Thursday, June 23, 2005

Panic attacks and refugee advocacy in Australia: a boat with two sails

Half a crumbed fish and eleven thousand words
by Jessica Perini

As a child and teenager I treated writing like a life boat; if the rest of my life sank I could always get on the little vessel and cast my sails in the direction of dry land. Life on my vessel was quiet and safe, and I could scribble to this sensitive heart’s delight. In 1996 I went to the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival and heard Helen Garner speak. In front of a room full of budding writers she said that as a writer, up until the age of 25, she spent her time wandering through the fields of her discontent, or perhaps she said wallowing in. At the time I was 25, and I definitely heard the words wallowing in. I felt much the same way. Countless crumbling books, diaries, folders and scrap-paper housed the words of my wallowing soul: school angst, teen angst, university angst. Not many revelations there. I’d published a novella and some poetry, just because I fostered a romantic image of being a writer, and felt I had to say something; even though I really didn’t have anything to say. Within the year a large wave tipped over my life boat and it began to sink, no shore in sight, and no buoys to mark the way. I didn’t know it at the time but that trip to Byron Bay would be my last real holiday (to this day), and that angst would be replaced by feelings I couldn’t have imagined, that day sitting in a room full of writers, in a cabin filled with light.

Several months later panic attacks, acute agoraphobia and depression hit me. Suddenly, dispassionately. I could write a novel about this, but the pages of this website could not house it.

When the wave struck, I could not eat, sleep, nor stop my body’s relentless shaking. I remember seeing fire engines, their whirling lights six storeys below my window, I didn’t care if the place burned down, I was not leaving the apartment. I read prayers all the way to the hospital, demands I had written when imagining this terrifying journey. They were loud shameless prayers mixed with affirmations, Please God stop me shaking, please God I am courageous, please God I am well. In my small private hospital room I felt crowded: my writing pad, myself, my huge fears swelling the walls. The greatest fear elbowing the rest was my fear of starving to death, and my second greatest fear was eating. That night with each tiny spoon of crumbed fish placed gingerly in my mouth I would run to my writing pad and scrawl several thousand words: You are so courageous, excellent work Jessica. One more spoon, just one more. Eating is so good for you, eating makes you well. Three hours and eleven thousand words later I had eaten a tiny part of my now-cold crumbed fish, and went on to survive the next few years.

Over the years I charted my treatments, techniques, prayers, Cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, herbal treatments, meditations, medications, and positive thinking seminars with psychiatrists who had given up psychiatry. These records kept me afloat, focused, gave me a sense of control of my environment, when it appeared that everything I had learned about up until that point was untrue. All logic left me when panic hit, it was no longer safe to eat, leave home, see friends, go on holidays. The only thing that could help me tame the hurricane of my thoughts was writing.

Today life is different. I write for other reasons. Mainly I write so that others who have no voices may be heard. I still have panic attacks and agoraphobia, but all those treatments and writing have helped me come to terms with it, and each day is easier than the rest. I can’t say I’ve had a lot published, but I can say I’ve done some significant writing.

When the Tampa rescued refugees off the coast of Australia, I watched in disbelief as soldiers stormed the Norwegian vessel. Women, men and children, most likely dazed by their near drowning were then forced onto an island made of bird droppings, the island of Nauru. As things got worse in detention centres and women, men and children started sewing their lips together and dehydrating in the rays of the harsh Woomera sun, I felt that something had to be done. I scanned the papers for something, anything. Misinformation abounded, some of the papers seemed to be writing to someone’s agenda, someone other than the asylum seekers. I joined a group of people called ChilOut (Children Out of Detention), and day-by-day their emails kept me informed. Stories that read like war-time Germany abounded; families being woken in the middle of the night and being taken to the airport, women being handcuffed during labour. Is this still Australia? I thought. All the facts were in front of me: names, phone numbers and signed affidavits.

Still the papers weren’t publishing even half the stories I read in these emails. By co-incidence, or perhaps divine intervention, a publisher contacted me and asked if I wanted to write a book about refugees in Australia. After a night of turbulent dreams I said Yes.

I started to call the numbers on those emails, and word spread. When refugee advocates heard I was writing a book they spoke to me at length about their visits to detention facilities. They were stretched, and some seemed almost bursting with the burden of all the stories they knew.

I wanted contact with these courageous asylum seekers. I wanted to know what would make a person travel thousands of kilometres across the world to a place they knew nothing about. I contacted Bellingen Rural Australians for Refugees, who had a long list of people from Nauru requiring penpals, often their only source of contact with the outside world. I got the name of my penpal and wrote. I waited one month, then two. I wrote to Bellingen again. Something was wrong, my penpal had not replied. Give it another month they said. The mail is slow. Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away my penpal waited for word from me. He had sent three letters and had received no reply. Perhaps they got lost, accidentally dropped from the postie's pack? Somehow I doubt it. Eventually we got in contact, I told him I had received nothing, and feared for his safety, feared they had sent him back to his war-torn home of Afghanistan. But he was there on Nauru still. Coping with two hours of water a day and classes so overcrowded and under-resourced that one of his fellow asylum seekers (who also had limited English skills) was teaching them. There he waited, without recourse to a court of law, and waited and waited.

