Diane Lee - Never Say Never Again

Never Say Never Again

I’ve been to university three times in my life. Three times when I was at a crossroads, where investing in myself and reinventing who I was via learning seemed like the only way forward. The first time was in the late 1980s, at 26, when I was disillusioned with my banking career. The second time was just after I had my daughter at 29. The third time was at 44, when I broke up with the Italian. After the third time, I said that I would never undertake formal study again. Ever. And this was mainly because I didn’t want to owe money to the government for my education. It takes forever to pay off, especially if you work part-time.

But let’s backtrack.

The last 18 months have sharpened my sense of outrage around injustice, and when I say injustice, I mean injustices inflicted on its people by governments who are elected to serve them.

Regular readers know that my childhood was less than idyllic, although there were pockets of pleasure. My mother was, I believe, suffering from undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder. I lived most of my childhood – from around eight to 18 – in abject fear. Fear of saying The Wrong Thing. Fear of doing The Wrong Thing. Fear of the violence that would inevitably come if I said or did The Wrong Thing. The Wrong Thing was arbitrary, and I would never know what would set off the violence. Sometimes, it was just my presence. Sometimes it was merely being a child. Sometimes it was a perceived slight. Sometimes, it was jealousy. Sometimes it was about the disrepute I was supposedly bringing on my mother. In my family home, I learned to censor and silence myself. I learned that love is violent and unpredictable, and it came with conditions. I developed a high tolerance for dysfunction in relationships, and I’ve only realised that that pattern exists. I’m surprised I’m not a lot more fucked up than I am, and I think I’m pretty fucked up. One thing I’m not though, is self-destructive. I have an uber strong self-preservation streak. Mostly.

My safe place was always school, because I was good at it. My teachers liked me (except for Sister Immaculata in primary school, who once gave me a beating for talking in class), and I was smart. I did well, both in primary and secondary school, despite a serious lack of encouragement. I coulda been a contender. I was what you’d call an all-rounder: good at Art, English, Physical Education and Maths, and I was streamed into academic classes [PDF] which is – rightly or wrongly –what schools did in the 70s. Because I enjoyed school and was good at it, school became not only its own reward, where I did well and was acknowledged for it, but also an escape. A daily escape from the violence of my family home. Escape into a world that valued and validated me.

I’m surprised I’m not a lot more fucked up than I am, and I think I’m pretty fucked up. One thing I’m not though, is self-destructive. I have an uber strong self-preservation streak. Mostly.

When I finished Year 12 (or matriculated, as it was known then), I didn’t go to university, although my marks were good enough to go. I went into the workforce instead. In a way that was a good thing, because I found a job relatively quickly, and when things came to a head with my mother over one last beating where I fought back, I had the money to move out. My younger sister followed not soon after, and we ended up sharing a flat, and did so off and on until my early twenties, when I met a man, a boy really, who would become my fiancee. I was engaged for two years, and when that relationship went belly up, including a pregnancy that I terminated, I was at a crossroads. I didn’t want to continue with jobs that were going nowhere, so decided at 26 to go to university. I became the quintessential Arts undergraduate, and while I enjoyed my three years, I wasn’t a fantastic student. My dream was to finish with an Arts/Law degree (LA Law was my favourite TV show back then), but my grades were mediocre, and I ended up back in exactly the same career lane as I was in when I started: banking. Except it wasn’t really a career; rather a series of loosely linked jobs.

I did meet my daughter’s father at the end of my degree, and became quickly pregnant, and just as quickly, a solo parent. Realising I needed to do something practical to support myself and my daughter, I decided to become a teacher. I had been good at school, so this decision made sense. So when my daughter was three months old, I returned to university to get my second degree – in education. My marks were much better this time around: High Credits and Distinctions and I became an English teacher, teaching high school students. For the most part, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the relationships I built and changing students’ perception and opinion of what a teacher was and could be. I enjoyed seeing my students blossom academically under my guidance. But it had a shelf life. When my daughter started school, I hated telling her I couldn’t hear her read because I had papers to mark. I hated putting other people’s children ahead of my own, so I put my trust in the universe – that my daughter and I would be provided for – and took a leap of faith.

