So, I've been going through quite a rough patch with my mental health in the past two weeks and am feeling pretty apathetic about everything. Which is why I think now is the perfect time to share something I wrote a few years ago about a series of events that have really shaped my life. I wrote what you're about to read (hopefully) almost 3 years ago. I think it leads on perfectly from my last post about positionality and the filters we see the world through, I hope you can see the links too. It's a long one, so make a cup of tea and get comfortable.
Finding Authenticity through Anger and Enlightenment
A personal narrative is considered to be the most questioned method of ethnography in the social sciences. Evocative personal narratives often have a therapeutic effect for both author and reader (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011). This evocative autoethnography is an attempt to reflect on the self as a participating member across a number of intersecting cultural groupings. I aim to provide an account of identity formation throughout a difficult transitional life period of beginning and completing university. The desired outcome is a narrative that allows readers to reflect on their own experiences, learn, and empower themselves to make change (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011).
“The evidenced act of showing in autoethnography is less about reflecting on the self in a public space, than about using the public space and performance as an act of critically reflecting culture, an act of seeing the self see the self through and as the other” (Alexander, 2005, p.423).
At 9:25pm on January 9, 2009, I sat alone on the floor. I meticulously measured, pinned and cut sheer fabric to the guidelines of tissue paper patterns. I knew who I was. I was sixteen years old; I was an aunty, a sister and a daughter. I was assertive, independent, angry, creative, inquisitive, and as of the previous day, diagnosed as suffering from depression. I took pride in the fact that I was nasty without a conscience, and there was nothing negative that anyone could say to me that hadn’t already been said by those who I loved. Above all, I was thick-skinned. At 9:26pm, my cell phone rang, the screen flashed "Mai calling". My step-mother had called me once already that day, which was particularly unusual, so to say I was surprised by a second phone call was an understatement. Through sobbing and broken English, I deciphered "Daddy's done something to himself". I couldn't be sure what this meant, but before I could ask, an unfamiliar male voice asked me how old I was and if I could put my mother or father on the phone. He explained to me that I needed to get there as soon as possible. I was home alone. After what felt like an eternity, my mother and boyfriend arrived to collect me. We went in a single car; we drove the 20km in silence. When we arrived there were no ambulances, only police cars. My mother's voice broke the silence, "This doesn't look good", she muttered. As I approached the front door, a female police officer stood in the entryway, she stared at me blankly before reciting the phrase she had been preparing for my arrival: "I'm sorry for your loss". The rest of the night was a blur. The wailing of someone overcome by grief is something that permeates the body. I had to get out. I sat on the curb of the street where I had once lived, the sea air was crisp. I had forgotten how much I liked it here.
We returned the following day; the lounge was filled with people. I cannot remember which caught my eye first, the presence of three Buddhist monks or the coffin. My father had not been a religious person, but he respected my step-mother's faith in Buddhism and allowed her to direct the proceedings following his death as she wished. There was an abundance of floral decorations and incense burning; the scent was unfamiliar, but comforting. With each new guest, Mai approached the coffin, and told my father who had arrived and what they had brought for him. This concept was radically foreign to me, openly speaking to someone who was not there. This was the first time I really had to contemplate whether he was there or not, to contemplate what it meant to be physically present. I saw the body, his body, my father's body; he looked immaculate, better than he had in years. My sister, my father's only other child, arrived home from a holiday in Australia that day, she had previously had a falling out with my father and was only recently reconnecting with him. As a result, she had not become close with our new blended family, as I had. I can only imagine the feelings she had arriving into that environment, almost as a stranger. We have different mothers, very different upbringings and we often did not see eye-to-eye.
As I sat on the floor chanting with the monks, endeavouring not to transgress any cultural norms, rapid movement caught my half closed eyes. My sister had stormed out crying, and Mai informed me that I must follow her. She sat at my father's desk, sobbing. She explained that she didn't want monks here, she didn't want people filming, and she wasn't happy about the body being on display. My aunty had expressed similar concerns when the coffin was first placed in the lounge, explaining that people from the street could see through the window. I couldn't help but smile when Mai asserted that this was his house and he could lie wherever he wanted - dead or alive. I explained to my sister, who was six years my senior, that she was being selfish, if this was what dad wanted, then we must honour that. We both returned to the lounge quietly, and I took my place back on the floor with the others. As the only person who wasn't Thai, at the end of each chant, the monks explained the meaning of each one to me as best they could with their limited English. I felt their compassion, and most of all, I felt included. A number of hours passed and it was finally time to eat, I attempted to get up, and as I was new to meditation, my legs had fallen asleep. After a second failed attempted I heard laughter, I looked up to see the monks throwing back their clean shaven heads. I laughed along too, but couldn't help but wonder if this had happened to anyone else. Had anyone else fallen over and been laughed at by a group of monks while sitting next to a dead body? My life felt like a cruel joke.
