“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” ~ Henri Bergson
This post is going to talk about menopause. Well, more specifically about perimenopause, the period leading up to the point at which a woman’s menstrual cycle ceases permanently. Now, just hang on and read this notice before you decide to move on to another post about funny cats.
Women going through or having gone through perimenopause: Read on. I know you’ll relate.
Women yet to go through perimenopause (yes, you will): Read on or at least bookmark this post. One day you will want to know that you’re not the only one feeling the way you do.
Men: Please read. Please understand what this is like for the women in your life (there must be at least one, even if it’s the barista in your coffee shop). Be as awe-inspired and sensitive as Dylan Moran.
Hahaha, I was kidding. But I do love his acknowledgement that a woman’s body is just a bit more complicated than a man’s.
I’ve been trying to write this post for months. I add a bit, change a bit and then leave it in drafts. Do people really want to know about this stuff? Other than those of us currently going through it, that is.
Today, I was watching the Amazon Prime series Fleabag. (I know, I have ethical problems with being signed up to Amazon but I wasn’t prepared to wait for the dvd release of Good Omens (based on one of my favourite books by my favourite author (Terry Pratchett) and another author I love (Neil Gaiman) ) and then I got predictably sucked in by the cheap annual price. It was worth it for Fleabag alone.) And (I had to start a new sentence because the parenthesis discussion got a bit unwieldy) there was a fabulous speech by Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in an episode I watched today that I just had to include in this post. So, I’m sending the whole post out into the blogosphere with some tweaks here and there. Finally.
Here’s the speech from KST:
(To be honest, it’s worth watching the whole KST scene. You can find that here.)
And here’s the rest of the work-in-progress-now-hesitantly-posted post:
Here We Go
About a decade or more ago, I went to see Menopause – The Musical. I laughed because it was funny and I understood most of the references from my general understanding of menopause but I couldn’t empathise. It was a bit too early for all that.
Here I am now, however, at a far more advanced age and not only facing but experiencing The Change. It may be time to revisit the musical.
The thing is, what I most remember of the show is the jokes about the physical symptoms of perimenopause such as hot flushes. While I get the occasional warm moment during the night, I’ve not experienced them to any great extent.
What perimenopause did do to me is turn me into a lunatic. Well, you know, more of a lunatic than usual.
It took me a while to realise that I was going just a bit more crazy than usual at certain points of the month.
Psycho Me was taking hold of the wheel and in the back seat was a chorus of disapproving voices who liked to point out all my deficiencies and how much better the world would be without me.
Now, I’ve always suffered from the psychological effects of PMS but this seemed different. I felt a bit more unhinged than normal.
After a particularly troubling event in which I transitioned from making jokes on Facebook to writing and sending some pathetic poem about what a lousy friend I am in a matter of minutes with no apparent cause, I consulted Doctor Google.
I learned that those women who have suffered from PMS in the past will find those symptoms exacerbated by perimenopause. Oh joy.
Then I read this line: “The average length of perimenopause is 4 years, but for some women this stage may last only a few months or continue for 10 years.”
I burst into tears. I seriously didn’t think that I would make it four years let alone ten. I would have no friends left by then, turned away by my insanity. That was assuming I’d even live that long. Those negative voices could be nasty and I was finding myself in some dark places.
The next day I made an appointment to see my GP. I knew that I was going to need pharmacological help to get through this and I wanted to see my youngest finish school and to see all of my boys become independent productive citizens of the world.
I was about to head overseas to Nepal and since I didn’t really want to be starting new medication when I was hours away from a hospital, I made the appointment for after my return. It did mean that while I was away I had a weird day with inexplicable tears at dinner and rage eating half a block of chocolate and a bag of snacks in my tent but I had a friend by my side so I made it through intact.
At the appointment with my GP after I returned from Nepal, I was prescribed a half-dose of an anti-depressant which I was to try and take only for the 7 days prior to my next period, the time it was presumed I would be most crazy. There was a problem with this plan. I was trying to predict a cycle that was becoming increasingly unpredictable.
But I followed the plan and kept notes on when I started and stopped medication and cycles and when the Mad Days came.
And the Mad Days were most certainly mad. On one occasion, I drove home from my singing group planning to email the leader and resign from the group because I was convinced everybody in the group hated me.
On the scariest day, I was carrying such an undercurrent of intense rage, I had to fight against the urge to floor the accelerator in the car and slam it into a tree. Even scarier, I didn’t even know what I was angry about.
The most interesting discovery was that the Mad Days came not at a consistent ‘before’ date but at a consistent ‘after’ date – nearly always exactly two weeks after my period.
At my next check up with the GP, this was all discussed and it was agreed that I should take the medication every day. Once I had made my way through menopause, we would work at taking me off the medication.
At a final follow up two months later, the GP was astonished to learn that I had not had a psychotic incident since our last appointment. “But you’re on such a tiny dose!” he said. “It’s amazing that it’s had that much effect.” I could see him mentally filing away the information for the next patient that came in with similar symptoms. Lucky woman.
I’m not saying that my life is smooth and uneventful. I still struggle some days. But I no longer feel like some psycho has control of me.
I’ve reflected this week, in the wake of the arrival of a period that was some six weeks in the making, that in all likelihood my mad episode of dieting was probably hormonally influenced. Still a bit crazy then.
