Every Woman

On Sunday I was flown to Sydney for the 2015 Autograph Curvy Model Search test shoot. I’ve written about what’s been happening here, here and here… and yesterday was the highlight of the amazing journey I have been on. It’s been so exciting!  I know some of you are keen for the lowdown, so here’s a little peek into my day being an ‘international curvy model’ (squeeee!)

Rachel, Lauren M & Rowena

“Maybe you could just photoshop that arm,” I self-consciously joked with the Marketing Manager for Autograph.
“No!” admonished Alexa, her corkscrew curls shaking emphatically, “We want real women!”  and I fell in love with that lady right there and then.

There were three women on the monitor in front of us.  One of them was me, 41, a wife, mumma and writer. My arms are roundy, like my Grandma’s used to be.  Baker’s arms, dimpled and soft like a warm bun.  Those arms make my embraces comforting. Then there’s Rowena, 25, a cop, daughter and girlfriend.  Her tiny waist curves the way down to her voluptuous rear end. But hers is not a standard pear-shape figure, no… she’s all spicy pear! The kind of wiggle when she walks that makes all the guys look.  And then there is Lauren, 26, a wife and mum to two under three, working for an airline. Cheekbones to make Pocahontas insecure and a figure with all the right oomph in all the right places, including a little curve on the tum, that beautiful space where she carried a baby just one year ago.  Our ethnic backgrounds are diverse.  I am a kiwi Pakeha.  My genes fetching me down through generations from the viking clans, through the British Isles and to my Aoteoroa.  Rowena is a Samoan Australian and Lauren, an multiracial-Australian. We are all testament to the antipodean pull of the decades; our families settled us in the lucky countries. We’re Tasman neighbours and new friends. We are every woman. Our bodies express our life experiences. We represent some of the vibrant spectrum of plus sized women down under.

Today, we’ve gathered here, from across Australia and New Zealand.  Altogether we are ten, chosen from more than 4,500 entries. The studio space is incredible. Hanging plants and exposed brickwork in an impossibly funky foyer space.  There’s a portrait photography exhibition in the foyer/cafe; the whole venue oozes artsy cool. Our studio is huge. A concrete curved backdrop arcs up the double height wall. The equipment is extraordinarily technical. When I first arrived and walked past all the monitors, lights, stands and foam partitions,  I realised what an out-of-the-ordinary day awaited me.

Ahead of me, the other girls had swished into the waiting area.  There were leather chairs and sofas, a big table, lighted makeup mirrors and all the trappings that attend a shoot. Clothing racks bedecked in bright summer colours, accessories in a jumble, a big bowl full of sparkling waters and Italian soda. The food had already begun to arrive.  Sourdough with avocado, goats cheese, tomatoes and basil.  Tiny little granola and yoghurt pots. Bamboo spoons. Fruit platters bigger than Carmen Miranda could handle.

It was all so chic!

I introduced myself to the makeup team and then to Nicola, the marketing rep from Autograph. She is all cool sophistication. Ruler straight caramel hair, groovy glasses, structured tunic, stovepipe crops and pretty flats. She is warm, too. Friendly and welcoming. I felt all fluttery and excited but also strangely relaxed. The atmosphere in the studio echoed the brand… all bright, comfy; happiness.  I found myself exhaling and letting myself go with it all. I could barely believe I was really there.

The clothes I saw on the rack were my kinds of clothes. Tunics, floaty dresses, crop pants. There were the necklaces that help bigger girls achieve outfit balance. Clinky bracelets and dangly earrings. I was in my fashion comfort zone. And the colours!  Deep cobalt and coral, apricot pink and sunshine yellow, jade and aquamarine. The happy colours of summer. I kept taking deep breaths and trying to memorise the moments before they slipped me by. I heard Richard the photographer asking about a light test, so I volunteered to step into the studio space. He sticks down two strips of tape on the floor (my ‘mark’) and I stand there, ready for him to set up his equipment. I love that moment, the first moment there in front of the camera.

He feels strangely close yet far away, a familiar stranger, connected to me via the invisible line between the camera’s lens and my iris. In the second the photographer bends to his lens, it’s just him and me. I am imagining what he is seeing.  Smiling at him through the lens. I think, Hello over there, Richard! He smiles back.

