A life update

Almost exactly three years ago I was discharged from a psychiatric clinic after spending three strange and illuminating weeks there. I was 28 years old, wobbling my way back into the world, eyes stinging from the beauty around me. I felt reborn and also very, very old.

‘Everything is about to change,’ I told myself. ‘Everything is different now.’

And it was. It is.

I had done a lot of self-work in the ten years prior to my visit to the clinic: Seen therapists, journaled, cultivated self-awareness, read Women who run with the wolves. But now I intended to work harder. Dig deeper. Cultivate more nourishing friendships. Exercise more. Eat healthier. Heal.

I did not factor Covid-19 into my plans, of course. Nor had I really thought about the effect of living in late-stage capitalism, in a prolonged world-wide existential crisis, in a looming climate disaster. Nor had I really reckoned with the depth and intensity of my own childhood trauma. I was going to yoga it all away. I was going to do magic mushrooms and make uplifting Spotify playlists and listen to good podcasts and go for long walks and I was going to be ALL BETTER.

And, credit where credit’s due: I don’t know where I would have been had it not been for long walks and Spotify playlists and yoga and good podcasts and psychedelics. And good friends. And my dog. And nourishing food. And breathing exercises. And journaling. And the foundation of self-inquiry that had been laid over the past decade. Thank fuck for routines and good books and self-care.

And also, I AM NOT ALL BETTER.

I don’t even know what ‘better’ means anymore.

***

This is a life update, because some of you have been asking me what’s happening and why I’m so silent on my blog. I have a million other things to do, but I’ve just spent three hours in foetal position on my couch staring into the void – nothing else is about to happen, so I might as well write this post.

I am turning 32 soon. A lot of people tell me they don’t feel as old as they really are, but I definitely do. Not that I’ve become remotely good at adulting, but my heart feels heavy with all the lives I’ve lived. Not exhausted exactly, but laden with sorrow and pungency like tea that’s been left to steep for hours.

I know some parts of the world have been coming out of hiding, but over here in South Africa we’re in the heart of a third wave of Covid. Every day I receive news of more friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are very very sick. Facebook feels like a minefield of bad news and conspiracy theories. Our government is fast losing whatever credibility it once had and our president’s fortnightly speeches are just fodder for memes and existential despair. We wear masks and obey the 9 PM curfew, but other than that, everybody does whatever they feel like, myself included.

It’s winter and outside the rain is pouring down; even my dog refuses to leave the house. My sister, who lives in Kwazulu-Natal province, sends us hourly updates on the protests and violence over there. She’s locked inside her house. Someone she knows had to evacuate. I refresh the news every ten minutes, watching with rising horror as my beleaguered country burns down. On Instagram the positivity brigade is wearing me down, yet I scroll endlessly through uplifting posts in search of answers, in search of something to do: Another mantra, perhaps. An online tarot card reading. An inspirational quote.

I am not holding it together, but I am holding it.

I am holding it all and I am grieving really hard because this world is terrifyingly broken and movingly beautiful, and it is a crazy thing to be alive right now. It is a privilege and a curse. It’s everything.

I have no idea what’s going to happen next, not to the world nor to myself. It’s like I’m living in the eye of a storm and all I keep feeling, deep in my gut, is to be here fully. To resist the urge to DO SOMETHING, and be here instead. It’s excruciating.

***

At the end of 2019 I felt very strongly that I would have two more years at my current job and then I’d have to move on. Tick tock, those two years are coming to an end soon. I still plan to move on, but all my best-laid plans have fallen away in the face of internal and external crises. I thought I’d be writing much more, making beautiful zines, cranking out poem after poem, connecting with other writers and artists and even making money out of my writing by now. Instead, I have a floundering blog and a slowly-growing Instagram presence (about which I have mixed feelings). A piece I wrote a few months ago has been accepted for publishing in an anthology book, about which I’m very excited – and also, I can’t seem to find the inspiration to make its last requested edits. (I will, though – tomorrow.)

What am I willing to do without? What am I willing to let go of? Because more and more I am coming to know that I will have to surrender whatever is not necessary, whatever weighs me down, and whatever markings of success I’d envisioned achieving soon.

At first I thought I’d find somewhere cheap to live (probably east of here, because where I currently live is not affordable on a freelancer’s income). I thought I’d pack up my things, twist my brother’s arm into helping me move, and find a small place on the east coast where I can do freelance work, build my writing practice, play the ukulele a lot and make friends with the locals. Now, I think even that might be too solid and structured for my next move. I think, instead, that I might have to put my possessions into storage, and bring only my dog and my clothes with me. I might have to flounder about from place to place, volunteering and staying with friends. I’ll freelance if needs be, but I don’t want to spend too much time scrabbling to earn a living at jobs that take more energy than they give. I want to write. I want to start a podcast. I want to build meaningful connections. I want to learn about community living and regenerative agriculture and about the endless variety of cultures and ways of being in my own country, ways I know very little about.

