Lessons from Lockdown

I saved this blog before it was written as april2020; when I then opened the document I seriously considered posting it blank. Well, not that seriously, but I did think for a moment would a blank page be representative? Representative of a month into lockdown and the FB posts showing cartoons of same old same old, my another groundhog day feeling (and husband singing Mama Mia, here we go again…), the Fitbit buzzing me at ten minutes to the hour to tell me to walk and it seems like it did it only a few minutes earlier (and the carpet looking more worn).

No, not a blank page, more a faded crumpled one. Hard to do online, though when I put up an author page (one of the many things on the to do list that has been sitting there for years and finally got done…) I notice you can make your photos look antique!

Despite this, when I actually look at the month it’s been very busy, and compared to most people, the COVID situation hasn’t made much of a difference—I’m used to sitting day after day in a room with my husband where we are both writing. So used to it that our exercise regime is perfected—home gym and a four kilometre circuit where we rarely meet anyone. We’ve had plenty to write with an attempt to get a draft of Two Steps On to the editor by May, and with my book launch of The Long Shadow next week, I’ve been doing lots of Q&A’s, interviews and erudite, funny, quirky, stand out original blogs so everyone would know they just had to read my book immediately and take it to an immediate number one spot on the best seller list.

Seriously, dreams are important and there are no travel or vacations to look forward to in the foreseeable future!

Which brings me to, what have I learnt after a month in lockdown when even if it hasn’t been as big a deal for me as some (I’m working one day a week online at home as a psychiatrist and one day a fortnight I go into the hospital), it has still left a mark. (This isn’t to say that I’m not really, really grateful to not be worrying about mine or a family member’s job, as well as delighted to be in Australia compared to anywhere else in the world (ok, NZ is great, I get it))

  1. I have an insatiable appetite for reading (nothing new) BUT news needs to be relegated to mornings only. Anxiety provoking, poignant and infuriating articles (the latter almost entirely relegated to Trump and an occasional idiotic US state governor or casino owner) just add to feelings of helplessness and despair. Occasional later perusal of FB for cartoons is permitted.
  2. Online psychotherapy isn’t perfect. It isn’t new and I’ve been reading articles on it both recent and longer standing. While I don’t do psychotherapy, there is inevitably a relationship between patients I review and myself which contributes to their mental health, whether they take my advice, their medication etc. And there is a difference doing this online. It is more intense, less room to “feel” what’s happening in the space and less forgiveness; a pause send people giggling with their devise to see it has frozen.
  3. Zoom cocktails can be exhausting. The more people (not cocktails) the better at any one meeting and I much rather husband on screen with me so I can sit back and well, drink, while he talks. And everyone knowing you are available (like what else are you doing?) has its problems.
  4. WhatsApp anything can be exhausting.
  5. Getting across anything other than Zoom, Skype and Whats App is exhausting.
  6. It’s turning my mother into a radical right winger. Not sure if this is because she is devouring the Herald Sun and Fox news without the balance of her usual very active social life or she’s just bored, but if you see an eighty plus year old heading up a Michigan style protest about the right to get infected (read to go back to normal for the economy), it’ll be her.
  7. Digging up old DVDs to watch at the home gym (we don’t have a TV in the house we’re holed up in) has interesting consequences. I’m watching season seven of 24 (I saw season and two and then the kids streamed the others but had to buy season seven for some reason); Jack Bower and the incredibly competent FBI techies feels like Scifi when I look at what actually seems to be happening in Americas response to COVID.
  8. People seem to have used this time to do clean ups. I’m not one of them.
  9. I can sleep at lot. I hope its held in reserve so when this is over I can stay up all night watching the stuff I don’t have access to, attending gatherings and not worrying about not being able to sleep on flights (if long distance flights ever exist again…I see NZ being a popular destination for Aussies…)
  10. If doing a Zoom chat outdoors mute the speaker—magpies are really loud in the morning.
  11. The background picture on your computer (id you are using it a lot) is really important. I’ve felt much calmer since changing it from the busy book picture (which basically said to me Write! Promote!) to a scenic picture from our walk in the French-Italian alps last year. I was going to insert it here but see next point.
  12. The internet is in overload…this may be the next major first world crisis or at least restriction!

