How many realistic characters does it take to stamp out a stereotype?

This post was inspired by talented Aboriginal writer Siv Parker‘s piece raising some of the issues around whether white writers can write black characters.

She has a point. It’s a minefield and as a non-Aboriginal writer you risk doing a Keneally – blundering in with an attempt to help but ending up creating a rampaging serial killer, which you later come to regret and have to apologise for at every opportunity.

But perhaps there’s room for collaboration when it is done well? Playwright Alana Valentine has an utterly selfless passion for bringing to life stories of the disenfranchised, teasing out the humans behind the stereotype. I met her once and asked her something that had troubled me for a long time, which was: as a writer, do you have the right to speak in other people’s voices and appropriate their stories? She said the question had thrown her and it wasn’t something she’d thought of before. (I don’t know, perhaps she was being nice and it was the centre of everything she did?)

Valentine’s play “Head Full of Love” was about an indigenous woman who knits for the Beanie Festival of Alice Springs. Alana workshopped the script extensively with these wonderful women themselves, and was able to take a little bit of their lives around Australia. It’s a beautiful, sensitive piece of writing, with the blessing, I believe of the women who modeled the characters. Wesley Enoch, a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man, staged the play in Brisbane in 2012 to great acclaim. It seems to be a positive outcome.

The issue is of course much broader than characters that appear on screen – every single interaction and information exchange between members of white population about indigenous people is moulded by the stereotypes that have been passed on by school curricula, museums, history books, word-of-mouth and taught directly by social circles and family (as Siv Parker points out). I don’t think anyone can deny that in general over the years White Australia has made a complete hash of representing Aboriginal characters, and every cliched character hammers in an aspect of the stereotype.

It is impossible to erase the stereotypes and privilege immediately or even quickly. But it is so important, SO important, to try, and keep trying. White privileged society has a responsibility to try to fix the mess.

Excuse a diversion to explain what I know from experience about absorbing negative stereotypes without even realising it. I had strange and conflicting images of Aboriginal people fed to me as a child. My dad taught me that Aboriginal people were kinder and more accepting than white people. My parents taught me racism of any kind was wrong.

But of course, it’s completely possible to hold two mutually exclusive belief systems, particularly if you don’t know they’re there. For stories I had a 1960s collection of Aboriginal stories, told through a white mouthpiece (cue weird, mystical trope). Of fictional characters, there was only David Gulpilil in Storm Boy, Ernie Dingo and Jimmy Blacksmith (cue mystical, happy-go-lucky and black-bloke-on-a-rampage tropes).

There was history. In the late 70s and early 80s teachers were very into playing up the harshness of colonial life. We were taught it was oh, so rough back then in the bare-floored shanties, hiding from snakes, cooking damper, and avoiding swaggies who slept in logs. Convicts, floggings, escapes, cannibalism, Port Arthur, penal colonial Sydney at its rummest.

The full-fledged war following invasion, massacres, stolen children and attempted genocide were all quietly forgotten. Let alone Vincent Lingiari and the land rights movement.

And then there were the documentaries and news reports, which variously showed bearded traditional men standing on one leg with a spear, or intrusive, undignified exposes of people in squalor, sniffing petrol and becoming brain-damaged–reports full of the language of “them” and “they” and other intimations of lack of personhood. Even Chris Masters in his 4 Corners episode attempting to clear the name of an Aboriginal man convicted of murder, managed to condescend. This continues to this day, with the politically motivated Aboriginal child abuse debate of 2007, reports of which as Marcia Langton pointed out were an exploitation of suffering to produce a kind of misery porn. (Oh, and hasn’t it gone quiet since then?)

And there was one boy who came briefly to my school, from whom the rest of us were sheltered. Because he “was trouble” and “was an Aborigine”. (Was he stolen from his family? No bloody wonder the poor kid was trouble.)

There you have it – that’s components of the image of Aboriginality I carried until adulthood. Those are only the things I can pull out of the air in a potted summary. Pitiful, tragic, inarticulate characters, trouble, deserving to be looked after because they couldn’t look after themselves. It doesn’t come close to the intangible prejudices we non-indigenous all will have absorbed at an unconscious level. This was despite  my being pro-Treaty, pro-land rights, and my cheering on the Aboriginal protests in 1988. There wasn’t any deliberate malice there–I was just completely and utterly wrong, in every way. Idiotically wrong, even.

A very large part of that image though was the lack of positive Aboriginal characters on television and in the media. If I had heard intelligent, articulate Aboriginal voices in the media earlier, it might have sunk through my thick skull that intelligent, articulate Aboriginal people existed.

Let’s shift for a moment to Tongan culture and Chris Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga.  I’m going to defer to the Tongan community and  researcher Helen Lee that the character is racist and offensive. Pacific Islanders are not a very large part of Australia’s population (although I note large and “scary” enough for John Howard to change migration laws with New Zealand to prevent Islanders and other brown people getting into Australia through the “back door”.) So it’s entirely possible that the only thing some teenagers would know about Tonga and Tongan culture would be Lilley being an arsehole in a stupid wig and black face. It’s going to take a lot to overwrite the damage from that one show. Now, that’s just the one show. It’s a thousand times harder with Aboriginal stereotypes.

