My midlife unravelling…

Confession time. I am going through what Brené Brown calls a midlife unravelling. No, it’s not a midlife crisis. It’s not a mental health collapse, either, although it feels like it. It’s an undoing. An uncontrolled and uncontrollable breakdown of what has been assumed and is assumed. What was certain is not. What seems to be reality is actually a foundation of quicksand. It’s a curious No Man’s Land of stripped back limbo where I’m questioning my decisions, and the preceding groundwork and reality on which I have based those decisions.

This unravelling is, I believe and to a large extent, underpinned by childhood trauma caused by abuse. There’s no other way to say it. And this trauma, which I thought I had dealt with, has bubbled to the surface, needing my urgent attention. Again.

Six months ago, I was ok. Even though life was not perfect, and it never is, I has happy, satisfied, content. I thought, after a false start, that I had found love. I was living bravely. Embracing vulnerability. Taking risks. Having smack downs in the arena and getting my arse seriously kicked. I was cool with that because I was living the life I wanted to live: a life of courage, of interest, of meaning, of relevance. Or, at least, thought I was.

But things have changed. I’ve changed. I’m not that girl who landed in Vietnam almost three years ago, full of hope and joy and awe and excited anticipation. Sure, an essence of her remains — like a shadow — and probably always will, but she (me) is a darker version. A more mature version, knocked around by the undertow of being in a foreign country without a life buoy. A version that has seen the greedy, selfish, dysfunctional underbelly of human nature and is yet to come out the other side fully intact. She is more cautious, less carefree. More introspective. Much more guarded. Suspicious, even.

Question: so what’s brought this midlife unravelling on?

Answer: a couple of Serious Things, and one Dangerous Thing.

If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK. ~ Brené Brown

Thing #1 (Serious)

In October of 2018, I tried to renew my business visa. I failed. To cut a long story short — and it is a very long story — the “friend” who had organised my business visa the year before (in 2017) had registered me with a fake sponsor under a ghost company. The ghost company was raided by the finance police or the tax department or some official office in Vietnam, my record was found, and I was blacklisted by immigration. I didn’t know until I tried to renewed my visa and couldn’t. At no point did this “friend” say: If you want a business visa, this is what I have to do to get you one. These are the risks. This is what might happen. Do you want me to proceed? He made a decision without consulting with me. He made a decision that I did not know was being made and therefore couldn’t say no to, and it fucked with my life.

I lived day to day, on edge, waiting for news that my name would be cleared from the blacklist and I would be allowed back into the country.

I was stuck in Bangkok, trying to get it sorted out. It took one month. One very stressful and expensive month. A month where I was planning my exit strategy from Vietnam, concerned about my cat (in 2017, I had brought Bella from Australia in good faith thinking I would have a long, charmed and problem-free life in Vietnam) and how to get her out if I moved elsewhere. I was thinking about packing up my apartment (I literally had no time to pack my stuff, because I had to exit Vietnam quickly to avoid overstay penalties in case I could actually get back) and how to get my belongings moved. I lived day to day, on edge, waiting for news that my name would be cleared from the blacklist and I would be allowed back into the country.

I was (again, a long story), but it didn’t end there. Two months later, I applied for a visa extension, and discovered I was still on a blacklist, despite assurances I had been cleared. In fact, it took me six months to sort out (another long story). Six months of acute stress, worrying about whether I would be allowed to stay in the country and about Bella, and where I could go with her if I couldn’t stay. I worried about my finances. I worried about how sustainable it actually was living in Vietnam in the long term. Most of all, I worried (and I still worry now; the worry hangs over me like a dark cloud threatening heavy, dank, drowning rain) that I had made the biggest mistake of my life leaving Australia. Is this what I want? Do I still want to be here? If I’m not here in Vietnam, where else would I go? And if I have made a mistake, how do I undo it, knowing I have to consider Bella (who’s an innocent in all this) and quarantine regulations if I take her back to Australia, or any other country for that matter?

Thing #2 (Serious)

Just before Christmas last year (2018), while I was still dealing with Thing #1, I had a severe case of jaundice. I knew my liver enzymes were high because I’d had a health check for my work permit (to resolve Thing #1) but never having had liver issues before (that I knew of), and what with the doctor not making a big deal of it, I ignored it. I was drinking much less alcohol anyway (mainly because I didn’t feel like drinking), and kept up my intermittent fasting regime and moderate fat/low sugar intake (I was determined to lose the 10-15kg that had crept on over the last two years). I was training in the gym every other day, running and weights.

I ended up in hospital for 10 days with a toxic liver (acute hepatitis) and was on three drips per day plus medication to get my liver enzymes under control.

I was feeling off by the time my skin turned yellow. I was tired, had no energy and felt like I had a permanent case of flu. I couldn’t keep food down, and had lost my appetite. Weight was falling off me. I ended up in hospital for 10 days with a toxic liver (acute hepatitis) and was on three drips per day plus medication to get my liver enzymes under control. It was serious, but the doctors couldn’t find a cause. No Hepatitis A, B, C, D or E (D and E are Asian varieties). No cirrhosis. No pancreatitis. No gall bladder issues. No cancer. Cause unknown, but possibly related to the antibiotics I had taken for a UTI two weeks earlier. No one could say for sure.

I think my liver was toxic in Bangkok. I was vomiting and lost a lot of weight while I was there. My poop was a pale colour and my pee was dark (but only in the morning), which are hallmarks of elevated bilirubin levels and signs that my liver was not functioning well at all. I would hazard a guess (but I don’t know for sure because I wasn’t tested for this) that because of all the stress I was under, my cortisol levels were through the roof and this affected the functioning of my liver.

It has taken six months of medication and careful nutrition and zero alcohol and gentle exercise and minimising stress for my liver enzymes to be back in the normal range. My liver is now functioning properly and the damage has been repaired. Six months of worrying about my health and trying to figure out what the cause was. Stress? Pollution? Chemicals? Some other unknown variable that no one knew about? Is it coincidence that this occurred during one of the most stressful periods of my life i.e. Thing #1 and Thing #3?

Thing #3 (Dangerous)

Dating has been quite easy for me in Vietnam. I guess I’m seen as exotic, despite my age. A single, white woman with green eyes, long silver hair and my body shape? Men notice me, and I often turn heads. It’s flattering not to be invisible like I am in the west. I’m out and about, easily recognised and usually happy to talk to people who want to have a chat. The Vietnamese are often pleasantly surprised when I start talking in their language, because they know how difficult it is and appreciate the effort I have taken to learn it. I figure the worst that people can say about me is that I’m friendly.

I met Hung in July last year, three months before I was stuck in Bangkok, and three months after I ended it with the fucktard. He said he’d met me before and I believed him because the facts were correct, despite me not remembering him (and I have a very good memory for faces). In hindsight (which is always 20/20) I should have asked him about the nature of our conversation to see if he really had met me before. I didn’t because I took him on face value. Big mistake.

Our relationship lasted an on again/off again 10 months. I was the one who kept trying to end things because there was something not quite right about it. On the surface, he was kind, loyal and reliable — he looked after Bella while I was stuck in Bangkok, and while I was in hospital — but. At a deeper level, where intimacy grows and thrives, something was missing. There was an emptiness and disconnection that I couldn’t put my finger on. I wanted a close connection, but he was unable — or unwilling — to accommodate me, despite my communicating my needs at every step of the way. Being Vietnamese, I wasn’t sure if these issues were related to him or language or culture or his (what I assumed to be) avoidant attachment style. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Not once, not twice, but one hundred times.

I did this because he was an expert manipulator, and I didn’t see it. I knew something was going on, something was amiss. What that something turned out to be, as I discovered, was emotional abuse. It just took me time to figure out why he was secretive and controlling and grandiose and gaslighty and lacking in empathy. Time to see the patterns. He was using one of the most manipulative tricks in the Cluster B personality disorder handbook on me: intermittent reinforcement. And what he created was a relationship where I was trauma bonded to him, not dissimilar to Stockholm Syndrome. I was being held hostage emotionally and I didn’t see it. Couldn’t see it.

