I’m 52, a divorced mother of two fabulous sons Lachlan 20 and Oliver 17.
I have been in a wonderful relationship with Hugh for the last 2.5 years, and I believe he is my soul mate. We don’t live together as we didn’t want to do the “Brady Bunch’ thing with our kids. Who knows what will happen in the future when we become empty nesters!
I was fortunate to grow up in a beachside suburb of Sydney called Coogee. Summers were spent with as much time at the beach as possible, I was like a fish always in the water. In the winter we occupied our time playing sport and watching the local Rugby team, Randwick, who at the time supplied a number of the Australian Wallaby players and had an amazing streak of dominating all other teams. I went to a local Catholic girls’ school for the entirety of my schooling life and am lucky enough to still have a group of girlfriends that I am in regular contact with.
I grew up in a very male-dominated household with three older brothers, and a father who I guess in hindsight was very demanding and controlling.
Of course, my mother was present, and she and I had a good relationship. However, I can’t help thinking it wasn’t the type of relationship that she wanted. She, in contrast, came from a female-dominated household with one sister and her mother was ahead of her time in being quite independent and strong. I recall my mother saying how in my youth she was desperate to get me into a dress, but all I wanted to wear was my brothers’ rugby jerseys. I’m sure she would have much preferred to have been able to dress me up in frocks and curl my hair – when she did this on occasion I remember feeling like it wasn’t really me.
Whilst I said that my father was demanding I always felt it was a good thing, at least for me, as I grew up at a time where it was still unusual for females to have ‘careers.’ In my class of around 120 people, I would estimate that no more than 20% would have gone on to university or college.
Sport and academics was a big focus in our household. My brothers and myself were all swimmers. With two of my brothers being successful in the Surf Life Saving movement – both winning a number of Australian Titles. Due to this we were a fairly well-known family within our local area of Cooge/Randwick – my middle brother, in particular, is still thought to be a bit of a ‘legend’ for his sporting success and also because he is just one of those people that us Aussies call a ‘good bloke’.
So to some degree, I lived in the shadow of my brothers – which was a blessing and a curse.
Often it was nice to be ‘known,’ and at other times it was a burden because everywhere you went, someone would know you and as a teenager, it was difficult to push the boundaries without being caught!
I did, however, make my own mark as I was no ‘shrinking flower.’ I was very active in sport: swimming, netball, tennis, and softball. I also achieved from an academic perspective – so certainly within my school, I was a ‘known entity.’
Having grown up with only brothers (plus a dominant father), I do think it has influenced the type of woman I have become. For the speech I gave at my 50th birthday I did some research on the topic of women who grow up with only brothers, and I think it is very true of me.
The characteristics are said to be:
1. They are able to defend themselves as they have wrestled with their brothers from an early age.
2. They are not good at sharing food as they had to fight for their share.
3. Everything is a competition as you were always trying to prove yourself as good as the ‘boys.’
4. You have a unique type of ‘girliness’ as it’s been influenced and tempered by having your brothers’ influence.
5. You are a direct talker – you weren’t often given the opportunity to be heard, so you had to make sure you were understood when you did.
6. You can take ‘gutter talk’ to a new low.
7. Fiercely loyal, this was learned from brothers who always protected you and had your back.
In recent times when I’ve taken personality surveys for fun or leadership courses the recurring characteristic that comes up for me is bravery.
I am often told by friends that I am brave for doing or saying something. I really put it down to the environment in which I grew up. I’ve certainly had enough things happen in my life where I’ve had to call on this trait.
What has been the happiest moment of my life? The saddest?
Strangely the one event was both the happiest and saddest. It was the birth of my first son, Lachlan. We had had great trouble getting pregnant and had gone through a number of years of fertility treatment, and had two miscarriages. So when he arrived safely, it was one of the most joyous moments of my life. However, it was also laced with grief as my mother had died unexpectedly only six weeks prior. My father had only died 2.5 years before that, so his passing was raw too. I didn’t know I was having a boy, so the arrival of Lachlan really was bittersweet.
As I explained, I came from a very male-dominated family, and at that stage two of my brothers had had five girls between them.
Lachlan was the first boy in the family, and both my mother and father would have been hugely excited by his arrival. I had a great depth of sadness connected to that.
Besides I missed that my mother was not there to hold and cherish both her grandson and me. I feel that my relationship with my mother would have developed a new level now that I was a mother and I never got the chance to experience that.
Struggles and setbacks and how I overcame them
At 12 I was hit by a car and broke my femur in three places spending 12 weeks in a hospital with my leg in traction. To be honest, I can’t really say how I dealt with this. Other than to say I would have drawn on my bravery trait. I was also very well supported by family and friends – I had a constant string of visitors to my bedside so I never ever felt I was alone or abandoned. I do remember on one occasion I had been rude or fought with my mother and she didn’t visit me the following day. In the entire period, I was in the hospital that was the only day my mother didn’t visit me. I also became quite friendly with the nurses and some of the other patients. I was in the ward where a lot of the children had cancer and spent a lot of time in the hospital, I made friends with one particular boy Kevin.
