘Turn off that machine!’ or ‘Get off that computer!’

“Now, that child foremostly heard “Bang!”.

“Secondly, the words that were spoken.

“Months later our child speaks to us that way and we wonder why.

“We have just been puppeted by our emotions. We are all guilty of that.

“Everyone gets puppeted, and the problem is we indirectly, and even innocently, jab that pain and stress that we’re feeling onto the other person.

“So, it becomes a virus because that person jabs another person with it and it just swims through society.”

The more we understand our emotions, we’re less likely to be subjugated by them, and will be able to articulate in language by talking about them.

“People don’t want to say to their partner they’re feeling a bit insecure and feel like their energy is no longer connected to them,” Oscar says.

“Rather than asking questions based on this, such as ‘Do you want to do more things in life without me?’ we tend to brew, be fearful, and then start to fish … ‘What did you do today? Who were you with?’ or even go through their phone, which just makes people feel violated.

“Emotions people have shouldn’t control their dialect or behaviour, but moreso be a language to the brain to go this is what’s resonating, let’s attend to it.”

Oscar says it’s even worse for men as they have been conditioned to not feel or show their emotions, “don’t cry, suck it up”. “Poor men innocently have been trapped into a void that is not natural,” he says.

“And women, being intuitive, are hit with a brick wall when they try to broach this. They feel a storm inside, they feel fear, they feel confusion.

“The man’s like, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and it takes a while for them to process.”

Oscar says the consciousness of femininity and the consciousness of masculinity is the concept of Yin and Yang. We all have that in us, whether we are male or female.

Some are slightly off balance, some have more of either.

“Men need to start being more intuitive, talking about their emotions, listening to their inner self, not being just driven by the mind.”

“I can’t say that women now need to start applying the male consciousness because unfortunately 2000 years of male dominance, a patriarchal system, means women have already had to assimilate the masculine consciousness within themselves. But men are yet to assimilate the feminine consciousness within themselves.”

Not only can honouring our emotions be great in maintaining more harmonious relationships and averting the ‘virus’ of offloading onto others, they can help us manifest what we want in our lives.

The effect of our emotions was explored through the water experiments conducted by Japanese author and pseudoscientist, Masuru Emoto, whose work demonstrated how the sentiment of a word, which is energy, can affect the molecular structure of water. Keeping in mind we’re made up of about 78 per cent of water, words said to us can impact us strongly.

“If our thoughts (sentiments) on a piece of paper affects water, imagine we have that thought going over and over in our brain, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not good enough. Life is shit. Life is shit,’” says Oscar.

People are not only putting that energy back into their whole water aspect and altering the energy there, they’re emitting it into the future, so naturally start to have those experiences; and it’s a vicious cycle.

When we realise the energy that resonates within us, the energy we’re emitting, the thoughts that carry it, we can stop causing that ripple effect.

Affirmations, prayer, spells, incantations, are effective when we feel the word, when we mean it and we say it with sentiment, says Oscar.

If we’re panicking on the inside and reading this word, then fear becomes the dominant emotion.

“The key is, when we do feel afraid, we comfort ourselves, ‘It’s ok, I’m afraid,’ that’s ok,” he says.

“Once we acknowledge it, we can move from there but when we’re fighting against it that it’s not going anywhere, so it helps to acknowledge the fear and where it came from. What experiences have led me to have this fear?

“When we know what caused this, ok it’s failed relationships that make us afraid of falling in love again, for example, it’s not so dominant in our psychology or our energy.”

Oscar advises writing down an affirmation in our own handwriting because our brain will absorb it much better.

We should then read it out aloud at least 20 times with no intention just to read it out so that the wording becomes familiar to the brain, so you know what you’re using.

And then our focus can be feeling each word.

For example, when someone says, “I love you,” it feels different when they really mean it. Quite often we want others to say it, but we rarely look in the mirror and say it to ourselves, it’s quite confrontational. And it’s the most important thing.

New York Time’s Best Selling author and Professor at Houston University, the amazing Brené Brown gives us her insight into navigating middle age – or should I say, the Midlife Unraveling.

In my late thirties, my intuition had tried to warn me about the possibility of a midlife struggle. I experienced internal rumblings about the meaning and purpose of my life. I was incredibly busy proving myself in all of my different roles (mother, professor, researcher, writer, friend, sister, daughter, wife), so much so that it was difficult for any emotion other than fear to grab my attention. However, I do remember flashes of wondering if I’d always be too afraid to let myself be truly seen and known.

“I was incredibly busy proving myself in all my different roles.”

