Saturday, January 11, 2014

Learning to Mend A Patchwork Heart

By the time you’re reading this, it will be two days after my birthday. The presents will all have been unwrapped, played with, set up, and the paper possibly thrown away. It might still be wafting around my lounge room, I’m kind of a slob. Some people get excited about Christmas, or Hannukah, or Thanksgiving – my yearly calendar revolves around my birthday, so by the time you read this I will probably be in the middle of a serious sulk that it’s over.

My birthday is only one day, but Write Your Own Snark Spock
will be awesome all year around.

There are a couple of reasons I get so obsessively excited about my birthday. One part of it is a reaction to the amount of Girl Guilt I carry around with me – all that woman specific ambient societal guilt about being quiet, sitting down, not being demanding, not being selfish, being happy with what I’ve got. My birthday is the one time in the whole year I can convince myself that it’s okay to throw all that out the window completely, and on that one day I give myself standing permission to say exactly what I please, demand what I please, and keep asking until I get it. It’s amazingly liberating. 

I still like to spend my birthday in bed as much as possible, and also still have this bear.

But there is also a sadder aspect to my obsession with my birthday. My birthday usually involves a lot of thinking about the year that’s passed, and while there are almost always some fond memories between one birthday and the next, I’m inevitably struck by an intense feeling of things slipping away into a nebulous mist. It’s not so much about getting older – I’m in that nice mushy midlife section where the difference between years is kind of negligible. 31, 34, it’s all much of a muchness. But while I don’t specifically mourn the years that pass, I do always find myself mourning the people I’ve lost.  

The best way I can think of to describe myself is that I am a patchwork girl; a slightly lumpy and uneven creation of smaller parts, held together with uncertain stitching. It sometimes feels like the entire sum of what I am now is made up of the patched together remains of things I used to be. The story of my life so far, is equally patchwork.

I made this for Mr. Reluctant Femme when we first got together in
an attempt to explain my patchwork heart. He didn't get it, but he liked the
present all the same.
I hear some people say things like, “Person Z has always been there for me”, and I imagine a long, strong cord stretching from someone’s birth to their present, a gold thread running evenly and consistently through their life. I don’t have any threads like that. The cords that hold me together have been woven in and out almost at random, and there is no single thread that runs all the way through my life. Even my mother has come in and out of my life at various times, mostly through deliberate effort on my part. Not only are the threads of my life tangled and messy, my mental illness and overall terrible long term memory have made huge chunks of my past simply disappear. Because of these things, I long ago became someone who has a desperate need to hold on to what little I can, for as long as I can.  

My siblings and I pretending to get along much better than we actually did.
There are lots of ways I’ve found to do this, the oldest method being physical collecting. Between photos and letters and albums of cards my mother carefully stashed for me when I was tiny, my collection forms a sort of surrogate memory of my life. I got the albums from my mother out the other night on my birthday as a bit of a nostalgia trip, and took Mr. Reluctant Femme through the most amusing ones. It made me sad, but didn’t surprise me, that I don’t know the people who sent the vast majority of those cards, and half the names I do recognise are people who are dead now. These albums also have a stack of slowly fading pictures, and while I recognise my own face from the very start, the vast majority of the people in the photos are strangers now.

I don't know who that is in this picture with me, but I do wish I could
still attend family parties in just my undies.
Once I left home and started what I consider to be my proper adult life, I became an avid collector of letters, ticket stubs, photos, and all manner of paper trinkets that I would put into a big blank leather bound book my little brother stole for me from the attic of the local courthouse we lived behind growing up. I still have this book, and it’s bursting with scrawled directions to houses of people I don’t talk to anymore, programs for shows I saw when I was an entirely different person, and photos of people I haven’t seen in many, many years.


I have the first draft of a book written by a friend at Uni, who ended up burning it and going to work in the public sector. I’ve got poems from another old friend who was in Berlin last I heard, possibly hooked on heroin. So many of the people and places referred to in it are so illegibly faded now that at one stage I went through and wrote little explanatory notes about some of the items to my future self, recognising that if so much had been lost by that point that I was going to need help making sense of any of it soon enough. This book is a tangled mass of randomly selected feelings and moments, pinned to the page like dusty butterflies.

The Drugs were one of the first "underground" bands I got obsessed with. I can blame
them almost entirely for how much time and money I spent at gigs in my 20's.

