Sunday, 29 December 2019

Summer Retreat


[Image: A dry rocky riverbed with a smattering of green bushes. A vibrant blue sky can be seen in the distance between rising rock faces on either side. A man walks in the distance away from camera wearing a maroon top and jeans.]



The official retreat has begun. The heat sits just outside the window. Sneaking around gaps of poor fitting blinds to enter the house. The drone of the air conditioner the music of Summer. A perilous lifesaver in a time where blackouts are predicted as an ongoing part of the Summer.

It’s hot and the country burns. Heat records broken day after day. Wildlife and land decimated. Lives and homes lost. And Summer just begun.

We’ve been lucky here. Our little pocket of the country has escaped the worst of heat and flame. So far. Always the reminder that it’s only ever so far. As I write, local emergency services are encouraging mass evacuations for tomorrow. Preparations for the possibility of the worst. Just to the East of us.

Just.

So far.

Soon.

*****

Once we lived in the hills around Melbourne. The cool of the tree ferns and mountain ash a boon in Summer. The difference in temperature from CBD to hills a welcome balm in the oppressive Summer heat. Particularly for a body that no longer functioned like other bodies. But not now. I miss our old house, but not the ever-present fire threat. The preparation, plan and pack. Beauty and danger in equal measure. A road that the CFA said they couldn’t protect. Watching Elvis turning over our house, carrying hope and water in equal measure. Evacuation down congested panicked roads as ash and sparks started to fall. Trying to convince my stubborn elderly neighbour to evacuate with us. The blood-red skies of Black Saturday and the weeks that followed. 

I still miss the cooler times. The thick mountain mists. The mimicry of the lyrebirds, the slow amble of the echidnas in the garden. But not the warmth. Not the rise in worry that matched the yearly rise in temperatures. Not the knowledge that my disabled body would be unable to escape without aid.

The heat rises and the danger with it.

Summer is now all harsh edges and scouring surfaces. And we stretch thin under its gaze.

******

Here in flat country suburbia, concrete and bitumen reflect and reinforce the heat. Reclaimed cow paddocks, denuded over years of bucolic servitude have left little in the way of natural canopy. Generic, cloned replantings do little to alleviate heat or the claustrophobia it brings. Artificial spaces forcefully imposed on the environment they don't understand yet seek to control. Crisp lawns stretch down street fronts. Buffalo grass taken by opportunistic scruffy parched weeds usually resilient, but even they bow and wilt under a relentless sun. The streets are empty of life. Human and animal. The blowflies seek the cooler shadows where they fall under ineffectual house eaves. Sun, concrete and bitumen work only to extract the last breath or final drop of moisture. Extinguishing life by bare presence rather than any show of effort.

Drought’s grip was strong long before the heat arrived. Now their combination has largely stripped green from the colour wheel. Small patches of artificial irrigation represent green anomalies in the parched brown and grey landscape. But even the remaining colours are faded remnants of past glory. Miss Havisham’s bitter touch rests everywhere, and the lacework that was one wetlands, bush and lush paddocks, but a husk.

*****

My body can feel the warmth outside. The air that flows down to my supine body softens the ragged edges branded into flesh by external heat, but never quite meets the mark. I exist simultaneously outside on the scorched lawn as on the soft sheets of my bed. I hurt and I shake. My chest feels tight. Pre-existing health issues ramp up with the knowledge of what exists outside cheap brick and glass. I actively try to ignore what the days and months ahead will hold. What the years to come will hold for all the bodies like mine. But it creeps in because it must. If I can’t cope now what will happen as temperatures stretch ever higher? Ever longer?


Heat is an ever-present worry that collects other worries as the days stretch out.

Worry that the power could go out. Worry that my body will fall into cascade failure should the airconditioning cease. The worry that all my planning will amount to nothing. That in the end, the land on which I live will outwit me. Always the worry on worry on worry.