After I left the hospital, I would occasionally visit the ward where I’d been and discovered that Kevin had passed away – a pretty confronting thing to learn at that age.
The biggest struggle I’ve had in my life was the ending of my marriage. With hindsight I can see that I did what a lot of women have done before me, marry someone like their father. He was like my father in only one way, and that was in his dominance or controlling nature. He was funny, smart and could be very direct. Unfortunately, that directness was coupled with not having a ‘socially acceptable’ filter, so it wasn’t unusual for him to say something inappropriate or even insult someone without knowing it.
As in all marriages, once children come along, it gets very hard. I had been the major breadwinner and housekeeper, and now I was also the caretaker of the children. My husband didn’t have a great role model in his own father as his parents had divorced when he was very young and he only saw his father every 2nd Sunday. He really didn’t know how to be a good father or husband.
I see now my fault was in enabling him, rather than let him fall over so he could learn.
I found him quite controlling. For instance, he insisted that for every single thing I bought that I should give him the receipt so he could enter it into a spreadsheet for budgeting purposes. Hence everything I purchased was scrutinized as to whether it was really necessary. I felt that everything was an argument, there didn’t seem to be anything that I could make decisions about independently, I couldn’t even choose a doona cover without his input.
For someone who had previously been very independent and been known for speaking my mind, this was a really difficult period. I got to a point where I just shut down, I was no longer the real me. It wasn’t like I emotionally broke down, I just gave up trying to have an opinion.
He also had anger issues, he was never violent, but he could fly off the handle at the very slightest thing. He would yell and scream at our young sons and me. I have memories of never once being able to go on a family outing without either myself or one of the boys being in tears as he had lost his temper at us. What should have been a happy family outing would invariably turn into a misery.
From what I’ve read since I would say that what we endured with my husband was mental abuse.
By the time the boys had got to around 3 and 7 years old, I didn’t know how I was going to go on. I felt like I had an albatross around my neck. Socially we weren’t being included as he was a loose cannon, nobody knew if he would be the life of the party or end up insulting someone. He had lost a number of jobs due to his lack of ‘social diplomacy’ in the office and I quite simply no longer loved him. As mentioned above, I am fiercely loyal, and I told very few people about the reality of my relationship.
As far as I was concerned, this was the choice I had made, and I had to stick it out.
I thought I needed to stay in this marriage for the sake of my sons. It wasn’t until one day that I realized that I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be if I stayed in the marriage. I needed to leave the marriage for the sake of my sons. I made the decision and lived with it for a few months. Before I did anything, I told a couple of close friends who offered their support, and I also told my eldest brother who responded ‘I’m not surprised.’
I’ll admit that I didn’t handle telling my husband very well, I just blurted it out one day when he was talking about having a joint 40th birthday party. I responded that I didn’t want a party I want a divorce! It’s funny how milestones like the big 0 birthdays can make you assess your life. I’d been to many 40th birthday parties where the wives were giving speeches about their husbands and saying how they were the love of their life and what amazing fathers and husbands they were. In my mind’s eye, I couldn’t see me saying any of those things, in fact, I was finding it hard to think of anything positive I could have said.
So how did I overcome my marriage, I left it. But before I did, I had individual counseling and then we had couples counseling. By that stage, unfortunately, I had mentally left the marriage there was no going back. I felt I tried earlier to improve matters.
I probably could have tried harder, but a recurring theme of our marriage was that I felt that I was never heard, this was no different.
I coped through the process of divorce with the support of family and friends. When I told one of my lifelong friends that we were breaking up, she arrived on my doorstep with a bunch of roses and burst into tears and said ‘I saw my beautiful friend disappear over the last 10 years and I didn’t think it was my place to say anything.’ Every friend I told about the divorce fully supported my decision.
Throughout this process one of my beautiful friends said something to me which really struck, she said that I have a lot of friends who are there to support me but I need to allow them to be my friend.
I had always been emotionally quite independent and thought I didn’t really ‘need’ people for support – I had been keeping them at a distance. I recognize now that this period was the start of my emotional growth, I hadn’t grown in my marriage I had just been in survival mode. So at 39, I started to learn slowly about myself.
My next setback was when I was diagnosed with a Melanoma on my back in 2010.
My boys were only 10 and 7, still very young. On diagnosis, the first phone call I made was to my middle brother, who amongst all my siblings (including me) has the empathy gene. I also called the beautiful friend who gave me the advice to let my friends actually be friends to me.
Given the age of my sons at the time I chose only to let a couple of select people know what was going on, I wanted to wait until I had pathology results to understand whether or not the melanoma had spread.
From surgery to knowing the pathology results was a 2 week period. They were the longest 2 weeks of my life. In that interim period, I had a wound on my back and under my arm, which needed dressing daily (you can see the pic of my back complete with staples on my Instagram). Dressing a wound on your back is not something you can do alone! I leaned on family and friends to do this for me. As I still hadn’t told my boys about the Melanoma I was using all sorts of excuses to explain why friends were visiting me or I was visiting them just so I could get my dressing changed.