So. I travel on, creating myself over with each step of the journey and looking very much forward to that post-menopause stage of life when I can be a new, but probably still crazy, me.
I’ve never been a fan of diets. Breathless discussion of the latest fad by shiny-eyed converts over dinner makes me want to stab my ear drums.
Admittedly, I’ve never really needed to purposely diet, having been born with suitable genes to keep me reasonably thin. Not that I can eat what I want and never put on weight but a moderate approach to food and exercise seems to work.
I work on the dieting theory that if my clothes start to feel a bit tight, I cut back on the naughty foods and exercise more until my clothes fit properly again. Then I go back to what I was doing.
I do occasionally undergo what I call the Stress Diet. Whenever life gets really challenging I tend to stop eating. The worse things are, the more weight I lose. After the deaths of my sister and niece my weight dropped to 52kg (115lb). I’m 173cm (5’8″) tall. Not healthy.
I think my main objection to diets, particularly those that target a particular food type such as carbs or sugar, is that they tend to demonise food. If you eat the ‘wrong’ food, it’s supposed to make you feel bad. Food is there for nutrition, yes, but it’s also there for enjoyment. And oddly enough, diets that are highly restrictive are shown to be ineffective in the long term. Hardly surprising. I mean, who wants to live without beautiful bread or delicious chocolate for the rest of their lives?
So then, how was it that I found myself recently counting and recording calories and obsessing about whether I could afford to eat that slice of freshly baked sourdough bread? Why was there an app on my phone adding up every little thing I ate and sending me messages if I forgot to input what I ate for lunch?
I told myself it was a motivation tool for exercise. After all, if I exercise, I burn calories and thus I earn extra ‘credit’. Maybe I could have that piece of chocolate?
I told myself, why not lose a little weight now that I didn’t have to keep my weight over a certain value so I could donate more plasma at the Blood Bank since I can’t donate for a year because of my pulmonary embolism?
To be honest, my original intention was to lose a lot of weight. I was hurting. Not physically but mentally and emotionally. But mental injuries don’t show and it’s hard to convince people that you’re in pain. I thought if I could suddenly lose a lot of weight maybe it would be a physical signal to people that I was not okay.
So I signed up to an app and I set a strict weight goal and I started counting calories.
Of course, as part of this I started exercising more regularly and I started to feel better within myself. But by then, the Diet Cult had me in its grip.
I cut out breakfast and lunch and tried to minimise what I ate in the afternoon when I got home from work. I switched from my favoured flat white coffee to an espresso. I went to the gym and worked hard despite pain in my left foot. I started researching low calorie meals I could cook for dinner to help keep my calorie count low despite the fact that the men in my family all actually need extra calories in their diets.
But it was when I found myself drinking black tea – which I loathe – and going to bed hungry and sad that I realised that I had in fact fallen into exactly the traps I don’t like about diets. I was paranoid about what I ate. I felt guilty about every extra little treat I recorded in the app. I got depressed when my weight didn’t go down as fast as I wanted.
I deleted the app from my phone and I broke the diet. Oh boy, did I break it!
And in the weird way the internet has of tapping into your psyche, just as I was coming to the realisation, on a YouTube session on the TV I stumbled across this hilarious piece from Michael McIntyre. It was like a sign. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks and I knew it was time to ditch the diet and go back to my usual plan – Everything In Moderation. Or, Run Marathons So I Can Eat As Much Chocolate As I Want.
Have you tried any diets? Did they work for you?
Last Thursday was R U OK? Day in Australia. Founded by Gavin Larkin after the suicide of his father, it is a day to remind us to check in with our fellow travellers through life starting with the simple question “Are you okay?”
This year’s R U OK? Day took on particular poignancy in the wake of the death a few days before of a well-known Australian footballer and coach in a single vehicle crash that investigations seem to indicate was deliberate.
We can never really know the pain another is carrying so it’s important to start a conversation that may save a life.
But before you ask the question “Are you okay?” here’s a couple of things to think about:
1. Be prepared to listen to the answer
This is no “How are you?” automatic piece of politeness. If you’re going to ask someone if they are okay, you need to be prepared to listen to the answer. And don’t take any preconceived ideas into the conversation about what you think may be wrong. If the answer doesn’t match your preconceptions, you run the risk of dismissing the answer or ending the conversation because it’s not as bad as you thought or you don’t think it’s something worth talking about. Which brings me to the next point.
2. The experience of pain is unique to each person
The “Orchid Hypothesis” put forward by David Dobbs supposes that some children are more strongly affected by both positive and negative experiences in their lives while ‘dandelions’ thrive in whatever life throws at them. In a similar vein, Jerome Kagan researched the effect new experiences had on a group of 4-month-old babies and predicted (correctly) that those who reacted strongly by loud cries and rapid movement were the ones most likely to grow up to be introverts while those who remained quieter and calmer would likely be extroverts. He introduced the terms “high-reactive” and “low-reactive” to describe those who are deeply affected by new experiences and those who are less so. And this has a physiological basis. High-reactive people have a more reactive amygdala, the part of the brain that controls many of our basic emotions such as fear.*
All this sciencey stuff is just to say that people have different pain thresholds for mental and emotional pain just as they do for physical pain. So, when you ask “Are you okay?”, the other person may describe an experience that has made them not okay that may seem trivial to you. But the pain to that person is real and deserves as much care and attention as any other experience.
