Kurt Cobain: his part in my downfall

I remember where I was when Kurt Cobain died. That’s probably a little unusual for someone of my age, because I was ten years old at the time. I didn’t yet really listen to much music, but I was on a family holiday with cousins a few years older than me, in Majorca, in a wide sprawling villa with ceramic tiled floors and a walk-in pantry in which, one exciting day, we found a centipede.

A huge thunderstorm woke me up scratching in the middle of the night – surprise and eczema are not good friends at the age of ten – and I ripped my arms from elbow to wrist in one half-asleep double-scratch movement, and I couldn’t go back in the swimming pool after that. Instead I sat outdoors and read a book of short horror stories – not Goosebumps but in a similar vein – three times in a week because I’d not brought enough books with me. There was one story in particular about a girl who found a cursed ring that forced her to hear the exact thoughts of everyone around her, including the people who secretly hated her, and it eventually drove her mad.

My cousins were old enough to watch MTV in the cool room where the pool table was, and it was through them that I learned that Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of a band called Nirvana, who were pretty good, and that he’d died. I also learned about Beavis and Butthead. It was a pretty good spring holiday.

Somewhere around two years later I bought my first album. It was the Spawn soundtrack. I hadn’t seen the film but the cover looked really, really cool and it had bands I’d heard of making music with bands I hadn’t. I think on some level I figured that if every song was a remix, every song had two bands, so I’d get twice as much value for money. After that, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah was maybe my second or third purchase. I picked it up from a second-hand record store in York where my cousins lived. I was trying to be cool. Of course I was. I was 12.

I fell in love with that album. I listened to it over and over, poring over the lyrics in the CD insert, trying to understand how you took words like that and turned them into that sound: that rawness, that energy, that emotion. I started all backwards with Nirvana, so I was never really a Nevermind girl; eventually, when I’d picked up every album and gotten my friends to trade me tapes of bootleg tracks and B-sides, it was Bleach I loved the best. In Utero was too raw, too sad, too strange, too close to home. Nevermind was too popular, maybe, or perhaps just not energetic enough. I could jump around to Bleach. I could put on my massive 90s jeans and my skater chain, or my black miniskirt and my striped tights, and dance to it.

When I went to hospital my parents brought in CDs for me to listen to. They gave me a MiniDisc player for Christmas, the Christmas I spent on the adult psych ward, and I copied albums across to it so I could listen to them when I couldn’t sleep. I listened to a lot of In Utero that year. I put up a poster of Kurt Cobain on the noticeboard next to my bed, that one of him in jeans and a grey sweater with a gun in his hand, where he’s smiling. The music therapist taught me some basic chords on the guitar and I learned to play Polly, along with the chorus of “Why Does It Always Rain On Me” by Travis, because it used a lot of the same chords and it was always playing on the radio we had on in the dining room during most meals, to make the whole thing less weird for the anorexic patients.

When I was 14 or 15, I bought a huge long-sleeved T-shirt with the Nirvana acid smiley on the front and a slogan on the back: FLOWER SNIFFIN KITTY PETTIN BABY KISSIN ROCK N ROLL WHORES. I bought a dark colour to hide the blood, knowing there would be blood. These days, sometimes Grant wears it around the house, and I go short-sleeved.

I don’t listen to a lot of music these days. Sometime in my first or second year at university, about the time I stopped self-harming, I also stopped finding new music, and slowed down on listening to the things I’d always loved. Something about music rubs me raw, opens me up too much. I get emotional in ways that aren’t always comfortable, when the emotions come from the music – or from the past. When I made Detritus last year, I hadn’t listened to Nirvana specifically – deliberately, in the non-Spotify-random-playlist way where you actually listen to the music – in perhaps two years. I named each act after a Nirvana song, because that’s what was playing in my head when I was writing.

Turning 30

I never thought I’d get here.

I guess for some people that’s a rhetorical thing. That they always understand on some basic level that they’re going to eventually get to 30, barring some horrendous accident or creeping chronic unpleasantness that stops the heart more abruptly than it should be stopped. But me, I grew up with a creeping chronic unpleasantness inside my own head, and when I was younger it tried to kill me. A lot.

