For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid.
Afraid of not being loved. Afraid of losing the people I loved.
Terribly afraid that I would be rejected.
Terribly, terribly afraid…
They came from my past.
When I was 5 years old I was abandoned by my mother. She was in a terrible marriage that she could no longer bear. She was forced to leave, but the next two years were painful for my brother, sister and I.
We all suffered.
In my first two years of school, I hardly talked. I was incredibly shy. I would spend many lunch hours hiding from school bullies, as did my brother. (My sister was still not at school.) We had no friends. Our isolation confirmed our lack of value. Our mother didn’t want us, and it felt like no one else did either.
Our father was too busy. He was either with friends at the pub, or working. After my mum settled with her new partner, she took us back. Not my brother, for he was too angry. He went to live with our uncle.
My step-father was “perfect” for the first two years, my mum would later tell us. But he quickly reverted back to his drinking. He would return home after drinking all afternoon, easily aggravated into an argument.
By Grade 7, we moved state and my mother saw it as an opportunity to leave our past behind. My brother, still angry, didn’t come with us. At the new school, nobody would know our history, my mum would say. I could start afresh. But as with any change in scenery, you take your old-self with you. The deep-down feeling that I was inadequate and reject-worthy was always there.
At the beginning of Grade 10, the two friends I had announced they were no longer my friends. I was gutted. My mum said that it was because they thought they were better than me. The impression I got from my mum was that she believed they were too.
But thankfully, I met a new friend, Joanne, a few weeks later. We were like two peas in a pod - true kindred spirits. We both had step-fathers we didn’t like and we couldn’t wait to leave school. But two months after we finished Year 10, Joanne died. She was an avid swimmer and after diving into a swimming pool, she did not return to the surface. The doctors said that her brain had “stopped.” My mum said it was because she used tampons.
By the age of 15, I was desperate for someone to love me. I had a crush on a boy at school for three years, but realised he would never like me. He was two years older, and that meant cradle-snatching according to his friends. I was also far too shy.
I met my future husband on the day I graduated Year 10. He was working for my father. I found my soul-mate. He didn’t only want me for one thing. That made me love him even more.
When we married at 18, my husband suggested having children but I was against the idea. I didn’t want them to go through what I had gone through. I was too eager to leave home. To get away. How could I bring children into a world that was so terribly painful?
My husband assured me that we would be different. We didn’t have to repeat the mistakes of our parents. We could create what we always wanted, a family that cares for one another.
I went from thinking that if I had children, they were going to have an unhappy life, to thinking that I could perhaps make a family that I had envisioned, or at least, had seen on television. Neighbours and Home and Away were my role models.
It was this vision of creating a happy family that stayed with me. I started reading books and magazines on parenting and marriage. I learned that I could create a family life that was not all fights and forced silence. I didn’t have to repeat the same patterns with my husband and children.
Yes, there would be conflict, but there were ways of dealing with conflict. It didn’t have to end with the police turning up. We could learn from it.
But did I transfer this wisdom to other areas of my life. No. I was still terribly afraid.
This is a part of the human condition. We may create some good results in one or two areas of our life but not realise that we can also create those results in other areas of our life.
For example, a writer may be able to write great novels that bring joy to others, but when it comes to their relationships or health, they experience heartache and turmoil.
I was doing this in my life. I was fit and physically healthy. I had a loving family. But when it came to my career and life direction, I felt lost and afraid. I dreaded the future, and believed that my past revealed that I was unworthy.
I knew I loved to draw and decorate books. But every drawing I had created between 11 and 15 years had been thrown away as soon as I left home. (In fact, my mum threw them away before I told her I was not coming back- she said she knew I would not return.)
I would start a job, only to become quickly bored, with no job lasting longer than a year. Eventually, a friend suggested that I go into teaching. I clearly loved making things and teaching was the obvious pathway.
