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Prayer blog: From surviving to living

Mary O’Brien  |  17 March 2016

Recently, I was asked to talk about survival. Yet, the things I’ve survived aren’t a patch on some of the issues others have survived. Some people have survived horrendous upbringings, illness, accidents, natural disasters, crime, injustice, or other catastrophes. Mine are what people call ‘first world problems’.

When I was at primary school, I marvelled at my survival, as I was rather accident prone throughout my young years. Examples include a rottweiler’s bite that required stitches; a cut on my knee; and a nail in my foot that required a tetanus booster.

At highschool, I hoped I would survive. Most days were about surviving jibes from peers about my freckly white skin and lack of sporting ability. 

When I was barely 17, I survived the move from my parents’ farm to the city after I finished school and my first real job.

I did not survive my first subject at university that year. 

When I was 19, I ran to survive a man sexually harassing me at a train station. I was heartened by my workmates the following week when they suggested witty insults I could have made to the would-be offender.

When I was in my early 20s, I stayed home to survive a breakup.

When I was 24, my parents worried whether I would survive overseas travel on my own. But for every snake and every villain there were a dozen kind strangers and good Samaritans.

When I was still 24, I was happy that my beloved’s affection had survived the time and distance of my travels. We married a couple of years later.

When I was 27, I was distressed that our baby would not survive threatened miscarriage. Our daughter survived, and we admire and love her continued persistence.

When I was 28, I didn’t think I would be able to survive the knowledge that she was probably disabled.

When I was 29, I didn’t think my second baby would survive a fall. Our son survived, and thrived.

When I was 30, I questioned if I could survive being the primary caregiver for another year. I was dealing with two kids under two, taking my daughter to frequent therapy sessions and medical appointments, and continuously deepening my knowledge of her disability. My partner and I discussed it, and thought it might be time for me to return to work and they become the at-home parent. Little did we know the work would be interstate, but we survived the move wonderfully.

When I was 32, I knew I could survive another year at home. While it was hard to have a new baby and two other kids under five, especially away from family and close friends, I did not feel isolated.

When I was 34, I did not know if my toddler would survive when I discovered her in our new lounge room, with its cream carpet, eating a chocolate muffin mix straight from the pack.

When I was 35, I did not know whether I could survive another year at home. I had post-natal depression. I did not have a sister or a friend to call, and the parent groups I attended were not the most open.

When I was 40, I wondered if I could survive PhD studies, amid significant work strains, caring responsibilities and without many support structures.

When I was 41, I wondered if I would survive my working environment. 

When I was 42, I doubted I could survive at all.

I was scarcely living. My PhD was finished and with it, the impetus to just keep going. At work, I went from the frying pan into the fire.

I might have survived that time, but the most positive aspect of my former working environment was absent. Rather than collaboration, there was competition. Rather than concern, there was indifference, if not contempt. 

I experienced intolerable isolation. I longed for connection, but could not bring myself to make the effort.

At my lowest point, I regularly hoped I would be hit by a bus when I crossed the road, so I didn’t have to enter the building.

In hindsight, I should not have gone to work at all. I know that unhealthy workplace indicators include higher absenteeism, but that wasn’t me. Being away meant I was letting people down; plus, I perceived a lot of judgement about people taking leave.

I remember sleeping a lot, but badly. I don’t remember eating a lot, but I gained 20 kilos in six months.

Every night, I would get into bed and just weep. I cried because I did not want to face another day. I cried with feelings of humiliation. I cried because I felt that my life was fruitless. I cried because of injustice. I cried because I was tired. I cried because I felt I had no future. I cried because I felt I was letting my family down.

Then I cried because I felt so selfish. And I cried again because I thought it might be better for everyone if I wasn’t around.

I didn’t feel as though I could talk to anyone. I thought nobody would understand.

More positively, I remember my husband’s support. While I sobbed, he just put his arms around me and held me, in silence, until I fell asleep. 

If there is one pattern I have noticed in reflecting on my life, it is that other people were crucial to my survival.

While changes in situations or biology can have an effect on the way we survive, the broader community often understates the importance of relationships.

There are things that can only come from others: a sense of contribution, a feeling of belonging, reminders of hope. None of these come from a break, a book, or a bottle.

But these are gifts I can give to someone else every day; gifts that can take someone from surviving, to living.

Mary O’Brien is a writer who works in government.



Topic tags: people’sstoriesoffaith, women’sspirituality, familylife

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