My ex-boyfriend used to call it 'the bisexual haircut' because it wasn't a pixie and it wasn't long, and we all know the world is defined by binaries. It turns out he didn't invent the term, (and, in fact, it was quite prevalent), but until that day I'd only ever viewed the bob haircut as but one of two options:
1. The most flattering aesthetic to give your Sims character right before deleting the handlebars to the swimming pool during a neighbourhood party.
2. As profound a message as a horse-head in between your enemy's bedsheets.
Allow me to explain the latter. Ritualised behaviours are fascinating because there's often very little critical rationale behind them. It is ritual that compels a bride to throw her bouquet into a crowd of clawing, clamouring maidens for some reason that she can't truly call her own, but would feel subversive to defy. Ritual compels a family grieving their newly-deceased dog to fill the void hastily with a puppy of an entirely different breed from the last who, despite it all, remains irreplaceable. And ritual decrees that if you break up with a girl and she cuts her hair into a bob... she is never, ever coming back.
Just because something is superficial, it doesn't mean it is not significant. There is a strong linkage of identity to grooming that, I daresay, humans only understand to a skin-deep level (boom-tish). But it's there, it's seldom examined, and it should be.
When I came back to Australia for the first time in years, my younger sister - freshly nineteen years old and far more worldly and wise than I ever was at her age - cut her fringe back into shape.
"I wanted to look like I did when I was still your little baby sister," she said.
With a few snips, she had supplanted us back in time: she was a twelve-year-old with a fringe always just a smidge too short (and all the more adorable for it), and I had not yet left. It was inexplicably, wondrously easy to peer beyond her many piercings and artfully-applied mascara and see what she wanted me to see clearly again: the baby sister. My baby sister. A reminder that she never left, she simply spiced up her look.
The ritual of cutting hair is a sloppy short-hand for time travel if ever there was one.
But the post-breakup dramatic haircut - the kind where inches are vanquished all at once - is a different kind of ritual. It is the way we refashion ourselves into the illusion of someone your hands have never touched.
As with hurtling back in time, moving forwards creates its own subtle influence. My hair has been short for years; the last time my heart was broken, I had no silver bullet to recast myself as a mysterious stranger. Of course, I didn't know then that I would meet the love of my life in three... two... one. So, for lack of performative rebellion, I simply grieved whilst pretending I wasn't.
(Just because a relationship wasn't the last, it doesn't mean it wasn't significant.)
With nowhere to hide, the reality of the freshly-ended relationship bubbled to the surface, and I had no choice but to confront it. I find that even when I'm living in past tense, I revert to present. Every memory is new and beautiful and sparkly and sharp. I find that I almost like it.
There is ritual in prodding a bruise intermittently, just to see if it still hurts.
Time passes sluggishly, then abrupt. You think of the way lard solidifies against the surface of ramen broth as it cools; of flinging strawberry jam against a wall and watching it drip to the earth in stop-start slides. For the first few weeks you are invisible. The world tends to give space to people in pain. Even God gets tongue-tied sometimes.
I have been the younger sister. I know how to gaze longingly at the thing I don't want in order to distract him from the one I do. And break-ups have so many damn rituals.
'Ritualistic' is how we divide our friends. Our lives. I get the dinner parties on the eighteenth floor. He gets karaoke where the bar is always sticky and there's no shortage of single-serve acquaintances to make. We are both surprised at which friends cross the floor.
It is hard to give yourself permission to cry; harder still to make it actually happen. The tears smell a rat and refuse to come on command. There's a melancholy fantasy that doesn't feel like your own: Of running through sand dunes and letting a banshee wail rip across the winter sky. With it would come an unburdening, if only we were willing to make the trip, carve the path towards the water alone, commit to the act without fear of being overheard by strangers. I swallow my pain instead and make an insincere attempt to take a lover. They see my face after throwing themselves on your side of the bed and declaring it theirs. Their eyes widen with knowing at the sight of my gritted teeth; my flared nostrils. They leave, our flippant flirtation unconsummated. The side of the bed - the one that used to be my favourite before I let you claim it - stays empty.
Winter tucks its tail between its leg and lopes into towards whichever tilt of the earth hoards the most misery. The inverse of a Youtuber unboxing a parcel of junk, I pack away the priceless mementos of the relationship: the picture with the numbers scribbled, then crossed-out, on the bottom of the page. The stuffed fox. The card that, even then, hinted at a wince as it promised 'forever'. The springtime ritual of making space.