Ideally, what needs to happen is positive Aboriginal characters in as many places as possible. Redfern Now was utterly brilliant, up there with any series this country has produced, but it was easily avoided by commercial TV viewers. Where are the Aboriginal doctor and lawyer characters? They exist in real life. Has there ever been an indigenous team on any reality TV? What not MKR? Where are our mainstream news readers who happen to be Aboriginal? Why don’t kids’ shows employ indigenous culture consultants like they do in NZ? Why was Deb Mailman the first and last indigenous face on Play School?

White writers will in general balls up getting inside Indigenous peoples’ heads, especially if they do it without extensive collaboration and perhaps even then. The very start point is getting cultural advisers and writers on the payroll, at least of current affairs and children’s shows. But if white Australians are to work on our received “wisdoms” and unconscious stereotyping, they have to see positive Aboriginal characters on their TVs and movie screens – Indigenous academics, lawyers, writers, activists, engineers, teachers, cops, living in rural towns, regions, cities, townships, everywhere. The more indigenous writers involved in this process, the better.

To get that breadth happening, it’s likely that some characters are going to have to be penned by non-indigenous writers. That said, it will only ever be worth it if done with as much sensitivity as Alana Valentine. Without that, what’s left is a rehash of the same old damaging tripe.

Screen Australia has published Pathway and Protocols – a filmmaker’s guide to working with Indigenous people, culture and concepts. Is the guide enough? What do you think? Is it a pipe dream?


Anxiety, depression and manipulative behaviour


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There’s a lovely view into Bungonia Gorge from a look out near one of the car parks. My eldest daughter, then 14, was not wanting to go on the walk we’d planned with our friends. It had taken me some time to coax her out of foetal position in the car. She was accusing me of forcing her on the trip, and nothing I could say would calm her down. Now we were looking over the rails and into the depths.

This was in December 2011, back before Zoe’s arm and depression set in, when we went on a company bushwalk in Bungonia National Park. My husband and Zoe (pre-physical issues) went with the gung-ho mad fit group down into the gorge. The other two girls and I were doing the slower, cruisier walk around the plateaus.

“You know how they say if you fall from a building, you die before you hit the ground?” she asked. “Is that true?”
“No.” I answered. “You would be absolutely terrified as you fell. You wouldn’t necessarily die, either. You may lie there in agony for hours until you were rescued. And then you would live with the consequences forever.”

It probably wasn’t the best answer, but that was the first time she’d alluded to suicide, I was tired of arguing, and it just slipped out. She’s done it a number of times since – “I don’t deserve food,” or “I don’t deserve to be loved,” are statements we hear too often.

S was the perfect baby: bright, ahead on all her milestones, chatty and cheerful, and I was congratulating myself on my parenting skills. By the time she hit school, however, she’d started showing signs of being very anxious. She would not go to sleep in a room by herself, she screamed about monsters or “the walls moving”. She was scared of a lot of things – ants, dogs, heights, certain foods, talking to people she didn’t know, the dark, needles, crowds – it was a long time ago and I can’t remember all the things that frightened her, but I do remember that it was bad enough for us to seek help from a psychologist when she was five. If exposed to anything she was scared of, she’d react with a full-on screaming tantrum.

She steadily improved over the years, as kids tend to, and we hoped that she might outgrow her issues entirely. But then puberty kicked in, with what in retrospect were fairly predictable results.

The first time I realised we had major problems looming was on a holiday to Nungurner in East Gippsland. The kids were bored, so we thought we might take them on a paddle steamer for fun. S was very angry, saying she just wanted to stay in the car. It was hot, we’d paid for her ticket, this was not an option, and after all, how bad could a trip on a paddle steamer be?

One of the inner circles of Hell, according to the response. She yelled at me that I obviously hated her and suggesting she might just throw herself in. I finally managed to get her to eat something (a caramel slice, from memory), which improved her mood. I told her that sometimes we all had to do things we didn’t want to, and that as trials went, being expected to spend an hour on a boat so that your sisters and family can have a bit of fun wasn’t that big an impost.

I then joked: “And when you’re 23 and seeing a therapist, you can explain how awfully your parents mistreated you – ‘They forced me to go on… on… a… PADDLE STEAMER!'”

She laughed. Luckily. The Paddle Steamer incident, however, is now something we must never mention lest it bring on a tantrum.

Looking back on the pattern of behaviour from when she was young, it’s obvious that when S experiences something that frightens her, she behaves appallingly. She is rude, surly, sarcastic accuses me of having failed in some way to prevent whatever it was. It’s nothing short of a teenaged tantrum.

Which has always raised the question, is her behaviour manipulative or symptomatic of her depression and anxiety? The answer is, I believe, both. She uses her tantrums to get her way, but her way is always to avoid a situation that stresses her out.

S has fairly well defined situations which are sure to make her stressed or tearful. Crowds, buses, school work stress (although this is becoming less an issue), needles, and sadly, counsellors, all make her completely insufferable. As a parent, I find the balancing act between maintaining discipline and not pushing her into self-destructive behaviour very hard. What I try to do is to calmly explain that I don’t deserve to be abused the way she is treating me, and that what it is that I am expecting from her is not unreasonable. I just calmly press the point.

Appealing to her logic systems behind her screwed up emotions seems to work, but I get very tired of trying to be the saint. Sometimes I just want to scream at her – but screaming at a kid who self-harms (she will bite herself, sometimes to the point of bleeding) doesn’t help.