In these kinds of relationships, the person in control often intermittently reinforces their partner only to withdraw reinforcement completely. For example, they occasionally give their partner closeness in the beginning, only to later deny them closeness completely. Despite this complete withdrawal of reinforcement, the partner stays and persistently tries to get closeness because they have already grown accustomed to periods of starvation and have been trained that occasionally they do in fact get the closeness they want.  So they are hooked on the hope that they will.  They push harder than ever for the closeness that they occasionally got in the past that they may in fact never get again. ~ Teal Swan

Towards the end of our 10 month on again/off again relationship, when I was playing detective (never a good sign) trying to work out what the fuck was wrong with me, I was horrified to discover I was in a relationship with someone who had all the traits of a covert narcissist. He played me. He whittled away my boundaries, sucked out my soul and had me questioning myself and my reality. He underestimated how strong I was though, and how smart — and I finished it as soon as I figured out what he was. I was lucky. I escaped. Some people stay with covert narcissists for years, their spirit slowly wasting away, with suicide often being the only option for escape. Covert narcissists are notoriously difficult to spot, even for experts, because they seem so kind and loyal and reliable. They hide well, because they want to fly under the radar. Make no mistake: this niceness is all about them, and how they perceive themselves, which is superior to every other person on the planet. And they are incredibly dangerous.

Some people stay with covert narcissists for years, their spirit slowly wasting away, with suicide often being the only option for escape.

The first hardest thing for me to come to terms with about Thing #3 is that my relationship with Hung was a lie. It was manufactured by him to get narcissistic supply. I was an appliance. I was useful, like a television or a phone or a computer. The intimacy, that connection that I craved with him was missing because his humanity — empathy, compassion, conscience, vulnerability — was missing. He pretended very well — enough to fool me — but, like all narcissist, coverts or overts, play-acting humanity isn’t sustainable. And all those things that made me an excellent supply — empathetic, trusting, intuitive, a problem-solver, curious — served me well in the end. I figured out the patterns. I figured out that my emotions, my vulnerabilities were being used against me for his gain, his satisfaction, his pleasure. It all became so very, very clear. In the end.

The second hardest thing that I had to come to terms with was that my mother had primed me for this emotional abuse. My tolerance for bad behaviour in an intimate relationship is greater than someone who was raised in a loving relationship. I overlooked red flags. I allowed my boundaries to be busted. I stayed because he seemed like he loved me. While I’ve never been in a physically violent relationship — I know the signs on an intuitive, cellular level — emotional abuse is a whole different, insidious, dangerous ball game and one for which I had no offence or defence strategy. I was — am — a walking target.

Damaged goods

My dear, wise, young friend Robyn understands because she too, is feeling and dealing and healing with her own childhood trauma and abuse. She is 26, maybe 27, and she explained it oh so well as a lifelong sentence that’s worse than being locked up for murder, because you are never really free. We sat, the other day, her and I, drinking our iced sugar cane juice, the hot Hanoi summer breathing down our necks, talking about the damage our mothers — who should never have been mothers — have inflicted on us, their children. She is angry, and she has every right to be. I was angry once, so I know that anger.

The imprint on my soul from childhood, from an abusive, violent mother, has left me a wilted flower, delicate petals torn and ragged, battered by life’s storms.

Now, I’m just so very, very sad. I’m sad at the injustice of being born to someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t honour me as their child. I’m sad at the waste of time, in many respects, that my life has been. I’ve always been searching for love, to be loved, and it has, for the most part, been fruitless. I’m jaded enough, cynical enough to realise that love is just brain chemicals, and that with my history of childhood abuse, I will invariably choose the wrong men to become attached to, even with all the education and knowledge and self-awareness I’ve acquired over the years.

I can hear you all say that it doesn’t have to be that way, that there are good men out there who will love me and that I am enough. I am worthy. That someone will come along when I least expect it. That I’m not sending the right vibrations out into the Universe. That I can be my own mother. All that is probably true. Trust me, I have been down the unexpected meeting path and it never ends well for me. Ever. I have sent good vibrations into the Universe and that’s not ended well either. I have seen women with good men, and I envy them and acknowledge the amount of luck involved. At an intrinsic, cellular level I know I am enough, and I am worthy, and I calm and care for my inner child, but it doesn’t help.

The imprint on my soul from childhood, from an abusive, violent mother, has left me a wilted flower, delicate petals torn and ragged, battered by life’s storms. I am damaged. I have been primed for emotional abuse by the very person who was supposed to care for and nurture me. Of all the betrayals that I have experienced, and there have been many, this one is absolute. A betrayal so insidious, so harmful, so dangerous, so primal that the imprint is branded forever on my soul. I have tried so very, very hard not to let it define me, but I feel like I am failing. That I have failed.

How on earth do I ever, can I ever, get past all that?

Don’t worry

This post may seem a like a cry for help. It’s not. It’s me working out what I think, processing things with words, like I usually do. I’m not about to swallow a bottle of arsenic for breakfast any time soon. I’m physically safe, but I’ve taken an emotional and spiritual battering so I’m taking this time to work on my mind, my body and my soul. I’m meditating, exercising, reading, learning, creating and writing. I’m doing lots and lots and lots of writing. I’m working, and staying connected with my community here, ever grateful for the small group of wonderful, supportive Vietnamese and expat friends I have.

Image credit: Free-Photos from Pixabay

Further reading

If you are interested in reading about the effect of childhood trauma and abuse, and the repercussions in adulthood, I can highly recommend Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life. The similarities between her life and mine are eery.

“A beautiful, startling, and candid memoir about growing up without boundaries, in which Ariel Leve recalls with candor and sensitivity the turbulent time she endured as the only child of an unstable poet for a mother and a beloved but largely absent father, and explores the consequences of a psychologically harrowing childhood as she seeks refuge from the past and recovers what was lost.

Leve learned to become her own parent, taking care of herself and her mother’s needs. There would be uncontrolled, impulsive rages followed with denial, disavowed responsibility, and then extreme outpourings of affection. How does a child learn to feel safe in this topsy-turvy world of conditional love? Leve captures the chaos and lasting impact of a child’s life under siege and explores how the coping mechanisms she developed to survive later incapacitated her as an adult.”

Note: this is a Book Depository affiliate link. You can also buy this book via my Barnes & Noble (Nook) affiliate link.

 

Simply the best things (about 2018)

My lovely friend Karen Willis from Sharing Bali and Beyond (I met her when I did a writer’s retreat in Bali a couple of years ago) issued her end-of-year newsletter (you should subscribe because it’s gorgeous and full of inspiration about travel and health and wellness) and something she said struck me.

She said — and I agree — that we need to celebrate ourselves and our achievements:

We’re raising our glass to you in heartfelt thanks for all of the support, laughs, friendship and travel tales we’ve shared. You’ve been there for us in the virtual world as well as in real life on our travels.

As I look back over the year I’m asking these questions of myself…

The best thing I did for myself was…… The best thing I did for someone else was…… The best thing someone did for me was……

Try it. Fill in the blanks. I have no doubt you will have lots to celebrate.

Cheers!

I love this idea, and it’s the perfect theme for my 2018/Lunar New Year round-up. Taking stock is an important part of our growth and development. If we don’t examine our own lives, we never know how far we have come, or how far we have yet to go. We need to take time out to reappraise, recalibrate and regroup if necessary. We need to look honestly and what worked and what didn’t, what we got around to doing and what we didn’t. Can we live with the didn’t work or is there an adjustment that needs to be made? Will we regret the didn’t dos? What challenges did we overcome that we didn’t think ourselves capable of?

2018 was a messy, exhilarating, challenging year. I started it off with a break-up, not one but two sprained ankles (falling down stairs), and dear friends leaving Hanoi. In the middle of the year, I had visits from friends and family, I took a trip to Phu Quoc Island, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, and began and finished several jobs. I accidentally fell in love, lost a lot of weight, started a company and finished the year in hospital with a serious liver issue and a consolidated relationship. I have no idea what 2019 will bring, other than my freelance writing is really starting to take off…

My Best Things for 2018

The Best Thing I did for myself was…

Ending relationships that were personally and professionally unfulfilling or toxic or unsatisfying, for whatever reason.

No one likes to say good-bye or — worse (so we think) quitting — because there’s a certain amount of shame that comes with a good-bye. We think we have failed, on some level at least, to gauge the true nature of a situation or a person when we signed up to it or them. We kick ourselves for not noticing all the hidden terms and conditions. That we didn’t read the fine print. That things that are obvious now weren’t then.

But life is an unfolding, a peeling back of layers and it takes time to work out what’s going on.

Some people are blessed with the gift of cut through — they can see immediately what someone or something is about. I am not so lucky and I envy that insight. It takes me a while to put two and two together. I err on the side of once is never, twice is always, betting that people invariably show their true nature at some point. And I have to remind myself that it’s actions, not words that count. And as a person who loves words, that’s incredibly hard to do.

Usually, I am right about someone — once I work it out. And I do, because people cannot hide forever. And generally, I let people or situations go because their values do not align with mine. They may be false leaders, false friends, or false work or job opportunities. It is necessary to quit — as disappointing and devastating as it sometimes is — to keep myself centred and true.

