So. I am sure most of you are thinking that 2020 can get in the proverbial bin and stay there.
I mean we had: a global pandemic, the US election, Black Lives Matter, the Bushfires, no toilet paper and a whole lotta time to ourselves to feel our feelings. You might be totally inclined to forget a lot of what was, really shit, about 2020. Let me tell you why I’m not going to.
January 1: Almost getting divorced.
I started the year, literally, with my husband sitting me down and telling me what we were doing wasn’t working anymore. The circumstances around this can be found in an IGTV here, but lets just say I was starting the year off doing a lot of inner work, rediscovering myself and beginning to explore where my existing beliefs had come from. Emotional, is an understatement. I spent the next few months on the edge: my feelings, my thoughts, who I wanted to be around all felt so tender, like every decision I made would have long reaching side effects. Repair takes time, its takes support and consistency and all of that was about to be taken away from not just me, but most people.
February: Making plans.
With the acquiescence of our changing relationship, we booked our first family holiday to celebrate Sonny’s birthday in May. We had been toying with the idea for a while, but with where we were at, decided this would be a great thing to do together. I was a few months into my final year of uni and doing really well in our student clinic, and much further ahead of schedule. We were on a path to our relationship being stronger and more open than it had been for a very long time, we had made in-roads with familial relationships and felt very positive. Little did we know that the world was about to be upended.
March: Losing and gaining everything all at once.
It was my Dad’s birthday on Monday, March 23. We had been hearing all about the ‘rona at that stage. We had cancelled our family holiday as Australia placed level 4 travel restrictions on international and domestic flights. I had been really anxious about the repercussions about cancelling our holiday; that week away was going to be time to reconnect as a family, it was time for Sonny to do what he wanted, where he felt valued and heard. I felt like my life was only just coming back from the brink of total ruination and the prospect of anything else being altered was almost becoming too much.
I just had to finish uni. I had to get through my degree in one piece, without losing everything that mattered to me.
On Monday, March 23, before my afternoon clinic shift we got told the university clinic would be closing indefinitely; that the whole state would be doing a 4 week lockdown; that kids holidays were starting early, and next term would be delayed; that if you could work from home you should work from home; that all university classes would now be online, children were going to remote learn and we would all hold our collective breath. At the time, this was a dystopian prospect, something out of a Margaret Atwood novel.
I had my first panic attack right there in the clinic. As I bagan talking through the prospect of online classes, whilst trying to remote-educate my kids, whilst my husband would be working at home, I began hyperventilating and crying. The clinicians who were my supervisors at the time, women, were fantastic. Our head of school seemed to think everything was going to be fine. For me, in that moment, everything was not fine. My marriage had almost crumbled under the stress of university (not that uni was to blame, but the story I had told myself for years whilst under this intense pressure was a major contributor). The prospect of prolonging my time there, after really hitting the ground running with my clinical requirements and my whole world being upended was, apparently, more than my system could handle.
I got home that day and felt helpless, hopeless. Sure, there were certainly people who were doing it a lot tougher than I was. I had spent many years making my suffering small, because other people had it harder, or making my struggles seem like, not struggles because I had chosen my circumstances. At this time, hearing other classmates say they were excited to have time off and get paid, or extra time to study pushed me over the edge. The reality was that for me, I was facing a very different next few months than that of most of the people around me, and finally I wasn’t going to pretend that other people had it just as hard as we did: because they didn’t.
I removed myself from the many toxic group chats I had passively been a part of and deactivated my facebook account. I couldn’t deal with the complaints of some people around me and in my world. Like, how sad that someones income from their rental property was being compromised. Or how great it was we were closed at uni. Or even just the constant conspiracy theories that positioned people to believe there was no good left in the world. I was struggling, and the only way I knew how to deal with this in the past was to shut down and shut out, so thats exactly what I did.
April: Admitting defeat and asking for help.
My second panic attack occurred on a drive to work. That morning, we needed to set up a second desk in our house for Sonny to be able to work from home. We planned to take shifts with the kids, allowing each of us time during the day for uninterrupted work or study. The innocuous decision on Sonny’s part to help by taking my old desk to set up his work space was enough to throw me completely over the edge. I sat on my bedroom floor, crying uncontrollably trying to put this fucking desk together and just ended up abandoning the whole thing. After thinking I had calmed down I got in my car and headed to work. I was about 4 minutes into my drive, when I had to pull over because I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t see. I had, without conscious knowledge, started crying and stopped breathing, causing me to hyperventilate.
