So, 2023 draws to a close today. And even though it brought its dose of sad and unwanted events, as every year does, it has been one of the best years I’ve had in recent memory. A whole, entire calendar year without a slump in my mood! I cannot actually ascertain when was the last time this happened. I believe it was a decade ago, although that is questionable.
This was the year in which I was able to tick so many items off my list of ‘things to do’ because I cut down my working days to four. A year when I thrived in my paid work because of the reduced pressure, and managed well even when the pressure mounted. Among the items that I ticked off my personal list was the publication of my novel, Exuberance, as a paperback, thus realising my dream of being a ‘published author’. Because even though I had released Exuberance as eBook ten years ago, it didn’t feel real, not until I published the ‘real book’. A book that you can hold in your hands, slide off the shelf, whose pages you can fan and flip with your fingertips, that can be physically signed with a pen. But most importantly, a book that has given me a reason to get out there and speak about mental health. To tell all and sundry, finally, the ‘secret’ only those who are very close to me have known for 25 years: that I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that is still somewhat shrouded in a cloud of stigma.
When the eBook was released in 2013, I wasn't ready to openly discuss that, despite being a work of fiction, Exuberance draws its insights into bipolar disorder from my lived experience. Consequently, it wasn’t promoted as much as it deserved. Fear of stigma and its potential impact on my career in communications and media held me back. Establishing a career in this field was already challenging as someone with English as a second language, who speaks with a distinct foreign accent. Over the years, I've been fortunate to hold excellent positions as a Media and Communications Professional in the non-profit sector, using my writing skills to advocate for positive social change. Exuberance shares a similar purpose, by aiming to start conversations, shift perspectives and increase awareness surrounding mental health - while telling an entertaining story with well-rounded characters and surprising turns.
I’m currently employed at a great organisation where my manager encouraged me to pursue my passions and dreams (thanks, Kelly!). Since Exuberance was launched, it has been rewarding to finally share my story with colleagues, ex-colleagues, friends and strangers, emphasising that, with the right treatment, care and support, one can lead a fulfilling, productive life living with bipolar.
Of course, I am aware that I have a mild case of this ‘disorder’ and that I was extremely fortunate to have found all three of the elements mentioned above: effective treatment, fantastic mental health professionals and the support of family and friends. This is a serious illness that can have disastrous consequences, not just for the person who lives with it, but all those around them; and I do not in any way belittle that. While I recognise my experience cannot be generalised, I hope it contributes to a better understanding of the condition, and to help reduce the stigma around it.
It is also important to mention that I have bipolar type 2, which is the milder type. Even during the worst of my depressions, I have never felt suicidal. During the highs – which I experienced only a few times at the beginning – I was never fully manic, but hypomanic. I have never been psychotic, or hospitalised, or even missed a day of work because of this illness. And yet, I still caused significant pain and disruption in the lives of those who loved me, those who worked with me, and many of those who crossed paths with me after the disorder first manifested itself in 1998 and before we found the right treatment in 2000.
It helped that my symptoms were straight out of the text book: after going through two full cycles of my illness, it was easy enough to identify what I had, though finding a suitable medication took a bit longer.
I was incredibly fortunate that we landed on a prescription drug that works well for me without affecting my cognitive abilities or dulling my senses. It has side effects, but they are not intolerable. Having said that, the mood stabilisers have worked very well to inhibit the highs, but they don’t shield me completely from the depressions. I am social, happy and productive, involved in a thousand activities for 10-11 months of the year, but for decades, I have had at least one annual episode of mild to medium depression, usually in Spring. They key words here are mild to medium. The 'episodes' disrrupt my life, but they don't stop it. Most people around me don't know they are taking place. This is mainly because, over the years, I have equipped myself with a list of tools and strategies, which are great all year round but particularly at these times:
2023 has been magical for many reasons, too many to enumerate in this blog entry. But a huge highlight was that I made it through the entire year without going through an episode of depression, not even a tiny one. Perhaps finally sharing the truth about the real-life story that inspired Exuberance has been that catharsis I needed… that, and understanding that the ups and downs of life are what make the journey worthwhile.