The Best Thing I did for someone else was…

This is difficult. If I think about it — really think about it — the Best Thing I did was not for one person, but a group of people…

When I came to Hanoi, I decided I did NOT want to teach. I taught high school in my 30s and while I enjoyed it to a certain extent and loved shaping young minds and changing their perceptions of what a teacher is/was, I felt that it had a shelf life. I’m a rolling stone in the job department — I change careers every few years so I don’t get bored. I need to grow and learn and experiment, and I can’t do that if I do the same thing all the time.

Back to Hanoi. Teaching English is lucrative here: one can make USD$2000 per month — easily. But it’s generally working with children, and that’s not something I wanted to do. However, I was approached by a friend of a friend to teach English to expat adults, (mostly) women who had time on their hands because their husbands were working, their children were at school and they had many hours to fill. They were (mostly) Japanese and Korean and they were keen to learn. And they were lonely. And the job was cash in hand.

So I taught English. I helped my students with pronunciation and vocabulary and some (but not a lot of) grammar. I watched them from go from shy, halting users of English to confident conversationalists, able to hold their own. I saw them develop friendships, arranging coffee and lunches and excursions. I listened to their secrets and wishes and regrets, and helped them vocalise and make sense of their world, in English. But most importantly — and this is the Best Thing — in my class, there was a sense of community and belonging and solidarity that was missing in their lives in Hanoi…

The Best Thing someone did for me was…

Step up when I most needed it. Actually, it was a few people.

In October, I had visa issues. I was stuck in Bangkok for almost exactly four weeks, returning to Hanoi at the beginning of November — actually, I didn’t think I’d get back to Vietnam, and was planning my exit strategy. I won’t get into why these visa issues occurred other than to say I trusted someone who proved to be untrustworthy (it’s a whole other story for another day) and he screwed me over. It happens. C’est la vie.

It was a very stressful time that involved a roller coaster of emotions as I figured out what I needed to do — and tried to manage my re-entry into the country from outside Vietnam. The Australian Embassies in Hanoi and Thailand were absolutely useless (I would have got more help if I was arrested and jailed, or died). While the Embassy was no help, other people were.

I gave the keys to my apartment to a man I had been seeing for a short time, asking him to check on Bella Kitteh for a few days, not knowing it would be for a month. One friend would phone or text everyday to make sure I was alright and offer emotional support, distracting me with the always fascinating stories of his love and work life. Others were trying to sort things out for me in Hanoi by visiting lawyers and calling in favours. And another got to the bottom of my visa issue so I knew what I was dealing with and, therefore, how to play it. An organisation that I was volunteering for — I had only been with them for a couple of months — generously stepped up to be my work sponsor, no questions asked.

I have never had people rally around like they did at this time. I needed them and they were there — and I didn’t even ask for help. It was just given. They saved my life, and I will be forever grateful.

Last word

At the end of the day (or the year), all we can do — as humans — is place one foot in front of the other and keep on going. We want to live a life of meaning, of richness and depth — otherwise, what is the point? We need to connect with others, experience and deal with different situations, and the full range of emotions.

Climb that goddamn mountain! That’s what it’s there for.


Photo courtesy of Visual hunt

How to live a big, messy, satisfying, happy life

Regular readers will know that my relationship with my mother was fraught, to say the least. It was characterised by restriction and control and violence. And fear. An overwhelming fear that I was not safe, would never be safe. And that I was not enough. Would never be enough. Of course, this is was from the perspective of a child but some 50 years later, I still bear the scars — scars that still weep with blood and tears in the right situation, which — usually and invariably — involves a man because attachment.

I did not want to be like my mother, so I learned from her what not to do, mainly from her “shining” example, and also from my own mistakes. I have made many, many mistakes over the years but, luckily, I have few regrets. I love my life, particularly since I moved to Hanoi, Vietnam. Moving here has been calming, cleansing and cathartic on so many levels. I have learned to trust again, which is a big deal for me. I’ve also learned that I am powerful and beautiful and interesting and enough. More than enough.

One thing I wanted to do differently from my mother was to embrace life and all that it entails: heartbreak, happiness, fear, joy, uncertainty, mess. I’m proud to say that I’m living a big, messy, satisfying, happy life — a life very different from my mother’s. It’s not a simple thing to do, particularly when the world demands that we plan and order and control our lives as much as we can. And it’s not easy. You have to be comfortable saying: Fuck that! to the world and just do things on your own terms.

Trust your gut, take risks

When I moved — I was inexplicably drawn to Vietnam — people said two things to me: You’re so brave and I wish I could do what you’re doing. I had chucked in my very secure government job (I was paid out, so had a financial safety net), and decided that I would give it three months. That’s all. If it didn’t work out, I would keep on travelling or go back to Australia and work out what to do from there. It didn’t matter. I just knew I had to go.

I had no idea what to expect and how it would work, but it did. The risk paid off. Of course, not everyone is comfortable taking a leap of faith like moving to another country. But you don’t have to take a giant leap. Take tiny steps, baby steps, if you have to. Move ahead in inches, not yards. Challenge yourself to try something new, or do something you’ve never done before. Talk to people you don’t know at bus stops or on buses and trains or in queues. Try food from a different country. Drink beer if you don’t drink beer, or wine if you don’t drink wine. Learn to paint, or fly a kite. Start a blog. Self-publish a story. Explore another suburb or town. Then try taking a trip on your own. It’s empowering. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, with each small risk you take, you’ll lose the fear that’s holding you back. And most of the time, the fear* is unfounded.

*False Evidence As Real

Embrace the unknown

Vietnam is not like Australia. It is not an English-speaking country. It has been torn apart by wars over hundreds of years. It is communist (actually communist-capitalist). And it seems chaotic and disorganised. The hum of motorbikes tooting their horns as they whizz past, lives lived openly and vibrantly on the street, the constant sound of construction and enterprise. Underneath it all, if you can overlook the chaos and mess, is a zen. The Vietnamese are warm and kind and funny and laid back. Nothing much phases them (I have yet to see road rage occur here which is super surprising given the traffic situation).

This zen makes it easy to be open to new situations and trust that people really are genuine and acting without an agenda. I find myself saying: Sure! to things that have crossed my path, and apart from nearly dying in Cao Bang, (and let’s not mention Cambodia) it’s been largely positive. I’ve been on a road trip to the north of Vietnam where I was the only foreigner. I’ve said yes to jobs that have involved travel and had me meeting all kinds of interesting people. I met a Vietnamese man crossing the road in Saigon who I dated* for six months, and while it didn’t end as I expected, it was an experience. I’ve travelled with to Myanmar with a friend when I usually travel solo. Recently, I went to Phu Quoc Island with a man I barely knew, but it seemed like a good idea (I wanted to see a few of my KOTO kids who were working there) so asked him to go with me (Sure! he said). My point is that saying Sure! means that you have to believe that people are by and large good, and that they mean you no harm. You simply have to put you trust in the Universe.

*And by dating I mean we were pen-pals with occasional benefits.

Date outside your gene pool

I have had three lovers since I have been in Vietnam. Two have been Vietnamese and one has been, well, of mixed heritage. In a country of almost 93 million people, dating, in my experience has never been easier, and is so much easier than it is in Australia, for example. Apparently, with my vibrant personality, silver hair, white skin and green eyes, I am considered exotic. Men approach me, and quite regularly. Oddly, many of my single female friends complain that they can’t find decent male company here — but they are staying inside their gene pool, claiming they aren’t attracted to Vietnamese men because they are “too small” (both in stature and other areas). Not my experience at all…


If you date outside your gene pool, particularly when there are language issues and cultural barriers (real or perceived) you open yourself up to being with someone who may or may not understand you… and vice versa. Tolerance, patience and clear communication are what matter. And enjoying being with someone who can add a richness and depth to your life in undefined, unexpected ways. I have found Vietnamese men to be lovely to be around: kind, respectful and thoughtful. In my experience, they don’t “hook up” and they actually date: you know, that really weird concept where a man takes a woman out for drinks and dinner and music… and breakfast or brunch the next day…

Of course, being in any kind of relationship, involves risk, uncertainty and vulnerability irrespective of who we are involved with, or how long. We can never really know how things will turn out because, in the end, you never know what’s coming for you…

Cultivate interesting friendships

Until I came to Vietnam, I did not understand how important friends are. Sure, I had them and — of course — had a great social life and enjoyed their company, but friends were not the be all and end all for me. Most of them I had accumulated through work, and when I changed jobs, I often changed friends. A few friends have known me since I was in my teens and twenties, but most are recent additions. I liked my own company and as an introverted extrovert was relatively happy my socialising at work. The weekends were mine, and if I didn’t see anyone, I was happy with that as well.