 

 

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Becoming a mother in the time of corona

I normally keep these posts light and without my “medical” hat on – but given the times, this one is an exception! I’m back at work with women with perinatal depression and anxiety – wherever possible seeing people on Skype, Zoom etc. Here’s just an update on perinatal anxiety in the time of coronavirus.

One in seven is the most quoted statistic for postnatal depression—but add a one in three pregnant and new mothers who at some stage has to grapple with moments of anxiety, panic and being overwhelmed. No surprise to anyone—the current coronavirus pandemic isn’t going to decrease that number.

Much of the focus of perinatal anxiety is the unknown and uncontrollable. It is many women’s first significant contact with the medical system and no amount of birth plan preparation can accurately predict or cover every possible birth outcome; when I had children I decided that a good outcome was me and baby alive and able to go home together, and I’d leave the rest to the experts. The statistics for this happening are actually really good. That is why they do eleven or more years of study, and it was why I was paying them. A hundred years ago it was a very different story.

The focus for new mothers after surviving labour, is then on baby’s sleep and feeding—the moment of what the f*k do I know? First time mothers are now an average age of twenty eight, meaning many are older than that. Women with a lot of training and experience, largely in things other than baby care. Even childcare workers and midwives don’t have the experience of sole responsibility twenty four seven. For an IT specialist give them a data base optimisation problem; a nurse a catheter in a cantankerous, delirious patient to insert; and a teacher twenty five students with a level range two to year nine in a year seven class (and that’s in English. Imagine how the German teacher in coping). But a baby that’s only taken twenty mils milk instead of eighty? That the nurse said something about they might dehydrate quickly and die?

Now women have to deal with an extra uncertainty. And there are no more definitive answers to this than to what might happen in labour. Except.

This virus isn’t anything so different its going to do something we’ve never seen before. Like labour, we know the range of possibilities, and some early reports suggest that its likely any possible virus effects are towards the better end of the range; this is not a guarantee, because there isn’t enough data. Just a little sprinkle to add on the perspective scale. There are no reports of major malformations—but those exposed in utero in first trimester haven’t delivered yet. Maybe it isn’t passed from mother to fetus (a few cases, but a newborn has had it). In the WHO report (16-24 February) it was stated pregnant women were not at a higher risk of the disease (but still only a sprinkle on the perspective scale as their information was inadequate about outcomes and pregnant women do have a compromised immune system). Children don’t seem to be at a high risk. And there’s better data for this.

So what can women do to feel in control? To minimise their risk?

Avoid getting it. Now the government has made it clear what everyone needs to do, pregnant women need to lead the charge and need to be helped to do it when they can’t.

The single most important thing is to stay at home. If a family member gets it they need to be in complete isolation away from anyone pregnant. Complete. Different house. Talk and stay in contact via phones, skype, zoom, whats app and social media. In Singapore, corona positive people went into quarantine facilities even with cold symptoms. And they got on top of it. Flattened the curve. Currently we in Australia are not. Pregnant women shouldn’t do the shopping and if they are caring for children, the children ideally won’t be in childcare. If grandparents are helping then they need to be in isolation too; don’t forget you can chat with them on zoom etc too. But no restaurants, Bondi beach or family BBQs. None.

(If you already have been in contact with someone positive (or have the virus) you need to up the isolation measures; its important to keep things in perspective. Most people only get a cold and younger people especially children not vulnerable.)

The exception to going out is critical medical appointments. Pregnant women and women with children under twelve months can see psychiatrists via a skype/tele-link, but there will be some critical obstetric appointments where an examination is required. Keep the appointment. Don’t avoid the coronavirus and die of something we fixed with modern obstetric services decades ago. Ring before if you think it isn’t essential. Medical services are adapting. Home visits or collections of urine samples may be possible.