Photo by MariaAge of Pixabay
One Saturday over three years ago, I caught the train to the city to do a one-day course on journal and memoir writing. After the course, I met my partner nearby, and we went to watch a documentary followed by an Italian dinner. What we didn’t know was that this would be the last time we would go to the city, the cinema, or a restaurant for several months. The following week Sydney, like many places in the world, went into lock down. I know the exact date of the course (10th March, 2020), the name of the movie (Honeyland) and the restaurant (Andiamo Trattoria), because I wrote it all on my journal a few weeks later.
I had never worked from home before, and a great deal of my role involved the promotion of the many workshops my organisation runs all over the state. With the world coming to a standstill, all our events were suddenly cancelled, so I feared my work would quickly dry up; as would the dinners, shows, movies, exhibitions, catch ups with friends, hikes and trips I was used to doing in my spare time.
Like the majority of people, I was facing the prospect of sitting at home, with nothing to do during months of lock down, so I made a list of projects to keep me busy. My list included going for long daily walks, practising meditation, learning a new language, unpacking the Yamaha keyboard I’d stored away years earlier and playing it again, reading more books, acquiring new skills online, and keeping the journal I promised myself I would start after doing my Saturday course.
My work, however, did not dry up. Instead, it multiplied, because we started delivering all our workshops as webinars. Apart from promoting the events, I also had to learn how to run them so I could coordinate them and provide technical support to the various teams. It was so busy that, of the many things on my ‘lock down list’, only three came to fruition: learning new skills online (specifically for work), walking a minimum of five kilometres a day, and journaling.
I remember vividly the day I decided to start the journal. It was a Sunday, in early Autumn, 2020 – my favourite time of the year, when it wasn’t yet too cold and the bushfire season, with all the horrors that it brought that year, was well and truly over. My intention was to document the unprecedented times we were facing – what life looked like during a pandemic. These would be my Corona Chronicles, or as a colleague playfully called them, my ‘Coronacles.’
My journal became much more than that, of course. It is the place where I can express my fears and see that once they are written down, they are not as overwhelming. It is where I exorcise my depressions, pushing through them with an armour of hope until they inevitably lift. It is where I capture my current experiences, both remarkable and mundane, so I can remember them tomorrow; and where I record yesterday’s memories before they’re forgotten. It’s where I write about the people in my life and the things we do together. The music we listen to, the food we eat, the walks we make, the work we do, the shows we watch.
It can also have practical purposes. Recently, a colleague was heading to regional NSW, and she asked around for recommendations of things to do in that particular area. I was able to send her, down to the minimum detail, a list of the restaurants we ate at, the towns we explored, the attractions we visited, our highlights, our lowlights … because I had recorded them all, with photos, as soon as we returned.
In the past, I tended to turn to reflective writing mainly when I was going through a bad patch. If I was to read those notebooks in the future, I would be reminded only of my tribulations. Though they also present in my journal, they are interspersed with hope for the future and recollections of happy times. Most importantly, the mere act of writing, even if it is about nothing remarkable, still has the capacity to bring me joy, and the power to put me ‘in the zone’.
Although the language in my journal hasn’t been as beautiful or elaborate as I would have desired, its main purpose was to get me back into the habit of writing regularly. It definitely achieved that. For the first two years I wrote most Saturdays and if I had the time, some weeknights as well. Although one would think there was not much to record, particularly during the worst of the pandemic, I was still writing at least 1,000 words per week. I often didn’t know what I was going to write about when I opened my laptop, but the words just flowed.
Journaling also worked wonders when it came to getting the creative juices flowing again. After finishing my debut novel, Exuberance, and delivering it to the world, I started writing a second novel. After several false starts, I put that project aside. For many years, I wrote this blog on a monthly basis, with my thoughts on the creative process, travel, inspiration, film, and the power of words. I promoted it on social media and often had positive comments from my readers, and could see, through analytics, that it received quite a few hits. But as life and work got busier, my blog petered out and became six-monthly, then yearly.