Here in Vietnam, friends (both Vietnamese and expat) are made very quickly. You meet someone, decide you like them pretty much on the spot and they become a fixture in your life — this is necessary, because otherwise you’d end up lonely and isolated. Everyone helps out everyone else, because we are all in the same boat — out of our comfort zone, in an unfamiliar country. But the wonderful thing about my friends here is that they are all so interesting because they are so diverse. They are like a United Colours of Benetton ad: Nigerian, American, British, Indian, Australian, American, German, French, Brazilian, South African, Canadian, Irish, Vietnamese. Most have lived and worked abroad, some for many years, and it certainly makes for interesting conversations. Interestingly, I have more male friends here than I ever did in Australia…

Find your bliss

I have talked before about working in Vietnam, and how many opportunities there are here. I knew I wanted to be a freelance writer and editor. I knew I wanted portability. I knew that I wanted balance and freedom in my working life. I knew I wanted time to work on my personal projects. I knew I wanted to be able to walk away from a project if I didn’t like something about a client or the work I was doing. I didn’t know how it would work or come together, but all of this has been remarkably easy to do here. I define success differently now: am I working with good people on interesting projects and being paid well so that I don’t have to dip into my Australian cash? I don’t care about climbing corporate ladders or playing office politics. I just want to do my thing, my way.

I have walked away from work and jobs that haven’t suited me and aligned to my values, things that have proved to be too difficult (usually owners, managers or founders), or too crazy (third-party clients). What I have learned is that something bigger and better will invariably take its place. Recently, I was worried about losing a big client (they had me on a generous retainer) who had decided to move in a different direction, but I have found teaching work which is less stressful, takes up much less time and pays about the same. I have a regular editing job that pays well, and I’m regularly contacted about writing gigs.

All this makes it very easy to find pet projects to work on here in Vietnam because the barriers to entry are so low. All I can say is stay tuned for more…!


Photo credit: The Hyper-Psych Art of Michael J Bowman on Visual Hunt / CC BY

When I’m done, I’m done (what I know for sure)

There’s something really nice about being on the other side of fifty. You’ve seen it all and done it all (well, maybe not everything, but quite a lot) and you know that you don’t have too much tolerance (or time) for crap… your own or anyone else’s. You know what works for you, and conversely, what doesn’t. And if things fall into the “not working for you” camp, you can say without hesitation and without too much delay, I’m done.

There’s a certain freedom that comes from knowing when you’re done, and calling it. It means you can walk away, without a backward glance, without wasting any more time or energy or resources on something or someone that has proven themselves to be too difficult or too boring or too unpleasant or too… whatever.

You remember the fucktardedry that I was involved with earlier this year? When I called it quits because I smelled a rat? Well, you may (or may not) be surprised that that wasn’t quite the end of the story. I thought I was done, but I wasn’t, and neither was he…

Attached or just avoidant?

Three weeks after I finished it with The Saigonese, I messaged him. I’d had a chilled weekend in Hoi An trying to restore some calm and perspective to my deeply saddened soul. How could I have gotten it so wrong? Again? I thought that this time, with this man, things would be different…

While I was there, I had an epiphany: what if he wasn’t attached? What if he simply had an avoidant attachment style, which made it seem like he was married and therefore unavailable? What if his behaviour was about creating distance because intimacy and closeness made him uncomfortable, even though he seemed comfortable with intimacy? I thought he had a secure attachment style — but what if I was wrong, and I’d read it incorrectly? The more I thought about it (and searched Agony Aunt Google) the more it seemed likely that this was the case. Given how lovely and kind and thoughtful he was when we were together (Missing In Action behaviour aside), I told myself to give him another chance.

So when I returned to Hanoi, I texted him. I told him that I thought I knew what had happened, and could I email him my thoughts? Yes dear, he replied. So I emailed him my theory, and (assuming he was indeed single) asked if we could press the restart button. Yes dear, he said. And I can confirm that I am 100% unattached. So we started communicating. I was still feeling my way and mindful of not getting caught up in the emotional relief of being in touch again (stupid, sexy attachment system) but we were talking, including face time. I have to admit it was lovely chatting to him and I looked forward to each message, although I noticed they weren’t as regular as before. Sometimes days would go past before I heard from him, and it was always me initiating the communique, although he always responded quickly when I messaged.

A grand gesture

There was no future, despite the earlier promises of travel and retirement and building a business — and a life — together. It was all a mirage — a house of sand and fog.

In the three weeks we were apart, I had booked another weekend away, and told him about it. On the day (night, actually) before I was supposed to fly out, I heard a knock at my door. I wasn’t expecting anyone, and asked who it was. Vietnammmm, was the response. I knew that voice, and opened the door. There he was, standing on my doorstep. I was gobsmacked. What are you doing here? I asked. His hand went gently to my cheek and cupped it, and then he drew me to him and hugged me. Shush, he said. And shush I did.

The weekend was magical. We spent almost every waking moment together. He rented a motorcycle and we went on a big day trip to Duong Lam Ancient Village and spent time in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, soaking up the atmosphere with coffee and che (a sweet soup) and music. We strolled around my neighbourhood and ate pho and hot pot and barbecue and sang karaoke and drank hot chocolate and coffee and mango smoothies and beer. We went to my local pub and listened to music and then went to jazz bars where he talked the performers into letting him play their guitar.

He told me he had never done this before: just jumping on a plane and showing up unannounced on someone’s doorstep. I took it to mean that things had indeed turned a corner and didn’t press him further about where we were going with our relationship. I did ask him a few times why he came, and received an evasive response. Shush, he said. Ok, I thought. There’ll be plenty of time to talk about this. And about the future. And how we can make this work.

Except we didn’t. We didn’t talk about any of it.

A pen pal by any other name

He returned to Saigon on the Monday and the messaging continued, but became was less frequent. Days would pass before I’d hear from him. If I didn’t initiate the communication, it didn’t happen. My attachment system was going haywire as my spidey senses picked up on his imminent, anticipated withdrawal. I asked when he was coming back to Hanoi, and got the same evasive, busy excuses that always came up. He wished he could, but he was very busy with work. His clients. His daughters. His friends. Church.

I tried to communicate my needs: that I needed more than I was getting, that I was bored with the status quo, that we needed to be vigilant about our communication, but he was never in the mood to discuss what was bothering me. Or he was too tired. Shush, he would say.

We continued messaging, but it was becoming increasingly clear to me that we had moved into “pen pals who had sex occasionally” territory. There was no future, despite the earlier promises of travel and retirement and building a business — and a life — together. It was all a mirage — a house of sand and fog. Despite my best efforts, this was going nowhere. And relationships have to go somewhere, or they wither and die. If they are not tended, they end. It’s that simple.

The nail in the coffin was my lovely friend Robyn’s send off. She was returning to Germany and had settled on a date to bring all her Hanoian friends together for a going away party. I asked The Saigonese to come (he had promised to come and visit me again in April anyway so it seemed like the perfect opportunity) and he told me he had clients visiting from Singapore on that date. I suggested the week before and he said, I’ll have to check my schedule.

It was then — right then — that I realised I was done.

I really don’t get it

I ended it that day, and I ended it without hesitation or remorse or a backward glance, although (if I’m honest) there are things I really don’t get about this whole episode.

I have questions, so many questions. Questions like: why did he want to see me the day after we met (it would have been so easy for this to just have been a pleasant hookup)? Why would he keep things going for the five weeks I was in Australia? What the hell was the point of a grand gesture when he had no intention of following up? Why would he want to continue things when I gave him plenty of opportunity to back out right up until the week before I ended it? Why was he so lovely to be with when we were together? If this was all he wanted — pen pals who had sex occasionally — why did he promise me a future, and a life together? And one of the most pressing questions of all: why did he still not tell me where he lived?

I will probably never know the answers to these questions. There is no closure other than me realising I was done.

And done I am.

I’ve deleted him from my contacts, from WhatsApp, and archived all our messages.

I have no desire whatsoever to see him.

Ain’t no one got time for his kind of crap, least of all me.

I’m done.

On 31 December of each year, I do a review of the past year. I look at what I’ve learned, what went well, and what didn’t. I revisit what I know for sure. This year it’s a little later because of, well, stuff. And by stuff I mean life and all that that entails. It has been a jam-packed year, though. Moving to Vietnam does that to a girl. From nearly dying to reinventing myself as a writer to almost falling in love, there hasn’t been a dull moment. I’ve had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But what it has done is cemented in my mind What I Know For Sure, and I will be sharing these things with you over the next few months. This is the third one.