I am so grateful to have had (and still have) the boss I do. I sent her a message, explaining what had happened and that I couldn’t work that afternoon. My workmate was able to stay on and do my shift that afternoon, and my boss assured me it was fine, and was more worried about whether I could get home safely. Side note: years of working in retail and for some other employers had always lead me to believe that sick days, or personal days, or mental health days, were not OK and would (and were) always met with disdain and disbelief. Janice, in that moment, only had compassion and understanding and continues to be an incredible person to work with and for. After what felt like a few minutes on the side of the road, but in reality was more like 25-30, I drove back home. I walked in the door, burst back into tears and said, “I am not ok, and I need help and support”. Sonny had no idea I had been keeping so much in, and as a recovering emotional shut down expert, this was a big step. He wrapped me up and said, “OK, thank you for telling me” and didn’t need me to expand any more than that.
It was the beginning of us, really, both not trying to protect the other from what was going on in our heads, and the start of us simply practicing unconditional love in all areas. This might sound weird, like why only now? For so long, as strong individuals who were spurred on by provision, we had always tried to protect each other from what we perceived as personal burdens. We loved each other, and didn’t want the other to feel overloaded and as a result had overloaded ourselves. This has been steadily improving on both our parts since January, but for me this definitely marked a new found openness when it came to wounds.
May: Realising our values, wants and needs, had changed.
That release was such a catalyst for me to drop the busy-badge that I had been wearing my whole life. I started to slow down. I started to be OK with, neigh, even enjoy days spent with the kids doing nothing but watching movies or playing video games: things I had often done with my siblings in school holidays or on weekends when my Dad was home. Things that I had told myself, that my mother had told me, that society told me that I shouldn’t be doing. How dare I just enjoy without feeling guilty? Did my house need to be 100% spotless and completely clean before I relaxed? Actually, no it didn’t. Did I need to justify why I had spent the day reading a book? No, I didn’t. Did I actually like filling every minute of the day with order and detail and a never-ending list of things I needed to ‘achieve that day? No, I didn’t. It was like I had been driving with a dirty windscreen and all of a sudden gone through an automated carwash and was finally seeing for the first time.
I was changing. My needs and wants were changing. My love language was changing. I felt empowered, and centred and whole. I was choosing my life, for what felt like the first time in forever. It felt like I had such an abundance of clarity, that I could see a really clear and obvious path forward out of this crazy pandemic-induced haze everyone seemed to be under.
I had 1 semester of uni left and our plan had always been for Sonny to be able to go back to uni once I had finished. With the changes in government support and the ability to access our superannuation, we found ourselves in a unique situation. One night, we sat down and I suggested to Sonny that he quit working full time and start uni, explaining that our financial situation wouldn’t change that much because of the assistance we would be eligible for. Let me be very clear: we made this decision because we had both previously worked our absolute butt’s off, and even with withdrawing from our super would still be so far ahead of most people our age, that it wouldn’t put us backwards financially. In this time, I think we both had realised how little ‘stuff’ actually matters, and realised that even though we already lived quite frugally, our happiness and time together was much more important.
Within the space of a few weeks, we had upgraded our lifestyle so much to include our dream car (a Landcruiser Prado) a Solidteknics pan set (more info on that coming soon) and Sonny enrolled to start his Bachelor of Secondary Education. I just felt aligned. I felt like every decision we had made in the past; when Sonny worked away (including a 4/1 roster); when I had worked full time with 2 babies while pregnant; when we lived with my parents and siblings and built our house; everything, every sacrifice we had made had now enabled us to make these decisions and have the capacity to do this, here and now. If the world wasn’t in the midst of a global pandemic, encompassing world wide economic crisis and public health measures, we never would have had the opportunity to realise it.
June: Returning to some normality.
As fate would have it, we began to exit out of lockdown and return to some normalcy, including uni opening back up. Originally, I had planned to pace myself in my final clinic year, aiming to complete my clinical requirements by September prior to going on my final clinical placement in Geraldton, taking it slow and steady but consistent. That was before how much I realised my life was being dictated by the stress of uni and I now wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Sonny and I had big goals, and big plans, and I was ready to kick into the next gear. Was I still going to finish before placement, after being closed for 10 weeks? You fucking bet I was.
It was time to go head-down-bum-up in a different way; letting the little stuff go and focus on the big picture. It was going to be a push: finishing in September would mean fully booked clinic shifts and extra time to get it done. I had never felt more determined in my life to reach a goal. I wanted to be able to study for my exams and have the ability to support Sonny in his first semester at uni, the way he had supported me for the last 5.5 years. I was ready.