So I never really thought I’d get here, in the temporal sense. I certainly didn’t think I’d be here in the spatial sense: about as far from where I started as it’s possible to be on the earth, having an autumn birthday where the cockatoos live. It still surprises me most mornings, even after almost a year – not the fact of Australia itself, but how far it is from home, and yet how many people here have welcomed me with open arms. I’ve made games and art here with very good friends who, a year ago, I didn’t know. Friends who are going to be part of the rest of my life.

Our life. I would not be here without Grant, my husband, and his unending support and love. We tend not to be too soppy in public. But there it is: without him I would be somewhere, and someone, else.

And there is work, too. The Guardian’s Australian office changes every time I turn around, at the moment (literally – while I was on holiday someone took out half the offices and replaced them with more desks, to cope with the new folks we’re hiring). It’s busy, and stressful, and often puts me a long way outside my comfort zone. But it remains consistently the best place I’ve worked, and the most fun I’ve had at a job. I am impossibly lucky to have a job I enjoy, work that’s challenging and rewarding, and such good friends and family to share these things with. I am impossibly lucky to be here, and to be 30, despite thinking that would never happen.

Despite the heartache, the hours and the homesickness it has been, I think, the best year of my life. I have worked very hard to get here. Here’s to many more, and to believing that I’ll get there too.

 

Trigger warnings: a broken system with good intentions

This is an interesting thing: a New Review post that looks at the history and present of trigger warnings, and how they’ve moved out of communities online and into public life and spaces. If you don’t know what a trigger warning is, it’s essentially a note indicating that you might be about to encounter something upsetting, something that could negatively affect your psychological wellbeing; they’ve grown out of supportive communities in which people needed to carefully negotiate conversations about subjects that need to be spoken about, but that also could prove detrimental to readers’ health. The roots, however, aren’t quite as simple as the New Review piece paints it them:

Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. Some websites, like Bodies Under Siege, a self-injury support message board, developed systems of adding abbreviated topic tags—from SI (self injury) to ED (eating disorders)—to particularly explicit posts. As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use.

It’s rare to see an article on trigger warnings mentioning Bodies Under Siege, despite its early adoption of warnings as a way for its users to safeguard themselves. It’s a shame, then, that the piece skips over the ways trigger warnings were used there in the late 90s, when I was an active user. They were not a way for users with PTSD specifically to avoid harm; they were for all users – including those without mental health issues – to avoid subjects that could trigger them into unsafe behaviour, or that they didn’t have the mental energy to tackle. They were carefully considered and carefully enforced alongside a list of verboten things that mods would delete on sight: discussions of weights, calorie counts, numbers of self-inflicted wounds, images. Those things were not done lightly. Bodies Under Siege was a community of vulnerable people struggling with mental illnesses of various degrees, and it was built entirely around recovery and support. Trigger warnings and removal of things that could prompt ‘competitive’ behaviour were not courtesies. They were absolutely integral to the community’s existence.

I used a couple of other forums for people who self-harmed, in my teens. BUS was the one that did not make me worse. There’s a direct analogy between one of those forums and pro-anorexia communities; at its worst, it provided encouragement to hurt yourself, and at best it was simply reinforcing the behaviour, a reassurance that self-injury was an OK thing to do. It was not a healthy space. The second, though, tried to be about recovery, but allowed images and discussions of self-injury particulars. It was a deeply conflicted space, as a result: if you were feeling OK, you could quite easily end up feeling worse after a visit. If you were already feeling bad, you went there knowing it would most likely spiral downwards, playing Russian roulette with your feelings. You would, almost without doubt, stumble across something that would likely tip you from ‘maybe I could hurt myself’ into the act.

Trigger warnings on BUS made it safe from that concern. It was a place you could go while feeling awful to try to be strong. It had thread after thread of distraction games, little time-wasting things you could do to stave off the need to self-injure. It had questionnaires to fill in before you did it, drawn up by users and psych professionals, and questionnaires to fill in afterwards. It had resources for asking for treatment, for dealing with emergency care, for supporting others. It had safe spaces for parents, partners, carers to socialise. It had diary threads you could post in and read, if you were well enough, and those diaries came by convention with warnings about the content. If you didn’t want to engage with the illnesses of others, for fear of worsening your own, you did not have to.

