*trigger warning: discusses death, abuse, mental health and family dysfunction.
**note: all the green text are hyperlinks that take you to the pages I’m discussing!
2018 was not kind to me. I thought I’d be happy to see it go “Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out!” but instead I spent it’s final hours mourning the people we lost in 2018: my vibrant loving mother-in-law Sue, who is my ex-husband’s mum and Violet’s doting Granny who would sew her doll clothes and pack a special Christmas cracker just for her every year. My birth father Kenny, who re-entered my my life in my early 20’s and whose love and support helped me transform my life after years of abuse, abandonment and gaslighting from my mother’s side of the family left me fragile and self destructive. My partner Tim’s mother Pam, whose love and acceptance I craved desperately from the broken place inside of myself. My last words to her were “I love you” and her face lit up like a small child’s and in that moment I knew how much I was loved in return. The last hours of the year were theirs as I wept silent tears that 2019 meant moving on without them.
So now we are here, it’ a new day, in a new year and the future is full of possibility. This is not a sad story. This is the story of how the worst year of my life taught me what it means to be happy, what it means to be grateful. It taught me courage and just how strong I was capable of being. This is a success story.
I learned so much in the last year and some of it was really hard to swallow. Worse than death, which is inevitable and happens to us all – is being sold out by the living, those that you trusted to be there for you but who no-showed when shit got real.
I learned that when your world falls apart at your feet some (or in my case, many) of the people who you thought would be there will vanish – this has everything to do with them, their weaknesses, their inability to love you the way you needed is actually a symptom of how little they love themselves. As hard as it is you have to forgive them, not to let them back in but so that you can let them go. A friend sent me this clip of Maya Angelou and Oprah which explains this so much better than I can.
I read an excellent article on Thought Catalogue about letting go of people who aren’t ready to love you and it basically sums up my experience with most of one side my family. I wish I read it years ago because it would have saved me a lot of heartache. I highly recommend giving it a few minutes of your time if you’re struggling with tricky relationships.
In your grief you’ll also find others who will appear from almost nowhere to give you what you need. I had the most powerful experience with a stranger who went out of her way to see me, just as I was and bestowed me with kindness.
When someone important to you dies you’ll also have friends and family who step up, step in and will love and comfort you with words and actions. These people might surprise you. They might be people you just barely know, or people from your past you stayed friendly with. Like my friend Gracie who drove hours with her husband Blake to visit me and take Wildey and I to lunch when my dad was in the ICU and we were marooned, terrified 3,000km from home in a strange city. Or my friend Nell who has always been on the other end of Whatsapp to listen to me rant about all the wild curveballs my personal life threw at me this year. Or my friend Maren who took me out dancing until 5am on a Thursday and told me it was ok to be a mess for awhile. Most importantly there was my Uncle Kev and Auntie Kim who took care of absolutely everything for my Dad’s final months and afterwards and asked for nothing in return, an act so selfless and beautiful I still burst into tears when I think about what they did for me and my Dad. You’ll learn who is brave, who can love you fearlessly when you’re at your bottom, in pain and devastation. Hold on to these people for dear life and love them back without reservations because they are worth being vulnerable for.
Speaking of love, the most important lesson I’ve leaned this year is SELF LOVE. I know, I know. The concept of self love used to make me roll my eyes too. I’ve always been a bit to cool for that. I mean before this year I’ve done loads of therapy to figure out what was “wrong with me” and there was a lot to work with. The message was always “it’s not your fault, this is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation” I was abused, abandoned, molested, manipulated and shamed into silence by the legacy of my famous family’s Fairy Tale. Nobody wanted to hear the truth about my childhood. That’s a lot to unpack. So all this time I’ve worn my secret scars like badges. I toughed it out while building the life I’d always wanted. I was winning (at least on the outside) and then 2018 just sort of clobbered me. I stopped working. I stopped writing. I stopped taking photos. I forgot who I was for awhile. All I knew was that I had to protect my kids so I went through the motions for them and in that love for them I found the precious seeds of empathy for myself.
