Tag Archives: sex drugs & meditation

If You Love Someone, Set Yourself Free

This article was published by The Elephant Journal on 21/4/2012

 

It was love at first sight—that clench of the guts, wallop in the heart, stars in the eyes kind of love.

Handsome, talented, funny and creative—how could such a man want to be with me? But he did and I was in a haze of happiness. With his dark lashes and hypnotic eyes, he Woodford-22seemed to be surrounded by a halo of light. Or so I thought. I resisted the drugs at first but heroin kept my illusions in place and him in the state in which he preferred to exist. And still I thought he was the most delicious creature on the planet.

Denial is the strongest glue there is.

Our relationship imploded in a fury of betrayal and lies when, while I was away at my father’s funeral, he had sex with his ex-girlfriend. I was shattered, mad with grief, left with no trust in men or myself. The terror of being hurt and the fear of not being able to rely on my own judgement meant that relationships had no chance of surviving. I swung between looking for love and running away from it—an endless tug of war.

I found relief from this insanity during the time I spent in Twelve Step programs recovering from my addictions to drugs, alcohol and food. I worked those twelve steps many times and shed my skin in therapists’ rooms, yet relationships remained elusive and transitory.

My friends began to get married while I continued my pattern of short-stay serial monogamy. One of these friends suggested I try The List to manifest my perfect man. I had to write down everything; his physical appearance, his work, his interests, the things we’d do together. I wrote pages of intense descriptions, hopes and dreams. Then I had to hone it down to the essentials—my “Top Ten.” Next I had to sleep with The List under my pillow and burn it at the next full moon. Ridiculous. But I did it. Nothing happened. Instead, I began avoiding my friend because of her questioning looks and my own sense of failure.

My love-life might have been a source of continual disappointment, but my working life blossomed. I began a whole new career in radio and after some time landed the job of my dreams. Unfortunately, the dream didn’t last. With the arrival of a new boss, my job turned into a nightmare.  Thanks to my years in Twelve Step programs I knew I couldn’t change him, and I knew I couldn’t change the company I worked for. If I was to keep the job I loved, I had to change the only thing I could—myself.

Ten days of silent meditation was the solution I chose. During those ten days, I was forced to confront the demons of my past and the monsters in my mind. On day seven I was shocked when that old wound of betrayal showed up with the same intensity as it had when it first happened. Had all that therapy been for nothing? I hadn’t worked through it—I had just suppressed it.

That night I had a dream. I was walking through a spacious room. White gauze curtains hung from the ceiling. On a huge bed was the man I had loved, naked with a young woman I’d never seen before. The familiar pangs of betrayal and heartbreak flooded through my body. The woman saw me and approached,

“You think he’s yours. You think he belongs to you. But he’s mine now.”

It was then I noticed her skin was pierced with large, heavy hooks. I realized the same hooks were embedded in my chest and legs, their barbs puncturing my body.

She sneered at me, ‘He never belonged to you.’

Her words hit me like a slap. She was right—he had never belonged to me…he was never mine. He had only ever belonged to himself.  And as he had never belonged to me, all the hurt and pain I had felt was a lie. My body began to vibrate with pricks of energy. All the betrayal, anger, jealousy and fear flowed out of my body to be replaced with joy. He had never belonged to me. There was no reason to go through the torture I had put myself through. He was never mine. The hooks fell from my body. They left no marks and caused no pain. He had never belonged to me. The hooks were gone. I was free.

I awoke from the dream smiling. Nobody owns anyone. Love is a choice, not a commandment. We are all free.

I realized I had never had a real relationship. Not one where I was present. I’d always been afraid, enmeshed, hooked in, jealous and obsessive. Terrified of being abandoned but also terrified of anyone getting too close. But if I don’t belong to anyone and no one belongs to me, I am free. They are free.

After the meditation retreat was over, my challenges at work remained.

But at a dinner party a week later, despite all my best efforts and worst habits, I met the man I would marry.