It has been nearly three and a half years since I started with the journal, and it is going strong. International travel has resumed, restaurants, shows and theatres are open again, and I am back to my pre-pandemic levels of activity, but I am still journaling. I can only manage one entry every few weeks, but it is several pages long.
My journal is 120,000 words and counting, which is longer than the average length of a novel. This has restored my confidence in the fact that I have the discipline to write long form, even if it takes a while. Second novel, here I come! The blogging was also reignited, because the journaling planted seeds for new posts.
As I wrote in a previous entry, I am a gregarious writer, and am loving being able to get out and about again. But I have to admit that days like today are also my idea of heaven: having a lay-in, a leisurely breakfast, a morning spent communing with nature, getting my boots muddy in the bush near my home; a quiet afternoon ensconced in my study, recording my thoughts in my journal; and a quiet evening writing this blog.
If you drive past my place, which is on one of the busiest roads in Sydney, you wouldn’t imagine that there are two gateways to the bush within walking distance of that river of traffic. These are the Lane Cove National Park and the Berowra Valley Regional Park, each with intricate networks of bush tracks that open up in all directions. Some head hundreds of kilometres north, to Newcastle, others 30 kilometres south, to the city. Others wind through the creeks, gullies, valleys and heights of the local bushland, with its giant gum trees, lush ferns, makeshift bridges, rocky staircases and sandstone overhangs.
I have been living in the area for seventeen years and over time I have explored many of these tracks, sometimes alone, and sometimes with company. I have taken the wrong tracks a few times; I have started on one track and ended up on another, or lost the path altogether and emerged in the streets. Notwithstanding my lack of sense of direction, as soon as I enter the bush, I am overcome by a sense of tranquility. Smelling the eucalyptus trees, hearing the frogs and the birds chirping, the wind rustling the leaves and the water flowing in the creeks. Feeling the branches breaking and the pebbles crunching under my feet, and occasionally catching the sight of a lizard or brush turkey.
Recently, I was on holidays for two weeks and it ended up being a walking holiday in my own neighbourhood. I had booked a short trip away with my partner, and planned to have several catch ups with friends and family, which I always do around my birthday. However, Greater Sydney went into lockdown due to an outbreak of the Delta strain of Covid-19 just before I was due to take my leave, and all plans had to be cancelled.
So I made a long list of things to do during my break, from tasks such as wiping out the hard drive of my old computer to preparing my tax papers; projects that ranged from writing a blog post to reading at least two books; treats such as sleeping in every day and having a long relaxing bath; and a challenge: to do 14 different walks in the 14 days of my break, of five to seven kilometres each.
Every morning during those two weeks, I set off after a late breakfast, feet clad in hiking shoes and walking pole in hand, and walked for up to two hours. In my travels, I discovered tracks and fire trails I didn’t know existed; revisited paths I haven’t walked for over a decade; completed walks I have been wanting to do for years, and hiked familiar, well-trodden paths I have done many times before. I saw the city from the lookout near Lorna’s Pass, caught a glimpse of a Wallaby hopping down one of the nearby hills, and snapped a photo of the Whale Rock in Devlin’s creek. Amazingly, I did not get lost once.
I also walked the steep streets of my neighbourhood, finding a public garden, hidden passageways and brief corridors of bush behind the houses. I was blessed with great weather for walking. It was windy but sunny, and in 14 days I only wore my rain gear once, though the grey skies never opened. I couldn’t go very far – we could not travel beyond 10 kilometres from home – but having a walking holiday for two weeks, even if it was in my own backyard, qualified as a “dream holiday” for me.
Since the start of the pandemic, walking has been my salvation. When we had to start working from home last year, during the nation-wide lockdown, I didn’t take to it immediately. I missed the interaction with my colleagues, and the five kilometres I covered every day, walking to and from train stations, and sometimes walking all the way home from our Hornsby office, which is six kilometres away. The walk was not as spectacular as crossing the Harbour Bridge, which I used to do every day after work when my office was based in the city, but it had seven steep hills that used to increase my heart rate and make the endorphins flow.