Rachel Mowbray (11)

After adjusting the flash and moving some of the foam walls, he said “Why don’t we just do this?” and that’s how it started, I was having my test shoot! I felt giddy with happiness, floating around my mark in a coral embroidered kaftan. I felt beautiful. Someone blew cool air towards me from a gap in the movable walls.  It made my hair blow back from my face, just so. And the coolness was so welcome under the lights.

I still can’t get over being able to stand for this long. To feel the energy coursing through my body. It makes my heart sing, this freedom to move. It’s not that long ago that I could not have done this and the familiar gratitude fills my heart. It is so easy for me to smile.  Who wouldn’t? The joy of life bubbles up and engulfs me. I want to giggle. A girly giggle for all the girly goodness I am experiencing. I am modelling! I am blown away by all this. So lucky. So incredibly grateful!  For health, for opportunities, for this life of surprises and soulfood. Thank you, I think.
Just thank you, for this. For all of this loveliness.

Rachel Mowbray (29)

The day passed after that in a giddy blur.  Two more shoots happened. I met my Australian modelling agent, Ekke, and the Vivien’s Model Management boss, Catherine.  They felt like family within minutes. We talked about the lovely people at 62 Models in Auckland.  We sipped on our Italian sodas and organic juices. A lavish lunch arrived. There was time to chat and selfie with all the girls; every one, a beauty, inside and out.

Every now and then I felt old. Eleven years separated me from the nearest in age to me.  All the other girls were in their twenties, fresh of face and firm of curve. I felt a little intimidated in flashes, and then I just told my brain to shut up. It was the only way. To stop that inner critic so I could enjoy being myself. I’ve been practising it a lot more lately. Once I’d silenced my self-sabotage-software, I enjoyed just being there with them, sharing their youthful energy and infectious laughter. We all changed into a second outfit for a small group shoot. I was grouped with Rowena and Lauren, all of us in gorgeous summer dresses.  It’s impossible not to feel breezy and beautiful in Autograph clothes. I linked arms with them and felt their warm energy, their hearts hammering in unison with mine in that small space. We joked with each other and the laughter came easy. I am glad I have had the chance to meet them.  Impossibly lustrous hair, velvety skins, clear healthy eyes. There’s that familiar internal self pinching again.  Was I really there with those beauties? It made me smile.

Rachel, Lauren M & Rowena (7)

Group (25)

All of these women are not just beautiful because of their outward curvy lusciousness. They’re not just beautiful because of the expert hair and makeup attention they’ve received today. They’re beautiful because of the lives they live, the families they love, the work they do, the women they are. Like me, they’re representing every woman. Women like you. I wish I could have had you all there with me in that studio yesterday. I wish you, too, could have been treated to makeup artists and hair stylists and friendly warm people making you feel like a million bucks. You there, with the roundy arms, or defiant boobage. You, with the mumma tum, the wobbly bum. You are woman, and you are beautiful.

I hope you feel beautiful today. X



Standing, still. Moving forward.


The lights cast a soft whiteness across the photographic back drop. The studio is quietly humming. The equipment pops and flashes for each shot. Nods and short sentences between the photographer and stylist. I’m standing there, in my tenth outfit of the morning, swishing one way and another, a small dip of the head, a smile at some imaginary friends, a little on-the-spot walking action… it’s a sequence of movements like a slow motion dance. I am handed a bag, someone teases a rogue section of my hair.  Someone else adjusts my sleeve so the wrinkles will fall ‘just so’. I am modelling.

I smile at the lens, my mind racing along with the shoot, keeping up but in a parallel reality. I’m stunned by the surrealism of it all. I find it hard to compute that I am here, doing this. I’m not sure how long it will take me to adjust to feeling this way. Only 6 months ago I was struggling to manage daily life. Standing was my nemesis. Yet I have been on my feet for two hours straight… and I can still smile. Flash!  Pop! I feel my calves flex to keep my balance in my size-too-small prop shoes. I’m really doing this. Still standing.

