The Offering (fiction)

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Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t be here, at this apartment on the fifth floor. I came in unnoticed, except for Nickel the cat that sits every day near the front door and watches through the window as the traffic rumbles past below. He is fat, like an old man with jowls that wobble. His eyes are sunken and glitter with venom. He hisses as I creep past. If I dared, I would smack his pudgy nose with my finger tip and hiss back.

I step into light. The high sash windows throw sunshine all around this place with its scuffed white floorboards, crooked ceilings, its nooks and its curios. Jonquils sit in a  polished copper vase on the coffee table and paintings of green landscapes and ladies in crimson dresses are scattered over the walls in ornate gilt frames. Books are stuffed any which way into tall shelves.  A large book of gastronomy upside down. A slim volume of poems rests near a picture book of old sports cars. I stop to pat a statue of a hippopotamus, almost completely hidden from view in a small alcove.

But I’m not here for the books, or the paintings or the statues.

I’m here for you.

I walk into the bedroom, where we slept together once, entangled like tree roots deep within the earth. I smooth my hand across your pillow and for a moment rest my cheek against it, careful not to wrinkle the slip.

I look for signs of someone else. I have sharp eyes for this. A rumpled mat on the other side of the bed. Two damp towels. A stray glass.

A door buzzer sounds from down the corridor, not here, but I am reminded I don’t belong. The sting of my displacement coils and strikes like a snake inside me.

Where will I leave my message today? Something small so you’ll wonder if you left it yourself. You’ll dismiss it as an accident, a nothing. But the seed of me will sink deep into the earth of you. It will burrow down and wait. It will send out its tiny shoots of memory and loss and you’ll wonder why I’m there again in your mind, for no reason.

Perhaps, you’ll think, I should call. Just to see how things are. Could I return that book sometime maybe? We’ll both know why you rang. Later we’ll laugh about it.

I choose my place. I reach into the pocket of my coat and pull out a small needle. I dig carefully into my finger tip and pick until my skin is ragged. Until a drop of blood, the life of me, wells up.

Gently I place my finger on your white pillow slip and my blood soaks in, a single blossom, an offering.

That’s all.

I slip quietly from the apartment on the fifth floor. Out the door and away.

Nickel, the fat cat with his malevolent stare watches me as I leave.

I smack him with my fingertip on his pudgy nose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the forest floor

 

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“Grief grinds slowly, it devours all the time it needs.” Long Witt Woon: The Way Through the Woods.

Five years ago my friend died.  Not without notice, but it was fast and I felt riven. I’d lost good friends and family before and grieved desperately for them, then and now, but this loss blew me sideways in a different way. It wasn’t just about the loss of my friend, it changed who I was and how I saw the world.

I sank into something more than sadness. I suppose it was depression, the pointlessness of existence was suddenly overwhelming and inescapable. Any existence, not just mine. I obsessed in a lacklustre way about the impending death of everyone I loved. The world revolved around the truth of endings and the nothingness that followed.

People going to work, parents playing with their children in the park, even birds squabbling over the pecking order in our birdbath, I would watch them idly and wonder why they bothered. They were all just passing time.

It was hard to get past.

I envied my friends who believed in a god, because I imagine whatever the failings of its institutions, if you’re on board with that kind of stuff, religion gives you purpose and comfort and community. I just couldn’t manufacture personal belief on the basis of personal need.

I envied my mother, who was also grieving for the same friend, but she’s a hippy so when there’s a death in what she calls her ‘gypsy circle,’ she doesn’t feel they’re gone in the same way.

“He’s still here,” she would chuckle, dragging happily on a cigarette, at the memory of how during their own long friendship they would bicker for hours about past lives and reincarnation. He thought she was very weird but begrudgingly adored her anyway.  She thought he was equally deluded as a result of something inflicted in this or another life.

I on the other hand didn’t believe anything except he was gone. I was so sad. He was so absolutely gone.

Worried, my husband took me to Pemberton, a beautiful small town in the south-west for a holiday, where he felt the old growth forests would soothe me. We walked everyday, down long gravel tracks. We walked through the tall trees, climbed through scrub and clambered down narrow paths that led to hidden misty lakes. We turned our phones off and played scrabble at night and watched birds hop among the grasses and shrubs outside our cottage in the morning. But most of all I felt peace when I was deep in the heart of the forest.

