2021: a little space



Is anyone else feeling a little unsettled by the reality that the 21st century has just turned 21?


I can remember turning 21!


Do we throw a party? Hit the spirits? Give the world a comically large key that actually opens nothing?


It seems almost fitting that I’m starting out this year with much of the same newbie energy as a 21-year-old: I feel as though I’m on the precipice of some big changes, the ‘proper adult’ life that was derailed a decade ago by a range of weird circumstances and questionable choices — and this next step in the journey seems both thrilling and terrifying.


(Am I ready? I just spent 10 minutes trying to exorcise my work keyboard of a particularly large cake crumb.)


Truth be told, the start of this year has not panned out as I'd expected it to. It's almost the end of February, and all my grand plans to walk and write and cook and think and heal and just generally conquer the world, even my own little world, have not come to pass.


The 'Christmas holiday black hole' started with a sense of wipe-out exhaustion followed by the inevitable cascade of darkness and despair, then a blizzard of anxiety: crying in the car before coffee dates with friends, lying motionless in bed feeling paralytically afraid of just being awake, cursing myself for evading the stack of unfinished drafts waiting patiently on my desktop, projects I'd been waiting months to tackle and finish and tick off my list.


By the time I slumped back into the office on 6 January, I found myself confessing to my colleagues how relieved I was to have some external structure and momentum back in my life — to save me from myself. Even then, however, the relief almost instantaneously mutated into another type of despair.


I am overcommitted and overwhelmed.


I'm not sure why I'm surprised; like many others, I repeat this pattern every single year.


Part of the problem, I believe, is that the end of most calendar years is so hyped, so anticipated, that the beginning of the next one — no matter how optimistically framed as an invigorating new start — can feel a lot more like sliding down very large a snake immediately after reaching the top of a ladder in a life-sized version of the board game.


We’re supposed to feel daisy fresh, turning cartwheels in a vast field of new opportunities and strengthened resolve, all the while brandishing a kilometre-long to-do list marked with ambitious goals, everything from ‘fit into skinny jeans again’ and 'write the next great Australian novel' to 'enact critical social change' and 'help divert climate crisis'.


Instead, when the narrative shifts so abruptly from 'home run' and 'finish line' to 'starting blocks' or 'square one', we can't possibly keep up. Business as usual, with all its myriad demands and responsibilities, looms like a monster on the city's skyline.


Perhaps never before (at least in my lifetime) has this lurching transition felt more jarring than on the boundary between 2020 and 2021. COVID-19 has not conveniently dematerialised. World politics are rife with division and hostility. The urgency of climate change is only intensifying.


In the context of our so-called new normal, it's hard to know how to juggle these competing pressures and aspirations. 'It's not the end of the world if you do/don't do this thing,' I keep reminding myself. But then I find myself thinking: 'Hang on a second... what if this is the end of the world?!'


I'm not sure how to reconcile the seemingly inconsequential with the genuinely life-altering. I'm not even sure how to tell the difference between the two.


'How did people just keep on... going?' I've asked myself so many times over the last 12 months, reflecting on our much longer, baggier history of conflict and crisis: multiple world wars, cycles of economic depression, large-scale natural disasters...


I suppose life simply goes on, at least for some.


We wake up day after day. We eat breakfast. We catch the train to work. We answer emails. We build houses, hang paintings, arrange flowers in vases. We cook dinner. We crack jokes. We buy new shoes. We feed the cat. We read books. We clean the toilet. We wash our hair. We give birth to babies, bid lovers farewell, visit grandparents in hospital.


Except when we can't.


And then what?


Lately I've been wondering more and more about the breakneck pace of life, the way we stuff our schedules full of commitments, pack every cavity tight with expectations and obligations, rely on sheer momentum to keep on keeping on. 'Keep calm and carry on' — the infamous British WWII poster that resurfaced and went viral in the early 2000s — is supposed to capture a certain kind of pragmatism, a gritty determination that keeps us all reliably afloat.


But when is keeping calm and carrying on the antithesis of healthy pragmatism?


What if we actually need to stop?


And what if the reason we're so scared to stop is that, when we finally slow down, when we're no long distracted or falsely buoyed by a sense of mere continuity, we find ourselves collapsing?


As the reality of 2021 sinks in and I sit with this indigestible bolus of regret, shame, and trepidation towards the shape and texture of my life right now, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a friend in the first week of January.


'What's your word for the year?' she asked.


'Boundaries!' I replied, with little hesitation.


2021 should be the year of boundaries, we both agreed, because who doesn't need better boundaries? Who doesn't need to master the art of saying 'no' more often? Firmly? Kindly?


But in the weeks since this conversation, my thinking has started to shift and expand. If my friend were to ask me again now, two months later, I would probably say 'space' instead.