So that’s S, my eldest. We’ve dealt with her behavioural and mental health issues for years. Zoe, my middle daughter, used to be the sane one, so to have her emotional health also pack in so spectacularly last year was a bit of a blow, to say the least.

Kevin Andrews, mental gymnastics and “Two competing views on marriage”


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This morning, Radio National’s Breakfast Program played a soundbite containing Kevin Andrew’s justification for opposing the ACT’s marriage equality laws. What he said was on the surface of it brain-bendingly bizarre, mendacious and unhinged, but underneath there is a terrible logic:

There are two competing views about marriage today. One is the traditional view, and that is that marriage is essentially a protective institution for children and women, and that’s between a man and a women. There is a new version, a new view if you put it that way, that says that marriage is essentially an affectionate relationship between adults. Now, there are many affectionate relationships between adults, which the law has no part in. Brothers and sisters, members of family, just good friends, have affectionate relationships. I don’t think that is marriage, I don’t think that the law should step in to those sorts of arrangements, and that’s why I continue to support the long held definition.

Insane, huh. The immediate urge is to write Andrews off as some slavering crazy Grandpa Simpson-type waving a cane around, and that would be possible, if only the slavering crazy backward types did not currently have power in Australia. Moreover, the statement deserves a decent parse, as it displays classic Howard-era rhetorical technique. We’re probably going to be hearing more of this sort of crap in the years to come.

Let’s take the premise that “marriage is essentially a [ed: legal] protective institution for children and women”, and that this is the “traditional view”. I’ve added in that it is a legal institution, because that’s implied by what he says later.

Marriage has changed enormously in the millenia it has existed, so it is difficult to point at any one moment in time whose definition of marriage is traditional. The Week here has a potted summary, should anyone wish to check out what is so self-evidently true to anyone who hasn’t lived with their heads stuffed up their bums. The fact that Andrews dismisses any formulation of marriage that involves love suggests the traditional format he harkens back to is the one of the pre-Enlightenment models that existed before the 17th C. Noice!

Secondly, he identifies what he defines as the alternative view, then attacks that. In logic, that is known as the straw man attack. No-one, nowhere, defines marriage as “essentially an affectionate relationship between adults”. From that ridiculously broad overgeneralisation about the meaning of marriage, he then claims that affectionate relationships exist between all sorts of adults, including brothers & sisters, friends, and family, and that the law has no place in determining the parameters of those structures.

I’ll just take a moment to try to push my brain back into my ears from where it has exploded from the complete and utter nonsensical stupidity of what he said. Perhaps he’s living, breathing performance art, existing only to show hypocrisy and logical fallacy should be done. Because now we’re getting from the literal meaning of what he’s said, and into the implications – the whistle to the proverbial dog.

Proposition A: Marriage only exists to protect children and women.

Implication 1: Women and children need the institution of marriage for protection, because naturally men are arseholes and will take advantage of them without some sort of legal protection. No-one else in a relationship will be an arsehole, ever.

Implication 2: People in non-traditional relationships do not deserve the same level of protection.

Implication 3: Children from non-traditional relationships do not actually exist so there’s no point considering them or their needs anyway.

Implication 4: All this namby-pamby getting married for love stuff is just codswallop. (I hope Mrs Andrews was listening.)

Proposition B: The only alternative definition of marriage is an affectionate relationship between two adults.

Implication 1: Love? What is this love of which you speak? It sounds highly illogical and frankly dangerous.

Implication 2: This definition of marriage includes all affectionate relationships between any adults at all, including “brothers and sisters, members of family, [or] just good friends”


Implication 4: No, seriously, how else does that affectionate adult statement make the slightest bit of sense?

It’s hard to imagine this entire argument being constructed by someone who had experienced love. Perhaps that is the problem?

Okay, let’s forget what Andrews actually said, because clearly that was just a load of shite aimed at going over well with a receptive audience. He’s tossed in a few comforting motherhood phrases, like ‘traditional marriage’, which make the unconsciously homophobic feel all cuddly and warm. He’s managed to squeeze the concept of protection of children and vulnerable into it to increase the fuzzy goodness. He’s made some unbelievably irrational claims sound quite reasonable. And to wind it up, there’s a well veiled slippery slope argument, carefully phrased enough to not attract the sort of ridicule Cory Bernardi received with his bestiality claim.

Essentially, what we can take from his statement is the following: Kevin Andrews is completely and utterly incapable of even conceptualising non-traditional marriage. He is so bamboozled by non-traditional marriage that he’s willing to toss out all the sweet romanticism of modern marriage to accept a definition of marriage that became outdated in the 17th Century.

Moreover, we can fairly safely assume that Kevin Andrews doesn’t like gay marriage, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.

Irish treatment of the mystery Australian is exemplary. Would Australia be the same?


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You will have probably heard of the young unknown Australian woman who had been found wandering the streets of Dublin. Originally assumed to be a European teenaged victim of sex trafficking, her identity was finally established after the release of her photograph as a 25-year-old Australian woman with psychiatric difficulties. In spite of her being a known overseas citizen and no longer believed to be a child, the Irish High Court has ruled that she continue to receive care from Irish children’s services, stating that she was highly vulnerable.