It’s also worth noting that high-reactive people are often aware that their reaction to an event may seem minor to others and may use words such as “It’s nothing”, “It’s stupid” or “It’s really nothing worth talking about”. They need to be told that it is something, it’s not stupid and you do want to listen if they want to talk about it.
3. Empathy not sympathy
In responding to a person’s answer, it’s important to respond with empathy not sympathy. I could explain the difference but I think this video does it in a much clearer and more entertaining way:
So, take the time to look around you, notice the people in your life and find out if they’re okay. The R U OK? website has some fantastic resources for having these conversations.
I’m not going to expect you to answer “Are you okay?” in the public forum of the comments on this blog but I do ask you that question and hope you can find someone you trust to talk to if your answer is “No.” There are also trusted services such as Lifeline you can call.
*Reference: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
PS I’m also not going to answer the question in this public forum. I will admit to some mental health struggles in recent times which has prompted this post but I am receiving good support and assistance and while the seas are still a bit choppy, I am no longer feeling swamped. Thanks for asking. 🙂
I didn’t really know him very well but his death hit me hard.
Because, although I wasn’t really a part of his life now, he had been a significant part of mine when I was fifteen. Because, as I get older and as life moves on and changes, I’m coming to realise that there is a decreasing number of people in my life who knew me Before.
Before I bore the name I do now. Before I was seen in the context of my spouse, my children or my occupation. Before my dreams of becoming an author or an astrophysicist became just that. Before sorrow, loss, responsibility and struggle left their scars. Before my life was so defined.
Time is relentless and as it passes bits of who we were disappear. Places we lived, studied, worked, played. People with whom we shared laughter, tears, stories, dreams. The ideals we held for who we thought we’d be.
The tapestry of our life in the past becomes increasingly threadbare as the threads are pulled one by one.
I wrap that tapestry around my shoulders, shelter in it and hold fast to the memories while I can.
In memory of Noel.
Parenting Postscript: The title for this post comes courtesy of my 17-year-old youngest son. Sharing our usual “How was your day?” conversation in the car on the way home from school, he asked me if the person whose funeral I had attended was someone close to me. As I explained the connection and why I was so sad, he said “It feels like your past is disappearing bit by bit.” He understood. As a mother of three sons, the responsibility to raise good men falls heavily. It is moments like this that make me feel proud and more than a little relieved that I must be doing something right.
I joined the school choir in Grade 2 when I was seven. I was a part of the choir at three different schools throughout my schooling. That’s eleven years of school choirs. In my final year of school I was in both the main choir and the twelve-member madrigal choir and I played the Scarecrow in the school production of the Wizard of Oz. This performance garnered me a scholarship from a local theatre company (of which I was a member) for a year of singing lessons.
I was a member of a church singing group for more years than I can be bothered going back to figure out.
I spent eight years performing musical theatre with a local amateur group.
I’ve been a member of community singing groups for the past twelve years.
And yet, you won’t hear the phrase “I am a singer” come out of my mouth.
(Yes, those of you who have been following this blog long enough may think this sounds familiar. I had similar issues with calling myself a runner until I successfully completed my first marathon. What can I say? My psyche is not built for self-confidence.)
I had piano lessons as a child/teenager and I can, to varying basic levels, also play guitar, ukulele and banjo. At various points in my life I have picked up and then discarded the flute and harmonica. (I also learned to play the recorder at school but everybody does that so it doesn’t deserve a mention.)
Not just a Jack of All Trades but a Jack of All Players.
But I’ve never sat a music exam. Ever.
Good question and one I’ve had to ask myself a bit over the past several months.
And it comes down to fear as these things usually do. For me, a fear of judgement and not living up to expectations.
My mother informs me it has always been this way for me since childhood.
Sometimes the genetic lottery gives you a messed up hand of life-cards.
My fear and dislike of judgement is so deep, I have to walk out of the room during those TV talent shows when the judges make their comments. I can’t even bear it for a total stranger.
So how was it that on Friday 21st June, I found myself standing in front of an examiner about to try and prove myself in a Grade 5 Modern Singing exam?
Another very good question.
Last year, when the opportunity was offered via email from the leader of my singing group to sign up for preparing for an exam in March this year, I declined the offer on the basis that I would be away at that time. Devastated, I was. [cough]
Then, one night I messaged to confirm my participation in a singing technique workshop the next day only to find out that my booking had been misplaced and the workshop had in fact been cancelled with only one other participant having signed up. I was informed that, however, there was the first workshop for the Grade 3 exam candidates. Maybe I’d like to come? I could always do the exam at a later date if I was going to be away. Or, I suggested, maybe I could come with the agreement that I didn’t have to actually do the exam.
This is my ideal situation – a chance to learn but no commitment to prove it.
It was agreed.
But you did the exam. What happened?
To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out. My singing leader, also a dear friend, is a champion button pusher and she knows exactly which buttons to push and when. At some point – I think when I was in the middle of solving a problem on her laptop – she suggested that really I could do the Grade 5 exam.
Firstly, it turned out the exam would actually be in May or June, it was just the deadline to sign up was in March. So I didn’t have my absence as an excuse.
Secondly, I am both pathologically obsessed with knowing everything about a situation and chronically dedicated to ‘doing the right thing’. So, about to head overseas and out of reach of any sort of contact, I was aware from my research that the closing date for exam applications would come while I was in the Himalayas of Nepal. Of course it was tempting to disappear overseas and then return to the online world with a ‘oh shucks, sorry’ but my need to always do the right thing meant that I pointed out before I left that I would need to answer the question of doing the exam before I left.
