Tag Archives: mindfulness

Scraping Off The Barnacles

Grey_whales_43_face_barnacles.560x496It’s my three month anniversary. Three months ago I retired from my work in radio. Only now have I the capacity to think beyond bed, couch, TV, reading. I’ve finally learnt how to say no. (My first month of retirement was crammed with doing writing favours for people for free because I couldn’t say no.) Now my life is a blank canvas. I get to decide what I do, every day. Such freedom.

I’ve been decluttering. Scraping off the barnacles. Defoliating. It feels wonderful to shed things, stuff, excess. None of it is needed. I’d make a great minimalist. I like light and space. Time to breathe and heal. Much easier to do without being crushed by possessions and memorabilia. Out it goes. People assume I’ve read Mari Kondo’s books. I haven’t. I worked this stuff out for myself. It makes perfect energetic sense. I still have way too much stuff but I go gently, scraping off the layers of barnacles bit by bit. The more I let go the easier it becomes.

I still find it amazing, a miracle, that I don’t have to work for a living. That The Hubby and I have a small but sufficient income without having to do a thing. We’re both still revelling in it. It highlights how enslaved most of us are, working at jobs we don’t enjoy to buy stuff we don’t need in the hope it will make us feel better.  Sure I’d like a house with an extra bedroom and yes I’d love a Mustang but….I’d rather be free.

So the way I see this year unfolding is a gentle stepping into lightness and healing and the gaining of true energy – not that anxious, nervy, overexcited, avaricious energy that I’ve spent so much of my time dwelling in. That energy made me sick.  It will be an interesting path. I’m becoming aware of how much tension I hold in my body, it’s alarming. My jaw went out the other week because I’m always clenching it. My biggest challenge will be re-entering the writing world without drowning in the morass of anxiety.

I’ve had a break from writing and wondered if I’d ever want to do it again at all. I’ve put off doing the next draft of my latest novel and redoing the synopsis because I know what awaits me if it gets accepted for publication. Edits, deadlines, fear and anxiety. I’m so enjoying being free and I have so little energy still that the mere thought exhausts me.

However I had writing group recently and as I haven’t written anything new for ages I thought I’d just bang something out. And guess what? I really enjoyed it. It was fun. And then my mind started coming up with possible scenarios and plot lines and I remembered what I love about writing – that stepping into another world, other lives, where anything is possible. The power of the imagination is glorious and energising.

So that’s me. A work in progress. And if I never write another book that’s ok too. If I spend my time growing veggies and sewing (& I’ve taught myself to knit) all is well. The Hubby and I have plans to travel the world housesitting – inspired by a couple who are doing just that. We have to wait until The Dog dies before we can up sticks and she’s remarkably healthy for an old girl. We love her so that’s ok. All things in time.

I’ve been so ambitious in the past and it just made me resentful. There are other ways of living. I’m keen to explore them.

In the end what does it matter. We all die. I’d like to enjoy my life before then and not leave too much clutter behind for people to have to sort through 🙂

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Take Today on a Joyride – Here’s How.

IMG_5264Some lessons in life come from the most unexpected of places. When it comes to mindfulness you’d assume those lessons would come from Eastern philosophies or Western psychology. Mindfulness has become increasingly popular and there are many reasons why. It’s been shown to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, relieve drug and alcohol dependence, and help with many types of illness including auto-immune diseases. Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. Not worrying about the future, not dwelling on the past. Being here, now, moment by moment. Simple. But not easy.

There’s a theory that there are only two motivating forces in life; love and fear. Love is desirable. Fear can really do some damage. So how can mindfulness help? A while ago I was telling a wiser person than myself about all my fears and how they were running my life. She asked me, “What is there for you to be fearful of? Right here, right now in this moment?”

My answer surprised me as much as her question. “Nothing.”

If I keep my thoughts to the present moment what do I have to fear? Absolutely nothing. Simple concept. Hard to achieve. But apparently not if you’re a psychopath.

Kevin Dutton is a research psychologist. He wrote a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. Kevin visited Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, to interview the inmates. What he found is surprising.

One of his interview subjects told him, “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose–because, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt it–is that most of the time it’s completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what’s the point? I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine. So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

Kevin writes: “This pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath’s rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as another inmate rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented–and at times can be stupendously beneficial.”