If you want to survive when your life is a raging dumpster fire of grief and pain past and present and it’s all falling down around your feet you need to really, really love yourself. Radical, unflinchingly honest, even when you’re desperate and pathetic and you hate everything SELF LOVE. As Mark Darcy would say “Just as you are.” Now, this did not come naturally to me. It’s been achieved through a multifaceted approach I’ve patched together for myself and I’ll share a few tips with you now about how I did it.
- Therapy. If you’re lucky enough to live in the UK you can access Mental Health Services for free. Only half of patients know about a program called Patient Choice which means that you can access any specialist mental health service you qualify for in any area provided they accept Patient Choice referrals. I sought out a private diagnosis (the best £210 I ever spent) for my OCD and asked my GP to be referred to The Maudsley Hospital Center for Trauma and Anxiety Disorders and received a 20 week course of therapy that changed my life. I left the program in July, just after I lost my dad. I was still in a great deal of pain but virtually cured of the OCD that kept me trapped in self-loathing since puberty.
- Meditation/Spiritual Practice. I’d been into Gabby Bernstein for awhile when my life imploded but I really began to lean into the practices and meditations she talks about in her books and talks. She has a YouTube channel that I used to listen to in my headphones whenever I needed to go anywhere. I prayed a lot to the Universe for strength and strength I found. If your interested in a relationship with God or the Universe or if you’re just lost and scared like I was I highly recommend her book The Universe Has Your Back, which is basically a field guide to finding yourself, quickly.
- Getting Real. One of the biggest parts of my healing and being able to love myself has come from acknowledging that those terrible things that made me feel ashamed, sad and paralysed with fear happen to other people too and understanding that just because others might have had it worse doesn’t mean my suffering was LESS THAN. Grief and trauma don’t discriminate the way people do. I remember being told so many times that because other people had worse childhoods than mine and turned out to be like, Oprah or something therefore “why can’t you just get your shit together and GET OVER IT?” This is called gaslighting and it’s the tool my family uses to silence those whose stories don’t financially benefit our celebrity narrative. I’m turning 40 this year and I’ve only just learned that this is bullshit. A big turning point for me was really delving into the work of Heather Havrilesky who writes a column called Ask Polly for New York Magazine. I’m in the UK so I read it online. I have too many favourites to pick one so if you want a health dose of reality I’ve shortlisted my favourite columns. They are long reads but full of so much compassion and wisdom that I treasure them like I treasure my deep and fulfilling relationships with Tim and the kids and the friends and family who showed up to keep me together when I was in the dark.
- Being Afraid And Doing It Anyway. After battling through the OCD that dominated my whole life and grieving again and again for both loved ones and the childhood those deaths confronted me with I was levelled. I was still doing the things I needed to do, looking after the kids, washing and all that but I had no idea who I WAS anymore. September came and just when I thought I’d snap back into my old life and patterns. I. Just. Didn’t. I cried a lot. I meditated a lot. I thought about forgiveness and boundaries and what it might feel like to protect my feelings and not be afraid anymore. I got angry sometimes too, at the hurt inflicted upon me. It’s not fair. Life can be so unfair sometimes. It was the anger actually that was my turning point. I had a dream about my Dad. I was telling him all about the people who disappointed me and he looked at me and said “Your anger is a gift. It means you need to protect yourself.” And when I woke up that morning I was a little less angry and a lot less ashamed of my feelings. It’s OK to protect yourself, this was a revelation for me. This didn’t stop me feeling things though but suddenly those painful feelings became inspiration, a push to create, to write, to find beauty and meaning in even the worst moments of your life.
So here I am, in all my truth on the other side of the worst year of my life. I lost a lot. I loved a lot. I’m still here and I’m stronger than ever. This isn’t a sad story. I’m a survivor.