Words cannot express how valuable trigger warnings were to me, or to many of the other users on BUS. Not just those with PTSD, or anxiety disorders, or specific trauma-related illnesses; not even just those who self-harmed or those with eating disorders; all of us who used that space benefitted from its policies on keeping us safe.

Trigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear. Those communities were closed, or at least only partially open; LiveJournal communities where membership rules could be enforced, forums and BBs where mods had control over members’ posts. Trigger warnings do not translate well to public spaces – Tumblr tags, Twitter, even Facebook groups, or some of the real-life scenarios mentioned in the New Review article – because those needs are different for the wider community. Interestingly, some Tumblr tags do take content warnings well – conventions have grown up around those tags, and those who transgress those conventions are essentially moderated out by the existing users. But there’s no system to support that, nothing to stop a sustained invasion, no way to organise that space to support that use.

But just as it is inadvisable to add trigger warnings to everything based on the possibility of harm, it’s just as inadvisable to remove them from everything based on disbelief in their effectiveness. In communities focussed on mental health and recovery, trigger warnings are absolutely necessary for users. Whether college classes, campuses or the Huffington Post need the same level of consideration is a valid question, for sure, but it’s one worth asking. If you want people with disabilities to be able to participate fully in your spaces, you’d better be thinking about accessibility in terms of triggers and mental wellbeing as well as wheelchair ramps and sign language. And that doesn’t always need to be in formal language: sometimes it’s as simple as editing a tweeted headline to include the word ‘distressing’, to give your followers the choice about what they click on.

The New Review piece concludes:

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

There is no way to stop every vulnerable person from coming across things that will make them more vulnerable. There is, however, courtesy and consideration, and a need for equal access for those with mental health issues. Those are not small things. There is a valuable, important baby being thrown out with this bathwater.

Why blog?

When I started this blog, blogs were dead exciting. They were the Future. They were New Media, and I was a new journalist, and I desperately loved working online. I wanted to throw myself into the exciting new future of online journalism as hard as I possibly could, so I did the best thing I could think of: I started writing about online journalism, as a sort of add-on to my day job, writing in the cracks. I read everything I could find. I used to get home after 10-hour days writing and demand my brain to produce something else, another few hundred words of analysis or a quick pointer to something else interesting on the internet that someone had said, because I thought it was hugely important.

It was. Honestly, it was. I treated it with such seriousness, and I’m pretty sure that without it I wouldn’t have moved on in the way that I have. Blogging made me, in some ways more than newsrooms did: blogging made me think about reaching specific audiences, it honed my research and collaboration skills, it made me capable of synthesising an argument in 500 words for humans (rather than 2,000 words for academics), it stopped me being scared of speaking my mind in public. What it did for me has been invaluable.

Then I moved on. I started work at the Guardian, and that has a certain chilling effect on writing: for one thing, I can’t use this blog to kvetch about minor work frustrations, because Private Eye exists. There’s a tendency for some people to think that if a journalist works for a national or international news organisation, their words in a personal space reflect back on that organisation. And there’s also the fact that a great many of the things I worked on at the Guardian have been the things I couldn’t work on back when I started out. There’s no need to come home and get fired up about online journalism when I can put that fire to action at work. That’s a very satisfying place to be.

But blogging matters. Late last year, inspired by Adam Tinworth, I tried to blow the dust off this place and pick up the pace a little: I forced myself to write about something every day for ten days. Sometimes games, sometimes journalism, sometimes politics, sometimes creative work, sometimes criticism, sometimes just notes – a broader palette than the one I started with, and perhaps a more mature one. (Perhaps a more confusing one; I’ve stopped trying to separate those parts of my life, because each of them informs all of the others, but if you’re looking for a single-subject blog I can imagine the combination can be strange.)

Since then I’ve slacked off somewhat, but since the new year started I’ve been trying to write posts with ideas in them, thoughts or analysis or at least contextualising a link to something else. One a week at least, on top of the weekly Pocket Lint email. In fact, that Pocket Lint links post every Saturday is a deliberate strategy to force myself to write more: I don’t want my blog to only consist of links posts, like the Delicious-powered graveyards that scattered the web a few years back, when everyone stopped writing and just auto-posted links instead.