The following day, it was time to prepare for a more Western funeral; we sat in a group with the funeral director and shared stories for his eulogy. There was no doubt that he had influenced everyone's lives in a different way. He was very charismatic; he made friends with everyone he met. As a bank manager he excelled, but as a photographer his personality was captivating. Everywhere we went, people would come up to him and say "G’Day, mate! How are you? You photographed my company's conference last year! What a night!” My father would always react like it was a long lost friend, but as he walked away; he would ask "Who the fuck was that?”
It was the first time any of us had really laughed for days. We spoke about the time he set the table on fire trying to recreate a Japanese teppanyaki dining experience in our apartment, when the building was evacuated and firefighters arrived with axes, he invited them to stay for tea. He always lived life to the fullest and encouraged me to do the same. When I was hesitant to try something new, he would ask me "What are ya, a girl?” The real amusement came when the funeral director sheepishly announced that there were only four spaces on the death certificate for ex-wives. For most, this is plenty, however, my father had five ex-wives and was engaged to Mai at the time of his death. We decided to leave his first ex-wife out, whom he married at age 19, and none of us had met. This sparked conversation about what songs we should play at the funeral, we giggled about a parody country song called "We Don't Change Our Ways, We Change Our Women”. We decided on "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, I clearly remember being entertained by him singing along in a deep African voice from when I was young. In the hours that followed, I heard many stories I had never heard before. Some secrets cannot be taken to the grave, and apparently polygamy in the 1980s is one of them. It was somewhat unsurprising given the high profile divorce of my parents, which was his fourth marriage, with my father being one of the few New Zealanders accused of bigamy. There were articles in Woman's Day and interviews on the Holmes show. My parents didn't talk for many years, and had only just recently begun to communicate. In hindsight, it was my father's intention to make amends before he died. This made my mother particularly angry, she described my dad as "the best friend you could ever have, but the worst husband". Her responses to me in private were confusing, she flipped so frequently between saying what a great person he was and what a horrible one he was. At the time I was blinded by my own grief, and could not understand why she was being so negative in a time dedicated to celebrating his life. I can now see that she was hurting, just like the rest of us.
I spent a lot of time with my father, we spoke on the phone almost daily and saw each other at least once a week, and I could see he was getting sicker, even though he hid it so well. This is part of the reason I was not angry about his decision to end his life, before he became too ill to do so. My sister was angry that he did it, especially when she was out of the country; I suspect she was angry about their falling out too. My mother was angry that she was left to deal with me on her own, as I mentioned earlier, I was a somewhat troublesome teen. My stepmother was angry that he didn't want her to care for him as he got sicker. My anger was bigger than that; my anger was at the universe, for making him sick in the first place. It was only after his death that we spoke to his doctor and he disclosed the full extent of his illness, after beating cancer, he had developed rheumatoid arthritis, as well as heart disease and finally, a blood clot on the brain. He had been suffering in silence for years. My mind was flooded by all the trivial conversations we had recently, about what I would wear to the school ball this year, that I needed a new mattress, how mum was crazy, all while he planned his imminent death alone.
My father's siblings were traditionalist, and felt the heavy burden of shame surrounded by suicide. My stepmother did not want people to feel sorry for my father, or his family, so we agreed to say it was a heart attack to the wider community and at the funeral. As my sister was not present that night, it was days before one of us actually mentioned suicide; it sent her into a whole new phase of grief. I was told by my father's best friend that I was going to have to be the older sister throughout this. People in the family have always described me as the hyper-rational, sometimes insensitive one, which is why I could not understand why the task of comforting someone so hysterical was delegated to me. However, he had been given the guidelines by my father of what was to happen in the coming weeks and months, and knew what we were about to face. My sister and I got the same printed letter, two copies, also attached to each letter was a list of useful phone numbers. When I saw this, I couldn't help but laugh, it was so typical of him to include the electrician, the plumber and various other services in the list. Under my name, he had listed his own phone number; I'll always wonder why this was.