It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be (what I know for sure)

On 31 December of each year, I do a review of the past year. I look at what I’ve learned, what went well, and what didn’t. I revisit what I know for sure. This year it’s a little later because of, well, stuff. And by stuff I mean life and all that that entails. It has been a jam-packed year, though. Moving to Vietnam does that to a girl. From nearly dying to reinventing myself as a writer to almost falling in love, there hasn’t been a dull moment. I’ve had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But what it has done is cemented in my mind What I Know For Sure, and I will be sharing these things with you over the next month or so. Here’s the second one.

A wing and a prayer…

At the end of 2016, I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam on a wing and a prayer. I had quit my frustrating and stultifying (but secure) government job to try something else, anything else. I was desperate to reinvent my life, because I could see that my future — while secure — was a boring chasm of endless repetition. I was too comfortable. I had lost my edge.

At 53 years of age, I was painfully aware that I had never lived overseas. Granted, I had been raising a child single-handedly since my late twenties, so that kind of stymied things, but I’d never had the opportunity (or truth be told, the inclination) to try my luck (or seek my fortune) in another country. What was it like? Did I have what it took? Did I have the skills and the wherewithal (and courage and resilience and patience) to navigate a different culture or language? What would work look like? What kind of work could I do? Would I even find work? What about friends and a social life? Would I ultimately be successful?

I didn’t know, because I had never tried.

So I tried it. And — for the most part — I love it. I moved to Vietnam (initially for three months) and backed myself. I could have taken the easy option (although it’s more plentiful than easy) and gotten work as an English teacher but I wanted to reinvent myself as a writer, to essentially have more portable career. I’ve done that, and — maybe because I’m in Asia — it’s been remarkably simple to do. And the work has been surprisingly easy to come by. Once I started writing for Word Vietnam magazine (and built my networks, which is also surprisingly easy to do here), the work started trickling in. I was even in a position to knock back work (and I did… on several occasions). And the longer I’m here, the more people know about me and approach me to help them with their writing and editing tasks.

Embracing the unknown

But it’s that perpetual internal struggle with ourselves — the overcoming of fear and taking risks — that most of us battle every day.

What’s more — I like who I am here. I am (for the most part) patient and kind and understanding and tolerant. I am willing to embrace new experiences and ideas and meet new people and try new things (even if that means almost dying). I’m learning a new language – one of the most difficult in the world, but (after one year and private lessons once a week) I have a good basic level, and can communicate with the locals. I feel alive and vital and celebrated. My skills and experience and education are valued — and valuable. And the brilliant thing is — if I had to start again in another part of the world, I know I could do it. Easily.

The unknown, and all that it entails, is conquerable. And it soon transitions into the known.

I’ve found that the unknown is a fascinating place to be. While it’s not exactly deep space, and I am no astronaut, I still feel like I am embracing that adventurous, pioneering spirit that we all somehow crave — even if we deny it. To invite the unknown into your life is to boldly go. The greatest unknown is still, I think, ourselves. Of course, we are challenged by external events and situations. But it’s that perpetual internal struggle with ourselves — the overcoming of fear and taking risks — that most of us battle every day. Big questions, and the small ones, occupy our daily thoughts. Questions like, who am I? Do I like who I am — and what I am doing? Am I the best person I can be at this time? What else could — should — I be doing to live a richer, fuller, more meaningful life? How can I be of service? How can I be kinder and less materialistic? How can I make ends meet? Am I a decent person? Will I ever find love again? What will people say about me after I’m gone? What’s my legacy?

No regrets

It’s interesting that when I told people I was coming to Vietnam, they responded either one of two ways. The first response was: you’re so brave (code for: I wish I could take that risk), and the second was: I wish I could do what you’re doing (code for: there is too much stopping me from taking that risk). There is nothing brave about what I’ve done. All I’ve done is try something different, I’m hardly saving lives. (Although I do acknowledge that the life I’ve saved is my own). If it didn’t work, I would have come back to Australia, or kept on travelling. I was lucky that I could do try this life on for size — my daughter was grown and I was in a good financial position (getting a redundancy pay-out from my secure but stultifying boring government job helped) so I could afford to take time out. There was nothing holding me back. In fact, I knew that there was a narrow window of opportunity — if I hadn’t have gone when I did, I would never have gone. And then it really would have been too late.

What I’ve also realised is that all we have is the here and now. This second, this moment, this time. If we don’t take action — or we put off taking action — it really will be too late to be whoever you want to be. Who wants to live a life that is defined by regret? Regret about the things we could have and should have done but didn’t. I don’t know about you, but that is one risk that I’m not prepared to take.


Photo credit: Sam Howzit on Visualhunt / CC BY

Fucktardedry transcends cultures (what I know for sure)

On 31 December of each year, I do a review of the past year. I look at what I’ve learned, what went well, and what didn’t.  I revisit what I know for sure. This year it’s a little later because of, well, stuff. And by stuff I mean life and all that that entails. It has been a jam-packed year, though. Moving to Vietnam does that to a girl. From nearly dying to reinventing myself as a writer to almost falling in love, there hasn’t been a dull moment. I’ve had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But what it has done is cemented in my mind what I know for sure, and I will be sharing these things with you over the next month or so. Here’s the first one.

It was meant to be…

At the end of August, one week before I returned to Australia for five weeks (I had to move out of my apartment in my home city of Adelaide so I could rent it out, and I decided to bring my cat back to Vietnam with me and she needed to be vaccinated and that had a waiting period), I met a man. A lovely Vietnamese man with excellent English, crossing the road in Saigon. A man who was worried about my safety (if anyone has ever visited Saigon and tried to cross the road, you will know what I mean). We got chatting (after I told him I lived in Hanoi and was used to crossing the road and he had nothing to worry about), and we swapped numbers (because he travelled to Hanoi for business and he would be there in two weeks and would I like to catch up?), and before I could say sexy times, I was strolling down the street with him to listen to some music — and he was playing. Drums, guitar and bass guitar. He said he was a businessman. And divorced. With two children. And Catholic. And music was his hobby. And at 48, a respectable six years younger than me.

Ignoring my three-month rule (why, oh why?) at the end of the night, we adjourned to my hotel. For sexy times. He left early in the morning, making it clear he wanted to see me again. And he did. He came to see me the next day before I flew back to Hanoi. And then we messaged every day (and talked once a week) for the five weeks I was in Australia. I thought it would fizzle, and was overjoyed when it didn’t. And when I got back to Vietnam we still messaged every day until I went to see him at the end of October. And every day after I visited him in November and December.

I was falling for this man. He was a lovely boyfriend: reliable and communicative and smart — and when I saw him, kind, thoughtful, warm and loving. The sex was amazing, and became more so with each visit I made to Saigon to see him.

Trouble in paradise…

And therein lay the problem. Despite frequent requests for him to come to Hanoi and visit me, I always travelled to Saigon to see him. The first trip there didn’t bother me. My work was more flexible than his (he said he had meetings with his customers on the weekend that he had to attend plus his daughters still needed him). I stayed in a hotel, because it was the first time I’d seen him since my return to Vietnam, and I wasn’t sure if it was a “thing”. And he didn’t suggest that I stay at his place. I vaguely noticed he didn’t spend the night, and that I didn’t see him during the day. It didn’t bother me because I had work commitments, and he promised me he would stay on the Monday night (he said he was worried about what his daughters thought of him if he stayed overnight, and weeknights were better because he could say he was on a business trip. Who was I to interrogate him about what he told his daughters?). He came with me to two work events (at night, although he disappeared during one for an hour to meet his school friends. I’m told it’s a thing in Vietnam). And he stayed the Monday night as promised…

I believed him because I had no reason to doubt him. Until I started doing the maths and added up all the excuses and subtracted all the missing time and divided every fucking thing by inaction.

The second trip to Saigon, I stayed in an Airbnb. And on the third.

It was on the third trip — I wanted to ring in the New Year with him — that I realised things were not as they seemed. He had promised to spend more time with me, when in fact I got less. I arrived on the Saturday, and he came to my Airbnb about an hour after I got there. He could only stay a short time, he said, because he had his regular catch up with his school friends, but he would try to see if I could come (and he would introduce me as a work colleague) if they went for karaoke. I was surprised at the secrecy, but needn’t have concerned myself. Karaoke — and the subterfuge — didn’t eventuate, and I met him a few hours later at a restaurant (where he proceeded to smoke outside and take phone calls). After dinner we went to a bar, listened to some music and had some beers. He dropped me off at my Airbnb around midnight and didn’t come upstairs to my room. I was disappointed, but accepted it. What could I do?