The air smelt of earth and home, the trees towered protectively around me. The ripple of birds as they moved among the trees, the whisper of wind through leaves, the crackle of an unseen creature crawling along the forest floor, sounds that were welcome rather than the assault I had been feeling in the city. Our footsteps fell in with the natural rhythm of the forest and I began to breathe a little more deeply.

Slowly, something happened that had not happened in any of my previous visits.  I found myself staring more and more at the ground. I noticed, with a sense of  interest that grew to wonder, the mushrooms and fungi that lived there. So many varieties, tiny yellow toadstools, bright and clear as a sour sally. Huge flat plates of fungi that looked like omelettes jutting out of random tree trunks. Brown fancies frilled like a Victorian lady’s nightgown, small red caps with white stems like you read about in fairy stories as a child.

The more I looked the more I saw. We walked past trees that stretched to the sky, in their prime. Breathtaking in their reach. But it was the old and the broken, the long dead stumps too wide for me to put my arms around that I saw now.  Fungi was everywhere. At every stage of life, small and easy to miss on the side of a 60 foot marri tree, dotted among the leaf litter on the forest floor, smothering fallen old trunks in bright green moss, drawing them slowly, slowly into the ground. And all around new life was springing forth, fed by those that had come before them.

The process was beautiful. I started to feel an almost spiritual connection that I didn’t understand and didn’t need to, because it was speaking to me at a level deep beneath my skin.

It was different to my mother’s surety that in death my friend still existed somewhere as I knew him, but it was comforting, because it felt real and it took me out of myself. Everything spiritual that made sense to me in the past, about striving to ultimately release ego was here and happening all around me. Quietly, slowly, inevitably. But not without purpose. The idea the essence of everything would eventually be absorbed into the earth illustrated to me, profoundly, how we are all connected.

It didn’t make me less sad, but it did help the pointlessness that was crushing me.

And I began to heal. I went home. I forgot a little about my mushrooms and stopped staring at parents pushing their child on a swing and wondering why they bothered.

Now five years later I have picked up a book. An epiphany in itself. And a reminder.

The Way Through the Woods; of mushrooms and mourning is written by a Malaysian writer, Long Litt Woon, who went through devastating loss when her husband went to work one day and didn’t come home. She describes her own understanding and relationship with death and grief and she talks about how she found her own way back to life through fungi also. Long Litt Woon’s passage through loss led to her becoming a student of Mycology, the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Her book is both a study in grief and healing and an exploration of this incredible form of life we still know so little about. Science and what it means to love and to be human all rolled into one.

It’s magical. I have been reminded of what it means to connect and I have a renewed fascination with these incredible organisms that play such a role in life and death.

I actually don’t think it matters, really, how you find your way back to connection after loss. I know many don’t like the idea of comparison and will say it’s relative. I’m sure it is but I would not compare my loss with a woman whose husband died. That is just more.  I can only speak for my own experience.

There is, for me, a deep selfishness that overcomes you when you grieve. Not the kind you choose where you take the biggest piece of cake or steal someone’s carpark or don’t appreciate your loved ones. This kind of self-absorbtion is involuntary and suffocating. You lose the ability to connect with anything but how you feel at that moment and how you think you’ll continue to feel tomorrow and the next day and the next. Grief makes its home in your chest and it’s heavy, so even something as natural as breathing becomes an effort. The worst of it is the loss of connection. To anything in yourself other than your loss, to anyone around you. You feel utterly alone.

Nature has a gentle way of reminding us that you are not. That everything is intertwined and you are a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s mystical, peaceful and deeply healing.

To me, it was something as small and as vast as a mushroom that led me back to connection.

Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods, of mushrooms and mourning,  is published by Scribe. She is coming to Literature and Ideas for Perth Festival in February 2020.

