What I see from down here

IMG_4559

I see a lot of people living with fear, including me. But our culture tells us that this is a weakness of our personalities, we have to be strong and say no to fear to be a winner: “Say I have no fear, be a hero”. I’ve tried to be a hero. It didn’t work. For people living with anxiety or depression, being optimistic, reciting positive affirmations or trying to be the resilient person we want to be does not change our diagnose. What has worked for me was to accept that to have fear is part of being human and can be managed but not all fears are created equal – some minds create nameless, unreasoning, unjustified distress that can be paralysing and insurmountable if professional help doesn’t come to the rescue.

When your neurotransmitters are not doing their job well and emotions have highjacked your brain they create fears that would be unthinkable for a ‘normal’ person. For example, a person who does not have a health anxiety won’t feel as threatened by the fact that 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85

And it can get worse. If you have a generalised anxiety, you don’t even need a trigger or a cause, you simply live in a constant state of worry and fear. You feel scared and you know that what you are feeling is irrational but you cannot help it and putting a brave face does not make dread go away.

When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety eight years ago, fear of dying of cancer ruled my life. For three months I had this all-consuming terror that stayed with me every waking moment and sometimes sleeping moments too as I woke up in the middle of the night in panic.

What I’ve learnt from my experience is that once you understand what anxiety is you can use a combination of tools to manage how to live with your fears. In my case, it made sense to start with medication to make the neurotransmitters do their work properly and reduce the chemical imbalance and the war raging in my brain. Once my mind became a bit calmer I was able to  incorporate therapy, meditation and yoga as part of my tool kit.

Unfortunately, no amount of coping mechanisms can change the fact no one is immune to health and mental illnesses and other tragedies of life. So, fear still pokes its ugly head. When that happens I pull the welcome mat (as well as the yoga mat) and let it exist. The simple fact of acknowledging it makes me feel better. I experienced this when my sister was being treated for breast cancer. Fear walked by my side during that period but thankfully I wasn’t paralysed by it. But if it wasn’t for the teachings of mindfulness meditation I’m not sure I would have coped as well.

I didn’t get to where I am overnight and some days are easier to manage than others. Sometimes I don’t even think I have anxiety but other times it’s clear that I do. I started sharing my story so that people leaving with fear know that they are not alone and that there is treatment.

I hope your fears are not so great but if they are seek help, the journey is not easy and it won’t turn you into a fearless super hero – but you will come out on the other side as a much stronger human being.

 

 

Missed the train and the distraction

IMG_0359

I felt the vibration. I could have waited until I got on the train. It was 5:58am and still dark but the light from my phone made it easy to find the ticket in my messy handbag.  As I scanned the ticket in the sensor I watched a train stop in the opposite platform. Luckily it was’t my train, I still had a few seconds, I thought. I looked at the phone screen and there was a Whatsapp message from a dear friend. Next time I turned my eyes to the platform my train was closing its door. How did this happen? I was at the platform and neither saw the train coming nor the other passengers hopping on–well, there was only a handful of them.

I was flabbergasted and for a few moments tried to reconstruct those few seconds in which I was totally disconnected from the real world. I’d never experienced something like that before. I know it sounds silly, it’s just a train but it was a surreal sensation – I felt like those seconds had not existed, that time had stopped. Weird.

This experience made me feel really cranky, I literally ran from home to the station and just got there on time. If it wasn’t for that Whatsapp vibration I wouldn’t have wasted 15 minutes waiting for the next train. Anyway, I decided to do a bit of mindfulness meditation. I’ve been spreading myself thin again and my meditation practice always suffer. As I had to wait I might as well use this time wisely.

In that desert and silent platform I could now hear the birds and the wind blowing the autumn leaves. I sat down on the lonesome green bench, put my headphones on and did 10 minutes of Headspace. At the end I was actually grateful to the universe that I missed my train. I felt calmer and centred and more positive about the busy day ahead.

I cannot let my meditation lapse. It’s not the first time I get in trouble in my commute because my attention has drifted somewhere else. Last time it happened, about a month ago, I got on the wrong train and had to get out in the middle of nowhere and catch a taxi back to the children’s school. Of course I was late and the rest of the day was was totally out of sync.

This morning it was only 10 minutes of piece of mind but I’m feeling energised and wanting  another dose before going to bed. I’ve set an alert in the mindfulness app for 9pm and am looking forward to the vibration.

You are different too

I’ve always been scared of public speaking, but my first ‘official’ engagement wasn’t too bad. The writer’s group I belong to–Write, Publish, Grow– was invited to perform at North Sydney library’s Harmony Day celebration. Each writer had 5-6 minutes to tell a story about multiculturalism. It was an honest night of storytelling and poetry and a bit of reality check with Amnesty International and writers from Redfern. My story reflects some of the lessons I’ve learnt since leaving my home country…

I didn’t know I’ve always belonged – 21 March 2016, Harmony Day

I’m going to ask you to think back when you were a kid. What did you want to be when you grow up? Some of you may be thinking “a doctor”, “a teacher”, “a pilot”, “an astronaut”. But I would simply respond: “I want to live overseas” – the profession didn’t matter as much. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I wanted to move to another country from such an early age. My country wasn’t at war, my family wasn’t being persecuted or facing financial hardship.

