Categories
PERSONAL

40

I’m 40 today. To be honest, I’m in a bit of a funk about it. I’ve been joking for years that I was born to be 40, but now that it’s actually here it feels so… adult. I don’t know how to do anything yet! I can’t be halfway done when I’ve barely even started.

I remember waking up on the morning of my 30th with $12 in my bank account and nothing but tomato sauce and wine in the fridge. I was flatting, stone cold broke from blowing all my money travelling, perpetually single, and working a job I enjoyed but that frankly wasn’t going anywhere.

On paper, it’s been an absolute ride of a decade. Husband, business, two kids, house, move across the country, brain work, body work, work work. I’ve come such a long way. I’m really proud of myself, when I think about it. I made human people and birthed them out of my body! My business partner and I have kept our wee business supporting our families for almost 10 years! I found an exceptional human being and had the sense to lock him down and put a ring on it! I suffered the consequences of neglecting my body all through my teens and twenties and I did the work to heal it! I did all that! Well done, me!

I’m learning, as I get older, that real progress is slow and boring. I’ve spent literal decades making wild plans to upend everything and crashing after a day or a week. The changes that stick are the little ones, the small tweaks and half-measures that I can stick with because I enjoy them. I resolved to read 50 books in 2012 and I’ve kept it up ever since. I resolved to go for a walk every day one month in 2019 and I’ve kept that up ever since too. I went two full years without touching a single morsel of gluten or dairy. I still fail more than I succeed, but it’s nice to know I can do hard things when I really want to.

The elephant in my room is my own writing. I decided to be a novelist when I was 12 years old, and here I am at 40, still dabbling. I can call myself a writer – that’s what I get paid to do, after all. I’ve written articles and blogs and a million government websites and several partial (and one complete) novels that are chilling in a box in the closet.

I’ve come back to fiction this year, after almost 10 years away from it. I’m making slow progress, but it’s progress. I give it an hour or two most mornings, and I’m enjoying it, and maybe that’s what really matters anyway. Maybe I’ll be published at 45, or 55, or maybe I’ll never be published, and writing fiction will just be the hobby I tinker with while I have my morning coffee.

And maybe that will be okay.

Maybe that will be more than okay, as part of this incredible life I’ve built with my family where I can swim in the sea and take the time to write and go for walks every day and play with my hilarious, infuritating children and obsess about curtains in my really very freaking nice house that’s more than I honestly ever dreamed of having. 

This morning I woke up 40, and there’s enough money in my account to pay our mortgage, and enough food in our fridge to feed our family, and an amazing family to feed. It’s all more than I ever dreamed of having. I’m very lucky, and very thankful, and apparently also very middle-aged.

Categories
PERSONAL

Two thoughts about parenting

1.

They say things “skip a generation” – often about innocuous things like having a green thumb or a passion for cooking – but I think it’s wider than that. Life is a wheel, and so is parenting. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how you’re always parenting from your own trauma. We all want to give their kids whatever we didn’t have – but the flipside of that is that we can’t pass on what we’re not conscious of.

Here’s the simple version: my nana was an amazing cook who made everything (soups, pickles, sauces and jams) herself from the vegetables and fruit my grandfather grew all over their half-acre section. 

My mum, meanwhile, is a diabolical cook. Dinner in our house was usually boiled until it was grey or burned to a crisp – but we ate out a lot at actual restaurants, and our lunchboxes were always packed with hideously expensive (and hideously hideous) Eighties health foods like carob-coated rice cakes and gluten-free seed “crackers” with the texture and flavour of damp cardboard.

They both believed that food was love, but because Mum had never had packet foods and restaurant nights out, and I guess because Nana took care of all the cooking so she never felt the need to learn (no one wants to be into what their parents are into) – and maybe even because she saw how much time her mother spent making food instead of working or doing anything for herself – she showed that love by spending money on food rather than growing or making it.

And now the wheel turns back. My memories heavily feature nightly battles over tasteless dinners, and the crushing disappointment of opening my lunchbox to find nothing at all I actually wanted to eat, while all around me my friends tore open crinkly, colourful packets and crunched their way through brand-name biscuits. I love to cook. I’m an absolute nerd about nutrition, and growing and making food from scratch. And although they’re only 5 and 6, so far my boys only care about food that comes in shiny wrappers…

So now the less-simple version. I was listening to a podcast with Dr Becky Kennedy, who was talking about how your triggers with your children are often around whatever you had to learn to push down or ignore in yourself to get love as a child. Makes sense. But it made me think about the opposite, too – how we’re all trying to give our children the experiences that we didn’t have, or to heal whatever we feel was wanting in our own childhoods. But, in doing that, we can’t see whatever we did have, so we can miss out on passing on what our parents worked so hard to give us. It skips a generation, and we accidentally do the damage our parents were trying to heal in themselves as they parented us.

