Rapid hope loss.

Strap yourself in. This is a long one. TW/CW: suicide, rape, sexual assault, depression, anxiety, grief, food mentions, death, menstruation, surgery and medical tests, sexuality.

It’s cold and rainy today. I love the rain, the sound of it calms me down and watching it distracts me from whatever is on my mind. I also love the cold which is a controversial opinion, I know. I love being cuddled up with no pants on watching documentaries and the release of a steaming hot shower at the end of the day. I have a cup of hot tea. Chamomile and spiced apple – my favourite. I have plans to bake muffins, then watch a movie with popcorn and my apartment is sparkling clean. It’s Saturday, I have nothing pressing to do except rest and enjoy my own company because I got a mountain of work done last week. The gentle strum of Majozi is wooing me in the background. Above all, I am safe and healthy in a world that is dangerous and sick.

Like a happy plant, I am in all the right conditions to thrive and grow.

And yet.

At the moment, all I want is a whisper in a world that always shouts. Right now my mind is shouting all the time, while the world screams. There is no hint of a whisper anywhere. I know that this darkness could mean that I’ve been planted and it’s time to grow, but recently it feels like I’ve been buried. So many cheesy metaphors, I know!

I recently took ~2 weeks off social media. I know it seems self absorbed and “millennial” to announce my departure and return, but I somehow have an online presence and I have a menagerie of wonderful friends and supporters. Also, it is important for me to set a public boundary so that I would feel self-pressured into maintaining it. I knew I needed a break but kept making excuses to put it off, that’s addiction. I also recognise what an enormous privilege it is to be able to disengage from a world that people live and suffer in every day and I don’t really have a way to reconcile that privilege except that I took time off so I could keep fighintg. To be honest, I was essentially doomscrolling all day, every day. I’m not sure if it was doomscrolling because I agreed with every single thing I saw people posting, but it was the same negative feedback loop of bad news. And I am deeply aware that there isn’t much good news at the moment, but I realised I was using it as a way to negate what was happening in my life, which is unhealthy. I also was becoming distraught over what to post and when, as BLM left the news cycle but has not slowed down or lost significance, and anything I posted would be shadowed by the limelight on the US election. Nothing seemed appropriate and I still felt the pressure to have a presence. I’ve also put myself in a position where I use my Instagram to post about things like decolonisation and dissing academia and those posts take hours, immense anxiety and a lot of depressing thoughts to compile, but I was starting to feel like people were expecting it of me (even if they weren’t, #thanksanxiety). I was also getting frustrated that my post on decolonisation was so popular and so many people talked to me about it and I felt like I was making a change, but then proceeded to see the same people not take the opportunity to decolonise their Instagram posts. It was frustrating and it was not my place to call it out. Overall, there was a lot of self imposed pressure and a borderline addiction. As you can see, the beginning of a spiral.

My personal life has also been a hot mess. The last 6 months have been plagued by health problems, painful personal growth and exhaustion. In July, I lost all my jobs. One was lost through nepotism and one was lost because casual staff from the top university in Australia with the most capital got dumped in a time of need (to their own detriment). The PhD stipend I am now living on is half the minimum wage and my Mum can’t afford to support me (nor should she have to), and among everything else I am desperately applying for jobs but unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot going during a global pandemic. It also means I am not able to take a break from my PhD because it’s my only income, and I am not eligible for any government support because of it. Applying for jobs is an unexpected but huge weight and pressure that arrived in my life suddenly and has taken precedent. Living below the poverty line is something I lived with for almost all my life, and I thought I was safe from being here again but I was not. I wouldn’t wish money insecurity on anyone. I am lucky to be able to scrape by on the stipend, but it is difficult, especially as medical bills start piling up. It is constantly on my mind as my savings start to dwindle and I can no longer participate in things that make me happy because I can’t afford it. I can only hope that I hear back from a job soon, or it will be this way until February when I can ~maybe~ teach again. A stress nevertheless.

I guess this leads nicely to the elephant I’ve placed in the room – my health. I honestly feel like my body is crumpling out from under me. Where to start? I have the beginnings of arthritis in my back, the result of an old injury when my brother threw and pinned me on the floor with his full weight when I was a teenager. The pain is reasonably constant and I have to save to see a physio ($$$) to help. Arthritis in my back at age 26 does not bode well for me. I am also in the middle of switching anti-depressants, which is a very rough time. My old doctor put me on a medication that is used for older people and people with insomnia and while it is an anti-depressant, it is primarily a sedative. I have been on it for over 2 years. The only reason I came to question it is because for the first time in years, my iron levels are adequate but I couldn’t feel the difference from 8 months ago when I had absolutely no iron in my body at all (not an exaggeration, I was probs eligible to go for the Guinness World Record) . That’s pretty significant. The sleeping for 10-12 hours, the constant exhaustion, the weight gain, waking up with half the spoons I should have – almost all of it comes down to this pill I have been taking every night. While I am excited to be trying a new kind, changing anti-depressants is fucking rough. And there’s no remedy for it. And there’s no guarantee that the next one will help. Mental health truly is a rollercoaster that you can’t get off and I see now that I really have been in a major depressive episode for several months, and I want to get off this particularly horror rollercoaster. I am exhausted all the time and every single thing I do zaps my energy quickly and for a long ass time. I am tired of being tired. Speaking of, I’ve been diagnosed with both Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Endometriosis. In the meeting with the Endo surgeon, I was also diagnosed with Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which is essentially a very serious version of PMS. It explains why once a month, I fall into a cycle of suicidal ideation, extreme irritability and random bouts of crying. It really is a testament to the patriarchal hold over women’s healthcare that this is a huge problem for a lot of women but was only recently listed as a diagnosis, and that I thought being suicidal for a week every month was normal. My new anti-depressants are meant to help a lot with PMDD, so there is hope. Also having an explanation as to why my periods are so excruciating is nice. I look forward to potentially not dreading my period as much because at the moment, cramps are bad enough that I need to pull over the car and scream. The idea of having exploratory surgery is not great, especially as an anxious fat person, but it is necessary. It also means I have had to start on pain mitigation and hormonal regulators to help, all the extra pills are starting to add up and add to my money stress. BUT, my skin is lookin real good – small wins! On top of everything else, I’ve had to see a specialist about my optic nerves that are inflamed which is expensive af and will require an MRI in a few weeks. Also, just for fun, my last round of blood tests showed indications either of diabetes or hypothyroidism (more likely) which I need more tests for. It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming to think about.

I have found an amazing doctor, truly she is a diamond in a sea of coal and everyday I am grateful for her. She listens to me, she actions my problems and she is kind. But something that has really taken a toll on me is the sheer energy and trauma of having so many invasive tests. I’ve had a pap smear, pelvic ultrasounds, X-rays, more blood tests than I can count (many of which require multiple stabs and a lot of fat shaming), I have had to explain the intricate details of my menstruation and body to multiple people…hell, last week I had my fuckin eyeballs dilated for 6 hours for a 30 second test. My therapist was quick to remind me that even for a normal person, it’s unpleasant and it’s a lot to handle but it’s a lot for me. I am a survivor of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. I hate people I don’t know being near my body, I especially hate them touching it and it makes me beyond anxious, sometimes the idea even makes me nauseous. And I have to keep putting myself through it, having people touch my body and do new things and ask me deeply personal questions is overwhelming. I know it is necessary and will eventually lead to some answers (hopefully) but it doesn’t get easier and it is getting harder to not let it impede the whole day or week that I have to get the tests. My bodily autonomy feels like it is slipping away and for me, it is something I can’t lose control of or I fear I will regress into old problems and old ways of managing them. It is always on my mind…always. Especially as the idea of exploratory laparoscopic surgery looms.