“That’s it, we’ve got it!” smiles the photographer. The stylist and makeup artist give each other a high five. We. Are. Done.  Everyone thanks everyone. I change back into my own clothes. And just like that I clock off from another shoot as a curvy model. It’s such a fun and affirming thing to do. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. I’m being paid to try on clothes and show people how they really look on a curvy body. I’m contributing to the kind of online shopping environment that works for curvy girls. I can’t count the number of times I have not purchased online, because the model looked too small for me to really understand how the clothes would fall. It makes me happy to think that there are DD-cup+, curvy girls out there who will purchase clothes this season because my boobs and bum provided some realism to help them with their shopping choices!  Here’s to the bootylicious bods out there, and some fair representation!
Here’s a grainy phone picture of me all glammed up, on my way home from yesterday’s shoot:

I’m really doing this. I'm still standing.(2)

But besides the representation of plus-sized bodies, the glamour and the fun of doing a shoot, there is always something running along underneath, for me. An incredulity. An awareness that just standing is still a dream for so many of you, just as it was for me, not so long ago. I remember how that felt, longing for a body that could do the normal stuff; every present moment is echoed with the contrast. I carry my past with me, I carry a knowledge that I can never forget.

And it is precisely because of all those years that I am seizing the day! I am doing what I can, because I CAN! But I have not forgotten you, out there. I stand for you as much as I stand for me. With every health win, every symptom I walk away from, with every medication I wean off, I am laughing in the face of Dysautonomia. Take that!  See this? Wham. In your face mother plucker! I so hope that if you have been following my journey, you feel me carrying you into everything that you cannot do. Into all of my upright hours, through all of my busy days. You are with me, in spirit if not in body. Your own body biding it’s time, battling it’s own way through the maze. Hanging in there.

I stand for you.

I stand for a world that is kinder to people like us.
I stand until you can.  I will stand as long as I can.
Hang in there my friends.  Hold tight. Never, ever let go of whatever it is pulling you onward.  Because if this can happen for me, then that means, it is possible.  If I have this reprieve, this time of plenty, this freedom to be who I always used to be, then why not you, too?

It’s a paradox, but nonetheless, here I am standing still and moving forward.
Kia Kaha.

*the necklace in the image above is from Uberkate. She ran a competition last year for women to nominate their friends/sisters/mothers using one word for the pendant.  My friend Nettie nominated me and chose the word ‘standing’. My sister in law Cathie seconded the nomination.  And they won it for me! It is a necklace I treasure.  I wear it every day and it draws me back to my purpose every single time I look at it. Thanks Nettie, thanks Cathie, and thanks Uberkate!
** Nettie has a blog called I Give You the Verbs. Which tickles me, because in winning that necklace for me, she literally gave me the verb! 😉

Early Days

Early Days
Yesterday I went to see my neuro-immunologist.  I was really thrilled to be able to show him what has happened to me since I started my new treatment.  He, in turn, was enthusiastic about recommending IVIG or Rituximab to try to address the unknown antibodies that have been wreaking havoc in my autonomic nervous system for so long.

What a foreign place I find myself in, here in the land of the well. Yet, utterly changed from my years in the wilderness.

I hear small whispers in my ear. “Be careful”, “Don’t overdo it,” “Choose your activities carefully,” “Do everything while you can,” “It’s now or never”.

I am more hopeful than I have been before, because we have found strong indicators that my problems are auto-immune.  But there are equal parts fear and doubt.  I guess you can’t be sick for as long as I have without being afraid that it will all come crashing in again. You can’t take feeling better, for granted.  And because I don’t fully understand the science, I worry that I might be duping myself about it all. Maybe, somehow, I’ve convinced myself I am getting better. And that willpower will only carry me so far?  It is a ridiculous thought, but there nonetheless.   I have thoroughly examined my sanity, I have canvassed my doctors and my nearest and dearest.  Apparently, I am sane. I just need to find a way to rest in this current state of relative wellness.

And then; there are the others. As each new day arrives and I wake, swinging into an upright position and moving to the bathroom with ease, I remember. How waking used to feel like I was drowning. I remember that for so many of you, it still does. And the burden of your illness weighs heavy on my heart. How can it not?  I know your suffering. I know that for you, it carries on. And I try to fill my day with every little thing, for you. For me. For the unfairness of it all.

I am in this place of plenty, but I have forgotten the language of ease.

