Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Travelling with anxiety, and why I'm at it again

Here I am again.

When I started writing this, 'here' was the international departure lounge at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport. Three dollars only got me so long. The way my mind operates, I need much longer than 'only so long' to filter my thoughts and feelings into a somewhat comprehendible blog post.

Approximately 45 hours later I now sit alone in the swank, empty house of a friend, somewhere in New Delhi. After 33 hours or so in transit - including a 14 hour stopover in Doha, having flown past India only to fly back - I arrived in Delhi at about 4am. In the darkness and utter chaos of the early morning Delhi streets - I mean, why have lanes, indicators, speed limits, or rules at all if they're widely ignored! - it was impossible to get any sense of bearings. With my friend away until tomorrow on business I had about ten hours to myself before heading to Varanasi, leaving this little cocoon and finally get a true taste, smell, feel of India. I am excited and cautious.

As always Mum and Dad dropped me at the airport. This is one of the most excruciating parts my overseas journeys. It's convenient, but the goodbye lingers so long and their undisguised anxiety - particularly my mother's, who unintentionally bestowed upon me my own natural anxiety but - makes me tense. After checking in I graciously allowed them to buy me a 'coffee' (hot chocolate) and we held stunted conversation. I do love them dearly, I just wanted the goodbyes out of the way so I could relax for the long flight. As we hugged and I turned towards the doors through to customs, Mum said, 'We love you Sam' in that in case anything happens kind of way. Well intentioned as it was, this made me feel neither assured or additionally loved. Just tense and reactive. I told her I didn't want her stressing - firstly its making her unwell, thirdly I'm away for a total of three weeks in India and the USA and they're more likely to be in an car accident while I'm away than I am to be seriously harmed, and most importantly I didn't want to be worrying about their worrying and at such times almost callously refuse to encourage it.

Truth is I am carrying a mild anxiety - one that wasn't aided on Sunday night before I flew out by my four year old nephew presenting me with a drawing that was an early birthday present (next week). 'It's a bee called Sam,' he said, 'and it's dead'.

'It's a bee?' I asked graciously.
'Yeah a bee called Sam. And it's dead,' he said without a smile but with genuine love, unaware that this had the potential to freak me the fuck out.

This is my first overseas trip in a little over two years. By the end of the last one, a five week trip to Canada and the USA, I was a mental wreck and not sure I would leave Australian shores by myself again.

I should really have known. I remember sitting in the departure lounge at Tullamarine writing in my journal that I wasn't really sure why I was undertaking the journey. Yes, it was to visit my brother for the second time in three years, as well as a Canadian friend that I had previously quite fancied, carrying on with plans made between her, myself and a mutual friend from England who had earlier pulled out without much explanation. I also had a few days planned in Vegas with a friend from home that were so much fun we missed our flight out. And I genuinely wanted to see the Canadian Rockies.

However, I spent much of that trip alone. Solitude was something I had looked forward to, especially in such beautiful and cultural places as Vancouver, Quebec and the Canadian Rockies.

I was aware of the possible impact of prolonged isolation after my month-long trip to Britain a year earlier had brought me emotionally unstuck. But I believed there were other issues at play there. The first week was spend with the same English and Canadian friends and it was here I confessed to the Canadian I quite liked her. She rejected me in the soft and super friendly way that only Canadians know how. But I was now alone for the best part of three weeks and my melancholic, irrational mind had already bolted. And I hadn't the tools to reign it in, especially without the distraction of familiar connections.

By 2009 I was back in regular touch with my shrink and making progress. I was also off medication. It was decided the one I had been on wasn't working and we gave 'going clean' a brief trial. A sufferer of anxiety possibly shouldn't have exposed myself to the harsh mental terrain of prolonged solidarity in this circumstance. But, as I said, I was doing relatively well (for the time) and both myself and my psychologist thought it would be good for me. Still, while I was excited for all the fun, beautiful and adventurous things, I still wasn't aware of a true reason for going. Did I really need one though? Travel is what everyone does when they get the opportunity.

