At the start of 2018, I often struggled to leave my apartment due to the severity of my chronic fatigue. So for the first time in my adult life, I set no resolutions or goals for the year.
It was weird.
Because not only do I normally set resolutions and goals, I am also one of those over-ambitious weirdos who tracks them through the year, periodically reflecting on my progress.
I’m starting off 2019 still sick. I need to be realistic about what I can achieve.
Or do I? If I’m not going to achieve my resolutions anyway, this is a chance to set some truly grandiose resolutions, the type of things I’d definitely attempt if the phrase ‘you can do anything you set your mind to’ was actually true (it’s not, sorry).
Resolutions I Sincerely Plan to Achieve in 2019
Summit Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie.
Prove the Big Bloop is a giant undersea creature and not just ‘shifting ice plates’ like ‘scientists’ want you to believe.
Learn to speak hieroglyphics.
Train a romp of sea otters to compete in the synchronised swimming competition at the 2020 Olympics. Admit it, you’d watch that.
Construct a building using only pancakes and industrial-strength maple syrup on the border between two nations. Not a house though. Maybe a bank?
Catch a serial killer (this could tidily knock two items off my long-standing bucket list, depending how it plays out).
Grow a third arm.
Successfully petition for sea otters to be eligible to compete in the 2020 Olympics.
Circumnavigate the Earth north-south on a unicycle.
For once, I feel no anxiety about these resolutions. I know they’re doomed to failure. And allowing myself to fail is, under the circumstances, actually a pretty good feeling. 2019 is shaping up to be a stellar year, even if the reality is most of it will pass much like 2018, ie like this:
One of the few positives of putting most of my life on hiatus due to illness is that I’ve actually had more time for reading.
I’ve always loved reading. I used to walk home from school with an open book, looking up only before crossing the street, and even then only if I wasn’t at a really good part.
When my chronic fatigue was at its worst in 2017, I wasn’t able to read. I’d start a sentence, and by the time I finished, I’d forgotten how it began. I’d re-read the same sentence over and over, but my brain was too tired to both decipher the writing and hold onto the meaning.
I still have days where I’m too tired to read, but they’re becoming less frequent. And because I have spent so much time home on the couch, I actually read more this year. Comparing the past six years indicates how much time I spent at home by the number of books I’ve read.
2013: 20 books
2014: 23 books
2015: 26 books
2016: 21 books
2017: 32 books (gradually becoming ill)
2018: 50 books (ill all year)
It turns out the secret to reading a lot is being chronically ill (maybe that is Reading in Winter’s secret? Or maybe she’s one of those healthy people who just don’t sleep, which is basically a superpower).
2018 reading breakdown
64% Australian authors
57% women authors
24% debut authors, of which 22% (11 books) were debut Australian women authors
6% zombie fiction
2018 reading highlights
Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (NF) Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to spend three years in Poland accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.*
Traumata by Meera Atkinson (NF)
Traumata is a sense-making project, or rather the summary of Atkinson’s lifelong effort at sense-making. Interspersing research into trauma, memory and psychology with explorations of her personal traumata – the plural of trauma – she presents an incisive case study of trauma’s effects, how it can compound at an individual level, and how it operates in society. (First published in The Australian)
Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett (NF)
Everett spent 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. His book recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him. The prologue frames his experiences by describing the morning an entire village of Pirahãs woke early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently,’ Everett writes. ‘I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’*
Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (NF)
Msimang grew up in exile from South Africa, the daughter of a freedom fighter and follower of Nelson Mandela. Her eloquent memoir of home, belonging and race politics traces her childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her university years in America, and her return to a South Africa that is free but not just. (First published in The Big Issue)
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (NF)
Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma. Read the full review here.
Being Shot by Gail Bell (NF)
Blending memoir with journalism, Bell examines her own experiences, alongside those of a number of other shooting victims, to consider both the physical and psychological aftermath. She also interviews recreational gun owners, war veterans, and police and RSPCA officers who use weapons in their work. In an effort to understand the appeal of guns, she considers their 500-year history and current prevalence in pop culture. Read the full review here.
How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland (NF)
Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities. His gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself since the onset of my illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children.*
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver (NF)
Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. Read the full review here.
Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp
Under the umbrella of contemporary women’s fiction, this novel is part of the emotional thriller genre. Set in Sydney, it centres around two mothers and the realities of IVF and postpartum psychosis. With a quickly paced plot and blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, it’s an engaging read.