Okay, so my other failing is a weakness for pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
In the way of the universe, this quote had also floated across my online vision a few days before:
“Are you happy for me to enrol you while you are away?” I was asked.
“Do it,” I replied. Then I flew away to Nepal.
Did I wonder what I was thinking? You bet.
Even more so when I got back and headed straight into final training for Oxfam Trailwalker and after that the Great Ocean Road Marathon. Seriously, what was I thinking? Did I plan to permanently live outside my comfort zone??
Of course, the addition of a blood clot in my lung that made breathing painful (let alone the deep breaths needed for some of my singing exercises) was a complication I didn’t expect. I suppose I was grateful that when the exam date came it was some weeks afterwards when I was on the mend but my preparation was definitely compromised.
I prepared as best I could. On days I was stressed, I would undertake more ‘academic’ work – I would write out all my general knowledge answers or research all the musical terms in my sheet music for my songs. It was calming for me.
Exam day came. My exam wasn’t until 3.20pm which was somewhat painful. Then, when I arrived, they were running late and so I had to wait even longer. Here’s me trying to be cool about it (while a jelly of nerves inside).
I think I should point out that this exam was like a Sara Lee dessert of all the worst things for me – layer upon layer upon layer. I had to:
- be the centre of attention
- sing solo
- sing solo to a total stranger
- be judged on that singing
I thought the worst thing was having to sing to a stranger but in fact, I found it easier. I wrapped myself in my invisible theatre cloak and put on the act. And, somehow, pulled it off. My singing leader/teacher/friend came in to accompany me for my last song (the previous three songs being performed to a backing track) and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up as she came in.
Even now, with the results in my hand, I can’t believe I did what I did.
And? What were the results??
It was an anxious wait for the results but not as fraught as you might think. In order to help me try and stay calm in the lead up to the exam, I had decided to put it into marathon terms. I was, I decided, happy to just cross the finish line. For the exam, this meant just completing the exam to the best of my ability. After all, I’d never done a music exam. Just going through the process was an achievement of which to be proud. A ‘respectable time’ or in this case, a pass was just a bonus. A PB was an unimaginable flight of fancy.
And after the exam that’s how I felt. I was proud of myself for going through the exam and completing it to the best of my ability. Obviously, a pass would be appreciated but I had no ambitions beyond that.
Oh, for Pete’s sake! What was the result?!?
I achieved Honours. A score of 89%. (Embarrassingly, I will confess that the over-achiever in me was a bit annoyed I didn’t crack the 90. Some people are hopeless….)
It was interesting to note in the report that most marks were lost because of tension in my chest, neck and jaw. Well, let’s see. I am in the process of recovering from a pulmonary embolism and I was undertaking my first ever music exam. Imagine what I could have achieved without those….
And so there you have it. I not only undertook a challenge I had not intended to entertain but achieved a grade unimaginable.
Will I do another?
Not on your life.
As part of preparing for my exam, I did some music theory study. I found it fascinating and helpful in so many ways. So that is my next challenge. I’d like to tackle a music theory exam. How’s the weather out there in that Uncomfortable Zone?
Some people are hopeless…
The wash-up from this exam – not only for me but for the other six candidates – has left me thinking about the value of external validation. To be honest, some of the impetus for signing up for the exam was yearning for proof that I can sing. I guess I got that. I guess that maybe I can start rehearsing the line “I am a singer”.
In the end, however, the judgement of someone’s singing ability is subjective. It sits in narrow parameters and disallows the additional factors that make a singer’s contribution to the world that represents true musicality and impact.
I now possess a piece of paper that says I can pass a Grade 5 Modern Singing exam but does it show that I can work as a team member of a group and support my fellow singers to produce the most pleasing sound? Does it really represent the emotion – the joy, the sorrow, the frustration, the confusion – that I can experience in the act of singing? Does a piece of paper truly represent the hurdles that each of us has had to overcome? More importantly, does the lack of a piece of paper dictate the lack of value of a singer?
No, it does not.
I am incredibly blessed to be tutored by some immensely talented and generous singers. Would a professional organisation value the skill and love these singers impart to we lesser mortals to the extent they deserve? No, they wouldn’t. The reality is that exams are a narrow qualification of skill and talent. For me, the selfless sharing of talent, knowledge, care and support is unassessable. Someone out there ought to create a qualification that evaluates the impact someone has in terms of fostering a love of singing, especially in those who have been told for too many years that they should not sing. There are beautiful singers out there just waiting to be discovered by the right spirit. It’s an incredible gift to give the world and too unappreciated by the ‘powers that be’. I have personally witnessed the awakening of amazing singers who have hidden away since being told as a shy twelve-year-old to just ‘mime the words’. I have also witnessed the encouragement of an incredible teacher reveal those reluctant singers to be powerhouses of talent.
I would not be where I am without those incredible people. They are talented and knowledgeable singers but more importantly, generous sharers of that talent and knowledge.
I am a singer.
But only because I have been blessed by knowing such talented people as my singing teacher friends. You people rock and are the rock of my singing life.
Do you have a voice in your head? Is it one that guides you or berates you? Does it have your best interests at heart? Does it surprise you?