I guess that is a shining neon sign leading into the next big thing in my life. Fat acceptance and radical body positivity. It has been something I’ve been working on since 2018 but every step forward is a huge amount of work, and constantly at the risk of being pushed two steps back. Surrounding myself with fat positive people, and being able to bring the people I love up with me is wonderful. It’s a part of my personal growth that I’m really happy with, but has also exposed me to the insidious depths and darkness of fatphobia and the hold the patriarchy has over women’s and gender non-conforming bodies. It makes me white hot with rage, but then I see so many amazing women and non-binary people fearlessly living their lives to spite those people. I want to be them, and some days I am, but others I fall into old habits of hating myself and the kindness towards myself and my soft body that I have fought so hard for is gone. Oscillating between the two is exhausting but slowly, I spend more and more time on not caring and loving the skin I’m in. But the harsh thoughts, and every unwarranted comment made about my body sits in the shadows. When I look back, I have made an enormous amount of progress. Five years ago I would never wear shear shirts, short skirts or crop tops and now I do, every day without fear. I would never wear my hair out because I hated the curls, I would never go running in a singlet because I was afraid of people looking at me jiggle. But I am fat because I want to be and because fat is normal, I have many aspects working against losing weight but even so, all bodies are worthy of love and all bodies are worthy of acceptance. Food, for most of my life, has been the only thing I have full control over. It has brought me comfort, and given me autonomy when I had none and I just love to cook and eat. I shouldn’t be shamed for that, and it shouldn’t be weaponised against me, so I won’t let it anymore. I will eat what and when I want, and I will enjoy it. And I will continue to do exercise I like when I want to. The entire power of that belongs to me and to me only. The body has carried me through so much, physically and emotionally, so who am I to deny it the unconditional love and kindness that it deserves for doing so? I owe this empowerment to Black women who started and are now actively excluded from this movement, but I see them coming back stronger, fatter and better than I ever and I for one, am extraordinarily privileged to benefit from their fight but also watch their rise to their rightful throne. By surrounding myself with accepting content (e.g. I Weigh podcast by Jameela Jamil, literally every single thing Stephanie Yeboah does etc) I am making waves in my own perception of myself, and embracing the unconditional love and support of good people and cutting off the toxic ones has been instrumental to that.

For a long time, I thought about cutting off my brother. He is the epitome of toxic masculinity and most of my body dysphoria is because of him. My whole life he beat me, he belittled me, he picked on every little thing he thought was a flaw. I grew up constantly wanting his approval and his affection (#thankspatriarchy) but as I got older, the more I realised that I did not love him and family is not the most important thing. Why should I try and love someone who treats me like the dirt they walk on? So, I cut him off. I haven’t spoken to him for over a year, and I refuse to talk about him with the rest of my family. This year, I am choosing to spend Christmas with friends and I look forward to enjoying my holidays for the first time since I can remember. This is a positive and this is a revelation for me. While my Mum has been accepting and supportive of my decision, I don’t think she’s absorbed that this is permanent and I never plan on seeing him again. Cutting him off has been the most cathartic relief, even if he hasn’t noticed, I’ve given myself permission to outgrow him and move on to bigger and better things. To further myself even more from him (and to an extent, my sister) and most importantly, from my father – I am changing my last name to my Mums. Some people have made snide comments about it, because I will be Rachael Gross and Gross is apparently something to laugh at. But for me it symbolises my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who gave me my intelligence and passion for science. It does not symbolise the trauma I have from a man who hurt everyone in my family, who’s sticky fingers are still all over everything I do despite being dead. When he died, I grieved for years. I was mad at him, I was upset that I was robbed of a father, and never really managed to comprehend how his behaviour had a domino affect on the behaviour of my family. My Mum raised me, she is the reason I am where I am and it is her name that will be on everything I do and publish from now on. This feels like a huge move, and I have to save up to do it but I think it’s the start of a new chapter in my life. It feels like it, and feels like it’s about time. But it has required a lot of reliving memories, and a lot of personal affirmation. It feels right.

It also feels right to be delving into the option of exploring my sexuality. I have only spoken about this in passing to two close friends, and I really don’t think this is me ~coming out~ so much as realising that heterosexuality is pretty outdated and I don’t think I fit in that box. I have so much trauma, emotional and physical, from men – especially cis/het white men that I just don’t think I’ll ever able to fully work past. Nor should I have to. I have begun making room for men like that in my life as friends, but romantically speaking, I am a long way away from going beyond there. I also started to realise it was not just white men that I felt this way about. Just from a physical perspective, I get anxious and shaky when I am around men who I don’t know. I have not been given a reason to not fear them, and many, many reasons to. I also grew up desperate to not find even more ways to be different. I grew up in a place that was not accepting of different. People of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and atypical people were not accepted, so I think I internalised a lot of that for a very long time. It’s recently occurred to me that I do find people who aren’t cis/het white men attractive, and I am now open to exploring that. I don’t feel the need to label it and I don’t feel the need to tell people about, it is something that I am approaching myself but it is formative, and it’s a big move for me. Despite being a very active LGBTQIA+ ally for a very long time, there are a lot of internalised perspectives and behaviours that I need to unlearn and relearn. In fact, it seems to be like that for most things I’ve spoken about. My whole life, I’ve been told by the society I live what it is right and what is wrong, and being a thin, white, heterosexual women is right and everything else is wrong. Pffft. Every kind of body, every gender and every sexuality is right. I just need to learn to apply the kindness that I constantly affirm my loved ones with…to myself. Please believe me when I say that I fully comprehend how privileged I am to be able to explore my sexuality, know that if I put a label on it, it would largely be accepted without question by the people that matter and that “coming out” isn’t a big deal for me at the moment. I have reflected on it endlessly and am deeply grateful to be in this position.

I guess trying to navigate this amongst everything else going on in the world is why I am feeling overwhelmed. The very type of people I talk about cutting off and labelling toxic are the ones in charge and have power. Living in a global pandemic, and a global economic depression and trying to process the violent evidence of global climate change…it’s a lot for everyone. It’s also just straight up not a good time being Jewish right now. Nazis are back, hate crimes are back and it’s hard to feel safe. Working in an area like decolonisation and having a voice and a say when I shouldn’t is conflicting. I have the voice and I should use it, but the microphone should be with Indigenous peoples but when they have it, no one listens. Doing research on elephants and trying to tell people that local communities should be the ones managing them feels like an argument I shouldn’t be having, like should it not be reality? Working in this space feels like constantly running into walls, which is literally nothing compared to what Indigenous peoples experience daily. Being a scientist and seeing the state of the world makes it look real bleak. The world is being run by and for rich, white, cis/het, old, conservative men and it’s just getting worse. Especially as a climate change scientist. Climate change has been affecting minority communities for decades and now it’s intensifying and affecting everyone and so it’s becoming a hot topic (and hot tip: irreversible climate change isn’t 7 years away, it is now) but people still choose not to believe it. It’s hard to stay optimistic. We have to cling to little shreds of hope when we can find it. I’m also struggling to see the people I love and cherish all fight their own battles of so many kinds, with so little that I can do. It’s killing me. Also, for the first time in my life, I’ve felt like I haven’t been able to make space to help my friends with their problems because mine were so overbearing and taking up all my energy and time and that has plagued me like nothing else.

