How You Can Help Bridge The Gap Between Rich and Poor This Valentines Day

I hate to name-drop, but I found myself in the same breathing space as two former prime ministers a couple of days ago. The first was Malcolm Turnbull, one of the many speakers at the Side By Side conference run by the Wayside Chapel, who had been invited to discuss the crucial role of students in political conversation. And the second was an icon of mine, Julia Gillard, whose “misogyny” speech was voted the most unforgettable moment on Australian TV this week, and who was the special guest on The Guilty Feminist, a stage show of the popular podcast that was on at the Enmore Theatre.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Two Australian politicians from two different political parties, who share a similar vision when it comes to how to measure success and how to improve the way we care for the marginalised people in our community.

You may know that during his time as prime minister, Malcolm was criticised for his privilege – for being a wealthy, self-made man – and for not being a natural communicator when it came to the people. And in spite of his valiant attempts to prioritise climate policy in his party – a view that ultimately led to his downfall – he remained a somewhat elusive personality who the voters were frustrated to never really get to know.

From the other side of the tracks was Julia, our first female prime minister, who became a target of the predominantly middle-aged, white men in her party and the opposition party as a result of her gender. Throughout her stint as prime minister, she was forced to fight the sort of infantile sexism and snobbery you expect to find in an all-boys private school. Nevertheless, she stood her ground against it – hence, that speech – and if the level of applause at her arrival on Friday night was anything to go by, her reputation among Australian feminists is legendary.

How wonderful to see, in this terrifyingly narcissistic period of political history, two such prominent figures (who in spite of both being retired from politics), came together to help the marginalised community in our society.

Malcolm was appearing at the Side By Side conference run by The Wayside Chapel, to which I was invited (I assume) because of my paltry donation of a Christmas lunch to ease my guilt for one of their residents last year. The organisation, which is based in Kings Cross in Sydney, works predominantly with and for the homeless – for those who have hit rock bottom due to physical illness, job loss, mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse and trauma. They are citizens and victims who could be any one of us, who have fallen on bad times – typically through no fault of their own – who are being ignored by society.

The Side By Side conference was about reducing the stigma about poverty and exchanging ideas about how we can narrow the gap between us and them.

But change takes time. As Julia Gillard reminded us during her chat on The Guilty Feminist, it will probably take another century before we see any real equality in terms of female leadership in Australia – whether that’s in the workplace or in politics – and without women in those positions, we remain under-represented. The same is true for the poor. Unless society shows more compassion and changes its priorities, the gap will continue to widen.

What is certain is that to effect the necessary changes we need leaders who have vision and who are prepared to listen to our young people and our experts in the field.

It is not only middle-aged lefties like me who are disillusioned with the direction the western world is heading. When a government prioritises a Religious Freedom Bill over crucial preparations for the annual bushfire season, we have to ask why. And our kids are asking those questions too – which is perhaps one of the reasons so many are struggling with their mental health.

The Wayside Chapel’s conference was a call to action. Progressive, well-known CEOs spoke about how businesses can help donate part of their profits to help bridge the gap between rich and poor and to help protect the environment, and the message that stood out was that if we all become a little less focused on success and more on caring, there is a chance that we can do exactly that.

“Together we can make no ‘us and them,” was the clear message of the event. And they’re right. Imagine how frigging awesome it would be if everyone of us did something tiny that could make a real difference to the confidence of one person on the poverty line. Because, trust me, their situation could happen to any of us, and an increasing percentage of the current number of the homeless population are middle-aged women.

I’m aware that “activism” is harder than just sitting at home on the sofa, watching those heart-wrenching stories play out on the The Project. It requires a concerted “movement of feet.” And even though we’ve had to put our hands a little deeper into our pockets of late, I am certain that there is something that most of us can do. For example, this Valentines Day, instead of buying your partner a tacky card and a sad bunch of dead petrol station flowers, you could donate $20 to waysidechapel.org.au/valentines, or any organisation that helps people in need. That small donation will give someone a shower, a new pair of undies and socks and some toiletries. It’s a much more sustainable way to show someone you love them and it will make all the difference to someone who isn’t feeling the love right now.

I’m An Empath, So Why Can’t I Cut Myself Some Slack?