This house was absolutely decrepit, but I still miss it horribly sometimes. Even the hole in the ceiling.
While at the two day music festival where this picture was taken, I got cheated on, cheated
right back, broke up with the boyfriend I came with, and left with a new one.
These days, my collecting is almost entirely digital. One of the reasons I switched to Gmail so early on was because of the enormous amount of space it offered. Between my Gmail account, Livejournal, and my hard drive, most of my memories of the last 15 years are now pressed between ones and zeroes, waiting for the slow, quiet days when I feel the need to rifle through them and remind myself of where I’ve been to get here. Between the book and my digital archives, I at least a passing record of most of the threads that have been woven in and out of my patchwork heart.

Me and the first girl I ever fell in love with. To say I handled the
situation badly would be a ludicrous understatement.
I dated two of the men in this picture - feel free to guess which ones.
Some parts of my past are able to be recalled immediately, with painful confusing clarity, and usually at the worst possible time. Other times I come across a mention of a book I was going to give to an ex in an email, and can’t for the life of me remember what the book could have been. Because my recollection of my own life is so hazy, so unreliable, I’ve learned I need to press pause at least once a year, so I can take in something of what’s going on. Some people put a marker pin in their year around Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving – for me, my birthday is the time I sit down, look around, and really take stock of where I am compared to where I was last time I stopped to think. It’s where I place my marker, how I keep track, and the points I measure between to judge where I’m going and how far I’ve got till I get there.

A photocopy of a picture taken a long time ago with an honest-to-god analogue camera,
developed in a darkroom and everything.
My last birthday was pretty good. I’ve had worse birthdays, like the time I had to move house on my birthday, and was so exhausted I somehow never actually got around to having a party that year. My 30th birthday was probably one of the best of the last decade, if only because my partner helped me turn the lounge room into a giant blanket fort with the couch and the TV inside. Last year I just had a small dinner, with a couple of close friends, and while it was a lovely night, it did flick something of a switch for me. I hadn’t realised until I went to organise that party just how small my social circle had gotten over the previous couple of years. In my early twenties, the threads that held me together were always changing, and almost all of them were pulled in at a random point only to trail off to a loose end somewhere else. But they still helped hold me together, because I was always bringing in new threads to help re-inforce the older ones that had become frayed and fragile with neglect and time. Somewhere along the line, I stopped pulling in new threads, and had been trying to hold together with only the increasingly strained remains of threads that were so faded they were barely recognisable anymore. I’d become tired – just so tired of people coming in and out of my life, and not feeling like I had any control over the process, that I’d more or less given up on the world at large. Between friend circle conflict, a long period of unemployment followed by a couple of stressful jobs, romantic breakups, and my own long, heavy bout of depression, almost all of the people I used to know had dwindled away, until only the very few, strongest and most unshakeable connections were left.

Considering how incredibly loyal and stubborn my old friends have been, I felt horribly ungrateful, but the fact was I couldn’t help missing how my life was when I was younger and more outgoing. My world used to be so full of people; wonderful, bizarre, fascinating people, and I'd treasured them all. Ever since I’d  moved out on my own, I’d made a point of having pictures up all over my room (wherever that happened to be) chronicling friendships past and present, as a sort of tribute to the gift of friendship people had been kind enough to bestow on me. But as the years went by, the number of present friendships in that exhibition became miniscule, and the display became less of a tribute and more of a memorial. Having so many faces on the wall that I didn’t really know any more ended up hurting more than it made me happy, even though each picture carried so much meaning for me. While my memory on it's own is shaky at best, when I look at these pictures and handle my letters, I can remember things about the people involved in excruciating detail. I look at a picture of me and and ex, and I can remember how his voice sounded when he was reading me to sleep and the exact colour of his eyes when he was angry at me. I look at a photo from my 20th birthday party, and I can remember how the hair gel I was obsessed with smelled, and how the shirt I was wearing felt. Obviously, having things that triggered this sort of response around wasn't particularly conducive to getting on with my life, so I took them all down one day, and stashed them in a drawer in an attempt to shed some baggage.