That leap of faith paid off, and I wandered my way into communications thanks to a temp job in the public sector that became a fixture in my life for a number of years. It was in this job that my path crossed with The Italian’s – and it was life changing but not in the way I had hoped. It was nearly twenty years ago that we met and he crushed my heart.  Destroyed it. Twenty years since I ended our relationship, and had to start again. Then, I had no job and no friends. I made the foolish mistake of allowing him, and his family, to become my world. I had to rebuild, and I did that by deciding to go back to university and enrolling in a master’s degree. Communications Management, which is the career I found myself in when I left teaching. I came out of that degree with a bevvy of Distinctions and High Distinctions – and a GPA of 6.75 and won the academic prize for my cohort. I was immensely proud of my achievement. From nothing I created something. I took one of the sourest lemons life could throw at me, and I made the sweetest lemonade. I was a beautiful lotus flower that rose from the stinking mud.

You took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade. ~ Dr K from This Is Us

I didn’t end up working in my desired career because the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008 just as I graduated. No one was hiring communications expertise. I went back to teaching albeit at TAFE, and taught marketing. I stayed there for a couple of years before side stepping back into the department where I got my start in communications, sidestepping into an organisational learning and development role — roles – where I mostly stayed until 2016, which is when I went sidestepped into Vietnam.

I was going to die in Vietnam, or so I thought. Sprinkle my ashes over West Lake, I’d say, because I was happy. Blissfully so. At least for the first year. I was not only happy, but also naiive. And things became increasingly complicated because of immigration and visas, and all that that entailed. It was incredibly difficult and exorbitantly expensive to navigate. And I became increasingly anxious. I solved my immigration issues by replacing one set of problems with another: I started a company that sponsored me for a work permit, business visa and temporary resident’s card. My problems were solved, or so I thought. Then the government changed the regulations, and I was back to square one, more or less. Uncertainty around my immigration status increased my anxiety, and I wanted to come home. Except trying to bring a cat back to Australia during a global pandemic was next level, through the roof, crazy making difficult. But I did it, with the help of a couple of angels. Both Bella and I came home last year.

It’s no secret that I have struggled with my repatriation.  As I said to a friend in a recent email:

I’ve spent the first few months being back, knowing intrinsically that I made the right decision, but struggling with how hard repatriation is. Was. I’m about 85-90% there now, and the days where I feel like an alien are fewer. Finding “my tribe(s)” has been the hardest thing, followed by trying to find a decent job. I tried freelancing earlier in the year, but my head wasn’t in the right space to do it. I think I needed time out to process and heal too. And certainty. Freelancing was too uncertain. I recently took on one new client, and it’s been nice. If I can find a couple more like this, I’ll be happy.

Two weeks ago, after saying never again, I applied to go back to university. I was at a crossroads. Again. I’ve gone through an intense period of change, of reinvention, of introspection, of trying to work out what I want. While, to an outsider, it may seem like I decided this on the fly, my decision is anything but sudden.

The last 18 months have sharpened my sense of outrage around injustice, and when I say injustice, I mean injustices inflicted on its people by the governments who are elected to serve them. In 2020-2021, the Australian government knowingly harmed tens of thousands of Australians and Permanent Residents trying to get home, of which I was one. If these people did manage to get home, despite all the obstacles that state and federal governments threw in their path, they were forced into hotel quarantine and then charged $3,000 per person for their own detention – something the World Health Organisation expressly said wealthy countries should not do.

Long story short – and there’s a lot more to it than this – I have been fighting this fee, along with a few thousand others. I’m angry, but I’m ill-equipped to challenge this fee in the legal system because I don’t have a legal background. This is all about to change though, because what I will be studying is law. At 58 – 20 years after my first degree, when LA Law was my favourite show – I’m going back to university to close the circle. I will be studying law because I’m smart and powerful and fucked up and so far from mediocre it’s not funny.

So the point of this essay?

Never say never again… because you never know what’s coming for you.

Image by Johnson Leung from Pixabay

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