The funeral was like any other, it was a gloomy day for summer, but not unusual for Auckland. People, who I strongly disliked, approached me, embracing me and crying excessively. I remained staunch; I couldn't understand what was going on. People spoke, monks chanted and people cried, not too dissimilar to any other funeral I had been to. My brother arrived late, with his ankle monitor on full display. He sat slouched in the pew, and I looked at him with disdain, but he remained unperturbed. Despite always expressing a hatred for my father, once his stepfather, he felt it was appropriate to request a leave day from home detention; my pleas to his probation officer to disallow it fell on deaf ears. Like many times before, I was told I was being selfish. In my father's letters he insisted that with him no longer being around as safety net for me, I should not continue to live with my mother and brother in an emotionally and physically abusive environment. This was a reality check for my mother, and she had my brother bailed to another address for the remainder of his sentence. One by one, people got up and shared stories; it was obvious that my father had been many different things to many different people. The first tears fell when his brother took the podium, dressed in motorcycle leathers, and a bandana, with his signature beard down to his ribs. His voice shook as he spoke. Finally, they asked if there was anyone else who would like to speak, and an old Chinese woman stood up. We all shuffled in our seats, looking around to see if anyone knew who she was. She began to speak like everyone else, of what a character he was, what a presence he brought with him. "He didn't like his vegetables though; he always used to say 'no coriander’” she fondly recalled. The entire room burst into laughter, this was the lady from one of the city food courts he frequented. Years later, whenever the woman from the sushi place waves to me, my mum reminds me that this is who is going to speak at my funeral.
At the wake, back at the house, my father's next set of instructions were given out. My father had only been a social drinker, but he thoroughly enjoyed the company of others. He belonged to a wine club, and had an extensive liquor collection in order to entertain his friends and clients. He had inherited a beautiful liquor cabinet when his own father died, and it was one of his most prized possessions. The instructions were clear; all of the liquor must be consumed by the end of the night. It was a mighty task, but after the past few days, the guests were more than up for the challenge. I stepped outside to take a phone call from an unknown number, I answered and the polite voice said they were calling from Marinoto, the youth mental health service, in regards to my referral from the previous week. I had forgotten all about my diagnosis of depression. I had never felt more in control of my emotions, I was sad and angry, but for once, I knew why. When I told them I would have to call them back as I was at my father's wake, they demanded I see them as soon as possible. I attended a few sessions; they continually asked me if I wanted to kill myself. They didn't care that I had other issues, mainly my brother, which I wanted to discuss. They just wanted to make sure they didn't have another statistic on their hands.
Over these few days, I have never questioned reality more. In a sleep deprived state I could not separate fact from fiction, everything seemed surreal. My dreams were consumed by my father, some were ordinary, such as trips to the park, and others were peculiar like finding out that he had staged his own death and moved to another country. The one that stands out the most is not because of the dream itself, but what followed in response to it. My father had always chosen Diet Coke and Coke Zero to keep his sugar levels down, despite an undying love for regular Coke. In my dream we attended a Speedway event, in which he bought a regular Coke, surprised, I asked him why. He said he didn't have to drink Diet Coke anymore. I awoke from my dream, and didn't think much of it, I was just happy to have spent time with him once again. As part of Mai's spirituality, she believed that he was communicating with me through my dreams, due to the close relationship we shared. Knowing that I dreamt a lot of my father, Mai asked if I had dreamt of him recently. I relayed my dream and she was so excited, she hugged me and said thank you, before telling my father that she had heard him. Only when we went to Buddhist temple, did I discover the importance of this dream. The monks provide a type of pathway to those who are on the other side, and relatives of the deceased bring their favourite foods and drink to be sacrificed, and sent to the other side. For weeks she had been taking him Coke Zero, but that day she marched in proudly with a case of regular Coke. At that moment, I decided it didn't really matter what was real and what wasn't. I let go of some of my quest for hyper-rationality.
Two weeks later, I began my final year of high school; stationery shopping was interspersed between meetings with lawyers and visits to temple. My entire life had changed. I no longer had the passion to pursue makeup artistry or photography, instead I immersed myself in what I knew was most divorced from my own subjectivity. I enrolled in advanced biology; this class is where I felt most comfortable. My teacher allowed me to sleep in class when I needed it, and she would give me a reassuring smile when I had to duck out to take a phone call, but most importantly, she believed in my ability to achieve. As the weeks passed, the rumours spread, and people felt the need to tell me how devastated they would be if they were in the same situation. Sometimes they would cry, while I stared blankly at them, often reassuring them that I was okay. It was these interactions that really sparked my interest in human behaviour; I had decided I wanted to be a psychologist.