I don’t want to quit my job only to find myself scrambling away at endless low-paying freelance tasks that allow no room for creativity.

I am asking myself: How little money can I get by on? What am I taking for granted that very soon I’ll have to give up? Personal space, organic vegetables, fancy dog food – can I do without that? My handful of close and beloved friends here – how do I leave them behind?

And, on the flip side: Why do I imagine that only hard things are worth doing? Why do I imagine that I’ll have to move to a remote town on the far side of nowhere to prove my commitment to making a change in my life? Is there another option? Have I been so steeped in a mentality of suffering that I cannot imagine an authentic future if it isn’t isolated and difficult?

I’m shit scared all the time, and every time I try to reassure myself by falling into frantic action my body forces me to a halt. The only things I seem to be able to do semi-consistently is to weep a lot and go for long walks. This prolonged inactivity goes against everything the world has taught me and against my natural inclination too, yet the only thing that feels right at this moment is to exist very slowly. Even as my self-imposed deadline looms closer and closer (a deadline I still intend to honour), the message I feel insistently in my heart is that right now I should do very little, and do that fully. I don’t get it. But it’s what I’m doing.

To summarise:

The world is not okay.

South Africa is not okay.

I am not okay.

That’s where I’m at right now. I am not holding it together, but I am holding it. I’m holding it all in my heart.

Dear reader,

For my first post, I’m sharing with you the seeds that gave birth to this blog. I hope that my words and the call to action that I am feeling, will resonate with you in the same way that I feel it urgently within myself.  

In 2018, I was for a time a patient at a psychiatric clinic – I was worn-out, weepy, dispirited, hardly eating and heartbroken, and the clinic gave me much-needed respite from my increasingly disjointed life. On my first day there, having done the requisite intake interview with the psychiatrist, having been measured and poked and prodded and fed, I settled in and met some of the other patients. People spoke openly and easily, for the most part – about their traumatic brain injuries, about their bipolar disorder, frequently about their families. I was immediately and immensely moved.

There was so much pain here, and so much resilience; so much suffering, yet, present in each person’s story, such willingness to be vulnerable. Like a thread through every conversation ran the need to connect – to be seen, to be acknowledged, to exist fully. My own pain, while it did not become insignificant to me, was put into context: I am a profoundly wounded human in a profoundly wounded world, and that makes complete sense. There’s an odd poetry here, I thought, in how we are all searching for acceptance;

there can be immense beauty in our collective healing, more so than if we’d never been broken to begin with.

And whilst I could not quite see the beauty in my own story yet, I could see it in others’. That gave me hope, and it gave me meaning.

On that first evening, sitting in the tiny smoker’s lounge of the clinic amidst rattling aircon and overflowing ashtrays (which is where everybody got together), I first realised what has since become a mission statement for me: If it is at all within my power to find healing, then it is my duty and my calling to do so.

I must do so on behalf of Melanie, skinny boyish Melanie chain-smoking here with me, who lost both her lover and her mother to cancer, whose sons are no longer speaking to her, who is going to rehab after this. I must do so on behalf of James, who is turning twenty but whose parents have never celebrated his birthday, who peers at us from underneath his greasy black hair, occasionally banging his head against the wall. I must do so on behalf of Karen, whose husband refuses to accept that she has an illness, even after she tried to die.  

But it’s not only on behalf of the patients here and elsewhere that I must heal. It is also for my family, for my country, for everyone in the world who carry their own difficult stories within them. If I can heal, if it is at all within my power to find healing, then I must do so on behalf of my mother, who tied herself to abusive men twice over yet raised us valiantly and kindly. I must do so on behalf of my grandmother who carries the sorrow of her son’s suicide in her body. I must do so on behalf of all four my siblings who venture into life with compassion and curiosity, carrying their wounds with aplomb.

If I can find healing for myself then it is imperative that I do so, on behalf of my country where the wounds of the past are seething just below the surface. I must do so on behalf of my continent, embattled but glorious even under the strain of sustained poverty and strife. I must do so on behalf of the earth, this fierce nourishing Earth, awe-inspiring planet who houses us and feeds us, who whispers into our lungs, who aches into our bones until we return to her dust.

If I can find healing then I must do so, because to do any less would be betraying myself, my family, my planet. To refuse this mandate would be to hinder the healing of the entire Earth a little bit, to bury my head in the sand while our planet spins into chaos. I cannot heal others if I cannot tend to my own wounds. I cannot love my planet if fear and avoidance reign in my heart. I am deeply ineffectual if I refuse to plumb the depths of my own heart.

I must become whole if I am to live.

This is my story.