 

Sex, Drugs and Meditation – Sunshine Coast Launch

For those of you who couldn’t make it and for some who were there and would like to hear it again. Parts of the In Conversation I did with John Stokes plus a solo performance of Nature Girl – an angry and bitter song that, for some strange reason, everybody loves.

 

 

Writing for Small Spaces (ABC Open Blog)

Writing for small spaces

I knew my writing was good when my friend told me he read it in the toilet.

This post is by guest blogger Mary-Lou Stephens.  Moo (as she’s affectionately known around the studios) is a radio broadcaster with ABC Sunshine Coast.  Her memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was released this month. 

I didn’t mean to become a writer.

Not of books anyway.

I always dreamed of becoming a famous songwriter. I played in bands, put out CDs and did the endless gigs that being an independent musician requires.

It was a fun journey but eventually led nowhere. The doors remained closed.

Writing prose came later and quite by accident. I returned home from a trip overseas with only twelve photos taken on a disposable camera.

A friend pointed out that photography was clearly not my thing and suggested I write about my trip instead.

I did, imaginatively calling it “My Holiday”. My friend enjoyed it so much he kept it in the toilet and read it on his regular visits there.

He told me this was high praise indeed. Higher praise came when he recommended my work to a journalist who was looking for a new columnist for the local paper.

A door began to open. But first there was an ordeal of fire. The journalist asked me for some sample columns.

“Don’t be surprised if I tell you can’t write,” he growled. “Most people can’t.”

I sent him three sample columns and waited nervously.

He rang back that very afternoon. “You can actually write,” he said. The surprise in his voice was obvious.

I wrote a column every week for four and a half years.

Much encouraged and with a lot of words under my belt, I moved on to short stories, a novel and a memoir.

For years now I’ve been writing never knowing if anyone, besides my writing group, would ever read the result.

A publishing deal is the prize is it not?

 Maybe, maybe not.

My memoir has just been published and I am grateful, thrilled that the reviews have been favourable and amazed that people I’ve never met are reading it.

But caught up in the heady spin of publicity I find myself growing anxious.

Am I enough?

Am I doing enough?

There is so much involved with getting a book out into the world, what else can I do to make it happen? A publishing deal is not a full stop, it is an ongoing commitment to do my best for those who have invested in my words.

It is not until I pause, find the space to clear away the clutter of my endless To Do list, and immerse myself in the writing that I find peace and a true excitement. It is a joy that comes from my soul.

This is where the doors swing wide open and angels sing.

I am connected at last, not lost but found, in the words and in the journey.

This is a gift, the true prize. Writing in itself is enough.

And if the toilet is the only place it’s read, that’s enough too.

Mary-Lou Stephens’ memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was released this month through Pan Macmillan.

IMAGE CREDITS: Author: ABC Open Sunshine Coast

Madison Magazine gets Meditating

This was originally posted on the Madison Magazine website  05.04.2013 www.madisonmag.com.au/life/sex-drugs-and-meditation

One women tells how meditation changed her life, saved her job and found her a husband

I sit still, close my eyes and breathe. That’s it. Nothing more. Who’d have thought such a simple thing could change my life? A simple thing yes, but not an easy thing. Madisonpic

It wasn’t happiness that drove me to a ten day silent meditation retreat. My dream job had turned into a nightmare thanks to a new boss who was determined to make my working life a misery. I knew he wouldn’t change. If I was to keep the job I loved there was only one thing I could change. Myself. My colleagues were sceptical. I talk for a living. How was I going to last ten days without uttering a word? I did it because I was desperate.

I had done my research. I knew the physical pain, resulting from sitting cross-legged for eleven hours a day, was going to be tough. What I wasn’t expecting was the emotional pain. In those silent hours my past came rushing at me with all its attendant demons; my childhood as a neglected kid in a crazy religious household, my past addictions to drugs, alcohol, food and stealing. Waves of rage, fear and self-loathing threatened to overwhelm me but I continued to meditate as I was instructed; observe the breath, observe the sensations, remain aware, remain equanimous.

The theory is that when we’re confronted by painful situations, if we don’t react, then we liberate ourselves from past hurts as well as the present ones. They come to the surface, manifest as a sensation, then pass away. The basic tenet of the meditation technique is – everything changes. Why get attached to something that’s going to change? Why fear it, avoid it, crave it or hate it? It’s not going to last. Just observe it and let it go. When the demons were flying at me with jagged teeth and tearing nails, when the pain was so great it felt as though my bones would rip through my flesh, I found it hard to believe that theory. But when I was able to keep breathing, to observe the sensations and not react to them, miracles happened. The physical pain dissolved into a thousand effervescent points of energy. It’s one thing to know in your mind that everything changes but to get it on a physical level, in every cell of your body, is another.

The emotional pain also changed. I was shocked when an old wound demanded my complete attention. A relationship so wracked with obsession and betrayal it had destroyed my ability to trust. I thought I’d worked through it. Turns out I had only suppressed it. On day seven of the retreat there it was, slapping me around the face. I didn’t react. I kept breathing, kept observing. The result was a life-changing realisation and a sense of freedom I had never experienced before.

Having such insights in the closeted surrounds of a meditation centre is one thing but what about back in the real world? Those ten days have had a profound and lasting effect on my life. I used to be extremely reactive. My response to anyone in authority was one of resentment and defiance. No wonder I never got on with my bosses. I stopped fighting, started listening and kept meditating. My work life improved. Eventually my boss moved on but even while he was still there I was much happier. I didn’t have to suffer anymore. But the biggest change has been in my personal life. I was terrified of relationships. Although I desperately wanted to, I could never commit, the fear was too great. Everything changes. Within ten days of leaving the meditation retreat I met the man I would marry.

Words by Mary-Lou Stephens author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation

Living the Dream

If one more person said to me “When one door closes another one opens,” I was going to throttle them. But you know what? They were right. For years I’d been playing in bands, touring and releasing CDs. I’d had a great time but I was getting nowhere. When my last speedo dress Aug '95band broke up I knew I couldn’t do it any more. I was heartbroken and exhausted and had no idea what to do next. My only tertiary qualification was a diploma in performing arts and, at the age of thirty-five with no skills other than acting and performing, a series of dead-end jobs was all I could envisage.

Weeks after the band’s last performance, I woke to the seven am news on my clock radio. Half asleep, I heard the Queen sending her condolences to the people of Tasmania. That’s how I found out about the Port Arthur massacre. In shock and grief I went home to Tasmania for the memorial service. There, quite coincidently, I met up with an acquaintance who was broadcasting the service for the ABC. He took me to lunch later that week. I told him about the band breaking up and, even though it seemed trivial in the context of the horror at Port Arthur, how lost I was.

He paused, looked at me and uttered one life-changing sentence. ‘Mary-Lou, you want to be in radio.’

I knew he was right. It was a pure light bulb moment. ‘I do,’ I said.‘But I didn’t realise that until right now. How did you know?’

‘Because I know radio and I know you,’ he said. ‘It’s a perfect match.’

It was true. I came alive when I was being interviewed in a radio studio. I loved the sense of performance. I’d performed all my life in one form or another. Radio condensed performance down to one person, one microphone, one listener. A pure connection.

Days later, through another friend, I found out about The Australian Film Television and Radio School and on my return to Sydney I was asked to present a program for a public radio station. Within a week of discovering my true vocation I was being offered a gig on air. The doors continued to fly open. With help and support, and after three rounds of auditions, I was accepted into AFTRS and less than a year later I landed my first professional job in radio.2TM 2

I had always thought I’d be a famous singer/songwriter, and who knows, I may still be yet, but when I let go of that dream and dared to dream another, I discovered a whole new life of adventure, creativity and fulfillment.

My latest adventure is that of an author. My meditation memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation is published this month by Pan Macmillan. 

Mary-Lou meditates her way to calm

Mary-Lou meditates her way to calm

by Rebecca A Rose for the ABC.

When Mary-Louise Stephens embarked on her first 10 day meditation retreat, colleagues were taking bets about how long she would last.

Now that she has just completed her 7th – and published a book on how it has changed her life – they are not so quick to scoff.

IMG_0028

Above: Mary-Lou at an OB with Annette Hughes

The ABC Coast Presenter is a renowned chatterbox and not even she can believe how much she enjoys staying quiet for so long.

“To be silent – it was a relief!” she laughed.

“When I was forced to be silent I realised how worried I am of the impression I am making, by what I say, by my level of knowledge and interest and humour – how much I want to impress people and want them to like me.

“A lot of (what we) talk is about that.”

Her life has changed so much that she decided to write a book about the experience in the vein of ‘if I can do it, anyone can!’ Her memoir will be launched at Ariel Books in Paddington tomorrow night.

Sex, Drugs and Meditation is the story of how Mary-Lou went from heroin addict with a string of failed relationships behind her to happily married and serene, at one with her troubled past and optimistic about the future.

Meditating in silence for 11 hours a day over ten days, Mary-Lou had some amazing revelations about herself.

b&w performance 1 1995 Above: Mary-Lou in her band.

Practitioners of mindful meditation focus on being present in the moment – by concentrating on their breathing they hone in on their emotions.

“The difficulty is breaking down the walls between the conscious and subconscious.

“When you get into that state, all of the stuff that really drives you – not the stuff you think drives you, but the internal stuff – comes to the surface.”

The theory that we are the creators of our own misery rang true.

“What I was doing before this was to blame everyone else for my misery. I was blaming my boss, management, old boyfriends. If I had nothing to be miserable about I would make stuff up.”

It is not just the silence, but the physical constraints of trying to stay still and the emotional turmoil of turning the spotlight on yourself so intensely that make meditation retreats such a hardcore experience.

But that doesn’t mean that every thought is on a higher plane.

“Sometimes I let my mind have a holiday and do what it wants to do – I had bought a lotto ticket and was thinking about how I would spend the money,” she said.

“Or I would worry about the house burning down because i had left the iron on!

Mary-Lou’s book covers some hair-raising days from her youth, including an unhappy childhood and drug addiction. It has taken her many years to write as she struggled to be as honest as she had to about how far she has come.

“It is hard because people are going to know all these things about me. Yes, I used to take heroin and I used to steal. I am concerned in some ways – what will people here think of me?”

In the end, her transformation is the story and according to Mary-Lou that was the reason it had to be told.

She has taken ten weeks off to promote the book as well as write the follow up, which will explain the nitty gritty behind the ‘happily ever after’ ending of Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

Ten Terrifying Questions

Mary-Lou Stephens, author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

 by John Purcell, The Booktopia Book Guru

The Booktopia Book Guru asks Mary-Lou Stephens

author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation Ten Terrifying Questions

———————–

1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born and raised in that part of Australia that’s often left off the map and in true Tasmanian style headed off to the big smoke as soon as it was a legal option. I hung out with drug dealers in Kings Cross until someone I knew was murdered. After that I ran back to Hobart to play bass in bands, it was safer.

For three years I studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne which helped me to realise that I preferred playing in bands. After years of being a singer/songwriter in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney I retrained in radio at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Radio is perfect, it combines my performance skills with a love of music and gives my insatiable curiosity a valid outlet. And I get paid more than I ever did as an actor or a musician.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

When I was twelve I wanted to be liked. I always felt like an outsider.

At eighteen I wanted to be Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers.

At thirty I wanted to be a famous and well paid singer/songwriter instead of an obscure poor one.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

I thought I was immortal, that nothing could kill me; not drugs, not knives, not dark alleys at the back of the Cross.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

When I was in high school we studied Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before. It confounded, frustrated and astounded me. It stretched my heart and my mind.

Seeing The Stranglers at the State Theatre in Sydney in 1979. I turned to the punk next to me and asked “What’s that sound?” He sneered at me, he was a punk after all, and said, “That’s the bass guitar.” I decided in that moment that I would become a bass player. From being a bass player I became a song writer. The lyrics to three of my songs are in Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

Sigur Ros, from Iceland. Listening to their music is like being in a cathedral made of ice and vines. I have written whole scenes of my unpublished novel inspired by this band. Two of my main characters and thousands of other characters become entwined in the epic beauty of their songs.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a book?

I feel as though I’ve lived many lives already; as a bass player, an actor, a singer/songwriter, touring the country with bands. A friend of mine once asked me why all the good stuff happened to me, why I had such an interesting life while he was stuck in a small town in a small job. I told him it was because I said, “Yes.” Yes to adventures and opportunities and new experiences. I never had any money but I did what ever I wanted. I lived like a 17 year old boy with a driver’s licence and no responsibilities. When my last band broke up and I realised I was in fact a 36 year old woman, radio was there to embrace me.

After working in radio for a while I had enough money to go to the USA and visit the places where much of the music I loved was made. When I came back my friends asked to see the photos. I hardly had any. I’d only taken twelve on a disposable camera. A colleague at the ABC suggested I write about my travels instead. I haven’t stopped writing since.

6. Please tell us about your latest book…

Mary-Lou’s dream job has become a nightmare. She knows Eliott Purvis, her young, ambitious, sociopathic boss, will not change. If Mary-Lou is to be free of the anguish and keep the job she loves, there is only one thing she can change. Herself.

Ten days of silent meditation is the solution she chooses. During these ten days Mary-Lou is forced to confront the demons of her past; drugs, alcohol, food and religion. She also has to deal with the demons in her mind; paranoia, self-hate, fear and murderous rage. She relives her time spent in Twelve Step programs, her years at acting school, the joy and heartbreak of her former life as a musician and the journey that led her to work in radio.

For ten days and nights she battles her memories, mistakes and fantasies. The rigours demanded by the long hours spent meditating result in excruciating physical pain. The overcoming of this pain enables her to understand, on every level, the basic tenet of the meditation technique – everything changes.

She is shocked when an old wound she thought had healed demands her complete attention. A relationship so wracked with obsession and betrayal it destroyed her ability to trust. Through the eleven hours of meditation a day she finally releases the resentment and blame and comes to a place of forgiveness.

When Mary-Lou returns to work the challenges remain, but she went to the meditation centre to change herself, not her job, and the results are surprising. At a dinner party a week later, despite all her best efforts and worst habits, Mary-Lou meets the man she will marry.

Click here to buy Sex, Drugs and Meditation from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

Sex, Drugs and Meditation is a story of transformation. It’s the story of a woman who is at breaking point and very close to losing all hope. I went and sat in pain and silence for ten days and things changed. I changed. I’d like people to recognise that there is hope, no matter how dark things seem. I’d like them to consider meditation as a possibility for creating that change. But more than anything I’d like them to enjoy a really good read and feel uplifted after they’ve turned the last page, knowing that anything is possible.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Anyone who finishes writing a book. So many people say they want to write a book, some may even start, but to those who start, stick with it and finish it – I admire you, even if you never get published.

As far as published writers are concerned this is a tough one for me. Books pass through my hands like water. I have a regular books and writing segment on ABC Local Radio and I read like a fiend. It’s important to me that I read the book before I interview the author, which I’m told is rare. I admire every author I interview because their lives are usually ones of tenacity and inspiration, hard slog and brilliance.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I’d love to inspire people to know that change is possible. I’d like my books to give people hope as well as being a really great read. The book I’m writing at the moment is the sequel to Sex, Drugs and Meditation. It’s the truth about my happy ever after; the story of how I stayed married – against all odds. I’d love to see this book in print, as well as the novel I’ve written and the many others I have planned. Much as I love my work in radio, one of my ambitions is to make a living from writing.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

I’m going to assume that most aspiring writers are already reading voraciously and writing compulsively, those being the basic building blocks of a writer. So my advice is to get yourself some writing buddies. People who will become your allies and your cheer squad. Friends who will give you honest feedback when you’re feeling strong and heap praise upon your writing when you’re feeling vulnerable.