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(photo: Albert Shaart, Flickr)

The magic of a childhood best friend

 

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The fact is that a woman friend is as rare as a true love’- Elena Ferrante

When I was a child, my mum had a very beautiful friend. She was exotically Irish with an accent. She was fashionable and had a name I’d only ever seen in a book.  Her home was filled with all the things I had long felt sure would transform my life if I was lucky enough to acquire them, i.e. things I’d seen on tv.

She had an elegant home that I loved to be in, with proper table lamps, a steam iron and a red setter that came when he was called. There were wonderful conveniences, like margarine so soft it would spread onto your toast straight out of the fridge, not like the cold blocks of butter we had that tore holes in the bread. There were smoky brown glass dinner plates that wouldn’t break if you dropped them. Dinner at my place was usually ratatouille, but they often had baked beans. It was pretty much my ideal family set up.

She had a daughter my age, and I spent much of my time longing for her life. If there was ever any power in wishing, she’d have been out the door in a blink, and me, the changeling in her place. She was by far the prettiest girl I’d ever seen, with light brown, shiny hair that stayed tidy when you brushed it, and smooth skin that tanned. I was pale and pink with freckles and didn’t so much tan as develop reddish blotches and my hair never sat how it should.

We had a lot in common. We were the only kids at school with divorced parents. Our mums had each embraced the hippy culture of the time in their own way as single mothers and caused us no end of embarrassment because they weren’t like the other mothers.

I thought of my own mum as having lost the plot when she left my dad, his neat house in the outer suburbs and the promise of regular cricket barbecues on weekends, for a shabby port city filled with Orange People, migrant families and shops that sold vegetables and coffee on the sidewalk. My mum immediately rejected the patriarchal constraints of underwear, make up and shoes, in favour of bare feet and loose cheesecloth caftans.  My friend’s mum took a more circumspect approach to the era, at least as far as I was aware, and mainly stuck with meditation and study.

It was not uncommon to walk into my house and be greeted by my mum vacuuming in the nude and her boyfriend tending lovingly to the dope crop in the backyard. It was not uncommon to turn into my friend’s street to be greeted with the thumping strains of a fist pumping political anthem about sex or suchlike loud enough to rattle the aluminium window frames of every brick and tile house on the street. We were familiar with the art of pretending we didn’t live where we lived by walking purposefully past our own homes.

It was enormously bonding.

In other ways, we were very different. She always seemed so unafraid, my friend. Wherever she went she exuded a sunny expectation of being welcome and included. She was relentlessly optimistic.

In contrast, I was always afraid. I lived in a fluctuating state, either desperately hoping to be noticed, or paralysed at the thought of being spoken to or looked at. I preferred to be left on my own with a book.

Despite these distinct differences in personality, we were Best Friends. This was the thrill of my life. A comrade, a cocoon, a partner. It gave me the feeling of safety and belonging I imagined other kids felt when they knew they wouldn’t be picked last on the softball team. There was someone on my side and someone to defend.

We played with Barbie dolls in the back shed, we would construct elaborate dwellings on the tops of old furniture my step dad would restore. We practised our kissing technique on balloons in my bedroom. We swam most days in the ocean near her house, when the waves were big and wild. We’d let ourselves be caught in the swell and thrown about, dumped on the shore with sand tangling our hair. We’d swim west, straight out as far as we could go until we got tired, and then we’d float on our backs, stare at the sky before swimming back.

We were like sisters, without the fighting.

In a few years from now, we’ll have been friends for 50 years, which is something. It’s an achievement. The ties of shared history don’t leave you.

The magic of a childhood best friend, rather than becoming an exclusion zone around one single friendship actually makes room for more. I’ve added to it with other women, and like the Magic Pudding one doesn’t take from the other, quite the opposite.

 

I’ve been found wanting many times. I chip away at the best of myself when I let friends down, but I’ve done it. More so when I was younger and didn’t know myself as well. I made bad choices. It’s something still shameful, and the older I get and the more I understand the nature of friendship the more I wonder what I was thinking.

I have hidden myself and hidden from myself in romantic relationships, bar the one I’m in now, which owes a lot to the friendship we share. My closest friendships are such because of the room for revelation, for the testing of secret selves we aren’t quite brave enough to see alone.

I am lucky to have many best friends. They are a mirror, a lighthouse, a sure path in the dark. Not so rare if you know what to look for. The truest of true love.