Here’s a concrete example, and a reason why I’m so grateful that my husband and I had different upbringings:

My parents were very typical helicopter parents. They were married a long time without children, and by the time they adopted me at 36 and had my brother at 37, they were determined that we would be and have everything. Mum’s stated goal for our childhoods was that we would be “well-rounded” – which is a noble goal, unless you have a hyper-focused, obsession-prone, socially-anxious, introvert bookworm for a child (me, hi. I’m the problem it’s me) who frankly just wanted to be left alone to read and write in her room until she was old enough for university. 

I found the constant parade of extra-curricular activities and team sports and exams and performances insanely stressful. I hated nearly all of it, and “it” was a lot. A team sport every term, swimming, speech and drama, a musical instrument, sailing, ballet, tennis, Scouts – I only realised in my thirties how tense and stressed out I was basically all the time. And because I was a kid, I thought the problem was me. I felt like there was something wrong with me that needed fixing so I could be “normal”. I felt perpetually anxious, not good enough, and like I could never be myself – or even figure out who that was until well into my twenties.

Diogo is the only child of a social worker single mother. He was, and is, her pride and joy, but she always worked full time so he spent a lot of time alone in their apartment or playing with the other kids in his building. His mum worked her ass off to give him whatever he wanted, and supported him so deeply that he grew up feeling like life often had no guardrails or boundaries. When he looks back, he sees himself as spoiled and entitled and ungrateful of how hard his mum had to work to give him what he had.

He wants our boys to appreciate how privileged and lucky they are, and to have the discipline to see things through and follow the rules – and to have those rules be clear-cut and concrete so they can feel secure in where the boundaries are. I want them to feel free to be themselves, and to always make their own choices.

This is the essential paradox of our family life. You can’t see what you never had. Diogo’s mum was permissive and indulgent, so he has no experience of feeling controlled and judged, which makes it hard for him to see the long-term consequences of occasionally being too strict or inflexible. Meanwhile, I’m hyper-aware of that, but I have no experience of feeling like I have more control of my parent than I should, so I find it hard to see the long-term consequences of being a pushover or letting my kids (Nico, he’s the problem it’s him) negotiate everything with me.

(On the other hand, I believe Nico could debate anyone on the planet and crush them into dust with his absolutely insatiable energy for arguing, negotiation, bargaining and disagreement, so… life skills? We’ve taken to calling him “Do Contra”, which more or less translates as “Mr Contrary”, because there is literally nothing you could say to him that he won’t find a way to disagree with or negotiate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: that kid will save the world or he’ll end it.)

Just something to ponder.

2. 

Something else to ponder: I was thinking about boys and girls yesterday while I was watching the boys’ swimming lessons, and wondering how much of the fact that girls perform better at basically all forms of organised learning is because organised learning is by definition not set up well for little boys.

Part of it is definitely socialisation – we still reward little girls for listening and being kind and following the rules more than boys, so they’re very quickly indoctrinated into being rewarded for people-pleasing. Which makes them more tractable and teachable, because they follow the rules better.

But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we also punish boys for being boys. This isn’t really a new idea, but it hit me hard in that moment. Nico was the last to have his turn at “frog kicking”, and his teacher had spent 4 or 5 minutes with each kid before him showing them where their legs needed to be. 

So, he, a six-year-old who has never stopped moving for a second in his life (without Minecraft being involved, anyway) had to wait quietly on his own, IN A POOL, without moving or playing, for upwards of 10 minutes. Spoiler: he could not. He wasn’t disruptive or dangerous, he was just amusing himself by diving under and popping up while he waited – but his teacher made him get out and sit on the side for the rest of the class, and he missed his turn. He actually seemed to take it in stride, but I was fuming on his behalf. I don’t know if I could stay still that long in a pool!

Before Nico was born, I did a lot of reading about how there’s no difference in boys’ and girls’ brains. And I know there’s enormous variation between and among the genders, and biological sex is a spectrum, so this is all a generalisation, but also: hormones exist. Nico has never played with a doll in his life. Luca loves them. They both say pink and red are their favourite colours. But, left to their own devices, they will always decide that the best game involves jumping on and/or pummeling each other. The urge to wrestle and fight and learn by moving their bodies in violent and unpredictable ways seems to be built in.

All kids have that to a degree, but in my experience it is much stronger in most boys. And then we ask them to sit still and be quiet to learn things, and punish them when they can’t. Imagine how that compounds over a kid’s school career. In that swimming class, the girls learned the thing, and the boy both didn’t learn it, and was punished for being asked to do something his body couldn’t do. Next week, the girls will have already had the lesson, so it will be easier for them to try that kick again. Nico hasn’t, and he’ll probably be distracted by being in a pool and trying to keep his body under control, so maybe he’ll fail to learn it again. And on and on and on.