One last thing that I want to touch on is my PhD. My last blog covered a little bit how I was feeling about my fieldwork being cancelled, but I came to the conclusion that I can’t put into words the gravity of my loss. I am triggered so easily by seeing people who are in Africa, by seeing people around elephants and constantly thinking “that should be me”. Also still seeing so many white people not focussing on locals and continuing to colonise and pay for parachute science. But I should be there right now, I should be in Mozambique surrounded by elephants. I had so much riding on that trip, it got me through so much. I did a PhD to go to Africa to do my fieldwork, specifically. I dedicated 3-4 years of my life to this program and my reason has been stripped from me. Among everything, I haven’t grieved properly. That is blindingly clear to me. Every day, I get a bit further from going to Africa. I feel like an academic fraud, living on the East Coast of Australia and researching a species thousands of kilometres away. (Queue some high key privilege) but instead, I am living the very thing I promised myself I would never do – I have settled. I have settled into a safe life, I have been in this safe little city since 2013. I haven’t moved away, I haven’t got an exciting job and and the one thing that was keeping me here is anchoring me instead and it terrifies me, it gives me a cold pit in my stomach. I am glad to be able to finish my PhD without fieldwork, as in it is possible, but it physically gives me heartache thinking of what I am missing. I have lost everything. I don’t say it lightly, I have lost everything that meant something to me. I don’t have a partner, I don’t have children, I don’t even really have a career at this point – I had my trip to Africa. And it’s gone. I thought I’d come to terms with it but I clearly haven’t. I’m not sure I ever will. How do you come to terms with loosing everything you’ve worked towards for 26 years? Sometimes I think I’ve moved past it, but I don’t think I ever really will and instead I need to work towards accepting that. There is a silver lining. Instead, I am going to pay local people to collect data for me – so it is probably a better use of money than if I was there collecting it myself, and is a more definitive action towards decolonisation. The worst part? Seeing my colleagues be able to restart their fieldwork and do their fieldwork while I can’t brings out the most ugly feelings in me that I hate, not being able to be happy for them and let them inspire me is a horrible way for me to be. I hate it. But, I’m in the final revisions of a paper that is being submit to Science. I haven’t told many people in case it gets rejected but the fact that my supervisor had the faith in my writing and my research is an immeasurable compliment. If it gets published, it will truly be a light in this tunnel. I’m also finishing another paper that I’m hoping causes a genuine stir in the elephant research community and has allowed me to explore how decolonisation can be the future of elephant research, so while I can’t be there, I can hopefully have a say. Stay tuned.

I know this is a lot negativity, and a lot of heavy information. I’m not sure if anyone will read it but it’s nice to have it all out. It is a lot to be living with and a lot to process. There are good things – I have so many wonderful friends, and thinking about them makes me tear up. They have shown me what unconditional love and support is, and have been there for every facet of what feels like my downfall. I cannot put into words what they mean to me and how much I love and appreciate them. I think a lot of my personal growth has come with pretty bad growing pains, but it is growth. I see my therapist regularly and he is constantly showing me the ways I have grown. I recently got some awful unwarranted feedback from a man on my paper, and instead of getting upset and accepting it – I pushed back and held my ground. I rejected his feedback and stood up for myself. It felt fucking great. That’s growth. Changing my name is growth. Taking the label off my sexuality is growth. Loving myself and allowing myself to rest is growth. Taking actions to better myself is growth. Cutting out toxic people is growth. And you know what? Growth is radical, it is a radical act. It’s defiant and it takes strength and resilience and that is what this time in my life is.

I really hate writing about myself so much, and barely touching on the huge problems in the world right now. Believe me, they are on my mind day in and day out. They are influencing every single thing I think, say and do. But doing that has meant I was making myself a second priority and I can’t help and keep on tackling the world when I myself don’t feel whole and feel like I am no one and have no power. So, one thing I’ve taken from Jameela Jamil’s podcast, I Weigh, is at the end the guests all say what they weigh. Not on the scales. And I think that’s a good way for me to end this post, because I am so much more than what the scales say and there is a lot of negativity and a lot of bad news and the last few months, I have lost my will to live so maybe it’s time for me to remind myself why it’s better to be alive. And if I can convince myself that it’s ok to talk about these things and to be open about my struggles, others will see it’s ok to as well.

I weigh my passion and love for elephants. I weigh my strength and resiliency in the face of trauma and difficulty. I weigh my drive and unending determination for conservation. I weigh my humour and how I can make people laugh. I weigh my ongoing fight to amplify the voices of minorities that need to be heard. I weigh my plethora of plants that are my mental health projects. I weigh my baking that deliciously helps calm my mind. I weigh my weakness for the cheesy love songs. I weigh my love of trashy true crime shows. I weigh my curatorship of memes. I weigh my support and appreciation of my friends. I weigh the ability to better myself, and to unlearn and relearn. I weigh my ability to provide myself with self-care and prioritise my needs. I weigh my little world and everyone and everything in it which I am deeply grateful for and have and will continue to help me over this mountain to the other side, where my elephants will be waiting.

Going, going…grief.

What a decade 2020 has been. At least it feels like a decade already. The bushfires seem like years ago, not a couple of months. New Zealand feels like another lifetime. How much my little life has changed in such a short period. It’s hard to put into words how I’m feeling. I struggle accept feelings sadness or anxiety when I am lucky to be healthy, to have a job and to be secure when so many people are not. Not in the usual way where I am trying desperately to check my privilege and by doing so, don’t allow myself to feel and process my emotions. In a way where genuinely, I am lucky and I should focus on that or it feels like the depression and anxiety will take over.

The lifestyle of isolation suits me. Comfortable clothes, sleeping in, only having to talk to my pet bird and my plants and humans when I feel like it. Everything being online. It feels almost like forced time to recover from the bushfires. I have been pushing myself not to stay in or start a routine or come out of isolation with new skills or loosing weight but it is happening naturally. I am learning new languages, doing more science communication and learning to teach in new ways and I am colouring in and reading again. Things that always have brought me peace but I have not had the time or mental energy to commit to in many years. I feel like I am gentling bettering myself and managing myself with kindness and in return, my body is allowing me the mental capabilities to take on things that I can do just for me, without the guilt or exhaustion.

The first few weeks were not like this though. And darker mindsets loom over me like a vulture circling. I started isolating early, and basically didn’t leave my small apartment for 3 weeks out of fear and stress. There was so much work to transfer my office home, try and change my whole working mindset and to help the transition to online teaching. Most importantly, and what has had the biggest impact on me – however selfish it is – was mourning the loss of my field work which is what I want to speak about the most. It’s been weeks and I still don’t know how to describe the pain. To try and convey why it hurts, I want to start by setting the scene of my unbalanced mind.

I know how cliche it sounds, but I won’t apologise for it. Ever since I was a kid, as young as I can remember, I have been so obsessed and passionate about wildlife. All I ever wanted was to see animals and be around them. I had a really rocky start to life, but in all the good moments – there were animals. And always…always Africa. I know it was a very safari/colonial mindset but it was the environment I grew up in (rural Australia) and I’ve corrected myself now to make amends. All the big animals, the wide open spaces, the freedom that you could taste in the picture and in the documentaries. It was truly wild. Life there seemed like life and death and nothing else, and while experiencing such complexity and difficulty – it seemed like paradise. No abusive men, no mental health diagnoses, and no restrictions. Just beautiful big trees, and wildlife to match. I see now that in every sense, it was escapism. You know despite all this build up and romanticism of what I pictured Africa to be, it exceeded these enormous expectations.