After years of proactive retreat on the hottest of days, I tested the waters. An important family event unavoidable. 40+C inside a stadium, radiant heat outside disintegrating flesh from every angle. Excruciating chest pain radiating up neck and jaw, moving down my arm. Pacemaker kicking in. Vision fading. A rising panic, part physiological, part the well-worn knowledge of what was happening from times past. Ice vest, ice water, cotton clothing, fans. All of it pointless. A reminder of heats bite on a body that cannot cope with temperature extremes. A reminder that it is only the dull droning overhead that keeps me upright. Well, supine, but breathing.

Still recovering. Always caught in still recovering. And always the next hot day, after the next and the next. Heat creates an ever-decreasing level of recovery for a body that was already in the red from added illness on illness that I had yet to recover from in cooler times.

Still, I dip the toe and pretend to function. For myself as much as others. Dip my toe and reap what I sow. Dip my toe or have no life. But how do I ever truly dip the toe as the heat grips us so tight?

Self-care now becomes ever more intertwined with retreat. 

Isolation the norm.

*****

The heat beats on relentlessly outside. The light is sharp and thin. We plan again for the worsts. The area holds its breath. Mandatory evacuations begin. Retreat before tomorrows predicted onslaught. The East already burns. It's burned far longer than media has deigned to report. Out of control in inhospitable, stunning mountain landscapes. The air quality is poor here, far from the flames. Hazard warnings reign where the gums explode and the ash rain falls. Another crisis yet to reveal itself as fetid air fills lungs of locals and firies for months on end.

Retreat.
Relentless.
Relentless retreat.

*****


Where once we would retreat to the hills for cooler climes or to the coast for cool saltwater.
Now we retreat from nature
For self-preservation.
Anathema to the heart. And yet….

Retreat inside.
To artificial cooling for artificial life.
Retreat and hope the power stays on.
Retreat and prepare.

Prepare.
Prepare.
Prepare.

The long hot Summers that stretch ever longer.
The long hot Summers that wreak havoc on dysfunctional flesh.
The long hot Summers that shrink life.
The long hot Summers that exhaust body and mind.

*****

The days stretch.

And I enter my confinement.
Dark and claustrophobic spaces.
Where I dream in hot, flustered and irritated walls.
For a time where memories of flight and self-preservation will fade
and retreat will once more mean
recovery,
rehabilitation
and reverie.

Michelle

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

And now she is gone.




[Image: A merle Great Dane, Freyja, is lying on the floor staring directly at the camera. She is resting her paw on Michelle's pink dressing gown covered lap. Behind her, a white mid-century rocker, window and other snippets of loungeroom furniture can be seen.]



The house feels empty and claustrophobic in equal measure. The walls weigh heavy on my heart. Each morning there is a moment, just before I open my bedroom door where I have forgotten. Then I am faced with a large empty couch and it hits me she’s gone.

It’s been almost two weeks now since I had to make the decision to say goodbye to Freyja and the wound is still raw. Everywhere I move in the house she is there, or more crushingly, she is not. The house is dotted with holes. Large gaping chasms that trap me at every turn. I can’t escape the reminder that I’ll no longer see her.

I can no more look down from the edge of my bed where she took her last breath or move out to my backyard where she would sit at my feet in the sun, or rest against my hip as I watered my plants. Every corner contains a memory.

Her hair is everywhere. I can’t bring myself to clean it. Her nose print remains on the front window and the multitude of drool droplets that once exhausted my cleaning efforts and patience are now a reminder that she was here. My section of the couch still holds the imprints of her paws. Small scratches in the leather. Her smell on my cushions. I don’t want to clean it. Or touch. Or see. I can’t sit with any sense of comfort or ease.

The loungeroom is empty. I hate being in there. Her couch sits to my left and I still turn my head expecting to see her. I start to chat to her. To the fridge to get her dinner. I stand at the coffee machine and wait for her warm head to worm its way into my hand. To hear her chat when I am too slow to realise she wanted a pat, a feed, to go to the loo or just an ear rub.