I’ve been really grumpy over the past few weeks. I can tell I’ve not been my usual happy-go-lucky self because I’ve seen that fear in the old man’s eyes each time we pass each other in the house, in response to which he has been uncommonly brave and accused me of “unreasonable behaviour” several times.

Photo by Dale de Vera on Unsplash

We’ve both been under pressure, having recently completed our fifteenth house move since we met. I won’t bore you with the details, but sadly the landlord of the lovely pad we moved into in March last year decided to sell it for silly money. Fortunately for us, our agents took on this cute little townhouse around the same time, and aside from a whining dog next door, blinds that bang, and ridiculous Sydney temperatures that turn our bedrooms into private saunas at night, we’re settling in really well. 🙂

I won’t lie, if I hadn’t been forced to work on the day of our move, I suspect that the house would already look like it had been professionally styled, at whatever the cost to my health. So it was fortunate, I suppose, that I had to leave the management to the old man – whose priorities seem to have been moving boxes of stuff we don’t use from one cage to another.

You see, what the move did highlight is how much pressure I put on myself to do everything perfectly

I don’t know why I’m so hard on myself when, in general, I would describe myself as an empath to everyone else. I truly believe that my journey with Kurt has made me more compassionate towards the plight of those less fortunate. Furthermore, I like to think I’m a good person to have around in a crisis – if someone gets ill or is blindsided by something unexpected.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint, but I rarely judge others unless I am judged. For example, when I pass overweight people on my walks, I don’t judge them for their size. My default setting is to commend them internally for trying to change their lifestyle. It’s the same when I hear stories about the acts of the mentally ill or even paedophiles – I’m always trying to find reasons why they behaved that way or excuses for what they did.

I felt nothing but sadness for the plight of Joachim’s character in Joker, in spite of the way he handled his trauma

But strangely, I don’t seem to have those same reserves of empathy when it comes to myself. Like so many of us – on this endless treadmill in search of perfection – I never sit back and say ‘well done’ to me.

Each time I look back on what I’ve achieved, it seems insignificant – certainly not the sort of achievements that deserve a bottle of bubbly or a work jolly

Why is the expression ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ considered loser’s talk? Social media has pushed us all aspire to be what (perhaps) only the top 5% of people manage to achieve, i.e. public recognition for their success in some domain, and yet we choose to measure ourselves by these people – models, actresses, perfect mothers, successful career women – rather than “good” people.

The way the media handled Kobe Bryant’s death was a great example. Kobe was put on a pedestal while there was barely a mention about the other people in that helicopter, who presumably had successful lives and families that would miss them as well.

I’ll save the question of how we measure success for another day

But if you’d asked me ten years ago if I ever saw myself as a paid writer, I’d have laughed in your face. And yet here I am – achieving something I am hugely proud of and fulfilled by on a daily basis.

Needless to say, I had to reinvent myself AGAIN to do it – a problem many women face when they need a job that fits in with family and lifestyle and the reason the list of jobs on my resume reads like a Jill Of All Trades – most of which I have no real qualifications for. But luckily for me, I am good at being in the right place at the right time, I’m a great bullshitter, and (apparently), I look trustworthy.

I’m not sure why we feel the need to keep ramping up our personal goals without acknowledging the stepping stones we cross along the way? Small achievements are still achievements, aren’t they?

Over the past few months, I’ve lost nearly two kilos through sheer willpower. I’ve never felt as hangry in my life and I still can’t get into my old clothes, but I am achieving my goal – which is what I set out to do. So why aren’t I happy about it? Why do I always focus on the days that I gained weight rather than the ones when I lost? Why do I keep doing a job that I find stressful, particularly when I’m balancing it with Kurt’s needs, house moves and writing goals?

Have you done anything recently that you should have celebrated, but never got around to it?

There Is No Better Education In Love, Compassion And Empathy Than Having A Child With Special Needs

A few weeks ago we went to a fundraiser. It was a black tie event to raise money for the family of an old colleague of the old man’s whose son broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord in a freak rugby accident recently.

Alex Noble is their son’s name, and if anyone feels like funding a real cause, as opposed to other, less noble causes, please feel free – here is the link to his GoFundMe page.