The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.

The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.” They even report evidence of a grade bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m so thankful (again and always) that my kids are in Montessori environments where they can move their bodies and learn things in their own time and way.

Categories
PERSONAL

Luca turns five

My baby is five. His birthday was three weeks ago today, and I’m only just getting around to saying anything about it now because that’s how second children work.

I worry about this kid, but in a completely different way than I worry about his brother (about whom my concerns tend towards extreme sports or jail). I worry that other people can’t see how incredible he is, or that he’ll get passed over or not noticed at preschool because he’s so self-contained and low fuss.

That makes it sound like he’s shy or quiet, which for a long time we thought he might be – but it turns out he’s neither. Once he’s comfortable, he’s a tempest of action and wild stories. He’s the centre of all the action in his little squad of boys and an absolute chatterbox at home. He’s figured out how to provoke his brother into an absolute frenzy using nothing but a few well-placed words, and he gets deep and abiding satisfaction from doing it.

He’s a real little dude – always running and shouting and making a mess. But he’s also still my little clingy koala and an absolute mummy’s boy. Drop-offs are still hard for him every morning, and his favourite phrase is still “I want to be with YOU, Mummy”. He needs a back scratch and a face rub and a foot rub and all his stuffies and a thousand kisses to get to sleep, and he’d still vastly prefer it if I carried him everywhere. 

He’s stopped telling outrageous lies, mostly, but he’s still playing with language – he makes up his own words for things, or will spend a week replacing all his nouns with the word “cucumber”. He also has a very well-defined sense of drama that he chooses to employ in just the strangest possible ways. A couple of weeks ago I came home and he’d replaced my bedside lamp with his bunny lamp and put my lamp in his room. When I asked him why, he glared at me and said, “I will NEVER tell you”. And so far he has not.

He’s my little emotional manifestor, so he always has his own stuff going on. (Personality sun in the gate of aloneness; design sun/earth in the gates of skills and focus. (Interestingly, because our birthdays are exactly 9 months apart (yes, I know), I’m the reverse.)) He’s very self-contained, and can play quietly on his own for hours at a time when he’s in the mood (home sick the other day, he asked me to go and work in a different room because he needed “some time alone”). 

The flip side of that is that he struggles intensely with the Monday to Friday routine, and is always an exhausted mess by the holidays. One of our parenting challenges with him is going to be working out how to help him navigate knowing when he needs time out or a rest, and helping him get it.

Our other challenge is that he knows exactly how cute he is, and he plays up being the baby to avoid getting in trouble and to get his own way (which is also, annoyingly, really cute because mostly his own way is cuddles). He is acutely, painfully delicious and I can never get enough of his little face and his sweaty little hands and his giant feet and his bony knees and his soft tummy. It’s shocking that he’s already five, but also he’s more interesting and more fun all the time, so I guess I have to forgive him for getting so big. 

He’ll always be my baby though… possibly literally, since there’s a real risk I’ll still be carrying him into school when he’s 12.

Categories
MONTHLY PERSONAL

March 2022: In which we are moving and one of us (not me) is a liar

Every month since, oh, January of last year, I’ve planned to post a general life update here. 15th time lucky!

Somehow a third of this year has disappeared already. We made the massive, protracted and very angsty decision at the end of last year to move to Tauranga. Apart from 10 months in equally-grey Vancouver, I’ve lived in Wellington my whole life. The year before, I’d made the (I thought) final call and decided we would plan to stay in our house for the long haul. I hate the cold and the constant wind, but we love the kids’ school, and we’re close to coffee, the gym, old and new friends, ducks and dog walks.

Pretty much immediately, the universe does what the universe does, and upended everything. First, Diogo got a job where he works remotely from home, and I realised that all my client meetings had been online for the past year – so neither of us needs to physically be in Wellington anymore for work. Another big part of our decision to stay put had been about family – my parents are here, and although I desperately wanted to be closer to my brother and his wife, especially once they start a family, we had two of my amazing cousins and my aunt nearby. Then both cousins promptly moved away – one to Tauranga, no less – and my aunt and her partner decided to move overseas.

We’ve spent pretty much all our holidays in Tauranga since the boys were born. My brother has been there for about 10 years now, and his wife grew up there. We love the beach, the sunshine, the relaxed pace, the food. We have friends there and regular spots we like to go. We discovered there’s a Montessori primary school there, right by the beach, and I went and visited it and found it absolutely delightful.

