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.
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.