Adam’s currently doing another challenge: one month of 500-word posts, substantive things, every day. He linked to this post on writing yourself into existence:

Once you have a blog you notice more, you start to think “I might write about this on my blog” “What do I want to say?” “What will people’s reaction be?”. Over time you get better at noticing and the better at noticing you get the more noticed you get! You end up in the wonderful collective web of “Oooh that’s interesting” which I now wouldn’t ever want to be without.

That’s right. When I wasn’t blogging, I wasn’t thinking about what I read in the same way. Now, finding myself falling out of the habit after a couple of months, that’s a useful reminder to keep writing, to keep sharing what I find interesting, as much for the process of finding, thinking, synthesising and creating as for publishing the end result. Blogging’s been very good for me. I should be doing it more.

The generosity of governments

It’s not possible to make an infallible system.

If you support the death penalty in practice, on some level, you have to decide that a certain number of innocent lives are a price worth paying for the state to kill guilty people. You can support the principle but oppose the practice – as some do – because it is impossible in practice to create a system which only, ever, executes the guilty and spares the innocent. The more you try to ensure the innocent are spared, the more guilty people also avoid punishment. A perfect system of perfect judgements is impossible in the real world.

No system can sort with 100% accuracy between the deserving and undeserving, either for assistance or for punishment. There will always be borderline cases, those attempting to cheat the system, those whose circumstances are not neat or clean. Most systems are set up to assume a certain leeway, with the exception of those systems set up by states to help their people – or those wanting to become their people.

In the UK, the government has decided that no level of assistance should be given to anyone who does not fit increasingly strict criteria of need. It does not matter how many people with genuine needs are hurt in the pursuit of its desire; if one person who might just about be able to cope without benefits receives benefits, that is one too many. No matter that by tightening the system the government is actively hurting many, many times more people than it’s justifiably excluding from assistance – that is, fundamentally, the point. And the war of words in the popular imagination is won by convincing people that there are so many more undeserving than deserving welfare recipients, and that the pain is therefore proportionate.

But of course it is not. In striving to ensure that only people who most desperately need help ever receive it, the government cuts programs that help everyone. It sees the extra help given to disadvantaged people as an unequal and unnecessary expense, and so guts programs designed to ensure equality of opportunity. It is OK to hurt people who need help, the reasoning goes, so long as you don’t accidentally help anyone.

In Australia, the war is over asylum seekers. On one hand, there are supposedly queues of people waiting to get into Australia; asylum seekers with the proper documentation, who board planes and wait patiently for their chance to come here. On the other, there are people so desperate that they board unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers in the belief it would be better to drown than stay where they are. We are meant to believe that by punishing the latter, the former will benefit. We are meant to believe that it is not worth helping a single person who has come by boat. We are meant to believe that state assistance is a zero sum game, that what’s mine is mine and asylum seekers are Others. We are meant to believe that the country is giving something away when it takes in those desperate enough to risk drowning to live here, not gaining something. We are meant to believe that the only choice is between deaths at sea and deaths in detention, as though stopping the boats is more important than stopping the suffering, the desperation, the human misery that lies behind every journey to these shores.

I don’t think I am useless to Australia. Australia doesn’t think so either; I’m one of the good ones. I’m a temporary economic migrant, not a permanent refugee. I have knowledge skills that this country thinks are worth the cost of my admittance. I don’t really need to live in Australia. So the government has made it remarkably easy for me to choose to do so. It makes sure I can have my husband with me. It offers me healthcare arrangements, because my home country would do the same thing. As long as I am working and do not need further help, Australia is very happy to have me.

Of course it is, because I don’t need help. There is no room in this equation for political solutions that admit the possibility that it might be OK to help a few people who are two degrees above the breadline, if it ensures that a greater number of those below the breadline get that help too. There’s no room for generosity or for compassion, no room for the idea that it is better to make it easy for those who need help to get it than to make it hard for those who do not. And so, slowly but surely, governments act more and more like banks offering loans. They offer assistance only to those who can prove they do not need it, and leave those who need it most to drown.

Making Horde, and stalling

Last November, I started telling a few people about a new game I’m making. It’s called Horde, and it’s very much an experiment. It started out as a proof-of-technology for a different project, which I want to work in a very specific way; I wanted to see if I could get Twine to do certain things with loops and time-based variables, and to use a different project to learn. Something that would give me a tangible thing to play and to work on, while also learning new skills.