But intuition is a heart thing, and until recently I had steamrolled over most of my heart’s caution signs with intellectualizing. In my head, I had always responded to the idea of “midlife angst” by scoffing and coming up with some politically and therapeutically correct way of saying that midlife whining is pathetic. The entire concept of the midlife crisis is bullshit. If you’re struggling at midlife it’s because you haven’t suffered or sacrificed enough. Quit pissing and moaning, work harder, and suck it up.

As it turns out, I was right about one thing – to call what happens at midlife “a crisis” is bullshit. A crisis is an intense, short-lived, acute, easily identifiable, and defining event that can be controlled and managed.
Midlife is not a crisis. Midlife is an unraveling.

By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling. You can’t cure the midlife unraveling with control any more than the acquisitions, accomplishments, and alpha-parenting of our thirties cured our deep longing for permission to slow down and be imperfect.

Midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear: I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.

If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.

We go to work and unload the dishwasher and love our families and get our hair cut. Everything looks pretty normal on the outside. But on the inside we’re barely holding it together. We want to reach out, but judgment (the currency of the midlife realm) holds us back. It’s a terrible case of cognitive dissonance – the psychologically painful process of trying to hold two competing truths in a mind that was engineered to constantly reduce conflict and minimize dissension (e.g., I’m falling apart and need to slow down and ask for help. Only needy, flaky, unstable people fall apart and ask for help).

“Everything looks pretty normal on the outside. But on the inside we’re barely holding it together.”

It’s human nature and brain biology to do whatever it takes to resolve cognitive dissonance – lie, cheat, rationalize, justify, ignore. For most of us, this is where our expertise in managing perception bites us on the ass. We are torn between desperately wanting everyone to see our struggle so that we can stop pretending, and desperately doing whatever it takes to make sure no one ever sees anything except what we’ve edited and approved for posting.
What bubbles up from this internal turmoil is fantasy. We might glance over at a cheap motel while we’re driving down the highway and think, I’ll just check in and stay there until they come looking for me. Then they’ll know I’m losing my mind. Or maybe we’re standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when we suddenly find ourselves holding up a glass and wondering, “Would my family take this struggle more seriously if I just started hurling all this shit through the window?”

Most of us opt out of these choices. We’d have to arrange to let the dog out and have the kids picked up before we checked into the lonely roadside motel. We’d spend hours cleaning up glass and apologizing for our “bad choices” to our temper tantrum-prone toddlers. It just wouldn’t be worth it, so most of us just push through until “losing it” is no longer a voluntary fantasy.

Midlife or Midlove
Many scholars have proposed that the struggle at midlife is about the fear that comes with our first true glimpse of mortality. Again, wishful thinking. Midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Tearing down the walls that we spent our entire life building is death. Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth.

It’s a painful irony that the very things that may have kept us safe growing up ultimately get in the way of our becoming the parents, partners, and/or people that we want to be.

Maybe, like me, you are the perfect pleaser and performer, and now all of that perfection and rule following is suffocating. Or maybe you work hard to keep people at a safe distance and now the distance has turned into intolerable loneliness. There are also the folks who grew up taking care of everyone else because they had no choice. Their death is having to let go of the caretaking, and their rebirth is learning how to take care of themselves (and work through the pushback that always comes with setting new boundaries).

Whatever the issue, it seems as if we spend the first half of our lives shutting down feelings to stop the hurt, and the second half trying to open everything back up to heal the hurt.

Sometimes when the “tear the walls down and submit to death” thing overwhelms me, I find it easier to think about midlife as midlove. After two decades of research on shame, authenticity, and belonging, I’m convinced that loving ourselves is the most difficult and courageous thing we’ll ever do. Maybe we’ve been given a finite amount of time to find that self-love, and midlife is the halfway mark. It’s time to let go of the shame and fear and embrace love. Time to fish or cut bait. I don’t think midlife/midlove is on a schedule. I was forty-one when it hit, but I have friends and I’ve interviewed people who found themselves smack dab in the middle of the unraveling as early as their mid-thirties and as late as their fifties. The only firm timing for midlife/midlove is that it ends only when we physically die. This is not something you can treat then dismiss. The search for self-love and acceptance is like most of the new ailments that hit at midlife – it’s a chronic condition. It may start in midlife, but we have to deal with it for the rest of our lives.

And, just in case you think you can blow off the universe the way you did when you were in your twenties and she whispered, “Pay attention,” or when you were in your early thirties and she whispered, “Slow down,” I assure you that she’s much more dogged in midlife. When I tried to ignore her, she made herself very clear: “There are consequences for squandering your gifts. There are penalties for leaving big pieces of your life unlived. You’re halfway to dead. Get a move on.”

Once the shock of the universe’s visits wears off – and you get over thinking, Oh my God! I’d prefer a crisis! – there are several ways to respond:

I hear tell that there are actually people who pull the universe closer, embrace her wisdom, thank her for the opportunity to grow, and calmly walk into the unraveling. I try to spend limited time with these people, so I can’t tell you much about how this works.