One story, a little closer to home, will never fade. A 10 year old girl had spent six months of her life in Villawood Detention Centre, west of Sydney. One day a refugee advocate visiting the Centre happened upon her in the yard. Where are your parents? the advocate asked. The little girl replied that they no longer came outside, for month after month as their hope faded they retreated to their darkened room. Standing in the barren yard the little girl asked the refugee advocate, Are there any flowers in Australia?

When the advocate told me about this my first impulse was to call Interflora and deliver to this child the biggest bunch of Australian natives I could afford.

But I knew after a few days they would brown and die. This young child didn’t need a cut bunch of flowers. She needed help to see the flowers, help to see everything on the other side of the fence.

I started to write letters to every newspaper I knew, I bombarded them with emails, I sent postcards to politicians. A Current Affair, always looking for new stories, was on my list. Media Watch was well informed.

In late 2003 the Family Court decided that it was illegal to keep children in detention. This was met with abuse from the public. It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to keep a child behind bars, our own fears of this would be intolerable. But a child's fears, unimaginable. But some do want children in detention, and are willing to sign names to publicly declare their opinion. ChilOut encouraged people to write to the Family Court in appreciation of their judgment, at this time the only court in Australia to rule in favour of the best interests of all the children. In response people littered the Court with letters of thanks. The children and some families now slowly trickle out of detention. Our letters, emails and phone calls have, I'm sure, helped change the tide of opinion. The children and families slowly step out into the sunshine, and shield their eyes.

But it is not all over yet. My penpal from Nauru, was whisked away on a midnight plane back to Afghanistan. He had twenty-fours hours' notice in which to write me a last note, "Thank you. I will never forget what you've done." No arivederci, no au revoir. He wasn't expecting to write to me, or see me, that was plain. He wasn't expecting to get very far in Kabul; the place of his original persecution. I don't know where he is today; or if he managed to escape to Syria, to grease the palms of official men.

I don’t need to be heard for my own sake any more. Being published is great but only because I have something to say which desperately needs to be said. I know it's not me drowning any more, it’s men, women and children, on perilous boat journeys, at risk of bad weather, pirates and the sea. And when they get here, they are at even greater risk of being swamped by depression, and public opinion tempered by fears of terrorism, and months if not years of waiting for relief from detention. The ocean is far larger than I imagined in 1996, and the boat has a rusty-holed hull and is filled with people to overflowing. But it is no longer my boat, or my life that I am fighting for. It is their lives. But one thing remains the same, no-matter how tough this battle gets, writing, and the compassion it elicits, I believe, is still the key.


On 29 April 2004 the High Court dealt a crushing blow to the battle to get children out of detention. It ruled that the Family Court had no jurisdiction over the children's welfare. In other words, on a legal technicality, the Government won the case; the children in this particular case were immediately re-instated as detainees. Guards were ordered to the house where the children lived. Their custodians were appointed to be their gaolers. The phones went mad, the emails flew. Radio and news teams scrambled for quotes from refugee advocates, 15 second grabs for tv. What is going on? Everyone wanted to know. So we scrambled together press releases and talked to the stations, yet again wrote letters to editors and sent out emails.

The High Court has since confirmed that it is legal under Australian domestic law to keep children and their families in detention indefinitely. Children stare towards our free Australia from behind the fences of Baxter, Villawood, Nauru and Christmas island and others; their little fingers creased around the wire. These are not places for children, and I will continue to use the only tool I know how to wield, the pen, until no one can claim lack of knowledge, and someone turns the key to set them free.

23 June 2005
Things are changing rapidly this week. Children are being freed by the hour. This time next week maybe no children will remain in detention. To be continued...

First published in NewsWrite, the newsletter of the NSW Writers’ Centre 2004.


Blogger Weight Watcher said...

Six Steps to Success
Throughout the centuries history tells of men and women with the midas touch, who achieved greatness against what seemed insurmountable odds. To some their successes appeared to be the result of blind luck, to others the reward for hard work, but the truth about the successes of men such as Andrew Carnagie and Henry Ford is much more interesting.

Success is a state of mind to which all people should aspire. Like many others you can unlock te gate to achievement and the fulfilment of yor personal desires. With the six steps outlined below anyone can arrive at a set destination, with the added advantage of renewed self-confidence and secure in the knowledge that every goal is attainable.
Step 1. Desire
The key factor involved in the process of achieving any desire lies in the response of one's mind to the objective. If a complacent attitude is apparent then there will be a lack of enthusiasm leading to failure or only half-success.
If a goal is to be reached determination is needed to carry set plans through to a successful conclusion. This determination must have enough mental 'weight' behind it to propel you forward onto the road of achievement. This mental state can only be instilled by one thing - desire!
As can be easily seen, when we look around us, it is this desire-force that has launched mankind on his frenzied zest for ever-new knowledge and has enabled him to push back the boundaries of science to never dreamed of achievement.