A lesson in mindfulness from the most unlikely of sources. Perhaps it’s time to let our inner-psychopaths off the leash just a little. Maybe not with ‘rapacious proclivity’ but a little less fear and a little more joyriding is bound to improve our quality of life. And to avoid ending up in Broadmoor it would be wise to add a lot of awareness and a big dollop of balance into the mix.

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Kill Your Darlings Part 3

I’ve finished the latest draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes at a meditation retreat here’s your chance.

Each evening, after the meditators had gone to bed, the servers would gather in the meditation hall and sit with assistant teacher. Some times we’d have to kick the more determined meditators out before we could do so. One night a male student, who had the habit of wearing earplugs and a meditation shawl over his head, was deep in meditation and nothing we did could snap him out of it. Touching is forbidden so no one could give him a shake. One of the male servers resorted to doing a strange little dance around him, hoping the vibration would bring him out of his meditation. When that didn’t work he leaned in as close as he could without touching the student and spoke in his loudest quiet voice, shouting also being forbidden. Eventually the student stirred, rose from his seated position and left the hall without acknowledging any of us.

Once we were alone we would talk through the days events and any problems that had come up with the work or with the students. It was here I discovered the truth of what happens behind the scenes in a meditation centre. The dramas and intrigues. While we were burrowed away in the kitchen the male and female managers were on the frontline dealing with all kinds of bizarre scenarios. One of the male students had been asked to leave because his behaviour was out of control. He’d pretended to go but the male manager had discovered he was still at the centre, hiding. One of the other students had been smuggling him food. Then there was the incident involving two female students who broke one of the precepts. They had found it impossible to abstain from all sexual activity. I was shocked. What was wrong with these students? They were here to meditate. In the one and only course I’d done I was a stickler for the rules. Even though I managed to break every one of them, I never meant to.

And then there were the insects. The centre was full of them and they dominated our nightly get togethers. “One of the students says he has an insect in his ear,” the male manager said one night.

“Is it really an insect, or is it sensations?” The assistant teacher asked. We were up to the stage in the meditation course where students were observing their sensations.

The male manager hesitated. “I’m not sure. But he insists an insect has crawled into his ear. He can hear it constantly.”

“Does anyone have a possible solution?” The assistant teacher looked around at our small group.

“You can shine a torch into his ear,” I said. “Most insects are attracted to the light. It will head towards the torch and come out of his ear.”

“Not all insects head towards the light,” one of my kitchen team said. “Some try to hide from it. The insect might head further into his ear.”

“Well, you can always do the oil in the ear trick,” I suggested.

“What’s that?”

“Get him to put his head to the side and fill his ear with oil. The insect will float to the top.” How I became such an expert on getting insects out of ears I’m not sure.

“Won’t the insect drown?” the assistant teacher asked.

“Yes, but…..” I stopped, realising I’d just suggested killing a living creature, something the first precept expressly forbids. The assistant teacher frowned at me. I was overcome with the urge to laugh. I bit the inside of my cheeks to stop myself from giggling like a naughty school girl. Oh dear. I would never make a good Buddhist.

Some of the other servers were bolder than me. The problem of ticks came up quite often. The centre grounds were full of them and students often came to us with a tick’s head buried in their skin, the tick’s body bloated with their blood. The question was how to remove the ticks without killing them. I’d spent a few heated moments the day before with a half-naked male student in the small alcove outside the kitchen. He had a tick on his torso, just below his armpit, and was desperate to have it removed. I was the only one around, all the other servers resting at that time. He stripped off his shirt and I had attempted to remove the tick with a piece of cotton wrapped around its neck. It was a tricky process and one I wasn’t sure was successful. I had dabbed the area with tea tree oil, hoped for the best and sent the very good-looking young male student on his way.

At the nightly servers’ meeting the discussion about the best way to remove a tick became quite involved. Smothering them with Vaseline may kill them through suffocation, tea tree oil would certainly mean their demise, using tweezers would snap off the head, killing them as well as harming the student. One of my kitchen servers became agitated. She’d suffered from multiple tick bites when she’d worked on an organic farm. This resulted in her becoming very ill and she was  incapacitated for eighteen months. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But if it comes down to me or the tick, the tick’s going to cop it.”

The female manager admitted to me later that she had no compunction about killing any of the thousands of mosquitoes that annoyed us everyday. “The way I see it,” she said. “Is if you believe in the Buddhist theory and we are reincarnated after we die, then I’m just giving the mosquito a quick promotion.”