It’s not that I gave up on these dreams during university. I had given up my time in Africa during my gap year because of the huge cost and I am glad I did in a way, because it would have been deeply problematic voluntourism and I think I would regret it retrospectively. But during uni, I was given a much needed reality check. Conservation is not a pick and choose industry, there’s no guarantee’s and trying to learn about Africa in Australia is not a priority. It wasn’t until I came across my honours project, purely by chance, that the hope was reignited. It was light in a time of darkness, truly. And then despite everything I’d been through, everything I had ever worked towards and all my successes had come together to this moment where I pulled into the gates of Tembe Elephant Park and was overwhelmed by a sense of home. It was like open arms had pulled me in, stroked my wild hair and wiped away years worth of tears and told me that it was going to be ok, and that things would be better from now on. Never in my life had I ever felt like things would get better. For 22 years it was ‘things will keep going’, but never ‘things will get better.’

It has never and never will be a story of how I saved Africa, but a story of how Africa saved me.

The person I was in Africa was my favourite version of myself. Determined, passionate, hard-working and making a tangible difference. For the first time, people looked to me for guidance and information. I was learning everyday. I was living off the bare minimum, I was disengaged from the world. I was wild, and I was free. It was not without problems – being homesick for people, trying to deal with a new demon (anxiety) and trying constantly to succeed despite my so called “supervisor” who only ever held me back and pushed me down and made me doubt myself. But despite all that, I blossomed. I felt in control and I felt my confidence growing everyday. I loved…love her. The shape of my body, the imbalances in my brain…the trauma…didn’t matter anymore. It was all part of who I was becoming, and for once, it made me stronger.

I regretfully came back to Australia, and I finished honours which in and of itself was excrutiating. I had to leave a place that brought out the best in me, and made me the happiest I’ve ever been and then had to deal with the process of analysing and reporting on data by myself because my supervisor didn’t know what to do with it. It tarnished my view on academia, almost irreparably, but never of Africa. Ultimately, my mental health took battering after battering, very much outside of my control, and I couldn’t bring myself to stay in academia. I needed time to think. I needed to work out how to get back to Africa, that’s all I knew. I was offered a good job in science outreach so I took it. I’ve already spoken about that meeting with my other supervisor where he told me to do a PhD and the thoughts that ran through my head. I will always be grateful that he has always seen the best in me and encourages me to do the same. That year off was tough for a lot of reasons. Every day I spent away from Africa, and my elephants, my heart hurt more. I would go over my photos and videos for days, and months on end – yearning. Truly.

Then I did it, I started a PhD. I got in. All of a sudden, I had the reigns. I chose where my project went and how. I had unconditional support to go back, I just needed to build up to it. And I did. It took me over a year but I got a plan, I had funding applications ready to go and I was preparing to start my ethics application and accumulate the skills I needed to go. This time, no white saviourism, but with a decolonising sense of mind. It was satisfying every intellectual and moral craving in my heart. I would be with elephants again, I would be wild Rachael. I would be free Rachael. I would repair everything from the last 3 years. I was happy. I was dancing to music again, I was loving myself and body, I was dating! Every day, I woke up with purpose. The last 4 years, if not 5, had been leading up to this. My life dream, the accumulation of back-breaking work, the sacrifices and the blood, sweat and tears were coming to a head. This. Was. It. In February, I got the go ahead from my supervisor to apply for grants and start getting permits. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. My smile reached my eyes, my heart was full and I was content everyday. A place that I always wanted to be in. It was coming, I was going home. I was getting myself back.

But the universe had other plans. In a matter of weeks, all my work…all my pride and my joy, my life was flipped. In theory, over a year of my life but in reality 5 years of my life…my entire life even…was down the drain. Everything was cancelled. Not just for me, but the whole world. The idea, the notion, that had got me through every hardship, every stress and depression and every pressure was over. Cancelled. Indefinitely. My only solace was in that was I wasn’t alone, everyone was going through the same thing. My office mate lost 5 of his 8 study sites in the bushfires. We were all grieving. But this felt like it hit harder – most people did research within Australia which should open up again by the end of the year or had done their fieldwork already. It wasn’t even like the rug had been pulled out from under me, it was like the whole earth was pulled out from under me.

I am trying to work out who I am, and how to keep going on when what felt like my reason for waking up every morning was gone. Who am I without going to Africa? How do I overcome everything when the light in my dark tunnel was extinguished? Who am I if I am not going home? Every day I was trawling through literature, trying to workout ArcMap on my own, I was getting out of bed but what was the point if at the end of this was Africa and it was gone? It took me two full weeks to email my supervisor, to drive the last nail into the coffin. He commiserated, worked on a new plan and he told me I was allowed to grieve.

I have lost many things. People, friends, pets…my sense of self. In fact, I’ve lost a lot. I’ve lost patience, I’ve lost sanity and I’ve lost the eternal battle I have within myself so many times. But after and during, there was always that spark. The spark to be that person again when I was there. I know that I can be that person here, I feel it poking through when I’m teaching or presenting on elephants. But honestly, it feels like a waste when I’m using that part of myself on something that I don’t want to fully consume me, to flood all my senses. Africa, and my work there, is my life. It is my entire life and I’ve earned that. It wasn’t just me who was different in Africa, everything was. Do not mistake my romanticism for blind ignorance, I know it’s not Disneyland. It’s hard work, it’s difficult and tedious and sometimes, impossible. But I loved the challenge. You know, the days where I lost sleep in Africa were days that elephants were foraging around camp. On a good day, there were lions making a kill nearby and being too loud. On bad days, it was gun shots – from poachers or the anti-poaching unit, we never knew. But now? Bad days are much, much worse.

But the thing is, that at the end of the day…everyday…it was worth it. The cost/benefit of every day always came up good on my side. Now what? Now some days are better than others, I can still smile and have a bit of a boogie and have a little laugh but I am scared for the day when I can’t do it anymore. Because the other side of that amazing version of me, is the one I’ve spent the most time with. Sleeping all day, and all night. Not talking to anyone. Not doing anything. Waking up and just wanting to not exist. I go through the motions…shower, dress, coffee, uni, dinner, bed. Repeat. On bad days, it’s not me being stressed about driving around a park on my own and getting stuck in a herd of elephants…it’s not getting out of bed, staring at the blank white wall next to me. Not touching my phone, or TV or a book. Just staring. Breathing is a chore and the 10…12…14 hours of sleep are never enough even though I’m not doing anything. Tears leak from the corners of my eyes without any effort from me. All day. For days on end. Just waiting for the moment I can go back to sleep so I don’t have to feel anything for a while. It’s destructive behaviour like dating men I know I shouldn’t trust, just to feel wanted. It’s harming myself, in physical and emotional ways. It’s pushing my friends away. It’s depression. And then it’s anxiety. Even if I want to get up and go out – will I get COVID-19? Will I run into someone I know? Will I forget something? Will I just walk onto the road without checking? Will everyone look at me? The pain from this kind of loss feels like it is slowly being pumped through your veins and then it radiates through your body, starting in your throat and heart.

It’s not a good place but based on my history, it is one of the only alternatives. I haven’t got there yet. I can feel it though, like constantly looking over your shoulder when you’re alone on the street. An inkling. A rock sinking my heart all the way down into my stomach. At the moment, there are still glimpses of me. The last few days have been great, I don’t know why. But one of the byproducts of trauma is that you’re scared to be too happy, because you’re not used to it and it’s almost like being euphoric but it will come at the cost of a major depressive episode. I’ve been working so hard to avoid it for so long, but maybe now it is inevitable. I know it was probably not wise to put so much on this trip, to have so much riding on it but it was basically a secured thing. Who could have ever predicted this? I genuinely don’t know who I am without the promise of going to Africa soon. I don’t know when I will go and that hurts even more.