I can’t make it through a grocery shop without gushing to the checkout attendant.
“How are you?” she asks, because it is part of the script.
“Oh, I am GREAT!  So good, like, really really wonderful!”  I grin. And she eyes me with suspicion.
I can’t help out at my kids’ school without giddily and sincerely responding to thanks.  I yelp, “My pleasure!”  because it really is.  Maybe it raises some eyebrows. This happy girl I am. Maybe it causes discomfort.  Maybe it seems over-the-top.  But it is not.

This life, this ease of moving, this chance to do things and be part of things.

If only you could feel how I feel.

I asked my specialist yesterday if he thought it was reasonable to expect this good run to continue.
“It’s early days” he said.  And I thought, in my stubborn way, that early days are always followed by late days and all of those days together make up more days of good than I was having before. And I shushed the whispers in my ear and skipped out to the car. The hubster commented that the last time we were parked in this carpark he’d had to help me to the car and get me into the seat.  I swung my legs into the footwell and grinned at him.  We drove home, my hand on his leg.

My heart in my mouth.

Please, please let this continue.  I promise I won’t waste it.  Not one second.



Are You Alright in the Head?

Dealing with Dysautonomia

I’ve been seeing someone.  Actually, I’ve been seeing a few people …about my health.  And this month, because it is Dysautonomia Awareness Month, I’m going to do a series of interviews with various practitioners who help me with my Dysautonomia.

Today’s guest is someone who helps me with the aspects of chronic illness that impact my thinking, my mental wellbeing and my mood.


Today I am interviewing Anna Patience, a Health Psychologist with ProCare Psychological Services in Central Auckland.

Dysautonomia patients typically spend a lot of time at medical appointments, addressing various aspects of their illness with specialists across a wide range of disciplines.  Our Western model of medicine compartmentalises our body into different systems, or medical disciplines.  Because the autonomic nervous system employs organs and functions from a range of these groups, we necessarily see many different doctors. It is hard to get them all communicating with each other about what is ultimately, the whole patient.

When you are so busy seeing doctors, it can be easy to overlook a significant aspect of our wellbeing: our mental health. People suffering with a chronic illness face many psychological difficulties. Recently, my GP told me about a free service available to patients enrolled with a ProCare Primary Health Organisation. I am eligible for six sessions with the lovely Anna Patience.  Yes, that really is her name!  And yes, she is patient by name and by nature. Anna has been steering me through some murky waters, illuminating some new ways of looking at things that I had previously felt were drowning me. Giving me strategies and frameworks to understand the processes my mind was going through.  I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with her.

Anna generously agreed to help me share a bit more with you about what she does and some of her thoughts on the psychology of chronic illness.

Me: What is a ‘Health Psychologist’?

Anna: A health psychologist is someone who has been trained to work with individuals (and couples and families) who are having difficulties or challenges with their physical health. This might be due to a recent diagnosis, managing a chronic condition (eg diabetes) or experiencing unexplained physical symptoms. It is normal when someone is experiencing physical symptoms that they might also experience some changes in mood; how they then cope with this can play an important role in the management of their health as well as their quality of life.

Me: What led you to choose health psychology as a career path?

Anna: This was slightly unexpected, as originally I had wanted to be a French teacher! However during my undergraduate studies I took some psychology papers and took up a part time job at a telephone counselling line for 5 to 18 year olds called ‘What’s Up’. This changed my career plan as I found a huge source of purpose and meaning in this work, and was also inspired by those I worked with. I then went on to do post-graduate in health psychology at a masters level and found the holistic element of working as a health psychologist resonated with me. Its also a job that offers a lot of variety, as people can work on the clinical or research side, or both.

Me: What does an appointment with a health psychologist usually involve?

Anna: The setting where I currently work is a brief therapy service, which means most people have 4-6 sessions available to them. Because of this, the first appointment is often focused on what people are most concerned about at this time in their lives. It explores how their physical health condition/situation might be impacting on their ability to engage in the things that are most meaningful to them, for example their close relationships, their work, leisure activities etc. The therapist and client will work together collaboratively to explore the connections between cognitive (thoughts), emotional, physical and behavioural factors and understanding which of these fall into short-term or long-term coping skills. We would also discuss in the first session what the individuals expectations or hopes are for their sessions.

