I had a dream, back in high school.
I would graduate.
I would get a job.
I would study.
I would buy a car.
I would leave home.
I would have a career.
I woke up at 45 and realised
I’ve graduated more times than I like to admit.
I’ve been on disability since I graduated high school.
I have a twenty-year-old Lancer in my driveway and P platers drive newer cars than me.
I’m still waiting on that career.
It might be too late for a career.
It’s hard to get ahead in this world when you’ve been on welfare so long that the salary included in a job advertisement reads like a foreign language to you.
And you think over all the casual and part time jobs you’ve had and none of them required any of the study or skills you’ve collected along the way, the shells on beach walks.
You need someone to give you that big break.
That crack of an open door where you can use you skills.
You also need them to give you space to dip your toe in and make sure the anxiety monster isn’t going to do a Jaws on you and leap out of the water to chew you up. You need to get used the tides, the breaking of the waves and the calms.
Forty-five can’t be too old.
You have to believe this is true. To hold this truth like a sick bird in your hands, cupped so gently, with every good intention.
You need to know you’ll learn to swim in life, because if you can’t believe in that, you might as well drown.
I’ve become hyper aware that my writing life and real day-to-day life have hit a impasse that has never been apparent to me before. I love learning more about myself though writing and learning more about the world I inhabit.
In wiring memoir, the author, through her character self, is required to come across as a reliable narrator in the telling of her/his life. Of course, it’s a life the author picked apart so as to choose the parts that make for an interesting tale, yet still rings true for the reader. The narrative needs to both bare the soul to the reader and to tell a story that somehow shows the character changing in some significant way.
As Miss Mona, my pin-up name, I take on a whole other persona. When the winged eyeliner, the red lipstick, the tight sweater or swing dress go on, and the wet set gets brushed out of my temporary red hair I lose a large part of my daily anxiety, and a confidence pops up as soon as I catch a glimpse of the mask in the mirror.
As a teenager I was heavily into make up but it wasn’t until I started working after school and could afford the likes of hair dye and eyeliner that I found myself at home on a stage. Who would believe a periodic agoraphobic could suddenly perform in vaudeville shows, sing, dance, and generally become a person I have never known before. Now I wonder, where did she go? Perhaps she will only ever be seen on the papers of a memoir. For some reason I don’t want to write about that period in my life. It’s like if I pick it to pieces for a story I will kill the fairytale. What if I could find a way back to that place though? A place void of pills and panic attacks, a place where leaving the house was not a decision each day to worry about but rather a given, no thought to it whatsoever.
My mistake was in who I chose to associate with after school’s summer break over 1989/90. Teenagers can be caught up in dramas so much so that they don’t realise the impact they’re having on their friends. In this friendship I lost my identity and conformed to the standards of the group, which were set by the alpha-girl. I put the mask down and gave up on the me that felt good for the sake of acceptance. I put on a new mask, one to hide the pain, to blend in. I started writing. That was the only place it was safe to be me. Of course, no one read any of what I wrote.
To be vulnerable on the page do I have to take off all the masks, or to be vulnerable on the page do I need to find the mask that fits best for what I want to write?
Once upon a time, a young woman use to stand up for herself. Unfortunately she would do so even when the threat was only a perceived one.
Eventually she worked out this only escalated her anxiety levels.
Now she sits with that dodgy purchase she made, and contemplates ways to justify wasting the money, to write it off as just one of those things that happen to people.
Back to her writing project she wonders why she chose to write in memoir when she gets to one of those key scenes that she cannot work her way around, they have to be in the narrative for the story she’s telling to work.
Her heart rate advances.
Her blood pressure drops, leaving her light headed, vision a little hazy as she writes.
Her concentration moves away from the scene she’s writing, and she forgets that even though this is memoir, these people can’t harm her anymore, they are just characters, and she forgets to take a fresh look at the events and remember that she can write this in anyway she wants. She’s not a magician and can’t change the facts, but she can put in her reflection, a magic that time passing allows her.
Confrontation doesn’t always have to raise anxiety. (As for that dodgy purchase, she’ll have to work on that.)
Do you ever have one of those days where you focus on the past too much? I know the saying that anxiety is living in the future and depression is living in the past, but here in the present I’m writing about the past and there’s some really intense feelings coming up.