I have, to be honest, more than one voice in my head. Some of them are not nice. More on that in a future post. My favourite voice, however, is one I’ve dubbed the Professor.
As a family, we like to do the quiz from a local newspaper over dinner. It’s a good learning activity but really it’s just because in a house full of introverts, it’s an easy way to ensure some conversation occurs.
There’s usually 15 questions. Our best effort is 14 correct answers. We are, unfortunately, yet to crack the elusive perfect 15. On weekends, there’s an extra quiz with 25 questions. Ooh, bonus fun!
What does this have to do with voices in your head?
Because the Professor often gives me the answer.
I’m not kidding.
I’ve actually joked with my kids for months that I should always listen to the voice in my head because it always seems to know the answer even when I can’t personally be sure it’s correct.
Tonight it happened again.
The question was “Which New South Wales country town holds an annual Elvis Festival in January?”
My first response was to say, “Pfft. I have no idea.”
Then I heard it. In my head. The Professor. And she told me “Parkes.”
Did I know that? No.
But what did I have to lose by giving that answer since I had no other idea. (And neither did anyone else around the table.)
So I followed up my initial “Pfft. No idea” remark with “Parkes”.
The Youngest Son, responsible for conducting the quiz this evening, looked at me in surprise. I shrugged. He checked the answer. And then stared at me.
“Yes. That’s right.” he said.
Double fist pump in the air.
Then…. “Well, that was weird.”
It’s honestly a little creepy.
On a rational note, obviously at some point I must have read an article or seen some news on the television about the Elvis festival and my brain has filed that information away somewhere and when I was asked the question, the memory was triggered and I had my answer. Despite the fact that usually I can’t even remember the lyrics to a song I’ve sung a hundred times.
But I think I really prefer the idea of the Professor and her wisdom feeding me answers. It’s nice to have people on your side. Even if they’re just in your head.
Today was a Gratitude Day. I didn’t set out to have one, it just kind of developed over the day.
It started when I was making my morning coffee. About six months ago, friends asked me to be in charge of the coffee machine at a birthday party. One of them gave me lessons on the commercial machine I’d be using. I’ve been able to apply those lessons to my own coffee machine at home. Let me tell you how good my milk texturing is now….
Every time I make a coffee, I think about how lucky I am to have had those lessons. This morning I decided that rather than just think my thanks, I would actually send them. So I shot off a message to my friend and thanked him for the accidental gift of better coffee he gave me.
Then I took my coffee up to my little she-shed and sat on my little handmade bench (I made it myself from an old bookcase) in the glorious winter sunshine and thought about just how lucky I am. I have a good home, a job I love, a happy and healthy family, amazing friends and so many opportunities to explore and grow.
I can even find gratitude for my blood clot today. I’m about to embark on an activity that a blood clot would have made very challenging (more about that in a future post). Even though the blood clot meant I couldn’t run the marathon I planned to run, I still had the opportunity to participate in an event and walk an amazing road in beautiful weather and receive a shiny bit of bling at the end. The coming activity would have had no such alternative. So, I’m grateful for the timing.
Over the weekend, I fixed up some bills that had been generated from this particular health issue. I’m so very grateful for our universal healthcare and the fact that multiple tests and scans came to only a few hundred dollars out-of-pocket and not several thousand. I’m also grateful that I am on the mend because I have access to high quality medical care and life-saving drugs.
All of this good feeling inspired me to get some jobs done around my space that have been waiting to be completed for months. I attached some sheer material over the open roof ridge section of my ceiling to catch dust and leaves that blow in when the weather gets wild. I had to climb up and down a ladder. I’m grateful I didn’t fall off. (I have form.)
While I was up there, I attached some prayer flags I brought back from Nepal. I’m grateful to have the means to travel and for the eye-opening and perspective-enhancing opportunities that has given me.
I sealed up some gaps around the windows with silicon sealant. I’m grateful I’ll be snug and cosy over winter. I’m also grateful I didn’t get sealant all over myself or the floor. Because, you know, Jack of All Trades and all that.
I cleaned up, swept and washed the floor and cleaned the deck of the verandah. And gave thanks, as I have so many, many times, for this special space of my own.
Finally, on one of my trips to the hardware store (because when I have jobs to do, I never seem to manage to get what I need in one trip), I found some lovely purple and white pansies that would go perfectly in my planter boxes that have been sadly empty for months waiting for some replacement colour. I’m grateful I’ll have some pretty flowers to brighten the winter days ahead.
I’m no saint and I can be a championship whinger and whiner so I don’t want you to think this is me all the time. Sometimes the events align and I can have a day when I see all the gifts. I’m grateful for that.
I hope you manage to find your own Gratitude Day.
The original name of this post was supposed to be “Running On More of THE Road” as a follow up to my blog a year ago called “Running On THE Road” about the Great Ocean Road Half-Marathon I ran. ‘More of THE Road’ meant running from Lorne to Apollo Bay, the length of the 44km Full Marathon.
“Supposed” to be?
Yeah. Guess what? I didn’t run it.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I possess a very wide stubborn streak. I don’t like giving up. Admittedly, sometimes when something is very challenging I will have a meltdown and declare I can’t do it but usually the melting down also melts down the stress and I pick myself up and get on with it.