The last year she had slowed. In truth we both had. She slept and so did I. Long exhausted hours. But even in sleep she was there. A physical presence. Small breaths. The warmth of her body. Her smell that wrinkled my nose. The comfort of another living being in the house. The last six months have just been the two of us. With Mr Grumpy overseas she has been my partner and my constant. She has been a reminder of life. Connection.

And now she is gone.

No matter how much I know it was the right decision. No matter how much I know that there was no choice. It hurts. Giving voice to the knowledge. Words more sob than syllables. The vet and the vet nurse kind and comforting. But she was done. She woke in the night scared and crying for entrance to my bedroom. By morning she wouldn’t eat. By lunchtime, she couldn’t stand. After so long it all happened so quickly. She felt indestructible after cancer, amputation, infection. Slowing but continuing. We plodded along together. Well-matched throughout.

She left the world in my arms next to my bed. Her favourite place for the past 10 ½ years. Just the two of us.

The unreal nature of the moment when I was told she was gone but she was still there solid and warm in my arms. Her fur felt no different under my shaking fingers than it had a minute beforehand. She was still there even after she had departed. She was still there. The vet and nurse left quietly while I sobbed and told her how much I loved her. 

I couldn’t watch while they took her away.

As the front door closed and silence descended.

She came into my life when I was already unwell. She, like Thor before her, has been by my side through it all. Attuned to my body. Coming to alert when my heart rate plummeted. Pounding my chest and barking and licking my face to wake me after a faint. Snuffling my neck as I threw up in the loo. Watching while I showered. Relaxing only when I was out and safe on the couch. Providing love and comfort when it was all too hard. We’ve hardly been apart in the last decade and I have spent more time with her than anyone human or animal in that same time.

And now she is gone.

A house doesn’t feel like a home without a dog. It is incomplete. A missing ‘something’ creating an itch that leaves me restless and flat.

I am wrung out and exhausted.

There is a large Great Dane shaped hole in my heart. And all my tears fail to fill it.

I know it’ll get easier with time. But the house feels less of a home without her presence.

I know it’ll get easier. But for now, the pain sits heavy.


Michelle




Tuesday, 13 August 2019

10th Blog Birthday.


[I'm currently too tired to take a celebratory photo so this old one from my #UpAndDressed project over on Instagram will have to do. 

Image: Michelle sits on an object covered by a purple tones throw. She is in between sections of aquaponics and surrounded by greenery and a red chook house in the background. She is holding a glass of wine and wearing a pale pink crocheted dress, patterned brown stockings and brown t-bars.] 


My parents recently sent me a package of photos and newspaper cut-outs, memories of days past. In amongst it all was a newsletter from my old workplace. Myself and a colleague were photographed as part of a feature on our particular hospital in the network. About an hour after that photo was taken I was in ED for the first time. I scan the image unable to find signs of what was about to begin. I look a bit pasty, but other than what appears to be my dedication to a 70s beige-on-brown aesthetic, there is nothing of note. Thirteen years ago this month everything changed and it appears that it happened in an uneventful workaday period of life. Beige. Illness popped up in a world of beige and burst it asunder.

I couldn’t tell you the precise date. I know roughly but it’s been lost over time. The date doesn’t matter. I used to think it did but it doesn’t.  It doesn’t add to my story and it holds no value. I remember the feeling though. I remember that. And it is this aspect both on that day and over the intervening years that have moulded me and my life. It is that which has peppered this blog for the past 10 years.

There’s something quite apt that my body has delayed my recognition and celebration of 10 years of blogging. In truth, it’s interrupted much of life, not just celebrations of milestones. Life is catch up at present but that is much of life with long term chronic illness. 10 years came and went last month and only now can I even begin to process what that means. And even that interpretation is coloured by the struggle of the past few months.