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I remember you

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I remember you.

You intruded with your hippy music, weird food, your big orange pots and harem pants. We had each other’s measure. Enemies at the gate.

You were thin and pale with way too much hair, not like my dad. I wanted to blow you away, out of our house, down our street, back across the river where you came from. I waged a long campaign to drive you out.

The stand off over my cat which you wanted to give away before you moved in, burning sticks from the fire offered as sweet treats, with smiles that didn’t mean it, while we stared the other down.  Lining the pockets of my dressing gown with paper towel before dinner, so I could squirrel my food away for later after I’d provoked you into sending me to my room. The shameful lies I told my mum about your children breaking my stuff so she wouldn’t like them. How much it hurt when she knew I was lying and took their side.

You stayed.

So did the cat.

I don’t remember when we became friends, how we picked our way through the spiky path of mutual antipathy and found a way to love. Neither of us were good at it. We both recognised that much at least. Maybe that’s how.

I remember your kitchen and the food you made, nothing like the food I knew before. Ratatouille, coarse brown bread we had to slice ourselves, made into chunky croutons fried in olive oil when the bread got stale. I remember your aubergines and avocados, the beer you brewed in big brown bottles that were stacked in the pantry. The white parcels of bacon scraps we bought from Watsonia on High Street for five dollars and had with eggs and mushrooms on Sundays round the table, all together. I remember your stance on the evils of soft drink, which you demonstrated with a dirty silver 5 cent piece in a glass of coke on the fridge. The coin came out sparkling clean after a few days. I got the point but I still really wanted to drink the coke.

I remember your music that filled our house. Your record player with the good speakers, the real diamond needle and the blue velvet cleaner in its rectangle box. The shelves of albums in their covers with the plastic sleeves intact because you were careful about that sort of thing. Side by side, all in a row, their colours like a painting. We would play them every night at dinner, and all weekend. We’d play them on Saturdays while we cleaned the house, each taking turns with a room, week round. Mine was the kitchen which meant scrubbing your big wooden chopping board with the round cut-out for scraping food into pans and putting your knives back into their right place in the block. Or the lounge-room which meant dusting mum’s ornaments, chopping the wood and filling the wood basket for open fires on cold nights.

I remember you.

That time you and mum smashed the plaster off the wall along one side of the hallway and into the lounge, leaving the limestone bare. You had t shirts wrapped round your head for the dust. You used sledgehammers to break up the concrete out the front as well. I walked past with my friend from school and pretended it was not where I lived and you and mum were not my family. We weren’t like other families. Not like my old family.

I knew to my great concern you grew dope plants out the back near the chicken run and smoked it with your friends. I disapproved deeply. I did not know that elaborate glass contraption you kept on a shelf was bonafide smoking paraphernalia so I used it to water the plants and didn’t know why you thought that was funny.  I left the anti-drug leaflets they gave us at school all over the house hoping you would see them and fix your ways. You wondered aloud where mum found me and whose child I really was.

You’d surprise me now and again by getting me completely, even if you thought I was ridiculous. You’d smile at me with your pale blue eyes and I loved the light in them. I loved the way you laughed with your whole face.

That time you and mum pretended to be normal just for a night. You did that for me because you knew how much I wanted it. I had started at a different school and brought new friends home. I planned the event for days. I took great care to manufacture a scene from the family I thought I wished I had, and what it might look like. You on the couch with your newspaper, mum at the stove stirring the spaghetti sauce, looking for all the world like she had cooked it and not you. My friends round the dinner table, with a tablecloth and napkins, making conversation. You sat so well with your paper and your proper shoes and jeans instead of the harem pants you liked to wear around the house. Your friend with the wild eyes, wooly hair and bushy beard wrecked our efforts, when he burst in shouting for me to roll him a joint, he was joking of course but my fragile fiction was broken. I cried all night in the garden and you didn’t laugh at me then. You understood. And as it turned out, my friends didn’t mind and my life wasn’t over. And I loved your friend with the wild eyes, wooly hair and bushy beard, and love him still.