But as it grew and got more ambitious, Horde started to make sense in its own right. It’s an incremental game, a sort of text-based Cookie Clicker, in which you build a horde of barbarians and send them out on increasingly peculiar errands. It’s a tricky thing to build, mechanically, especially if you’ve got no experience of coding, but macros and new features in Twine make it possible to build this sort of thing on the shoulders of work done by other excellent people who know what they’re doing.

So I put it up as an alpha build. And suddenly people were playing it and telling me about it – giving me incredibly useful bug reports that helped me sort out some tricky problems, but also suggesting new avenues for development, giving me ideas, being excited about what was coming next.

That’s an incredible feeling, by the way. It’s a gift, when people play your unfinished work and give you thoughtful responses. Not all the feedback is always useful but the fact that anyone cares enough to offer it is a sign of support for what you’re doing, and that was enough to tell me that Horde is worth carrying on with, worth trying to turn into something finished, or at least vaguely feature-complete. (Whatever that means.)

I started putting up a new build every week, or trying to. I started making sure that I gave it a little time, a couple of hours at the weekend or an evening, and that time started to expand. I put up little incremental tweaks, and then a few bigger updates, and then found myself rewriting it to make the coding less weird and icky now that I understood more about what I was doing. Then, in the middle of an attempt to make a particularly sticky system, in a problem to which there’s no right answer that will make it work perfectly how I want it to, I hit a wall.

I stalled. I’m still stalled, a month later. I hit a page full of red errors, and instead of trying to fix it, I walked away. I’m not massively proud of that reaction. All that work is still there – all those hours I’ve poured into it have made a solid base to build on – but I hit a problem that felt insurmountable and as yet I’ve not managed to pull it apart into small enough chunks to work on.

Learning to code is hard, especially when you have no directed support; learning anything around the edges of a more-than-full-time, stressful and pressured job is even more difficult. Creating things when you spend a substantial part of your work day creating is tricky, too. Tiredness creeps in. Things distract you. Often, and perfectly legitimately, it’s quite nice to stop working, even when that work is self-chosen and self-directed.

But I can find time, or I can make time, if it’s what I really care about. That’s always been true. Horde is something I care about making, even though it’s a very silly game and a draftwork, because enough other people thought it was worth playing and talking about. Hopefully by this time next week it’ll be at least a couple more hours closer to completion. Even if that’s all, that’s a start.

Make new year habits, not resolutions

I don’t make new year resolutions any more, because I always break them. But I do try to make new habits every year, and the start of January is a good time to take stock.

It takes quite a long time to make a new habit. The commonly-cited 21 days claim is most likely a myth, but it’s possible – it just takes a little longer, and the length of time is different for everyone.

Most of the resolutions people make are really about changing habits. Write every day, get fit, eat healthily, stop smoking – when you turn them into resolutions, breaking them becomes a trigger to stop trying. That’s setting yourself up to fail. But turning them into habits makes them an ongoing project that can cope with some setbacks.

Changing the timeframe helps too. Instead of “exercise every weekday starting tomorrow”, I went with: by the summer, I would like to be someone who exercises more days than not, more weeks than not. That’s not a grand resolution, and it’s not a sudden change; it was a slow process, but so far – two years on – a sustainable one.

Grand sweeping changes take time. They’re incremental processes created not from one single decision, but from hundreds and hundreds of small ones. They have to be, when it comes to changing what you do every day or every week, because they also involve changing who you are. Changing your personality overnight is more often the result of trauma than positive self-directed life changes.

What new year’s resolutions are really about isn’t rigid adherence to new behaviour patterns. They’re about becoming a slightly different person by the time the next new year rolls around. They’re climate, not weather, and what matters is your trajectory.

The most important habit I want to keep in 2014 is the relatively new discipline of making games, regularly releasing them, and using the process to learn new skills. And the most important new habit I want to have by this time next year is writing and publishing something, however small, more days than not. I’m starting as I mean to go on.