At one point in the evening, Alex’s parents stood up on stage to tell us a little about his story, his progress, and their plans for the future – should they reach their target that night to secure the funds they need to renovate their house, meaning he can eventually come home.

“There’s not a lot of joy in my life right now, but there’s a lot of love,’ his mother said.

It was a comment that hit me hard, because albeit that in terms of bums on seats that night, there was a wonderful level of support in the room, as a mum who is also a part-time carer of an adult dependent, (as well as being a professional cynic), I did wonder how many guests would be there for the long-haul of Alex’s journey, once the glitter is swept away.

Many of the guests were close friends of the couple or friends of their son, so in some ways it felt almost voyeuristic to be there, to witness the pain and rawness caused by such a cruel twist of fate; to sense the fears that his family feel in terms of the uncertainty of Alex’s and their future.

When we plan our children, we never anticipate for one moment that things won’t work out like the parenting manuals told us they will, so I understand what Alex’s Mum was trying to say. I’ve felt that way many times with Kurt – because let’s not underestimate the devastation caused by mental illness or disability, either. Indeed, it was only a week before that I thought that we had lost our son?

Scratch the surface and there is heartache in every family. I can’t tell you the number of times people open up to me about siblings or relatives with mental health issues who have been hidden, the skeletons in their cupboards.

But Alex’s Mum was right about how adversity cultivates love. Because in return for the pain caused by our son’s neuro-diversity, we have been given an education in love, compassion and empathy, and we are better people for that. We are as proud of him as we are of NC – much to her horror. While his steps forward have been slower, they have been celebrated with the same enthusiasm as hers, and his progress has provided us with an invaluable insight into how society should be measuring success.

Admittedly, there have been times when there’s not been a lot of joy in caring for someone who may never get better, and I wouldn’t wish our experience or that of Alex and his parents on anyone. Before his accident, they would have been looking forward to the last chapter of their lives as independent once again, but the ramifications of his physical disability may be lifelong, and they will affect not only them, but his siblings, and possibly future generations of their family.

I’m glad that they feel loved and supported. I hate cliches, but shit like this does make you stronger, because you have no choice but to be strong. But as I said, there are hidden benefits to life’s knocks such as this. While they will have to reset their expectations of Alex, his milestones will be as meaningful as those of his siblings – if not more so. And though it may feel painful at the time, this tragedy will draw a line in the sand between their true friends and their fair weather friends, because they won’t have time for games.

But they will be tired all of the time and there will be days when they feel like they can’t go on and will question why me? So I suppose what I really want to say to all those parents battling through each day with kids with disabilities or dependencies, is that your joy may well be diminished, but like a flower in summer, your heart will be opened to maximum capacity.

It Wasn’t The Lack Of Compassion That Hurt, It Was The Lack Of Understanding about Mental Illness and Addiction

I had been feeling upbeat over the past few weeks, ahead of our run for breast cancer – which we nailed by the way, raising in excess of $800 for research. And then I stumbled upon a FB share of an old article of mine that was published by News.com last year.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

As a writer of contentious topics (for some) – ADHD, feminism, inequality, mental health – I realise that I put myself in a glass house when one of my articles is published, and I have learned not to read comments from trolls.

This particular article was a highly personal piece about Kurt, detailing his struggles with his mental health, and my reasons for coming full circle on my views about cannabis legalisation. It was an opinion piece – hence, bait for comment and constructive criticism – to which I am always open.

However, many of the comments were not constructive. They were subjective – targeted directly at me as the author and mother. They laid the blame for Kurt’s issues squarely at my feet, and it was that lack of understanding about mental health and addiction that hurt the most – even more than their lack of compassion.

It was a slap in the face to realise that in spite of the attempts of fantastic organizations such as Lifeline and Headspace and various media outlets to improve awareness about mental illness, (as well as the increasing numbers of kids that are taking their own lives), that many people still believe that kids with mental health issues deserve no support, and should even be punished for not towing the societal line.

I am used to being held responsible for Kurt’s choices. Sadly, blame starts with the parents when it comes to ADHD, although there has been a gradual shift in attitude in recent years, thanks in part to the increasing acknowledgement and support of the condition by world governments.

