The Whole Intimate Mess

I came across this excellent memoir, The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics and Women’s Writing because the author, Holly Walker, sounded familiar. Indeed, it turns out that Holly and I crossed paths briefly at University when we both worked for its student publication, which Holly went on to edit. She then went on to be a Rhodes Scholar and a Greens Member of Parliament. Overachiever much?

What I love most about this concise, well-written book is how candid it is without being oversharing-y. While it must’ve been terrifying for such a public person to lay her struggles bare, Holly navigates the personal and the political with grace, warmth, humour and vulnerability. In a nutshell, she opens up about the perfect storm of events and conditions that led to the brave decision to step down from her parliamentary role: her struggle with becoming a mum while working in parliament, her postpartum depression, her husband’s chronic illness, their rocky marriage, and the anxiety and self-harm that came along with these stressful life events.

In her vulnerability, she is down to earth and relatable. Holly also weaves throughout her at-times harrowing story quotes from other female writers from around the world who speak to, and contextualise, her struggles, and it is with the fusing of these excerpts and her writing that bring a universal quality to her work. I certainly identified with elements of her story as a white, NZ/western, working woman.

This memoir is ultimately hopeful – Holly gets help and rebuilds her life in a way that is more workable for her and her family. She acknowledges her privilege and that she has more options than most people. As a fellow lefty, the memoir is littered with examples and anecdotes of how New Zealand is not doing enough for children in poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor which is having a detrimental effect. Still, it gives me hope that people like Holly are working on these issues. Thanks Holly for all that you do, for reminding us that the pen is mightier than the sword, and for being such an excellent role model for the women of Aotearoa/New Zealand!

The Full Catastrophe

I stood alone in a corner waiting for my friends to arrive. I was wearing a new dress bought for this special occasion, my American friend’s wedding. It was black chiffon with dark pink flowers. It’s a cute dress and I hope to wear it again somebody. It was a fun, happy, quirky wedding. I felt grateful to have been able to experience it with my friends. We drove to the next venue, stopping on the way for tea in a new cafe/bar surrounded by traditional houses and fairy lights. People were drunk and laughing and there was a chaotic vibe in the air at the afterparty. I said goodbye to my friends, we said we would catch up soon, in a few weeks, maybe have dinner.

None of us knew that just one week later a mutual friend’s brother would jump off a bridge and die. We didn’t know then that we would gather in nine days time at a funeral home where we would pray in front of a coffin and offer a white flower to the deceased. We didn’t go just to support our friend. We also knew the dearly departed. We had trained capoeira together. We had partied together. We were all social media friends and followers. We couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Our young, handsome, charismatic, intelligent and talented friend had taken his own life under difficult, but not insurmountable, circumstances. An irrational and permanent response to an impermanent problem. I thought to myself how amazing that I have gone this long in life and never been to a funeral. It was my first and I held his mother tight as she sobbed into my arms.

Pepper the past few weeks with some job rejections, a lacklustre birthday and some lonely Saturday nights with only a needy existential crisis for company and I do believe I am living what is known as the full catastrophe. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that you have no control over, over when or if it will stop and if you’ll ever be able to get off. There’s little time to process thoughts and feelings, to read the emotional data, to regroup before the next wave comes and washes over you. It’s those cliches again, you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. Everyday there’s an opportunity for perspective taking, for saying a quick atheist prayer for my friend whose brother is gone far too soon and far too tragically. And least we forget the brother. Rest peacefully, HJ. You are forever in our thoughts, prayers and hearts.

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.