Then I got home and it rained for three weeks straight. On the rare day that the sun came out and stayed out, we discovered our kids are old enough to spend pretty much the whole day pottering around outside without us. They love it. We love it. I realised how much of my time I spend being cold, and how intensely it saps my energy. I realised I want my kids to grow up looking like the kids I saw up there: sun-bleached hair, bare feet and tanned skin, riding their bikes and playing in the surf. There seems to be kids everywhere in Papamoa and the Mount – out playing on the street and in driveways in a way they just don’t in Wellington.

So we decided. We’d do it. We got Nico into the new school and found Luca a preschool, and I took January off work and spent it working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, painting and sanding and scrubbing and weeding. Our aim was to get up there for the term 1 holidays, to start term 2 at their new schools.

Now it’s the end of March, and those holidays are two weeks away. Our house is still on the market – we had an offer, but they dropped out when they couldn’t find a buyer for their own home. This morning we put in an offer on a house, again, after several unsuccessful attempts. This one is probably also likely to be unsuccessful. We’ve managed to absolutely nail our timing and be caught in a perfect storm of bank regulation changes and Covid that mean the housing market is an absolute nightmare. But we’re sticking at it, because we’ve come too far now to go back to everything as it was.

It’s stressful, and it’s frustrating. And it’s exciting and overwhelming. I’m very scared and very hopeful.

Updates hopefully to follow.

I started an exercise in February that I heard about on a podcast – for 30 days, you journal each day under three headings:

  • What filled me with enthusiasm today?
  • What drained me of energy today?
  • What did I learn about myself today?

It’s meant to help you gain clarity about which of your habits aren’t serving you, and where you should be putting your energy. On day 30, you go through everything you’ve written and find patterns. These were mine:

  • Say what you need (it’s okay to say what you need).
  • Have a routine and stick to it; getting rid of the little choices makes the big ones easier.
  • Get outside and do things with friends and family.
  • Play with your kids (but say what you need).
  • Walk a lot.
  • Inertia will eat you; just do something. (Not scrolling your phone. Put it down.)
  • Eat the things that make you feel good.
  • Aim high but go slow – do things well and enjoy the process.
  • Just start writing. It’s always hard until it’s not.
  • Clean your house.

Nico is about to turn 6, which at Montessori means transitioning to primary school. He’s excited but I think also a bit nervous about being the youngest again – being a role model and a leader is a big part of his identity at preschool. He’s absolutely obsessed with drawing at the moment – it’s even eclipsed Lego. He’s discovered YouTube tutorials and will do 10 or 12 of them a day, some of them staggeringly good. He’s grown so much all his pants from last year are up above mid-shin, his limbs suddenly so long and skinny he looks like a little spider.

Luca is four and a half. He’s learned to ride a bike, has a girlfriend in his class, and has discovered the concept of “tomorrow” (a parenting issue I didn’t see coming. One evening, I mentioned something he was waiting for was happening tomorrow. The next day, when he asked me what day it was, I said “Tuesday” and he broke down in furious betrayed sobs, yelling “YOU TRICKED ME, MUMMY! YOU TRICKED ME!”). He’s also a consummate and elaborate storyteller, which is maybe just a euphemism for an out-of-control liar.

His stories/wild fibs have three components: “Did you know”, “Logan said”, and “Right?”. For example, if Nico was to mention that a jellyfish was poisonous, Luca would promptly respond, “Did you know that Logan saw that jellyfish and it stinged him so that means it’s poison, right Mummy?” 

Although he’ll also happily go for something as mundane as “Did you know that today at lunch Logan said he likes carrots the best. He said that because carrots are yum, right?” The line between what’s real and what’s not can only at this point be verified by Logan.

Finally, two really good books that I liked a lot and think you (whoever you are) should read:

Categories
PERSONAL

Boring.

I’m boring now. 

I’ve fought it for years, but it’s time to give in and cop on: I don’t have anything to write about because my life – and by extension my very person – is boring. Prone as I am to solitary sports like reading and long walks, I was never the one with a daring story for every occasion, usually ending with one or more participants spending the night at A&E or under a bush somewhere (that’s my brother’s job – no, literally, it’s his job: he spent 20 years in radio), but I held my own. I went places and saw people and collected a funny anecdote or two to share once I went new places and saw new people.

But now so little happens to me that I’ve been reduced to using journal prompts to even have anything to say to myself of an evening. I know I’m not alone in this – the only reminiscing people will be doing about this portion of history is “remember when we all stayed home for two years?” – but I have some exacerbating circumstances that make me even more boring than everyone else.

For the last eight years, I’ve worked from home. For six of those eight years, I’ve also had small children. This combination means that most of the people I talk to are me or were made by me – and although I hold great hopes for the people I made, at this stage they still mostly talk about Ninjago and snacks. I’ve reached a point where I’m living vicariously through my local barista – a 23-year-old hipster with the build of a baby giraffe and some complicated lady problems.