Just had a baby? Same thing. Take time out—really out—to enjoy. You had a baby because you wanted one—don’t lose sight of the joy. Partner working from home? Give them time to do that—but use their presence to have a shower. Get an afternoon nap when the baby does (and have your partner in charge for the hour. You can be woken in emergencies!). Get meditation and yoga apps. Go for a walk. Babies thrive on contact so this is THE big number one exception to social isolation (providing those in contact have isolated, for them). Lots of smiles, kisses and cuddles from both parents. And space to sleep. Space to explore as they develop and look to the outside world. To them that will be a toy, a feather, the pots and pans cupboard, some music you are dancing to. Let them know that the world is an exciting, wonderful place to explore. By the time they are one year old, and able to take it in, it will be.

 

And…if you have time on your hands you can always fill it with a good book!

The Long Shadow, out April 28th, is a rural crime thriller, set around a postnatal depression group. The women’s past and the town’s secrets threaten their relationships to their child…and put lives at risk.

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Why Walk: The Seven Times Two Reasons to Have a Walking Vacation

Or: How to justify a vacation in Italy in the middle of a coronavirus epidemic

 

Disclosure here; there really wasn’t an outbreak when we left to Italy in February, despite what our travel insurance says (we have another trip booked in mid-April and apparently we had to have booked before January 31st—we of course booked on January 31st—to get our money back). It’s possible we should have been more alert…but let’s face it not too many people knew (or know now) exactly what COVID-19 was or would do, and certainly not at the beginning of last month. So as I sit here a week after leaving Italy and reading everything is grinding to a standstill, I’m considering myself lucky (though another week before I can say I didn’t get COVID-19 there and after that well I guess its going to be circulating here in Aus anyway).

But it really was a fun trip and so here’s some reflections on why you should spend your vacation walking. We are long distance walkers so a mere 11 days and 238km was a warm up really, or actually a warm down, because we did Cluny (France) to Aulla (Tuscany) last year (around 1000km), two previous Caminos from Cluny to Santiago (Spain) in 2011 via the Norte/Primitevo (2038km) and 2016 via Frances (1900km). We’ve got Aulla to Rome (not sure how far but it’ll take three weeks) in September this year…well, maybe! The walk we just completed was following the Tau-dove signs on the Chemin D’Assise (ornage sticker pictured above which are dotted around on lampposts, walls and trees to follow) which started in Cluny, and we were finishing the section off to Assisi. Because we are setting a novel on the walk, and we found out having got to Aulla you can pick up the Via Francigena and get to Rome faster, we thought our characters would do this – but we wanted to finish the dove walk. Before walking this time, we spent a few days going to the towns on the Francigena so we could write the book draft. Seems like this might have been a really smart move Italy/travel is off the agenda for a while. This of course is an extra reason for us to walk – research!

This walk took us from San Gimignano to Assisi.

Why walk this walk?

  1. One gorgeous historic hilltop town after another. Good for historians, archaeologists, artists (renaissance primarily but in Pietrasanta, technically a little earlier than where we started this time, Fernando Botero’s frescos were very entertaining and the sculptures round the town, wonderful), gourmets, practising/learning Italian.
  2. It wasn’t specially hard walking.
  3. Really nice places to stay and eat!
  4. Really nice people who given the circumstances, might need tourism help (okay, when deemed safe, and yes there’s some Aussie places to stay that need support too…)
  5. Religious—St Frances as far as I can gather was one of the good guys, and he’s buried in the Cathedral in Assisi.
  6. If you are a achievement orientated person, you get a certificate…
  7. Less likely to catch the Coronavirus (or any contagious disease) – you just don’t see many people—the towns are small and most of the day its just you and whoever you are walking with. Walking in February with climate change, meant we had less tourists in the towns too, and great walking weather. Okay, and the pending doom of COVID-19 was having its influence at the end–there were a lot of empty restaurants.

Why walk at all?

  1. Cheaper than any other form or transport.
  2. Environmentally friendly (stick to the paths…no board walks like on the Overland that are there to stop walkers from damaging the flora).
  3. Evolution mandated! We were built to walk…
  4. Healthy physically and not hard on aging parts of you…
  5. Brilliant mindfulness training…to live in the moment, appreciate your surroundings and offload stress.
  6. Justifies the croissant at breakfast (marmolata in Italy, full of jam…).
  7. Way less risky than a cruise ship!
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How to co-author a book (and have a holiday and keep fit)

When we (husband Graeme Simsion and I) do author talks about our joint book, Two Steps Forward, one of the most common questions is: How did you do it? One friend (four times divorced) was completely mystified we hadn’t killed each other. It’s certainly unusual for fiction to have more than one author (there are a few in the crime genre, most noticeably Nikki French, also a husband and wife team). When we wrote TSF our original idea had been to have a his and hers—separate books, same story, different point of views (POV). So we planned together and then went off and wrote it separately.