Nobody relishes the ritual of moving on, but eventually, somebody has to make the first move. Whether it is days or whether it is months, is always too soon. If you've prepared yourself for the inevitable, you might only reel for a day or two. You can remove your ego from the equation, recognise that you are not responsible for the other person's journey, and hope in that optimistic ventricles of your heart that this is not personal, it's not, they must have met somebody who would bring them a happiness that you were too sloppily held-together to provide. The word 'rebound' sounds ugly, even when deployed out of loyalty by friends. That hypervigilant part of you that always bristled to his defence trills. You soothe it with trembling hands. His battles are no longer yours to fight. But the muscle memory takes time to unlearn.
There is medicine in your shadow. I find a guilty sliver of relief in the sheer selfish indulgence of not having a second person live in my head rent-free. I get bored of being heartbroken; realise I'm recovering faster from the affliction itself than the months I anguished in anticipation of it. Fear makes the wolf look bigger. Sometimes losing someone is easier than trying to find your feet on the unstable terrain of their love.
You catch sight of your own petulant smirk in a reflective surface after somebody drip-feeds you a platitude. You can't help but laugh at just how seriously you've been taking yourself these days. You make a point of laughing more often. Sincerely. From deep in your belly, like your insides are seeping honey and you've swapped respiratory systems with a hippo, or a bear. Something that roars.
You forgot your laugh could be hiccupy. It feels good to remember.
There is a process that so many of us forget, but should not. In a digital age where everybody posts their shiniest moments and buries the dented tin stories underground, it is important to be authentic. We joined the internet for Neopets and social media for scrapbook memory-collecting, and since my red Shoyru is gone (his name was NibNib, in case you were wondering), we might as well double down on refocusing our digital identities away from haunting one or luring another. Never has there been a better time to delete Facebook, but if you're like me, you can't bear to lose access to your deep fried memes and posts from your great uncle who perpetually seems to use the status bar for Google searches. So reconnect with your own goofiness instead. Reinvest in the art of being visible for the right reasons. Let your technological footprint reflect the kind of person you are, and then pair that to your hobbies.
It's all Gucci if you got God, but if you don't, this is the time to channel something that makes you whimsical and wise. Consume more of it than can consume you.
There are infinite rituals that bring us change if we desperately need a disruption, so long as we do it for the right reason. The ritual of changing jobs. Cities. Countries. The ritual of coming home. The ritual of staying the same. The ritual of saying sorry. The ritual of becoming the girl Drake was singing about in Hotline Bling. (It would certainly be a better life than being the girl who had stayed with Drake.)
It's hard to understand what compels us to drastically and dramatically change ourselves during periods of turbulence, but there is something wonderfully curious and naïve about it. In light of the heartbreak I was so sure I'd never get over - until, like a snap of the fingers and the revelation that my happiness was my own, I did - I realised that it wasn't just about learning to love again. It was the revelation that by the time we reach our late twenties, we all carry neuroses and fears and defensiveness and traumas from the romances that have already passed. But, just as nobody is exempt from history, we are not special in our suffering. We owe it to ourselves to be brave. We owe it to ourselves to nurture our hearts back to whole like they are our skinned-knee children. We owe it to ourselves to forgive who we are today for the mistakes we made yesterday.
But sometimes still, I wonder: Would I have cut my hair into a bob if I didn't already have one? Truth be told, I don't think so. I grew as much from the embers of a turbulent, devoted, deeply healing relationship as I did throughout its roaring prime. We both became better - not just for those who came after, but for who we had to become. So I had no shameful history to purge.
But that's not to say that that my code of conduct should be yours. So do it, Rapunzel, if that's what your soul is screaming for... But only on one condition: That whatever ritual you perform next will be entirely your own.
Hello, friends, stalkers, former lovers, and family members who read this blog to support me, but always wind up finishing an article with a crinkled nose, borne of semi-disgust and disappointment.
This is just a quick post for me to announce, with great excitement, that I have become a regular contributor to Uncommonlot.com.au, which is a space for unusual, dangerous ideas from mouthy agent provocateurs.
The site has freshly launched my examination of sex negativity, gender construct, and the peculiar dance of veils that women must perform to court a lover.