And I can (sort of) see why. A child with impulse control or oppositional issues can look like a monster when you peer in from the outside. However, that refusal to show compassion or to probe more deeply into understanding the condition is why so many of these kids end up being bullied, isolated and rejected, leading to depression, self-harm, OCD and self-medication.

When it comes to inclusion, attitude is the biggest problem we face. But trust me when I tell you that any child with mental health issues who self-mutilates or lines up pills on the carpet is not “attention-seeking” (by our common acceptance of the term). They are seeking attention for help.

Beyond the public condemnation, perhaps the hardest part of the journey for parents or carers is the lack of support, the sense of isolation and the self-blame. That’s why I wrote that article. For others out there, like us, going through what we did and feeling alone.

It has taken years for me to come to terms with the fact that I am not to blame for Kurt’s struggles.

Sure, if I had my time again I would handle some things differently, but I know that no child could have been loved more. We raised our kids identically. We put the same boundaries in place that we did for NC, and like any normal teenager, she tested those boundaries. The difference was, NC was able to distinguish which of her strikes for independence were worth the consequences – unlike Kurt, who was encumbered by poor impulse control.

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt – at the very least until I have all the facts or I have met them personally. Rather than judging a book by its cover or from local gossip, I arm myself with as much information as I can before I draw my conclusions. When did we stop doing that as a society? When did we decide that it was acceptable behaviour to take a pop at someone for our own entertainment?

Surely, there can be no excuse for ignorance when we have access to information at our fingertips?

Social media has made it easy to bully without consequences and I fear that we are losing our sense of compassion. So before you jump right in with your heart rather than your head, remember that there is a real person at the other end of posts or comments, who is often motivated by doing good. That person has a heart and possibly a full wardrobe of skeletons that you know nothing about.

The Secret To Growth Is Curiosity

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I heard the word “curiosity” mentioned in two different contexts last week. The first time was at Clementine Ford’s book launch in Sydney, for her new book “Boys Will Be Boys;” and the second was in an article in The Guardian by Celia Dodd here, about retirement.

Inevitably, “retirement” is somewhat of a buzzword in my community at the moment, and I know that I must be secretly starting to get anxious about it from the way I furtively check out the fitness of old people on the bus.

Most of our friends are on the cusp of the transition, and they share similar concerns to us – which are mainly finance-related. Will we have enough money, or will we need to downsize to escape the rising cost of living in Sydney, seems to be the biggest question on most people’s lips. And then there’s that other fear – shared by some of the men – about how they will survive this next stage of change, with no fixed routine.

Research has shown us that there is a genuine danger that some men will sink into depression in retirement unless they find new purpose in their lives. It was something I worried about the old man when he began his semi-retirement, (as I mentioned in this post), until I realized that hitting a ball each day and the daily update of his guide to how to stack the dishwasher, would keep him busy.

In Celia’s article, she argues that to thrive in retirement, we don’t need to be a lawn bowls champion, but we do need the curiosity to try new activities or listen to new ideas – rather than “filling time on life’s scrap heap until you die.” We need to keep on growing as people. Interestingly, however, she does refute “the assumption that you have to be constantly busy to achieve anything.”

I, too, see a direct correlation between curiosity, growth and the continued enjoyment of a fulfilling life, no matter what our age.

Clementine’s use of the word “curiosity” was in relation to Trump’s blinkered vision when it comes to abused women, and the appalling lack of empathy, compassion, and (above all) curiosity, he showed last week for a man in his position of power. Several times, the US president has shown a disinterest in listening to public opinion or in the evolution of new ideas or change – in much the same way, (Celia says), that we latch so easily onto one of the biggest myths about retirement – which is that it is “a static phase during which nothing much changes.” 

Not true. The curiosity that has come with aging has made me the woman I am today: a woman that strives to hear the voices of others in order to educate and improve myself; a woman who is aware of the gaps in her knowledge and experience, but keeps going, in the hope that someday she can use it to improve the lives of others with less privilege – whether that’s through writing or in the donation of her time.

