Are we done with this yet?
LESSONS ON LOVE: A BOY, A BEDROOM AND A SMILE I WAS TAUGHT.
The time is 11.42pm. I’m wrapped inside a mustard-coloured corduroy doona, and my salt lamp glowing beside me. Its incandescence fills the room with a pink hue, which is fitting, because I feel like a little girl again.
The only shield between me and the gathering unfolding in my living room is my bedroom door. The wafer-thin walls expose every cackle, every Dr. Marten against the floorboards, and every time the name of the boy I’m infatuated with is screeched by some girl I’ve never met. Somehow, on this Saturday evening, my house has become the impromptu setting for a party. And an arm’s length away, this boy is wearing women like scarves. Women who are not me, women who have not shared the experience we had. I don’t say I’m hurt — to him or to anyone else. Instead, I put myself to bed and hope that makes enough of a statement.
Sleep eludes me. As I lie there, encased in the heavy, buttery fabric of my bedspread, the feeling of rejection makes me want to run. As fast and as far as I can. I want to leave this town behind, go on holiday, imprison my pain inside these walls. I ache to return overseas, to Bali, to Thailand, to Cambodia. Anywhere cheap; anywhere now. But I can only run from this discomfort as far as my bedroom. The year is 2020, and there is a virus afoot. Travelling much farther than the front yard is a privilege no longer afforded to even the privileged. Yet, here, we host a clandestine party.
I switch on my fairy lights; the electrical flicker of the globes mimics the pace of my heart. The echoes of the party penetrate my bedroom walls, delicate like my ego, and haul my self-worth into question. Does anyone know I’m in here? Does anyone care? Running would be familiar; easier. If it wasn’t for the world being forced to retreat, I would give / sell / pay all that I had for the illusion of intrepidness over this agonising vulnerability. This violent stillness.
For a decade leading up to 2020, I had been mostly on the move. Never anywhere for longer than 18 months. From remote parts of Australia to foreign countries where my first order of business would be learning how to say thank you and excuse me, where’s the bathroom? The bathroom is across the hall from me now, and I hate the thought of what might be happening in there.
Growing up, I received a good education and broke bread with parents who always made sure there was bread on the table. They shuffled me quickly out of home, and encouraged me to make something of my one wild and precious. But underpinning every lesson I’d absorbed as a child was this covert white-knuckling of happiness. Their teachings advocated that the pinnacle of existence was to preserve any and all feelings of joy. And if joy couldn’t be upheld, stoicism would suffice. This pursuit characterised my reality. I just kept swimming. Until I drowned.
When the Australian Government called all of its overseas-residing citizens home, I had been living in Bali for a year and a half, among a significantly-sized community of expatriates — a large portion of whom had, also, been on the move for most of their adulthood. It was Never Never Land for the white colonialist. A place where no one ever expected you to grow up.
Ironically, during the time I spent there, I thought I was doing spiritual work. There were plenty of downward dogs, energy healings and naps beneath palm trees. I had complete autonomy over my time and the agency to create whatever I wanted each day, like a painter poised at her canvas with no deadlines or briefs. Tried attractions of drinking and promiscuity had, briefly, fallen down my list of tourism to-dos (how woke), so instead I absorbed the hours with what I believed to be more intention. But the intention was still avoidance. Thinking I’d left behind one life of consumerism, I’d merely bought into another. The island itself is magnificent; a vibrant cultural mecca in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. A melting pot of unique religious tradition and ancient rites of passage. To the Balinese, Bali is home. But for me, it could have been anywhere. Anywhere I could afford; anywhere but where my problems were. Except that everywhere I went, there I’d be.
This became apparent when, at my own house party, the panic I felt over being rejected by some boy I hardly knew felt so overwhelming, so thick in my throat, and deployed such chaos on my cuticles, that I needed to conceal myself in order to obscure the disproportionate terror. All those years I was migrating, my self-inquiry never extended far enough inward that it prodded against any actual wounds. Wounds that I, myself, had rejected. Wounds that — after years of suppression at the hands of a societal standard obsessed with being great, thanks! — had been driven so far into my subconscious, they were barely perceptible as they took control of my entire life. Unwittingly hunting down opportunities to be reopened.
Opportunities like this dumb boy, at my dumb party.
For me, life’s instruction manual had begun and ended with smiling. My elders never initiated me into the acute uneasiness or abrupt sadness that could arrive with maturity. There was no pause to grab a notebook before the real work began. A sunny disposition had carried me through my twenties, and like an obedient Border Collie, I’d been conditioned and rewarded for being positive. People liked that about me, so I liked that about me. But I’m not sure who I expected the normalisation of any melancholic feelings to have come from. This toxic optimism also didn’t begin and end with me, it was generations old. For Boomers, Gen X, and elder Millennials, it was their blueprint for keeping the peace and staying safe. My parents were born twenty years after the conclusion of World War II. The fangs of capitalism had long sunk into the fabric of Australian life, and its value offered a beacon of hope for the broken: Get more, appear successful, be happy.