The piece is linked below, entitled (somewhat charmingly):
You can also find an older post, borne of these very archives, freshly dubbed:
Thanks for reading, and don't hold back in your thoughts. I'm a true lover of lively debate, and impassioned response to my opinions will only ever aid me to discern whether I am more or less offensive, in general, than that one time I retaliated to a guy's negging so hard, he cried.
(Trigger warning: sexual violence)
I don't remember a time when I haven't grappled with the notion of angry feminists, be they young, old, bra-burning or bra-padding. There was something about the notion of outrage in conversations around gender equality that unsettled me. Perhaps it was because I had inadvertently absorbed the societal messages that tell women that they need to be, above all, nice. Nobody likes an extremist. I don't like extremism. Therefore, it made perfect sense to approach social justice issues with a calm and thoughtful inoffensiveness. After all, it's more palatable to be passive than to be aggressive.
As I struggled with my identity as a feminist, I fell down the usual rabbitholes: the "I'm an equalist/humanist" debacle, the "real feminists aren't aggressive" reassurances to people who would never be persuaded, the stoic conviction that if I was polite and considerate enough, even the most outrageous bigot would find no fault to pick my arguments for equality, and would soon experience a reality check.
I had a fascinating conversation with a peer around the notion of shame that evolved my understanding of its place in gender dynamics. How pervasively shame rules our lives, dictating expectations so subconsciously that people don't even consider why they do the things they do. So much of it, in the form of victim blaming, is perpetuated in campaigns to teach women to be safe in public spaces so as not to entice harm.
And so I internalised this shame.
For years, I crossed the street at night to avoid men approaching from the opposite direction. It's never been something I've thought twice about. For all my fervour to be valued as a capable human above my gender, I was socialised to play the pantomime of "not looking like a victim". At night, I walked with tall posture, gaze directed towards some imagined horizon, house keys studded between my knuckles. Yet despite all this, reality tittered in the back of mind, chiding me with the harsh reality that despite all efforts, I may still be a target to the wrong person. It wouldn't be my fault, per se, but then, the voice reasoned, I should have known better. This voice taught me to feel audacious and reckless for daring to catch a metropolitan train, or walk the suburban streets at night.
But it is not negotiable to me that blaming a victim for the manner in which harm befalls them is unfair. This is a fundamental tenet of my belief system. So, then, I began to wonder, what of self preservation?
Only then did I realise that despite my smiles, my logic, my softly-softly approach, I was angry. And I had every right to be.
Because there is no fucking reason for a person to ever feel ashamed of patronising a public space. It should not feel like flying too close to the sun to innocuously go about my day. Shame, the cruel arbiter of blame and fault and guilt, motivated all of my decision-making, and that revelation sickened me. Especially when I learned that these fears, this self-policing, this abject fear of some malevolent "other", was not the internal monologue of any of the male friends I asked.
There is a big, wide world out there that women are terrified to occupy in case their confidence is interpreted as arrogance, and arrogance is an invitation for trouble. This is why I am an angry feminist. This anger motivates me to do something to change the way the world works. For some, this anger will be off-putting. I know this, and I've made my peace with it.
I am livid that despite Australia being a privileged country of relative opulence, women are groomed before they have the capacity for critical thought to act as chameleons. We are asked to fundamentally change ourselves to match the environment in which we have entered, as a defensive measure against harm. I am outraged that in the 21st Century, any teenage girl, when asked, can detail a veritable novella on the ways in which she tries to render herself as less of a potential victim, but teenage boys cannot confidently identify sexist attitudes that contribute to this fear. I am furious that so much discourse is dedicated to the male fear of sexual rejection, whilst by contrast, women are tarred and feathered as "hysterical" when their greatest fear is that men will rape or kill them.
Over the weekend, my teenage sister was preparing to go for lunch with some girlfriends. As I passed her in the hallway, my mind immediately started tallying up the low neckline, short skirt, long hair and bare legs, as perhaps an outfit that may court unwanted attention. My instinct was to suggest that she change her clothes. This was followed by a second thought: why did I consider it to be any of my goddamn business? She looked great, she felt confident, and, having been raised by the same parents, I knew she was aware of the realities of a sexist (and potentially dangerous) world out there. But this did not intimidate her into dressing in a style that did not feel like her own. I respect that immensely.