It was a disaster. The first few days, with my brother in San Francisco and friend in Vegas, were good - at times highly enjoyable. I flew with my friend, on a newly arranged flight, to Vancouver where we spent a day or so together and went our separate ways. I felt like I needed space anyway, as I always tend to when travelling with people, so I wasn't concerned at the time. But the wheels quickly started to shake. All sorts of doubts and irrational thoughts entered my mind, chipping away at my confidence, bringing back old methods of reassurance that served only to feed the beast and push my anxiety to levels not experienced for some time. When this starts there are only two ways for it to end: you find a way to let the thoughts go, or you battle them until they break you and slam you to your rock bottom where you finally find the exhaustion to no longer care and move on. The latter is the easy option in the moment, but obviously can be extremely painful mentally and eat up a lot of valuable time. Unfortunately I'd yet to fully understand the importance of letting go of thoughts, let alone the tools for doing so.

I started counting the days until I could get home, and anxiously waited for hours to pass when I should have been relaxing or enjoying the adventure of a foreign city. Even staying with my friend near Toronto for a few days didn't offer any mental relief. I think escape was still too far away.

About a week before the end of the trip I emailed my psychologist telling him I wasn't sure I could last the next seven days. I made plans in my head to abruptly head home if it got to that point. He reassured me. From thousands of kilometres away, it provided only mild comfort.

A few days later I returned to Vancouver (as planned) and joined a Moose Tour of the Canadian Rockies. I had been off medication for my own anxiety and OCD for a few months and seemed to be doing alright but it all fell apart early in the trip. The resumption of real, meaningful interaction with people and some amazingly beautiful natural surroundings offered the genuine distraction from my thoughts and circuit breaker I needed to move on a little. My mood improved mildly, but I was still keen to get home. When I did, I questioned the value of such travel by myself and realised I will never do the extended tour of Europe that is a pre-requisite for many young Australians. That doesn't bother me, I'm too old now anyway, but I do want to see the world.

Two years on and here I am, temporarily alone and in India of all places to test myself. A challenge, yes, but with the connections and accommodation I have it is far from doing it rough or unsupported. In the past two years I have also made the most significant progress of my life in terms of my mental health. Firstly, I started in new medication when I got home from that trip in 2009, which seems to be the best so far. And twelve months ago I discovered yoga, mindfulness and meditation which has calmed my racing, anxious mind and given me the tools to let go of unwanted, unnecessary and - most importantly - irrational thoughts. Though I'm still learning how to use those tools properly.

I've also learnt through experiences on a road trip last year and, more pertinently, in Perth this year that I need to look after myself to stay on top of it all. That primarily means ensuring I'm well rested, healthy and take my meds.

The next three weeks while undoubtedly throw up various challenges, particularly in periods of isolation, which are no longer than two days this time, but there will be plenty to enjoy about the wonderful and wild adventure (especially over the next six days in India) if I can maintain the right frame of mind. I'm in a far better state of mind and mental health than I was one, two, three and more years ago, and I intend to maintain it! I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing my friends and family: here in India, the (same) English gal and another Canadian friend in New York and Washington, and my brother yet again in San Francisco.

And I am looking forward to the inevitable challenges. It begins now.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wondering about weddings

People marry for all sorts of reasons: to celebrate love; express a lifelong commitment; fulfil a perceived moral or religious obligation; lose virginity; monetary, legal or tax benefits; national residency; as a splendid, expensive excuse for a piss up with (or rather, for) friends; or because it’s just what couples after a certain time.

Pardon the mild cynicism. Truth is, I’m a hopeless romantic; truly, truly hopeless.

Many young girls dream about their wedding day, and I was often no different ... just a boy. Amid torturous crushes I'd sometimes imagine the girl, looking absolutely gorgeous, walking down the aisle towards me in a grand old church.

A church. Loads of people have walked away from practising religion, yet go back to it for marriage (a legal more than religious instituion these days), making vows they aren't necessarily even likely to attempt such as "accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church". No! They will choose to have children, and hopefully bring them up in accordance to the laws of love, respect, empathy and integrity. These may be the laws of Christ, but why not fspell them out, because many people have a funny idea of how Christ wanted us to act.
Even after strolling away from the Church and its ordinary old men in my teens [NB. there are some awesome people in the church - they just don't seem to have/want/need high positions], the presumption of a wedding in a church stuck with me unquestioned until a long-term girlfriend, who was headstrong and agnostic, challenged this ingrained thought. 
The doors flung wide open a couple of years later upon seeing a photos of a beach wedding that a Canadian friend attended in the Dominican Republic. It looked amazing, perfect. So wonderfully simple and beautiful, everyone happy, naked sun shining on the lovely couple.