What would have happened though, if it were an Irish woman in Australia? I am not sure how far things have changed, but during the Howard era, she almost certainly would have ended up at in a detention centre.

Cornelia Rau was a terribly disturbed woman who turned up in Cape York claiming to be German, but with details which differed every time she spoke. She was taken to the Cairns lock up by police, who contacted the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) for advice. In a conversation with the honourary German consul in Cairns, Cornelia gave a crazy story that should have alerted all concerned that she was mentally ill:

She spoke to Anna for two hours in German and discovered that she had made it to Australia by walking across China, hiring a Russian people smuggler for 1,000 euros, then being delivered by boat from Indonesia to a place near Darwin off the Australian coast. She might just as well have claimed she had come from Mars.

(Robert Manne, The Unknown Story of Cornelia Rau, linked above)

A week after she was apprehended, she was locked up in a Brisbane jail on suspicion of being an “unlawful non-citizen”. Clearly, this was to do with the deep-seated culture of distrust of potential asylum seekers. Her story was inconsistent, and therefore it was assumed that she was ‘lying’ in order to not be deported from Australia. Rau was not lying: she was simply stating her reality.

Rau ended up incarcerated for a total of six months in Brisbane Jail and a further four at the Baxter Detention Centre, before her case was highlighted in an article in The Age, and her family recognised the description.

It goes without saying that Cornelia’s time in detention did nothing to improve her mental situation.

The second case is that of Vivian Alvarez Solon. Vivian had married an Australian and became a citizen in 1986, but became mentally ill. She was found injured, possibly after an accident, in Lismore in 2001. She was dirty, unkempt, looked foreign, seemed to have no Medicare card and now was gravely crippled. As soon as it was physically possible, they had her on a plane to Manilla and, loading her into her wheelchair, just dumped her in Manilla airport. Luckily for Vivian, after spending 2 days in a hallway, she was taken in by the Missionaries of Charity in a hospice, where she at last received some loving care.

Meanwhile, the police were trying to find the missing mother of Vivian’s son. It wasn’t until 2003 that a DIMIA staff member recognised the missing woman as the deportee, but then it was hushed up until 2005.

The Dublin mystery girl was originally assumed to be a trafficked child. Perhaps DIMIA would have sympathy for someone who was trafficked to Australia as a sex slave? No. Puangthon Simaplee was trafficked to Australia as a sex slave at the age of 12. She was picked up in a brothel raid at 27, unsurprisingly addicted to heroin. Noting that she was not a citizen DIMIA swooped, she ended up in Villawood Detention Centre, and was dead from an overdose within three days.

It is to be hoped that the fervour at DIMIA has diminished, or that something has been learned. Given that the Abbott government is back in, and that asylum seekers have been revived as the dominant scapegoat, and that we still fail to care for the people with mental health issues in Australia, the risk that more mentally ill people will be caught up in the detention system is great.

Not crushing butterflies – the review I couldn’t bring myself to post.

What happens when you see a play, written by a brilliant young imaginative woman who deserved to be nurtured, but the play sucked? And I mean I thought it stank, in every possible way?

The script had passed through feminist workshops around the world and, well, what can I say? Clearly the advice she had had was not great. Somewhere along the line, rather than being gently guided into a damn good structural and voice edit, she’d picked up the aesthetic of a bad 1980s Women’s Studies 101 street theatre group. Theatre’s precious and sort of endangered, so the last thing I wanted to do was give it a bollocking. Too many good people would have been hurt, right? I mean, what right do I have to can someone’s precious jewel?

So, here’s the first draft. Later, I changed it to offer what objective advice I could. Names have been changed to protect the delicate.

It was interval. We knew that, because the narrator barked out “Interval!” over her shoulder and she walked off the stage. This was probably just as well, because without the prompt people would have gratefully mistaken it for the end and made their escape. Presumably on the first night the audience had halved, and the poor sods presenting the play were kidding themselves that it was because they didn’t realise there was more. My companion, with a face of fixed and determined neutrality (the author and director were in the crowd), gestured towards the door. As soon as we were out, we both doubled up in silent laughter.

“Is it just me, or was that the most pompous piece of rubbish you’ve seen since Uni?” she asked. It wasn’t just her.

While XXX has combined elements of Greek tragedy, medieval morality tale and folk stories in the tradition of magical realism, (all good stuff, right?) I have to be honest that as a play it’s just not quite gelling yet. I’m not sure whether that’s because the script needs tightening, or production is sloppy. Probably both.

The play is largely narrated, which is hard to handle at the best of times.  But when every single line is delivered in laboured declamatory tones, it drains any possible vitality like blood from a hung carcass. The effect is almost like a really bad poetry reading interrupted by occasional bursts of misdirected activity. My companion and I found it hard to suspend disbelief and get into the fantasy world. It’s not a good sign when the audience is relieved at the main character’s tragic death. It’s a worse sign to hear audible groans when, having dragged themselves reluctantly back in after the break, the audience is told: “That’s right, Mirabella* survived the attack. “

More than anything, however, the production lacks the clever theatre and creativity which would bring it to life. Director XXX could have coaxed more empathic performances from these actors, all of whom are competent. On stage movement was shambling and unco-ordinated. At one point, the protagonist has to painfully totter slowly across the stage while several paragraphs of narration are recited. Honestly, it took about five minutes for her to get from one end to the other – riveting theatre, I tell you. Riveting. 

