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KJ

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KJ lives in Bendigo, Australia with her wife, their son, three cats and a dog. She started writing interesting observations of life, literary articles, poetry, creative non-fiction, and personal essays, and eventually they were all sort of smooshed together in a giant author-y blender and out popped a book. Then another. The blender is currently in use for KJ’s next novel.

Twitter at @propertyofkj

Instagram at kjlesfic

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World Bipolar Day!

Yes! It’s World Bipolar Day today. March 30th, which is also the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who, long after he died, was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder based on things he did when he was alive. He probably did have Bipolar. The signs were there.

Bipolar Disorder is a severe mental illness, where doctors nod and frown and have you fill in DASS42 surveys to see if you need hospitalisation. That sort of severe. Just recently, society has dipped its toes into the weird ellipse shape in the middle of a Venn diagram, where on one side there are all sorts of myths about Bipolar Disorder and on the other side there’s Kanye, Demi Lovato, Russell Brand, Carrie Fischer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Stephen Fry, and lots of others who, by disclosing their diagnosis, are de-stigmatising the illness. 

The number of famous or infamous people with a Bipolar diagnosis eradicates myth number one, which is that Bipolar is rare. Nope. Not really. Let’s go with two million adults in the US. Or one in fifty Australians. Not that rare.

And because there are quite a few Bipolar-havers, the second myth pops up a lot. This one; It’s just mood swings and everyone’s a bit Bipolar, aren’t they? No, Karen, they’re not. If it was just mood swings, then the entire government of Australia would be under psychiatric care with a very clear diagnosis of ‘just mood swings’. So, it’s more than a bit of a swing at the mood playground. Bipolar is being on the swing, which goes too high, then stops suddenly, flinging you off to the merry-go-round which is rotating independently and much too quickly, so it hurls you off like a giant centrifuged emotional glob, straight to the seesaw, where despair flops onto the other end and skyrockets you into the sky for a massive dose of mania, but you land back on the horrible bark stuff they put on the ground in local playgrounds. Then you try the swings again to see if it was a one-off. It’s not just mood swings, and everyone is not a little bit Bipolar.

There are all sorts of colourful, pretty, chewy even, vitamins marketed for those with Bipolar Disorder. The vitamin proponents are really into the mantra of ‘Exercise Will Fix Everything’ and ‘Eat Kale And Your Moods Will Improve’ or “It’s All In Your Head’. Well, that last one is accidentally and spectacularly true, but the rest? Not always. Bipolar Disorder is a lifelong illness and there currently is no cure. However, it can be well-managed with medication, which needs to be tweaked and poked and tested and some Bipolar-havers don’t get their medication just right for up to five years. That’s fun while your brain is trying to kill you.

There’s another myth that says; people with Bipolar are pretty normal, and just going through a bad patch. In the circle labelled ‘myth’ in our Venn diagram, there’s the statement; “Anything That Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger”. Gosh, what an inspirational message. Sure, saying that to cheer up a person who’s lost their dog might help (probably won’t, you condescending arse) but don’t say it to Bipolar-havers, because Bipolar Disorder can kill. At least 25% to 60% of people with Bipolar Disorder will attempt suicide and between 4% and 16% will die from suicide. They. Will. Die. By. Killing. Themselves.

Those numbers indicate what a very severe mental illness Bipolar Disorder actually is, so it didn’t help when celebrity-of-the-moment Kanye West piped up and enthused that when he’s having a Bipolar high, he feels a “heightened connection with the Universe” and like he has a “superpower”. Apparently, a connection to the Universe is something to be desired, despite every common mania behaviour of poor decision-making, obnoxious attitude, rapid speech, sometimes unlawful acts, lack of sleep, racing thoughts that make you feel as if your brain is only inside your head through sheer willpower joining in with the Universal fun.

Bipolar highs, or mania, have long been associated with creativity, which might explain the number of creative people sitting in their little circle in the Venn diagram. But, Bipolar doesn’t enhance creativity and creativity doesn’t cause Bipolar. In fact, treatment often allows Bipolar-havers to think more clearly, which will likely improve their work. Being creative while cuddled inside a high is awful and euphoric.

