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Go back to Shit Island (On boundaries)

7th March 2019

Grand Central Station, 1926, photographer unknown.

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away, when I had full pelvic floor control, a hairless chin and the freedom to eat dirty street kebabs rather than banging out fifteen covers a day, I gained my Masters in Counselling. I worked for a government agency as a trauma counsellor, and I also worked the phones at Lifeline.

Now that we’re home from our dilettante wanderings, and all three kids are institutionalised, I’m turning my mind outside of the all-consuming domestic again. I’m writing a lot – I might perhaps share news about all that another time – and I’m also thinking about what I can contribute to my community.

I’m retraining at Lifeline (my experience as a counsellor is all so old that I must start again lest I counsel callers to use calico poultices for their galloping consumption, or brandish a pig’s heart to ward off the evil eye – it’s no longer ‘best practice’, they say.)

Ain’t it hard keeping it so hard core, Gaga asked me? Yes, Gargs, I said. It is! As my rusty old brain cranks old neurons back into life, memories are sparked. So much psychobabble. Knowledge I haven’t used in a dozen years. During this training, I’m taking in a tsunami of information about mental illness and domestic violence and anxiety and addiction and social isolation, all taught within the context of different crisis-management models for suicide prevention and other issues.

The online coursework is extensive and the four hour weekly face-to-face involve a lot of stressful role-plays. My first observational shift last week involved one caller answering their counsellors gentle ‘good luck to you’ with a resounding ‘fuck off’ before hanging up; while another caller shouted ‘What are you; some kind of idiot?” I am learning useful stuff though. My friend once had a client say to her ‘Go back to Shit Island.’ (This, I love, and plan to use in my own life at every possible moment.)

I’ve also just finished my training to become a volunteer Ethics teacher at primary school. It’s a great program, all about giving kids a grounding in critical thinking, respectful argument and the ‘community of ideas’, and the training involves an online course and then a two-day workshop in how to deliver the (highly structured) program. Some of my classmates were stressed about the role plays. I might have been too had I not been at Lifeline that week, being observed as I made my way through a twenty minute imminent suicide role play, trying to ground the caller through a panic attack and contract a safety plan (as in, back away from the razor blades/railway platform/bottle of pills.) Managing a group of rowdy kids felt like a doddle. Run the script, keep it strict, remember not to use the potentially problematic circuit-breaker ‘Time to jump up and shake those willies out!’

Yeah, the first day of Ethics class this week was pretty demoralising. Training did not prepare me for how mental a dozen seven year olds can be. Herding cats is an understatement. Later, the classroom teacher had the naughty kids write me apology letters. It was deflating, but I was reminded, as I am every time I help out in the classroom, to maintain boundaries. Don’t get attached to the outcome, I told myself. Let the drama run off you like rain off a Drizabone. As I like to tell my own kids, in homage to Bianca Del Ray of Ru Paul Season 4: leave it behind, like a fart in a hallway. This week I channelled the angry nuns of my own early school life. I went full penguin. All was well.

The final life-zone where I am working hard to maintain my emotional boundaries is in parenting my growing daughter. Without speaking too much about it, entering the world of high school has been intense, for the whole family. But mostly of course, for my little comrade. It’s tough to be 12, facing down a major life transition while at the same time experiencing an overwhelming flood of cray-making hormones. Kids have to keep it together all day at school, presenting their got-my-shit-together face, and of course, all that stress gets released at home, where it’s safe to do so.

It doesn’t help that at the minute, my 10 year-old son is practicing piano a LOT. I’ve made the fatal error of linking piano practice to screen time, and he’s become extremely motivated; also he brings great enthusiasm to the keys, so currently our after-school meltdowns are accompanied by a full-volume, rousing classical soundtrack.

In short, I’m all about boundaries right now. I’m trying to be a safe space for the stress of others while holding strong on the invisible force-field that protects my own mental health. Some days this is tough. I’m reminded so strongly of my time working in trauma, where the central difficulty of the work lies keeping an emotional distance while remaining emotionally present.

Your brain doesn’t do this naturally. It sends you barrelling into flight-or-flight; pumping cortisol and stress hormones into your system as you experience all the energy of another person in crisis. Holding that space is a learned skill. As I practice it, I’m pretty exhausted. I’m up to pussy’s bow, as my grandmother would say, with other people’s feelings.

I love the work though. It’s an honour to be invited into somebody’s hardest, most private pain. The sense of being a useful person in the community can’t be underrated, for me. It far outweighs the negatives. Being in that Ethics classroom is fabulous too, even when it feels like living inside a migraine. The energy of a room of children is hilarious, pure and challenging in so many great ways. I just have to retain control of my spaceship.

Finally, of course, the work of shepherding a child through adolescence holds many gifts too. Like so many parts of motherhood, it shines a harsh light on my own reality that is painfully, wonderfully illuminating. ‘She’s so….irrational!’ (Oh, man. That’s me.) ‘Why does she have to bring such drama to the smallest setback! Jesus!’ (Ohhhhh. Guilty as charged.)

It’s a great privilege to be the person that another human looks to for guidance and advice. It feels like a profoundly important job, and even though I know I’m likely getting it wrong in so many ways that I can’t see yet, I do know that we have an open channel to talk about anything, and that feels like it will get us through. Also, I am so grateful to have a Keith, who brings quiet, gentle wisdom and calm to all the shenanigans in our house. Life is great right now. Last night we lay in bed with our respective laptops. I watched catch-up episodes of Married at First Sight, trying to contain my squeaks and squeals; and Keith lay beside me reading esoteric blogs about ancient Mesopotamia. Happy as pigs in mud.

In the meantime, I will keep working on those boundaries. Wisdom; it’s hard-earned. But worth every penny. Send me some, if you’ve got any to spare.

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