(Do we still call youngsters with man buns and exposed ankles “hipsters”, or is there a new word I’ve missed because it’s not on Ninjago?)

Compounding the issue is social media. As someone who works from home and has small children, I love social media. It’s a lifeline, an escape, and a way to catch up with all the friends I never see because we can’t get babysitters on the same night (and even if we could we’d be obliged to go out with our husbands instead so we could talk about things other than which child gets custody of the Thor minifigure today and how many pieces of apple it’s okay to let them have before dinner).

I can give or take Facebook other than Messenger these days, but I fucking love Instagram. Presently I’m following dozens of shiny-haired American women as they redecorate their enormous, brand-new houses one elaborate built-in at a time. I love it. I’m filled with envy and deeply unsatisfied with everything about our house – but not enough to actually do any of the DIYs they share. Instead I obsessively scroll through them, saving pictures of cavernous dining rooms and enormous walk-in wardrobes and feeling an itchy sense of loathing about my actual surroundings. It’s great.

My point, though, is that social media has made us all boring. Already saddled with a dearth of stories due to a pesky global pandemic, any tiny scrap of interesting content has already been shared online by the time you actually speak to a friend or family member. Conversations that used to start with “wait till I tell you what happened on my way to…” now begin with “I saw your post about…”, and then both parties chortle awkwardly until someone says “but did you see the meme I posted…?”

There are no punchlines anymore; nothing to share that hasn’t already been shared.  Interesting life events are now so light on the ground we’ve collectively settled for sending the group chat a series of coloured boxes every morning and leaving it at that.

I can see two possible ways out of this predicament: go out in the world more often, or get off social media. Frankly, I don’t like either of them. Going out means paying for parking and finding my mascara, and I’ve forgotten how to tell a story in real time anyway – how do you even express emotions without gifs? What if I disappear off Facebook and all my friends forget I even exist? What if Lauren from Instagram tackles her master bathroom and I never get to see whether she goes with lacquered or unlacquered brass faucets?

Maybe it’s better to just stay boring.

Categories
PERSONAL

It turns out rain is just a bit wet

It’s raining this morning. That steady, relentless Spring rain that soaks everything and lasts all day. On Monday and Friday mornings, I walk to the gym for my PT session, and then walk home again via the local coffee shop. I get my almond flat white and wander home along the stream, sometimes stopping to meditate somewhere along the way. Once I get home, I shower, cook myself a big breakfast of eggs and avocado and greens or mushrooms, and settle in to work or study for the rest of the morning. It’s a routine I really love.

I almost didn’t walk this morning. I thought about rearranging our schedule so that I could get a ride – if we weren’t still in level 2, Diogo could have taken the kids to preschool early for a play in the playground, dropping me off on the way. But I love the walk – it wakes me up and warms me up, and I listen to my podcasts on the way. So I put my jacket on, stuffed a spare pair of socks in my bag, and headed out.

And it was fine. In fact, it was really nice. The birds were singing, the kōwhai were blooming. I got a bit damp around my toes and the bottom of my jacket, but otherwise it was more or less like any other walk on a cold morning. 

At some point, I’d started thinking of rain as some sort of insurmountable obstacle –  like having damp socks or wet hair would be a day-ruining cataclysm, an enduring misery to be avoided at all costs. It turns out, rain is just a bit wet. Who knew?

As a teenager, I had to walk from the train to school and back. I didn’t have a car until I was 25, and then promptly moved to Canada where I went straight back to catching public transport everywhere. When I came home, for one reason or another, I mostly didn’t have a car until Diogo moved in with me, bringing his car with him. Then we had a baby and acquired a second car, to “make life easier”.

Our logic was sound but also absolute bullshit – because I got paid by the hour, it made sense to get me where I needed to go as fast as possible, to “maximise my earning potential”. This is also the reason that we ended up adding a cleaner, and a gardener, and a Roomba, to “free me up” to do as much paid work as humanly possible. In our modern society, this is a sound and sensible plan. But over time, it was steadily becoming apparent that I hated it. In theory, I was making more than the car and the cleaner and the gardener cost – but somehow, it didn’t seem like it. We were both tired and stressed and run down, so all the extra money seemed to go on cafes and takeaways and wine.

I was resenting the work, but also, who wants to clean when they don’t have to? Who enjoys commuting on the train?

Turns out, me. I always enjoyed the train. No stressing about being on time – it was all out of my hands. I could read books or listen to music and there was absolutely no way to do anything else, or feel bad about the time I was “wasting”. On the other hand, sitting in traffic fills me with tense and impotent anxiety. I find parking in the city stressful, and I arrive everywhere frazzled and on edge.