Unfortunately our publisher thought this was a really bad idea, and the next step was putting what we’d written into one manuscript as alternating chapters, male-female POV’s. Not as hard as you might imagine—except you have a 160,000 word manuscript that needs to be halved…

So now we are writing the sequel, Two Steps South we learnt from our mistakes and only have to write half a book each. Not a job for pantsers (those that write by the “seat of their pants” and let the story evolve). I guess we could write a chapter, hand over and see where it went but if we did it like that…well that four time divorced friend might have a point. So before we went on the walk on which it is set (The Chemin d’Assise and Via Francigena from Cluny,France to Rome,Italy), we planned. I of course couldn’t help myself and had to start to write (to Graeme’s annoyance…) but then when we were thrown out of Europe (well, I didn’t get a Visa extension so we left before finishing the walk and thus the pubdate now 2021 instead of 2020) we planned in earnest (meaning some rewriting of course). Screen writers cards all over the floor of our Moroccan Riad. A bit like that card game where you have to match cards only then you also have to put them in order.

As we planned and talked and wrote the characters started jumping off the page—we’d met them all in the first book, but in the case of two, only briefly, and another two, they needed to have grown up. The Camino itself also declared itself as a major character—anyone who has walked a long pilgrimage will know this—and in ways we hadn’t predicted until we walked it. Themes emerged, again some we didn’t know were there until our characters told us.

On the walk I’d managed to get a quarter of my chapters written, and after five weeks in Morocco, my first draft done—Graeme at end of second act turning point and now closing in on the end. And still plenty of shopping done and Moroccan food eaten!

Now back home and with a crazy schedule, Graeme (schedule a little less crazy) we can write (he feels obliged to edit mine as he goes and reminds me as he does that I really do a vomit draft…and Hemingway was right about first drafts being shit…I ignore it…it really wasn’t that bad…).

And we end up with two walks later this year—first finish the Chemin d’Assise from Aulla to Assisi, then later in the year, the Via Francigena from Aulla to Rome. Why two? Well we started following the Tau-dove which goes to Assisi and I feel the need to follow it and finish what we started (and okay, I want the credential…). But our characters have told us WTF…the VF is way faster to Rome so we need to do what they walk! It also sounds a great walk…

Bon Chemin and Buon Cammino!

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On Homesickness…

On any long break away from Australia, it is inevitable that the idea of home and what it is, starts to reverberate around the subconscious. You either end up homesick—or realise that to some degree “home” is where you are and what you make of it. Or some combination of this. I recall when my first marriage broke up—I was in my late twenties—I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed and maybe watch TV and eat roast meals and heavy puddings. But the “home” I was wanting comfort from was that of my childhood, with my parents and things familiar to the me of pre-adulthood, looking for it to cocoon me in a time warp and allow healing.

Since having my own children and now a marriage of thirty years, home was where they were—plus familiar objects, surrounded by familiar places with Aussie accents, good coffee and great food of any nationality my whim dictated. But the people—family and friends—always a key part.

We have had two houses in our married life and just moved into our third. Almost immediately we left for four and a half months (six in my husband’s case) overseas, so the “new” house has all of our “stuff” and is in a familiar suburb (and with one child and her partner) but it itself has no history of family luncheons, girlfriends crying on shoulders, to warrant it being home in a home-sick sense.

We’ve also, through all of our married life, had a weekender—a shack to escape the city, where we love writing. The children had a pony when they were young—now they plant fruit trees and enjoy making cocktails and BBQ’s on the balcony. As they left home to make their own way, and the house they grew up in was sold, this now has become the place of comfort and familiarity—the place of their roots. If I’m homesick in a traditional sense, this is the home my thoughts return to.