I slept late the next day, and messaged him. When was he coming to see me? He messaged back: he had things to do and would pick me up at 7.30 for dinner, but he couldn’t stay the night even though it was New Year’s Eve. His daughters, you see. They were smart and knew that business trips didn’t happen on New Year’s Eve. I was disappointed — again — and was starting to wonder what the fuck I was doing there in Saigon. And what the fuck was going on.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought about all the things that didn’t add up: I didn’t know where he lived (he has never invited me to his house, despite me asking) or where he worked (although that shit is easy to find out on LinkedIn). We weren’t Facebook friends (he wanted to keep a low profile for his daughters and business — he said he couldn’t have me tagging him in my posts and updates). He only stayed over on weeknights, when he could claim he was on a “business trip”. I rarely saw him during the day when I visited (only on Trip #2 did this happen, and it was for just a few hours). I’d not met any of his friends. He had never come to visit me in Hanoi. And all the Grabs (taxis to get around Saigon) were done on my account, not his. I was conscious that I was doing all the heavy lifting: airfares, hotel accommodation, visiting. I was the one investing, not him.

The penny drops…

Then the penny dropped with a heavy clunk. My lovely boyfriend was still married — or at the very least, attached — and not so lovely.

Holy fuck.

I confronted him. He assured me that he was 100% single. But my intuition wouldn’t back down.

And I had an uneasy feeling that things wouldn’t end well for me, and I told him so. How do you know, he asked. Experience, I said. And that uneasy feeling followed me back to Hanoi. I was reminded of The Italian. That same feeling of unavailability, of unwillingness to choose me or make me a priority, of me being sidelined.

And that feeling wouldn’t let up.

So I ended it. My intuition tells me that I am 100% right.

And despite a couple of messaging sessions after I called it quits, I have not been convinced otherwise. Nothing has changed. None of my questions have been answered. And now this man has dropped off the face of the Earth.

I have to say he was clever. Very clever. He told me enough of the truth that I didn’t suspect he was being dishonest or playing me or stringing me along. He talked of his plans for us for the future, of business projects we would work on together (I even registered a website and designed a logo), of the travelling we would do, where we would go. He made me feel sexy and desirable and told me so regularly. I believed him because I had no reason to doubt him. Until I started doing the maths and added up all the excuses and subtracted all the missing time and divided every fucking thing by inaction.

Despite all this, I’m proud of myself. I loved (or was prepared to love) with complete abandon and openness and trust. I was prepared to risk being vulnerable and the possibility of being hurt because I bought into something I believed in. It — we — could have been amazing. Was I hurt by this man? Of course, and I was deeply saddened by his cavalier disregard of my feelings. And his dishonesty. Will it impact my ability to love in the future? Abso-fucking-lutely not. To quote my dear friend Melissa, my side of the street was squeaky clean.

What I know for sure is that not everyone’s motives and intentions are pure. Especially when it comes to sex and matters of the heart. And the only way to really figure that shit out is with time.


Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

So… my mother died

A couple of weeks ago, on 22 November 2017, my mother died.

Her death is something I have been expecting for a year more, and I am glad it happened while I was in Vietnam, because it meant I had a good excuse not to go to her funeral. How could I eulogise kindly about a woman who did so much damage? A woman who was unkind at her best, and nasty and violent at her worst, which was often? A woman who should never have had children? A woman who had carved a powerful message deep into my psyche that I, her first born daughter, was essentially unlovable? 

I was surprised by my feelings the two or three days following her death. Emotions bubbled to the surface that took me unawares, mainly because — given that I hadn’t communicated with her for around 10 years — she was essentially dead to me. I had made my peace, or so I thought. I didn’t love or hate her. I didn’t care about her, which was the best place to be. I rarely thought about her, except when the deep emotional wound she inflicted — that has never really healed — was picked by some situation or other and started to bleed. Again.

I have written many times about my mother, the latest piece when I came back to Vietnam from Australia at the beginning of October, but I have never written to her. That’s why this essay is a letter. A letter to my dead mother about what it was like to be her daughter.

Dear Mum,

Tessa told me via Facebook Messenger that you had died. While I’m not sorry, I do hope you find the peace you were searching for your whole life. You were looking for someone to save you from yourself, but I don’t believe you were ever brave enough to look deep inside for the answers. Confronting yourself is difficult. Much easier to blame others.

You never did tell me the whole story of why you were like you were. I heard bits and pieces — snippets — about being abandoned by your own parents at a young age, and sent to live with Papa’s sister, Auntie Lil. I’ve been able to scrape together information, mainly from my cousins, that Papa had issues with alcohol and was violent. There was domestic abuse. And while you weren’t a drinker, you continued the pattern of violence with two of your three children. You continued the family legacy.

Even so, I craved your care and love and approval. I thought there was something wrong with me, and in my teens and twenties, I sought care and love and solace in the arms of men.

I grew up living in fear, afraid to open my mouth in case I said the wrong thing and was hit. That’s not a childhood. That’s hell. The slightest infraction would set you off. You would arm yourself with whatever weapon was closest — usually a shoe — and lay into me. I’d run to my bedroom, jump into bed and dive under the covers so I had a buffer against the pain. The bruises faded, of course, but the psychological scar runs deep, like an endless abyss. The beatings stopped when I was 17 — the day I hit you back and moved out of home. I gave you a black eye — but you deserved more, much more, than that.

Even so, I craved your care and love and approval. I thought there was something wrong with me, and in my late teens and twenties, I sought care and love and solace in the arms of men. Many men. Except it wasn’t love. Or care. I had confused sex with intimacy and love and caring, and couldn’t work out why I was so empty and unfulfilled. Those years of promiscuity and casual sex turned the endless abyss into a bottomless canyon, and it’s taken me decades to work out why: If your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else?

My teenage years were hell on steroids. At a time when I should have been going to parties and discos with my friends and kissing boys and drinking passion pop and enjoying my freedom, you wanted total control. You made having a boyfriend difficult. You were so rude and nasty to any boys I did bring home that they dropped me like a hot potato. They knew they weren’t welcome, and they weren’t going to fight a battle they couldn’t win. They were teenage boys. Who wants to get involved with that? There were other girls out there with nicer parents, and so they moved on. Quickly. I eventually got the hint (I’m a slow learner) and stopped bringing boys home. You won.

Except you didn’t. Slowly, I came to understand, to know, that it was you, not me. There was something indelibly wrong with you. I saw other mothers, mothers of friends and acquaintances, and they were not like you. These mothers were kind and caring and interested in their children. These mothers wanted their children to be happy and successful. They wanted them to achieve. You were not like this. But it wasn’t until I had my own daughter that I truly understood what was wrong with you: you never should have had children. You probably liked the idea of being a mother, of being married. But it is not something you should have done.

You ruined the lives of three men, and at least two children (I have no communication with your other child, my half sibling). The men you married: if they didn’t have issues before they became involved with you, they certainly had by the time they divorced you. My biological father — who you admitted you married on the rebound — left you when I was four, a broken man and an alcoholic. My stepfather, and your second husband ended up with psychological issues. The third one, who tried to be kind to us in the face of your unkindness, survived by becoming distant and withdrawn — and divorced you within two years. I had no role model for what a good marriage — even an OK one — looked like. And I have never married — not because I didn’t want to — but because I made terrible choices when it came to men. It is only now, in my mid-fifties, that I am in a place where I feel I am able to have a loving, caring relationship with a good man. After years of trial and error, I finally know what to look for, what to expect to void the script carved deep into my being: If your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else?

Slowly, I came to understand, to know, that it was you, not me. There was something indelibly wrong with you.

As you moved towards the end of your life, I wonder: did you ever reflect on it all, what came to pass, how it all came to be? Were you aware of the damage you were causing? Caused? I always said I did not want to be like you, both as a mother and in the way I live my life. You lived a mean, little life, with not much joy or happiness. My life is so much bigger than yours. I have filled it with love and generosity and knowledge and freedom and admiration. I want to live a life of no regrets, of adventure, and travel and experimentation and service. Despite everything, everything that you threw at me, I survived. Even better: I thrived. I have a strong spirit, confidence and an inner beauty that cannot be quelled. And I am proud of the mother I turned out to be. I’m not perfect, but I’m damn near good enough.

I was mentioned at your funeral, apparently, and how proud you would have been of me. I call bullshit on the whole pride thing. You have never been proud of me in your life. You have been controlling, violent, nasty, dismissive and uncaring. You’ve never shown any real interest in my education, my child, my career or my relationships — other than to discourage them all. Of course, eulogies are not where one speaks ill of the dead, but even in death, you being proud of me is something that has no meaning.

Because while you were alive, all I ever wanted was to matter to you.

Your daughter,

Diane


This is the 22nd essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

Photo: my mother and I at Port MacDonnell, South Australia. I was 15 years old. 

