How Trauma Messes With Your Brain

Sunday, 23 April 2017

I had something pretty traumatic happen in my life late last year (after, and separate to, the nervous breakdown). I don't want to go into detail cause that's not really the point here, but let's just say it was a genuinely traumatic event that would be recognised as such by any psychiatric organisation, with my safety and sense of self at risk. It's been fixed now, mostly, but I'm still learning about the bloody annoying after effects.

(I've had other shit happen, but this was kind of last straw stuff).

My short term memory is shot. All my life I've had an intense memory for small details. I've always known what day and date it is, and on what day and date things are happening. That's gone now. I've become one of those people who say "huh? It's the 17th already?" which after the novelty wore off, is kind of scary. Yesterday I got a fright because I learned next month is May, when I thought it was March somehow, even though March things (uni going back, Easter) have already happened. 

I stand in the kitchen for ninety seconds with the roll of cling film in my hand before I remember it was to wrap the plate of sausages sitting in front of me.

My concentration is also borked. It was never the best, but now it's a struggle to get through half an hour of note taking. 

I've extremely limited ability to cope with bureaucracy. Dealing with Centrelink (let alone uni administration) never bothered me before. Now it's scary and exhausting and I want to cry. 

Now, I know lots of people are absent minded. But the thing is, they probably have other qualities to compensate. My intense focus and recall of daily life was, I thought, compensating for some of the attributes I lack, like the ability to safely navigate through the world without falling over, knocking into, and falling down everything around me. (And I might add, my clumsiness is now even worse). 

I worry I can't write well any more. I used to fly out posts in one go, twenty minutes. I can't now. This one, I've had to go over and over, retyping words I forgot to finish mid keystroke. I got my first essay for this go at uni back; the mark wasn't terrible, but it was way, way off what I'm used to achieving. The Masters and PhD I was working towards would be out of the question. (No point reaching out to the university for help either - they are legendarily useless). 

I gave up drinking a few months ago to see if it would help. With my health, yes but memory, no.

I'm not having flashbacks as such. Only occasional intrusive thoughts. But my memory has decided to protect itself by deciding to forget what bus I need to get home, where my next tutorial is, what I'm doing in the supermarket. 

I'm lost in a world I used to have a handle on, and it's awful and scary. Unless I've acquired some hitherto unrealised super power, I really wish I could go back to the way I was.

Fear of Boys

Monday, 10 April 2017
At the park yesterday with G, one of those sparkling autumn days that makes you absolve Sydney of all its sins and renew your love forever. Despite the weather, he had the playground mostly to himself, but on two occasions toddler girls, apparently with their fathers, arrived to play. G loves other kids, and he approached each child in turn, once on the climbing frame and once on the roundabout, wanting to chat and play.

Each time - before Mister G actually did anything, and before I could explain that he's a gentle child used to playing with his younger cousins - the fathers of the little girls swooped in to protect their daughters from the threat. 

And I could suddenly see what they saw - not my sweet baby, but an older, school aged, boy. No doubt wild, rough, loud, and a threat to their child. 

Not this again.

My ex loves kids. And he's completely natural with them. He likes to play with them, talk to them, think Playschool presenter but with the messy, germy little things actually there*. And I saw, on so many occasions, when he'd be chatting to kids at a party or on a train, playing pen and paper games with them or telling stories, suspicious parents (almost always mothers - our current neighbourhood is a bit different) wondering what this strange man was doing talking to their children. It was up to me to explain that he was a paediatric nurse, and you could see the relief; deep breaths released, tense shoulders relaxed. Because otherwise, a strange man was a danger to their children.

The fear is understandable, after all. I just didn't expect to play out quite so soon. For the rest of his life, when people look at my son, they will see not the smart, sweet person he is, but a boy, then a man, with all that that implies in our society.

For society places men in a box (and women in another), creating the narrative that boys are rough, loud, aggressive, resistant to learning - and they grow into men who suppress their emotions, prefer hanging out with other men, need to sow their wild oats, and will lose their temper if provoked. It reduces them to stereotypes, creates difficulties in education. It's become popular in some circles to blame feminists for demonising men and boys. This is rubbish. A feminist didn't write the rhyme about boys being made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails. There are no feminists in the breakfast radio teams who blather stupid "battle of the sexes" tropes about remote controls and shopping and poker nights. 

We've always told G he can be whatever he wants, regardless of that he's a boy. He can wear dresses and make up, and that doesn't make him a girl (when he was younger he loved to join me putting my face on; he's lost interest somewhat now but on a shopping trip recently, it was funny to walk into Mecca, have them see G and have looks on their faces that clearly said "great, a young boy, he'll be tearing around breaking things"... and have them look over two minutes later to see me and him comparing eyeshadow swatches). And he's always been gentle, affectionate and considerate - I know I'm his Mum, but consider this: at a party, age two and a half, his Dad poured him a cup of soft drink, a rare treat - and he immediately handed the cup to his cousin because she didn't have one yet. What toddler does that?

Sorry for the digression into proud Mother gushing, but I hate that all that sweetness will now be ignored because it is packaged in a boy's body - and therefore seen as a threat. We pigeonhole from pregnancy. You're having a girl? Cries of "Aww!". You're having a boy? "Ooh, you're in for trouble!". Girls and boys are treated differently from birth - girls are cuddled more, boys are allowed to talk more. 