I longed for a mum and a step dad who went to parents’ night. I wished we had an iron and our school shirts were white and pressed like the other kids. I wished we did not dig up the hills hoist and use daisy shrubs we planted in its place to dry our clothes instead. But on weekends we’d do something magical like fill the car with helium balloons and release them from the tallest hill in town and then have fish and chips.

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I loved our Christmas where you would dress up in mum’s red caftan and the house was strewn with tinsel and we had a real tree with prickles that smelt like a story book Christmas. I loved our family dinners where everyone was welcome, and there was always enough, whoever arrived. You would talk to us sisters, all four of us like adults and we would discuss real things like music and news of the day. You made me want to be smart, and informed and a good conversationalist. I didn’t tell you I was frightened Reagan would push the button and worried we’d all die from ruining the atmosphere with chlorofluorocarbons. I still enjoyed the chats. You taught me to play chess and card games like Find the Lady and Euchre.

You gave me the playlist of my life with your music. Songs I can’t hear without being with you still. I’m glad we have that, and it can’t be taken.

Sleep well. I’ll remember you.

John Lennon: Imagine.

Murray Head: Say It Ain’t So Joe.

The Eagles: Hotel California.

The Beatles: All of them, but mostly Sergeant Pepper and The White Album.

Supertramp: Crime of the Century.

Bob Dylan: Masterpieces.

J.J Cale: Naturally.

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman.

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When life gives you lemons

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In the continuing saga of my life providing too few lemons or too many lemons, I find myself facing the latter dilemma. It’s a definite improvement.

But still, I have a LOT of lemons and I’m out of practice. A few years ago now the bloke took to my lemon tree with the pruning shears, much enthusiasm and not much knowledge. When I came out to check on his progress, I found him standing proudly by what was left of my once lush and bountiful citrus. It was a sad looking foot-long stump in the ground with nary a leaf nor a lemon to be seen.

I was thrust unwillingly and completely unprepared into the cut-throat capitalistic world of lemons at a price and the price was ten dollars a kilo. It was outrageous and frankly, UnAustralian.

In the years that followed I have survived on my wits. I considered lemons allowed to hang over sidewalks by careless gardeners fair game. I leaned on family and friends with lemon trees. I snaffled more than my fair share when a charitable soul left lemons in a box on their verge or brought a bag into work. FOR FREE. Fools, they know not what it’s like out there where lemons are traded for souls and first borns.

I tried salvaging my butchered lemon, well let’s call it a “tree” out of compassion. And I planted another one because you can never be too sure.

And success!  It’s been a long dry wait, but finally my new lemon tree has born fruit. Has it ever. So many, the tree buckled under the weight and drooped alarmingly to the side. We’ve tied it up with an old pair of tights and I’ve gently pruned some of the more lemony bits of tree back to manageably lemony. Obviously the bloke won’t be going anywhere near it with anything sharper than his wife’s resentful gaze.

I’m juicing a few for later use, and freezing them in ice trays. I’ll preserve some & also having a go at making an environmentally friendly cleaner. I’m on the hunt for more ideas.

The cleaner, which I’m quite excited by, involves peeling the lemons, avoiding as much pith as possible which is a bit fiddly. Then soaking the peel in a glass jar with white vinegar for a few weeks. Keeping it as pith free as possible is apparently important because otherwise the mix is sticky. Hoping it works.

Lemon Cleaner method

Peel 8 – 10 lemons, avoiding the pith. (could obviously do more but once you start avoiding the pith you’ll thank me for keeping your enthusiasm in check. It’s painful.)

Cover with vinegar in a glass jar, and let sit for two or three weeks.

Sieve into a spray bottle, with 50 per-cent lemon mix and 50 per-cent water.

Spray with chemical free abandon.

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I will update when it’s done. Meanwhile I’ll continue to hunt out more options to squeeze the very most out of my crop.

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The apartment on the fifth floor

 

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We’ve travelled to Paris for a journalism conference, and are staying in a beautiful apartment on the top floor of a classic Parisian apartment block. We looked for weeks before we settled on this place. We nearly booked a houseboat on the Seine but it wasn’t available when we wanted it.

We were lucky.