XXX as the evil King did an extraordinary job varying his evil cackles which preceded his evil commands, given that was all he had to do, over and over. “Ah hah hah hah hah. Kill him. Ah hah hah hah hah. Break her back.” The same poor guy does get to play other roles, namely a procession of identical soldiers, each of whom have to stumble in, slump on a table and either be healed or die. Similarly, all the other characters are flattened of nuance – and it’s not the actors’ fault. The costumes don’t help—not so much minimalism as leftovers from a Year 9 history class re-enactment of Julius Caesar. Likewise, killing people by stabbing the air half a metre away from them, sometimes with the blunt end of a bone, had us shuddering with suppressed giggles, detracting from the horror just a tad.

All of which is a real shame as this could have been great. As it stands, this production feels more like a short story to be read rather than a play to be acted. It needs some creative brilliance to give it the spark it needs to do justice to the material. Perhaps the team needs to chase down radio adaptations of Angela Carter’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands on artist Richard Dadd, or watch the movie The Company of Wolves to how this genre works when handled well.

Little blips


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Can I have the day over? Zoe was overwhelmed with anxiety and depression today. She has been so (mentally) unwell that she hasn’t been able to face school for pretty much a year now, and so we’ve been having her attend classes by internet hook up. We were very excited about this to start with, but less and less is driving her into panic attacks.

This morning she had science. She had already vomited her breakfast worrying about it and had mentioned that Science was scary, but we continued. I was in the kitchen cleaning, when I heard her making an odd noise. Thought she was just sniffling, so it was about 5 minutes before I checked on her. She had a pink, woolly scarf noosed around her neck, and she was pulling it as hard as she could.

Her father was out of town (he’s often out of town), and so I rang the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Luckily they have a crisis line and they were able to provide a counselling service that she responded to. It transpired she’s tried that stunt before a few times, but I hadn’t seen her. By the end of the phone call we had a plan – Zoe will do relaxation exercises before class, or if it was Maths or Science, then for the first 20 minutes of the class itself.

The counsellor was great, much better than the woman we have been seeing. Zoe responds very well to logic and plans, and this woman praised her obvious determination and resilience. It was just what we needed. This all took up about half the day.

The irony isn’t that Zoe finds Maths and Science particularly hard. She takes after her dad, and has the Maths Olympiad certificates to prove it. She just can’t cope with the fact that she might have missed so much, and the more she feel she has fallen behind, the worse it gets.

Sometimes I joke about it, but the reality is that I have two children who have expressed suicidal ideation that I have to guide to adulthood. Luckily I have huge amounts of flexibility with my job.

It could be so much worse. They could have substance abuse issues, or we could have had communications breakdowns, or they could be isolated with no friends. None of that is true. But I have to admit, today was a bit rough. Especially as the Zoloft withdrawal effects kicked in and I have been feeling a bit off.

Tomorrow’s another day though.


Fourth day off Zoloft


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Bear with me. This is going to involve some serious metaphor torture.

(Okay, short break while I coax Ms 14 out of foetal position on the floor. I made the mistake of ringing her teacher about the organisation for the rest of the day and this set off a panic attack. She’s shivering with cold, so I’ll get her into the bath with a book.)

Where was I? Imagine a slinky. Now take one end and secure it tightly in a G-clamp. On the other, screw on some sort of weird twisting machine that slowly coils it in the direction of the spring. Problem is that the twisting machine doesn’t really let up, and keeps going beyond the natural limits of the spring. At that point it slips the grasp, allows a bit of frenetic movement, then grabs hold again and the process restarts.

That’s me on Zoloft. The advantage is that it controls things fairly well. The disadvantage is that there’s a massive amount of tension to keep it there, which is partially relieved off in small completely uncontrolled wild phases.

Four days ago, I accidentally left the pills at home while we travelled, and I made the decision to see whether I could cope without them.

The initial impetus for starting them was that I wasn’t coping with Ms 14’s issues. For those who haven’t followed, or have forgotten this saga, my daughter developed a complex mix of brachial neuritis, which caused pain and paralysis of the muscle under her shoulder blade, meaning she couldn’t raise her right arm above 30 degrees. This moved on to the beginnings of complex regional pain syndrome, then had a bad drug reaction which prevented her from being able to balance, and to top it off, the stress of it all kicked off major depression, psychogenic paralysis and has kept her out of school for over a year. Over that time, we had misdiagnoses, harmful advice, implied criticisms of our parenting skills, and it was really only in June this year that we started getting to the bottom of it all.

All the stress of Zoe’s problems triggered a relapse in my anxiety attacks at the beginning of the year, culminating in my not sleeping and being in an almost constant state of freak out. I realised it wasn’t going to help Zoe if I were like that, so I went to the doctor and walked out with a script for antidepressants.

They did reduce the anxiety (I am not depressive; I am highly anxious with a social phobia), but it triggered a slight mania. I swore more, would make strange, silly movements and would get the odd wild fancy.  Also, I’ve discovered I’m too continually hyped up to work. I have cut my hours to the bare minimum I can get away with, and still struggle. Reviewing becomes difficult as I pace around in circles in preference to writing what is only 250-400 words. It can take days. I couldn’t really concentrate to read, either. So decided it wasn’t worth it. 