It’s especially hard because despite the fact that Africa has mostly been in lockdown, and has low levels of the virus…the chances of travel reopening to Africa within 12 months is so low. And I can’t even plan until that happens. I need at least 3 months to plan, and 4-6 months to be there and a year when I get back to process and publish the data. I am meant to finish my PhD in February 2022. I have a 6 month, probably 1 year extension but I want to finish. I have been ready to move to Africa and work there since I was a child. Having a PhD before 30 is impressive but I could be using these years to work, build my skills and be there. I could be locked down in Africa right now.

This is the pain. Everyday. I’ve been distracting myself, putting my time and energy into the backup plan and teaching. It hasn’t gotten bad yet, and I am working very hard on using my healthy coping mechanisms and tackling this head on because I don’t want it to win. Talking a lot to my friends, and letting my body do things that help me cope. Eating, walking, sleeping. I might still be able to go, but the certainty is gone. I keep reminding myself that I am more or less happy and healthy, as are my beloved friends and family. But I am truly grieving a great loss. I sacrificed a lot for this and to be the version of myself who can go. Relationships, secure finance and opportunities. I was also relying this trip to build my skills, and develop skills to actually be employed after I finish my PhD. I know it seems doom and gloom, and it feels like that too. Believe me, however melodramatic you think I am reading this, I already think that of myself 100x over. I have to stop apologising for my emotions, no matter how ridiculous they may seem. I have to allow myself to feel them, and the more honest I am about them, maybe others will feel validated too. I know there are positives, and I know people are loosing more than me, but that doesn’t negate how I feel. It doesn’t take away the hours I have lost to crying so much that tears don’t come anymore, it doesn’t negate stomach cramps and tender ribs from gasping for breath during panic attacks and it does not mean I haven’t felt completely debilitated and lost in my own mind and body. I have lost a lot, I know what grief is when I see it. I know how it feels, I know what it does.

I am glad to still be in therapy, and grateful to have supervisors and friends to commiserate with me. To support me and let me go through what I am, unconditionally. And I know that one day, whenever it may be, I will be standing on the balcony of my tent or my rondoval with my dog in toe…looking over the river or the pan full of my elephants. And I will be me again. I will be proud of who I am, and I will feel powerful again. I will have won, I will be successful and I will…finally…be myself. But for now, I need to let myself grieve and not force myself to be better before I am ready to be. I still don’t know how to answer when people ask me how I am going, or what is going on with my fieldwork. I still can’t talk about it. I still can’t think about the word “fieldwork” but that’s the process of grief. Every time I was asked, I could feel my heart wrench. I could sense undoing. Which is why I’m writing this. More for me than anyone, but so when people close to me ask again…maybe I can put it into words, or I can ask them to read this because it took me weeks, days and hours to say it, and finally put it in words.

For now, at the end of the day…every day…it’s still for the elephants. It is always for the elephants. I have students to teach and friends to love dearly, it is time to keep on keeping on. This too shall pass.

It’s been a while, crocodile.

What a roller coaster. October feels like last week, but in reality it was nearly 3 months ago.

I read over this blog this afternoon and I am finding joy in reliving my revelations and watching myself jump from strength to strength last year. In a few days time, I will officially be one year into my PhD and I have mixed feelings.

The last few months felt like taking multiple punches to the gut. Starting with my trip to New Zealand which in short, I think I went on at the wrong time. It was very expensive, and I felt much of the east coast was too similar to Australia for me to appreciate, and it rained on me for most of the time I was there. Milford Sound was incredible, and I think I would have felt the same about the glaciers if I had had the chance to visit them. My last week was stress incarnate with floods, cancellations, last minute flights, emergency AirBnB bookings – the works. Honestly, it was a lot. To top it off, on my day at Akaroa – I was approached by a strange man on a boat and told what to do with my body and life in order to secure a husband. Hard no.

When I eventually got home, my brother had ceremoniously left my disabled mother with his three children and my sister was home helping. So I came back for a few days and worked before getting the call that they were going to get evacuated the next day – so I went back. Over the next week, I was dealing with small children, a loud house and multiple evacuations of the family home. I was already tense before arriving, especially about having to spend time with one of my abusers – my brother. So, I decided to come back to Canberra to spend Christmas alone. Not before I fought and screamed at my family though, something that had been building up for years. I arrived back in Canberra upset but relieved. I ignored all messages from my family, I went back to work and I tried to push on. Not until I got another call, the fire was back and so I had to return. For two weeks this time. More evacuations. I was living on Fires Near Me and social media, desperate for information and maybe even solace. We couldn’t leave the house because of the smoke and embers, and the risk that we wouldn’t be able to get back. Last time the fires were this close, I was a kid – I remember seeing the flames and not being able to breath but not much else. All I really remember this time is trawling through a lifetimes worth of belongings and choosing what stays and what comes. I have never felt anything like the raw emotion of driving away from a home that you grew up in, not sure if I will ever see it again. Trying to say goodbye to the characteristic purple walls of my room, and my recycled pine bed, and to trees planted the same time we moved in that grew with me. Luckily, for now, they are safe.

The worst part? Watching the government do nothing, and worse – fuck it up. As they still are. Everyday it was a bet on whether articles coming up about Scott Morrison were real or satirical. How hard it is to understand the full extent of climate change and watch so many with so much voice deny it. It makes you feel completely and utterly hopeless. In every sense. Before the fires, I deleted Facebook because so many climate change deniers and political bigots were surfacing but unfortunately had to return because that’s where the emergency updates were coming from. I still don’t know how to feel or what to think – because I’ve watched a shift in climate change deniers, and in how the world is perceiving climate change but I don’t think it’s enough in all honestly. Then Canberra got hammered by a freak hail storm that broke buildings and cars and everything in between.

Beyond that – my health has taken a hit. My tinitus is getting worse, and I may need surgery on my uterus if the polyp is growing, and I continue to stay at the same weight. I feel my anxiety is manifesting in new ways, and I have been sleeping a lot – and not capable of a lot outside of work life. I’m not in a bad place and in fact, I dealt with the stress of New Zealand exceptionally well I think. It’s just a lot. And that’s all I can say when people ask – it’s a lot. And it is.

When I finally got back in the office and started to get back into things – the first thing I did was a field work proposal. I need to be reminded of Africa, I need to go back – it’s almost a primal feeling. Like I need to go home. I feel like I haven’t done enough research yet and I’m at a stalemate but the idea of fieldwork…in a few months, it’s enough.

In just a few days, I will officially be one year into my PhD and I think I will have a lot to reflect on and a lot to be excited for but for now it remains as it has been for weeks – a lot.

How many elephants does it take to be happy?

Any. Any number of elephants is what it takes to be happy.

Recently I’ve been receiving a lot of compliments and comments on things that aren’t my appearance. People has been telling me that I look good, that I’m more positive than they’ve ever seen me and most importantly: that I seem genuinely happy. And you know what? I think I am.

The people commenting range from my supervisors, my therapist, old friends and my family. But, it wasn’t until last night that I realised it myself. After a long week with not much sleep, a lot of marking and a reasonable amount of stress, having just finished a 12 hour day – I was keen to get home but I wasn’t overcome with frustration or needing three days to recharge or even being depressed. I was tired, sure, but also I was happy. Now I realise that I think happiness is finishing a huge, exhausting, trying day and still being content at the end of it and “love what you do everyday”/”do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” are becoming quite clear to me now.