Which is not to say that I always get it right. We are not a perfect race, and never will be – and we are certainly nothing like the narrow-minded white vision of fascism – thank God!  And yet, I hope that I listen, absorb and am respectful of the opinions of others. I continue to be curious about this crazy world and its colorful range of inhabitants, and I am more aware now than ever about my responsibility as a small cog in the very large wheel of society.

Curiosity is the key to positive change, understanding others and finding purpose at every stage of our lives. Those that choose to switch it off, remain stagnant, as the world rotates around them, and we have seen over the past week how very dangerous that can be.

I Must Thank My Son For His Mental Illness

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The boy turned twenty-one last week, and while part of me wants to scream and holler with excitement, pride, and relief, the other part wants to sit in a corner, rocking and licking my wounds.

Many of you will be familiar with our journey with Kurt, our son. It was one of the reasons I began to write this blog, and I suspect that some of you follow it because you too have kids with mental health problems. You’ll also know that life with them is not what you signed up for, not by any parenting manual standard.

Some people say that parenting brings out the best in you and there have been times, particularly over the past six years, when I’ve wanted to rip that statement apart, over-analyze it with a few bottles of wine and then say “Fuck You!” because parenting is hard, and because there have been so many times when I have hated the person it has turned me into.

Before I had kids, I believed that being a parent was something I was born to do, and I made the assumption that I would be good at it. That naivety and arrogance have made the past twenty-one years feel like a very long and hard road at times, with its highs and lows, the steps forward and backward, the silent condemnation, and then more steps backward.

I’m not seeking pity or consolation. This is my honest acceptance of some responsibility for our journey, because perhaps if we’d done certain things differently, the outcomes might have changed. But we were amateurs at this parenting lark, carrying baggage from the past and the false expectations of others. And we’ve made it. We’re not out of the woods, but we can see the lights of the pub at the end of the road as we approach the start of the next phase of his life and the signs are that phase horribilis is drawing to a close.

My son is officially an adult, and as I draw the curtains on the past few years, I owe it to him to thank him.

I must thank him for shredding my heart strings and teaching me how vulnerable all of us can be – for which there’s nothing to be ashamed of – and for showing me how strong we can be when needed. This experience has opened my eyes. I have learned and grown from it more than from any other experience in my life and it has inspired me to write, develop compassion, get to know people before I judge them, and to form a concrete understanding of difference, unconditional love, and mental health that I will take with me into every other decision I make. 

This experience has shined a glaring light on what I see now was confusion in my younger years about what really matters.

Some God said that we are only given the stuff we can handle, and there have been times over the past decade when I was certain that I couldn’t handle being my son’s parent – or even why I should. You can lose sight of who you are when you have kids, and when you become the parent of a kid with special needs or a maverick, (or in our case ‘that kid’), there are times when you feel resentful about your needs being usurped by theirs. Instead of triumphs and awards, you get calls from school, the police, and the parents of other kids, and the pressure to keep pretending to be a professional at work (when your home life is falling apart) requires your finest thespian skills.

Not all of us are Mother Theresa types, with their long grey hair, premature lines, and a forgiveness in their heart for whatever shit life throws at them. Some of us lie in bed at night feeling broken, rallying against the unfairness of it all, thinking ‘why me?’

No one could have loved my son more than I have, and yet it’s hard not to think about how he might have fared with parents that were more liberal, or less anxious people than us; who might have come to the party with fewer middle-class expectations and ill-informed judgments. Poor kid. Although with fewer boundaries, who’s to say how he would have turned out.

As a parent, you can only follow your heart and do what you think is right.

At seven, I never thought my son would read and write; at twelve, I never thought he would have any friends; at sixteen, I thought he would kill himself; at eighteen, I thought he would end up in prison; and at twenty-one, I am still worrying – because what mother ever stops worrying about their kids?

But I am so proud of this young man. He has fought his own demons to stay here with us when others have given in, and with his fiery temper and big heart, his abounding energy and gentleness, his optimism in the face of constant rejection and his childish vulnerability, he has shaped me into who I am now – a better person.

And like every mother, I believe that he will go on to do great things – in his own time, (because Kurt has only ever done things in his own time). And I don’t mean GREAT things, necessarily,  I mean that he will do something extraordinary that is unlikely to fit squarely with society’s view of what is great; yet somehow, I have a feeling that it will be memorable.