But there was something that in my eyes didn’t look quite right: I wasn’t like the typical Brazilian. My ancestors migrated from Germany to Brazil and although I was born a few generations later I inherited the Germanic look: blond hair, fair skin, green eyes. I don’t know if I can blame it on my genes but I didn’t embrace many of the Brazilian traditions. I wasn’t into soccer or carnival, I didn’t worship the pope and the social-economic gap between the rich and the poor made me feel very uncomfortable. I think that because in many ways I wasn’t like the majority I didn’t fully adopt the Brazilian identity. In many respects I felt like a stranger in my own country. I had developed strong connections with the people but not so much with the place.

My dream as a child was to do high school in America but my parents could not afford to send four kids overseas as international students. So I had to wait. And I patiently waited until I was 26 and had worked hard and saved enough to finally be granted an international student visa to go to Australia. Soon after my visa was issued, I got married and, with my husband, embarked on a trip of a life time.

I can still remember the day our plane landed in Sydney 18 years ago on a bright and sunny winter’s morning – a glorious day for a dream to come true. It was hard to contain my excitement, I was eager to mingle with the locals and experience the Australia culture and way of life. I had done some research and I thought I knew a lot about the country I would soon be calling home. But when I crossed the exit gate in the international passenger terminal all familiarity went out the door. Australia wasn’t as ‘Australian’ as I had pictured. I couldn’t see many people that looked like me and our host waiting for us by the gate looked… well, not like me at all.

We had arranged to spend our first months with a local family and our host went by the initials BT. I thought these were the initials for something like Barry Thomas or maybe a nickname for Bartolomeu. But interesting enough those letters were the initials for Black Tiger. BT was a Korean migrant who married an Australian woman. They lived in the South of Sydney, near Hurstville, a suburb where 50% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Most shops in the area had signs in languages I could not decipher and the suburb bustled with people dressed in colourful ethnic clothes, sounds of different languages and scents of delicious food.

I knew very little about other cultures. I thought the only time women would willingly wear a veil was on their wedding day – but now I was sitting on the train with women that chose to cover their faces as a way of life. I saw people bowing to Allah and revering the Buddha. The more places I went in Sydney the more I came across people of different backgrounds and from parts of the world I barely knew existed.

When I moved to Australia I was looking for a country where I could feel a stronger sense of belonging. I expected to find a true blue Western nation that inherited its language, political and legal institutions from the British. A nation colonised by white convicts and settlers. But I got much more than that: I was welcomed into a country that opened up its doors to immigration and did not impose sameness on its new citizens. A country that embraced the diversity of 300 ancestries and 200 languages.  A country that since its early days was built as an egalitarian society with a culture of ‘fair go’, liberty and social justice for all – not just those that look similar and behave a certain way.

In Australia, my life gained a new perspective. I realised that no matter where we live we are all individually different–from our appearance to our world views and opinions. To deny our distinctiveness in order to seek conformity is quite dangerous. When we feel that we need to conform in order to ‘fit in’ we loose our identify and become disconnected from ourselves and others. And when we feel alienated we look for what separates us from others.

Before moving to Australia I found easier to see what made us different but my Australian experience helped me shift my focus to the values that bring all cultures together: compassion, fairness, honesty, and respect for others. I came to Australia looking for a place to belong not realising that I had belonged all along. It’s funny that once I realised that, I became more connected to my own Brazilian origins, much more so than when I was living there.

Migration and its resulting multiculturalism is not easy. It requires we migrants to embrace the unknown and the different – and the locals to appreciate and respect new cultures. But when this happens we grow as individuals and as a community.

So to everyone here tonight I say welcome to Australia. I hope you’ve found your sense of belonging.

Short cut: life’s too short for long hair

IMG_7282

I’m now a woman of short hair

I’ve been meaning to cut my hair short for years but every time I walk through the haidresser’s door I chicken down.  It’s just hair I tell myself, it will grow back! But I look at my reflection in the mirror, and my beautiful yet damaged, over dry and full of split ends long hair is running down my face and I feel comfortable. It’s funny how we get used to our surroundings and it’s so hard to let go, even when you know your life will be better, easier or more productive.

You see, I run two half marathons each year so I’m often exercising and my hair does get in the way. It takes long to wash and dry and I spend at least 30 minutes straightening it. It’s a pain, I have to admit. And most of the time I have my hair up in a ponytail which I think defeats the purpose of having long hair. So why do I need long hair?

The word need is very appropriate in this context because I had become really attached to my entangled vines. I’ve always perceived long hair as more beautiful than a short mane, and my views of women with long hair are normally more positive. To me long hair makes women more feminine, attractive, sophisticated. Yes, I know, this is a subjective view, beauty is always int he eye of the beholder… but I just could not help myself. When it was time to let go of my long hair, I ran to the corner of my comfort zone and ignored other hair styles more in line with my needs and personality.

But I don’t want to remain in my comfort zone for eternity, I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. This morning I called the hairdresser as soon as they opened and made an appointment at 12. I marched into the salon with courage and resolve and bravely announced: I’m here for a serious hair cut. In less than an hour it was done and I’m quite pleased with the results.

I’m not sure if a change of hairstyle can be life changing, but it feels like I have taken a step in the right direction, I’ve crossed a new frontier – I’m a woman of short hair now. When I saw truckloads of my hair being swiped across the room and placed in the bin I felt empowered. But hair grows back quickly and it’s easy to go back into old habits and thinking patterns.  I hope this is an experience I can go back to when I’m reluctant to venture out into unknown territory.

Next step: declutter my wardrobe, I have more things to let go…