Following this, in subsequent sessions, time is spent both exploring those coping skills, and adding in other strategies that may be useful to the client. This could involve discussing how best to communicate to loved ones/others about their illness and needs, testing out other ways of approaching activities for example pacing behaviours to manage energy output, or being able to step back and ‘unhook’ from thoughts that are unhelpful. Other tools might focus on helping an individual to allow their difficult feelings about their condition, for example feelings of anger, disappointment, fear, shame or sadness. Ultimately interventions are best used when tailored to each individuals needs.

Me: For some patients, seeing a psychologist is something they are reluctant to do.  People can be afraid of being labelled and the perceived knock on effect for their diagnosis and treatment in a medical context.  Many Dysautonomia patients report being initially mis-diagnosed with anxiety, conversion disorder, somatic illness or hypochondriasis (by medical doctors, not psychologists).
Do other doctors have access to information shared in these appointments?  What is the privacy standard in relation to these sessions?

Anna: Everything that is discussed with a psychologist is confidential, unless someone states they may be at harm to themselves or others. At our service the General Practitioners are sent a brief letter after the first and final sessions, with the consent of the client. Psychologists are bound by their ethical obligations to maintain their clients privacy.

Me: What are the most common issues you discuss with your chronically ill patients?

Anna: This would fall broadly under the heading of ‘coping’. What do people tend to say, feel, or do in response to their bodies symptoms, and how might this then impact on physical and emotional well-being? Pain and fatigue are common physical symptoms so this is often a focus. A large part of working with people who’ve had a diagnosis is dealing with the loss of a pre-morbid level of functioning, and helping them process what this is going to mean for them going forward. Adjusting personal expectations, and communicating to others about this is often discussed.

I tend to work primarily from a model of therapy which falls under what they call “third wave” therapies, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This will often involve clarifying with clients what they want their life to be about in the face of this illness, what do they want to stand for, while also providing them with ways to not let unhelpful thoughts or difficult uncomfortable emotions prevent them from pursuing these valued activities.

Me: Personally, I have found seeing a health psychologist really empowering.  You have given me tools for addressing the parts of my daily experience that are difficult for me.
If you could offer chronically ill patients one ‘takeaway’ idea to think about, what would that be?

Anna: This is a difficult one! I would say thinking about health in a holistic way would be something to consider. This might mean noticing what your mind says about your body and the changes its making or the things it can’t do anymore, letting those thoughts/feelings happen AND continuing to connect to those things that are meaningful for you. Also, using those supports around you, or asking your GP for a referral to a health psychologist if you feel getting an ‘outsiders perspective’ is worthwhile.

Me: What is the one go-to resource that you would recommend for chronically ill patients:
Anna: This is not a resource that is specific to chronic illness, but the two books I use almost daily with my clients and highly recommend are ACT books. They are The Happiness Trap and The Reality Slap, both by Dr Russ Harris.

Me again: If you are suffering from Dysautonomia or another chronic illness and you have been feeling unsure about seeking psychological help,  I would like to encourage you to give it a go. Seeing Anna has made a big difference to my outlook.  Even though things with my body have been getting worse, thanks to her, things with my mind have been getting better.

I hope this interview has helped you.
Do you have questions?  Ask away!


Words Don’t Come Easy -How to Help Yourself

How to Help Others Help You Too.
Image and Words by Michael Leunig

Today’s post has been inspired by some homework from my Health Psychologist, Anna.  She is a pretty savvy lady and I really got a lot out of the chapter she gave me to read.  It is called A Caring Hand and it is from Russ Harris’ book, The Reality Slap. Sometimes there is a gap between reality and what we think it should be.  Sound familiar?

Like the difference between the me I see in our holiday snapshots, and the saucy model I felt like I was!

Or the way you think other people should treat you and the way they do.

If you have a chronic illness, this reality gap is something you deal with every day.  Maybe even in relation to those closest to you.  It’s really hard for people to know what to do, how to be.  It’s really hard for people to sustain their compassion, it can be exhausting.  Even those closest to you sometimes need some respite from approaching things in a sensitive way.

Some of us are on our own for a lot of the day.  That’s just reality. And that is when we can really help ourselves, rather than looking to others to meet our emotional needs.