 

Can’t Meditate? Try Joyful Resting

Madisonpic

By now I think we’ve got the message. Meditation is good for us and we really should do it. Everyone from Russell Brand to Rupert Murdoch is espousing its benefits.

But do we really need another “should” in our lives? And besides, who’s got the time to sit and contemplate their navels for 20 minutes a day? Between the kids, the job, the rush for the bus, the lunch eaten at the desk, the unread emails, the never ending to-do list and that little sliver of time that we have to ourselves where all we want to do is read one of the books on that ever-growing pile or catch the latest TV show that everyone’s been raving about, who on earth has time to meditate?

We might start off with good intentions and create a small space in our homes and lives to sit and breathe for 20 minutes a day, but as time goes on and life remains hectic that meditation time is the first thing to go. And fair enough, especially if we’ve turned it into just another dot point on our “must do because it’s good for me” list.

Or maybe we’ve tried to sit and meditate but our thought are so wild and crazy that we’ve given up and labelled ourselves as hopeless because we really don’t get this “still the mind” stuff.

Here’s something radical. Don’t meditate. Don’t even try. Give up on it entirely. Let go of the whole meditation schtick. Elle MacPherson might be really good at it, but you’re never going to look like her by meditating anyway, so it’s time to give something else a go.

Renate Ogilvie is a Buddhist psychotherapist who’s taught at Buddhist centers around the world for over 20 years. You think she’d be pretty good at meditation. Wrong. She confesses to not meditating regularly and really relates to those who find it hard to find time to do it. She knows it’s a crazy busy world we live in. Instead she suggests a kind of non-meditation. She calls it “joyful resting.” In joyful resting, we’re not after results. We’re not chasing after anything or any feeling. All we’re doing is resting. “It’s like dancing,” she says. “You don’t do it to arrive anywhere.” You do it because you enjoy it and who doesn’t enjoy resting even for just five minutes. And that’s the other thing. Joyful resting is to be done for only five to 10 minutes, no more. It’s never a chore. Never a time suck.

So how do you do this joyful resting thing? You can sit or lie down, have your eyes open or closed. Observe how your body feels but don’t judge it. It is what it is, that’s all. Observe what comes up in your mind. If you have a recurring thought allow it to be a recurring thought. There’s no need to change anything. Just relax. We are not responsible for the thoughts arising in our minds, we are not anger, resentment, fear. However we are responsible for what we do with them. In joyful resting we are not doing anything so let those thoughts and feelings fade and be replaced by joy. We are resting, we are doing nothing. Hooray! How wonderful. No expectation, no judging. What a luxury. Who wouldn’t want to do that at least once a day. And as it’s only for five to 10 minutes you can do it anywhere, anytime. You could even do it in a board meeting. You might enjoy the meeting more.

And what about those wild and crazy thoughts, the thoughts that make us think we can’t meditate? In joyful resting it’s like we’re on a warm and sunny beach. The ocean might be turbulent, the surf might be huge but we are safe on the beach enjoying the sunshine. We can observe that wild and crazy ocean but we don’t have to do anything about it. We can just relax. However if we decide to stop that joyful resting, walk towards the surf and jump in, well that’s a whole other story.

Mary-Lou Stephens’ meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the true story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband. You can buy it here.

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.

3 Ways Meditation Will Make You a Better Writer

 

Sex, Drugs and Meditation

I walk to my spot and sit down, a mat beneath me and two cushions under my bottom. I’m comfortable now but I know it won’t last. Within ten minutes the aches will begin. Dull and annoying to start and then as time drags on they will intensify. Ten days of silence, meditating eleven hours a day. Why do I do it? You’d think once would be enough. And yet I have returned time and time again to sit for ten days in silence and in pain.

Must of us live a life of fear and reaction. We do too much in order to impress, or hide so no one will expect anything of us. Tossed on the vagaries of emotion, it’s an exhausting and wasteful way to live. When I sit in silence I experience all emotions, all feelings, all states. I experience them knowing they will change. Everything always does. Even the pain. And during this time, when I’m supposed to be meditating where does my mind go? Everywhere. It dives into the past, raking over the embers. It plunges into the future, inventing scenarios. And when it’s done regretting and worrying it makes up possibilities of increasing drama and intensity. After a while I tire of all of this. But am I ready to do the work? Am I ready to meditate properly? Not quite yet.