By now I’m sure you’ve read my thriller novella, My Name Is Revenge, and are desperately looking around for more of my fiction writing.
You’re in luck! I’ve had a number of short fiction works published this year, including some flash fiction, and most of it you can read online for free from these fine publications. Enjoy!
in SmokeLong Quarterly
A tiny story about a larger-than-life woman. The Unicorn inspired this amazing artwork by US artist Chris Roberts.
Your Results Are In
in Baby Teeth Journal This story, inspired by several true events as well as my ever-growing stack of medical lab results, has been described as ‘creepy and fabulously funny’ (so definitely on brand).
in Stylus Lit
A tiny story about how rotten people can be.
in Verandah 33
The story of a woman discovering the bureaucratic horrors of nursing home life. (This is the only story listed here without free access, but no worries, the journal is available in both PDF and print.)
It’s been a year since I was diagnosed with post-infective fatigue syndrome, and about two years since the symptoms first began. In that time, I’ve spent a lot of hours on the couch/in bed, feeling frustrated and trying to remind myself that resting is recovering.
Before I was diagnosed, I watched a lot of TV. I’ve watched more TV in the last two years than in the entire previous decade. TV seemed like the thing to do when I was too tired to read. However, my doctors told me TV can be very mentally draining.
To allow myself to actually rest while I’m resting, the doctors recommended I listen to audiobooks or podcasts, an activity I can do with my eyes closed. As a result, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts this year. Sometimes I listen to an entire series in a day.
One upside of being ill is that I’ve had the opportunity to lean into things I find wildly exciting, including serial killers, zombies, cults and genocide. You know, the usual topics ladies enjoy.
Out of all the podcasts I’ve listened to this year, here are ten I highly recommend:
The Great Crime
I’ve studied the Armenian genocide for nearly a decade, but I’m still learning a lot of interesting details from this podcast narrating the genocide’s history. It’s well delivered, and exactly as its website promises: “open and accessible to everyone, whether you’re familiar with the subject or totally unaware of this often forgotten, misunderstood, and fundamentally tragic saga.” Also, turns out it’s from New Zealand.
Uncover: Escaping Nxivm
“NXIVM calls itself a humanitarian community. Experts call it a cult.” This investigative podcast from Canada’s CBC is a fascinating look into the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, and a member’s struggle to escape.
Everything is Alive
Okay, you might not be into genocide and cults, but I dare you not to be utterly delighted by these imaginative interviews with inanimate objects. The host works in interesting true facts about each object. In my standout favourite episode, Ana the Elevator, we learn about architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans for a mile-tall skyscraper with nuclear-powered elevators. But the best moment is when Ana sees a video of ‘outside’ and exclaims, ‘Is there no weight limit outside?’
In the Dark
This crime-focussed investigative podcast has two seasons. The first unravels the disastrous investigation of a boy kidnapped near his home in rural Minnesota, a crime that went unsolved, with no trace of the boy, for 27 years. The second season investigates the circumstances surrounding a Mississippi man tried six times for the same crime over 21 years. He maintains his innocence. Both seasons are fascinating and revelatory.
The Happy Face serial killer was imprisoned in 1995 after the violent murder of at least eight women. What’s particularly interesting about this retrospective is that it’s narrated by his daughter, who was a teenager when he was arrested.
Don’t confuse We’re Alive with the only other fiction podcast on this list, Everything Is Alive. We’re Alive is four seasons of zombie attacks set in Los Angeles and the southwest United States. Season 1 is interesting, the story moves along. Season 2 starts to build on season 1. Then season 3 pulls together all the narrative threads from the first two seasons and takes the story to a new level.
With over 100 episodes, Criminal looks at crime from a wide variety of angles, featuring interviews with culprits, victims and experts. My favourite episodes include: #15 He’s Neutral: a man who solves his neighbour’s crime problems with a Buddha statue. #51 Money Tree: a woman whose mother stole her identity for credit fraud. #85 The Manual: a murder investigation and the manual used by the killer. #101 The Fox: the story of two 1970s plane hijackers who met in prison.
Malcolm Gladwell is an author and investigative journalist who looks at a wide variety of social and historical issues from surprising and compelling angles. I also recommend all of his books.
A true crime podcast examining the Atlanta Child Murders: “Nearly 40 years after these horrific crimes, many questions still remain.” The narrator, Payne Lindsey, has another podcast called Up and Vanished. I tried to get into it, but I found both seasons very slow.