It's was not my right to police the clothing of an autonomous individual out of some self-righteous notion of "protecting" her from harassment or harm. People who hassle women are solely responsible for that. Feeling proxy-shame for my sister's clothing choice was more of an indictment upon my attitudes than anything she had done. That, right there, is what is known as rape culture. It is a term rooted in academic validity, and yet despite this, the phrasing is derided for being a weaponised, hysterical radical feminist conspiracy theory. Because when feminist theorists attach a label to the ways in which society marginalises women, people are reactionary, defensive, and hypercritical without offering any justifiable alternative. Why is there often so much pushback against calling things as they are when it comes to identifying the ways in which we live in a gendered sphere?
Women live in an unmalleable society that expects us to be fluid and ever-changing to accommodate it. To armour ourselves in long-sleeved shirts and hide away in our homes after dark and change ourselves fundamentally to give way to a sexist world. That's not fair. Why should people be forced to compromise if they don't want to? Why is the expectation on women to be easygoing and flexible for the benefit of societal rigidity? It baffles me that people are more comfortable with fighting for a status quo wherein women are expected to negotiate all manner of decisions and behaviour, rather than addressing the disparities of a system that actively works against half the population.
I once dated someone who identified himself as a feminist, yet he was also a traditionalist in many respects. When the topic of the future arose, I was perpetually treated with contempt for wanting to preserve fundamental aspects of my identity that I was expected to yield. Despite how progressive this man gilded himself, he considered it my responsibility to take his name if it came to marriage. He wilfully refused to accept that I, too, have been attached to my name for the same number of years as he was to his own, and was in no hurry to sub it out for a surname that, coupled with my adjective for a first name, made me sound like a B-grade superhero.
He also hefted the expectation that because he wanted children, I would bear and birth them. My tentative inclination towards remaining childfree was ignored. The decision of how I would change my name and my body was easy for him to make, because it required no compromise on his behalf.
Sure, sure, his defence was that he was "traditional". But my attempts to find neutral ground on something I had no obligation to budge on were for nothing. All my suggestions were, to his mind, extreme. But why was "if having the same surname is so important to you, we could choose a new one together" considered so radical? Or "I come from a social work family and would prefer to foster or adopt if I changed my mind about having kids" not acceptable? Those suggestions were weighted by a willingness to negotiate. But they were loathsome to him, a rejection of the "gift" he was offering me... to be his little wife.
I am an angry feminist because I am frustrated and furious with the double standards of a world that sees only two genders, rather than a spectrum, and consigns us all to one side or other. The anger does not fester inside me, like poison. Instead, I harness it in the hopes of facilitating change. I refuse to perpetually bend over backwards for an inflexible world that tells me "you are the woman, and there are expectations of you", be they to avoid my own assault as incited through fashion or access to public spaces, or to perpetuate someone else's gene pool, or to heft a family name on my shoulders that does not feel like my own.
I have nothing but respect for people who make these decisions for themselves without discomfort. I'm sure life is easier when every choice is not a battle.
But I don't want an easy life. I want an empowered one. To that end, I will never compromise my autonomy for a world that doesn't care for women who make life inconvenient. I am not ashamed anymore.
And if my reckless impetuousness sees me sink into a deep puddle of moralistic head-shaking, so be it. At least I'll make some ripples as I go down.
Because everything on earth becomes trivial after the loss of a loved one, it only makes sense to go fully trivial, and bury yourself in the inanity of life. Rave at what really grinds your gears, only as long as they're at arms' length enough so as not to hurt you. Rail against the unfairness that small cars driven by female P-platers will almost always be more frequently tailgated than any other car or driver, that hangovers are getting worse, that music doesn't speak to you like it did when you were fourteen and every line from every song made you feel like you were going through a horrible break-up with someone you've never even met, but loved profoundly. And nothing, nothing is more trivial than lamenting that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. So that's exactly what I'll do.
It's no secret that I'm a feminist. I'm okay with the title, though I'm not okay with the reaction that it elicits from other people. And if I wasn't entirely sure what being a feminist actually meant, I would be confused by my decision to be one, too. I absolutely adore silky, satiny, lacy underwear and shirk all undergarments in shades of beige with a disdain that Wall Street executives probably reserve for, well, poor people. I seriously contemplated buying a pink car, because the engine specs were decent, and as far as I recalled from my childhood, my Barbie never looked bummed out when I pushed her around in her giant, pink convertible. I got all giggly when I had the good fortune to meet Cosmo Jarvis, a musician so amazing that I foolishly struck up a conversation with him about the world's least-sexy topic... Reddit. Yeah. Talented and attractive people make me dopey.. If you were looking for quantifiers of femininity, it's safe to say that I'm a Girl with a capital G.