But I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough. I completed a veterinary assistant course and it was there a teacher pulled me aside on the day of graduation and urged me to go further. She said that my passion and enthusiasm for learning and writing indicated that I should go to university.
I wasn’t convinced that I could hack university. Neither was my mum. But I didn’t want to stay as a veterinary assistant – I took the first job that I could get, working with rabbits and mice in the University of Queensland’s animal husbandry division. Not fun and terribly sad - they were all headed for the sleep chamber.
So after wrestling with my demons, I did my Year 12 as a mature-age student, and found that I enjoyed learning immensely. So much so that I thought high school teaching was the next logical step.
I spent the next four years with the vision that I would become the best teacher in the world. I really believed in education and its ability to transform our life, after all, it had transformed mine.
But after a few years of teaching, there were so many things that felt wrong. (The signs were there all along my pre-service practicums but I ignored them.) It felt like my role was to keep my students in their seats and to complete their assessment. It wasn’t about learning and growing. It was about doing what they were told.
This was not how I wanted to live my life. Telling young people that they must do what everyone else is doing. Deep down inside I knew it didn’t work for me and wouldn’t work for many of them.
But I felt helpless. A bad case of tunnel syndrome. All I could see was a prison that I had built around me. I wanted to escape but couldn't see a way out.
This is what is so paralysing about focusing on the past and future that we don’t want. We keep ourselves in a state of suffering. And when we suffer, we can’t see a way out or even what to do. Suffering causes confusion and forces us to withdraw, both from ourselves and from others.
I continued working but mostly like an automaton. It was like I was there in body but not in spirit.
I had the family I wanted. I was in a full-time job and could support them financially. But I was miserable. Being miserable in my job just made me more miserable.
I stopped sharing my thoughts with friends (who were mostly teachers) because many of them were suffering too. It was like being in prison and telling other inmates that you need to get out. They need to get out too and can only look back at you, both hopeless and stuck.
I would share my feelings with my husband, and being a man of few words, he said that I should just get another job. He would’ve left a long time ago.
But the guilt, the guilt was the worst part. I was guilty for being miserable. So many people, especially teachers, put up with their misery. My mum would tell me that this is what life is all about. Misery.
Needless to say, I gradually sank into the quicksand of despair.
Not being a fan of bio-chemical explanations of anxiety and depression, I knew that at the heart of my feelings was a deeper and far more human explanation.
I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. I didn’t know what I really wanted and I definitely didn't know who I was. I had lived most of my life focusing on what I didn’t want.
I didn’t know I could create what I wanted in my career. I was mostly afraid of losing what I had.
This is what made leaving teaching in institutions so hard. How could I walk away from something that was a secure, legitimate job? Something that I had dedicated so many years to, come hell or high water. Something that I had once believed was the most important job in the world.
I didn’t come to this realisation all at once. I had to hit burnout and despair a few times to begin connecting the dots. Steve Jobs in his Stanford Commencement Speech illustrates this perfectly. It is only in hindsight can we see how our experiences can be valuable.
I would hear writers, entrepreneurs and others speak about how their early experiences, often incredibly difficult, actually contributed to their success. Dorothy Rowe, the author of Beyond Fear, noted how if her mother had been loving and supportive, she would not have become an author living in the heart of London and sharing her profound insights on the human condition. She would most probably be tending to a little garden in a small, outback town in New South Wales, Australia, minding her own business.
It was small anecdotes like these that led me to the realisation that perhaps, instead of seeing my past as something that determines my future – making me bitter and depressed - I could see it as something that i could learn from. And maybe I could use what I have learned to enrich my life and the life of others.
Perhaps I could even create a life and a business that reflected my values and expressed who I was. Was that even possible? According to these writers and entrepreneurs, it was.
And that is how Life-changing Learning came about. I learned that despite what has happened in our lives, we can create truly meaningful lives. We can learn who we are, what we are afraid of and why, and take steps towards creating a life that reflects our deepest values.
The key is to learn.
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