It is akin to riding a wave that starts as a perfect swell, then builds and the wind whips through your hair so that you’re starring in your own advertisement, then the wave forms more of its shape under your board and you’ve grown five extra arms and you’re emailing and painting and writing that novel and finishing that course and looking through Pinterest to find your next project and it’s all so much but you can do it because you’re invincible with a superpower and obnoxious and talking so quickly that you start your next sentence before you’ve even finished your last one and you’re in charge and the boss and you fundamentally believe that you can fly off that apartment block because you’ve disconnected from reality but go on do it you know you can and…then suddenly the wave disappears. Your board drops, you plummet to the earth, and you lay broken on the ground for days and months and minutes, not really remembering the wave or what happened, but knowing it was bad. 

Most Bipolar-havers don’t want a Kanye-“heightened connection with the universe” or a “superpower”. Ever. The consequences are too awful to contemplate. I have the distinct feeling that Kanye made that statement while surfing a mania wave so declarations of Universe-connections, heightened or otherwise, are probably expected. I really hope Kanye’s medication regulates itself soon.

The other statement that rolls out from the myths huddle into the middle bit of the Bipolar Venn diagram where society is dipping their toes is “I Wish I Was Manic so I Could Get Things Done”. No, Kevin, you don’t wish that. See above. Waves. Surfboard. Suicide. Bipolar-havers are empathetic souls. They are the least likely mentally ill people to kill someone else (just themselves) and they would never wish manic episodes on other people. You don’t want mania. Ask for x-ray vision. Much more fun.

By the way, the ‘bi’ in Bipolar is for the now-outdated term of Manic-Depressive, which allows myth four hundred and eleventy-billion to trot on over to the middle of the Venn; Bipolar-havers are either too happy or too sad. Nope.

Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder. It’s based on brain chemicals. Bipolar-havers can be incredibly depressed or incredibly manic, but mostly, with medication, people with Bipolar Disorder can experience long periods of even, balanced mood called euthymia. It’s a lovely, entirely normal, place for a Bipolar-haver to be, because the mania is NOT normal, and depressive states are also NOT normal. 

But mania and depression could become dreadfully, scarily normal for those people without medication. Those two states could be normalised for Bipolar people if the myths are allowed to gain traction and become fact. They could be normalised for those people if Bipolar Disorder becomes people’s mental illness du jour because of the collection of diagnosed celebrities. Let’s not do that. Bipolar Disorder is a severe mental illness. It’s real, has serious consequences, it isn’t fashionable because a famous person has it, it isn’t cool, and there are many Bipolar-havers just getting through life making sure their brain doesn’t kill them each day.  Let’s celebrate them being here. Alive. 

Happy World Bipolar Day.

New!

Change of Plans

Emily Fitzsimmons, award-winning architect, creates meticulous plans for every aspect of her life, which is understandable considering her difficult childhood. After all, prudence keeps her safe. Lately, though, too many of those comforting plans are disintegrating and Emily is forced to function spontaneously which has spiked her anxiety so much, she’s put her therapist on speed-dial. 

Skye Reynolds, bike courier entrepreneur, knows all about exploding plans. That’s literally how she lost her job when her company blew up a 40,000 year old world heritage site. But Skye is not someone who asks for help to reassemble her life blueprints, which is lucky as she nearly always lands on her feet whenever she happily ignores prudence to embark on any new adventure.

When Skye’s ad hoc dirt track intersects with Emily’s carefully paved freeway, their lives are thrown into disarray, with the added complication of their unexpected sexual attraction. Prudence plays tricks on both of them when they choose to navigate their true paths and explore the direction of their relationship. 

Sometimes a change of plans is all you need to see what lies ahead.

Saying thanks

Thanksgiving. I’d always wondered about this uniquely Northern Hemisphere event. It seems to involve an abundance of pie, pumpkin recipes, a proliferation of Starbucks lattes laced with what I’ve discovered is simply mixed allspice, and some sort of parade, followed by frightening demonstrations of how to stampede effectively through the aisles of stores. I’m not sure about the turkeys.

