Fighting Shadows

I make a little home in a shack in my best friend’s yard. It’s a cosy space with a big bed, leafy plants, my workspace and my comfy yellow armchair. We are home here with the incense burning and Alba playing on the rug. The beach is just down the road. Alba catches the school bus with the kids in the mornings and I spend the days working.

It’s hard to focus on my work. There is an underlying feeling that things aren’t right. That someone is missing. I suppose that happens when you lose someone who was always there. I call Bee too much. We talk for hours every day and I try to act like I’m feeling a lot more settled than I am. That I never really needed him. That life is better now.

There are moments where it is better. I go grocery shopping and dance in the aisles without caring. I find myself talking to strangers. I take Alba out on dates. I smile as I walk to my favourite cafe to work, backpack on and listening to podcasts.

But nights are never better. Nights are horrible. My anxiety swings quickly from nothing to everything. Breathing is hard and sometimes I have to scream into pillows and shake my body because otherwise I might explode.

I’m grateful my anxiety waits for Alba to fall asleep before setting in. I’m grateful she has the kids to distract her and that Bee calls her every day. We miss him. I always forget how painful it is to miss someone until I do. I miss the littlest things. The way he always brought me tea and the illustrations in his journals and the drum patterns he’d absentmindedly tap on my leg.

For the anniversary of my brother’s death I throw a Deathday Party. I decorate the house with balloons and bunting and invite my family who drive three hours to make it. I naïvely hope that if I make it a celebration it won’t hurt. But night rolls around, as it does, like a black heavy blanket to suffocate me. And the hurt comes.

I leave the party to curl into a ball in my bed. My cousins cuddle me, these girls I used to mother when I was a teenager are bigger than me now. From in-between them both I call Bee in tears. He always helped me carry this grief. From the very moment Zake died. He was lousy sometimes at knowing the right things to say, but he always loved me hard through the worst waves. It all makes it even harder. Like I’ve lost the two men I love most.

I’m afraid I’ll forget Zake. I am afraid this guilt will never lift. I’m afraid it’s true that he’s gone. Maybe that sounds crazy but there is a part of me that even still refuses to believe I will never hug him again.

I don’t really sleep, instead I relive memories. Even the most beautiful are darkened by the night. I remember all the times I let him down. How cruel I was to him when we were kids. The calls I ignored because I didn’t have the patience for his philosophical rambles.

Dear god what I’d give to answer one of those calls now. He knew I loved him and I know he loved me but I wish more than anything that he never left. I am crying writing these words, remembering too vividly his gorgeously crooked smile and the way his eyes lit up when he saw me. It was me and him. Now it’s just me.

Mornings are a treasure buried in the night. I know that if I can just hold out until the sun rises it will all be okay. There’s Alba with her singsong voice, waking me up. There’s uniforms to be dressed in, breakfast to be made, lunch to be packed. The chatter of the kids in the backseat, the conversations and laughter with Georgia. The potential of blank hours waiting to be filled with meaningful work and daily errands.

One night I download a dating app. I don’t want to date anyone seriously. Not for a long time. But I want to be distracted and romance has always served as an easy distraction for me.

There’s something exciting about peeling back people’s layers and knowing their hearts. It’s hard to admit but it’s good to feel wanted too, especially after being left. You’re not supposed to need love, you’re supposed to be enough on your own. I’ve gotten better at being alone, but I’ve always needed a lot of love. It’s just another flaw that is difficult to admit.

I meet just one boy. We climb a tree together and sit high in the branches with birds all around us. We talk about our childhood and when he kisses me it’s both strange and sweet.

Later I feel terribly guilty and I call Bee about it. He pretends to not be jealous and says it’s really great that I’m moving on. I’m secretly and selfishly happy that he is jealous even though it was never my intention. The truth is I still want him to love me, of course I do.

I’m at a festival, Alba is fast asleep beside me in the tent and I’m whispering to Bee on the phone. I can tell he is nervous. That there’s something important he’s trying to say. It makes me nervous too.

Bee tells me he made a big mistake in leaving us, that he’s tried to fill every day since getting home because of his regret. He explains his headspace when we broke up, his depression and being so far from everyone he knew, feeling like it was the only choice. The way he stubbornly clung to his decision every time he doubted it. The way he romanticised going back to his friends and his freedom but how empty it feels without us.

I want to say duh, because I’d seen it all unfolding in my head before he even left but he said it all so earnestly. He says that he doesn’t expect me to forgive him but he wants to be a better lover and parent. To commit totally and weather all the storms together.