Bonus: Atlanta Monster also has the best theme song of all the podcasts I’ve listened to.
Story Club A growing collection of true stories from comedic narrators, recorded live in Sydney.
I’m probably going to spend a significant chunk of the coming year in bed again, so I’m pretty desperate for new recommendations. Please send them my way!
Over my several years in Australia, whenever the topic of Canberra came up, people derided it. Australia’s capital is the epitome of bureaucratic blandness, people told me, a snake-riddled suburbia of confounding roundabouts, especially punishing to anyone stupid enough to try navigating the city by foot.
In response to this unanimous negativity, I developed a perverse desire to like Canberra. (This is further evidence that my brain’s main goal is to sabotage me.) I’ll show them, I thought. When I visit Canberra, I’ll see it from a whole new perspective.
I even tried to navigate the city by foot. This experience is best captured by this actual Canberran sidewalk to nowhere:
The more I learned about Canberra, the more ridiculous it became. The city’s name comes from nganbra, a Ngunnawal word supposedly meaning ‘meeting place’. However, according to local elders, writes my favourite Aussie historian, the word actually means ‘breasts’. As David Hunt put it in True Girt, ‘Australians are the only people in the world who would name their national capital “Tits”’.
This is typical of the national tendency to appropriate Aboriginal words without grasping their meaning, Hunt adds. In this way, Canberra is somehow more, rather than less, appropriate as the name of the country’s capital.
Or, consider this: front and centre over Parliament’s main entrance is a stainless steel rendition of the Aussie coat of arms, kangaroo on the left, emu on the right, each leaning in to support the shield. According to Justine van Mourik, Parliament House’s art curator, when artists submitted coat-of-arms designs during the building’s construction, at least one was rejected because the kangaroo was ‘not visibly male’.
The kangaroo now poised above Parliament is definitely visibly male, its hunk of maleness the same size as its snout.
Van Mourik offered no explanation for this criterion in Parliament’s coat of arms; there’s no mention of animal gender in the charter that dictates the design, and it’s definitely not a standard feature. Here is another rendition of the coat of arms I found in Canberra. Note neither of these animals are visibly male. Also, they’re rocking some A+ googly eyes.
Another Parliament fact: if you take the guided tour, you’ll learn that the monstrosity holding up the flag is ‘the largest stainless steel structure in the southern hemisphere’. So there’s something to inspire national pride!
I’ve also read conflicting accounts of the city’s design. The American town planner responsible, Walter Burley Griffin, may have based the layout on occult symbols, maybe Freemasonry or Kabbalah. National Geographic observed that, seen from above, Parliament House looks suspiciously like the Illuminati’s all-seeing pyramid eye, and some people believe the double ring roads encircling Capitol Hill indicate the area is a consecrated temple. National Geographic went on to note that these suspicions are baseless – but that’s exactly what the Illuminati would want you to think, isn’t it.
And one more thing, which isn’t exactly a civic issue, but I’m including it anyway. Canberra is home to the gang-gang cockatoo, nicknamed the squeaky gate cockatoo. This is because their call sounds exactly like you’re in a horror movie and a deranged man wielding a blood-soaked chainsaw is creeping up behind you through an unoiled door. Which, I can say from experience, is especially unsettling to hear when you’re walking through the bush alone.
I first visited Canberra in 2012, and I’ve been back a few times. Though I now accept that it’s a ludicrous city in many ways, I actually like it more for all these reasons. And sometimes, it’s also quite beautiful.
The spookiest thing about chronic fatigue is that science doesn’t understand it. As one of my doctors explained, no branch of medicine ‘owns’ this cluster of illnesses yet. In other words, they don’t know where the problem originates in the body. Maybe it’s caused by inflammation in the brain. Maybe it’s a gut flora issue. Maybe it’s an ancient Aztec curse.
Also spooky is the way chronic fatigue affects the entire body and the brain. One theory has to do with a problem in the way the body creates or uses energy at a cellular level. This means the cells are affected throughout the body – brain cells, muscle cells, lung cells, etc.
Whatever their cause, my random assortment of symptoms would make a strange alphabet book.
A: Alcohol intolerance
Long before I realised I was sick, I’d have one drink and feel parched for hours, even if I drank a litre of water after. It was like I’d had a glass of sand. Then that one drink would wake me up in the middle of the night and keep me up for a couple of hours. I assumed this is just what happened when you hit your mid-thirties.