1. Meditation clears the mind clutter and allows your creativity to blossom.

When all the whys, wherefores, he said, she said, he did, she did, blame, reaction and catastrophising is done, creativity is free to roam with characters, stories and adventures that are pure imagination, often not of this world. It’s fascinating and freeing to allow yourself to follow where creativity leads. Meditation breaks down that very thin membrane between the conscious and the subconscious. And let’s face it, the subconscious is where all the interesting stuff happens.

I’m not a very good meditator it’s true, but there comes a time when the meditation takes over, when my mind finally stills, when I get the essence of what I’m here to do. Come out of all  suffering, be liberated from all misery. Stop reacting and resenting. Stop being so afraid. I’m not perfect, not even close, which is why I keep meditating. I meditate because it helps in my day to day life, literally. I saved my job and found a husband through meditation. I also meditate because it helps my writing.

2. Meditation gives you the kind of detachment a writer needs.

Meditation is creative, not only because my restless mind supplies me with endless plots and characters. It’s creative because it helps me to write, no matter what mood I’m in, no matter what’s happening around me. It’s not selfishness, it’s just knowing that what ever the problem or drama is, it will pass without you meddling or trying to fix it. And if it doesn’t? Then it’s time for a different approach but an approach that’s tempered by thoughtfulness not desperation.

3. Meditation allows you to write with courage and honesty. To stop judging.

With the loving detachment that meditation brings you’re better able to step aside and let the story glow and burn without the temptation of modifying it to make yourself look better. Judgement is a hinderance to life and to creativity. It carries the weight of expectation. Impossible to meet. The more I meditate the less I judge myself and my work. Other people may judge. They will think what they like. It’s none of my business. Besides, what they think will change. Everything does.

I have returned to the meditation centre seven times. Seven times I have spent ten days sitting in silence and in pain. Seven times I have reaped the benefits. Am I suffering for my art? Some say life is suffering and the art is to overcome that suffering. For me meditation is the art of living. And writing. It is the art of creation.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post and then was picked Up by The Brazil Post. Yes, I’ve been translated into Portuguese. How cool.

Why Acting Like a Toddler Is a Great Idea

toddler

Have you ever seen what toddlers do when life bumps up against them unexpectedly? Think about what happens when they have just fallen over on their padded bottoms or experienced some other small event that didn’t entirely delight them. They haven’t hurt themselves, they’ve just been given a bit of a surprise. What happens next is very interesting — and every parent, grandparent, aunty, uncle or anyone who’s had anything to do with toddlers will recognize this — they don’t do anything. Just for a second, they pause. It’s as if their minds are doing a little damage report: What just happened? Am I hurt? Is it bad? Should I cry? Should I scream the house down?

And what we do next can make all the difference. If we react, run to them, start fussing over them, then you can guarantee that yes, they will start crying and yes, they will probably scream the house down. But if we don’t react, if we stay calm, if we go on with whatever we’re doing, they will almost always pick themselves up and within moments, be exploring and laughing again.

We can learn a lot from toddlers. What happens when life bumps up against us? Sometimes, something that we want hasn’t happened. Sometimes, something we didn’t want has happened. A friend lets us down. Our boss berates us. Someone we don’t even know is rude to us. We get cut off in traffic. We have to wait way too long in a queue. We don’t win the prize, the girl, the accolades, the contract. What do we do?

We react. We defend, justify, complain. We go on the attack. We try to make the other person feel as bad as we do. We plot our revenge. Or we pretend to shrug it off —“Nothing to see here, folks” — while inside, we’re seething in anger and resentment.

And so here we are. Something bad has happened. We’ve reacted. And now we feel even worse. We are that toddler screaming and crying. We are not having fun. We are not free to explore. We’ve turned that little bump into a major catastrophe.

So, what’s the alternative? We can pause — like that toddler. There is a small space between experiencing something in our lives and reacting to it. For most of us, that space hardly exists. Something happens to us and we instantly go into reaction. Once there, we are left with no choice. But if we pause, if we give ourselves that space, we have choice, and that is a powerful thing.

We don’t have to react. We don’t have to paint ourselves into a corner. We don’t have to be left shaking our heads thinking, Why did I do that – again?! Instead, we can choose how we respond and what we do – if anything. We have the choice.

How do we learn to do this? How do we give ourselves that pause, that space? How do we even become aware of that space? And how do we learn to expand that space?