We sold our second car about a year ago, when it didn’t pass its WOF and it wasn’t worth paying to fix it. It was originally a bit of a trial, but once it had gone, the adjustment period was actually quicker than expected. We needed to be a bit more organised about who had to be where and when. We bought a bike with a child seat so we could do drop-offs and pick-ups without the car on fine days. I started walking more… and more… and more.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve started taking the kids to school on the bus, even on days when I have the car. It takes longer, but it’s so much nicer as a way to start our day. There’s no rushing, except to get out the door in time to walk to the bus stop, which is about 15 minutes away at 3- and 4-year-old speed. 

We start our day with a walk outside, checking out the river and the birds and the trees. The kids run backwards and forwards and play with sticks (and/or complain and ask to be carried, depending). The bus is more fun for them than the car – it’s big and interesting and there are people to look at and buttons to press (we’re working on at what time and how often). We’re always at the gate on time, so they have a bit of time to run around with friends before heading inside, and then I put my podcast or audiobook on and walk back home, which takes me about 45 minutes if I’m direct about it (sometimes I’m not). Everyone wins.

Is it inefficient? Sure. Is it a waste of time? I really don’t think so. I might even try it when it’s raining.

Categories
HEALTH + NUTRITION PERSONAL

New site, new me

It’s been a while. My life has changed so fundamentally that I haven’t known where to start, or how to even begin to convey the shift without losing everyone immediately. 

(Before we go any further: no, I didn’t find Jesus. Even worse.)

The background

Almost a year and a half ago, I was finally diagnosed with a skin condition on the autoimmune spectrum. It’s called lichen sclerosus, but I don’t recommend you look it up. The cliffs notes version is that it causes the skin on and around your lady parts to turn white, thin, and itch incessantly. Because the skin is so thin, scratching the itch (or doing anything that irritates the skin, such as, say, having a bowel motion, or sex) splits the skin and causes bleeding, fissures, and lots and lots of pain. Oh, and more itching. Endless, relentless, mind-bending itching.

Getting the diagnosis had been a journey of almost a year of daily misery – but my relief was short-lived. I was given a tube of steroid cream to help with the itching and told there was nothing else anyone could do. I was likely to have this forever, and it would never get better. Sucks to be you, my doctor said kindly, and shovelled me out the door.

Around the same time, I was told that my thyroid was “normal”, even though I was positive I hadn’t been ovulating since getting pregnant with Luca, my periods barely lasted two days, I was so exhausted that I could barely climb the stairs, my toes frequently got so cold they went numb inside my shoes, my brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool and I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to feel excited or engaged by anything. 

The only upside was that I didn’t really mind that it was too painful to have sex, because my sex drive had completely vanished, and taken my imagination with it. I’d not only stopped writing fiction, I couldn’t even be bothered to read it – my brain couldn’t see the point of wasting time on anything that wasn’t real.

My lower back also hurt so badly that lying flat on the floor felt like I was lying on bars of hot metal, and then my knees started to hurt too – until every time I bent over sharp pains shot through my joints.

I’ve suffered from IBS since puberty, but my digestive problems were also getting worse and worse. I was constantly bloated and constipated. I had hay fever all the damn time, although it was hard to tell because I also always had a cold. I got every illness the kids brought home from daycare, and stayed sick long after everyone else was better. 

Just to round things out, I’d developed an allergy to my cat, and then I started having an allergic reaction to alcohol too (wine, you guys. My beloved wine!). Cutting onions made my eyes feel like they were exploding, and I’d randomly get hives for no reason. My nails, which had always been really strong, started to peel and split. My hair didn’t fall out, but it changed texture, managing to be both brittle and fluffy at the same time.

In short, I felt like I was falling apart. After Luca was born, I’d always thought we’d have a third baby, but I couldn’t see how it would be physically possible. I was genuinely convinced that if I did, my body would never recover. I felt like everything I wanted and cared about had melted away, until all I had left was my kids, Diogo, and dragging myself with gritted teeth through the bare minimum every day.

The road back

After the diagnosis, I couldn’t accept that that was just it. Take the steroids to dull the itching, and otherwise just live with being perpetually exhausted and stupid and in constant pain – it’s normal! You’re fine!

I wasn’t fine. I couldn’t be fine. This could not be it. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t accept it – I actually felt like I couldn’t. If this was the rest of my life, I felt like I wasn’t even sure it was worth living. I’m not saying I was hiding in my room sharpening the razor blades, but I decided I had to try and do something about my health myself. 

As a start, I cut dairy out of my diet again (I’d nixed it to good digestive result before getting pregnant with Nico, but during said pregnancy I’d gone balls-to-the-wall on ice cream and remained there ever since). I figured that anything that helped my IBS was bound to help the tearing and bleeding – even if it was just by making my bowel motions more regular.