At the end of the 2 weeks, I went along to the doctor with my gorgeous empathetic brother. Firstly I had my staples removed, and I am generally not weak stomached, but I almost fainted. I think it was in anticipation of the results. When I got the result that no melanoma had been found in the lymph nodes, I was ecstatic as was my brother! Reflecting on this right now I see that similar to the birth of Lachlan this was also overshadowed for me as my brother’s wife had recently had breast cancer and had learned that her cancer had spread. Here I was celebrating when my brother’s wife had not been so lucky.
My latest struggle is the return of Melanoma, well not really the return, I gather it’s just been laying in wait! It’s stage IV, and it’s in my bones, which isn’t great!
However, there has been fantastic results with Immunotherapy treatment which I am currently having. I am getting through this with the love and support of family and friends, an amazing team at The Melanoma Institute of Australia and by recording my journey on Instagram and through poems. Since the beginning of my relationship with Hugh I have been writing him poems, he suggested I write about how I’m feeling with the Melanoma, and it’s just grown from there. My friends have been amazing with filling my fridge with food, setting up a What’s App group to send me love and good vibes and to enjoy some general banter.
It’s amazing to feel the outpouring of love from places that you might not have expected. My brothers are all very attentive, taking me to doctor appointments and calling me frequently. I am also doing daily meditation.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned in life?
That vulnerability is not a weakness. I had a major ‘aha’ moment after discovering Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability. You’ve probably picked up that I’ve been quite independent or perhaps ‘self-contained’ as far as my emotions go. I was single and had been ‘looking for a man’ through online dating for many years. I kept meeting men who would tell me they needed a woman in their life with varying reasons for why. In all honesty, I thought they were pathetic. Why did they need a woman? Couldn’t they live a perfectly happy life without one, but still ‘want’ a woman in their life, not ‘need’ one. That felt all too clingy for me. After reading Brene’s Book, it was like the whole world had turned upside down and I realized that being able to identify what you needed in life and going after it wasn’t a weakness it was, in fact, a strength. Soon after that realization, I met a man who was a very emotional person and was just what I needed in that phase of my life, to learn to be more emotional and more emotionally available. The relationship ran its course over 2 years.
What am I most afraid of right now?
I am afraid of how my cancer is impacting the people I love most. My youngest son is doing his final school exams and is ready to start his adult life, my oldest son is at Uni and starting to mature into a man. My lovely partner has been through this journey about 30 years ago when he lost his wife to breast cancer. My eldest brother is already dealing with his wife’s breast cancer, my middle brother and his wife are themselves cancer survivors and my youngest brother is going through a divorce.
My current goals and why do I want to achieve them?
My short-term goal is to do an ocean swim called the Coogee Island Challenge on 25th November. My love is ocean swimming. I love being a small part of the magnificent ocean. Being able to enjoy its beauty and serenity as well as battling with its tides and swells. Swimming in the ocean is when I feel strong and more myself than anywhere else. To be swimming means, I am reclaiming my life from cancer.
My longer-term goal is to help spread the word to young people about the value in sun protection.
My vision is to make it cool for young people to wear sunscreen. My goal would be to get each person under 25 to apply sunscreen just one more time than they usually would. This is only a new goal that has been forming in my head over the last week. I have had a career in advertising and marketing for the last 30 years so feel I can use my experience and contacts to make a difference.
I want to achieve this because Melanoma is a bastard of a disease – I thought I’d well and truly kicked it and here it is again after 8 years and no signs.
Being in Australia we have the opportunity to take advantage of the climate to pursue a beautiful outdoor lifestyle, yet we can be so harshly penalized for that through Melanoma.
My advice to a room full of strangers: don’t be afraid of your cracks, they allow your light to shine.
Not long after I started dating Hugh, it was his birthday. It was still early days in our relationship, but I knew it was going somewhere but didn’t feel I knew him well enough to buy a present that was truly meaningful. So I write him a poem, which he loved, and throughout our relationship, I have continued to write poetry for him. So when Melanoma came along Hugh suggested that I write poems about it as I’ve always been much better at communicating my emotions in writing than through speech.
Writing the poems has enabled me to label what’s going on for me emotionally and to partially let go of those feelings. I then decided it was time I shared the poems and my Melanoma story more broadly. Whilst my immediate circle of family and friends knew, my larger circle of acquaintances didn’t. I decided to use Instagram and make it public to see how others would respond and to connect with others going through the same thing. I only became active on Instagram about a week ago, and I am now a little obsessed! I am loving the connection with others and the creativity that I can add to my story. The love I have received from people is so motivating and empowering for me.
About a week after my diagnosis I put a photo of myself on the fridge. The photo was taken at the beginning of an ocean swim race called the Coogee Island Challenge. The swim is circa 2.5km out and around a rocky island and back to the beach. The funny story behind this photo is that I’d stopped enjoying racing as I’d felt I’d slowed down and wasn’t placing as High as I would have liked, so for that race, I set the intention just to enjoy it. Ha! Look at my face I’ve never seen a more determined face.
On the photo, I’ve written my goal which is to swim the 1km race at the event in November 25, 2018. I love this photo as I see strength, vitality, and determination. I see a warrior, a Melanoma Warrior.