I’ve looked back at my early writing and find myself in a familiar and also foreign world. So much of life with a chronic illness is rinse and repeat. The diagnostic processes, frustrations with the medical system, the hope-try-disappointment cycle of finding a collection of meds and other treatments all still the norm. The tangle with what I now know is internalised ableism. The up and down. It’s all still here. It’s all still reflected in the one support group of which I am still part. One support group. That is a change. Early on that desperation for answers, for connection, for someone else to say that what I was experiencing was real, all of it was so incredibly pressing. I collected support groups like I once collected shoes. I still collect the shoes, but my need for multiple groups is long past. I’ve transitioned to a life where illness is still ever-present and requires a large amount of management, but such immersion in that world no longer serves me. If I find a reserve of energy, I throw it into things that bring me joy. I have given my hearts blood to advocacy and awareness for years on end. That became a burden that was exhausting me. Now I need the balance of other things. And it is that which I have sought for the last few years. It is that which is reflected in the drop off in blog posts.

Illness is isolating. Even when you find others with the same disorder, or have a good support system, the actual living part is still yours and yours alone. Working out how to navigate that space is tough. It’s still tough. Every time I’ve thought I had it, it slipped through my fingers. Sifting through the overwhelming amount of “how to be ill” information out there to find the parts that work for you takes time. It’s the putting together of a recipe, one that evolves over the years. It’s the realisation that there were skills I already possessed that just needed a tweak to be useful in this new world I inhabited. It’s the understanding that the perfect sick person doesn’t exist. That the permanently positive is corrosive. And we don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid.

Illness hasn’t gone away. I am still ill. More ill in some respects, better in others. I am writing from bed today as it’s one of those days in the long list of those days. Those days have dominated the last 13 years. There have been days where the incapacity is lessened but it’s never fully gone. Chronic means it never goes away. It is shit or less shit. During those less shit days I actively seek out life. I push harder than a rational mind would agree with, but it has meant that there have been moments I never would have thought possible in the early days. It hurts, even in those moments of glory, but the hurt is easier when it occurs in the context of joy.

I am more ruthless now in how I spend my energy. When I’m in a flare that ruthlessness takes on a sharpness of focus that erases the rest of the world. But even in the day to day minutia, I choose the necessary, then the heart’s food, and after that, if there’s anything left, I may or may not reach out to the world. And every day it takes on a different form. Dependent on numerous factors some of which I am not even cognisant of as they now fall into the realm of instinct. It’s taken time to prioritise my needs. Not that I don’t still feel guilt and live with self-recriminations. But there are more and more times where energy reserves are enough to post a chicken photo on Instagram, because chicken love should be shared, but the ability to check back, read or respond to comments is beyond me. And that’s okay. I can reach out and dip my toe into the word before retreating time and again if that is what I need. If that’s all I can manage. If that is it, that’s okay. For me. For you. For all of us.

I wrote years back about how life becomes okayish after a while.

“Those first days and months are hard and scary and lonely. But you'll make it through.   You think you won’t.  You'll want to throw in the towel and scream "No more!", but you'll make it out the other side.  And you'll do it again and again.  I can't predict how your symptoms will pan out over time.  We are all very individual.  Some will get better, some will have symptoms that wax and wane, some will have a chronic but stable process and some, like myself, will progress.  Your body may still be broken, but your ability to deal with it will get better.  You will find your stride.  You will find the things and people in your life that matter and make you happy.  You'll be able to breathe, even when it's bad.  It won’t be easy but you'll find that your ability to cope and your acceptance will grow.  Your spirit will heal and you'll find direction you never imagined.  You are filled with possibilities and, if you give yourself permission, you'll find them.  Being ill can give you the freedom to explore yourself in ways you never thought possible.  Life with Dysautonomia or any chronic illness, is a life changed, but sometimes that change is a wonderful thing…. Just know, it gets better.  Not in the Disneyesque sense of shooting stars and rainbow farting unicorns.  But in the real-world sense where you're battered and bruised but you're stronger than you thought and more at ease with your life.  It takes time, and there will be tears and disappointment and setbacks.  But one day you'll turn around and realise that somehow you made it through, and no matter what your body is or isn't doing, you're okay.


I read back over that piece and realise even as I was more centred in my new life, I still had further to go, I still do. There are parts I would change. My reliance on double spaces at the end of a sentence that reflect my age, and the idea that my body was broken.