July: New beginnings.
After partially returning to uni, July saw the beginning of a new semester, and full time clinic as well as Sonny starting uni for the first time. We were both in a really great place, and a great place with our kids. They had more of us than they had ever had. We were eating dinners as a family most nights and enjoying being able to explore new parts of WA now that we had a 4WD, kitted out with camping essentials. I had been un-learning a lot of previously held truths about how I was valued, and was immensely enjoying the slower and more spontaneous pace of life. I also had the biggest exam of my life coming up: my clinical exit theory exam. For those who haven’t completed medical degrees, this is a 3 hour, 4 part exam that has each part timed and taken away as if it was a real patient. It was the hardest exam to prepare for, ever. Trying to review 5 years of theory and be prepared for absolutely anything is something I would not wish on my worst enemy.
I need to wind back the clock a bit here, like way back. I had always been a high acheiver. From very young, being top of the class was something I came to expect. After exploring the many layers I had cemented around myself, I have realised that my intelligence was something no one could ever take away from me, it wasn’t something people could sneer at, or make fun of: my intelligence was how I protected myself. If people didn’t like me, they couldn’t deny I was smart. If people didn’t agree with me, they couldn’t say I wasn’t educated. If I wasn’t enough for someone, it didn’t matter because I was enough for me. As I prepared for this exam, a lot of that protection began to melt away. I didn’t need to prove that I was and would be an exceptional chiropractor, my clinical results spoke for themselves, as did maintaining a Distinction average up to that point. I just needed to pass. Would anyone care about my grade for this one exam? No. Had the story I had told myself my whole life, that if I just got a better grade next time, I might get the validation I deserve made that very difficult to believe? Yes.
August: The pandemic of my childhood.
When our marks came out, I had failed.
By 6 marks.
Almost like clockwork the anxiety, the panic, the feelings of failure came rushing back. For 2 weeks while I waited to speak to my unit coordinator I did nothing but worry. I had spent months studying, far more than a lot of people who had only just passed. I couldn’t figure out how my answers were so wrong. So, like a recovering stoic, I began to run through every scenario in my head of what would happen if I had to repeat a year long unit. Would my marriage survive? Would I survive? Did I even want to be a chiropractor? Could I be happy just working as a Lab tech and use my first degree? The questions were endless. When I finally saw my UC, the first thing he asked me to do was look over my paper. Being the diligent human I am, I also counted every mark myself.
It was here that I quickly realised that everything is just a story we tell ourselves, not the truth. He had forgotten to give me marks for 2 answers, which affected my marks in the subsequent sections. I hadn’t failed: there had been a marking error. So my 3 weeks of continuous breakdowns, trauma-induced panic and expecting the worse, was literally a counting error. Looking back now, of course this seems like an overreaction, but at the time it really did feel like my world was crumbling. The little girl in me who had used being smart as a way to not get hurt was being dismantled in big ways. The sheer relief of passing that exam, and being one step closer to finishing was probably one of the biggest releases I have ever had in my life. It also made me realise that so much of our perception is made up of the narrative we tell ourselves, as opposed to the one that is, and even now I can look back and be really glad that experience happened.
September: Reconciliation and finishing uni.
It seemed like once I had opened myself up for change, the universe was ready to pile it on. A couple of months back, Sonny’s sister had told him she was pregnant. Her and I had not spoken in a while. This had started largely due to some unresolved issues to do with my mother-in-law and me projecting a lot of my own shit onto them in the past (more on this to come in a later post), but that’s where we were. Some of the healing and work I had been doing, and working through, had involved taking responsibility and acknowledging my role in relationship breakdowns, and I had written Bec and Fiona both letters (this is a post for another time). So, I guess bridges had been mended in a sense, but not yet walked on. My relationship with my in-laws was not what I had, I guess, expected it to be. Although there was a lot at play here, It was something I had accepted may not change, and would have to grieve and let go. It was in September that I received an invitation to Bec’s baby shower. I remember getting it and feeling really emotional. My sister-in-law had been and was such an important part of my kids lives, and in the past, my life and we had had a really wonderful relationship. When we found out she was going to be a mum, there was a big part of me that was really sad that I might not get to me a part of it, not just as an Aunty to the soon-to-be Oliver, but as a Sister to the only sibling my husband will ever have. So when this invitation arrived, the significance was (and still isn’t) lost on me. I also did absolutely not want to make anyone uncomfortable, and made it clear that I was so grateful but would understand if the first time we had spent time around each other for a a long time was better saved for something more private.