What do you mean having pictures of my ex's on the wall is a stupid idea?
But even though I’d taken the pictures down, the weight of things I’d lost was still there, hanging heavy. I eventually became aware that other people didn't carry so much of their past with them at all times - but instead of considering that perhaps what I was doing was unhealthy, I determined this obviously meant that they didn't care as much about their friends as I did, and so they obviously didn't deserve my friendship or time. While I've always sucked at hanging on to people, I'm extremely practiced at making a hasty, permanent exit from people's lives, and I ended up simply walking away from a lot of people. A lot of others slid gently and easily out of my life without any particular effort on my part, and I pushed away a few who wouldn’t go at first. After a certain point, I stubbornly started refusing to replace any of the people I lost – carrying the weight of all the things I missed around with me all the time made the idea of putting in the effort required to meet new people seem absolutely exhausting. It wasn’t worth it, I told myself. All the people I wanted to know, I already knew. I was done making new friends. I was too old for this crap. If new, nice people came along, I wouldn’t dismiss them immediately, I told myself, but I wasn’t going looking. But that was a lie. I wasn't looking, but I wasn't letting anyone in either, no matter how hard they tried. I’d lost so many people over my life, through death and conflict and depression and the good old tides of life. Just…fuck, so, SO many. I couldn’t count them all up for you because my memory is shocking, but this nebulous uncounted number was just so heavy sometimes. I wasn’t sure I could really bear to lose any more, and I assumed (still do assume) that anyone who comes into my life will eventually exit again one way or another.

But no matter how many times I went over the consequences of friendship in my head, no matter how many times I explained the cost/benefit analysis to myself, I just kept on missing having people around. I missed having a social circle of more than two people, I missed having acquaintances, I missed all of it. But I also honestly had no idea how to actually go about getting myself new friends. I’ve never been amazing at keeping friendships going long term, mostly because one of the symptoms of my mental illness is a compulsion to create conflict, as well as a tendency to make snap decisions about people for good or bad. I’ve also always found it really difficult to figure out how friendships are “supposed” to work – I’ve always felt there was some kind of handbook that other people got and I didn’t. After a rough couple of years, it still didn’t seem worth it to keep attempting to build friendships I was convinced would crumble in a month or so anyway.

I know a lot of people have thrown the whole “blogging saved my life” thing out there, but as cliché as it sounds, I am one of those people. I was stuck in a lonely, bitter place where I wanted more friends, but couldn’t bring myself to reach out. However, the thing about the sort of blogging that I started doing is that it requires you to reach out. If I had been writing a straight up online diary style blog, it probably wouldn’t have changed much for me. But I started my blog with the deliberate intention of taking part in a wider community – I saw the beauty blogs, the feminism blogs, the fashion and lifestyle blogs, and I wanted to be a part of it all. This meant reaching out and making contact, no matter how scared or uncertain I was. If I wanted to review things, I needed to contact brands and creators. If I wanted to join in the conversation about feminism, I needed to listen to other feminists and catch up on what I’d missed. Well, I suppose I didn’t HAVE to do these things – I could have just quit blogging. But I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be a part of it so badly, that for the first time in years I wanted something more than I was scared of failing at it. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, took a deep breath, and started actively reaching out into the world. And much to my shock, people started reaching back. 

This is about how cool I felt when I started blogging.
At first, it was really hard. Like, just really, really fucking hard. For a long time I felt like a tiny, stupid ant in a room full of well read, beautiful, wealthy antelope. (To be honest, I still feel like that a lot of the time, I just don’t let it stop me as much anymore) But eventually, I found conversations I felt I could contribute to. I started putting in my two cents here and there, and finally went out to a meet-up for one of the Facebook groups I’d joined in actual meat space. I revived my ancient Twitter account, and slowly, slowly built up connections there. I came across a seemingly endless supply of amazing, fascinating, hilarious women that completely turned me around on my long held belief that I just don’t get along with women in general. Turns out I just wasn’t talking to the right women!

It also turns out I always liked adorable accessories.
I found blogs related to what I was doing, and absorbed everything I could, while occasionally putting a little comment in here and there. Ever so gradually, I got up the confidence to start talking regularly to  new people, making tentative little motions towards friendship. Some of these tendrils turned into awesome, wonderful new friendships, and some of them withered away almost immediately. There are a couple of people that I’ve reached out to, connected with, and then slipped and lost them. There has been one or two painful occasions I’ve misjudged where I stand, and had to beat a hasty retreat. But overall, I realised there WERE people out there that I didn’t know right now that I DID want to know. I realised I WASN’T done with new friends. I certainly wasn’t too old for this, and I started to really enjoy actively searching out new people who might be awesome. 

Apart from meeting a million awesome people, blogging has also allowed me to turn myself inside out in the most cathartic way, and spread it out for you all to see. I wasn't expecting this to happen at all - in person I'm a relatively private person, and while I'll always answer honestly if asked, I don't often volunteer personal information about myself. It always seemed...dangerous. But very early on I realised with blogging I could share all these squishy, tender, vulnerable parts of myself while still maintaining relative safety. I don't have to look you in the eye when I tell you I used to cut myself, or see your expression when you first notice the scars. I can admit that I was literally frightened of being harassed in the street for doing femme wrong, without having to hear the chuckle that might follow. It's so different to anything I've ever experienced, and it's bloody addictive. It's quite lucky that this confessional seems to be good for me, because I don't think I would want to stop now. I have a lot of words in general, usually way too many for every occasion, but I don't have any that express how much it means to be able to share so much with so many, and hear that most blessed of responses - "Me too."