On my very first day of working from home in March 2020, I only walked a few hundred metres, and mostly in the corridors of my apartment building because it was raining outside. I promised myself I would not let that happen again, and every day, no matter how busy I was, how low my mood or how bad the weather, I got out of my home office and walked. Sometimes I did it in three bursts – mid morning, lunch time and after work, which meant that in winter I had to walk in the dark. Walking got me out of my head, and helped dissipate the worries and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
I have never been very adventurous or sporty, but have always been an avid walker. Growing up in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, with its congested streets and haphazard public transport system, I used to walk everywhere. The CBD was only five kilometres from my house (as opposed to 30 kilometres in Sydney) and it was quicker to walk there than to wait for a bus that arrived packed to the brim, with a few people hanging on for their lives on the outside steps. This was decades before they installed a sophisticated cable car system which has improved transportation enormously – something I am keen to try the next time I visit, when the world opens up and we can travel again. Back in the 1980s, I would walk to university, in the southern suburbs, and to the conservatorium of music in the heart of the city. But all these walks were strictly urban.
Bushwalking is something I started doing more seriously only about thirteen years ago, when I had been living in Sydney for nearly two decades. I bought a book called “Sydney’s best bush, park, and city walks”, which took me to all corners of my adopted city, as I explored all the walks with my partner and friends, methodically ticking them off as I went. I then moved into the “Sydney’s best coastal walks” book, and soon after attempted my first multi-day walk, the Milford Track in New Zealand. I have since done the Inca Trail in Peru, the Three Capes Track in Tasmania, parts of the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria, and the last 120 kilometres of the Camino a Santiago in Spain.
I probably wouldn’t have done any of this without my walking pole. The pole allowed me to find a sense of adventure I didn’t know I had, stopping me from falling when I ventured out on to harder, uneven tracks, and from slipping when I crossed creeks. Ironically, the two occasions on which I fractured bones, were as a result of tripping and falling on the flat street.
At the end of my walking holiday in lockdown, I thank my lucky stars for living where I live, where I don’t even have to drive to enter another world altogether. I’m also thankful for having two feet that take me places, far and nearby, my footsteps often falling in line with those of the walking companions with whom I share these experiences.
Today is probably the furthest I have travelled in 11 weeks – a whole 35 minutes away from home. The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought international and even domestic travel to a halt, and I can only dream of my next overseas trip, or I can reminisce about past journeys, such as the Ghan adventure I was fortunate to be able to do with my mother in 2015.
Five years ago, I was at the top end of Australia, embarking on the Ghan expedition, a four-day, three-night train journey from Darwin to Adelaide, spanning the length of the country from north to south – 2,979 kilometres in total. This was the second memorable train journey I did with mum, after we travelled aboard the iconic Indian Pacific in 2013, which crosses Australia from East to West. Each trip was extravagantly expensive, costing us almost as much as two weeks overseas, but they were worth every cent: the service, the views, the excursions, the food, the drinks, the cosy but comfortable sleeper cabins … everything was first-class.
The Ghan is traditionally a three-day, two-night journey, but in 2015 The Great Southern Railway (now called Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions) started the Ghan expedition, adding the extra day with an overnight stay in Alice Springs, and we were fortunate to be among the first passengers to do the extended adventure which only runs for a limited season each year.
I still remember the delicious, regionally inspired three-course meals at the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, and going back to our cabins after eating to find that our seats had been magically converted into comfortable beds. I remember the rocking and swaying of my bunker bed through the night, and the feeling, so unusual for me, that time didn’t matter, as we had entered the train’s own time zone, where all the schedules were taken care of and we didn’t have to rush anywhere for three glorious days. This feeling was particularly strong in the Indian Pacific, where we spent a less time in off-train excursions and more time relaxing on board, lulled by the sound of the engine, awed by the sights of the changing Australian landscape and mesmerised by the enormity of the Nullarbor desert.