To set the mood I’ve also been going through photographs from that time in my life and listening to the music that I was hearing back then. Not just the stuff I liked, but stuff I hated too, because it all has feelings attached to it and if I do my job right I can get that layered into the text.
The part that is getting me down is seeing that I had no voice back then. There was some unspoken rule in my family that this anxious teenager couldn’t be trusted to make the right decisions for herself and so they were made for me.
I don’t think suffering panic attacks, or having generalised anxiety disorder should preclude anyone from choosing their life path, who they spend it with or what they do with their time.
I’m trying to rewrite this narrative so I have some kind of a voice in the end, even if it’s two decades too late. I’d love to have a do-over and go back in time, but I’m sure everyone has at least one of those moments they’d like to change, anxiety or no anxiety.
So I’m taking all the ‘no you can’t’ statements that were given to me as my story and I’m looking for the ways I responded by showing them ‘yes I can’ and bringing those to the front of the stage, and hopefully when I finish this what I’m left with won’t be a source of memory that causes depression, but will be a memory I can be happy to sit with. I know I can’t change the facts, but I can shift the focus, put the spotlight on the good things, and I get to choose how, in light of the years I’ve lived since, I remember things. I’m not going to be held hostage to the way other people want me to remember my past. Not anymore.
Writing was something I did late at night in high school, sometimes all night, until my parents had me medicated and I lost those creative thoughts in the fog.
I remember my high school made us keep journals from the first week until we graduated, and I was disappointed they’d discontinued this practice by the time my daughter hit high school.
Sometimes, especially in the first year, it was hard to think of things to write about, but as time went on I found those journals to be very beneficial.
Once I was at university I read ‘Freedom Writers’ and saw the movie by the same name, and it brought back memories of high school journals.
I’ve heard about schools introducing meditation to help calm students, make them more focused etc. I also see a lot of parents are unhappy as they feel it has a religious aspect to it. This has not been my experience with meditation but what if students were to have some time at the beginning of the day to journal, dump the chatter running riot in the background of their minds, before the school work begins?
I’m middle aged and I still need to do a ‘brain dump’ of all the useless stuff bogging my thoughts down on an almost daily basis.
Earlier this week I read about a study that showed people who wrote about traumatic or intensely positive experiences were able to find meaning in those experiences easier than those in the control group who didn’t write. For me, as someone with anxiety and panic disorder, I believe this to be true, and I’ll tell you why.
Several years ago I wrote a creative thesis and I chose an event in my life that I thought was significant due to its traumatic aspects, but the more I wrote about it the more my supervisor told me to look for the meaning behind the events I was putting on the page. It turned out that when I got right into it I was able to find a source of phobias and anxiety stemming from an incident when I was three. Not bad considering no therapist has ever made that happen!
And now here I am writing about coming-of-age, and finally I’m able to see meaning in experiences that continue to impact me to this day. It’s quite an educational and emotional experience.
As a side note, I strongly recommend reading Vivian Gornick’s ‘The Situation and the Story’ as it explains the difference between writing pure reportage scenes and finding the story in great detail.
Once you can put down enough of these kinds of experiences the writing becomes much like a quilt with patches that form a pattern and ultimately tell a much larger story, which hopefully deep dives the meaning of each experience to find the big one, the arc of a memoir for example.
The police officer told me mental health no longer held a stigma as it once did.
I told him he was mistaken.
Challenged I told him that where they were taking the man in question, to the local ER, they would encounter someone who had no tolerance for mental health cases.
He cut me off.
But I knew the person quite well and sure enough the man was medicated after being told, if he just took the pills then he could go home.
It’s not right, but what patient under the Mental Health Act is in a position to argue when they have two paramedics and two armed officers standing over them and called into their GP check up by their inexperienced GP? There are too many horror stories in the news to take a chance and speak up.
I think that is partially why I didn’t let on after I had my only child a couple of decades ago that I suspected postnatal depression. I had a history of anxiety/panic disorder and major depression. Admitting to it made me fear that with my history I could end up losing my child.
It’s very liberating to be able to write about it in memoir form now that she’s an adult and we can even talk about times when things weren’t so great.
Writing can help in the processing of old wounds but it can also shine a light on some that have been hiding for year, perhaps even decades. I’ve found a couple of those. In a cathartic way I will work through the old and new, the seen and hidden, and at the end there will be a manuscript, albeit a tear stained one.