(And one of the saddest things I've ever heard was from one of G's teachers at his nursery, a daycare for under 3s only, back when he was Baby G. The teacher mentioned how cuddly and affectionate G was, "and that a lot of the boys don't cuddle as much any more". These were two year olds, they wouldn't reject hugs on their own -  apparently their parents had stopped cuddling as them as much already.)

I'm well aware, of course, that girls have their own schtick (it's why I'm a feminist, after all). Girls are subjected to a lifetime of social conditioning that demands they behave in a ladylike way; quiet, considerate, caring, deferential. Boys are allowed, expected, to be wild, uncouth, rough, noisy. Then they grow up and girls and women are expected to be responsible for their own behaviour and that of the men around them. And boys, well, boys will be boys.

I don't want people to judge and fear G on his maleness - and if it happens here in our lefty bubble, it's much worse elsewhere (G's had long hair over the years, and the number of complete strangers who've told us we should cut it is well into double digits). I worry about the roles and expectations for him and his lovely little friends - and the educational outcomes and suicide rates and road deaths and all the other fears that come built-in with having a boy. The fear for boys, I want to get rid of. The fear of boys I hope will vanish with it. 

* Yeah...I'm not into kids. I do quite like my own. 

Remembering Mark Latham

Thursday, 6 April 2017
Mark Latham just won't go away. Like a drunk that has been ejected from every pub in town - even the most disreputable of dives that'll take anyone - denied a chair on which to perch and share his incoherent ramblings, he's set up himself outside, regaling the public with his largely unwelcome rants.

And as this brave warrior of "free speech" spews forth his bile, bravely continuing his "important work" that largely consists of attacking women who've never harmed him or anyone else, people rightly condemn him - no Mark, the left is not "afraid of you", and no one is trying to silence you; even if we wish you would shut up, we can't and won't stop your tired, irrelevant whining. 

But there's a bit of historical revisionism in there, too. People wrongly remember the past. How did this guy ever get to be Labor leader, they wonder. Almost Prime Minister! Now we have two things to be grateful to John Howard for - the assault weapons ban, and beating Latham in the 2004 Federal Election. Thank goodness the electorate saw the man's madness and heartily rejected him.

Except that's not how I remember it. I started blogging back in 2004, and in the middle of stupid cat memes and discussions of cask wine, I wrote a lot about Mark Latham. And it was favourable. Look, that's how it was. Remember, John Howard had led us into the Iraq war just the year before. People hated him. And who had Labor been running with for years - Kim Beazley? Simon Crean?! Good God.

Into this stepped Mark Latham. He represented - how else to put it - hope and change. He was young and good looking. (I was a little attracted). And the crucial thing is, he didn't seem nuts. He wasn't.  Policies on healthcare and education were a refreshing change from the Howard government. He wanted to say "Sorry" and he wanted to bring the troops home from Iraq. "The worm" decided Latham won the leader's debate. Labor was ahead in the polls for much of the campaign. 

Yes, there was that business with the taxi driver; and the infamous handshake, where a young, tall Latham appeared to almost cripple the elderly prime minister, perhaps spoke of the bullying to come. But Latham viewed in 2004 as a nut with anger management issues whom we could all do without? No. The loss was not a rout, and the fact Labor lost seats came as a surprise to many.

It's perhaps most instructive to look at the media coverage immediately after the 2004 election loss - a time when journalists are no longer trying to curry favour with a potential incoming government and Prime Minister, and instead feel reasonably free to say what they really think.
Tom Allard of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that the rejection of Latham was due to his inexperience against the seasoned Howard. Mark Metherell reported that Latham and Labor lost on economic credibility, too focused on getting on the nightly news rather than policy. In a joint article Allard and Metherell agreed Labor failed on policy, releasing theirs too late for voters to digest. 

Antony Green said it was basically all about interest rates. 

Craig McGregor wrote:

"The ALP leader has emerged as a credible alternative PM, despite the election. He had run a very good campaign; he had been disciplined, forthright, confident and had presented a broad range of policies that embodied his vision of a "fair, generous, inclusive Australia". Latham has redefined the ALP as a reformist political movement, he's ditched its disastrous "small target" strategy and refocused the party on some of its traditional aims: redistribution, reconstruction of the enabling state, an independent foreign policy and a reaffirmation of something close to equality in public policy."

And I do remember a news article saying that the electorate has said to Latham not no, but not yet.

So no, the national consensus was not that we'd dodged a bullet, Howard saving us from crude, misogynistic bully Latham.

Mark Latham was all right, then. He wasn't the bitter, angry bully he became later. It was the 2004 election loss that broke him. The usual scenario after an election loss is to regroup and reassess, vowing to fight on or gracefully resigning and handing over to a successor. Shell shocked, devastated, and battling a bout of serious illness, Latham was capable of doing none of those things. Something in him snapped. Maybe this reaction is proof he wasn't capable of being PM on the first place - perhaps, perhaps. But something in the 2004 loss sent him reeling, and I remember thinking, when he appeared on Andrew Denton's Enough Rope in mid 2005, that he looked about ten years older than he had the year previously.

Whatever snapped in his psyche, to leave the reddened, bitter individual we see today desperately gasping for airtime, imagining himself some hero by attacking the domestic violence campaigners and anti-racism activists he sees as the biggest threat to our nation - it wasn't on show then. Maybe without the shock of loss, Latham would have been a decent PM. I doubt it. But if we dodged a bullet, it wasn't through careful character assessment, but dumb luck.
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