When I think of space, I don't just mean squares in the calendar or lines in a diary — more (spare) time would be nice, I'm sure, for just about everyone.


I mean something deeper, more allegorical.


I've said before that 2020 was an incredibly lonely year, but it was nonetheless a clarifying sort of loneliness in which I suddenly had the elbowroom, amid all the other chaos, to begin understanding why and when I feel the way I often do. One of the things I noticed was a significant, stifling feeling of... well... starvation. Hypoxia. A sense of having atrophied or lost myself in my own life.


Perhaps that's why I wanted to start writing again.


Perhaps that's why it's taken me so long to put something like this into words.


Because it strikes me that — as women especially — living in this particular space and time also means grappling with another rampant illness in our midst: a particularly painful strain of silence and obscurity.


'To feel seen and to feel safe,' I wrote in my phone one night last year, unable to sleep. 'Most of the time, I don't feel seen. And if I do feel seen, then I don't feel safe.'


I don't feel seen and safe in my workplaces. I don't feel seen and safe within the medical system I regularly access. I don't even feel seen and safe among my closest friends or family anymore. Sometimes weeks go by and I think to myself: 'I can't remember the last time somebody asked me how I'm going. I can't remember the last time I was allowed to be a mouth as well as an ear or shoulder.' When I consider my life as a spatial metaphor, so much of the map remains largely untouched or unexplored by those who've otherwise colonised my time, energy, and attention.


'Do you think social media has something to do with it?' I recently asked a friend of mine (a linguist). 'Why are our conversations and therefore our relationships so lacklustre, so one-sided, so competitive? Why don't we have space to express ourselves when we have so much opportunity?'


'I was about to say the same thing!' they replied.


Together, we discussed how social media platforms encourage venting, diatribe, performativity. They're teaching us to speak or share in very specific ways, we concluded. And they're teaching us to speak but not to listen, to demand but not to give.


Last year, one of my favourite poets, Andrea Gibson, posted this on Twitter:

And as I consider these words again, although the sentiment is probably nothing new, something else clicks into place.


Personally, I feel as though one of the primary failings of social media has been to render the banal more overblown than ever before. We're so awash with quantity — bathroom selfies, avocado toast, Trump memes — that quality is often difficult to perceive, especially when self-expression is so (literally) filtered that we can't know for sure what's even real.


More than that, however, we increasingly expect others to share in the same modes we do. And when they don't, we sometimes fill in the blanks in quite unhelpful and damaging ways. Whether it's branding someone a coward because they've chosen not to post about a particular social movement or deducing that others are not experiencing pain or frustration because they haven't mentioned it, assuming really does make an ass out of you and me, in steadily more toxic ways.


What would happen, I want to know, if we stopped viewing lived experience as quantifiable and always relative to our own? What would happen if we just... slowed down and expanded a bit?


Communication — at least for me — represents a big part of the puzzle.


If I think carefully, I can observe the way my communication style has changed over time, from mindless over-sharing in the early days of social media to retreating sharply after a suicide attempt in mid-2013, when I also stopped blogging and ceased writing much from a personal perspective at all. After that shaky, uncertain transition from psych ward to postgrad research program, I felt I had a lot to prove. I wanted to present myself as positive, professional, and productive — a process that ultimately meant limiting myself in most spaces, trying to diminish both my failures and successes. I can see that this is when I started loading up my schedule as a way to both demonstrate my competence (I'm not disabled! I'm not damaged! I'm not lazy!) and ensure I never had to be alone with my thoughts and feelings for very long.


In the intervening years, I've watched myself fall headlong into the trap of feverish venting — punctuated by periods of gaping, intimidated silence — leaving little space for authentic connection. I sense that I'm as much a perpetrator as the victim of this kind of slippage, lacking space to simply be myself and to engage in other, healthier modes of self-expression, including therapy.


But in a more pervasive sense, I can also see that since childhood, I've maintained a deeply engrained sense that I'm not allowed to take up space — that I should always try to make myself as small and trivial and palatable as possible. I was vulnerable to shrinkage and absorption because that's simply what seemed to work. I learnt to fawn and placate. I was able to make friends or establish relationships primarily by demonstrating unremitting curiosity in others' lives, always meeting on their terms and on their turf. So, I internalised this pattern as the natural order of things: that other people can and always should be seen and heard — first or exclusively — because they're naturally smarter, funnier, busier, sicker, sadder, worthier.


Finally, over the last year or so, I've been able to start questioning this fundamental assumption about the social/professional world and my place within it. And I think I'm ready to give myself some space.


By space, however, I do not mean a pedestal or a podium.


In fact, I think I mean the opposite.