So I ate a tonne of fibre. I went back on probiotics. I started lifting weights with a personal trainer twice a week and working even harder on our diets at home. At this point though, I thought our diets were already pretty good. I love to cook, and in trying (and totally, utterly failing) to lose the baby weight after Luca was born, I’d got pretty militant about what we were all eating. I made sourdough, home-cooked the vast majority of our meals, and got organic veggies delivered.

Cutting out dairy, it turned out, did help. It helped a lot. The itching subsided enough to stop me feeling like I was going to go insane. I mostly stopped bleeding when I pooped, and the agonising pain that had wracked me after a bowel motion went away. It still hurt, but nothing like it had. (There was a period where I’d had to lie down for half an hour or so after every BM, clutching the sides of the bed and heavy breathing through the pain.)

I’m a natural skeptic, but since removing dairy had been so helpful, I decided to go to a naturopath to see if there was any further advice she could give me. I had one appointment, where she said I needed to cut out dairy, gluten, meat, and all grains for three weeks and replace half my meals with smoothies made from a protein powder she managed to sell me for a truly ridiculous sum. She tried very hard not to call it a cleanse. I left with a pile of very expensive supplements and no idea why I was meant to take any of them, or how they were meant to help. 

Now, at this point, you need to know that my four-year-old takes after me. Every second word out of his mouth is “why?”. He needs to understand why he’s being asked to do something before he’s willing to do it. His sense of fairness and justice is very, very tied up in not only understanding how things work but why they work that way. At our first parent-teacher meeting, his preschool teacher told us that he’s a perfect student as long as A) he’s told why something is happening, and B) that reason feels both logical and just to him.

I can relate, kid. I call it my “problem with authority”, but it’s frequently more a problem with stupidity. I can’t abide doing things that don’t seem to have a purpose, or where the purpose doesn’t make sense. “Just because” has never cut it for me, even if I sometimes wish it would cut it with my toddler.

So a few days later, I asked the naturopath to call me. I really needed to understand why she was recommending what she was recommending. She couldn’t explain it to me – in fact, she barely even tried – so I didn’t do the cleanse.

There goes that idea, I thought. But later, I was telling my cousin about it and she said, “oh my god, you need to meet Shelley.”

Shelley was something called a “functional nutritionist”. She’d helped my cousin, who has celiac disease, get healthy when she got pregnant with her first child. In fact, she’d got her so healthy that it had caused her ongoing issues – her son had been born so plump and hale that when he later dropped into being the skinny string bean he was genetically destined to be, her Plunket lady became convinced he was malnourished and kept making her take him to the hospital for monitoring.

I left my first appointment with Shelley thinking maybe I was in love. Not only could she explain all the whys to me, but she was convinced that we could not only stop but reverse the lichen. She also wasn’t interested in only solving that problem, or even solving the hormonal problem I thought was underlying it – she wanted to go all the way back to my digestive issues and solve those too.

As she explained it, the lichen was caused by inflammation. My body was attacking its own tissues in a way it wasn’t meant to. But, unlike the other medical professionals I’d seen, she wanted to understand why the inflammation was happening. Your body doesn’t just start misfiring in a vacuum. Something has happened inside you to cause a malfunction, and that malfunction has built up over time. Your cells haven’t repaired themselves properly. And eventually, that malfunction manifests itself somewhere – on your skin, as a tumour, as fatigue or brain fog or depression, or numerous other symptoms.

She traced a path backwards for me. The lichen was the most visible end point of a chain that began with my digestive system. Light after light switched on. I couldn’t believe that there was this incredibly obvious solution just sitting here, and that no one was talking about it. Look after your body, and it will do what it’s meant to. We weren’t subduing my symptoms or changing anything in my body – we were just supporting it to find its own way back to health. 

And, to my wonder and surprise, it did.

The new normal

The size of the change that’s been wrought in me staggers me daily. But I don’t know how to talk about it, because it seems both so flimsy and obvious (eat vegetables!), and considering the way we think about medical issues in this modern world, so incredibly unlikely (eat vegetables!). We helped my digestive system work better, took out foods it turned out I was intolerant to, added a few supplements to support things that hadn’t been functioning well… and it changed my life.

My lichen sclerosus is not only symptom-free (except for one day a month around my period, and if I accidentally eat gluten, dairy, oats or corn), but I’m having regular, totally PMS-free periods every 28 days for the first time in my life. I’m not allergic to wine, or my cat, or the pollen outside. I hadn’t even realised I’d always had an issue with post-nasal drip until it stopped.

For the first time since I turned 12, I’m free of IBS. I have a bowel movement every morning after I wake up, and it’s never painful or crampy or surprising. I don’t get constipated or suffer from regular diarrhea. I’m not so bloated I could be 8 months pregnant after every second meal.