And that is exactly how it originally went. One might suppose that scheduling a three week trip to Nepal, closely followed by completing a 100km charity walk and then giving myself six weeks to train for a full marathon was perhaps overdoing it a tad but, you know, shiny things….
Predictably, limited training due to travel and a focus on long-distance walking and then a week’s wait for blisters to heal, did not leave me in prime running condition when I picked up marathon training halfway through the program.
I was slow. Like, a full minute or more per kilometre than I was used to. And an attempted 3.5 hour training run ended after 2.5 hours when I just couldn’t go any further.
Did I consider giving up? You bet. And I think I would have. I could have easily dropped back to run the half-marathon instead except…. well …. been there, done that, got the medal. So nothing for it but to push on.
So I did. Slowly my pace picked up and the following weekend, I successfully completed that 3.5 hour run. I was feeling confident again I’d make it to the finish line. Maybe not in a spectacular time but you get the medal whether you’re first or last as long as you finish so no biggy.
But then my body had other ideas.
Getting up off the couch in the early morning after a wee hours insomnia-induced movie watching session, I suddenly felt pain in the left side of my chest and my shoulder. I thought I must have been lying awkwardly. Or maybe it was another version of a similar problem I had three years ago that turned up nothing. So I got on with my usual day.
Yeah, yeah, before you lecture me, I’ve already had that lecture from the doctor. “Next time, if you have pain in your chest and arm, you call the ambulance or get to an emergency department!” Okay, okay.
Two days of pain in my chest and two days of pain in the neck hassling from friends and family sent me off to the doctor only to be told there there was nothing wrong with my heart or lungs and it was muscular. Take some anti-inflammatories and wait for it to get better.
“Poor health is not caused by something you don’t have; it’s caused by disturbing something that you already have. Healthy is not something that you need to get, it’s something you have already if you don’t disturb it.” ~ Dean Ornish
Which it kind of did. Until it didn’t.
A week after the first lot of pain, a new development began. I was now accompanied by a silent, invisible assassin who would stab me in the lower left of my back at random intervals. He/she especially liked cuddling up to me in bed and sticking in the knife every time I moved.
It took me five days to go and see a doctor. I know, I know.
I had to dedicate a whole morning to blood tests, a urine test, ECG and a chest x-ray. I threw in some pre-poll voting while I was at it since it was in the same vicinity and I was going to be away the day of the coming federal election. Such a productive day.
By 5.00pm I was in the Emergency Department. One of the blood tests had indicated the possible presence of a blood clot. The admitting nurse and the consulting doctor both reacted as if my GP was an over-anxious parent with a cold-ridden child convinced she has pneumonia and declared that as I had none of the physical indicators of a clot and the blood test was notoriously often false, I was probably wasting my time. But as I’d been sent there, they had to give me a CT scan.
They found a small blood clot in my left lung. Also inflammation and a small amount of fluid. How embarrassing.
And how mysterious.
Fortunately, a hospital stay was not required and I was sent home with a prescription for blood thinners and an appointment with a haematologist the next day.
The haematologist was just as mystified. I am a fit non-smoker and have not had a virus or an injury. There were no signs a blood clot would be lurking at the bottom of my lung. All he could do was confirm the emergency doctor’s instructions to take blood thinners for three months and I’d be retested at the end of it to see what happens.
“No running for a month,” I was told.
“But I have a race on Sunday! What about…,” I pleaded. “What about I walk the half-marathon? It has a six and a half hour cut off. That’s like less than 5km/h!”
He grudgingly agreed. I had to promise not to run and also not to push too hard and to pull out if I felt unwell.
Yep. Definitely going to do that.
I didn’t run. But I did walk kind of fast. By accident. I swear. It was a lovely day and a stunningly beautiful route and I just got kind of excited. Truly.
I finished in 3 hours and 16 minutes. That’s an hour longer than it took me to run it last year. Under the circumstances, I can be happy with that.
(Those circumstances, by the way, included a migraine the night before the race and almost having to push my way off the bus when we got to the start line because I was about to be sick. One of the tough things about the Great Ocean Road races is that you have to sit on a bus for 30-60 minutes on a windy road to get to the start line. Most challenging race start anywhere, I reckon.)
Unsurprising to other runners who understand, at the end of the race I felt the best I’d felt in weeks. Even during the race, as I found last year, the sheer joy of
running walking along one of the most scenic roads in the world lifted my spirits and made me feel whole again.
Who wouldn’t want to beg their medical specialist to be allowed to traverse this road?
Postscript 1: The day after the race, an ultrasound found a blood clot behind my left knee caused by the combination of a varicose vein and an overseas flight (it is assumed). This provides something of an answer to the mysterious clot in my lung. It also appears that this will be an ongoing problem so there are more doctors, tests and procedures in my future.
Postscript 2: I’d like to dedicate this post to my friend Rachel who moved to New Zealand via Apollo Bay so we could enjoy this last run together. She also kindly looked after me when I was being a misery guts.
Are you an Intentional Socialite or an Incidental Socialite?*
A what or a what? I’ve never heard of those terms.
Of course not. I just made them up.
Well then how can I answer the question if I don’t know what they are? Maybe if you explained them first?
Oh. I guess you’re right. Okay.
An Intentional Socialite is one who actively pursues social interactions with others. They’re the ones who hold dinners, organise nights out or coffee catch ups or who are only interested in going to see a movie if it’s with a group of friends.