In Sarah Ramey's recently published memoir, The Lady's Handbook for her Mysterious Illness, she writes about how women tend to disappear entirely when they're given little space to articulate their experiences, no space to suffer: 'But like so many people who decide to take that road, who don't speak up, who don't allow themselves to experience their feelings, or express themselves in a healthy way, or take appropriate action on their feelings — who try to om, and smile, and meditate away their way problems — like these people, we find that when we get down onto that bed and look into [our] eyes, the bright light that used to be there even at the very worst of times — a sort of sly, winking sort of cheer... It's gone.'


In this heartbreaking little passage, I note that Sarah doesn't talk about just any form of action of expression; the words 'healthy' and 'appropriate' imply a gentler, more mindful sense of space, visibility, and boundaries. When we give ourselves authentic, compassionate space to think and to feel and to express ourselves, and when we selectively surround otherwise with others who have the humility and tenderness to do the same, we no longer have to shout to feel seen and heard — to prove, to perform — in ways that ultimately render us more frustrated, alienated, and alone than ever before.


This doesn't mean that we should recoil from opportunities to advocate for ourselves. No no no. But it does give us permission to expend our energy only where it's most useful, for us and the people who value us most. To feel seen and to feel safe isn't a state we can achieve either passively or independently; it will always be a cooperative effort between colleagues, friends, siblings, lovers, clinicians, patients, educators, students, and so on.


It takes two to tango, as the saying goes. And we need space to dance.


I know that, as soon I go looking, I will probably find countless examples of writers and researchers who have covered this ground much more thoroughly and eloquently than I ever could.


However, on the level of personal revelation, my 2021 theme of 'more space' means:


1. When making decisions about things to add to my schedule, I'll come back to one main question above all others: 'Is this creating space for my health, wellbeing, and authentic sense of self'?


2. I'll give myself room to experience unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations and listen to what my gut is trying to tell me, without having to analyse it to death.


3. I'll accept that my guilt-o-metre is not necessarily a reliable tool for understanding situations and how I should respond. I'm attuned to feeling guilty when I can't be everything to everyone, when I make minor mistakes, when I react badly to somebody's poor behaviour, when I'd much rather spend time alone... and on the list goes. Guilt and shame are constantly there; giving myself space means maintaining a gentle dialogue with it and finding ways to step outside the knee-jerk conviction that I'm always doing something wrong.


4. I'll try to slow the heck down in my day-to-day communication so I'm more thoughtful and less reactive, especially when I have opportunities to establish and maintain reasonable, respectful boundaries around my time and energy.


5. I do not have to engage with friends, family members, professional acquaintances, medical practitioners, or other people who are dismissive of, dubious about, or competitive towards my lived experience. I can choose not to participate in conversations in which I feel suffocated, diminished, or threatened. I am allowed to distance myself from people who are constantly in crisis mode or willing to interact with me only if I continue to act as an audience or mirror for their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.


6. I'll keep writing and attending therapy as healthy, appropriate ways to express myself and take action in my personal life. I'm not a 'problem' for anybody to solve, least of all my friends and family. I will try to structure my communication around connecting, sharing, and understanding, which means, on the flip-side, that I can safely avoid or opt out of conversations/interactions when they are not structured this way. I don't owe anybody an explanation for avoiding situations in which I feel acutely uncomfortable or invisible.


7. I'll challenge the assumption that I don't deserve to take up space. Perhaps this will be the hardest baby step to take — because it means putting on the brakes and really allowing myself to sit with those often overwhelming feelings of terror, inadequacy, and failure. It means trying things when I have no guarantee of success, trusting others enough to know that making mistakes doesn't automatically condemn me to a place or state of irredeemable failure, speaking up when I have an informed opinion to share, asserting my boundaries if or when they're traversed, knowing when to seek or sidestep particular opportunities, and not downplaying my experience or expertise.


***


As I finally feel ready to post these words, I'm sitting with the uncomfortable realisation or reality that 2021 will probably not be everything I imagined it to be — even though I don't make new year's resolutions, even though I've consciously tried to keep my hopes and expectations firmly in check.


Maybe 2021 will not be the year in which I discover my true calling or vocation and know which side hustles to rotate or get rid of altogether. Maybe it will not be the year I wean off prescription sleeping medication, as I so desperately want to. Maybe it will not be the year I learn to love my new-look grey hair. Maybe it will not be the year I publish... anything. Or blog several times each week. Or learn to take better photos. Maybe I will not get on top of my autoimmune conditions or become well enough to exercise more vigorously so that I recognise myself in the mirror again. Maybe I won't master the capsule wardrobe or stem all my lingering consumeristic impulses. Maybe I won't be able to fix my dad and ensure he's living in a safe, healthy environment. Maybe I won't emerge victorious from this teaching semester, attracting the awe and respect of the colleagues I've felt so excluded by since my stumbling exit from full-time study and teaching.


But maybe this will be the year I give myself a little space. For all of this to be OK.


I wish you a spacious 2021, too.


xx

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