The only way I can explain the charming and tres quirky apartment we happened upon in the 16th arrondissement is to imagine it once belonged to an impoverished aristocrat with no children, who left it to a favourite niece and her husband.

They sold off enough of the antiques to modernise the facilities but have to let it out as a short term rental to supplement their income working in a small bookshop off the Canal Saint-Martin.

Her name is Alice, she wears frocks and rides a bicycle. His name is Remy, and he wishes he was a professional poet. On his 40th birthday, Alice had a small volume of his verse published for him as a gift. Her favourite flowers are jonquils. They both wish her uncle had not put the bath in the bedroom.

I love it here.

There’s a fat vase of jonquils on the coffee table and I am drinking herbal tea from an old crackled china tea cup painted with pale green flowers, staring out the window at the wonky Paris terracotta chimney pots.

 

 

 

At The Edge

How I jumped off a skyscraper, lost my mind and found it again. An essay on trauma and recovery.

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I always thought the best way to overcome your fears was to face them head on, and in a single puff, like Keyser Soze, they’re gone. They spin away, dandelion seeds on the wind. I’ve since found that’s not always the case. Some fears have deep roots.

On a Sunday afternoon in September last year, I abseiled down a 234m skyscraper. It was a charity event I’d agreed to despite a long-held phobia of high places.
Afterwards, I expected to feel exhilarated, but that didn’t happen. I just felt tired.

A few days later I was walking home from work, one moment I was soaking up some late afternoon sunshine, the next I was crying. There was a surreal sense of disconnection, almost as though I was floating above myself. Thankfully I made it home before the shaking began.

The trembling hit like a train and wouldn’t stop. My teeth rattled so hard I was worried they’d splinter inside my head. It was terrifying.

Several awful days passed where I was sedated to control the shaking. It would pull me out of sleep and strike at any moment during the day, like electric shocks you couldn’t see coming. My doctor referred me to a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy for trauma.

I was diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder. It has similar symptoms to PTSD. It’s something you might suffer if you’ve been in a car crash, or a terror attack, an assault or a natural disaster.

I struggled with the idea that I’d brought this on myself, through such a mundane event. I wasn’t hurt, I spent a Sunday afternoon dangling from the side of a skyscraper, securely attached, in no actual danger whatsoever. I found it hard to comprehend my disproportionate reaction. I was embarrassed.

The therapist led me from self-flagellation, which I’ve always had a talent for. I had a horrible phobia of heights to start with, I could barely stand on a chair without vertigo. I spent weeks before the event, publicly building it up, raising money and such so I didn’t feel I could back out. I drove past the skyscraper in question each day and googled videos of past events. My family panicked with me when I told them of my plans, and begged me not to do it. It’s safe to say I was quite worked up.

So much so by the time the day itself arrived, my therapist explained, deep in the instinctive recesses of my brain I believed I was going to die.

I was traumatized even before I’d left the ground, in the grip of the powerful fight or flight instinct I had heard about but didn’t really understand. I know more now. In order to respond quickly to a (perceived) life and death threat, my brain shut down unnecessary activity, like reason. Adrenaline started flooding through me, designed to help me flee or fight for my life. Except there’s another option when you’re cornered. The less well-known F. You freeze. Fight, flight or freeze. I froze.

When it came to the pointy end of going over the edge, I’d panicked, hyperventilated, desperately clung to the metal bar next to me, frantically tried to get a grip on reality. I focused as much as I could on obeying instructions. I was able only to submit.

The shock was extreme, which explained the subsequent feeling of exhaustion. Dozens of people take part in this event every year, and, apart from raising money for wonderful causes, they enjoy it. I’m still not completely sure why my experience was so intense.

I became hypervigilant. Always alarmed. I couldn’t drive, because I was so likely to see a threat where there was none, I was a danger on the road. I found it hard to be around people or noise. Simply walking along a footpath was stressful, because of the constant expectation something might jump out at me. I took to walking compulsively down the middle of the road as though that were normal, up and down my street.

I had awful dreams. Horrors involving my kids being hurt, my dogs or people I loved. I was utterly crushed by any bad news I happened to see. I felt I was drowning. There seemed no point to life, no end to pain. And I was so tired. I was tormented by nightmares in my sleep, I was tormented when I was awake. I recall asking my therapist if having such grim thoughts meant I was as monstrous as they were. It was a bad time, that lasted with varying degrees of intensity for several months.