Before I carry on I want to explain the origins of the word compassion.  It derives from the latin.  Com meaning together and pati meaning suffering.  Suffering together.  But how can that apply when you on your own?  I am discovering that you can be your own best friend.

Bad things happen to everyone. And when they do, we naturally hope for kindness from those around us. When something painful happens to you, like a difficult diagnosis, a death in the family, a marriage break up,  a miscarriage or a catastrophic loss of property… there are so many things that might constitute a reality slap… it is natural to seek comfort. It’s instinctive to seek support. Do you remember the peace that comes with a warm and sensitive response from someone close to you?  Maybe it was one of these responses?


These responses all communicate how much a person cares about you and your situation.

And then, there are the other responses. The ones that fall through the gap.  They are common responses in society because we have failed as a community to teach each other that they are not useful.  People don’t know. I think it is really important to remember that these responses often come from a place of good intentions, even if they are not sensitive:


Proverbs and quotes are tricky territory. These may in essence have truth for the human condition, it’s probably why they have become popular.  But they can be invalidating and unhelpful.  They ignore the pain you are experiencing and can feel judgmental.  The hidden message of all of these types of platitudes is “Harden up, look on the bright side, it can’t be all bad”.  When some days, it just is all bad.  Here is what Harris says about that, “If they are the first thing you say to someone who has just been slapped by reality, you will come across as uncaring or offensive… as a general rule, a compassionate response must come before anything else. If someone leaps in with advice, proverbs, positive thinking or action plans without first demonstrating his or her compassion, we are likely to feel upset, annoyed, offended, hurt or irritated -often without quite realising why this is”.

Some of the responses in the second group can actually be really helpful and practical, if they are preceded by caring and empathy.

Mind the gap.  It’s easy to fall into it when someone responds to you from the unhelpful responses.  But we don’t often enough consider how we are responding to ourselves.  Helpfully, or unhelpfully?
Ask yourself:

Who is the one human being who can always be there for you in your life,
in any moment, no matter what happens?
Who understands you better than anyone else on the planet?
Who is the only one who knows how much you are suffering?

Harris suggests that because we are always available to ourselves, we can always do something to help ourselves, even when we think we can’t.  We can be our own first responders. Many of us do, already, practise excellent self-care. Many of us have learned by necessity to nurture ourselves through suffering. But sometimes, our self talk is more like the second list of responses. I know for myself, that I tell myself to harden up all the time, to push through, to stop being pathetic.  I can be more harsh with myself than anyone in my circle and I frequently am.  He suggests that the relationship we have with ourselves should be similar to one we would have with a best friend.  Imagine, if you always had that friend there to be kind to you when you are struggling?

Self compassion is two-fold.
There is being kind to yourself…

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amResting your own hand where you feel the most pain, as a hand of compassion, allowing yourself to relax and accept the warmth of your own kindness.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amNoticing when your mind is being harsh with you and gently telling yourself what your kind friend would tell you.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amAllowing yourself the time you need without judging yourself.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amReminding yourself that you are deserving of compassion and it is okay to give it to yourself.

…and there is being present with your pain.

It might be your illness, your grief, your suffering.  Or all of these things.  Being present with your pain might be something you are horrified at the prospect of. Here, ‘being present’ is used by Harris in the context of mindfulness.  My homework chapter ended at this point, so next visit I will ask for more.  I am keenly interested in how mindfulness might help to diminish my negative feelings about this illness.  Do you think it might help you too?

For now, I am going to lay a warm hand on my own shoulder and say some kind things to myself for getting this post written.  It has been a tough morning, symptom-wise and I have a big afternoon ahead.  If your own hand of compassion is not enough, get online, join a support group.  Don’t give up.

I hope you can begin to be kinder to yourself today.  Mind the gap, don’t fall in.  It’s good to remember you can make a beautiful bridge to stretch over that canyon.

More soon, I’m seeing Anna again tomorrow.  Watch this space.

PS. Here is a song I heard on the radio just as I finished writing this post.  I always notice the songs that play, I’m sure there’s reasons for them.  This one I am singing for me.
Sometimes finding kind words for ourselves isn’t easy.