13 moments, 2013

The Trial

Cards from The Trial I am wearing a blue polo-neck shirt and a charity shop brown cord skirt and I am Fiona, a spotlight shining in my eyes, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in the Science Museum in London, being interrogated. Maybe three or four hundred people have interrogated me so far today, and I have answered the same series of adversarial questions with the same series of answers and the same series of hand gestures, pleading my innocence.

Then one woman with brown hair and a serious face sits down in front of me, her face level with mine or even a little below it, to ask her questions without interrogation. I can see her eyes. She is concerned and gentle. Around her, one by one, the other adults who have come to discover this world sit down too, like five-year-olds at the feet of a schoolteacher, and I lean down and tell them Fiona’s story, but this time with relief.

The call

My dad has come to visit me. He is in London for a few hours for a meeting that has him dressed smartly, suit and tie, but he looks smaller than I remember him. He has cancer. That word circles in the air but we do not speak it. I show him the wall where the next day’s newspaper is beginning to take shape, the room where we have morning conferences, the newsdesk. Someone asks if he is lost and I say no.

We are sitting in the cafeteria and talking about surgery and my phone vibrates on the table between us. I can read enough of the email to know that I need to open it. I open it and I am going to Australia. My dad looks at my face and asks me who died. I tell him I have been asked to go to Australia. It is the first time his smile reaches his eyes.

The partingsFriends

We take a break from the planning, the packing, the preparations. More people than I can count turn up to wish me happy birthday and to wish us both safe travels. Friends from five cities come. I cannot spend time with everyone I need to see. We empty out the 20-kilo bag of boiled sweets left over from last year’s games onto the varnished table in the upstairs room at the pub at the end of our road. We talk endlessly. I know I am going to miss these people, the family I have chosen. I have no idea how much.

The landing

It is ten hours since our plane landed. It is thirty-five since it took off. It is fifty since I last slept. I am standing in an underground room with twenty other people who have had much more sleep than Grant and I. I am at a university with a cup of tea in my hand looking at a grid map of London made from rope and nametags on the floor, working out which bits need water before they burn. Later I will make a paper sculpture before a new friend drives us to a new home and we eat kebabs and fall asleep on the sofa.

LorikeetsRainbow lorikeets

I am standing in Sydney botanic gardens in front of a tree full of rainbow birds that I never in my life thought I would see in the wild, and I am weeping.

Moving in

It is dark. The new ninth-floor flat has windows on two sides and outside the city is tall and filled with wonder. We turn off our lights and stand with music playing, his arms around me, looking at the bright windows in the tall buildings and the lights glittering on the far side of the harbour. I fall asleep still staring out of the window and dream I am on a ship.

LaunchChocolate echidna

On the way to work I listen to Run Boy Run. All day it rings in my ears.  We are in the morning papers roundup, despite not being a paper. Kath is on TV and I know before I see it because the graph spikes. People welcome us. By teatime I have more messages than I can respond to, than I can even read. The numbers tick up and up.

On the way home 15 hours later I listen to no music and hold a chocolate echidna in my hot hands. Grant meets me in the park and I give it to him to eat.

SaturdayThe Guardian

One week after the election. Last week we went out in 30-degree heat to a local school, where instead of dusty booths and queues there was a fair and saxophonists and bouncy castles and four different options of sausages in buns. The campaign is over. I am taking a day off, or I would be, but we have a story. I sit in the corner of our too-springy sofa while Grant plays a console game and I push buttons and pull levers and post messages and watch as a 4,500-word essay published on a Saturday morning becomes our most read story thus far, and I am proud.

Freeplay

I am on a stage talking about Detritus and class and gender, and no one heckles me. All weekend no one tells me I should not be there. My games count as games. My journalist’s background does not exclude me from any conversations, nor does my live game design work, nor do my many other backgrounds. I am a whole person who does and is many different things and none of those things must be excluded for me to participate, here. I eat sushi with people I only know from the internet and play games projected onto the floors and walls. It feels like coming home. And people play Detritus and tell me it moves them, and I am proud.

Octoberbeach

The work days begin to blur together, starting early and finishing late, too many exciting moments and too much to do, all of the time. It becomes routine. At times – between fires that blot out the sun and the screeching of the enormous bats – I almost forget we are on the other side of the world.