A, again: Air hunger
Air hunger is a fun term for not being being able to get a full breath. It feels like metal band clamped around your lungs, preventing them from fully expanding. This is why my GP thought I’d also coincidentally developed asthma. Air hunger comes and goes, and can last minutes or hours. I often get it when I’m doing something physical, like walking, but it can also happen when I’m sitting at my desk. Nothing like being winded from typing to remind you how sick you are.
C: Concentration impairment
My brain is affected in all kinds of ways. Like all these symptoms, this one comes and goes. Some days I can’t focus on anything and will wander the apartment, randomly starting things, then abandoning them after five minutes.
E: Energy spikes Occasionally I feel fantastic and have to restrain myself from attempting to answer all the emails/clean all the things/run all the errands/write three books to make up for lost time.
Fatigue is more than tiredness. When I’m tired, I can still do things. Fatigue is the body’s determination to stop doing things, and after a time it becomes impossible to override.
Maybe fatigue related, who knows?
I assume this is the brain forgetting how to sleep.
J: Joint pain
At first I thought I’d escaped this symptom. Then my left ankle and right wrist simultaneously developed a peculiar crunchiness that also randomly comes and goes.
L: Light sensitivity
The more tired I am, the more light hurts my eyes.
M: Memory problems
I’ve struggled with both short- and long-term memory since becoming ill. At my worst, I couldn’t read because by the time I got to the end of a sentence, I couldn’t remember how it had started.
More M: Muscle weakness
I’ve heard about many people with chronic fatigue who physically can’t get out of bed. Though I had a few days like that, mine isn’t nearly so bad. Still, most days my hair dryer feels like it’s made of solid concrete.
N: Noise sensitivity My brain became particularly sensitive to noise. It struggles to filter out background noise, and when I get tired, I can’t separate the sound of someone talking to me from background sound. I’ve also realised sound takes a physical toll on the body. In an especially loud room, I can feel sound, like lying on speaker.
O: Orthostatic intolerance
This is my new favourite term. I get so tired that it’s unbearable to be upright, even when sitting. As soon as I lay down, I feel significantly better. I thought I was going crazy until I discovered the term for this exact symptom.
R: Reactive depression
S: Sore throat
Frequently waking up with a sore throat is one of the reasons I spent a year thinking I was coming down a with a flu and just had to rest a lot to ‘fight it off’.
T: Temperature dysregulation
Prime example: my brain no longer suggests I remove my jacket before I end up with a heat rash.
Being absolutely exhausted but lying awake all day is pretty much the definition of a waking coma, isn’t it?
Z: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz Other days I sleep 16 hours or more.
Since I first began aimlessly wandering my neighbourhood (a side effect of being sick), I’ve collected nearly 150 house names. I’d passed most of these places many times before, and never paid attention to them. When I was healthy, I always had somewhere to be and something on my mind. Now my mind is desperate for distraction. Also, I walk much slower.
I still find the concept of naming your house quirky, because houses in Canada didn’t have names. It’s as odd to me as if people slapped name plates on their furniture. ‘Welcome, this is our couch, Sylvester, and our loveseat, Wooloomooloo.’ Odd, and oddly endearing.
After collecting so many names, I’ve realised there are a few broad categories the house names fall into. These include:
Place names: this seems to be the most common. Some of the names are obvious, like Indiana, Nebraska, Lochinvar, Chippendale and Austin. Others are less obvious, but on researching them, they turn out to be more obscure place names. Clutha is a town in New Zealand, Uralla is in New South Wales, and even Chelveston is a town in England.
Women’s names: Many of the houses also have women’s names, such as Shirley, Evelyn, Elvira, Isabella, Tara, and Edna. Women, like houses, cars and boats, are basically property, right?
Roses, because people like roses, I guess: Eden Rose, Rosebank, Rosebriar,Rosedale
I’ve also discovered a few standout names:
Best Australian film reference: Bonnie-Doon
Worst Bart Simpson reference: Kalamunda
Best language mash-up: Chateau Relaxo
And the award for most inappropriate house name … Pompei!
I’m curious about the train of thought that led the owners to name their house after the site of an infamous volcano eruption that killed numerous people. Sure, it happened 2000 years ago, but the violent destruction of a community is still the first thing people will think about when they visit. You may as well name your house World War II.
Here is the complete list of house names I’ve discovered since my original post in April:
The real question is this: what would I name my house, assuming I could ever afford one? When I lived in South Korea, my apartment building was steam heated, and the pipes creaked and groaned through the winter. I referred to my apartment as The Belly of the Iron Dragon, which lacks a certain lyricism, I’ll admit.