Let’s get back to that poor tortured slinky. Imagine the clamp and the weird coiling machine suddenly disappear. Crazy slinky spasms. And because this bloody metaphor was fucked up from the beginning and doesn’t work, someone videos it then plays it back over, say, two days. That’s me over the weekend. Total spaz out.

This morning I’m remembering what normal felt like. It’s nice. I’ll have more of that, please. Zoe’s issues are still present but well enough defined not to create stress on an ongoing basis. The GP has warned that there may be a relapse of the anxiety, but I already know how to deal with that (exercise, relaxation, discipline, no internet after 9pm, and no true crime).

Speaking of true crime, I declare the anxiety is like a tightly coiled spring metaphor dead. RIP.

Eccentric beings and sensitive souls: Living well with what others call mental health issues


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When I was fifteen or so, my mother waded through the sea of clothes, books, school work and teenage flotsam and jetsam that covered my floor, and sat on the edge of my bed with tears in her eyes. I had to clean up, she said. It was really important that I get the room sorted. I made some excuse, but she cast her eyes downwards, subtly wiping a tear from the corner.

“I had a friend who never cleaned up. Every time you went into her house, the house was a complete bomb site. She had junk all over every surface. And she ended up in Ward 12B.”

Ward 12B, for those who never had the chance to go there, was the mental health ward at the old Canberra Hospital. So apparently, Mum believed that mess drove you mad and that cleaning was protective. It’s a particularly amusing little irony, as she probably wouldn’t have assumed mess made you crazy if she wasn’t a little bit of an anxious basket case herself. But she was perhaps correct to recognise that I had early signs of what could be described as mental illness. I don’t like that description much – the DSM categories are too absolutely defined (and yet, altered every successive update) to encompass the range of individual possibilities and challenges people might face. I prefer “eccentric”, or even “sensitive soul”, if you will.

In our family, we have lots of crazy. Mum is a bit of a catastrophist. I reckon Dad is on the autism spectrum somewhere – he is a profoundly dyslexic, nudist socialphobic, who Mum was always shouting at to at least put some pants lest he dangle in the butter. He grew up on a Dungowan farm isolated from his peers, bullied terribly because the other kids thought his grandad was black. Being odd and shy to start with and ostracised by schoolmates, Dad worked out his own rules for life. Treat others with extreme kindness, and if a social convention is illogical, don’t bother with it. Hence, no clothes. Left to his own devices, he also licks plates clean, farts, and is absolutely brilliant to have around if you need to scare off Mormons. He also has the ability to look at an electrical circuit board and understand it instantly. He’s much more acceptable in public and is still in well paid employment at a university, at the age of 70.

One brother used to sneak out at night and put home-made bombs on peoples’ lawns, and for a while got into shoplifting. When someone blew our letter box into its component pieces a few years ago, he was proud that someone was carrying on his grand tradition. The most successful member of the family is a diagnosed, treated schitzophrenic.

Then there’s me. I have had a blessed life, I really have, so I have utterly no excuse for being bonkers other than heredity. I’m probably a bit more severe than the others, who are just eccentric. My major issue is the same as Mum’s – anxiety. I have over a thousand twitter followers, but I’ve only met one, once, and then I made my excuses and fled back inside so that I didn’t have to interact. I have worked on my eye contact and have a number of close friends who I can talk with freely and trust. (That said, I do have about six birthday presents sitting on my bench, because I bought them and haven’t yet got up the gumption to visit the people – pathetic, I know). This is my every day life – a bit annoying, but hey, there’s an easy cure: if I avoid people I don’t get anxious. Voila!

Normally, life is pretty easy to manage. The real challenge comes for about 3-6 months every couple of years or so, when things go haywire, and I end up virtually housebound, or worse, pretty much living on some weird other fantasy planet. The fears started as middle of the night panic attacks in my teens. Picture a fourteen year old sitting on the tiled floor of the kitchen balancing a plate on her head at 3am. That was me – I was convinced I was going to have a heart attack, so reasoned if it happened the plate would fall off and alert my parents. Never broke any. You know that Arabia Ruska stuff – it’s pretty tough.

This was all pretty tolerable until I fell into a fairly wild place in my late teens and early twenties.  My poor boyfriends had to put up with all sorts of nonsense, me leaving strange and suicidal and leaving threatening or pleading notes on their doors in the middle of the night, getting drunk or stoned, slicing myself with razor blades in front of them, desperately sleeping with people to try to find love, some vandalism (always reversible though – I had my morals), cartwheels over the University lawns alone at 2 am with loneliness so acute the pain of the frost on my hands was a relief, culminating in what would probably be called stalking these days. There were a few suicide attempts, but the thought of what it would do to the parents held me back. No arrests: I was bloody lucky, right. And a lot of really excruciating poetry, of course. Written in my own blood, of course. I’m not exaggerating. Wish I were.

I was from a middle-class white family, in Uni and with every advantage in the world, so I have no excuse. (No, not even Dad’s dairy product abuse is an excuse.) Writing it all down, I barely relate to that poor kid. But you see my point about diagnoses – you can shoehorn all that into several categories if you liked, and very few of them would be useful.