I sleep well and wake up feeling good. For the first time I can ever remember, I have actual, real live energy. I’m excited to do things, and my brain feels like it’s firing on every cylinder. I’m not depressed or fatigued or foggy. I’m not living with a constant hum of vague anxiety in the back of my head.

My nails are strong. My skin is clear. When everyone else gets sick, I often don’t – or at least I get less sick, and I get better faster.

What am I taking to effect this massive, life-affecting change? I still take a couple of NAC every day, but other than that: nothing. I avoid dairy, gluten, oats and corn. I’m careful about vegetable oils and sugar. I go for a walk every day and try to meditate at least a few times a week. I go to bed early. That’s really about it. My entire life changed, and all I had to do was give up KFC. I don’t know how to explain it to people without sounding ridiculous.

I tell friends about this and they say “but what do you eat?” and “I couldn’t do it – it doesn’t sound worth giving up bread/pastry/cheese/pizza”.

All I can say is this:

I eat better than I ever have – and I love to eat. It was hard to get used to, it took a long time to fully adjust, and I went through all five stages of grief for every food I realised was causing my symptoms to flare up, but now, I don’t miss it. Genuinely. Would I like a piece of hot, crusty sourdough with butter? Yes. But instead I have some variation on eggs and bacon and mushrooms and avocado and kale for breakfast every morning, and I feel amazing after it. I eat soups and salads and stews and curries and tacos – I just make them myself, without gluten or dairy.

It helps that eating even a tiny crumb of butter makes me itch until I bleed and then feel exhausted and depressed for a week, but feeling strong and healthy and filled with energy is more than worth giving up the 10 minutes of bliss while the KFC was in my mouth (right before the stomach ache kicked in).

I think an awful lot of us have forgotten (or never known) what it feels like to actually be healthy. We’ve normalised things that just aren’t normal – bloating, headaches, constipation, feeling tired all the time, period pain, sore backs and knees, zits, skin issues and rashes, anxiety… 

We understand on a basic level that food, stress, sleep and exercise matter for our health, but we don’t understand how much, or how far our “normal” lives have strayed from what our bodies actually need.

I understood that my body needed vitamins and minerals, but I had no idea what those vitamins and minerals actually did, or how many I was getting in my diet. It turns out that if you eat a “standard” diet, it’s pretty much impossible for your body to get all the things it needs to keep your cells healthy. The breakdown will be slow and gradual, but over time you will start to break down. Those less lucky (like me) will break down faster and develop chronic or autoimmune diseases that will significantly affect their quality of life.

In our polarised world, there seem to be only two possible camps now – either you believe in science, and therefore surgery and pharmaceutical drugs are the only “real” ways to treat disease, and anything else is just the placebo effect or hippie nonsense; or you’re a full-on anti-vaxxer sharing conspiracy theories on facebook. 

But there’s a middle path. Science is amazing and we’ve learned things that have saved countless lives, but we’ve learned mostly how to treat the symptoms of disease. If I get hit by a bus or have a heart attack, I’m going to be deeply grateful for medical science. But medical science doesn’t have all the answers yet, and the focus on diagnosing and treating diseases lets a lot of us down, a lot of the time. 

I have a friend who went to her doctor with a rash covering her entire body, periods so heavy she could barely leave the house, constant exhaustion, constipation and depression – and because her blood tests were all “within range” she was told there was nothing wrong with her.

Another friend went to the same naturopath I mentioned above, did the “cleanse” and her heavy periods resolved. But she didn’t learn anything or come away with any permanent changes to her lifestyle – she finished her four weeks and went straight back to her old life. I saw her six months or so later and asked if she was still feeling better. She cheerfully told me all her issues had come back, so her doctor was booking her in for a hysterectomy. 

They were removing an organ from her body rather than figure out what was causing the problem – and I felt like I was the only person in the room who thought this was insane! Especially because, since removing her uterus won’t solve whatever imbalance is happening, she’s likely to find herself a year down the track with new symptoms elsewhere in her body. 

Your organs don’t operate in a vacuum. Everything is connected to everything else. 

And everything starts with what you’re putting in – your body literally makes itself out of what you put into it. It takes the fats and amino acids and vitamins and minerals from your food and creates literally everything that makes you you. And if it’s not getting enough, or it can’t absorb what it’s getting, or it’s under too much stress (from illness or inflammation or actual stress), it will start prioritising what it keeps running and what it lets start to fail. It’s that simple and that complicated.

How am I so sure? Because I got so into this stuff after seeing the change in my own life and health that I’m now part way through a diploma in nutritional therapy. This is a real thing, and there’s a whole world out there of doctors and medical professionals practising what’s called “functional medicine”. This is the future, and it is the goods.

So this is me, reintroducing myself to you – and outing myself as a freshly-minted health nut. 

Told you it was bad.