Last Friday, I found myself in a suburban church tuning in and out of a sermon being delivered by a priest – who has vowed not to have intimate relations with another human – on the meaning of union (under God (and the law)). He meant well and had some valid lines, but it was so generic and detached I couldn’t help wondering who would think it was a good idea for him to preach at us about this occasion for two people he clearly didn't know.

For God's sake, was this primarily a celebration of the bride and groom or Christianity? I knew all the lines and gestures that were expected of the us, but stood silent and still. It seemed too artificial now. So different from the wonderful ceremony I’d enjoyed a week earlier.

We knew that one would be 'different' - this was a couple not tied down by convention and the wedding reflected their down-to-earth, genuine and loving nature superbly. Possibly the best wedding I've attended, and felt like the closest to something I'd like.

We gathered at a chapel on a small winery before a mini-celebrity celebrant, Mr Jon Von Goes (of Melbourne’s RRR radio). He was funny, entertaining and, of course, mildly theatrical and self-indulgent. For some it may have seemed more borderline novelty than unconventional, perhaps even disrespectful to the pure sensibility and sanctity of a marriage ceremony.

Bullshit. He was engaging, genuine, and talked all about the love between my two friends, having gathered a background from a couple of catch-ups over a beer. He is a performer, but he commanded the congregations attention and imagination, and deflected it to the lovely couple. I’ve never seen a priest who could do that so well. It was a genuine ceremony.

Yes, it was a little different - but we've all seen videos of some wildly odd, usually American, novelty weddings - and wasn't for everyone. For some the religious aspect is important, others just the tradition, and that's fine.

Both of my brothers acknowledged their upbringing by marrying in a church, despite neither (or their wives) being practising Catholics. Both were beautiful ceremonies, and a nice church is still to my mind a lovely place for such an occasion; just not some of the bullshit often spoken inside (yes many celebrants talk shit too). I just can’t help feeling they somewhat accepted the idea of a church wedding rather than embraced it.

Wedding dress, rainbow socks and Volleys
Although my middle brother and his Californian bride displayed some awesome subversive quirkiness that probably pushed the boundaries of comfort for a few of the more conservative (my folks) in the congregation. For instance, the bride wore rainbow socks and Dunlop Volleys (who sees her shoes anyway?); the foreboding tune of Hall of the Mountain King echoed through the church, building to its dramatic climax as they signed the certificate stirring an urge to run to the altar screaming "NOOO!"; and and a groomsman (me) followed them out of the sacred place arm in arm with one of the male 'bridesmaids' for a bit of attention and fun. This is what I remember about that day three years ago; I have no idea what the priest said (or even looked like). I may disappoint my mother if I don't marry in a church, but hell, it's my (future, yet unmet wife's) day.

And if I am lucky enough to get hitched, I know what I want the focus to be on - love, not God. Whether or not there are religious or spiritual overtones, the best weddings are primarily a celebration of love.

Maybe with greater focus on love – and, on this basis, perhaps letting same sex couple join the celebration and grow the love [*GASP!*] – we'd look a little differently at marriage and have less broken ones? Quite possibly a long bow. But my friends, the ‘unconventional’ couple with the ‘unconventional’ wedding, are possibly the most genuine couple I know and most likely to go the distance.  

So I don't know where I want to get married, but I don't think it will be in a church and by a priest.

Unless that’s what my fiancĂ© wants.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Movie - 'murundak: songs of freedom'

A couple of weeks ago I popped along to the Melbourne Festival and caught the doco murundak: songs of freedom as part of the Give Peace a Chance program for Right Now. The full review, and reviews of the other films as well as a bunch of great human rights-related reading is available at the Right Now website.

First couple of paragraphs here, but it's only fair to head to their website for the full thing.

"Since the height of the Aboriginal rights protest movement in the 1970s, Indigenous Australian music has developed a strong voice of resistance and identity; and it’s only getting stronger.

Feature documentary Murundak: Songs of Freedom (2011) explores the cultural and political significance of this music via the Black Arm Band (featuring Aboriginal artists Archie Roach, Bart Willoughby, Dan Sultan, the late Ruby Hunter and several others) who travel from big cities to remote communities performing Murundak, a celebration of songs that have captured an essential and often elusive element of Australia’s Indigenous history."

The rest...