I assume in the case of houses with place names, the names refer to where the owners’ families came from. If this is the case, I could name my future house Winnipeg, or The Peg or even Peggers. But since I live Down Under, I could broaden this tradition and name it Up Over. While I’m still waiting for the cost of housing to miraculously drop, maybe I’ll name my sofa.
Hit me up with house names, if your neighbourhood has some good ones. I’m eager for more!
Ever since visiting my great grandmother in a nursing home when I was a kid, I’ve dreaded the physical decline, mental deterioration and lack of mobility that are, for most people, part of old age. Occasionally I’d imagine myself as elderly, and start to panic. To calm down, I’d have to remind myself that people don’t just ‘get old’. It happens over a lifetime, and I had many, many years to go before I needed to worry about it.
Then, abruptly, at age 34, I became elderly.
Sure, I don’t have excessive wrinkles, and aside from one skunk streak, my hair isn’t grey. But since I got sick, I’ve experienced all the aspects of being elderly I’ve always been afraid of. Consider my life now:
I spend long stretches of time sitting quietly, staring into the middle distance
I tire very easily and extremely
I’ve lost all my muscle tone and am probably losing bone density too; some days even the hairdryer is too heavy for me
I sometimes needs help walking
People suggest I get a wheelchair
My main occupation is going to doctor appointments
I eat a lot of oatmeal (to be honest, I always ate a lot of oatmeal)
I can’t remember conversations I had two minutes ago
There’s a guy whose entire job seems to be wandering around outside my windows with a leafblower, and he is my nemesis
I tell long, rambling stories, and get confused in the middle of them
I have falls
The first time I fell was outside the infectious disease specialist’s office. I’d gone to sit on a bench because I was exhausted, as usual. When I tried to stand up, my brain noted that my feet were stuck under the bench. Then it noted that I was off balance, and heading quickly toward the ground.
My brain shuffled through the process it needed to execute to right itself. Clearly, something had to happen with my feet, but my brain was baffled as to which foot to move first, and how. It was still sorting through options – right foot forward? Left knee bent? – as my hip and forearm smashed into the concrete.
I suppose if I were truly elderly, my hip would have broken. Still, this was little consolation as I lay on the ground, confused about what had happened. A crowd of concerned onlookers rushed over to ask if I was okay and help me up, and I wished so, so much that on that particular Tuesday at noon, I could just be at my job like a normal, healthy 34-year-old.
I did go to work after that, despite the abundant evidence that I did not have the mental or physical capacity for productivity. My boss watched as I sat at my desk, putting bandaids on my scraped elbow, and then she sent me home, where I sat quietly, staring into the middle distance, and wondering if I would have any visitors that week.
Lately I’ve been collecting the names of houses in my neighbourhood. Where I grew up, houses didn’t have names. They were just houses. Everything else had names, including apartment buildings, but not houses, and that didn’t seem strange.
When I moved to Australia, I was surprised by how many houses had names, and announced those names via name plates as if they were attendees at a networking event. But I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the house names because I was a busy person with places to be and things on my mind. Now that I’m sick, I don’t have places to be, or much on my mind. When I can walk, I drift along like a fatigued tortoise, trying to reach a precise step count.
Interestingly, this seems to have cleared up some mental capacity for noticiting details, such as all the strange, poetic house names I’ve passed for years but never noticed. Consider these actual local house names:
Even though Edna and Elton are on different streets, I picture them as a friendly elderly couple. I also picture Elton with a purple glitter finish, maybe some rhinestones (the actual house isn’t living up to its name’s potential). I also quite like Rosstrevor. I assume it was a gay couple who argued for ages about the house name, and finally agreed to mash their first names together.
Shangri-La is a terrible choice. If I came home daily to a place called Shangri-La (or in my case, rarely left) and it was dusty and someone had left clipped nail shards across the bathroom counter and there were burned out lightbulbs that only an electrician could replace because that is not at all inconvenient, I’d feel pretty disenchanted with life.
I mentioned my house name curiosity to my colleagues recently, and one of them told me about a man she knows who migrated to Australia and decided at some point to name his house. He had a tasteful nameplate made with the image of a rosella and a fancy font spelling out “Bella Bosta”.
“It’s Brazilian slang for beautiful shit,” she said.
Which is just about the best metaphor for life I’ve ever heard.