Now is over four months since I left Australia (now heading home), most of it spent on the road—walking, staying in a different place each night for six weeks, and the rest of the time in different cultures. The last five weeks we have had the call to Muslim prayers waking us each morning before dawn, and I pause to reflect on what I have missed. For I am ready to go home; while loving the smells and tastes of Morocco, I’m wanting to be not seen as the alien—“no, all closed there” and “this way…to my shop”; familiar refrains I won’t miss, as much as they add to the excitement and difference.

Travelling with my partner of course helps—and it’s been a working holiday (just finished my “half” of Two Steps Back”). But I miss friends and family—Facebook, emails and texts and Messenger have kept me in touch, but it is only the superficial, not the pulse of their daily lives; the late skype calls for work that reminds me my little girl is all grown up, the enthusiasm for the next walk which might take my son and his partner to somewhere that will cause me to fret until they return, the furrowed brow that tells me my friend is worried about one of his patients.  I think of this when I think of all the displaced people around the world, many in countries I have been to recently living in camps for years with no sense of the future. Many will have family with them, many will not—none likely to have all the family and friends I return to, still safe. I think of the comfort in having family with you—but then know that they cannot be comforted when they worry for their children’s future—something more in peril than any child in Australia, certainly my own.

But beyond that, what stuff have I missed? I miss the birds—which were terrifyingly absent in rural Italy; the magpie’s swooping into the birdbath and three at a time sending water in all directions; the tiny wrens darting in and out, the rosellas cautiously sipping between descents on the surrounding fruit trees. I look forward to seeing the Moroccan rugs in the new house and despite the Camino (which did teach me to need stuff a whole lot less) I am really, really, sick of the same set of clothes that I’ve been managing with carry-on luggage. I look forward to good coffee and muesli (omg how I have missed unsweetened muesli…or actually, right now, any muesli…not a Moroccan thing), and real books (travelling light you have to use kindle). And I look forward to sharing how grateful I am to be Australian, and however much I will probably complain about politics and climate change…I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

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A Writing Pause

 

I’m in one of those incredibly lucky moments in my life that I am stopping (briefly) from writing (well, from books and editing) to just take breath. Everyone is freezing back home in Melbourne (my son returned there from Europe on the days coldest for the year, and felt it); I’m in rural France where the temperature range is from 14 to 31; nights cool enough to sleep and days not too hot (the stone walls of the farm house keep the workplace at a delightful 25). Sunshine and rolling green hills outside my window. Another two weeks before I don a back pack and start walking to Rome (a mere 1200km after the 2000km we did twice to Santiago from the same French farm house). A morning and evening walk just to keep in shape, healthy food (trialling Don Tilman’s standardised meal system for my husband’s new book) and nightly “good” sleep ratings (one excellent even) from my Fitbit.

I can bask in the glow of being shortlisted for the Davitts (not alas for the Ned Kelly’s, though This I Would Kill For would have been eligible last year for that), knowing the company is excellent (and that Jane Harper is a favourite to win I should imagine, but as I loved her book I can’t complain if I lost to it!). All the while editing my new stand alone rural thriller, The Long Shadow. Each edit making it better, word by word. Because its different to the prior ones—a less kick butt heroine but one with her own arc, a rural setting, a good twist—there is always the hope maybe another country or television company will buy it. You don’t stay a wake thinking about it, but still…Then after reading two articles on Adrian McKinty hitting the big time (hell I loved his earlier books and he’d won prizes and was still doing Uber to support his family…a timely reminder of how tough this gig really is) I wonder…should I have set it in USA rather than rural NSW? I’ve also been spending nights talking plots of a new book with my husband and asked the same question but after yet another gun massacre in USA the idea of three months in Montana or New Mexico to do research seemed less appealing.

Just because I don’t already have enough to do, have also been talking about the plot for a sequel to Two Steps Forward (Two Steps South) – which will be set on the upcoming walking path we are doing. Keeping this many plots and characters in my head at once if challenging…but not complaining. All my own doing…

I’ve had some time out to read as well—Joanna Cannon’s Breaking and Mending (prepub copy my husband was sent) which is a thoughtful poignant take on becoming a doctor and psychiatrist. She has then gone onto to be a very successful British author and this book doesn’t cover that transition, but having been a medical student and psychiatrist and knowing she is also a writer, it was interesting to see the overlap and very different reactions we had to the inevitable challenges that being a doctor throws at you. She had a very serious MCA as well (which I thankfully have not) which added to her narrative. I’d have liked more…it’s got me thinking about maybe my own memoir one day. If I run out of other things to write…

So back to the edits.