Being a feminist doesn't preclude me from these facets of my identity, which is sweet, because I wouldn't sacrifice them for any cause... well, except for the pink car bit, which ended up being an insane whim. Fun fact: most cars that come in pink are of a heinous shade, and can be bettered by other similarly-sized cars that aren't pushing for a twee "I don't know how to check my oil, I'm a girl!" demographic.
Being a feminist means acknowledging and accepting that there is something wrong with a status quo wherein women who are murdered receive less sympathy if they just so happen to be sex workers. It means finding it unsettling when female sexual predators are given more lenient sentences for the molestation of children than men, because "that's the luckiest ten-year-old-ever". It means believing that nobody, man or woman, should be mocked for asking for emotional support through a trying time.
On a tiny, trivial platform, it means understanding that some differences between men and women are inane, moronic, and unreasonable. It means acknowledging the sensitivities of the unspoken word and the implied negotiations between individuals, be they of the same gender or otherwise. In short: it means doing away with the fucking notion of the "friendzone."
For those unaware (or blessed by virtue of having never experienced unrequited infatuation), the friendzone is a simple concept: that if you play your cards incorrectly upon getting to know someone whom you are romantically interested in - that is, by not projecting your "best self" or someone else's self altogether - then you will be consigned to the friendzone, a dark and decrepit place in which you are forever to be seen as "nothing more than a friend." Every person who has ever been told "I care about you, but just want to be friends" by the object of their affection has felt the burn. Rejection is hard. But for some people, there is an inexplicable need to react to rejection with aggression. To denounce the spurning party for "only wanting jerks/sluts", allowing bitterness to taint any interactions with the object of one's desire until their intended paramour awkwardly extricates themselves from a poisonous man-o-war embrace. All the while, these sad, insecure people thrash around so wildly in the so-called friendzone that the entire friendship, which was a privilege and not a punishment, is decimated beyond repair.
Here's the dirty little secret to avoiding the friendzone: don't be an entitled jerk!
Sure, it's unfortunate when the person that makes you want to watch musicals and frolic in meadows isn't smitten for you. It's a bummer. Really. But guess what? That person was adult enough to be honest with you their feelings! They think you're a friend!! That means they want to be able to support you through ups and downs, as lovers and partners traipse in and out of your life through revolving doors, and hope for you to be a similar supporter for them on their adventure, too!!!
How can this kind of mutual respect and camaraderie seem like something "less" than dating when they're both completely awesome, albeit different, things?
This might be controversial, but I'm of the opinion that there is something far worse than the friend zone: being hefted bodily into the "girlfriendzone". You will know if you are currently in the girlfriend (or boyfriend) zone by the breadcrumb-trail of passive-aggressive implications that you're "leading [someone] on", or being resented if a friend or acquaintance's declarations of everlasting adulation aren't met with immediate enthusiastic reciprocity. In the girlfriendzone, "that's really sweet, but uh, that's not how I see you" is an invitation for the spurned to pursue you more aggressively, because whilst your words weren't encouraging, you didn't sound totally committed to the rejection. By contrast, stating plainly "I am not attracted to you" seemingly means "I'm literally a succubis, and the knowledge that I've broken your heart helps me get over the edge when I'm having evil, sinful bedtime hijinks with some other guy. Oh, and the guy is a handsome jerk. He probably plays some kind of team sport."
When we consign meaning to our interactions with the opposite (or same, or non-binary, whatever you like) sex, perceiving other people as potential nemeses with whom we must negotiate a relationship through butted heads and gender warfare only perpetuates the adversarial nature of dating. If people see one another as mere conquests, begging to be taken, they disregard the other person's autonomy through necessity. Nobody likes being told who or what they are. Is it not utterly entitled and patronising to imagine someone else telling you that they know what's best for you, even as they refuse to consult with you about it?
If the friendzone is a sad, poorly-lit room hosting a Lonely Hearts Club, the girlfriendzone (or boyfriendzone) is a noxious pit of snakes over which people suspend each other with Bond-villain level wickedness, declaring the ultimatum: "return my affections, or become dead to me!". When I think of it like that, I sure know where I'd rather be.