It is this same desire-force that must be used in our business and personal affairs if the success we seek is to materialize. It is not very hard to develop this kind of desire for all you have to do is go after what you really want - its that simple. With this desire you will have all the persistence you need to accomplish your goal. There is a great saying "you never fail until you give up"!
Take heed of what Napoleon Bonaparte said "What we ardently and constantly desire, we always get".

Step 2. Goals
If success is to come your must realise what is expected to materialize. This statement may seem obvious at first but if careful thought is given its meaning takes on deeper significance.
Many people fail to gain satisfactory results from their endeavours because they did not know what they wanted to accomplish in the first place. Your objective must not be hazy or incomplete. Before you reach your goal you must be able to identify how your life will be different when you achieve it. You must know exactly what it is that you want to achieve. How will your life be better/different? How will you feel? What way will you look? What situations will you find yourself in? Will other people in your life be effected and if so how will they react? You need a clear definite picture in your mind of what the attainment of your goal will mean to you.

Step 3. Belief
Belief is the back-up system of desire. It keep the fires of enthusiasm burning and makes us continually strive to get nearer the goal attainment. Faith can truly move mountains; the mountains of fear, inferiority, worry and low self esteem - 'the success killers'!
Once a goal is firmly fixed in mind and our desire-force is hurtling us toward seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the firm belief that we can gain a favourable outcome can spur us on to victory. When the mind has been manipulated to reflect this state, wonderful physical results can ensue, producing symptoms of success in our lives in every area imaginable.
Although many can attest to the power of belief and to the wondrous accomplishments that were achieved through nothing else except faith, it still remains that many individuals find it hard to believe that a positive outcome will be forthcoming when they are faced with momentous opposition. Whether the opposition is mental or physical the fact that nothing seems to be going right and everything seems to be wrong is enough for even the strongest of us to 'throw in the towel'. But it is in these very situations that faith can conquer all. Faith in yourself, what you are doing and belief that that your objective will be reached.
There are some who bemoan "easier said than done". This is exactly the kind of mental attitude that sustains the problems that they are trying to eradicate. If your belief power is not apparent, take hope for it can be acquired.
Each morning and night recite your intentions from a written list of your goals. Voice your belief in your own abilities. Tell yourself that in due course you will be successful. As you go about your daily affairs reflect as often as possible on your goals and affirm that they are yours now. Fool your mind into believing it and you will see your world reflect it!

Step 4. Plan
Having decided upon your goal and being determined to build your faith you need to give your desire-force a 'vehicle' through which it may materialize. This 'vehicle' will take the form of a definite plan of action.
Do you need to acquire certain skills? Do you need to know certain people or be in certain places to help you achieve your goal? Make a plan that will help you get closer to your end objective. Research your desires and get clear on what you need to do. Then do it!
Ensure that your plan is workable and realistic for you. Although your plan should remain flexible so that changes can be made when appropriate only make changes after careful consideration. Trial and error will eventually show the way to a good plan although you should be open to intuition also.
However, I should point out that, it is very likely your goal will materialize in a most unexpected way. The fact that you have set a plan for its accomplishment tends to set things in motion and like a chain reaction (or the butterfly effect) subtle changes made by you may cause dramatic changes elsewhere and your goal may come before your plan is completed.

Step 5. Visualization
Visualization is the art of creating mental movies of your completed goal. This has many beneficial effects upon your consciousness. Without going into the deeper esoteric benefits of using this art let me just say that you are truly designing your life when you use it. It has one other major benefit - it strengthens your desire and persistence because you momentarily experience the thrill of having achieved your goal!
Just form a mental picture of having achieved your goal. See what you will see. Feel how wonderful it will be. See how it effects everyone around you. Hear people congratulate you. When this state is experienced nothing will stop you in your quest for your objective and thus your belief-power will also be reinforced.

Step 6. The Subconscious Mind
It is within the subconscious part of your mind that you hold all th positive and negative beliefs about yourself - your self-image. These beliefs are reflected back to you in the form of attitudes. Therefore it is from the subconscious mind that the thought of failure or success comes.

Attitudes are just mental programs and so is your self-image. They can easily be changed (yes I said 'easily'). Any attitude or belief can be changed by using the formula outlined in this article - by combining affirmations with visualization. Henry Ford used it, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson and even Arnold Swatzeneger. It is reported in some circles that a similar technique was employed by Bill Gates to build his global empire. Andrew Carnegie used it exactly as described to attain and give away multi-millions even though he was an unschooled manual worker when he started it. Carnegie's legacy can still be seen today when you freely borrow a book from any Carnegie library of which there are thousands.
If you use these six steps there is nothing you cannot achieve. Luckily we have the advantage of living in the Twentieth Century with all its new technology and innovations such as hypnosis and subliminal programming. Use these steps in conjunction with your favourite personal development system and you are assured success. personal development plan

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