On Ya JK

9780143204800I can’t say exactly what drew me to John Kirwan’s memoir, All Blacks Don’t Cry. Maybe it’s being so far from New Zealand and feeling a bit homesick that made me want to read about the mental health struggles of one of the country’s greatest sporting heroes, a man that figured prominently in my childhood as I was dragged to rugby matches and forced to watch endless matches on the TV by my rugby-mad father and brother.

In fact, it’s possible that I once had a crush on him – those tree-trunk thighs in that black uniform that symbolized so much, the sandy blond hair and shy, boyish good looks. I do remember having an All Blacks coin collection and a few All Blacks plastic figurines with over-sized heads that I got from the service station. I think JK was my favorite.

There’s something quite compelling and inspiring about this revered figure, the epitome of Kiwi masculinity, coming out about his demons and making himself so publicly vulnerable. New Zealand is a country that does have a terrible suicide problem, coupled with a tendency to keep everything on the inside, to ‘harden up’ and get on with things. To sweep things under the rug and say, ‘she’ll be right.’ This is probably more so for men, and Sir Kirwan does talk about this – how it was so hard for him to seek help because of stigma attached to a man of his status needing to see a psychiatrist.

The arc of his life thus far is amazing – from humble, working class roots to becoming one of the best rugby players in the world. He was an underachiever at school. He failed School Certificate and became a butcher, working with his father. He then reached the top levels of rugby playing for the All Blacks. He was rugby royalty. When he retired from rugby, he moved into a coaching role, first with the Italian national team then the Japanese national team. He currently coaches in Auckland. He is also married with three teenagers. His wife is Italian and they have a restored farmhouse in the north of Italy, and a beach house near Auckland. JK speaks fluent Italian and almost fluent Japanese. His accomplishments become even more extraordinary when we take into account that through his 20s and 30s, he suffered from debilitating depression.

Imagine the sheer willpower it took to get out of bed, train and play in front of tens of thousands of people. To engage in such a physically demanding game under intense pressure. Fortunately, his story so far has a happy ending. He describes his journey to wellness in clear and simple terms. He is candid and brave. Not too many sporting heroes want their fans to know about their mental breakdowns, but it’s all laid bare here.

His perspective is refreshing and balanced (“Rugby is a game that I had a gift for, and through it my life was enriched. It’s left me with friends all over the world. It’s the greatest game ever, but it is a game – and there is a bigger picture.”) As he outlines his road to recovery, he takes a nuanced approach. Medication helped him a lot, but it wasn’t a silver bullet. He also sought out therapy and had to try two or three psychologists before he found a good fit. He worked on himself a lot and had to rebuild his confidence and self-image. He saw that there was a genetic factor, as other family members had also suffered. He looks outside himself as well and believes that society is putting too much pressure on to lead faster, busier lives. He speaks of his Italian life which, with its emphasis on family, spending quality time with others and working less, he advocates.

JK was knighted in 2012 for his contribution to rugby and to raising awareness about mental health and depression. In his book, he recounts stories of some of the hundreds of people who have approached him in public to thank him for saving their lives. It’s warm fuzzies all around. Due to the big impact his personal story and awareness raising have had, a second book was recently released aimed at teens. Called Stand By Me, it is a comprehensive book that includes the voices of not only JK but also mental health professionals and a range of teenagers who have suffered from various mental health issues.

Both of his books are interesting, entertaining and informative. To me, it seems that the wide audience they are reaching and the impact they are having signals a positive change in how New Zealanders deal with mental health issues. We need to give JK a pat on the back for opening up the conversation and helping to remove the stigma attached to it. As the subtitle of the cover states, it is a story of hope.


Let it Grow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo reflective lady blog would be complete without the obligatory 2014 round-up. So, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One year ago I found myself on Copacabana Beach in a white dress watching spectacular fireworks with vomit in my hair. Things got better and the rest of the Brazil trip turned out to be one of the most incredible and happiest experiences of my life.

