I am coming out from the other end of nearly 2 weeks where I couldn’t breathe properly. In a previous epistemological framework, where I saw my physical flesh as separate from my psychic state, I would dryly speculate on the complex interaction of bronchial epithelial cells, mast cells, adenoviral etiology, and the efficacy of blasting out my bacterial flora on improving my recovery ability from viral bronchitis. Although Cochrane Reviews suggest otherwise, in this case, penicillin worked where prednisone didn’t; or somehow my immune system got itself together to slowly fight this thing off.
In my current framework where I see my flesh, my microflora, my hypothalamus and my synaptic pathways as part of a complex, subtle and ever changing interrelationship, I sense emotions, illness, psychology and politics as linked. Thank dog psychosomatic illness is not a phrase I hear much any more; because nothing is every all on our heads, or all in our bodies. The psyche is somatic as much as the soma is psychological.
I think suffocation is an appropriate bodily metaphor for my mental as well as physical state – which is mostly in response to absolute despair about politics, and particularly the recent federal election result in Australia. I can’t bear to read the national news or politics. I look at the brutality of Centrelink, the venal corruption of politicians giving themselves pay rises, or harassing the media into silence, and marketising the abuse of asylum seekers into more obscene profits for shonky offshore mates in the cruelty business. I look at the obscene expanded mining, the destruction of forests, and expanded trumpeting of fossil fuels, at the expense of economic sense or sustainability. I see this country rushing headlong into the hellhole of the USA of mandatory state harassment incarceration of people of colour, and viscous cruelty against the poor and evisceration of the non-propertied middle class…. which was my class, until I saw it collapse under my feet.
I am terrified for my friends on bridging visas, and I don’t know what to tell them. 3 years ago, I screenprinted “hope” onto 50 pillowcases in 3 languages, but my own hope has vanished into my dreams and I am so very scared.
I am terrified for myself, currently working as a part time contractor and too exhausted to face the complex web of welfare surveillance in order to obtain the minor but necessary relief from high medical and transport costs that the last vestiges of the welfare state can provide. I laughed when Mum suggested I apply for sickness benefits for being unable to work for a week. I am less scared for myself than others, because I have enough social capital to get by, skimming month to month on the end of my overdraft, borrowing or begging from friends who were wiser, luckier, more hardworking than I was. Friends who didn’t have stupid delusions of changing the world in their 20s or dreamy illusions of following their dream career in some kind of highly creative, highly precarious personal discovery endeavour, or of finding personal fulfilment through highly creative, highly precarious personal relationships with other damaged beautiful queer butterflies.
So here I am, in my late 40s, single, sexless, almost unemployed, creatively exhausted, physically exhausted, politically disillusioned and living at the absolute edge of my means financially, wondering what the hell I did wrong. Middle class aspirations on a working class budget? Absolutely. First world problems? Hell yeah. And – the bigger issue of course is with being Queer – and unable to settle down into a heteronormative model of social and economic stability which is all that we have left when the social system collapses. I tried really hard to fit into the gaystream version of that. I stayed in a relationship that I shouldn’t have because she had a house and a steady income, and was nice enough, until she decided that she couldn’t live with my hypocrisy, even if I could.
So, this is a queer tale, I have turned to other queer tales for comfort. While bingeing on Tales of The City overnight, I couldn’t stop sobbing, and I now realise that my breathe is so full of grief, and that I feel just so much grief around my personal and political failures. Michael Tolliver lives, but I can’t stop crying. His young lover calls him a man baby for being economically precarious and dependent on the cheap rent of his landlady – provided through her own compromises. And watching this, and realising that the cost of fighting for spaces to exist psychically, emotionally within a heteronormative society means that some of us never get our shit together to grow up and work out how to get by. OK that’s what I tell myself. But what the hell have I actually achieved?
Right now I am ensconced in a little bubble of queer suburban joy with other overeducated unmarried queers: sharing food, taking soup to each other, cat sitting, dining on each other’s couches, carpooling, swapping and sharing forages from hard rubbish, and occasionally the odd rescue animal. In many ways this is my dream life: renting in a share house that manages to epitomise the absolute nightmare of the current government: queers, boat people and gender non-normative single parents, living within a walking distance community of good friends, with a part time job doing something genuinely interesting and worthwhile, and still managing to pad my CV with an impressive list of volunteer activities: curating two art exhibitions, performance events, drawing workshops, and hell – even a lecture for the Melbourne Free University.
Despite all of this, I am deeply exhausted, which I realise has come from a profound level of grief. Leaving academia after 15 years is heartbreaking and sensing the complete failure of any kind of progressive political change after 30 years of activism is spirit crushing. I haven’t let myself grieve for this – because I am just too worried about how I pay rent the next month – or the next 3 months. But, for the first time, ever, I am looking back instead of forward. For the first time, I don’t see my youth as something to run away from, but as something that I wish I could go back to (not the twenties – but definitely my thirties). For the first time, ever, I carry a deep sense of having lost opportunities and maybe not making the right choices after all. But then I also look back and wonder at what point did I choose any of this? 30 years ago I did choose to leave rural NSW, because staying there would have killed me. 25 years ago I chose to leave the shitty admin job I had after getting my (sensible but useless) Science degree, and I chose to do fine arts. I chose to leave the housing cooperative in Sydney because I really feared that being gaslit and bullied by flatmates and neighbours would have sent me mad. But were any of those actual choices? More like desperate acts of resistance and survival to being crushed by people and circumstances beyond my control. Maybe I could have chosen to be a different person who these things don’t happen to. Maybe I could have chosen to be an Ibis. Or a cat.
So, looking forward from the discomfort of an unsettled middle age, a massive part of me is willing myself to die before the inevitable result of capitalism devouring the planet and society really starts to hurt people like me – white or whiteish, urban people. Educated, optimistic, idealistic. I dread the day when the mean minded misery of capitalism seeps under our skin, and turns us against each other. I try really hard not to be devoured by class rage resentment at friends who have overseas holidays to escape the Melbourne winters, or anyone else not in my particular pit of pain. I have known and know enough refugees from countries broken by war, dictatorship and poverty, to know what happens when massive amounts of people are desperately miserable and afraid. We turn rat like and nasty, and claw at each other, and always take from those who have the least, and hurt those who are already hurt. Bearing witness to their broken societies is the heartbreak that political exiles suffer.
I wish I could end this with some Kimmy Schmidt optimism, some rounding homily that would resolve all of this. But I can’t. I am giving a talk on the SCUM Manifesto, with my main insight being a profound sense of regret that Solanis’s vision never came to pass. If I allow myself to imagine a world without capitalism, or masculinity, I feel impossibly light headed and relieved; If only thrill seeking independent women could imagine such a future, instead of dreading the planetary car crash that capitalism is careening towards.