Broken doesn’t work for me these days. I’m a person, not a car. Parts don’t work as advertised but broken has a whole other connotation. Broken feels unassailable. It suggests a correct way of being and I was not that. With our bodies and sense of self so intertwined it suggests that I am broken. Me the person. And that doesn’t serve me.

Broken, when that is to be the rest of my life, is a place I don’t want to inhabit. It comes down to survival. Survival in my heart, in who I am, in the kind of life I want. Broken doesn’t serve me. Broken is a burden. A burden I can’t be bothered carrying these days, not if I have any love for myself. Not thinking of myself in terms of a broken body isn’t a blissful delusion. I am lying here with a puke bag and wincing in the pain burning in my legs which well and truly belies the delusion. But at some point, I integrated it as part of who I am. A part of the whole, but certainly not the whole. I say that with the full admission that I don’t always get it right. That I don’t always feel it. But that I recognise my wholeness right here right now. And that wholeness is worthy of love and celebration.

There is no perfection in chronic illness. We all cock-up. Even those of us who have found a way to navigate this life still take wrong turns. I get frustrated, sad, scared, all of it. I cry and get angry. The weight of it all feels overwhelming at times. The level of exhaustion, physical and mental, that can develop is like nothing I ever knew existed before I became ill. But the things I now manage reasonably regularly seemed insurmountable in those early days. My line in the sand keeps on moving as I realise that even amongst it all I am far more capable than I could have ever imagined.

And through it all there is life. There is laughter and joy. There are friendships and love.

And an integration of it all where I feel more myself than I ever had in 46 years of life.




I’m not sure where this piece fits in the many narratives about illness, but it is my reality, 13 years on from that first ED trip. Ten years on from putting my words onto the blog and out for public consumption. Ten years of growth, missteps, fears and laughter out there for others to read and take from it what works from them. I look back at some of it and think I should go back and rephrase or rework some of it. There are times where my internalised ableism is a punch to the gut in light of where I sit today in recognition of those feelings. But I can’t re-write the past. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t worked through all that shit and I know there are long term readers who have been there for the long haul working through it all with me. In the end those words allow me to trace the path to the me who is here on this day.

The support readers have given me over the past 10 years has helped to get me through some of the toughest times in my life and helped me celebrate the wins big and small. Many have become friends. Geographic borders and fickle bodies overcome by the digital world. I will be forever grateful for that. The tiny corner of the digital sphere that this blog started in is now a busy metropolis, and the explosion in voices fills my heart.

Thank you to all who’ve taken time out of your lives to read and be part of this little community.

Michelle

I still feel a need to celebrate 10 years of blogging. I had wanted to do an over the top sparkly fashion shoot involving way too much fabric, glitter, red shoes and maybe chickens (Freyja is just too old and grumpy to participate these days) but I don’t have the necessary organisational energy at present which is a rather disappointing reality. But if anyone has any fabulous low energy ideas I’m open to suggestions.



There's a line in the song below "collect your scars and wear them well" that for me sums up life with chronic illness. And after over a decade of this I hope that's what I do. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Tiny Reflections


[Image: the tiny reflection of a woman can be seen in a mirror leaning against a white wall. Fairy lights hang down and a red covered chair with colourful cushions can be seen.]


Some days I’m not sure who I am. My confidence bottoms out and a state of ennui weaves its way into my heart. 

The directionless nature of Summer is always tough but this year we have reached Autumn with no end in sight. It stretches out longer and longer and my nerves are strung along with it. And I find myself with too much downtime. 

Life retreats to a small space the size of my bedroom, the whir of the air conditioner, and I lie still on top of the covers concentrating on existing. 

My mind runs and I find myself dissecting life and illness and how disability weaves through it all. It took me a long to work out I was disabled. Even longer to say it out loud. “Who was I to say I was disabled?” snarled the voice of my youth. Who was I to believe I was entitled to inhabit that space? 

Who was I?