Not only can I help myself by sharing, but I'm also astonished to discover I can actually help other people. Lots of people even! I've spent a lot of my life using up everything I have on looking after myself, but  I've also done a lot of bad shit in my life, and treated a lot of people very poorly. I used to think that I'd never be able to let go of that, that I could never make up for it because I had nothing to offer anyone. But it turns out that just by existing, and speaking, and sharing, I can help - in the smallest of ways, but still measurably so. If I put some effort in, I can help even more. 

This year my birthday was so absolutely and awesomely different to last year. Alex was still here, showering me with incredible gifts as he so loves to do, and my inner circle was still by my side. But there were others – SO MANY others wishing me well that I couldn’t keep up with replies. I got a card from Alex’s parents, and was so touched I promptly burst into tears. There were text messages, and Facebook notes, and twitter mentions galore – I know that these don’t all have the same emotional worth, and some are much more heartfelt than others. I know that a lot of people just leave Facebook mentions in particular because Facebook says it’s someone’s birthday and they feel like that’s what they’re supposed to do. But even that didn’t really happen last year – I’d isolated myself SO MUCH that even token gestures of politeness couldn’t reach me anymore. These days though, when I look up from whatever I’ve buried my head in this time, there are people all around. People who give a damn if they don’t hear from me, people who think I’m funny and interesting, people that I love interacting with. I didn’t exist in the wider world this time last year, and now I do. I did that, I created that change, in just a year.

I don’t know that I’ve ever so successfully changed something about my life that I didn’t like in such a short time before. Through effort and dedication, I’ve improved my mental health enormously, but that took years and years before I could even see the changes. This movement from total recluse to person with Actual Friends has only taken a year, and that just boggles me. It’s terrifying, but also incredible to realise I have that much power over my own life. I wanted a thing, I tried to get it, and then I got it. This simple fact is completely boggling to me.

When I think about what I've achieved this year, I get almost as excited
as I did when I got this rocking horse.

I wish I could tell you that I really believe it will be different this time, that all these people will stay in my life for good. But I don’t. I just…I can’t. When you’ve understood for SO LONG that people just go away, it’s hard to shift that view. Maybe even impossible. But somehow, without even deliberately meaning to, I’ve stopped actively waiting for the day they will disappear as soon as I meet people. Regardless of how long the wonderful people I know right now end up staying around, I still spent the majority of this birthday being so inexpressibly grateful to each and every person who is in my life right now. Whether I talk to you all the time, or you’ve left a comment here once six months ago, I offer you all my sincerest thanks for being a part of this massive, wonderful change. I don’t know what I would have done without you, and I’m so glad I don’t.

From some angles, I know this blog looks like any other blog, frivolous and meaningless, bound to fade out sooner or later. In terms of exposure or popularity or any of those numbers we like to use the judge the worth of something, it’s a moderate success at absolute best. But this blog is so much more to me than just page views. It’s a wedge I’ve used to lever myself out of my room, out of my head, and back out into the world again, and in that it’s been successful far beyond my wildest dreams. So to you, my readers, my friends, random passers-by, I say from the bottom of my heart, thank you. By taking time out of your day to read a post, or comment, or just fave a tweet, you have helped to change my life.


  1. For me, is a touching reflection on vulnerability and connection. I'm a recent reader, and I make no promises for the future, but thank you for writing it. And best wishes for the coming year.

  2. Amazing post about an amazing journey....

  3. Happy Birthday! The journey is just barely begun! So much more great stuff ahead!

  4. good lord, everything about this feels familiar. I think I'm going to read it again when I'm less bleary-eyed and say more, but yes, patchwork.

  5. what a beautiful post. thank you. it also strikes a tremendous chord with me, and a lot of things i've been thinking about, around making friends and building networks as a grown up whose introversion took over - mostly for the best, but sometimes, i miss the madness.

    i am glad i know you.

  6. Happy Birthday, I was just wondering this week where you have been :)


Thank you for taking the time to comment! I live for comments, good or bad.

Anonymous commenting IS allowed on this blog, but in order to reduce the amount of spam, comments on posts more than 14 days old will be moderated.