Then for a brief week the routine stops. Our closest friend visits, impossibly, and we take him to visit our Sydney: sunshine, the gardens, the beaches, the roof. We wake up each day with a new plan. Walking Darling Harbour, dumplings in Chinatown, kebabs in Manly, the ferry; a day doing nothing but sitting in, playing games, like old times when we used to live together. When he leaves I am broken, as though we have just left home a second time.

CairnsGreen island

There is rainforest. There is birdsong and the beach and my parents visit. My dad is walking well. We swim and eat and watch the great blue butterflies lazily flap along the gully. There are turtles.

Valkyriesride1

Everyone in this smoky room is intensely serious. We are all holding cardboard swords and axes, held aloft, pointed at one another: a battlefield. As the music begins and the Valkyries ride – plastic helmets, blonde wigs, cardboard hobby horses – we battle heroically in slow motion. I dodge a blade, twirl low, bring my axe up to strike as my opponent leaps sideways out of the way. I am tapped on one shoulder, called to die, and I die in the most epic fashion I can muster at the hands of a giggling 12-year-old boy, gurgling on the smoke-covered floor in a small room in St Kilda.

Christmas

There is no turkey. It rains too much to go to the beach. We play Netrunner for hours, eat smoked salmon sandwiches, visit new friends, talk endlessly in the rain. Three days later, in short sleeves and flip flops, we walk from a friend’s house to the bus stop. The pub opposite is festooned with ridiculous Christmas lights. One looks like a car on fire. It takes us five minutes to work out it is Santa, in traditional summer gear, handing out gifts from the back of a truck.

Note to self, aged 15

The JCARN prompt this month is to write a letter to your 15-year-old self. Well.

It gets better.

This will be the mantra of your coming years. This will be what guides you, what gets you up in the morning and gets you to sleep, eventually, late at night. This will be the phrase you cut out of newspaper letters and paste on your walls in seven different places you call home. This will be the only thing you believe without empirical evidence, not because it is pleasant but because you have already seen the alternative, where it was worse, and that is no longer an option.

It gets better.

You will crawl out of the hell of the depression you live in now. You will eventually discover other ways to contain the fire inside you that has you tearing at yourself. You will learn to name your emotions, and you will learn that they cannot, must not, be excised. You will learn to budget, to cook, to clean. You will find yourself laughing from time to time. Between the drama, somehow, you will pass exams.

It gets better.

You will leave the shattered remnants of your teenage years and flee to a new city, where you will fall in love, and out of love, and in love again more permanently. You will discover talents, and interests, and the Cow Tower on the river bend. You will learn to think in systems as well as stories. You will not sleep, until eventually the nightmares recede. You will learn to eat. You will learn to work. You will learn that you are valuable and worthy of respect. You will sometimes believe it.

It gets better.

You will move. You will grow. You will find London and, within it, friends. You will make things – games, poems, stories. You will smile almost every day. You will no longer need to make lists of what is good in the world. You will know it in your bones. You will work well in a job that makes you happy. You will play well in a world that makes you happy. You will create muscles where once was skin and bone. You will still have bad days, but they will be rare and nowhere near as bad as they once were. You will fly half way around the world and a lorikeet will crash into your window.

But first, before it gets better, it gets worse.

You will decide there is no purpose, no future, nothing of worth to you, and you will try to destroy yourself. You will not succeed. You will see out the millennium with a glass of fake champagne in an NHS medium-security ward, a nurse at arm’s length. There will not be fireworks. You will get birthday cards from the other patients. You will punch walls until your fists bleed. You will lie on the carpet and not make your bed and only emerge from your room for coffee. You will not take your hat off for five months. But slowly, you will take your first steps toward believing what I now know to be true.

It gets better.

Turtles

Snorkel and mask

The night before my parents arrive, I almost do not go out for dinner. At midday I send the email I dread sending but that seems to be required regardless, at regular intervals: hello, I am a little mad today and may be unable to participate in our scheduled social interaction.

Those emails don’t really get easier to write. Every time it is a disappointment. It means I tend not to commit to seeing people, because I would rather avoid the shame and stress of pulling out, admitting in front of friends that yes, I am still mad, I am not better yet and I may never be, even though I do what I do and I seem so terribly together and efficient, and so on. It is still galling. There is still shame. I still hate letting people down. So I send the email just in case, because cancelling six hours ahead is better than one, if I don’t improve.