I figured that there had to be more to it than my own limited understanding. So, I googled. And I discovered that Thanksgiving occurs on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and at various other autumnal moments in Canada, Brazil, Grenada, the Philippines, Saint Lucia, Liberia, and the Netherlands. Blessing the harvest appears to be the basis of the celebration, which makes perfect sense if one is sitting in a log cabin on the land, having gathered in the summer crops and then shoved them away in crates, casks, and cellars in preparation for the long winter. This probably explains why it hasn’t taken off in Australia, as come November, we’re pretty much done with spring, and on our way to summer. Maybe it’s because our sink water rotates backwards or we wear thongs on our feet.

But as a concept the idea of giving thanks, and showing gratitude, is universal. It’s a character trait that comes with a buffet of awesome benefits. Like serotonin. This chemical is nature’s little happy pill, an inbuilt mood-stabiliser. If you’re on the receiving end of a thank you, a super dose of serotonin smacks you right in the heart. And here’s the coolest bit; the person saying thanks? They get a super dose of serotonin as well, even if they aren’t expecting it because their only goal is to express appreciation. What a thoughtful, egalitarian hormone it is. 

It’s important to say thank you. To tell someone that they’re appreciated. To express gratitude. It makes people feel valued, not because of their action, but because of who they are. You’d think everyone would do it more, what with all the warm fuzzy goodness that it comes with.

I say thank you to my wife and kiddo every day. But in this month of Thanksgiving and pumpkin lattes and inordinately large inflatable balloons, I’d like to say thank you some more.

I’d like to say thank you to each and every reader who has ever picked up one of my books and stayed until the end. You’re all wonderful people and I love that you have embraced the words of a newbie writer from Australia who wandered into the lesfic wlw room because they couldn’t find the toilets.

I want to say thank you to those who have reposted, retweeted, shared, liked, replied, or interacted somehow with one of my inane writerly ramblings because by doing so, you validated the idea that perhaps I could wear this author hat. 

I want to say thank you to the reviewers; the ones who click the stars through to the ones who write their hearts. You’ve read one of my books, and given it space in your memories, and that is a gift. 

I want to say thank you to the writers, like Selena, and Angela, and Cheyenne, and Rach, and Sophie, and Jude, and more, who have sent words, memes, GIFs of encouragement in emails, and direct messages. You’ve welcomed me into the club and it’s embarrassing how much I’ve rushed about showing off my membership card and lanyard.

I value every single person who has helped me grow from an invisible human with access to the internet, to “that Australian author who writes in that squirly way like no-one else and has good characters”. 

So, thanks. I hope you held a little serotonin in your heart just then. You deserve it. 

(Although, technically, serotonin isn’t in your heart, but rather is produced in neurons originating in the midline of the brainstem and transported throughout the body by the endocrine sys—right. Sorry.)

Happy Thanksgiving-pumpkin-cold-weather-preliminary-Christmas-period-of-time

A decade or two…

A decade is regarded as somewhat significant. Either it stands alone as an allocated marker of occasion, or a few start to connect quite importantly, like a span of decimal Lego pieces. In 2020, which featured a series of extraordinarily awful events, my family will celebrate a decade, and a double decade, of two occasions that contain so much joy and consequence that I couldn’t let them pass without writing something.

So here is my something.

In the year 2000—the year that Cathy Freeman won gold at Sydney’s Olympics, the year that the USB flash drive appeared in stores and we would forevermore sigh in frustration as we flip them over to connect it to our device, and the year that Venus Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title—I met my wife. 

It was a very lesbian moment. I attended a women’s dance at the insistence of a friend, because “you’re out now and this dance only happens once a year and you need to be seen.” She was impossible to say no to. So there I was on a Saturday night in early October, leaning against the hotel railing looking out at the river, and as I peered over the edge to the jetty about twenty metres below, I saw a figure—a woman—sitting comfortably on the wooden boards. Then she looked up and I knew we’d seen each other, even though I was back-lit, and she was in the dark. I had no idea what she looked like. It didn’t matter. We’d seen each other. It was the strangest, most powerful moment I’d had in a long time.