I want to scream yes, to dance around the tent, to tell everyone in the world. How many times did I stop myself from begging him if we could be together again? But I don’t scream yes. I quietly thank him for being so brave. I tell him we miss and love him as much as he does us. I say I don’t know. To give me time. And he says of course.

The tree climbing boy is here at the festival too and I like him, he’s calm and sweet. I feel like I can let my guard down with him. I know he wants to cuddle me and kiss me but I just can’t. I don’t want to hurt him but I also want to be honest. We lay on the grass and I tell him about Bee and my heart and the whole conversation is painful. He asks, “So do you think you’ll get back together?” And I just shake my head and say, “I’m just not sure.” It’s like I’m forever hurting people. But he understands.

I put Alba to bed early so she gets enough sleep. It means that once the music begins I am already in bed beside her. On the last night I lay awake for hours aching to dance, longing to be out there. I could ask Georgia to listen for her but she already has her kids to worry about. I don’t have anyone else I feel safe asking. I cry in my tent. When you are a parent you are constantly making sacrifices and sometimes they all just add up.

One night my anxiety is so terrible I call Bee and admit I’m not coping. The next morning he books tickets for Alba and I to Perth. He doesn’t tell me because they are expensive and he knows I wouldn’t have let him. I’m upset with him at first. He tells me he’s wants to help me and there isn’t much he can do from the other side of the country. I have a lot of friends in Perth and maybe I need a break.

It works. My nightly anxiety turns into anticipation. My days have this sense of waiting, that I’m just going through the motions of life until I board that plane. His texts give me butterflies. It’s like the time I was touring across America and he was road tripping across the country and we’d obsessively text and text and text. I write pros and cons lists. I ask everyone what they think, my mother could have cried of joy. And yet I’m not sure. Not yet.

I always knew I’d be happy spending my life with Bee; this goofy man who never once raised his voice toward me, who has all the time in the world for the people he loves, who lives to create. I just don’t want to get back together because it’s easy or because we miss each other.

I spent all this time convincing myself breaking up was the right thing. I created this story to move on. I focused on all the ways we didn’t work and the better man who would cross my path and all the reasons I needed to be alone right now. Now I’m unravelling all the threads, trying to uncover the right answer. But the truth is there is no right answer, there is only my answer.

I see a doctor about my anxiety. She asks if I’ve had traumatic experiences and I don’t know where to begin. I talk about my stepfather, my uncles and an ex boyfriend. The sexual, emotional and physical abuse that started in my childhood and continued into adulthood. I talk about my brother’s suicide, the call I never made and how alone I feel without him. I notice I’m clenching my fists so tightly my nails are leaving marks on my palms.

She said she was surprised I was coping with parenting and working. Surprised that I’d never seeked help. I guess I always thought it wasn’t a big deal, that I could manage it. Just having a stranger acknowledge that it is a lot is reassuring. It makes me feel less crazy for being overwhelmed by life.

She asks me what anxiety feels like and I say it’s like I’m being crushed from every direction. I can’t breathe properly and my mind is dark and loud and scary. I have compulsive thoughts about horrible things like losing Alba and even when I’m not thinking my body is tight with fear. She takes my blood and books me counselling.

‘Last night I stood beneath the sky as it stretched its arms wide above me. The moon was growing full. Stars were hand poked between moonlit clouds patterned like a cheetah's spots on dark velvet. It caught my breath. It was magnificent and it was just there above me. Painted across everything so perfectly and so unassuming. There was no man in a suit charging me to gaze up at this giant masterpiece, no lines to wait in to see it, no crowds staring up in awe alongside me. Just me in the backyard on the wet grass with my neck craned for so long it began to hurt, willing myself to believe in the immensity of the universe. Not just believe in it but feel it, in my bones.

Today I sat in a cafe writing in my journal. My writing scrawled across the page in a secret hope my fears and flaws might hide behind the messy marks, illegible to anyone but me. But I stopped the pen and I paused the mess of my thoughts, letting them still. I wrote carefully, the ink dancing as I wrote the paragraph above about the sky. I forgot how beautiful my handwriting could be and how much loveliness there was in that very simple act. I felt the sun pierce through my jeans and the weight of my body here on the earth. I knew that the magic of everything wasn't waiting for me somewhere in the future, it was here and it was simple. ’

My head is clear. I feel a quiet sort of happiness. I exfoliate my skin until it feels like silk and I dye my hair purple. I do yoga every day. I meet deadlines and miss deadlines and post prints all around the world. I watch the sea and I listen to the rain on the roof of the shack at night. I cuddle Alba close to my body on the coldest nights. I write and write. I count down days.