I was seven when my father lost our Grandmother to cancer. I never saw him cry. Not because he didn’t suffer the profound loss of a love displaced, of being forced to change before he was ready, but because our family didn’t have the tools to assimilate his grief into the rest of our lives. My father didn’t have the foundations to accept this new texture to his story, and to integrate it with his responsibilities as a parent, a husband, a brother and a bloody hard worker. That was the way of his generation. Why expose the mess when it was easier to go on silently congratulating each other for being survivors? As the eldest of a small family, I only had my parents to look up to. I, too, knew that if I didn’t disrupt the status quo it would be smooth sailing for everyone. But, eventually, the interest on that debt needed to be paid.
Upon returning home from life as a nomad, courtesy of COVID-19, I found myself idle. While the planet was reckoning with its demons, I was called to sit with my own, and I didn’t even know where to begin with admitting I felt helpless. In the ominous and exhausting climate of uncertainty, I could no longer muster the control and energy required to feign happiness —even basic okayness. My reserves were depleted. It would only take one, small, dumb thing to send me careening over the edge. There was no checking-out. No quitting my job. No boarding a flight. No finding a way to physically distance myself from whatever had disrupted my snug little narrative. Now, in my bedroom, while the music heaved just moments away, I was shackled to the scene of my latest discomfort and over the edge I tumbled. Sick with my own special virus: I’m not enough. I’m not enough. I’m never enough.
Despite my wilful attempts to live in ignorance, parts of me had been trying to make contact for a while. This manifested as an unwavering and decade long battle with bulimia. I felt like an alien inside my own body, with so many questions about how to exist but so much fear of being exposed. There were days when I would purge everything that came into contact with my stomach, between 6am weights and 6pm pilates. I punished myself for thinking I deserved to take up space, so I tried to take up less. A part of me thought that I needed to be skinny to be beautiful and valuable in the world, but I also didn’t feel in control of my own thoughts. My inner monologue was as acidic as the meals I forced back up my oesophagus. I never told anyone about my addiction, either. I didn’t have a neat or palatable script to explain how disgusted with myself I felt. It was reductive to admit that I didn’t want to keep anything down for fear that my ribs would no longer show through the skin of my back. But I also didn’t have the language to convey that my disdain wasn’t really for how I looked, it was for how spiritually bankrupt I felt. The dopamine I’d receive from domineering my body was exhilarating, but the quest to feel good all the time was the unhappiest experience of my life.
Move on, move on, move on, I’d tell myself. When you relocate, you’ll stop self-harming. But it never worked like that. Nothing ever filled those starving voids. The hollowness I forced myself to feel in more toilet cubicles than I can count wasn’t because I needed to feel thin, it was because I needed to feel empty to feel anything at all. All of the sadness and pain that had proliferated my life wanted to be realised, so it could be let go of and alchemised into something new. But it was only the macerated mess and dignity that I knew how to let go of. Everything else I held onto like my life depended on it.
Move on, move on, move on, I’d tell myself. When you relocate, you’ll stop self-harming. But it never worked like that.
My iPhone reads 12.56am. I exhale. What do I need? I throw the corduroy to the ground, opting to venture outside my bedroom for a glass of water. I twist the door handle, creep into the kitchen and there he is; the object of my affection, knocking back tequila in the kitchen. His eyes are vacant, his posture proud, and I see myself in his façade. No wonder I’m so attracted to this idiot. All of the torment, all of the rejection, all of the desperation to be numb. He gulps from the bottle like its contents are cordial and I ask him, “Where are you trying to go?” His sharp glare conveys his contempt for my question, and he slinks back into the party.
The visceral sensation of being turned away from, it’s all so familiar. And none of it is about him, either. It is about every time I have turned away from myself, swallowing my emotions for the sake of my pride and storing them so deep inside the cells of my being that they have become my being. It is about every time I’ve felt rejected, ignored, dismissed, disrespected, devastated, unsupported and, as a consequence, let somebody else make my feelings about them. It is the persistence of everything I have resisted since I was a child. It is the dysfunctional relationship I have with myself and thus, the world around me, because I’ve never fully given myself permission to respond to the world in the way I needed to. It is all the intolerance I’ve felt towards myself. And it is here with me now, in this kitchen, at my house party, in the middle of a pandemic.
It’s 1:07am and I’ve retreated back to the confines of my bedroom. I am all alone but for the moth perched atop my vinyl roller blinds. The weight of my heart has subsided, for now. My salt lamp, the big pink luminous rock casting shadows across my walls, is sweating onto my bedside table, making the pages of my favourite book slimy and blurred. I switch it off and sit in the darkness.
Eventually, this won’t hurt, if I let it hurt now.