In part, my happiness is years and year of working hard to overcome trauma and push myself to find happiness in what I do. But part of it is also acknowledging that every single day, I get to think about the truest loves of my life: elephants. Seeing videos and photos of them make my heart sore, being able to talk about them brings me pure joy and having them on my mind constantly drives me. The worst part of the last few weeks has been climate anxiety – everything seems like it’s too late, like what I’m doing is too late. But I have elephants to ground me again.

Having said that, happiness is still so new to me that it feels fragile. Like it’s a sapling and anything could come along and trample it, but each day that it stays safe is another day that it grows and grows, alongside my love for what I do.

I don’t think there’s much point to this blog, but if things do become bad again or something happens – I want to be able to look back on this part of my life and strive towards it again. It’s also so hard to be retrospective to see how far you’ve come when you live in your own mind everyday so being able to track rises and falls is so invaluable.

All I can hope is that at the end of every day for the rest of my life, there are elephants.

Finding a new elephant in the room.

It’s been a while, but I come to you with a new and exciting update – that is entirely research centered for once!

I’ve more or less finished the first chapter of my PhD – an extensive literature review on elephants and drought, climate change, movement and adaptation. I really hate doing literature reviews, I see their value and importance but it is hard to feel like you’re making a difference and actually challenging yourself.

What I did realise came from my literature review was a very big bias towards where research took place. Having now done two in-depth literature reviews on African elephants, I was sensing a very strong lean towards research being done in Kruger National Park. I have many thoughts on KNP – not many of them good, and not a single one is good regarding their elephants. The more I read, the more my suspicion grew. As I finished up my review and sent it to my supervisor, I began work on a smaller paper on elephants and drought – a review paper.

Once this was finished, I moved on to my next paper – a highly ambitious GIS paper but my supporting supervisor is so busy that I didn’t want to bother him until semester break. So, I took it upon myself to review all my references (150). I painstakingly went through every reference and listed the author, topic, year, location and country. Then I did some simple statistics and got some fascinating (if not concerning results):

  1. KNP theoretically has 98% of South Africa’s elephant population (which explains the bias towards it)
  2. South Africa has 4% of the total elephant population (as of 2016 census data)
  3. Research on elephants in South Africa makes up 38% of all elephant research

The implications for this are shocking. Botswana, followed by Kenya has the highest elephant population which means that the highest level of research should be done there. By all means, Botswana has better if not safer access to their elephant populations. It also means that 38% of research is being done on 4% of the population, so only a portion of that can be extrapolated to the rest of the population – but it is anyway. Beyond that, the elephants in Kruger are problematic at best. Overpopulated, trans-located, victims of generations of inter-generational trauma as a result of poor management. Young bulls struggle to form functioning relationships, herds are often disjointed and aggressive. The behaviour those elephants exhibit – charging, tipping cars, tusking people, killing each other is not normal. It is a result of disgusting mismanagement but they are being used as an example population for hundreds of thousands of others.

While it is obvious that SA has less issues with permissions and safety, the quality and importance of research happening in Eastern and other Southern countries is going under the radar when in fact – they should be making up a much bigger proportion. If anything, Botswanan research should be 38% of all published research.

While I’m not entirely sure what this means yet – I plan to investigate further. Do a randomised sample of the 15,000+ papers ever published (to remove my bias towards movement and drought) to find if this bias is a real problem to be faced. If it is – it could mean a big turn in the face of African elephant research and where it’s done (if I can get it published). But for now – food for thought. If this is happening for elephants – is it happening for other animals? Does African wildlife research need to be put under the microscope? Is it just Africa?

Who knows – time will tell. Stay tuned.

0-100: Reflecting on the first 6 months of a PhD

Day 1: a blank piece of paper, a mind full of ideas and a dream.

Day 168: a scribbled on piece of paper, a mind focused on ideas and a dream.

In comparison to the last few years of my life, 2019 has flown by. I think a lot of it has to do with being busy, particularly in the last months or so but I also think a lot of it has been things falling into place – slowly but surely.

I’ve been seeing my counselor since 2015 and he made an irrefutable point last time I saw him: for so long, my life has been like a set of scales. They’ve been weighed down on the side of negativity and for so long, I kept picking things up and putting them on the positive side but the scales were still favoured poorly. Until this year. This year, I finally pulled so many negative things and put them on the positive side that the scales have tipped. Ever since I got back from Africa, I’ve felt the need to return to get back to that point in my life where I was so happy and content and now I am, without having to be there. Home is certainly where the heart is, and I can’t wait to go back but finding peace in Canberra has been a long slog.

I’m now officially 6 months into my PhD, and I have quite a bit to show for it. I have a full literature review (which needs some edits) and the beginnings of a paper. I have all the data to start a GIS analysis. I feel behind at the moment, as I haven’t worked much in the last month except for preparing for the semester. On that note, I’m now teaching and I gave my first lecture. It was thrilling and I loved every moment of it – and I think the audience enjoyed it too. I surprised myself with how well I did in terms of remembering everything and actually being engaging. I haven’t had nerves like that in a long time – I was tapping my leg before I went in which is an anxious tick I haven’t had since I started my medication.

I now also give tutorial and demonstrate practical workshops. The best part? I demonstrate for the two courses that absolutely made up my mind about being in conservation. And I get to get out into the field. And I get paid for it all! How did I even get here? I’m glad I somehow made it.

Since starting this PhD, I’ve achieved a lot. I’ve made wonderful new friends, I’ve found a new respect for myself, I’ve renewed my love of elephants and of Africa, I’ve starting accepting myself.

I’ve also narrowed down my research, while expanding it at the same time. I have the first chapter of it drafted, and I have a plan for the remaining 4 chapters. I have three incredible supervisors and willing collaborators across Africa. There is still so much work to do, and feeling behind makes me anxious but I’m moving forward, I’m not stagnant anymore. I’m slowly reintroducing things into my life – I now work several hours a week (I somehow have 5 jobs – not including my PhD), I’m rejoining the gym, I’m cooking again. Things are positive.

My whole life, I’ve felt a weight on my shoulders of the universe. Like if I have too many good things, or too much positivity – it will balance out by knocking me back, hard with bad things. And up until now, that’s been the case. I know it’s because I project, but it’s honestly terrifying being this happy and positive but I’m working on trying to enjoy it. The fact is that if something bad happens, I’ve never been in a better place to tackle it. There’s been a shift in my scales, but also in my perception and I owe a lot of that to my PhD. Being surrounded by like minded people, being challenged everyday and being revered and treated as an equal by peers and professors alike, and having students learn from me is a feeling I never thought I could have. I’ve never been happier to be single, I’ve never been happier to live alone, and I’ve never been happier to tackle problems that have been plaguing my for my entire life. I finally have room and spoons to tackle my issues with my brother and father, and to address my rape – I finally have room to become a powerful fucking woman.

From where I was a year ago, 5 years ago…10 years ago – look at me now? I’m starting to love myself and once I can do that – I am unstoppable, just like every woman (@Lizzo = you absolute queen).

Yesterday on my way to class, I was coming up the stairs and someone stopped and said “hey, Rachael” – I didn’t recognise him, I assumed he knew me from my lecture earlier this week but then it hit me – it was someone from high school. He never played a big role in anything that happened there, actually he was reasonably nice to me but he wasn’t great to other people I knew. He’s come to ANU to do a masters, and I’m his teacher – I’ve gone full circle. It threw me around a bit, it was completely unexpected but it gave me the confidence to see how far I have come and how far behind I have left toxic people and things.