I'll be the first to admit that I've been guilty of the self-indulgent "why don't they like meeeeeee" pity party in the past. Spoiler alert: it did nothing for me. All it did was ostracise people who could readily have been good friends, if I hadn't set my scope so narrowly that I figured romance was all they had to offer me.
I dated someone for four years. We were friends for many more before that, despite the fact that he had feelings for me. To this day I'm not exactly sure why, but people who didn't know either of us particularly well felt invested in the slight that my friendship had inflicted on him. I was called all kinds of cruel names for my supposed "selfishness" by people who had never actually asked him how he felt about our friendship. I was blasted for confining such a "nice guy" to the friend zone, whilst still being so presumptuous as to enjoy his company. Yet when we finally had a discussion about the belligerence of those accusations, I was reassured that my friendship was more than enough for him... until one day, we both decided that it wasn't. And I'm sure that for neither of us were those years of friendship a waste of time. Not surprisingly, all the mud-slingers faded into obscurity sometime after, where they damn well belonged. And if we hadn't dated? Then heck, he'd have still been a good friend for however long we may have remained friends.
Since re-entering the land of single people, I won't lie, it's been interesting. It's a merciless meat market out here, though I'm having a blast. But in getting to know people whose intentions aren't always of the PG realm, I have had to learn to assert boundaries in a big way. And from various nasty little girlfriendzone experiences, I know enough about my principles that when somebody tries to guilt trip me or assert dominance over my favour, I recoil. Vocally. I'm less soft and malleable than I once was, but I like myself better this way. The people I've discarded for befriending me with ulterior motives were never really friends anyway, so it's not as if I've lost anything of value.
So when your heart gets all fluttery at the sight of a message from your pal, but its contents are a lamentation of the ways her boyfriend is being mean, and she just wants to hang out and be allowed to feel her feelings with a friend, don't immediately assume that it's some sick game. Because this is someone who has trusted you enough to be vulnerable around you, and, implicitly or explicitly, is optimistic that even if the boyfriend goes one day, you won't.
And when it's framed like that, does friendship really feel like such a second prize?
In late August of 2013, a beautiful human being - handsome, young, extremely popular - was winked from existence. He left in his wake a ream of misery that tore through the hearts of everyone who knew him. A mere two weeks earlier, he had turned twenty-three. He and his friends had gone drinking to celebrate. In the days following, when we were all trying to make sense of his loss, his best friend described to me, with a bittersweet smile, what an amazing night it had been. They had sat together for hours, confiding in one another in a way that weighted every word rich with meaning. Twenty three years old. And two weeks later, he was gone.
Isn't it funny how when somebody passes away, any words that we can conceive to describe them are altogether too inadequate? Words are my passion, but I can't for the life of me come up with a single one that adequately describes what a beautiful, pensive enigma he was. And that's another layer of pain atop my grief - explaining what made him special to someone who never had the chance to meet him can not be done without him. He was sharp and witty, had a semi-ironic love for things like Big Brother and Masterchef that slowly faded into sincerity over time. He would send Wikipedia articles about Russian history and political events to his friends with the note "Read this, because when we meet up tomorrow, we're discussing it - whether you like it or not." He loved photos of dogs getting hit in the face with frisbees or wearing wigs. He spoke French fluently. He loved the Hawthorn Football Club. He breathed life into bad in-jokes from when we were primary schoolers, and genuinely made them funny again. He never raised his voice, was easy to love, and outpoured all of his being into making others feel worthy. He was a gift that kept on giving, his rich and colourful personality layered with intelligence and soul.
But the dark cloud of depression that hung over his soul was part of who he was, too. It meant that when you spoke to him, you'd notice his eyes glimmer with a thousand different thoughts before he decided upon a statement that you just knew, intuitively, was not his first or most prominent thought. And now that he is gone, we are all reeling, searching for meaning in those lulls. The last time that they had caught up, my brother had asked if we'd see him again soon, given he was often elusive to get ahold of. He'd smiled a perfectly white smile, the kind that went crooked to one side, hinting mischief, and said "Maybe." The power of retrospection haunts my brother. There is a meaning assigned to that exchange that leaves him gasping, teary-eyed. He is certain that some kind of hint was there, and that he had missed it.