I moved inside, still thinking about the odd connection, and was caught up in the undulating waves of possibly eight-hundred lesbian and queer-identifying women emitting clouds of pheromones and sweat in the ballroom and lobby of the only hotel on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, that would support such an event. 

Suddenly my hand was clutched by my now inebriated friend, who dragged me through the heaving mass to arrive at the bar, where she flung her arm out dramatically and, after a farmer’s cry of “oi!” yelled my future wife’s name. All of a sudden I was staring into the blue eyes of a gorgeous, tall, curly-haired woman, who’d rolled her sleeves halfway up her forearms and whose lips were arranged in a sexy half-smile that still reduces me to goo twenty years later. I won’t go into specifics of the rest of the night’s conversations, touches, smiles, but she was suave and lovely and delightful and interested. And I was an idiotic, unfiltered dork, who was apparently rather adorable. 

It was months later that we discovered that we’d already met. So to speak. That jetty-top-deck momentary glance became the starting point for the years we were soon to collect. We’d found each other. We loved.

Fast forward a decade later to the year 2010. We were living and working in Hong Kong and enjoying all that the world offered. And yet, not really at all. During our first decade, we’d moved suburbs, bought a house, changed professions, and tried desperately to have a child through IVF. To no avail. The profound despair and sense of failure was oppressive. So, for a reason I can’t remember, we decided to move to Hong Kong. We still wanted a child. We still wanted that fundamental element that wasn’t missing as such, but was needed nonetheless. During one of those special chats that couples have, which start off about what to have for dinner, but end up being about life and love and children and imaginings of the future and what that could look like, we talked about adoption. The Hong Kong SAR government thrives on paperwork in triplicate, rules, subsets of rules and if one follows all those rules and completes all that paperwork, the adoption process is remarkably logical. But not pleasant. It is intrusive and personally impersonal and heartbreaking. And long. Friends congratulated us on being so altruistic, so generous, so charitable to ‘take a child’, which made us incredibly uncomfortable and, frankly that thought was abhorrent, because we weren’t adopting a child to somehow rescue them from something. It had never occurred to us to have that perspective. We wanted to adopt because a child would bring their love, their soul. They’d bring…themselves. To us. 

In late September of 2010, our first decade, I received a phone call from the social worker who had been handling our file for a number of years. She told me that we’d been matched with a six-month-old boy. Would we like to meet him? she asked excitedly, speaking so quickly that I couldn’t catch the first and last words of her sentences. 

I remember every second of that phone call, though. It lasted seventeen minutes. I was standing, frozen, right in the middle of the enormous aircraft-hanger-sized foyer of the International Finance Centre building in Central and the thousands of commuters, making their way towards the banks and banks of escalators, flowed past me like I was simply a rock in a stream. 

There wasn’t a single standout emotion that emerged on the Wednesday afternoon when we met our son. No. Our hearts and veins fizzed with a concoction of feelings and questions and worry. Would he like us? Would we be good enough? Could we do this? Would our love be enough?

On the fourth floor of a bland social services building in Tsim Sha Tsui, we stood awkwardly in a sterile room with thin foam tiles and white walls with Disney characters painted in-between the plastic tubing encasing a million electrical wires. Our social worker carried in a bundle of small person wrapped in a blue-striped onesie. Then we met him. Even now writing this piece of text, I have tears in my eyes and the letters on the screen are delightfully and annoyingly blurry.

Would he like us? Would we be good enough? Could we do this? Would our love be enough? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I recall  the feeling of my mouth stretched into a smile so wide that it was going to take some effort for the skin to reorganise itself so it could form words. My wife and I wore dual expressions of stunned awe. Our son grinned gummily, and as he relaxed against my chest, he reached out a hand and patted my lips, like he recognised the thread that now joined the three of us. We’d found each other. We loved.

This year, our son turned ten. And he didn’t get to have a birthday party, or visit a shop to find a gift, or go to a restaurant for a special dinner. It is 2020 and those types of things were suddenly inaccessible. But we brought down the photo album—the one that is covered in red cloth, and has rice paper pages layered between the glossy prints—from the shelf in the family room, and huddled around the memories. And every day of every year of every decade, we create some more. 

Happy anniversary, my family. I love you.