Dropping a hat

Photography by Jake Burger

I CAN DO THIS, I was almost chanting to myself. I can do it all. I can. 

I was staring down the face of an email, that was asking – more so, directing – that I defer my Honours studies at university. 

Despite every obstacle I have faced, I always found a way to push through. Even when that felt like wading through waist-deep mud to get to the other side.

As our way of life began to collapse around us last year, I returned to what felt safe. I could study, learn, achieve – and almost pretend everything, in that safe space of academia, was as it had been. More than a year on, I can acknowledge my decision to return to university was dually motivated out of fear and needing to cling to something familiar; I was scared I was going to lose my job, and I wanted to remain one step ahead.  

I wrote back in adamant refusal. I couldn’t lose this.

I didn’t want to accept that I just couldn’t do it this time. 

Four days earlier, the mains power on our house blew. I was writing a shopping list for my partner, Haavard, discussing apples and bananas – when the electricity began to surge. It was almost out of a horror film, like something had possessed everything. Appliances and lights pulsed, buzzed. The microwave beeped sporadically. 

My response to the situation at this moment came deep from my subconscious.

When I was somewhere around four years old, my grandmother took me shopping and bought me a pair of boots. When I returned home, I ran inside and went to wash my hands, but as I turned the knobs, steamed poured out instead. The house was live. The rubber-soled boots saved my life. 

I pulled on my Blundstones (paired with pyjamas and no bra!) and yelled at Haavard to not touch anything. We ran outside with the dogs, while the smell of fried electrics filled the air. It was nearly a house fire, and we were very lucky. The call-centre said it would be okay for me to return into the house to retrieve things and check for signs of smoke, but I couldn’t touch any appliances or metal. 

As I stood in the dark of our house, gathering up phones, wallets, and my asthma puffer – I looked at everything else. What could I even take? I couldn’t unplug anything, so my computer (that I’m fortunate enough to write this post on right now) would be lost if there was a fire. Goodbye to everything I had on there – my photos, my novel, all my work, and even the hard-drives hosting the backups of all of that. It was a pretty sobering moment.

Powercor cut our house off from the grid, and said there was nothing else they could do – we needed an electrician to replace the mains. My parents got straight onto it, and were amazingly supportive (as they always are!). We had some fantastic electricians come to the rescue the following day, who worked on it tirelessly until Wednesday.

But until then, we had no power. Smack in the middle of Lockdown 5.0 in Victoria, when we weren’t allowed to go further than five kilometres from our own home. In the throes of winter, at that. Those few nights were bitterly cold, and we layered up and burrowed down with more blankets. I felt a newfound, raw gratitude for the simplest of things (and I’m fully aware many people have so much less), but even in the days since, it crosses my mind as I flip a light switch, or feel hot water through a tap. We were incredibly lucky to have my sister, Skye’s apartment across our driveway (under the same address, but separate power), so we could have a shower, charge our phones, and eat meals by a heater.

I had kept my morale as high as I could, after almost 200 days of lockdown in Victoria the past twelve months, but this week did me in. It was like a hard kick in the back.

And amidst this, I internally chanted still – you can do this. Everything will be fixed. You’ve been through worse than this. It’s temporary. Everything is fine. 

But it wasn’t. 

And it wasn’t because the plumbing went cactus barely 24 hours after our power came back on. (The definition of striking someone while they’re down.)

It was because I had to admit, that this time, it was okay to give into the depression I felt.

In the middle of everything, I logged into my university account and came across the email – sent a week or two before. I was so out of touch with it all. And that’s when I knew something had to change.

When I received a following email from my supervisor, gently reiterating that intermitting was the best course of action – I knew I was juggling too many hats, and that I needed to let go of something to stay afloat.

Instead of university feeling like a safe place as I had hoped, I had created a world of stress around my studies. I wanted to show up for Hope & Co. as best I could, while freelancing, launching a podcast, working on passive income streams, and importantly – being a present partner, sister, daughter, and fur-baby mother. I wanted to excel as a student too, but I was crushing myself under the weight of everything I had taken on. 

It was the mast that had snapped in the storm, destined to bring down the whole ship. I had to cut it off.

Admitting defeat

After a phone call with my Honours Coordinator, I felt a weight come off my chest. There was no use lying to myself, and I felt so much relief in admitting that trying to do too much had defeated me. 

“I think after a break, my mindset towards everything will be much better. I shouldn’t be here (studying) if I hate it. I need time to find my passion for this again. And who knows; perhaps by the time I return next year, the world will be a bit more normal,” I had said.

“You are my biggest inspiration today,” my Coordinator said.

“What do you mean?” I laughed.

“Because we’re in the middle of yet another lockdown, and everything feels hopeless – you don’t have any power in the middle of winter! And you’re still optimistic things will get better. You’re my biggest inspiration today.” She said.

“Oh, thank you. Well, if I don’t laugh about it I’ll cry,” I sighed. Even if I wasn’t really her inspiration that day, she was right. 

I don’t know how else to be – but it is my Achilles Heel. That overriding optimism is engrained in me like DNA. In the darkest hours of my life, it has sustained me. I have to believe, that no matter how awful things might be, there will be light and reprieve in some way, at some point. And eventually, there always has been. 

The good thing about hitting rock bottom, there’s only one way left to go, and that’s up.

– Anonymous

But this week, I also came to understand how important it is to feel our way through moments where we can’t remain upbeat. 

A couple of days after the phone-call, as I slumped on the couch after running each of our drains continuously with water and disinfectant, I let the weight of it all swallow me whole. Not just the stress of everything we endured this week, but the distressing scenes in our country right now. 

There’s a ubiquitous ‘rock bottom’ at the moment. It has driven some mad; some to be self-proclaimed health evangelists telling people to ‘suck it up for the greater good’; or sent some into full despair. I sympathise with each of them though, because as it has been said – we’re all in the same storm, but different boats; some are in yachts, rafts, are keeping afloat on driftwood, or treading water with their hands. (I’m sure everyone has seen that quote floating around social media by now.)

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

– Anonymous

But please know, no matter your walk of life, whoever you are – it’s okay, to not be okay, and no one has the right to tell you otherwise. We’re all doing the best we can.

Remember that each of you are so much stronger than you know, and have the ability within yourself to forge a way through. We’re further away from the start of all of this each day, and somehow closer to our new normal. Look at how much you have endured already, and how brave you are.

Today, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and have tried to work out my next steps. It’s a new week tomorrow, with one less hat (for now). But there’s a way out this rut I fell into, and I’ll climb out of it a step at a time. 

“It’s okay to cry when you’re hurt. It’s also okay to smash (some) things but, wash your face, clean your mess and get up off the floor when you’re done. You don’t belong there.”

Betsy Taylor

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