These days the word disabled falls with ease from my tongue. Well mostly. Every now and then I get one of ‘those’ reactions. It hits me on a down day. Rips the scab off old internal narratives, pokes around in my past and screams denial and disbelief. 

I am forced to re-examine myself and my experience. 

Thankfully reserves built over the years from the support of friends, the warm arms of those closest to me, small, though palpable, changes in the way society views disability and the rising tide of disabled voices, allow me to see that false nature of the dangerous narratives carried by others. 

Each challenge knocks me down, then builds me up. I am stronger each time I raise my voice to challenge them. I re-examine my life, my experiences and myself and say no more. 

I will not listen to the naysayers. 
I will not allow them to go unchallenged. 
I will know myself and say, I am here. 
I am disabled. 
And I am proud.

Michelle


Thursday, 28 February 2019

Tripping the light fantastic

[Image: a black night fills the screen. The only features are a walking stick light, Michelle's red stockinged legs and the hint of hands and the rest of her body.]

Hello. Is anyone still there? I wouldn't be surprised if I am typing into an empty corner of the aether. There's a load of media to consume and a recalcitrant and inconsistent blogger doesn't hold any attraction in the fast-paced onslaught online. But if you've stuck around, big love to you. If there's no one there and I'm chatting to myself that's equally okay. I write to discover myself and the world around me. And that's a worthy enough goal.

It's been a while since I last published a post here on the blog. Life has been busy, Summer the hottest on record (still in the middle of a heatwave even though Autumn technically starts tomorrow), my brain mush.

I've immersed myself in Instagram. Photos seem easier. Ideas and aesthetics conveyed quickly when the words aren't necessarily there for me to access. I published a less polished version of this today over on Instagram. Words came early this morning, while my hair sat askew thanks to a hastily pushed up sleeping mask and the dried remnants of Mestinon drool still covered my lips and cheeks. I've learnt to take them when they come, wherever they come. Will I find my words again when the weather finally turns and the air no longer burns and the last dust and smoke of this Summer's bushfires is finally banished from the house? I'm not sure. I hope so. But until then I'll take the little moments and hold them tight. 

The photo above was taken after a date night. I asked Mr Grumpy to stop on the way home. There's a dirt road tucked away between cow paddocks, where we sat at OMG o'clock and watched the lunar eclipse last year. One of the boons of rural life is that light pollution is greatly lessened, even on the edge of town. So you can muddle your way down an uneven line of dirt under the direction of headlights, turn off the car and take photos with your lit up walkingstick and bright red stockings. Then tuck away the photo until it spurs some cogitations.

*****

Tripping the light fantastic.
My brain at night is not my friend. Insomnia and rumination run rampant. All the things must be dissected at 3am, never 3pm when the sun is shining and the busy murmur of nature sends its soothing tone through my body.

Possums rattle across the roof. The odd moo echos across still paddocks to land softly on my pillow. Creaks and cracks sound as the house releases the breath it has held all day while the oppressive heat of the Summer sun beat down. I focus on tracing the path of the possum as it rattles across the roof. All the internal things create their own rattle and it can become difficult to maintain my focus on the soft patter and loud thumps of landings overhead.
I don’t have this thing called life worked out yet. I push and it pushes back.
I feel the pressure on my brain as I roll over and grab my phone to check the time. I squint and tilt my head in the hope that the light won’t set off my internal wake-up alarm.

3am.
Of course, it is.
I lie back and resettle my eye mask. Release my breath in time with the movement of embracing walls. The possum or perhaps a neighbourhood cat, unsettles a group of minors that reside in our chalk-dry guttering. Their alarmed chirps burst forth and stop almost as suddenly.

Focus on the nightlife. Focus on the natural world that continues on while the human world attempts sleep. Focus on the adventures above my head until that noise cancels out the looped cacophony in within. Focus on the light in the night that quiets my mind. Focus on the light, trip and stumble. Finding my way back, quicker and quicker as breath evens out and head moves to slumber. Borrowing the moonlight to chase away my shadows, until consciousness slips away. Michelle