Like mother, like daughter

My mother was not a pleasant woman. She was violent and cruel, controlling and uncaring. She probably had Borderline Personality Disorder. She was married (and divorced) three times, and all three husbands ended up with alcohol or mental health issues. They may have been predisposed, but my mother brought out the worst in them. If they couldn’t self-medicate with alcohol, they had breakdowns. Or both. And then they left, leaving my mother as the sole care provider (and I use that term in the loosest possible way) for her three children.

From the age of eight to 18 — ten years of my life — I was beaten constantly, for such unforgivable crimes as answering back, not cleaning to her exacting standards, being late. Once I was beaten for daring to tell a joke. My mother had a hit first, ask questions later approach to discipline. I remember being scared most of my formative years. Scared of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. Scared that if I said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing, I would be punished. If the shoe came off, or the wooden spoon was reached for, I ran to my bedroom and dove under the blankets in an effort to diffuse the blows… and the pain. Invariably, the blankets were ripped off so whatever object of discipline that was in my mother’s hand at the time could connect directly with my body. Bruises decorated my arms and legs, external evidence of my mother’s internal workings.

The message I received loud and clear, and it is one that has haunted me all my adult life, is: if your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else?

I moved out of home at the age of 17 in violent circumstances: my mother accused me of sleeping around (I was still a virgin), lashed out at me and — for the first time ever — I defended myself, landing a punch that blackened my mother’s eye. I left that evening, taking a few belongings, and appearing on the doorstep of a kind work colleague. But even after I moved out, I still didn’t cut ties with my mother. I vacillated for a couple of years, from wanting to crawl out from under the weight of my mother’s cruelty to still wanting her to be my mother. The final move to independence coming at 21, when I located to a different town.

But up until my thirties — when I became a mother myself — I still tried to win her love and approval. Despite the cruelty, I still wanted my mother to be a mother. To love me as I knew I deserved to be loved. It took another ten years for it to finally click that this was never going to happen. That it wasn’t me, it was her. And now in my mid-fifties, I haven’t spoken to my mother since my forties. But the damage is done. The message I received — loud and clear — and it is one that has haunted me all my adult life and permeated most of my relationships with men is: if your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else? This legacymore than the physical violence — because bruises fade and scars heal — has been my unfortunate cross to bear.

***

At 29, I became a mother. I gave birth to a beautiful girl and I fell deeply, irrevocably, intensely in love with the tiny baby who, when I held her in my arms, contemplated me with a calm curiosity. Her eyes were a navy blue, deep like the ocean, and she had a shock of dark hair. When she nuzzled at my breast for the first time, I was complete. I was born to be a mother, and despite my own mother being so awful — or maybe because of it — I was good at it. Not perfect but damn near good enough. I gave my daughter love and stability. I taught her about making wise choices, and the consequences if she didn’t. I taught her about personal responsibility. I gave her the freedom and independence to choose her own path. I cared for her and about her. I gave her mother that I always wanted.

And all I wanted in return was her love.

I didn’t think that my daughter would reject me as a mother. But she has, and in the strangest and most tragic of Shakespearean twists, I have come to the conclusion I haven’t beaten my mother’s legacy after all. My daughter, in her own way, continues it. My daughter tells me every day — through ignored phone calls and messages, through her grudging relent to spend time with me, through her refusal to see me as anything other than a cash cow, through her prioritising of other people and activities over me, through her knowing what makes me happy and doing the opposite — that I am not worthy of her love. If your own daughter doesn’t love you, why would anyone else?

I now realise that I am not the mother that my daughter wants, just as my own mother was not the mother I wanted.

I now realise that I am not the mother that my daughter wants, just as my own mother was not the mother I wanted. She wants a mother who is conservative, which I am not. She wants a family that consists of a mother and a father and loving grandparents, and lots of aunties and uncles and cousins, which I couldn’t provide her. She wants a mother who is quiet and doesn’t talk to practically anyone and everyone, which is not me. She wants a mother who will pay for anything and everything, which I cannot do. She wants a mother who doesn’t embarrass her, which — apparently — I do all the time.

I thought that after me being overseas for 10 months, she would finally appreciate me, value me, love me. This has not been the case. Things are exactly the same. Worse. I am dismissed, sidelined, ignored. Friends have told me that — with maturity — this will change… but I don’t think so. She is nearly 25. This is it for me. This is my reality. She loves me, I’m sure of it, but not in the way I want to be loved by. Like my own mother, I have to accept that I cannot change my daughter. I can’t change how she views me, or how she behaves toward me. All I can do is alleviate the effects of the hurt and disappointment and the pain of rejection. Harm minimisation, as it were.

And that involves the difficult and unrelenting task of silencing the voices that have echoed through my psyche for aeons: You are deserving of love. You are worthy. And you are more than enough.


This is the 21st essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

Photo credit: National Science and Media Museum via VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

Dear Diane

Well, it appears that I did send that letter to John after all! I found this letter in my personal effects, hidden between a couple of old photos…

Dear Diane,

I’ve been thinking a lot about you the last few days. I was going to write you a letter sooner before your letter came today.

I’m sorry for my behaviour on Sunday for it was inexcusable but perhaps necessary for us to both realise the reality of our relationship and feelings toward each other.

Thank you for the letter. I’ve had a lot of good times with you too, and would like to say you’re a wonderful person with many interesting facets. The love and support I’ve felt from you over the last ten months has been greater than any other person I’ve ever known, including my family. This love has given me a lot of courage and inner strength. I thank you for this gift. I feel I’ve learned a lot about life from you.

I’m a little sad that our feelings for each other aren’t on the same level and I’m sorry you have been sad the last twenty four hours. Life can be so unfair sometimes.

I hope that you may have learnt something from me too or walked away with a gift as well. I would like to say thank you for the good times we had and the friendship we shared. We shared many intimate details with each other and sometimes knew each other like a well read book.

I’m sorry for my behaviour on Sunday for it was inexcusable but perhaps necessary for us to both realise the reality of our relationship and feelings toward each other.

I’ll never forget you and if you are ever in trouble, I’ll endeavour to help you if you want.

John


This is the 20th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

Photo via VisualHunt.com

Dear John

This is the 19th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

I have been clearing out my belongings in preparation for my indefinite move to Vietnam and I found this letter in a bunch of old papers tucked away at the back of my wardrobe. I met John a few years before I met the Italian and I wrote about him in The Ex-Files. I wish I knew about attachment theory back then, because I would have felt less like I was going nuts, which is painfully obvious in my letter to him, which, incidentally, I never sent.

Dear John,

After last night, I felt that I really needed to write down what I thought about this whole thing. I didn’t sleep at all, actually. I personally think that your definition of love is something that is based on too narrow a set of terms. From everything I’ve read, you seem to have a romantic notion of what love should be based on a general lack of experience. I don’t blame you. This is not your fault.

You said you don’t love me “enough”. How do you know? Do you feel closer to me than your parents? Have you ever felt this comfortable with anyone else? Have you ever wanted to spend as much time with anyone as you have with me? Have you ever be so willing to forgive and accept another person’s faults? Have you ever had this much sexual attraction for another person for this long a period of time? I think these are questions you nee to ask yourself, and answer honestly.

I think love is one word which encompasses a whole lot of other words. I think love is caring about another person and what happens to them, wanting to help them. It is about honesty, trust and respect; it is about compatibility, companionship and commitment. It is sex. It is about complications. It is about creating history. It is the time you spend with one important person. It is tears and anger and laughter and sadness, It is mercurial and changes from day-to-day, depending on your mood, energy levels and interactions with other people during the day. It is understanding and acceptance. It is empathy, it is communication. It is all these things and more.

I think love is one word which encompasses a whole lot of other words.

You show me all these things, and I can honestly say I have experienced more love with you, and you say you are unsure, than I have over the whole of my life from people who claim to love me. Love is behaviour, not a feeling.

Can I say that I would rather be with you in a relationship where you are “unsure” than without you. That is how sure I am about my feelings for you. I think if you look carefully and think about the time we’ve spent together good and bad you will see that you started much of our history together. The initial sexual attraction to me was very strong for you — and still is — and is getting stronger, not fading as it would if you didn’t want to be with me at all. The time we spend together, the history we are creating is feeding this. The connection is strong, deep and real.

Maybe you feel unsure because, as you said, you don’t know what love is, and maybe you feel you don’t deserve love. You do. You are a wonderful human being and you give me so much. You make me feel incredibly happy, powerful and strong. You have added a depth to my life, and continue to do so. I have learned so much from you and think I have grown as a person. These are incredible gifts you have given me. You are so worth the effort. We are so worth the effort.