By doing nothing. Yes, by doing nothing. And just by practicing doing nothing.

Meditation teaches something that toddlers already know — sitting on their padded bottoms, running through those damage reports. And that is everything we experience, we experience as a sensation. Every sight, taste, smell, sound, touch, every emotion, every thought creates a sensation on or in the body. Some we label as good — beauty, love, chocolate. Others we label as bad — anger, weeds, chocolate. But all sensations have a common denominator. They’re ephemeral. They don’t last. They will pass, some slower than others, but they will change and they will end. So, why cause a fuss? Why make things worse? Why scream the house down?

Through meditation, we learn that we don’t have to be driven by automatic reactions. We come out of the habit pattern of our minds, the endless treadmill of cause and effect, and get enough space to look around and go “What do I really want to choose here?” Meditation works because it gives us more space, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath. Space to be and space to choose. Just like that toddler, with a world of infinite possibilities to explore and enjoy.

My hope for you is that you become more like a toddler. Not in all respects, of course. Being toilet-trained and the ability to cook are two great attributes. But in taking that pause, in being in that space that is yours and yours alone, that small pause gives you power. The power to be anything and to be anyway you choose.

Mary-Lou Stephens’ meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the true story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband.

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

I wish I was a psychopath.

Mindfulness. It’s been shown to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, relieve drug and alcohol dependence, and my doctor told me it helps with all kinds of illness especially auto-blow flyimmune disease. I’ve been practising mindfulness for years as part of my daily meditation but I’m still not very good at it.

Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. Not worrying about the future, not dwelling on the past. Being here, now, moment by moment. It’s not easy. My mind wanders all over the place. But when it does go meandering, I avoid beating myself up. I bring my awareness back to the present moment, mindfully, and start again. Many Eastern philosophies have used mindfulness techniques for millennia and Western psychology has taken to it with gusto.

When I was in Twelve Step programs one of my sponsors simplified it for me. One day when I was telling her about all my fears she said to me, “What is there for you to be fearful of? Right here, right now in this moment?”

My answer surprised me as much as her question. “Nothing.” If I keep my thoughts to the present moment what do I have to fear? Absolutely nothing.

Simple concept. Hard to achieve. But not if you’re a psychopath.

Recently I read this article by Kevin Dutton who’s a research psychologist. It was adapted from a piece he wrote called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. “What?” I hear you say. “Taking lessons from psychopaths? I don’t think so.” But it seems that I could take a few lessons in mindfulness from these violent maniacs myself. Kevin went to Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, to chat to a few of the inmates. What he found there amazed me.

One of the inmates, Leslie, told him; “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose—because, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt it—is that most of the time it’s completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what’s the point? I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine. So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

Kevin writes: Leslie’s pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath’s rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial.

And there you have it. A lesson in mindfulness from the most unlikely of sources. Perhaps it’s time to let my inner-psychopath off the leash, just a little. A little less fear, a little more joy. I just hope I don’t end up in Broadmoor. There, you see? I’ve done it again. Started worrying about the future. I wish I was a psychopath!

NB: I debated whether to use “I wish I was a psychopath” or “I wish I were a psychopath”. I did some research and I’m still not sure. “Were” is used in a state that has never existed and never will exist. “Was” is used in situations where the statement might once have been or could be a reality. But you can see which one I went with…

The Australian Good Weekend Magazine

Lost in prayer

Wilderness years … the author, aged eight, with her mother.

Wilderness years … the author, aged eight, with her mother. Photo: courtesy of Mary-Lou Stephens

When seeking her mother’s attention, Mary-Lou Stephens had to compete with five siblings – as well as a higher power.

My mother was an early riser, out of necessity more than desire. With six demanding children, it was the only quiet time she could wrest from her noisy days. No wonder she turned to religion. Sometimes, as a child, I would shuffle sleepily down the hallway, in what seemed the dead of night, and watch her huddled by the heater, a cup of tea by her side and a book of Bible readings in her hand. Her early-morning study. Bathed in the glow of the heater and the shallow light of the standard lamp, it was as if she floated on an island of peace. I would creep back to bed, not wanting to shatter that illusion.

My mother wanted eight children, my father only four. Six was a compromise, I suppose – three boys, three girls – but my mother never liked to compromise. A miscarriage before I was born and another after meant she did conceive eight souls. Perhaps in her early-morning prayers she whispered to the unborn two, her other babies.