Until…the last day when it turns out that some fucker has wiped out my bank account. It then takes another four months of phone calls, paperwork and threats to get 70% of the money back. On the upside, I survived it. Yes, it was tragic and a big financial setback, but life went on. I didn’t die.

I went from glorious summer to hideous winter. I took a short jaunt to visit my amazing friend Carolyn who was working in Manila at the time. It was warm and so good to be around a like-minded friend. I haven’t seen her since then and I miss her greatly. This is the downside of the transient, expatriate life.

I then got my busy on and extended myself professionally. In my free-time (which was few and far between) I tried to study Italian and train Capoeira. I learned about trade-offs – if you work more, you get more money. But you also have less free-time to pursue things that are important. And I’m the kind of person who needs downtime and eight hours sleep, otherwise I turn into a raging bitch.

Due to lack of sleep, I sometimes turned into a raging bitch. I then made preparations for my upcoming trip to Italy over the summer vacation. I researched opportunities for jobs, wrote countless resumes, paid a professional to write one for me, completed a 40 page application form to be a nanny, had a couple of Skype interviews. Faced multiple disappointments as it became clear I would need an EU passport, at which point I jumped down the bureaucratic rabbit hole where, it seems, I still am. Amongst all this was an awesome Capoeira event in which I met amazing souls from all over the world. I admired these people and was grateful for the energy they shared with me.

After months of anticipation, I finally arrived in Italy. A glorious summer awaited me. There was splashing around in the sea and giant lakes. Trips to ancient castles on the back of a Vespa. There was pizza and gelato and cheek kissing and vino. More days were lost to writing resumes and having fruitless Skype interviews. I had an Italian tutor who lived in in a big, old renovated farmhouse with her horses. I couldn’t, and still can’t speak the language and felt isolated and fell into a mild form of culture shock. I cried. A lot. An unfathomable tragedy struck a dear friend which brought home the unpredictability and randomness of life.

I returned to Seoul and deeply missed the person that I had gone there for in the first place. I had a hard time adjusting back to my life there. So when I found out I had some more vacation, I did what I thought would make me feel better. I jumped on a plane again and went to the most interesting cheap destination I could afford, which turned out to be Bangkok. For the first time in my life, the travel cure did not work. I spent some days there walking around miserably, anxiously, all the while berating myself for wasting money on something so frivolous. I learned an important lesson: sometimes we do things in an effort to make ourselves feel better, but the means to that end is not always a good idea and often, unsuccessful.

Within a few weeks, I felt better and resumed by busy life, albeit with an empty feeling inside. A few days of a Capoeira event made me temporarily distracted and happy but I needed more support and friendship than I was getting, so my coworker, (who is also in a similar transnational situation) and I started to take walks through a beautiful nearby park and talk on random weekdays. But weekends were long and lonely. This incredibly dark and cold Seoul winter threatened to kick my ass and unravel my mental health. So I started an Iyengar yoga class. Although it was a big commute to get there on Friday night, when all I usually feel like doing is passing out, it was worth it. I met a fantastic teacher and started to feel more relaxed and less anxious. My passion for yoga was reignited.

Then, I had some friends from New Zealand come and visit. It doesn’t happen very often, so it was really great to have them here, to take in their energy and optimism. To share wonderful experiences with them, even in the arctic temperatures. Finally, the last weeks of work and life were a blur of Excel spreadsheets and responding to emails. But somehow, I managed to pack my backpack and get myself on a plane to Italy. Again. And here I am. Writing this from an apartment overlooking the seaside in a poor Tuscan city as the blazing orange sun sets.

It has been a roller-coastery, a bulldozery kind of year. Forging forward without necessarily knowing where forward is leading to. Vulnerability and uncertainty have decided to permanently colonize my mind, body and soul. I’ll acknowledge their presence but won’t let them run the show. While there have been magical moments this year, moments I never thought I would have in this lifetime, like eating fresh lobster in Barcelona opposite a handsome Italian, about 70% of the year has been a hard, anxiety-fueled slog. But I’m grateful – I have grown as a person. I’ve come to see and respect the limitations of my life. To have faith and gratitude.

A Year of Lady Book Wormery

woman-readingMy nerdy, introverted, curious self often likes to snuggle under the covers with a good book. This year was busier than usual with work and life commitments which meant that I didn’t have as much time or energy to escape with my book friends as I would’ve liked. My Kindle shamefully has dozens of titles bought this year that are at 10% or 25%. The ones I did manage to finish, however, all seem to have a theme – memoirs written by women. There is something pleasurably vicarious about reading about other women’s lives, riding the ups and downs with them, especially when there are happy endings (the story kind).

I was transported to Somalia with Canadian Amanda Lindhout’s story of her time being kidnapped and held hostage after working as a journalist in the region. There is only one word to describe A House in the Sky: harrowing. It’s incredible that Lindhout survived her horrific ordeal in which unimaginable things were done to her, and has now emerged as a poised and confident activist and aspiring psychologist. While the author’s plight is not for the faint of heart, the story is gripping and eye-opening. In sharing her experiences, Lindhoudt shines a light on Islam in Somalia and the politics of the region. Ultimately, it is a story of hope as Lindhout demonstrates an unbelievable amount of perseverance and resilience and even compassion as in the end, she chooses to forgive her captors and torturers. This is not to discount the trauma that Lindhout continues to experience, but is testament to the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The takeaway message? Well, there are two: first, don’t go to Somalia; second, it is possible to rebuild one’s life after the most extreme adversity.

On a much lighter note was Australian Sarah Turnbull’s All Good Things, an ultimately uplifting account of her time living in Tahiti with her French husband, her challenges falling pregnant as an older woman and her return to Sydney with her family after living as an expatriate in Paris for many years. Turnball writes honestly and reflectively about her daily life and the emotional roller coaster she rides as she tries to adjust to the South Pacific then back to her homeland. I have been fortunate enough to visit Tahiti, so it was with great interest that I read her nuanced impressions and descriptions of day-to-day life on this ‘paradise’. With her carefully constructed prose, she brings to light the complexities of getting what you want, highlighting the peaks and valleys of her journey.

Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable is a collection of brilliantly written essays about her life, her work, her health and her relationships. While there are plenty of wonderfully written sentences that explode like firecrackers, the biggest delight is in her penchant for brutal honesty. It’s incredibly refreshing, especially for an upper middle class white American woman living in Los Angeles to express herself so forthrightly about the things were all thinking, but not saying. The way she tactfully yet scathingly portrays her mother is almost shocking. The world needs more woman writers like this, to expose the reality of our lives, the complexity, the messiness, the taboos. She is definitely not afraid to say the unspeakable.

Another writer I read this year for the first time (well, technically last year) was Elisabeth Eaves whose memoir Wanderlust about traveling and working in five continents is also very brave, honest and self-revelatory. Eaves’ memoir is about her need to explore, to keep moving forward, to run away from herself and anything she perceives as trapping her, like an apartment in Paris that she shares with her diplomat boyfriend. She does this with candor and self-awareness, always weighing up the costs and benefits of her actions and their consequences (which usually involve quitting jobs, moving countries and and breaking hearts). Now a successful journalist based in New York, we see Eaves’ evolution from a curious high school student to the powerful woman she has become today. She is a blond, red lipstick-wearing Type A risk-taker, living a life we usually associate with the most thrill-seeking, adventurous and virile male writers who trot from country to country, and bed to bed chasing their next story.

Food writer Molly Wizenberg’s Delancy is her second memoir, this time about the pizzeria she opened with her husband. Her writing paints a cozy picture of her life in Seattle with her family (she has a toddler) but she is careful to never romanticize or idealize how hard it is to open a restaurant from scratch and run it successfully. She writes simply yet eloquently about the good times and the bad – the reader is right there with her as she exposes the blood, sweat and tears of making her and her husband’s dreams a reality. Her narrative weaves in recipes, which makes it a delight for the unpretentious foodie.