Basically, I am writing this to get you thinking, questioning and re-evaluating, to see all that is right and positive and sure about what we have. Please don’t give up because you aren’t sure. The fact that we are still spending quality time together proves that you are more sure than not. Take time. Spend time with me. Allow yourself to feel close to me when you want to. Don’t worry about it if you don’t sometimes. Don’t say: Aha! That proves it — I don’t feel much today. Think about all the other times when you do and these far outweigh the times you don’t.

I think God has brought us together and is showing us how to be strong together. Think about how we met, how in sync we are, how things continue to by in sync, with everything happening for a reason. I think I’ve accepted that what we have being together is God’s will. And I can’t and don’t want to fight this.

All my love,

Diane


Photo via VisualHunt.com

On being an ageing woman

This is the 18th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

There’s nothing wrong with old age. ~ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

One of my favourite movies is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story (which I’ve never read and probably should) that traces the life of Benjamin Button, who was born old, and gets progressively younger. I find the movie deeply philosophical and moving in the way it deals with questions of age and ageing.

I was never one to rely on my looks to get me anywhere in life, mainly because I’ve not really had them to start with. I don’t consider myself ugly — far from it — but I am not beautiful. I am, on a good day, quite attractive. In my younger years, I had no trouble attracting men. My late teens and twenties were, in fact, spent quite promiscuously. There was something about me that men found rather fascinating. I think (but I can’t confirm) that I was a curious mix of vulnerability and strength, of resilience and uncertainty. I wasn’t skinny, but I wasn’t overweight; I had large breasts (and still do) and slim hips (which aren’t quite so slim anymore).

I’ve always had a big personality, despite the awful childhood that almost beat it out of me. Speaking up and out often resulted in being hit with whatever my mother could get her hands on: shoe, hand, wooden spoon. Funny how as an adult I am proud of my ability not to be cowed by anything very much. My big personality has always been my major draw card, and I haven’t worried too much about my graying hair, lines and wrinkles, the heading south of my body, despite diet and exercise. And four of my five tattoos — and counting — have been inked into my body after the age of 52.

I thought I had accepted that I was almost officially middle-aged, and had talked myself into the idea that ageing is a privilege. Not everyone gets to grow old. I even call myself an old lady, although I was kind of joking, and am pleased when people say: You’re not old!

The lines and wrinkles that are now an enduring and defining part of my face are evidence that time is marching away from me.

I had accepted my ageing… up until the last few months, that is.

Now, I am painfully aware that I am not young. I am, in fact, sliding solidly into old age.

I am aware that men look at — ogle, even — young women, even when they are involved in a rigorous conversation with me. Eyes slide sideways to take in a lithe form as she passes by.

I am aware that I am, essentially, invisible. I am overlooked and bypassed and ignored in bars and queues, and I protest with a: Hey! I was here first! and proceed to tell off the person who dared overlook and bypass and ignore me.

I am aware that menopause is descending on me at a rapid rate of knots, and with biological imperatives removed, I am a less than ideal mate, especially for the (slightly) younger men I prefer. Some would say these men are relieved, but that urge to procreate is strong, even if sex does not result in offspring.

I am aware that, as much as I profess to be comfortable in my skin, the truth is I am not. The lines and wrinkles that are now an enduring and defining part of my face are evidence that time is marching away from me. I am closer to my death now than I ever was, fate notwithstanding.

I am aware that when I am out with my much younger (and gorgeous) friends, I am thought of — by others, strangers — as their mother. Of course, I should be flattered that others, strangers, would think my genes are that good, but the superficial, snap judgement that my age is equivalent to motherhood is something I object to.

I am aware that the beautiful, younger men who cross my path daily in Vietnam will never find me attractive or appealing in the superficial way that I sometimes desire. In that “I would like to take you into my bed, strip you naked and have my way with you” way that occurred regularly 20 or 30 years ago.

(Although I recently met a beautiful Vietnamese man around my age who is very keen to take me into his bed, strip me naked and have his way with me. And not in a superficial way either, which is a much, much better.)

How do I reconcile ageing and invisibility? Ageing and judgmental stereotyping? Ageing and the inevitability of death?

I have no answer to these questions, at least not yet, but surely the answer partly lies in the idea that age is not synonymous with being old.

And old is not what I am.

Or will ever be.


Photo taken by me in on a ferry in Kerala, India in 2015.

Near death experience

This is the 17th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

Saturday, July 22, 2017 will henceforth be known as the day I could have died, but didn’t.

I could have died from a head injury when I was thrown from motorcycle on a treacherous mountain road, but I didn’t.

I was lucky, that’s for sure.

***

I had been asked if I wanted to do a trip to Cao Bang, for Word — the magazine I write for. Cao Bang — a mountainous area the north-east of Vietnam, near the Chinese border — is just starting to open up to tourism, and there are a number of NGOs working in the area, supporting local people with homestays and community development initiatives. An NGO had approached the magazine wanting media coverage. Word had sent a writer to Ha Giang with the same NGO some time ago, with no problems.

Of course, I jumped at the chance because a) I went to Mu Cang Chai the previous weekend and it was a fabulous trip, b) it seemed like an awesome thing to do and c) it was free.

The road was steep, uneven and extremely rocky. The bike flipped sideways, and I was thrown backwards and hit my head on the road, missing a large rock by inches.

Cao Bang is a seven or eight-hour journey from Hanoi, give or take toilet stops and meal breaks. I was travelling with project leaders, 15 experienced tour guides and trekkers and a lovely young lady from Vietnam News — all Vietnamese. I was the only foreigner on this trip, but it wasn’t an issue, because English-speaking ability ranged from excellent to ok. And I got to practise my Vietnamese.

The brief indicated there would be lots of trekking, but I was fine with that. Hiking through idyllic mountains, view breath-taking scenery, it read. After all, I was a trail runner in Australia – how hard could it be?

We arrived in Cao Bang, had lunch and drove to the start of the trek, which was scheduled before we checked into our homestay in a nearby(ish) village.

Remember I asked how hard could it be? Well, think Kokoda Track, and you’d be somewhere in the ballpark. The terrain was extremely steep and rocky, and it alternated between ankle-deep mud covering slippery surfaces and jungle that had to be cut through with a machete. I kept saying: No wonder the Americans and Australians lost the war.

It was clear very early on that the “media girls” (as we were called) were struggling. We were inappropriately dressed for the terrain (I was in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers), and totally unprepared. We had hardly any water, nothing to restore sugar and salt reserves (it was hot and humid), no sunscreen, no insect repellent and no walking sticks. No wonder the Americans and Australians lost the war.

We were last and were left behind with a couple of other trekkers/guides. It was clear early on that there was no exit strategy. None.

Some of us get to the end and are full of regrets, deeply saddened by what could or should have been, but never was.

After a few phone frantic calls between the trekkers/guides, the exit strategy was telling us to keep moving — with the plan being to get us to the main road and then call for a xe om (motorcycle taxi). We walked four kilometres of pure hell: I couldn’t catch my breath even though I have never been asthmatic, and we were exhausted. We even had to backtrack a couple of times because was the trekker/guides who were with us weren’t sure where the main road was, despite making more phone calls (I found out later this was the first time this trek had been done). At one point I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to give up and die on that mountain, or just sit down and cry. In the end it was neither.

When the xe oms came, there were no helmets. I never get on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet, but in this case I had no choice — there was no other way back to the homestay. And we were exhausted. There was no way we could have walked the last few kilometres.

My driver lost control of his bike about 1 kilometre into the journey. The road was steep, uneven and extremely rocky. The bike flipped sideways, and I was thrown backwards and hit my head on the road, missing a large rock by inches.

I crawled to the side of the road, dazed and confused, wondering what I had done to deserve this.

And I thanked God I was still alive.

At the insistence of friends back in Australia (one who said a colleague of hers had died days later after a similar accident and who can forget Natasha Richardson’s death?) I had a CT scan when I got back to Hanoi. I was very lucky. I ended up with a huge lump and a very sore head (and it’s still sore some two weeks later), but no concussion or bleeding into my brain.

***

I’ve always believed that you have a finite number of days on this earth. Limited time. Some of us don’t make it out of the womb, some of us only last days, sometimes only a couple of weeks or just a few years after we are born. Some of us live long, happy lives. Some of us live long, miserable lives. Some of us are dogged with ill-health and misfortune and addiction and godawfulness. Some of us live large and loud, others small and quiet and little. Some of us get to the end and are full of regrets, deeply saddened by what could or should have been, but never was.

You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go. ~ Captain Mike, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

For some unknown reason, a reason that I am not privy to, it was not my fate to die of a head injury on a mountain in Cao Bang, Vietnam on Saturday, 22 July 2017.

It makes me wonder why not?

What does the universe have planned for me?

What is it that I am yet to do that hasn’t been done?

Time will tell, as it always does.


Photo credit: Thomas James Caldwell via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND