Reading Dad's Journals

My beloved Dad kept journals for many years. He died in 2008. And now I have to read them…

Category: journals

Have I got time to process this breakdown before leaving for work?

I’ve been struck lately by how much time it takes to process emotions. I don’t just mean the ‘I’m annoyed at the parking inspector/check out chick/bank teller’ ones. I’m talking about the ‘my partner is having an affair/my parent just died/my teenager has been trying meth/my loved one has cancer’ ones. The BIG ones. The ones that hit you in the guts like a sledgehammer. Or squeeze your heart like a boa constrictor. The ones that make you fall down and weep, or lose your breath and sleep and appetite.

We’ve all had them, for a variety of reasons. We’ve all processed them, to a greater and lesser extent. But goodness they take a lot of energy. No wonder our shoulders hunch and spines bend as we age.

A dear friend has just suddenly lost her Dad, on top of a big year already which saw her deal with her dog being run over, buying a new house, fighting a lingering flu, and being a single parent while working full time. She sent her friends an email letting us know about her Dad, and notifying us of her need to withdraw for a while… Fair enough. I have no idea how she copes with all the pressure she’s under, and I’m too far away to really help.

When my Dad died suddenly, I think I was traumatised. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight, certainly couldn’t function at work, and took 4 weeks off. Only when 6 months later I realised that all my food was still tasting like sawdust, that I felt like I had a smiling mask over my numb blank face, and still couldn’t sleep with the light off, did I take myself to the doctor.

Three tests later and I was registering ‘high’ for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression. That felt like another blow; that somehow I’d ‘failed’ to cope, and that I was weaker than everyone else who’d lost their dads…

It took me another 9-12 months to get out of that, and back to ‘normal’. It was hard, scary work, and my friends were wonderfully supportive and understanding. But I also have the time. I live alone with no dependent children; I can reduce my teaching and performing work to suit me; I am not weighed down with a massive mortgage or credit card debt.

Another friend just separated from her partner of 17 years, and has majority care of their son while working four days a week. How does she find the spare hours to write in a journal, or go to the therapist, or beat pillows in a counselling session?

One of the greatest gifts I was given during my ‘official depression’ came from my fortnightly therapist, who was small and twitchy like a sparrow. She talked to me about my grief for Dad, and my options for managing it. She told me this:

“Imagine your sadness around losing your Dad is like an A4 clipboard. You can choose to hold it right up in front of your face, and not be able to see anything else around you.

Or, you can spend a lot of time and effort pushing it away, keeping it at bay, but then you will have a lot less energy for anything else you want to do.

A third option is to just tuck it under your arm, or sit it beside you in your favourite chair. This way, you know where it is, and you can keep it safe. When you need to, or when you feel like it, and you have the time and space, you can allocate it some attention. Maybe ten minutes, or an hour, or even a whole day. But then that’s it; you tuck it back under your arm or down beside you, and get back to what you were doing.”

Brilliant.

I’ve written before here about my belief we need to have a day to honour our dead that’s socially-condoned; perhaps we all need to make the time to honour our sorrow, abandonment, betrayal, fears, and shock as well? I know we’re all busy, and that the dishes won’t wash themselves (although I have been leaving mine a bit lately!), but attendance to emotional crises and their ripples is important. What do you think?Image

Different people find different affirmative ways: meditation, spirituality, faith, exercise, therapy, art. And we all know the negative ways, including denial, workaholism, and alcohol abuse.

My Dad invested hours and hours writing his thoughts for 15 years. I do the same, and credit The Artist’s Way for guiding me. I also dance 5Rhythms, which calms my soul like nothing else. I want to encourage you all to find the time, make the time, swap the time, steal the time… Whatever it takes to help you feel more at peace with your dramas, and to honour their effects on you. I know I love having my ‘clipboard of Grief’ with me, and how to give it attention when I need to.

With love, gabrielle

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‘I’m not a chicken. But why did I cross the road?’

Well, I crossed because he waved me over. That old man driving the dated sedan, with flower head hub caps. And his simple, chivalrous gesture brought tears to my eyes. I tried to gulp them down, re-absorb them somehow. Damn body fluids, always overflowing. He just opened his hand, palm up, and glided it across the dashboard as if I needed help choosing the best direction to cross in. And there he was: my Dad, doing the same thing to pedestrians for as long as I could remember.

In the seventies, he did it to the sound of the Bee Gees, or our favourite childhood movie soundtrack:

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In the eighties I always had ‘Wham’ in the tape deck, and then The Clash or The Cure as I experimented with the dark side. The nineties was classical radio, or one of my younger brother’s mixed reggae CDs, and always not too loud.

He gestured through France, England, the US & Canada, and here in Australia.

As I sit at home now in Adelaide, I’m realising how much reading this first journal of Dad’s is stirring me up. I admit I’m only half way through the first of seven, and it’s exhausting. Not easy topics: relationship difficulties, possible child custody arrangements, a sick parent, frustrating family dynamics, more relationship difficulties… And most telling? Dad’s struggles with expressing himself, with communicating honestly, with being ‘heard’, and being brave enough to confront others.

Shall we cross over to my journal stash from The Artist’s Way for a moment? Can you see where I’m going with this? They are full of the same damn complaints!

Dad and I are similar chickens:

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[Here we are on New Year’s Day 1996, in Sydney, dressed up to go to the races. I love this picture best because it caught Dad when he wasn’t quite ready, so his smile is 100% genuine, not the slightly ‘posed’ one I often teased complained teased him about in photos]

We drive the same: a little fast, confident, generous to pedestrians, and ruthless in our use of the horn. We can each tell a good story, holding our audience, working our way skilfully to the punchline. We both love to laugh, and eat good food. I’d like to think I’ve inherited his entrepreneurial mind, although perhaps I’ve applied mine more to the arts world than to business? We were good friends, and I loved spending time with him…

BUT it is confronting to realize that I struggle with the same interpersonal issues. That I too have had so many experiences of not ‘being who I am’, or asking for what I want, or of not feeling ‘heard’ and understood by my partners. [Hell, I don’t even understand myself sometimes, so how can anyone else?]

In the real world, I know I come across as direct, confident, and honest. I am all of these things, it’s true. But reading Dad’s diary fills me with flashbacks (or are they flashforwards??) as I recognize my own complaints about myself in his curly handwriting, 20 years on.

A friend of mine commented here that diaries are a time travel machine; a portal to another world. He’s right. I feel both taken back to the past, yet onward into my future as well. So much of Dad’s life was a background to my own, even while mine was also a background to his for him. And in twenty years forward, I don’t want to be struggling with the same relationship difficulties, a sick parent, or frustrating family dynamics. I really don’t.

I’d like to be crossing roads in the sunlight, enjoying fresh adventures, content within myself about who I am, and what I’m feeling. I’d like to smile and say thankyou to drivers who give me right of way, and I’d most like to know that I’m loving and loved.

*Sigh*

This diary-reading business is not easy. But then neither is this living-business either sometimes (first world problem, I know).

So what challenging traits do you think you’ve inherited from a parent, and how have you changed them?

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