It might not be forever, but I’m glad it is now. I don’t know if it can get better, maybe it will but I’m content. My life is at 100 right now – I’m writing a thesis/paper, running 2 tutorials a week, usually a practical per week and also working at Questacon one night a week. It’s a lot, but I wouldn’t have been able to do this a year ago, I was at zero and unable to pick up any traction.

In conclusion, PhDs work for some and they don’t for others. For me, so far, it’s working and I’m very grateful for it. Stick around for a blog on my real research soon.

Black, white and grey all over

Indigenous cultural and natural resource management is a grey area, especially being white. While I know I have indigenous heritage, I have no way to prove or track it and I have been brought up in an environment free of the trauma of being aboriginal. However, I’ve dedicated a reasonable portion of my life and time to trying to understand native title and community based management both at home in Australia and in Africa.

I’ve spent years agonising over colonialism and unceded sovereignty, and I’ve made clear to my supervisors that my priority with this project is to not be a white savior. To swoop in as a white woman from another continent and tell the people who have been in these communities for thousands of years how they should manage their elephants. They’ve supported me without hesitation. My plan is to bring the facts and predictions I have to the community and ask their opinion and work with them to develop a management strategy moving forward in a warming and drying climate.

But, I’m getting caught up in social media and even people in my life. Accounts and people who think they know best for these people and these elephants when they have no true idea. Botswana lifts the hunting ban and locals rejoice – there are too many elephants. They’re eating all their crops, killing people and destroying livelihoods. Let alone the stress the elephants themselves are under to have to force themselves into human dominated landscapes. It should also be considered that the hunting ban was put on Batswana who need elephants for meat, hide and cultural rites. So, lifting the ban is problematic in that there are not trophy restrictions but it allows people to return to their life that is thousands of years old.

For the first time, Batswana have social media and they can rebut the viral articles on the hunting ban. One thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that elephant populations are dropping and have dropped significantly in the last century but the hotspots of habitat left have an overpopulation of elephants. The problem is applying Western management strategies to non-Western ecosystems, the problem is colonisation.

I found myself in discussion with a person at work over the weekend who deemed himself an expert having visited some countries in Africa and having had a conversation with a poacher. I was pushed to prove a point and denied the opportunity to articulate my argument which is that poachers, more often than not, are locals. Locals who have been told “I will give you $10,000 for one elephant immediately” versus “this elephant is worth $500,000 over it’s lifetime in tourism value”. People who are starving, who have families and are dehydrated and have no where to live. Of course they will take the option of quick cash. Again, another problem with colonial management is that none of the money from tourism is returned to the community upon who’s lands the safaris are held.

While I certainly could never bring myself to advocate for poachers, I understand that the solution to the poaching crisis is not more conflict – it is education and redistribution of money that rightfully belongs to the community. In the example this person used, the poacher claimed to have killed 13 elephants by poisoning a waterhole and boasted. This of course, is someone who in inherently selfish and is taking advantage of the western money that funds poaching. At the core of all these issues is colonisation, it always has been and always will be. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like on the ground at the core, but I know enough to be sure of what I’m saying.

The solution to the poaching crisis is to cut off the demand for ivory and to educate the community safely on the value of elephants. Beyond that, it’s creating a harmonious human/elephant landscape and allowing elephants to follow their historical migration corridors so that they don’t need to crop-raid or create new corridors. It’s lifting western nets that have been thrown over landscapes that never gave permission to be taken over. Most of all – these people and these species don’t need to be saved, most certainly not by white people. If we are to force western systems like money and state wide government on these nations, they deserve at the very least the money they need to survive. They don’t need people to come in and fix everything or have opinions on things that don’t impact them, they need the support to move forward under their own autonomy. They deserve to have their sovereignty given back. They lived harmoniously with elephants for thousands of years, they can do so again. They did not, however, live with people who dropped by for a few days or months, analysing a problem they have no experience or understanding of before returning to a safe life on a pedestal away from poverty and fear but not before leaving a sweeping statement that is to be taken as gospel.

Poaching and human/wildlife conflict is not black and white. It’s not “poaching bad, kill poachers” and it’s not “elephants worth money, kill elephants” – it’s an intricate mosaic of absolute carnage left by the western square being forced into an eastern circle with the local people and their lives being the ones clinging for dear life at the edge of the cracks. As much as the trope virtually does equate to “black and white”, being people – Africa and it’s people, culture and species are, much like an elephant, grey all over.

Lessons from a quarter century

I went to the doctor yesterday to renew my prescription of Mirtazapine (and also got my flu shot – please do this if you haven’t already). There’s a really damaging stigma around taking medication, especially for mental health, but no one would hesitate in popping pills if it was for a physical ailment like back pain or nausea. In actual fact, my anxiety is a physical ailment. The neurotransmitters in my brain are not balanced, primarily serotonin. Paired with an inability to produce enough dopamine and oxytocin, it is disabling. Therefore, I am unapologetic and unashamed about needing medication to help.

Anyway, he asked me how long I had been on it now and I realised that it has been a year which is hard to believe. The place I was in a year ago, I see now, was very dark and scary if I’m being honest. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t talking to anyone and I was on auto-pilot. It was around this time last year that I had the worst breakdown that I’ve ever had. I literally fell to my knees and cried in the pedestrian strip of the main street of Canberra, definitely not my best moment. Even after I started taking the medication, my life felt beige for months.

In the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise how very far I have come. I have come across a feeling of fulfillment that I didn’t even think I was craving until I got it. The only way I can put it is the feeling of coming out of a cocoon as a butterfly, truly. The last few years have been so difficult and while there are still tests and things will never be 100%, at the moment they feel better than ever. I have people in my life who fulfill me – with their strength, with their boldness, with their care and unconditional love and with themselves as a whole. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel the need to be seeking a partner. I feel like I am enough for myself and in fact, a partner may be a hindrance. For the first time, I’m beginning to see that I am enough and I have worth to myself and to people around me. Suddenly my body image isn’t holding me back, my mental health isn’t holding me back and neither is my past trauma – they’re actually paving the way to confidence. I spent so long trying to get on this road and now I’m here, I barely even noticed.

This week, I turned 25. When I was younger, I thought I’d be partnered up, maybe with a flat or house and most importantly, a dog. While I still desperately want a dog, the others are negligible. I thought I’d be working, building a career – I never in a thousand worlds thought I would be studying to become a Doctor, let alone a Doctor of Elephants. It wasn’t the plan but I’m grateful for what it has become. At 25, I have a string of impressive achievements but most importantly I survived when, for so long, it didn’t seem like I would be to be honest I didn’t want to.

At 25, I’m on medication to help my anxiety and depression and it’s taken a year but I’ve stabilised so now I can grow. At 25, I am doing a Doctor of Philosophy on elephants at the top university in Australia. At 25, I’m finding happiness in myself. So, whether it’s 1 year or 25 – growth is perpetual. Fulfillment is a matter of perspective and what society tells you is happiness probably isn’t right because you define what makes you happy. At 25, I’m in my prime and unabashedly proud of it:

Whenever I see an elephant – I think of you!

I’ve had this said to me dozens of times, especially within the last few months and truly, what an honour it is. To be associated with such creatures who for me, are home. Spending time with elephants, being around them is an unparalleled experience. When I first arrived in Africa, I couldn’t believe how big they were (I know, it sounds dumb). Having grown up in Australia where our mega fauna rarely outsize men, elephants were a whole new world. With their size come equally big personalities. The more time I spent with them, the more I could pick the attitude of younger bulls, the nurturing of older females and the sheer command of matriarchs. Each elephant has a personality completely different from each other, just like humans, no two are the same.