At Uni, I met with a young PhD candidate with whom I had the most brilliant discussions. He treated me as his intellectual equal – which was a compliment from someone with double first class maths and physics. One morning at 4 am, he knocked on my door in acute anguish and tears. Having left his country of origin, family and friends behind, his depression had become too much to bear. I took him in, offered him hugs and tea. We became a self-supporting unit and soon were inseparable – of course I threw myself at him, but while he accepted affection he refused sex. He told me I was worth more than that. I nursed his depression, he tethered me to reality. We were friends for five years before he gave in. With his help, I grew up. We married.

His family is also full of crazy, but with a different mix – where my guys are clinically nuts, his are clinically maudlin. His father definitely had Asperger’s – a brilliant, obsessive scientist who kept statistics of all sorts of strange things from the denomination of coins he picked up in the streets to the times, dates and details of sexual encounters.  My husband has inherited his brilliance, but also his depression. P. is on antidepressants. For the first time recently, I’m on antidepressants, too.

Most of the time my anxiety is under control (which is to say there, but bearable), but when things are bad, I will become acutely paranoid. Early bouts included stuff like waking in the middle of the night absolutely convinced my body was going to spontaneously combust, or being unable to rid myself of the belief that there was a gunman outside. After I was married, the various fancies have been things like believing my husband was having an affair, or that he didn’t love me, or obsessing over the details of a grisly real life murder I’d read about. Back in January, I heard about the New York Cannibal Cop. I googled all the details I could, and then couldn’t sleep for two nights as my mind imagined what it would be like to be the victim, in horrifying detail. Realising that it was exactly rational or responsible behaviour, I turned to the doctor and Zoloft.

When I messed up my pills recently (mistaking antihystamine Zyrtec for antidepressant Xydep) I became a bit hyper and excitable, and very slightly at risk of running off with a Lithuanian fishmonger to start a circus just for the adventure*. But I recognised a spiral, and apart from possibly doing my own reputation a little damage by live tweeting my insanity, I was able to step back, facepalm and laugh.

Both my husband and I can see it coming from a mile away these days – as I can read in his face that the black dog is on his back with its tongue in his ear. As soon as I start obsessing over things I know to be stupid, I realise I have to do something and seek some sort of help – be that counselling or antidepressants. Whereas when he gets dour, he gets warmth, hugs, tea, and gently guided into his distraction activities until he feels better.

We treat our problems not as essential parts of our being, but annoying maintenance to which we have to attend occasionally.

Perhaps if we’d thought about it a bit better, we might have not done so, but I’m afraid we blended our DNA. Kids. Three of the buggers. It would have been a miracle for them all to have escaped our genes, but having been through it ourselves, we hope we are better equipped to deal with the whatever they face.

So that’s the negative. But not a lot of completely “sane” people (or people who think they are sane) realise that with these sorts of issues come positives. The curious mind my husband inherited from his father may be occasionally crippled by depression, but it is also genius, providing enough to carry us through any temporary down times. I’m creative-I love photography, design ads for our company, write, and review theatre. Our kids, too, are creative, genius, or both.

My family is a best case scenario. I have done so much better than I deserved, or than anyone meeting me in my twenties could have predicted. My husband, for all his depression, has been successful enough to support us well. Two of the kids show signs of not coping – random crying, panic attacks, phobias, suicidal ideation, a little self-harm in biting themselves to bruises.

The positive is that having lived with crazy for this long, I sort of know how to make the best of it. The following is a list of things I’m telling the children to try to help them deal with their genetic heritage.

Just as a disclaimer, it might not work for you – and you know, you’re well within your rights to tell me as a privileged bitch to just fuck off because what the hell do I know, and I’m not a trained counsellor. You’d be dead right. Okay, got that out of the way early.

As I was saying, this is our list for our privileged princess daughters. What would you add? What would you remove?