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Parenting Assessments – Where Mental Illness meets Protective Services

As my work as a psychiatrist often inspires my books perhaps it’s not so surprising I’m talking next Tuesday for the Mental Health Foundation on the above topic – which is something my heroine Natalie King deals with in This I Would Kill For. I wrote a short blog for them and anyone interested. You’ll find it here

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What I was Reading…

Check it out at Meanjin here

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True Crime Podcasts—Why are We Addicted?

It started with Serial—someone suggested I listen and within ten minutes I was addicted. I knew people listened to podcasts and thought I didn’t have the time…since then, I’ve found plenty; every time I’m driving alone, and they have replaced TV and music when I’m in the gym.

Serial was an eye opener—though I do some forensic perinatal work, my contact with the court is limited and virtually never with the police. For those who missed the phenomenon, Serial followed the case related to the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999 and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed—who courtesy of the podcast and the questions it raised, has been granted a retrial. It was well presented with Sara Koenig offering balance to a perhaps more invested Rabia Chaudry (she knew the defendant) but who was able to give insights into the town and being Muslim in small town America.

The first secret to their success was that it took you with them. Though much of it was going through prior investigations and trials, it was with fresh eyes and in real time had the promise of change—of righting a wrong.

The second secret was it turned out to be a compelling case with twists and turns, faulty technology reports, witnesses that recanted and changed stories and a legal system that was far from Perry Mason perfect. The twist that the hosts worked out from tapes was extraordinary. Fiction doesn’t get this good—or rather it wouldn’t have been believable if it hadn’t been real. And we were there when they did it.

The weakness was the same as the strength—real time meant we caught up and the law had slowed down to its frustratingly slow tedious self. Something that these podcasts as well as my own experience as an expert, has led me to believe desperately needs change.

Season Two I found less compelling, though it gave an insight into the military with Bowe Bergdahl going AWOL in Afghanistan. There were some interesting moments, some philosophical questions—but at the end of the day the military should never have enlisted him and he should never have joined if he wasn’t prepared to take orders. For me, there was not the same ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Perhaps there would have been if I’d been in a military family.

Season Three has taken a different approach—Sara Koenig and new offsider Emmanuelle Dzotsi (who is apparently from Ohio but sounds very English)—spend time in a Cleveland court. After Season Two I’d stopped listening but then found myself at a loose end and started this, and thought I wouldn’t continue because multiple superficial cases held little appeal. To my surprise its kept me engrossed. Its like being beamed into a different universe—the life of petty crime and autocratic judges who think they know best and to hell with best-practice evidence. At times its almost funny (if not so horrendous) and often sad. Its also an eye opener—insights into the downhill slide for poor black men especially, being forced into guilty pleas to misdemeanour  to save risk, only to have fines mount and then real charges and gaol time become inevitable.

Rabia Chaudry who was one of the lawyers involved in the first Serial series subsequently wrote a book about Adnan Sayed (who was a family friend) and then joined with two other lawyers in another podcast series—Undisclosed. They’ve gone through the cases of Gary Mitchum (a murdered barwoman who was his on/off partner) and Joey Watkins (a driveby shooting) and now are onto Dennis Perry—a case of a church shooting and murder of the pastor and his wife. This is the least interesting of the three—it was along time ago and most of the notes and tapes have been lost and the witnesses changing testimony hard to fathom after so many years.