Elephants are tactile. While they appear to communicate through sounds and movements, they share the most tender touches. They twist trunks, rub ears and bump bums. They show affection and love, not in a human way but in an elephant way – it’s not anthropomorphised but they clearly value each other and understand that they’re all different. They’re emotions run high – whether it’s an angry bull in musth or a young cow who’s just given birth, they exhibit the whole spectrum. These creatures love and they hate, they protect and they attack – they do everything we do but on a bigger scale than we have capacity for. They have social structures, they have intricate dynamics and they live in a world of love and war.

Our greatest mistake as humans is to assume these characteristics are the same as ours but they’re not, we just don’t have words to describe it otherwise. For me, it seems, I’d prefer to be in their world than the world I’m in. I struggle to come to terms with humanity – with what we are doing to our planet, what we do for money and what we do to each other. Elephants balance their ecosystem, they have no desire for consumption outside their needs fed by greed and they exhibit unconditional love for each other, albeit the occasional fight for resources which they are not limiting – we are. Contrary to popular belief, I believe elephants are at a minimum our intellectual equal, as are many species. Our measurement of intelligence is skewed and unrealistic at best. Animals roamed this earth long before we did and they managed to not boil it alive.

Humans are fallible, foolish and greedy. We vote in political power on our own selfish needs and will do literally anything for money. We separate our own species based on sex and race, we are full of hatred and selfishness. Elephants aren’t like us, as much as we compare them to ourselves. No animals are like us.

So, when people see elephants and think of me and associate me with them – it’s the highest form of compliment. I know they don’t think I am an elephant but they know how much I truly love them and for me that is a testament to understanding them. In my future, I don’t see a husband and a townhouse. I don’t see a life partner (except maybe a dog) and I especially don’t see human children. I see elephants, I see Africa and I see fulfillment in knowing that if I had a love of my life – it would be those things. If that means sleeping in a tent in a bush, so be it because at the end of the day, we have so much to learn from elephants and if that’s what it takes to learn, it’s a sacrifice that I’m happy to make. Jane Goodall made the sacrifice for chimpanzees, Dianne Fossey made the sacrifice for gorillas and I will make the sacrifice for the elephants. They say that home is where the heart is, and my heart is with the elephants.

Know thy enemy – even if it’s yourself

I’ve really struggled to come up with a coherent blog post this week. A lot has happened and it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. I’ve wanted to write about self acceptance, about facing your demons, about being self reflective and growth, about being kind to yourself, about millennial burnout and about elephants. I’ve written drafts and deleted them, and I’ve had this title saved for two weeks – and I couldn’t work out why it was so difficult. I finally had a “eureka” moment on my walk from work to the office. In the middle of the Venn Diagram of everything I’ve mentioned is self awareness.

Self awareness is something I have truly struggled with in all aspects of my life. Not in a physical way, having anxiety means that I am always aware of every aspect of my physical body. But mentally, that’s a whole different story. It truly has been an arduous journey for me to try and painstakingly pick apart my behaviour and compartmentalise it as depression, anxiety, exhaustion, stress, physical health or a genuine response that requires addressing. I joke about it a lot but when I’m tired (often), I play a game called “is it depression, iron deficiency or lack of sleep?” and I’ve become the reigning champion. When your symptoms are things like being tired, it can be hard to tell apart why. Normally it’s no/little sleep = tired but when you tie your mental and physical health together, it’s not black and white.

Trying to work out why you’re angry or upset is also not straight forward. I’m a very sensitive person, I generally take a lot to heart that I shouldn’t. I am aware that I also value peoples opinion of me too highly, and I struggle to stand up to my friends in circumstances where I should. It’s something that I’ve worked on a lot and now, I will actively force myself to take time to think about what I’m feeling before I commit to responding or posting or whatever. It takes a lot of energy.

I also have to be self aware in the way I view myself. Where I see my friends and family as idols and can exhibit the highest level of body positivity and sex positivity towards them. When I turn the mirror on myself I am cruel, I am harsh and I hold myself to impossible standards imposed by patriarchal society which I so quickly dismiss for the people, especially women, around me but not myself. This one has been hard to circumnavigate, and I’m still trying to find an easy route around those thoughts but I’m getting better. This year; I dyed my hair back to it’s natural colour, I got a tattoo, I’ve stopped wearing makeup unless I want to, I’ve been wearing bolder colours, I’ve kept my hair short and accepted the curls in all their unruly glory. They’re little steps but they’re important. A big part of this has also been pushing myself to realise that I have issues with men stemming from all kinds of trauma, but that I genuinely no not need a man to be complete. I do not want children, I want career that takes me all over the world and I savour my independence – a partner does not fit into that equation right now, and may never. If that makes me selfish, then so be it – I’ve earned it.

I have been seeing my counsellor, Andrew, since 2015 when my Dad was first diagnosed with lung cancer. I never thought I would still be seeing him, and I only saw him out of desperation. He is a) a man, and b) a man. I don’t trust men, I don’t open up to them but we work very well together. I didn’t see Andrew for a year last year as I wasn’t a student but when we caught up, I had to reflect on the year and I have come a damn far way from when I started. He said it, he told me how well I’m doing and he told me I’m being hard on myself. He has always been a pusher for quashing negative thoughts and not using humour as a defense mechanism (another thing I’m working on). He pushes me to face my demons instead of letting them swirl around me.

I think the overarching theme for me now is resolving trauma but also not getting pulled down by the world around. Whether it’s prohibited abortions in America, climate change, violence, hate – I find it gets to me a lot but I need to push on. For the elephants, I need to push on. No matter how well I’m doing personally, the world feels like it’s weighing down my back burner. This is something that I absolutely need to work on.

At the end of the day, you are often your own enemy. And I find that when I’m in a dark place, I think I’ve been buried and there’s no way out but what if I’ve actually been planted? What if instead, I should grow and blossom? Plants can grow anywhere (except my Chain of Pearls, what the fuck do u want from me p l s) – concrete, cliff sides, underwater. So it shouldn’t really matter what I’ve been buried in; depression, anxiety, burnout, stress – I can still bloom. It might take longer for some things, and the flowers might just be little dandelions but if I grow, then I’ve still overcome whatever has buried me.

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So, what has the last fortnight been? A little bit of everything. A little bit of depression – from exhaustion and because my brain doesn’t do the serotonin. A little bit of anxiety – because it’s with me, always. A little bit of burnout – I’ve lost a lot of sleep and I’ve been working/studying a lot. But; a little bit of happiness – I pat 3 dogs this week. A little bit of strength – I got through a grueling counselling session trying to unpack my traumatic relationship with my brother. A little bit of excitement – I got the go ahead to start writing my first paper and going back to Africa is on the cards for next year. And a little bit of growth – a lot of my plants have loved the cooler weather and have all started having growth spurts and I think I’ve learned to balance my love for them, but also I realise that I have grown from a scared, timid, self-conscious youngen to a strong, sassy, outspoken, driven, passionate woman. There will always be room to keep growing from a crack in concrete to a pot to a garden bed to a garden and then into a forest (with elephants in it, obviously). There is no limit to growth but there is only one way forward, whether it’s a slow process, an almost stagnant process or if it’s at the speed of an obnoxious weed – we’re all growing at our own pace. Know thy enemy and fight with your strongest weapon – growth.