  1. It won’t always be this bad. When you’re in the pit of a depression, it feels like utter crap. But you’re not the only person in the world who feels like you do right now, and many, many people live with varying degrees of depression.
  2. Avoid suicide porn. For fuck’s sake don’t read anything about anyone who has suicided.
  3. Use your powers to be rational. This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which aims to retrain your brain out of negative thought patterns and into more healthy ones. If you’re able to find a good CBT counsellor, or really any counsellor, great. There are plenty of online resources to help if you haven’t got access to or money for counsellors.
  4. Help. Seek out whatever you can – gps, counsellors, hospitals, whatever.
  5. There’s no shame in medication. Don’t hold out until you are 39 like my husband did. If the first pills don’t work, try another, and another.
  6. Psychotherapy which involves any revelations of deep, dark secrets didn’t work for us. There is a freudian style of psychotherapy which tends to look for events in the past to blame for the current predicament. Not only does it drive a wedge between you and your family (because the parents almost inevitably get the blame), it can also drive in your feelings that you are a victim of the world, and you can be lost in a mire of self-pity, which only gets worse. We’ve both been there, and we realised it made us pathetic whiny little wimps blaming the world for our problems. (The advice doesn’t count for anyone who remembers abuse, trauma, ptsd and the like, and many people may find it helpful. We just didn’t though.)
  7. Recognise spirals. Spirals are when your depression or anxiety feeds on itself. Recent example of a thought spiral by my middle daughter: she’s missed a year of school, so she’s freaking out about school, so she freaks out more about school. Then she’s angry at herself because she’s caused herself to miss so much school, and she’s useless, and now she can’t sleep, and she’s a terrible person because she can’t sleep, and, and, and… So you can see, she was punishing herself for her symptoms, which just got worse and worse until she was catatonic. If you get into a spiral, distract yourself or seek help.
  8. Find things that settle you down. Breathing exercises, exercise, gardening, reading, listening to music, finding someone to have a good, logical argument with on twitter – hey, whatever works for you. I go outside and look at the sky through gum leaves or take the dogs for a walk.
  9. Phone a friend. If you have supportive friends – even just one supportive friend – you’ve got a wonderful asset. If you recognise you’re in a bad space, reach out by phone, twitter, email, whatever. Twitter is a marvellous way of finding like minded people without having to actually speak to them face to face.
  10. Know the shape of thine enemy. Much easier by the time you reach middle age, but once you know your stereotyped responses you can cut them off at the pass. Once you can see that you’re heading for a crash, call a friend, see a doctor, use your distraction strategies.
  11. Don’t let it define you. You’re a person with a problem, not a list of symptoms on a freaking check list.
  12. Humour. This is easier with neuroses than depression. Either way, don’t take it too seriously. If you can manage to step outside yourself and see humour or irony in your situation, you can take the sting out.
  13. Try everything. By which, I mean go to the net, see what has helped other people and do it.
  14. Don’t self medicate with pot. Been there, done that, got the postcard. Counterproductive.
  15. If you feel you have no friends and you’re lost in a horrible swamp of depression, you are allowed to go to hospital and ask for emergency help there. That’s something I wish I knew as I was making angels in the Canberra frost in the wee hours of the morning.

Okay, now a bit of advice for people who consider themselves to be normals

  1. Can it with the fucking stigma. If it weren’t for people with mental health issues, we wouldn’t have comedy. We wouldn’t have a lot of writing. If it weren’t for autists, we wouldn’t have the internets. Seriously.
  2. Don’t give up on someone. I’ll be honest, being a friend of someone with issues can be a drag. Sometimes you can see them digging themselves into the same bloody hole they did last time. They might always complain about the same thing. Yeah, that’s what they do. Love the person for who they are. Find other things to talk about. Go to movies. Take them out of themselves.
  3. For Christ’s sake, don’t patronise. Yeah, that actually goes for anyone. Especially doctors. Because if you dig out the DSM V, you’ll find an exaggerated version of just about everyone you know.
  4. If you see someone in a spiral, offer help. It’s a pain in the butt but you know you’ll kick yourself if they do something stupid. Don’t do what I did when the old friend turned up with a bunch of stuff he’d borrowed, yellow and pale because he was committing slow suicide by starving himself. I just took my stuff, too shocked to talk. Luckily he had better friends who looked after him.

Why you shouldn’t vote Liberal, even if you hate your local Labor member


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Jane Gilmore of the King’s Tribune is thoughtful, clever, insightful, compassionate, and she’s penned a number cogent criticisms of Tony Abbott and the mainstream media. Which is why it shocked many of her followers when she announced her intention to vote Liberal in spite of her not being able to stand Abbott. Her local member, Labor’s Michael Danby, sounds like an appalling candidate who hasn’t served Melbourne Ports at all well. On the other hand, the Liberal’s Kevin Ekendahl sounds like he may well do a much better job. I think she’s wrong, because she’s preferencing local representation over national representation, and she may have already decided that Labor has lost.

You’ll often read in letters columns the opinion that in Australia, unless you’re actually in their electorates, we do not vote for our prime minister, in this case Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott. Instead, we vote for our local member. This is literally true, of course, but it ignores the nature of our voting system, which squeezes a lot of function out of your lower house vote.

This vote ends up having several consequences, some of which may contradict your original intention. Obviously at the grossest level your vote helps to choose your local member, after distribution of your preferences. However, where that vote eventually lands up helps determine the final numbers of that member’s party in Parliament. The party with the majority of members, obviously, wins. So while you may have voted for a local member, you do by proxy vote for the party.

So what do you do, if, like Jane Gilmore, the local member of your preferred party is repulsive to you? It’s obviously a dilemma, but the choice you have to make is which unpalatable outcome do you want to support. Obviously there isn’t a perfect solution.

On the one hand, if Gilmore supports Ekendahl and he is elected, Melbourne Ports will be better represented, and if Tony Abbott gets in, the government will have at least one reasonable member. However, Abbott is more likely to become leader of the country, and all rational evidence is that the Liberals under Abbott would be an appalling result, which we know from Gilmore’s previous writing she would not support. Even the quite right wing publication The Economist has endorsed Rudd and Labor.

On the other hand, if Gilmore puts her vote towards Danby and he is returned, he will continue to be a shocking, neglectful member. However, his presence may help Labor form government.

So that’s the choice: Poor local representation and reasonable national representation. Or good local representation and atrocious national representation.

If it were me, I would sacrifice local representation for the chance of decent national representation. I would gag, swallow, and vote Danby if there were the slightest chance of Labor being returned. Only if there were absolutely no chance whatsoever that my preferred party would win would I put local representation above this.

Whatever the more recent polls say, we’re not at the stage yet.