Speaking of which—memory and witness description, a common problem in these cases, I tested myself out. I saw a group of four at dinner, then saw them again the next morning at breakfast. I’d spent a bit of time looking at one of the guys—thought he would have passed for Nick Cave’s brother. I looked away and a minute later described the other three; two of my descriptions would have fitted half the middle aged population and the other I got her hair colour wrong and though I said glasses, omitted that the glasses were BRIGHT red. Some of these people got less of a look than I had, and were being asked after a much longer period of time…

Along the way (after diverging to S-Town, well worth it, and a sort of crime), I started another series—Truth and Justice. Bob Ruff, ex-fireman, is kind of like Bruce Willis character in the Die Hard series. Heart of gold and rough around the edges. He started out with following Series with updates on Adnan Sayed, then Kenny Snow, Edward Ates (Elnora Griffin murder), Jesse Eldridge (Keow Gove murder), George Powell III which I missed, West Memphis 3 (there is also a movie) and currently Season 6: The Melgars where Sandy is convicted of murdering her husband.

In the middle of watching these Australia got on the band wagon. Phoebe’s Fall was followed by Trace (now also a book), The Teacher’s Pet and Wrong Skin. There’s another one that does an episode per case which hasn’t captivated me (though there was a thoughtful episode where the mother of a murder victim made a good case about who owns the court information). Of course there was my own involvement in the Keli Lane documentary which I also wrote about for ABC, here. That, like Making a Murderer had  high viewer ratings—more evidence of our true crime addiction.

My interest is flagging though.

There is, eventually, a common thread, across cases, across countries. Justice is not what I had naively thought it to be—it has different faces depending on your colour, which state you live in (I should know this—NSW is much more likely to give long sentences for child murder versus community service for Infanticide in the Victoria, and it varies wildly in the USA) and how much money you have. It can rest on how smart or biased the police or DA or judge is, or whether they are having a bad day. In USA if you’re unlucky you’re the case the DA or police chief will use to ensure they get voted in. At least we don’t have that in Australia. Perhaps the worst part is how even well meaning people can be so certain…of things you just can’t be certain of. And even a smart sounding DA in the Melgar case just didn’t seem to be aware of some gross inconsistencies. These cases are complicated and of course the podcast hosts aren’t necessarily right—but what they show is how easily a case can go one way or the other. As happened in the Keli Lane case, a smart prosecutor out to win (more so, arguably, than for the truth), can sway a jury.

The feeling of being part of something happening and changing gets swamped with the realisation that so much needs changing and little is being done about it, as well as what I’m sure criminal defence lawyers suffer all the time—compassion burnout. There is also this increasing conviction that things are never black and white, and that the only person who can ever be truly know if they did it or not, is the person charged. In the Melgar case, given Sandy had medical causes for loss of memory and consciousness, maybe in some cases, not even then. Hopefully this helps people be more tolerant, less likely to opt for mandatory sentences and (in the USA) the death penalty. Its likely to make for better informed juries—let’s also hope that enough law enforcement people listen and also ask how can we stop this and how can we make things better?

I will continue to listen, though maybe more selectively. For me the interest comes from humanising the millions we hear are locked away in USA prisons and gives sense to a group that in many other ways is often not sympathetic. The podcast hosts choose carefully—no one wants to set someone free and have them kill again because you got it wrong—but Serial 3 has managed to show the petty crime and unlikeable characters in context, surely journalism at its best and certainly what I want to do in my psychological thrillers. I guess for me, also, these podcasts given me food for thought in future books.

There’s a prurient interest too, I’m sure—fiction crime readers like to read to assay and allay their fears of what the news bombards them with, in a way that they know the hero/ine will win through (and they will survive!). True Crime podcasts take you a step closer to the real action, but still from the safety of your own home—even more than fiction we all get to be the detective (my husband kept telling me that people on Twitter thought I had it wrong on Keli Lane—I said there was  reasonable doubt—and they may be right…but I had read all the case notes and spent four hours interviewing her. Had they?). The only problem is that these are real people, real tragedies. The dead person is still dead, the families are still grieving and the convicted person is still in gaol (and if wrongly, the true culprit is at large). We need to remind ourselves of that.

 

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Getting to Know Yourself on a Greek Island

When I first embarked on training to be a psychiatrist I was on the verge of throwing away my medical training and returning to university to do an Arts course, and follow my passion to be a writer. I had to finish the year as a second year registrar first—three months of anxiety (and a bout of mumps) doing paediatrics where the well-meaning parents bypassed their GP of thirty years’ experience to see me; three months rehab which just convinced me I never wanted to grow old (I was too young to think that this was better than the alternative), three months in general practice where I saw a relentless line of the worried well (the senior partners must have seen the real patients) and the three months that saved me; psychiatry.