In the end I go out, but not before a minor emotional meltdown in the street after I leave the office. Grant holds my shoulders and reassures me the world is not an awful place. I take a deep breath or three and board a train and then I am committed, and in the end it is an excellent evening and I am not too mad after all.

I am up to my waist in sea water and Grant is standing in front of me, holding my shoulders, reminding me that the world is not an awful place. We can see the beach from the villa we have taken for a week just north of Cairns, just past Deadman’s Gully nature reserve, past the signs that warn of crocodiles and the pole full of vinegar in case of marine stingers. There is a white-bounded net that bobs up and down on the water and, in theory, keeps out the monsters that might twine tentacles around your legs and hurt you. The water is thick with sand and I cannot see my feet below the surface. Grant is in front of me and I take one step at a time, deeper into the water. Eddies swirl around my knees.

The panic hits me in waves. Thick clotting brain-scrambling panic, the sort that makes you strike out for shore and say cruel things to make the fear end, followed by lulls of maybe-time. Waves of no — no — no — I cannot, then it eases into a chorus of well — perhaps. I can imagine myself leaving the house. I can picture myself dressed, opening a door. If I can imagine that much perhaps — perhaps I can be a normal human being for a night. I can imagine myself swimming in this warm, cloudy water under such astonishing sky. I can.

The lull occurs. I say: “Follow me. Now. Before I change my mind.” And I turn towards the far edge of the net and I swim. Powered by panic and perseverance I kick harder and faster than he can keep up with, and I make it out to the net, a monstrous thing that catches at my legs but that I am expecting and so do not scream about. I turn and I make for shore as the panic begins to rise again, catching a wave and putting my legs under myself and striding out of the sea.

The water off Green Island is clear blue and warm in the morning. It takes me a few tries to successfully breathe through the snorkel, as I keep holding my breath and expecting to drown. Then I manage, eventually, to duck down and hold myself steady, kicking slowly and gliding through water clear as air, parting a shoal of fish the size of my palm that kick alongside me out to the deeper water. Grant calls me over and shows me a hermit crab, scuttling along the bottom; there are big broad fish in ones and twos. I am thinking: this is pretty awesome, all these fish right here.

Then we go deeper, out to one of the dark patches that litter the sea floor. First it is seaweed and a few scattered fish, then suddenly it is like flying over a forest. There are more fish than I can see in one go. I have to compartmentalise, looking first at things on one side and then on the other, else I will miss something. Yellow and black, orange and blue. An electric blue starfish the size of my arm. Beneath it all, the coral: branches and balls, limestone structures built for monsters to live in. When we swim to shore Grant chases a manta ray between the waves.

In the afternoon, though, the water is deeper. Colder. Currents rush across our bodies, eddy around my knees. A raft of seaweed floats on top of the waves, which are bigger now, clouding the water and making it harder to see. I get frightened. I stop trusting my body to carry me and I stop trusting the sea. Soon I am struggling with my snorkel, because hyperventilating through a tube underwater is even more problematic than doing it on dry land. I make it out to the coral but I am scared of the seaweed clinging to me and dragging at my skin. I try but I do not succeed in seeing much else of wonder; I am too afraid. Grant holds my shoulders and I cling to him in the water, scared of moving, scared of not moving, willing myself suddenly to become able to teleport or levitate or simply not feel this ridiculous rushing chaotic gut-wrenching panic any more. Eventually I am just saying the word “phobia” over and over into my snorkel as though by naming it I will be able to make it stop. We decide to swim back for shore.

And then there it is. I duck my head under the waves and there it is: a turtle the size of Grant’s torso, perhaps a metre below me, sculling one fin at a time out to sea. I make the sort of strangled yelping noise that generally denotes drowning but manage to signal to Grant that, no, I’m OK, but look: turtle. TURTLE. Through a snorkel, I explain. And we turn tail together and, holding each other in sight, we follow the turtle. We swim back out into deep water, through the mass of surface seaweed I could not break before. I am terrified, but the turtle is more important. We follow and follow until looming out of the dark water beneath there is another turtle, treading water, patiently waiting, and the two of them together slowly, gracefully paddle their way out to sea.