When my cousin committed suicide, he blinked so much light from the world. Only after he was gone did I realise how much he had been suffering, and how he had known, with absolute certainty and for a very long time, that he would not live to a ripe, old age. He had promised his own brother, and my brother too, that he would never, ever take his own life. And in those stronger moments, he might even have meant it. But by the age of twenty-three, his depression had won long ago. How much longer he had kept on seemed to hinge upon a sense of bargaining - not for himself, but for his family and friends, who he knew would be completely shattered by his death.
And the speculations are agony. You wonder what you could say to someone to pre-emptively save his life. You wonder if you already had a dozen times before, but had never known. You wonder if he had been sure, I mean really sure, and then you catch yourself, because the truth is hard to accept, but it isn't negotiable. Then you reprimand yourself, because all of your attempts to explain away his reasoning are just excuses to hope that your love, if administered correctly, could have been enough. I like to think that although his mind may have been made up, the love of his friends and family kept him here longer than he had ever planned. It's a frail, thin silver lining, but a silver lining just the same.
My grief has seen me recoil from the world, and rally to take care of others on a rolling basis that leaves me falling apart and regrouping in the few quiet moments of solitude that I allow myself. I fume at myself and the people around me, and seek company with a desperation that is only equaled by a numbing desire to be alone. Going to work is the best part of my day. It forces me to be brave for eight hours. When all I do is shuffle from room to room like a ghost at home, it's no surprise I'm not cashing in my sick leave. It's an exhausting ride, being so out of touch with my emotions, but there are quiet moments that are almost happy interspersed throughout. I can only hold on, white-knuckled, for these times.
There is solace in being absolutely certain that he knew he was loved, even if it wasn't enough to keep him from harm. I'm comforted that all of our memories of growing up together featured us laughing, causing mischief, of him and my brother ragging on me incessantly whilst I whined and giggled in equal parts, just happy - as the youngest child always is - to be included. Strutting to Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" like catwalk models, burbling the lyrics of "Left Outside Alone" with sassy hand gestures, playing Super Smash Brothers until our whole world felt pixellated, playing with my baby sister; these are little morsels of happiness for me to cling to when the world goes grey with grief.
I had never been fortunate enough to meet Harry's friends when he was alive, but they went above and beyond to connect with us after the fact. I think we needed each other; to reconcile the reality of what we had lost. I honestly couldn't have met more magnificent people. Every single person that he had befriended was beautiful, inside and out, and they loved him. They loved him fiercely, with a loyalty that I have never witnessed - let alone experienced - before. But even in death, he lit up the room. When I looked around, mid-conversation, I could see an empty seat, ever-shifting as people moved around to talk to one another, where he should have fit.
I struggled to put together a eulogy for his funeral. I never wanted depict him by only the thin parameters of our shared history, lest my perceptions directly contradicted the knowledge of him that his close friends or family may have had, and so I did my best to emphasise his multifaceted nature. I am uncomfortable with the notion of tying up his identity with a neat little ribbon and saying definitively "This was who he is, or what he would have wanted", because he was so complex, so mysterious, I don't think anyone could truly be sure. I refuse to paint him with my own biases, but now that he's gone, my biases are all I have. I hunger to hear more stories about his antics. Now that there are no new ones to be made, I want all the old ones, and in as much detail as I can have.
I suppose this post serves a dual purpose. It allows me to explain to myself, to him, to the world at large, that we have all lost somebody truly special, even if he lacked the ability to see it in himself. This is not his obituary. Not a diary entry. This is a snapshot of a million memories of him that we will remember for the rest of our lives. This is a way of securing them so that I will never forget.
But I'd like to think that this post also serves as a means of reaching out to other men and women suffering beneath the shackles of destructive mental health. I implore those people to see this account of the aftermath of suicide, in order to strive as hard as they can to live. Because when you take your own life, the people who love you do not curse your selfishness or forget about you, like your illness leads you to believe. Instead, we suffer. We consign meaning to things that you would never think twice about: the peal of your laughter, the way you tilt your head, and everything you said and did the last time that we saw you. Those exchanges will haunt us for the rest of our lives, whilst we sift through them wondering if there was some secret SOS that you were sending us to let us know that you were in crisis, that you would lash out against yourself, that you needed saving. And we mourn you. We never stop mourning you. We wish that you had bared your soul to us so we could wrap you in blankets and soothe you through your tears and take you to counselling and give you everything that you could ever need to feel loved and safe and warm.