What had attracted me about psychiatry was the world it opened up to me—different ways of thinking and being, and at both the practical experiential level and the philosophical. I found it riveting. I soaked in DM Thomas’s The White Hotel (a fictional account of one Freud’s patients), watched behind a one-way mirror to paradoxical therapy (my most dysfunctional patient and their partner were being told what they were doing was brilliant—it wasn’t, but the therapy was) and was bear-hugged by a manic patient with BO. It was stimulating, challenging, and fascinating.

Training to be a psychiatrist however, was less Freud and more neuroscience. I abandoned a DPM degree because I would have had to dissect a brain (I wanted to be a psychiatrist, not a neurosurgeon) and eventually supplemented the neuroscience with psychotherapy supervision, group and family therapy training and attachment therapy courses.

But what was it like on the other side of the couch? I had a brief stint (three months) in a chair opposite a therapist to solve a specific issue and a one off brilliant intervention for grief, but I’d never really allowed myself to be vulnerable—which is what laying on the couch (seven to fifteen years, once to three or even five times a week) renders you. Given I have a job, a relationship and two grown kids and a fabulous life, intensive therapy of the analytic kind seemed unnecessary and, well, a bit self-indulgent.

So what better place to check out the idea while being indulgent as I wanted to be, for two weeks ‘holiday’ on the Greek Island of Skyros? Skyros Holidays have been doing this for forty years—one location does the ‘we’re all still young’ stuff—everything from canoeing to trapeze, and the town location does writing courses and…’self-improvement and self-development’ courses about which curiously little is said, apart from old reviews (for some reason TripAdvisor thought it wasn’t operating) which uses words like ‘intense’. As a writer, surely I would do the writing course…well, no…my husband was giving it. So this left…self-development.

Of course everything was totally confidential so I can’t say anything about anyone else’s experience except to say I wasn’t in the room alone (eight participants and one psychologist). But let’s say that the boxes of tissues were there for a reason…

What stunned me most was having given myself over to the experience, how quickly it became confronting. Not everyone wants or is ready to make themselves that vulnerable, possibly some shouldn’t; individual therapy might suit them better…in the case of some people (not naming anyone except the narcissist everyone mentions…and for this purpose also add in Hannibal Lecter) then I wouldn’t expect therapy to work and wouldn’t wish it upon any poor therapist!

The process depends on people entering into the therapy setting in good faith…and having some self-awareness/psychological mindedness helps (I believe DM Thomas, after running a writing course on Skyros wrote a book—Lady with a Laptop—as a parody of his experience but I have NO intention of doing so of mine). I did keep oscillating between the belief that knowing myself at a deeper level would open me up to changing some of my annoying habits, to feeling this was RIDICULOUS and I was a operating, functioning, normal person so why the hell was I crying and putting my head in someone’s lap?

All but one of us made it to the end (and they only left because of a family emergency); I looked a little less shell-shocked when emerging for lunch in the second week than the first, and now we’re arranging catch-ups and group chats (the reunions will be challenging but not for psychological reasons; I’m the only non-Brit so I suspect I’ll be expected to travel, not them, though camping in my living room in Australia would be no more challenging than those 30 hours therapy).

So what did I learn?

I learnt to be humble. Well, a little.

I learnt what I think is enthusiasm and lust for life can be read as nervous energy. Sometimes it is.

Being vulnerable is scary—but not challenging yourself constantly risks bigger things. And it makes for deeper connections. After all, that is what we are wired for. I may not keep these new friends forever, but they were important connections in the overall trajectory of my life. I thank them for that.

I learnt (okay, I knew this already, but it was reinforced in such a clarifying way that I will never forget it) that one should never prejudge anyone—that when you know them deeply(well more than you know those casual friends that annoy you)—‘walk a moon in their moccasins’—then really, prejudice is virtually impossible.

None of this seems a bad thing. And I still got to eat Greek food, swim and have fun. Most of all I got to eat the best Greek pastry, ever, every day for two weeks.

 

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