I felt terrible guilt. We all like to think if faced with an emergency, life or death, we’d fight. We’d run towards the flames, punch the shark, fight off the attacker. We don’t always get to know what we’d actually do. But now I did. I’d go belly up like a submissive dog. What if it had been my child or my husband in real danger? I felt sick every time I thought about it.

They are symptoms, I was told, and there is a comfort in knowing your abnormality is normal, I guess.

I had relentless flashbacks of the event. The metal buckles and steel loops on my harness. The flat grey wall where we practiced before the descent. The scaffolding and pens, where we were divided off, that reminded me so starkly of the pens of an abattoir. The smell of the metal around me. The sense of shuffling backwards, my feet desperately looking for grip, and then that feeling of nothing.

We talked about all of this, my therapist and I. We looked at images of the brain, and lists of common reactions to traumatic stress. I practiced the techniques she taught me, designed to relegate the experience to the past where it belonged.

We talked about fear. To see its profound impact, to appreciate its effort to protect me. To be kind to it, like you might be kind to a child cowering from monsters under the bed. It wasn’t about facing fear and conquering it, beating it into submission or purging it from my heart. It was about acknowledgment and respect. It was about gentle perseverance and repair.

We identified each trigger. My panic attacks were not as random as I thought. We did that by talking and writing over and over about the event, so that I could begin the important process of distancing myself. I began to pick apart a pattern to the stimuli that would elicit a traumatic response. Heights, obvious. Less obvious, the smell of metal. But metal was so strong a trigger that stepping on a drain, or walking too near a wire fence, or even just the smell of metal would spark a panic attack. Knowing why, made all the difference.

We talked about avoidance. When it seemingly made the most sense to shrink from noise and the hidden dangers in smells, tall buildings and crowds, we discussed why it was important to attend to my reaction. I didn’t find this stage of the recovery easy. The instinct to turn inward was very strong, and I resented attempts to peel me away from myself and my vigilance. But I listened because I was desperate. I used the tools I was learning to coax my brain back to reason, even as it fought me.

We practiced exposure therapy. Once I knew the triggers, I could work through them one by one, until they began to lose their impact. I found places in the city, metal places, high places, crowded places, approached them with care and systematically worked through the simple techniques I learned to calm my brain.
It got easier and easier, until one day I stood on a giant steel bridge, high across the river, I faced away from the water, gripped the edge and tipped my head back. I was fine. I was rewarded then with a sense of exhilaration. I didn’t care that I must have looked a sight.

I went back to work, worried that I might not be ready, but it actually helped immensely to be busy. I simply didn’t have time to obsess. It anchored me. Routine was important.

The condition all up had me off work for two weeks, although it felt like a small lifetime, unable to drive for several months and in therapy also for several months. But I was able to recognize my symptoms on my own, and I had tools to deal with them. I was aware there may be tendrils of trauma that went deeper than this one event, that might further explain my extreme reaction, but I wasn’t interested in peeling back the layers of my past in endless soul searching. This was enough for now.

Almost a year later, I’m stronger than I was before, even as I’m more aware of my own vulnerability. I know we can’t ever entirely shield ourselves from trauma. There’s a lot in life we can’t control. But I feel better equipped to get through another sideswipe, should that come. Even if it took time, I could walk myself through recovery, if not on my own, with help.

I am very aware how privileged I am, to have somewhere safe to be, people who love me and a workplace which supported me while I was ill. I’m lucky to have a family doctor who would see me at short notice, and to have so quickly found a therapist I trusted. All of these things were crucial. I know the longer this condition is left untreated, the more complex it might be to untangle. The brain is a powerful organ and instinct is a formidable thing.

I think, in my experience at least, fear is a bit like grief. However unpleasant, it’s not something you get rid of, the idea of closure seems ridiculous. It’s a part of me and, like grief, I understand why. We wouldn’t grieve if we didn’t love. We wouldn’t fear if there was nothing to lose.

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Recommended reading: Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet.

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