The year went by with a number of highs, and even more catastrophic lows, failing assignments, swearing at teachers and being excluded from my extended family on my mother’s side. The exclusion came after I got up to make breakfast and found my brother back home sleeping on the couch, our relationship was so strained that even the sight of him infuriated me. As he had been a methamphetamine addict for more than six years already, our relationship had been turbulent. When I was twelve, was the first time he hit me and threatened to kill me. My dad arrived before the police, and sat with me until they arrived. As there were no visible marks, the police decided that it was just sibling rivalry, and that I was overreacting, despite him being eleven years older than me, and easily twice my size. My mother did not leave work early that day, for her it was merely an embarrassment and inconvenience on my part, after all, I must have provoked him. I stayed with my dad for a number of years where I was emotionally and verbally abused by his wife, again everyone thought I was not telling the truth. It was not until they had another ugly divorce, that her capability of cruelty was understood, and I was finally offered an apology. With the divorce, the house was sold and I moved back in with my mother, to continue the way things were before. My mother's decision to always support my brother caused our once close relationship to become fractured. It wasn’t long after my father’s death that the final assault took place. This time a mark was left, and I had my brother charged with assault. I was told by my family that what I did was wrong, and that “family don't do that to each other”. I sat at the police station for hours alone, waiting to give my statement, and attended most of my court hearings alone. Eventually, I was granted a protection order, and ultimately peace of mind.
Three months later, I started my first semester at university, second semester 2010. After the troublesome previous year, I was 3 credits short for university entrance and was required to do them via correspondence. I started and ended my days caring for my nephew, and filled in the rest wallowing in sadness with Dr Phil. Starting in second semester means that majority of first years have already got the hang of things, they know what is expected. I went in blind, I felt excluded and very underprepared, I hadn't written more than my name and the date in months. I picked poor classes, I didn't understand what I was doing, was I supposed to be here, had I made the wrong decision? At that point, there weren't many things I considered myself to be good at, other than Singstar and air hockey. Psychology classes were full, but sociology sounded good too, so I took a chance and made it my minor. I had never thought of the world like that before, I had never thought about social groupings or social injustices. As my mum was a social worker, I knew that there were people who struggled, but I never thought about why. My mum was an immigrant from South Africa and was raised as a staunch catholic. In an attempt to rebel, she allowed me to be free-spirited, making my own bedtimes, not wearing shoes, and sometimes attending school in full fairy attire. When we were growing up, my friends loved staying at my house, and wished that their parents were as relaxed. It was not until I reached university that I realised how much this upbringing had hindered my success. At high school, if I didn't want to do something, I wouldn't, but at university, this wasn't going to go down so well. I struggled to get out of bed on time, and often fell asleep in my classes. I didn't know how to manage my time, and perform basic tasks like looking after my belongings, it never mattered until now. Before the death of my father, if I lost something (which he also frequently did), he bought me a new one, if I needed money, I always had a job with his company to fall back on, but now I didn't have that security.
Over the course of my first two years of university I frittered away tens of thousands of dollars in an attempt to fill the void I was experiencing. I didn't have time to be sad, so I shopped until I felt happy, but as most people know, that is only a temporary fix. In third year, with the money gone and a stern telling off from my family (as they wanted to be able to keep borrowing from me) and my trustees (who were disappointed in my irresponsibility) I was truly left alone to deal with my real insecurities. I wasn't succeeding in psychology like I had hoped; I was no longer enchanted by its pseudo-science. I soon made the decision to change to a double major in psychology and sociology. Sociology made sense to me; it explained things I had never dreamed of understanding. My marks were improving as well, it was the first time I had really felt accomplished.
In my final year, I was faced with the decision to continue on with psychology, or commit to sociology. Committing to psychology meant a potential life of misery, but financial security. On the other hand, committing to sociology would mean honouring myself and my values, but potentially make myself unemployable. I applied for both, allowing the decision to be made for me. My grades were mediocre at best, but I had a complex life history and believed I had something unique to offer the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Programme. When I received my letter of rejection, I was most surprised about how I felt; relieved. Despite the disappointment of all those around me, I was ecstatic to start my Honours degree in Sociology. Sociology felt like a safe place, somewhere where I felt comfortable and welcome, something that I had not felt in a very long time. I left high school, underactive, underachieving and miserable. I have emerged from university as a 17kg lighter, positive, passionate, runner and yoga-loving student. As my time at university comes to an end, for now, I am forced to again discover a new identity and sense of belonging.
Alexander, B.K. (2005). Performance Ethnography: The Reenacting and Inticing of Culture. In Denzin, N.K and Lincoln, Y.S (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 411-442).
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. and Bochner, A.P. (2011), Autoethnography: An Overview, Qualitative Social Research 12(1). Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095, Accessed, 22 October 2014.
If you made it all the way to the end, I thank you and applaud you. I hope this encourages someone to share their own story, you never know who may need to hear it.