Makes sense. And an Incidental Socialite?
An Incidental Socialite experiences social contact in the context of another activity. A chat over coffee after church or community singing, catching up during a break in a theatre rehearsal or art class, the brief “How’s it going?” exchanges after a meeting or waiting to pick up kids in the school playground, even purely social events as long as they’re predictable like Friday night drinks after work or a weekly coffee date at the same cafe.
I think I understand.
Good. So which one are you?
I need to think about it. I’ll let you know in the Comments.
So which one are you, then?
Me? Oh, definitely an Incidental Socialite. Well, except for a brief period at the end of my 30s when I actively pursued social contact with the support of a psychologist in a challenging time of my life.
What made you stop?
Psychologists are expensive.
Ha ha. Couldn’t you do it without the psychologist?
As a shy introvert? No. Not for long, anyway.
Did it concern you?
Not really. That’s the beauty of Incidental Social Contact, you don’t notice that you don’t really have a social life.
So what made you come up with this concept?
Too much long distance running by myself. Nowhere to go but inside my own head.
Very funny. But there must have been some reason the thoughts were there.
Hm. Yeah, there was.
Well, you know how I said I wasn’t concerned about not having intentional social contact?
Lately I have been.
Been what? Concerned?
Well, that was the question, wasn’t it? Why? Why now after all these years?
And I realised I was noticing a lack of social contact with people because almost all of my incidental social opportunities have disappeared.
I see. How did that happen?
Hard to say. Life changes, you know? Some things ended by choice. Some not. Even with work, I’ve gone back to casual teaching and work offers have been thin on the ground so even brief staffroom chats over lunch aren’t happening.
So what are you going to do? As an Incidental Socialite?
Get used to my own company?
Not funny. Seriously, what are you going to do?
Well, I’ve got you, haven’t I? I do enjoy these little chats of ours in the Comments Bar & Grill. What are you drinking? My shout.
Thanks, I’m flattered and I’ll post my order in the Comments. But don’t you think flesh and blood socialising might also be a good idea?
Well, I have started going to group classes at the gym.
I guess that’s a start. Although, how do you hold a conversation while you’re bouncing around and sweating profusely?
It can be done. After all, I came up with this whole Intentional/Incidental social concept while I was running thirty kilometres, didn’t I?
Thirty kilometres?? You ran thirty kilometres? Okay, I think you may have more problems than I thought.
Very funny. I’ve finished my drink. It’s your shout.
Uh, right. What are you having?
Gin. And as you’re buying, make it a double.
*My fingers kept wanting to type “Socialist” but that’s a whole other discussion.
How long do you think it would take you to walk 100 kilometres? Could you do it in 36 hours? 24? Less than 20? (Ultra-marathoners need not apply – you people are freaks.)
Each year, around the world, international charity organisation Oxfam gives you the opportunity to answer that question and to raise money for their work to eliminate poverty worldwide.
Oxfam Trailwalker “was established in 1981 by Brigadier Mervyn Lee in Hong Kong as a training exercise by the Queen’s Gurkha Signals, part of the Brigade of Gurkhas of the British Army, which was at the time based in the British colony. In 1986, teams of civilians were allowed to take part and Oxfam Hong Kong was invited to co-organise the event.
In 1997, with the handover of Hong Kong to China, the Gurkha regiments were relocated to the United Kingdom. The Trailwalker event followed the Gurkhas’ relocation and was organised over the South Downs in Sussex, with Oxfam in the UK acting as partner since 2002, alongside the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Oxfam Hong Kong continued to organise the original event without the Gurkhas and the event has grown with 17 events now taking place across 10 countries worldwide.” [Wikipedia]
This year, Oxfam Australia celebrated 20 years of Trailwalker, the Sydney event starting in 1999 with Melbourne not long after in 2003. A Brisbane event was established in 2011 and one in Perth in 2013 (although it was decided not to run this event this year).
Trailwalker involves a team of four completing a 100 kilometre trail within a set time. The time varies across events but ranges from 30 to 48 hours. This year the Melbourne event hosted a brand new trail and reduced the previous 48 hour cut off to 36 hours.
If this is sounding all very familiar and you’re thinking, “Hang on. Haven’t you done this event before?”, you are correct. I did the Melbourne event in 2014 (read about it here) after previously participating in 2012. Despite both times having sworn I’d never do it again (usually about 80km in at 3 o’clock in the morning when everything is aching and you think you’ll never see the sun again), I signed up again this year. Hey, it was a new trail. And being the 20th Anniversary, there was BLING!
The first challenge when you decide to take on Trailwalker is to find a team. It always made me laugh when I’d start telling someone about it and they’d sound keen until they realised it wasn’t a relay event. “No, you don’t walk 25km each. You have to walk the whole 100km.” Often I then had to move on to finding another
The key to selecting a team is not so much about physical fitness (although, obviously a good level of fitness is necessary) but about mental toughness. It’s a gruelling event, particularly for your mind and you need people who can push through when your body is screaming for you to stop. Obviously, given you’re going to be together for many hours, it’s a good idea if you also get along well.
For this year’s team, I managed to rope in my brother who completed the event with me in 2014 and my marathon-running friend from my 2012 team. The fourth member was a friend from work who is a bushwalker and has walked the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.
What is also crucial is an excellent support crew. I’ve been lucky to have two friends who have volunteered for this role for each of my Trailwalker attempts. They are the champions of support crews and I am grateful beyond suitable words for their willingness to repeatedly participate in this role.