Another option is to deny that any of this ever happened. Of course, denial is not so easy at this level – it is the universe that we’re talking about here. Pretending that midlife is not happening requires active denial, like putting your fingers in your ears and singing la-la-la-la-la. As sweet and childlike as that may sound, these folks are normally not so sweet and childlike.

“Pretending that midlife is not happening requires active denial, like putting your fingers in your ears”

After the ear-plugging and humming, the only way to maintain your denial of the midlife unraveling is to become even more perfect, more certain, and more judgmental. For these folks, allowing just one ounce of uncertainty or doubt or questioning to bubble up could cause rapid, involuntary unraveling. They can’t be wrong – their lives could spin out of control. They march through life, teeth and butt cheeks clenched, without flinching and, often, without feeling.

 

There’s also the numbing option. If there’s one thing that we’ve mastered by midlife, it’s how to take the edge off of feeling pain and discomfort. We are so good at numbing – eating, drinking, spending, planning, playing online, perfecting, staying really, really busy. If every midlifer who “only drinks a good glass of wine with dinner” stopped drinking, there wouldn’t be a vineyard left in business. Unfortunately, what makes midlife different from the other stages that we’ve managed to survive, is that the symptoms don’t improve over time. Choosing to numb the midlife unraveling is choosing to numb for the rest of your life.

 

Last, there’s the “no holds barred” resistance response. I liken it to existential cage fighting. You and the universe go into the ring and only one person comes out. This, of course, was my option.
When the universe came to me, I listened. And when she was done whispering, I pulled back, looked into her eyes, and spit in her face.

 

How dare she ask anything of me! I had worked and sacrificed and paid enough. I had spent my life saying “yes” when I wanted to scream, “Hell no! Do it yourself!” I had met every deadline, expectation, and request possible. I had earned every bit of my armor and I was enraged by the idea of giving it up.
I expected her to walk away like the dejected mother of an angry teenager, but she simply stood in front of me, wiping the spit off of her cheek.

 

We stared at each other for a minute, then I said, “I’m not afraid of you. I know what you’re asking and the answer is no. I’ve spent my entire life building these walls and digging these moats – do you really think a little whisper is going to intimidate me? Do I strike you as the unraveling type?”
I’m not ornery or rebellious by nature; it’s just that I spent thirty years trying to outrun and outsmart vulnerability and uncertainty. The fact that the almighty universe had descended and asked me to turn myself over to her custody didn’t mean a damn thing to me. I’m not the surrendering type.

 

She was quiet.

I didn’t back down. I was my own little emotional militia. I put on my most serious game face and said, “I know what you’re trying to do and it’s not going to work. I’m prepared. I’ve spent a decade researching and writing on shame and vulnerability and all of the hard shit that you throw around to scare people. I’m ready.”
She looked back at me with loving eyes, then said, “I’m sorry it has to be this way, but clearly this is how you want to do it. You leave me no choice.”

 

Her calmness was unsettling. I was afraid. She wasn’t backing down. So in this moment of sheer terror, I did the only thing I knew how to do when confronted with fear – I bullied her. I gave her a small shove and said, “Then bring it!”
Her loving eyes didn’t change one bit. She just looked at me and said, “I will.”

 

When the Universe Brings It
I put up the fight of my life, but I was totally outmatched. The universe knew exactly how to use vulnerability and uncertainty to bring down this perfectionistic shame researcher: a huge, unexpected wallop of professional failure, one devastating and public humiliation after the next, a showdown with God, strained connections with my family, anxiety so severe that I started having dizzy spells, depression, fear, and the thing that pissed me off the most – grace. No matter how hard or far I fell, grace was there to pick me up, dust me off, and shove me back in for some more.

 

It was an ugly street fight and, even though I got my ass kicked, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. There was a significant amount of pain and loss, but something amazing happened along the way – I discovered me. The real me. The messy, imperfect, brave, scared, creative, loving, compassionate, wholehearted me.
Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I’ve always honored the power of story. In fact, I believe so strongly in their power that I’ve dedicated my career to excavating untold stories and bringing them up to the light. In some miraculous way, I feel as if this midlife unraveling has taught me – in my head and my heart – how to be brave. I’m still not good at surrendering or “living in the question,” but I am getting better. I guess you could say I’ve graduated to “writhing in the question.” Not exactly Zen, but it is progress.

 

“I discovered me…the messy, imperfect, brave, scared, creative, loving, compassionate, wholehearted me.”

As far as my relationship with the universe . . . well, we’ve actually become very good friends. I even came to love and trust her when, in a quiet moment, I looked deeply into her eyes and realized that she, the universe, was me.

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