Even now, reflecting back on that response, I am so proud of my growth. Being able to approach what could have been a re-opening of old wounds thinking not about protecting myself, but about opening myself, made me really sure that I had changed. A lot of stoically strong women struggle to admit they were wrong, or hurt, or that anything could and did affect them at all. Since that afternoon, Bec and I have had some really incredible catch ups, admissions and realisations and I think are both navigating discovering our relationship as equals with a lot of openness, and gratitude.
Maybe because September is also spring, this certainly felt like time to spring-clean. As life began to get back to normal I found my time and energy becoming a really precious commodity. I was about to finish uni forever, after 6 years of study. My marriage was feeling joyous and loving and supportive, my real friendships were expanding and authentic, and I was connecting with my siblings and family in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It became very apparent to me, how I had held onto certain relationships in my life out of obligation and responsibility.
What became abundantly clear, was that for far too long I had spread myself too thin, and coming out of the other side of lockdown, and changes upon changes, I wasn’t going to do that anymore. I wasn’t going to be a bitch. I wasn’t going to allow anyone to treat me like shit, or narcissistically, or in a way that suggested I was disposable. I had made myself small for far too long, had combatted every confrontation with anger and pettiness and I just wasn’t going to do that anymore. There were people in my life at that point who had been in it for a long fucking time, my whole life in some cases, that quite frankly hadn’t deserved the shitty, curated, scared version of myself, so they sure as shit didn’t deserve this version.
However, I just didn’t have a need for confronting conversations like I used to. I didn’t need someone to hear all I had to say, to let me share my feelings in order to move on from something. I simply began the long, arduous process of letting. it. go. There was far too much going on in the world as a whole and in my world for me to get bogged down in drama that should have stayed in the years I was a teenager. I felt free, and light, and elated and connected. It felt like, although I had been grieving a particular friendship for a long time, I had finally scattered the ashes and didn’t feel attached to it anymore. I had the mental and emotional space to dedicate to the people in my life I absolutely adored and felt in equal exchange with, as well as the rekindled relationships that were building back up after I had finally let all the walls that I’d put up over the last 6 years, down.
With all of this, I managed to reach my goal of finishing uni 3 months early. I completed every clinical requirement on September 26, 2 days before I was due to go on my last clinical placement to Geraldton. I had completed a 12 month unit in 9 months, with 10 weeks of closure through the middle. I felt so accomplished. On that Saturday, I wore checked pink pants (like the ones here) and a bright pink top (we were only allowed to wear black and white) and walked out after my last patient with bunches of flowers, bottles of champagne and a dazed look on face that could have only said, “well what do I do now?”
Get to my car and have a big cry of course. I think I sat in my car for about 30 minutes before I turned the engine on. I wasn’t sad, or even happy. I kinda don’t know what I was feeling. But it was finally over. This huge task I had undertaken; that had brought out the very best and the very worst of me; this time in my life that tested me, that broke me, that nearly broke the people around me; was over. Right there, in that moment I was in disbelief that it was actually done. I had counted down the 12 semesters, the 29 units, the volunteering and seminars since I had started, and now I was about to spend my final 2 weeks as a student on a clinical prac and that was it. I had one final exam to go, and I would be able to let this busy-badge go and start the life I had been planning for years.
October: Starting a stress-detox.
So, what does a mother do when shes away from her children and husband for 2 weeks, with nothing to do but study for finals between taking care of underprivileged communities? Decide its the perfect time to start watching Keep up with the Kardashians. No offence to anyone who lives in Geraldton, WA, but that is not a town for me. I’m a big reality TV fan. I need the trash. The stress that had been part of my life for such a long time meant that having something mindless to switch off too was a great way to distract me from all the bullshit I had been telling myself for a long time. It was in this time, self-confined to a room within a share-house with other very young final year allied health students, that my stress began to melt away.
6 years of university stress, on top of the 3 years prior to that with the stress of a FIFO husband and having 3 children under 2.5 comes out in weird ways. My appetite was all over the place. I was getting hungry at really weird times, or had no appetite at all. The food I felt like was purely comfort food, heavy on the mash potato. This made sense physiologically, as my systems began to not rely on a constant cycle of cortisol and adrenaline pumping through me at all times of the day. Emotionally and mentally this started to feel like a lot of hard truths being realised. I was about to re-enter the professional world after almost 10 years of being out of it. I was a lot more self assured than I had been at 24; I had a much better understanding that our personal and professional lives don’t exist in vacuums and both would need nourishment for the other to prosper.
