Being Sick

Recently I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker about a woman who started a gluten-free diet. She’s having lunch with a friend in a cafe and she says, “I’ve only been on it for a week and I’m definitely more annoying.”

That’s me. Well, sort of. 18 months of chronic pain and fatigue and something called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (ten points if you say it three times fast) has led me to try it all. Gluten free, lactose free.  Green smoothies, acupuncture, kale. Blood tests, specialists, more specialists. Naturopathy, massage therapy, meditation. I drew the line at getting an aura reading, but to be honest, I’m not ruling it out.

“When in pain, get on a plane,” goes the Territory saying. I’ve tried that too.

I thought I knew what words like fatigue and pain meant, but they keep changing. Some days it’s like being knifed, or having multiple fractures inflicted down my spine. Other times I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain or run a marathon, which is a pretty sick joke. My muscles pop and spasm. Some days I lie down after taking a shower and before I have breakfast. And then I lie down again.

On the days I can’t leave the house, I know what the ceiling fan sounds like on all three speeds. I hear the school bells across the road ring for each period; I curse the neighbourhood whipper snippers and the hoons that speed around the roundabout. I get up and the room spins again.

It’s easy to feel very alone sometimes and I do.

But every Friday, I go to a yoga class in Coconut Grove.

It’s a suburb that’s part hippie, part public housing and part industrial. It begins on Dick Ward Drive with The Parthenon, a Mediterranean style home replete with crumbling columns and discarded slabs of concrete. The owners have been building it (or not) for over a decade, maybe two. Amongst locals it’s also known as “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

There are battle-axe blocks that lead to the mangroves. There’s a drying out clinic. There are generations of Aboriginal families who live in run down units. Further along, there’s a locked fence with a sign saying “Burial Ground: Do Not Enter”.

In between, there are panel beaters, picture framers and furniture importers. Warehouses filled with mahogany furniture and day beds from Indonesia, brought in by the container load. We bought our bed from a guy there called Knocker, who drives a bright orange sports car with a personalised number plate.

Down Caryota Court there are massage therapists and Family Planning offices. There’s a burlesque dance studio. A German guy called Martin runs the town’s only vegetarian café.

And then there’s the yoga space.

It’s a strange and surreal precinct to go and get your Iyengar on. Sometimes the next door neighbour likes to weld during our class or play records, usually The Ramones or Hoodoo Gurus. He listens to that music the way it is played: loud.

But for the most part, this yoga class takes me out of Darwin, at least for an hour and a half, and away from the strut, the larrikin antics and the bar stool bravado of Territory life. It’s a warehouse sanctuary of wooden floorboards, with a little garden brimming with tropical plants. In between bromeliads and banana trees sits a small, smiling statue of Buddha, decorated with hibiscus flowers and rows of tiny beads.

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There are eight of us who go regularly and almost everyone in the class has some kind of significant illness or injury. One man has two toes missing. He comes every week with his girlfriend in a beat up station wagon. Another woman broke her back last year. There’s the guy I went out with a couple of times, who had his brain smashed around in a motorcycle accident on Daly Street. And there’s me.

We don’t talk or gather for coffee afterwards. I don’t know where they live or if they work. Except for the guy I used to date, I don’t know their names.

But each week, I know that somehow, deep in the neurons and blood cells of bodies that don’t work like they should, they understand. We’re in it together.

I can’t make a joke about downward facing dog: none of us can do that anymore. But we twist and turn and stretch. We bead with sweat in the irrepressible Darwin humidity. We reach through the pain and the sick and the heart break of what we used to be and who we are now.

The man with three toes always seems to know who is having an especially hard day and he helps to put away their mat, bolster and blankets at the end of class.

We don’t say goodbye when it’s over; but each week my heart is warmed by this motley crew and this chequered suburb, which somehow has enough room for our collective pain, all of it, and our hope for better things to come.

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Familiar faces

“Hey, I know you from somewhere.”

This happens a lot in Darwin.

I usually feign recognition, at least while I’m scanning my brain for parties, introductions, friends of friends.

Oh yeah, I recognise you, I normally say.

We must have met… somewhere.

But today, after an hour and a half of yoga, my social skills are lost somewhere between trikonasana and downward facing dog.

I don’t pretend.

Really? What’s your name?

“Gavin”, he says.

How do we know eachother?

“We met a few years ago…” He hesitates. “On RSVP”.

Now I remember. Two dates, one at the museum, one playing lawn bowls.

I’d thought Gavin was cute and I would have happily gone out with him again. I don’t know if it was my lawn bowling skills or my conversation or my hips, but I never heard from him again.

I saw Gavin out a few months later with a pretty blond girl, and ran into him another three years after that. He’d just got back from China and wanted to return.

Now his face is familiar but also different.

What have you been up to?

“Well”, he says. “I got smashed up.”

Did you have an accident, a fight?

I’m picturing Mitchell Street, a beer glass, 3am.

“I was on my motorbike…along Daly Street. Car came up the side,” he says.

“My pelvis got smashed. I’m all metal rods. And my brain, it got a bit…splattered.”

I look at his face more carefully and can see his eyes darting around, some of his facial muscles paralysed, the words just slightly scrambled.

God.

I’m so sorry, I say.

“I’m stuck in Darwin now”, he says. “Since the accident. I can’t leave.”

But there are worse places… We say it at the same time.

He smiles a little.

A life that could have, might have, never was flashes before me. A few years of relationship, then a car crash. Remnants of a motor bike. A partner with a smashed pelvis, splattered brain, putting his life and memories back together piece by piece, yoga class by yoga class.

That life’s not mine.

I shake his hand.

It’s nice to see you again, I say.

Take care of yourself. Maybe I’ll see you at this class. I come on Fridays.