We were planning to do the Ghan trip in 2016, to celebrate mum’s 70th birthday, but I received an unexpected bonus when I left one of my employers. So, when my final pay hit the bank in mid-2014, we decided to book the holiday for the following year, taking advantage of the early bird discount. Most people leave these trips until late in life, and I was one of the youngest of the passengers in both journeys. I am glad we were able to do them when we did, as they were still giving a 25% reduction to pensioners, which mum benefited from. This has since been discontinued as the government removed the funding for concession fares. Still, this doesn’t seem to be deterring customers. Recently they launched a new journey, the Great Southern, which explores the south east coast starting in Queensland. When I looked at the availability, it was booked out months ahead. Of course, it has now stopped running until further notice.
It was a hot, humid 30 degrees in Darwin when we visited, and cold and dry in Adelaide. We could only take limited luggage on board, so we had to plan carefully. We spent three nights in Darwin, and each night we saw the sun set over the ocean in a magnificent red-orange sky. We visited the Mindil Beach markets at dusk; did a day trip to Litchfield National Park where we got up close and personal with crocodiles and swam at the bottom of a cascade – well, I did; mum stayed at the top. We visited the art gallery of the northern territory, the war memorial, and walked the city streets until we became hopelessly lost and mum developed blisters on her feet. Darwin is a cosmopolitan, vibrant city, quite different from what I imagined, though still showing the scars left by cyclone Tracy in 1974.
While at the Ghan, we did a number of off-train excursions and activities which included a visit to the majestic Nitmiluk Gorge in Katherine, a tour of Alice Springs, lunch at the heritage Post Office building, an Aussie Barbeque Dinner under the stars which included a camel ride, and half a day in Coober Pedy, the “Opal Capital of the World”, where most of the buildings are underground due to the scorching heat. On the last day, we watched the sun go down while sipping champagne at the Breakaways, a desert-like landscape with beautiful, red coloured rock formations; and returned to the Ghan on time for dinner around a bonfire, sitting at tables lit by candles which had been a arranged on the ground next to the train.
All the excursions were included in the ticket price except an optional extra to catch a light plane from Alice to Uluru, but this was hideously expensive and didn’t even include getting off the plane to see the sacred site from up close, so we didn’t take it. I was disappointed but I am sure I will be able to visit one day and spend more quality time there than I would have had in a fly-in, fly-out trip.
Adelaide was cold but welcoming and the sun shone on us every day. I had been there once before but it was mum’s first time in the city of churches, so we visited all the landmarks, markets, museums, galleries and gardens that we could cover in the three days we had, making time for a cruise down the Torrens river aboard the iconic Popeye. As usual, I was chasing sunsets, which I captured with my SLR camera, and we caught the tram to Glenelg beach to watch the sun set over the sea. The Cabaret festival was on, so we also attended a show at the Festival Centre, which fortunately was not too risqué for mum. The only mishap was that I lost my credit card shortly after we paid for the accommodation. It simply evaporated, so I had to go through the motions of cancelling it. This was a small inconvenience, and one that didn’t blemish the memories of a wonderful trip, and of a precious time spent with my mother.
For an account of our Indian Pacific adventure, visit my Great train journeys: the Indian Pacific blog.
In the 1994 Italian movie Il Postino (The Postman), an uneducated village man, Mario Rouppolo, is hired as postman to deliver the mail of Pablo Neruda, a famous Chilean poet who has just arrived on Mario’s tiny island. It’s the early 1950s and Neruda is living in exile in Italy due to his political beliefs, and receives so much mail that Mario has to visit him daily. Mario knows very little about poetry and has never heard the word ‘metaphor’ until he meets Neruda.
M. Don Pablo? He asks. Metaphors. What are those?
PN. Metaphors are—How can I explain? When you talk of something, comparing it to another… For example… when you say, “the sky weeps,” what do you mean?
M. That it’s raining.
PN. Yes, very good. That’s a metaphor.
M. It’s easy then! Why has it got such a complicated name? (1)
I encountered Neruda’s poetry as a teenager, still living in South America. One morning I woke up to the chords of a love song playing on the radio, with the most exquisite lyrics I ever heard. In my semi-conscious state I thought – that’s not a song. It’s a poem. And it was; the words were from Neruda’s collection ‘The Captain’s Verses’, first published anonymously in Italy in the 1950s (precisely when the movie Il Postino is set). At this time he hadn’t yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; that would happen in 1971.