During the earlier part of the year in lockdown, it had become abundantly clear who and what was important. My love language had molded from being acts of service to quality time because that is what really mattered: time. For a long time, I had (like many of us) had let my ego rule my decisions, had let my time dedicated be dictated by obligation, rather than enjoyment. A lot of that had been necessary to get through the 70% pass marks required for much of my degree, but something I had started to understand was the the behaviour that had been modelled to me as a child and teen by the females in my life were not going to serve me, weren’t serving me anymore.
It seemed that not only was I beginning the process of releasing stress and detoxing from uni, but my whole life was about to get a detox, a reset, a re-alignment of what was important to me, and I wasn’t going to let ego and pride stand in the way of making those changes.
It started to become really apparent that all the personal growth, mindset work and rediscovery of myself that I had done was only just scratching the surface of understanding just how ingrained some patterns and beliefs were, and in order to start shifting some of those I was going to need to place some really firm boundaries for myself.
I wanted to start the next part of my life as a professional with the intentions of how I wanted it to be and so decided that as I entered my last ever month as a student, now was a great time to start.
November: Final exams and becoming a chiropractor.
Throughout my degree, I always liked and got excited for exams. They represented the culmination of hard work, a way that all of the knowledge I had learned could be measured and surmounted in a finality that reminded me a lot of the birthing part of pregnancy, go figure. I spent days revisiting the exceptional notebooks (if I do say so myself) I had created over the 6 years of study, knowing that I had treated my time as a student with reverence and like a marathon, rather than a sprint. The finish line was well and truly on the horizon. This exam period I only had 3 exams, which after having upwards of 13 in previous semesters, felt like a dream.
I felt prepared. I felt grounded. I no longer cared what my actual grade was, because I was so close to the end. This shift in my mindset since the cluster-fuck that was my clinical exit exam obviously resonated with the universe because I signed my first contract to be a working chiropractor after graduation prior to even sitting my final. The only place I had ever wanted to work was about to become my chiropractic home and I think that knowledge helped ease any anxiety that was threatening to creep in. My boss didn’t care about my grades and nor would my practice members. It was 3 weeks until I’d never have to think about university in this capacity again, and I couldn’t fucking wait.
I’d completed my registration in October and all it was waiting for to make it official was my final results. I left my final exam feeling confident, adding up my marks and knowing I had passed, regardless of how well that might have been. It didn’t matter any more. I already knew the information, and a piece of paper with a number on it wasn’t going to change that. This mindset alone meant those few weeks of waiting for results as I started observing my future client base was truly blissful. Getting to introduce myself as a chiropractor instead of an observing student felt so surreal, and also like I’d been ready and waiting for this moment my whole life.
It felt fitting, like a reward for everything I had achieved so far. And when those results finally came through, boy oh boy did I celebrate every last second of it. I had finished my degrees with distinction, while studying with a FIFO partner, 3 school age children, a 2.5 hours round trip commute, the breakdown and rebuild of my marriage. Every fucking exam. Every tear. Every time someone said I couldn’t. Every feeling I had felt over the last 6 years finally left my body, along with the stress and unease and tension, and instead, here I was, Dr Ash Jones, with my whole future ahead of me.
December: Grateful heart and bright future.
As of December 3, I was officially registered as a chiropractor and entered full time work for the first time since going on maternity leave back in 2011. Getting through 2020 had not been easy. It was a year that tested me, and the world. Nothing and no-one could have prepared us for the sheer scale of change we would undergo.
And I understand why people all over the year, look back and think it was one of the worst years of our lives.
I also think that because of the change the pandemic forced, it was one of the best years of mine.
All that time I was forced to slow down, to stay home, do puzzles and play games with my family and sit with myself provided profound healing for me. I was forced to confront my busy-badge, my need to always be doing, reassess what was really, really important to me would absolutely have never happened, without the avalanche of events that took place. Being able to have a birds eye view of my life placed in front of me, begging for it to be different, for me to really look inside and start showing up in the world how I claimed to, is not an opportunity we will get as a collective again. Having the capacity to implement change and surrender to the vulnerability that was required in 2020 is something that is not lost one me, and I know somes from a place of immense privilege. I know my struggles were not everyones, nor that my gratitude for it can be mimicked by those who suffered loss after loss in 2020. I’m still so grateful, though.
Now, getting to reflect back on this and the path I am on now, I am still so grateful.
True beauty always lies in the contrast of life and that is what 2020 provided me. A chance to see and feel what life could be like as well as the opportunity to make that glimpse a reality. Is life perfect? Of course not. Is it infinitely better than what it would have been without 2020?
You fucking bet it is.