Obviously, serious training goes into such an event. We walked increasingly longer lengths of the trail, including one memorable 47km leg on a 37°C day. The last big walk was two weeks before the event when we walked two 40km efforts, one on Saturday afternoon, the second on Sunday morning. Of course, despite the aching legs and blistered feet, who could complain about the chance to walk in beautiful settings with people you like?
This was my third crack at Trailwalker but you never stop learning. We’ve taken lessons away from each of the events I’ve completed from how a team should respond to a team member becoming very slow to never underestimating the importance of foot care. Also, nothing beats an egg and bacon roll for breakfast after walking all night. (Or egg and cheese for the vegetarians. I don’t know what vegans should do.)
This year also taught me just how much the event is a psychological challenge more than a physical one. It’s not just pushing yourself past your limits but it’s the fact you’re also trying to push three other people to the finish line. So when a team member struggles at a difficult section and you have to wait for them to push through, you need to pull on every bit of patience you can find in yourself. When a team member slows down in the later sections, you’ve got to find words of encouragement when your brain just wants to shut down. Perhaps because I’ve been the one to put the team together (and therefore designated ‘Team Leader’), I’ve felt a higher level of responsibility for everyone in the team, worrying if they’re okay, if they’re happy, talking through frustrations, willing everyone to the finish line.
This year we had a target time of 24 hours. Having completed the 2012 and 2014 events in 26:15 and 25:35 respectively, and the new trail seeming a bit less challenging it was a target that seemed achievable.
Until things fell apart in the second section of the trail. The newbie member of the team suddenly found the going tough when we encountered the first serious hills only 12.5km into the trail. We hadn’t walked this section in training as it was a last minute change to the course due to protests from local walking groups about one of the original sections. My brother and I had walked it before as it had been part of the 2014 trail but it was new for this member. As the going got slower and slower, we could see that we were not going to remain on track. By the time we reached the checkpoint we were nearly 2 hours behind schedule.
This meant an adjustment to our plan and we had to shift dinner and breakfast stops. But here’s the interesting thing: in many ways the change worked out better than the original plan.
Firstly we were able to combine a warm clothes change stop and our dinner stop into one thus saving 30 minutes. Not long after we sat down under cover for dinner, the rain came pouring down. Had we been on the original plan, we’d have been out in it.
Dinner was at a more convenient time for our support crew members to get to and settle into their accommodation before needing to meet us for breakfast.
The night leg is always the hardest. Many teams choose to sleep but I can’t imagine trying to get my legs to start moving again after lying down for a few hours. I’ve always found it best to just push through.
We left our support crew after dinner at 9pm and didn’t see them again until breakfast at 5.30am but they are always on call if we need them. Even if it’s just to vent via messages about another team member. (Hey, siblings are allowed to get pissed off about each other.) It’s a long and tiring leg and there may have been tears.
After the challenges of section 2, everyone seemed to find their walking groove overnight and we made good progress but we were still an hour and a half behind schedule by the time we stopped for breakfast one checkpoint earlier than planned. This also turned out to be for the best as it had more and closer parking than the next checkpoint.
Egg and bacon rolls were consumed, coffee was drunk, water supplies were replenished, naps were taken and feet attended to. For the first time in my Trailwalker history, I had to take painkillers.
Every time I’ve done Trailwalker, the shift in mood after the breakfast stop is amazing. There’s something about a hot breakfast and the sun coming up that gives you new vigour and returns a smile to your face.
And it must have all worked because despite my planning including extra time for the last two sections on the assumption that we would be tired and therefore slower, we in fact did not slow down and in some miraculous way made up time. And this despite the rain coming down in earnest about 10km from the finish line.
Anyone who has completed Trailwalker will tell you that crossing that finish line is huge. It’s hard to describe the sense of achievement and relief but just check out those smiles. (© Kris Smythe)
We crossed that line (and got to the sign in tent – your finish time isn’t registered until you check in) in 24 hours and 2 minutes. It was a mysterious result given early indications but I’ll take it.
Of course, it’s not just about the walk. It’s about supporting Oxfam and helping people you’ve never met. At the close of fundraising, we had raised a total of $3,428. And that’s where this is more than a team of four event or even a team and support crew event. It’s about the people around you that support, encourage and contribute to all your efforts that makes the experience all the more worthwhile. There’s something about Oxfam Trailwalker that extends beyond just an ultra-distance event. It’s knowing you’re making the world just a little bit better at the same time. That’s worth any number of blisters.
Oh, and that 3am promise that I’ll never do it again? Didn’t happen. I’ve got my sights set on becoming a Trailwalker ‘Legend’ which means I need two more events under my belt.
So. How long do you think it would take you to walk 100km?
Postscript: Someone asked me how I reconcile supporting Oxfam in light of the recent sex scandal. My response is that in a large international organisation there will always be those who do the wrong thing and in fact, in the wake of the Oxfam revelations, other aid organisations including International Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children and Plan International have been implicated in similar allegations. As this article explains better than I can, I believe that punishing an NGO by withdrawing support only ends up hurting the ones who can afford it least and risks pushing the behaviour even more underground. Providing the organisation has shown action in the wake of allegations to fix the problem, I believe they still deserve support to do the work they do that is so desperately needed around the world.