Of course he didn’t just write love poetry. He also used his metaphors to express his political beliefs, for which he was persecuted.
Treacherous generals; / see my dead house, / look at broken Spain
From every house burning metal flows / instead of flowers (2)
I fell in love with Neruda’s poetry from that first time I heard it, and never questioned that he was deserving of the highest literary accolade in the western world.
In 2016, however, the Nobel Prize committee broke all the rules by awarding this honour to a singer songwriter, Bob Dylan.
Having a certain concept of what ‘literature' is, and not being a Dylan fan – perhaps because most of the time I can’t understand his diction, and therefore the words in his songs – my first reaction was that of outrage. How could Dylan be in the same category as the great Neruda? But then I started to pay more attention to some of his lyrics. By reading, rather than listening to them, I was able to appreciate the mastery and power of his metaphors.
Take ‘A Hard Rain is A’gonna Fall’, for instance, which was performed by Patti Smith at the Nobel Prize Awards ceremony (which Dylan didn’t attend). This song goes back to 1962, when Dylan was barely 21 years old, and was deemed to be “The greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time” by the Rolling Stone Magazine (3). In it, Dylan uses rhetorical devices and metaphorical images to interpret the world around him, grasp his historic milieu and convey a powerful - if apocalyptic - message about the future.
The title itself is a metaphor, which was interpreted by many, due to the time it was written, as the nuclear fallout rain. Dylan later clarified that he wasn’t referring to atomic rain, but to “some sort of end that’s just gonna happen” (4).
In this epic seven-minute song, he is able to not just say the unsayable, but also to show it, by using a string of powerful metaphors and figurative language.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans / I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it / I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children / I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’ / Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter… (5)
Not everything is lost amidst this maelstrom, though. In last verse he embraces the role of prophet, and proclaims that he will “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / and reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.”
For decades, fans and critics alike have been assigning their own meaning to the verses of Hard Rain, and the internet has provided a medium where these interpretations can be discussed and compared in countless forums. The Genius music website, which claims to have “the world’s biggest collection of lyrics and musical knowledge,” has a line-by-line analysis of the song in which several contributors from the community have annotated their own meanings.
The 1960s were an era of turmoil and social change in the United States, and Dylan captured the political and cultural complexity of his time and place in Hard Rain. Blogger Teri Tynes writes:
“Taken in the historical context of 1962, the song could be interpreted to mean the arms race, nuclear threats, the power elite, the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, or even environmental pollution, the latter just emerging into consciousness with the [September 1962] publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring” (6)
Sadly, over half a century later, it seems that nothing much has changed with the world…
If I ask English-speaking people if they know Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, most people would not have heard of him. But, whether they like him or not, who doesn’t know Bob Dylan? For five decades, he has been producing an impressive body of work and many of his metaphors are as powerful as Neruda’s, and often, even more enigmatic.
In a 1965 interview, Dylan was asked “what his songs were about”. He answered “Some are about four minutes, some are about five and some, believe or not, are about 11 or 12”. (7)
Neruda too, didn’t think that it was necessary to explain his metaphors. In Il Postino, Mario asks Neruda to interpret a verse he can’t understand. The poet replies:
“When you explain poetry, it becomes banal. Better than any explanation is the experience of feelings that poetry can reveal to a nature open enough to understand it.”
1 The transcript from the screenplay can be found here: http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/i/il-postino-script-transcript-postman.html (1994)
2 From Canto General , translated from the original Spanish (1950)
3 Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-bob-dylan-songs-20160524 (2016)
4 Margotin & Guesdon, Bob Dylan, All the songs: the story behind every track (2015)
5 A Hard Rain is A’gonna Fall, in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
6 Tynes, T. http://www.walkingoffthebigapple.com/2010/03/new-york-notes-on-bob-dylans-hard-rains.html (2016)
7 Telegraph media group http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3619930/Dylan-hung-up.-I-checked-the-tape.-It-seemed-apt-there-were-only-whispers.html (2011)
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,