A writing group who evolve together and whose bonds strengthen as the years go by. Writing can be lonely and people who don’t write often can’t understand why you won’t go out on Saturday because you have to write or why you spend so much time doing something that may never see the light of day. Your writing buddies will get it and they’ll get you.

Don’t be lonely, there’s no need to feel misunderstood. A small writing group of like-minded souls to encourage and to challenge your writing is the balm to soothe and sweeten this writing life.

Mary-Lou, thank you for playing.

_____________________________

Click here to buy Sex, Drugs and Meditation from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

My Player Profile from Boomerang Books

Player Profile: Mary-Lou Stephens, author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation


by  – 

mary-lou-stephensMary-Lou Stephens, author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation

Tell us about your latest creation…

Sex, Drugs & Meditation is my meditation memoir. It’s the true story of a woman with a talent for self-sabotage who learns to sit still, shut up and start living – and loving.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I was born and raised in Hobart, studied acting at The Victorian College of the Arts and played in bands in Melbourne and Sydney before I got a proper job – in radio. I’ve worked and played all over Australia but since discovering the Sunshine Coast I’ve been inclined to stay put.

sex-drugs-meditationWhen you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I wanted to be an archaeologist. I had a desire to dig up the past, which ironically is what I’m doing now with my memoir.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

I love Sex, Drugs & Meditation. It’s a great story and it’s all true. There are lyrics to three of my songs in this book from my time as a singer/songwriter. The song about my father dying, “Strange Homecoming” took me two years to finish and just as long to be able to perform without crying. It still affects me to this day. My best work is my most honest work.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

My writing space is the spare room. I have a big trestle table so that I can pile everything up and out of the way when people come to stay. I love it when my husband goes out or away because then I can take over the lounge room, slouch on the couch with my laptop, surrounded by notebooks and paper.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I have a regular books and writing segment on ABC Local Radio and I focus on Australian writers. I always aim to read the book before interviewing the author. It doesn’t matter what genre, or if it’s fiction or non-fiction, the books I enjoy reading are a good story well told.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

I’m one of six children and we were raised on the C.S Lewis Narnia series, so much so that I gave one of my brothers the boxed set for a wedding present. We also had all the Beatrix Potter books and some of the recorded versions as well. Every Saturday morning we’d go to the library and I’d get out the Mary Plain books. The Magic Faraway Tree was a favourite as well. When I was in high school we studied Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before. It confounded, frustrated and astounded me. It stretched my heart and my mind.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Beatrix Potter), making endless cups of tea surrounded by the smell of fresh laundry. Only trouble is I’m allergic to ironing. The ending of the book has a strange and bittersweet melancholy to it that I’ve always been attracted to. “Why, she’s nothing but a hedgehog.”

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I love playing Scrabble. The only reason I joined Facebook was to play Scrabble with my interstate and overseas friends. And at the moment I’m playing my guitar a lot. It’s been a while since I used to play in bands and I need the practice. As well as talking about my book I’ll be playing the songs from it. I’d like it to be a pleasant experience for everyone.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Anything with coconut in it is a firm favourite, my latest food fetish is coconut butter by the spoonful. Apart from water, tea is my favourite drink. There is a whole section of the pantry dedicated to it.

Who is your hero? Why?

Maggie Beer. She’s smart, hard working, creative and generous. Her work with Alzheimer’s Australia is admirable, as is her passion for improving the food in aged care facilities. Her food is delicious, her recipes always work and everyone feels as though she’s their friend even if they’ve never met her. I was lucky enough to meet her and she’s genuinely warm, engaging and funny. And she’s like the Queen, she doesn’t carry any money.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

Screen time. I love reading but even so I find it hard to drag myself away from the lure of social media and the endless sticky strands of the web. I work in radio and that hunger for the immediate is ingrained in what I do but nothing gives me more pleasure than reading a book.

Follow Mary-Lou:

Website URL: http://maryloustephens.com.au/
Blog URL: http://maryloustephens.wordpress.com/
Facebook Page URL: http://www.facebook.com/maryloustephenswrites
Twitter URL: https://twitter.com/MissyMaryLou

 

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.