The older and more uncontrollable her brood grew, the more radical my mother’s religion became. Not content with the local parish church, Bible study and good works, she became involved with the Charismatic movement. Speaking in tongues, healing, being slain in the spirit – this became the new vocabulary of her religious life.

When I was a child, I told her how I’d dreamt I was on a beach with a group of people. The sea sucked back on itself, exposing miles of ocean floor. Everyone around me began praising the Lord, much like my mother did at any given opportunity. It was the end of the world and they knew it. They embraced it. They were the chosen ones. A huge rumble vibrated through the sand and, on the horizon, a massive wall of water headed towards us. The Lord-praisers danced and sang in happiness.

“That’s all I remember,” I said to my mum.

She stopped getting breakfast ready and, for the first time in a long time, I had her full attention.

“Praise the Lord,” she said. “You’re a prophet.”

It was a vision from God and He had chosen her child. She took me to her strange meetings and told her friends I was a prophet, but when no other dreams emerged and no further prophecies eventuated, she withdrew the bright light of her attention. I was left in the dark again.

One counsellor told me that growing up with a mother like mine was the same as growing up with an alcoholic parent. Never knowing what to expect, too ashamed to bring friends home, knowing that my mother was different but not knowing why.

And then there was my older brother, who spouted Adolf Hitler’s speeches off by heart and had a Nazi flag in his bedroom. He was 10 years older than me, a terrifying stranger. My next oldest brother once tried to hit my mother with a frying pan, and my oldest sister would often take to my mother with flailing hands and scratching nails. I tried to get my mother’s attention but to no avail.

My closest sister in age to me was a chronic asthmatic, and between disease and disarray, there was no time or space for me. But there was time for other people’s babies. My mother took them in and looked after them, even though she showed no interest in looking after me. Why did she stop loving me? Why did she lose all interest in me? I was only eight, I couldn’t work it out. And because I couldn’t work it out, I thought it must have been my fault. I must have been bad.

My mother was obsessed with strangers’ babies once she could have no more of her own, and I was too old to be treated like one. My siblings were totally uninterested in my welfare and battling to survive themselves in a madhouse. I survived the only way I could. Feral and filthy. Stealing and lying. My sister told me my scalp was yellow because my hair was never washed. My teeth were furry from lack of brushing. Food was my only comfort, my only company. I became obese and my parents either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

All the while my mother praised the Lord, babbling in languages no one understood, and reached her arms to the heavens, ignoring what was going on at her feet.

For his part, my father appeared to be the epitome of patience. In reality, however, he would avoid the awkward or confrontational in the hope it would pass by and resolve itself without him having to participate.

Eventually, he realised my mother’s religious zeal was not a temporary situation to be disregarded until it passed, so he went to a Billy Graham Crusade at the North Hobart Football Oval and got himself saved. He was never as enthusiastic about praising the Lord or breaking into tongues at unexpected moments as my mother, but he went with her to the meetings and rallies.

In our teenage years, my asthmatic sister, always Dad’s favourite, joined in, too. She discovered, as did I, that the best chance of any attention from our parents was to play on the same team. Our older brothers and sisters had fled the nest by this stage. That left the four of us, clapping our hands and singing in tongues. My mother would be swept away in religious ecstasy and my sister, father and I went along for the ride.

Naturally, I never told anyone at school that I sang in tongues with thousands of others at pep rallies. I never mentioned the bellowing preacher who put his hands on my head to slay me in the spirit. I fell down because I thought I should, and then lay on the floor, breathing in the dust and the smell of cheap carpet, feeling cheated. Why was everyone else around me feeling the rapture when all I felt was cranky?

I tried my best to fit in but I felt like a hypocrite. I was told to pray harder. If you’re miserable, pray harder. If you’re in pain, pray harder. If you’re sick, pray harder. If you’re unhappy, it’s your own fault – you’re not praying hard enough. There was no room for confusion or doubt. No room for the fat teenager I had become. Everyone was perfect. Everybody was deliriously happy. Praise the Lord.

When I tried to leave the Charismatic church in my late teens, my mother refused to acknowledge it. “You’re a Christian, darling, and you’ll always be a Christian.” She smiled her tight little smile. My mother owned my spirituality, or so she thought. And at the time I thought so, too. It was all I had ever known.


Edited extract from 
Sex, Drugs and Meditation, published by Pan Macmillan.