Unchained Melody: Free to wallow

By Melody Thomas

Melody’s other column, Wāhine, is a regular feature in print. Subscribe to get the real thing here.

Melody Thomas brings us her new monthly column, available exclusively on the Capital website.

To read her inaugural column, discussing the woes of post-pandemic loneliness, go here.

Life is complex and messy, and we’re all just muddling along as best as we can: so inevitably we sometimes fail. Melody Thomas asks what would happen if we just started being kinder to ourselves?

A couple of years ago I went down, seemingly without warning, with burnout. Not just exhaustion, not quite depression, less distressed than completely numb. I wanted nothing more than to curl up in the warm earth under an old tree and disappear, just for a bit. Life required too much from me and I had nothing more to give.

Luckily, burnout (and the resulting personal crises) struck not long before COVID did, and so the lockdown gave me exactly what I needed. A chance to stop. To collapse, really, in a thousand pieces, free to wallow, rather than quickly patching myself back together in order to hit deadlines.

In lieu of a warm den amongst ancient roots, I withdrew into myself, and gazed numbly out at the world chugging along without me. This was new for me: a person who has always surrounded herself with people, less scared of alone-time than unsure of the point. Away from the happy thrum of the collective,  sayings I’d thought of as a bit over-dramatic suddenly took on the weight of absolute truth: “In the end you only have yourself,” and “You’re born alone and die alone”.  I saw in the mirror a broken thing, of little help to anyone, and none of this provided any comfort.

I understood that what I needed was a therapist, but a combination of pride (“therapy is amazing! It’s just not for me…”) and a lack of funds (therapy is expensive!) kept me from taking that step. Instead, my slow recuperation came via a mishmash of techniques, including rest, morning pages, yoga with Adriene, custard squares, good novels, and the purchase of iridescent rose gold roller skates (don’t judge me).

And I also started to dabble in a thing called mindful self-compassion, or the practice of not being such an asshole to myself. 

Maybe you’re not a dick to yourself on the regular, in which case I commend you for bucking the trend. But for many of us, there is nothing easier than homing in on things we don’t like about ourselves / the time we failed / our inability to cope, and then beating ourselves up for being insufferable, incompetent pieces of s**t.

It’s strong language, I know, but the way we talk to ourselves really can be extreme.

Didn’t get the job you applied for? Well, that’s because you weren’t good enough – what were you thinking putting your name in the hat!? Yelled at your kids? What a horrible parent! You should be doing better! Put on a few kilos? Where’s your self-control, you loser?! Struggling under the weight of being alive during a pandemic, climate change, wars, rising food and house prices, and ever-increasing inequality? WHAT A BABY!

This kind of thinking fails to recognise that life is tough. Things don’t pan out how we hope, the best people get taken away from us too soon, and there are no instructions for navigating it all so we muddle through, sometimes making mistakes or inadvertently hurting people we care about. This applies to all of us, but we elevate our own suffering, as if we are the only people to have ever messed up, and so are completely deserving of our self-flagellation.

Yet when a friend comes to us upset, we don’t tell them to get over it or call them pathetic. Even when they have done something wrong, we are empathetic. You’ll be ok, we tell them. You can make amends and do better next time. You’re not a bad person.

Why do we find it so hard to extend ourselves this same kindness?

I’m not an expert in self-compassion, in fact it remains one of the things Istruggle with. But just being aware of it as something to aim for has brought about bigchanges in my life. Now when I’m sad or anxious, I can sometimes catch myself in the act of an internal eye-roll of scorn or a turn towards distraction to avoid discomfort, and instead turn towards it (and towards myself).  It’s cheesy, but I literally talk to myself as if I’m my own parent: You’re feeling sad? That’s ok, everyone feels sad sometimes. I’m here for you. What do you need?

The first time you do this you might cry, flooded in an instant with the understanding that this is what love and care feels like, and you had it in your power to provide it all along. You might just feel awkward, practised as you are at speaking to yourself in harsher ways. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Self-compassion, once tapped, flows freely into compassion and empathy for everyone and everything around you. Its gentle nature is deceptive, given how utterly transformative its power can be. 

The other day I went to the hospital for an internal ultrasound for some spotting between periods. Because of COVID I had to go alone, and so I sat in a hospital corridor waiting to be called, unable to stare at my phone because their signals interfere with nearby x-rays, and with no magazines to read for distraction. Something didn’t feel right.

I took a moment to think about this: Why did I feel so different to the way I might have felt a year ago? Waiting to be probed by a camera, alone in an empty corridor, I’d expected to feel frightened, but I didn’t. I felt calm and content. Most of all, I felt supported. Then it dawned on me: I didn’t feel alone because I wasn’t. I had me. And so long as I took the time to remember that, I would never be alone again.

What I’m reading

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

The premise is simple, albeit strange: A stay-at-home Mum is struggling to cope with the loneliness, exhaustion and mundanity of it all, until one night she starts to change. Strange patches of hair sprout, her canines sharpen, a new bloodlust begins to take shape… is she turning into a dog?

Nightbitch is feral and savage: the perfect antidote to neutered and sanitised depictions of motherhood and femaleness. I finished this book in a goosebumped frenzy, then automatically bought a second copy which I intend to circulate surreptitiously among my Mum-friends.

What I’m cooking

Feijoa Loaf and Feijoa Fizz

Every autumn the friends and family with backyard feijoa trees begin their plaintive call: “Heeeeelpppp ussss!” they say, “There are simply too manyyyyy!” For someone who has never had a feijoa tree of their own, there is no such thing as too many feijoas. When you’re sick to death of crumble and the shelves are already stacked with chutney, give this feijoa loaf a try. Delicious iced or uniced, and sweetened with just fruit and ⅓ of a cup of honey, you can devour it in one sitting without worrying about how your tummy will cope (I replaced the flour with a gluten free mix and it worked out great). Plus if you’ve never tried feijoa fizz, might I introduce you to your new favourite drink, made with discarded feijoa skins.

What I’m listening to

Pillow Talk by Laura Nagy

A woman goes through a difficult breakup and seeks shelter from her loneliness in the weird and wonderful online world of ASMR. This podcast is very intimate, to the point where some people will struggle to listen. Host Laura Nagy goes all in when it comes to putting the audience inside her distress, refusing to dress it up or make it pretty, placing things we’d usually hide about ourselves right out in the open. The sound design and writing are beautiful, and best enjoyed on decent headphones.

This podcast is only available on Audible so if you haven’t got it you’ll need to trial a subscription like I did.

Content warning: This podcast contains themes of sexual assault and domestic abuse. 

What I’m watching

Bridgerton. Russian Doll and Derry Girls.

Like everyone else, I began to devour season 2 of Bridgerton the moment it was released. But (SPOILER ALERT) I got so mad that Kate Sharma and Anthony Bridgerton spent weeks hornily breathing all over each other, fighting their raging lust because of societal expectations of propriety and duty, only for him to go down on her in a pagoda in full sight of anyone who might go out for a garden stroll (something people of the time appear fond of doing), that I quit watching with only half an hour of the season to go. I’m just now hitting play on season 2 of Russian Doll, featuring queer-icon-who-is-somehow-not-queer-herself Natasha Lyone, and have gone back to rewatch Derry Girls, which has only gotten better since I last saw it.


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