I have attended a lot of funerals in my life. Too many of them have been for those who have taken their lives. People stand out in the halls because every seat and standing space is full, rather than go home. They do it to capture a refrain from the other side of the door, because even the tiniest snatch of sound brings them closer to the person that has passed. Those who commit suicide are not a burden, not alone, and that is the cruelest thing. For if they could somehow bear witness to their own funerals, they would know how loved they were. And maybe it would buy them some time. Maybe it would give them a second wind to fight against the parasitic disease that feeds on their happiness. They would know the joy that they brought into the world, and then, by their own hand, extinguished.
As his mother declared with a sad smile and glassy eyes, "He was the flame that lit up everyone's lives, but it was like he decided to tell us: 'Illuminate yourselves. I'm tired.'"
Rest in peace, Harry Hawkins. You were the flame.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or just needs someone to talk to, contact any of the following:
Lifeline: 13 11 14. Access to crisis support, suicide prevention and mental health support services. 24 hours/7 days. www.lifeline.org.au
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800. Free, private and confidential telephone and online counselling service for young people aged between 5 and 25. 24 hours/7 days. www.kidshelp.com.au
Headspace: 1800 650 890. Online and telephone support and counselling to people aged 12 to 25. Telephone: 10 pm to 1 am. Online counselling: 1 pm to 1 am. www.eheadspace.org.au
Suicide call back: Crisis counselling to people at risk of suicide, carers for someone who is suicidal and those bereaved by suicide. 1300 659 467. 24 hours/7 days. www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au/
Although the first week of semester had begun, the scorch of summertime still lingered in the air, swelteringly oppressive, on the night that I saw my first shooting star. The company was beyond my capacity to appreciate - a hundred sweaty new students, twenty or thirty leaders, living under one another's feet on a campsite that could just as easily have been a battery farm for humans. I wasn't clad in swishing skirts with flowers twisted through my hair, though the reflexive archetype of a young woman in the summertime would certainly have suggested it. But there was something magical in the moment where I lay on my back, a collective bottle of warm, flat, Coke -or was it juice?- with vodka splashed in clutched in my sweaty hand. I didn't mind the lack of bubbles, the germs of a half dozen lips around its neck, or the even my inherent aversion to vodka, so delirious was I from doing battle in a non-ventinaled commercial kitchen for twelve hours straight. The temperatures had risen above forty degrees with ease that day, even as my companion and I cooked for a horde of students, and for the thousand flies that came to watch the show. We had been too busy, too flustered, too panicked about dinner being late, to even pause for a drink of water, and so dehydration had stolen beneath my defences. But in a way that, too, was part of the magic.
I had wanted to swill away all of the day's frustrations, but the night had overshot balminess, and skyrocketed right into smothering. And I, the kind of extrovert whose batteries are recharged by the company of others, felt tangled amidst the dual snares of loneliness and a desire to be alone. The party was elsewhere, leaving only myself and a handful of close friends, all perfectly necessary in that moment, but whose faces blur upon recollection. This transience cheapens the way the memory looks, but in no way what it felt like. But I digress.
We lay in the crackly brown grass, our legs draped over the log seats around a long-quenched campfire, and stared at a sky that exploded with glimmering carbon in a manner our light-polluted city blinkers from us. A curious breathlessness overtook our collective, a half-dozen lost souls ruminating on the nature of stars, and I held a lover's hand in mine, never once minding that sweat pooled between our palms, and then the sky breathed.
As my gaze traced the curve of my first shooting star's trajectory, the refrain from the Elliott Smith song "Sweet Adeline" surged into my mind with such all the intensity of unprovoked perfection. If a feeling could swallow a person whole, I would have tasted of nothing but raw, irrational emotion. Not happy, not sad, not angry, not confused, but a beautiful mish-mash that the word "bittersweet" could never do justice.
I had gone to that camp with the same intentions I have of every camp: to ensure the safety of my charges, help new students make friends, dress up obnoxiously on costume night, and roll around for the better part of the weekend in a rip-roaring, pirate-level of drunk. What I hadn't expected was how with the sight of my first ever shooting star, these plans, and every other plan I had shouldered at the time, would fade into obsolescence. And for thirty seconds, or thirty minutes, or however long that arc of light danced with my delirium, I lived utterly in that moment. To this day, the feeling cannot pass for me - but it can never be recaptured, either. Not without the chemical reaction of setting and sensation and "Sweet Adeline."
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.