Words, don’t come easy, to me
How can I find a way, to make you see
I love you,
words don’t come easy.

And here is a link to Russ Harris’ book The Reality Slap





Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

For aeons, people have traipsed to the sea, looking for a cure for their ailments, a tonic for a weak constitution. England’s coastline was dotted with seaside health resorts where people could ‘take the air’ and remedy their ills. I used to wonder about it, as a teen, reading Austen, what was it about the sea that made people think it could make them well?  And how did the sea air even make it through their substantial swimsuits?


source:  www.austenprose.com
source: www.austenprose.com


And then, in my own way, I too came to the sea for some coastal therapy. In need of a break, a rest. A holiday. We holed up in our Tongan vault-ceilinged fale by the aquamarine ocean, breezes fanning our night time slumber. Just a few steps to the sea. White sand, shallow, calm seas, kissing the shore in an effervescent line. The rhythmic hushing my soul has craved, without me even understanding that I did.

I am the child of a Bay of Islands girl. My mother was born for the seafaring way; I still can picture her on the bow of a yacht, eyes closed and face tilted to the sun. She loved the sea and it’s close cousin, the coast. I have never shared that love. But here, beside the gentle sloping sand. Cradled in the warm and friendly cocoon of a tiny island, the sea is working it’s magic on me. Is it part of my DNA, this sea?

I swam in the ocean today. Twice. Floated like a water baby under the skies, rolled over onto my tummy, head pillowed on a lilo, idly watching the sand. The shore edge was sprinkled with mother of pearl fragments, glinting in the sunshine. It is so beautiful here. And in that water, for a time, I am weightless and free. For the first time in over five years, I feel the burden of my body lifted and I notice the dissolving of my ever present discomforts.

Did the ocean give me that reprieve?

I was floating with the current across the shallows. My vision was perfectly clear, my dizziness was gone. My head didn’t feel like an enormous pressurised bowling bowl, balancing on my neck . My joints and frame felt like they had when I was a small child. I was free of the concerns over my bladder and bowel. My stomach wasn’t cramping, the nausea was gone. Even the burning prickling neuropathies seemed numbed by the cool water. I was buoyed up. Carried along like a child. And it occurred to me, suddenly and shockingly, that I felt well. For a few too-short minutes, I felt like I belonged in my body again. I didn’t dare move a muscle, it was sublime perfection, feeling that way. I tried to memorise it. I tried to ignore the fears, tapping at the inside of my mind… don’t get used to it… it won’t last… oh my god, how can you go back to how it was after feeling like this? I just lay there, clinging to that lilo, staring at that one section of glinting sand floor, arms warm under my face, hips swinging free in the water. I lay there and soaked it up, that feeling of wellness. And a line from my friend Wordsworth (Lines composed above Tintern Abbey) crossed my mind:

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“In this moment is life and food for future years”.

It’s cool in Tonga at this time of year. There are soft breezes and gentle temperatures in the early twenties. The ocean is cold when you first get in and then, you acclimatise and it becomes warmer than the air, an enveloping presence. Holding you up, rocking you in it’s benevolence. I am loving my new found friend, the sea. I didn’t know how therapeutic it could be.

For at least five years, maybe longer, I have been fighting a sebborhoeic dermatitis outbreak on my scalp. I suspect it is from all the strong medications. But whatever the cause, it has become a painful maintenance chore, a difficult distraction, an endless itch. My head regularly breaks out in sores that crust and weep. And I am always painfully conscious about the flaking snow that may be accumulating on my clothes, or the scabs that might be trapped in my hair. I have tried what seems like every known remedy. Sometimes I get short term relief, but then it goes back to the way it was. So when I arrived here, I was nervous about getting my poor sore head into the sea. I lay on my back and gingerly let my head ease back into the water. I could feel the sting of the salt on the tender raw patches of skin. That gave way to a pleasant tingling. Now, the scale that has clung to my head is lifting. Underneath it, new, calm skin. Each day I am in the sea it improves.

Is this reprieve from the sea, too?

I think about bath salts and I wonder if they are an attempt to bring the therapy of the ocean into our bathrooms. I think I will have to try them when I am back home. I wish I was a millionaire and could transport all my online Dysautonomia support group friends to a place like this. Somewhere they could all ease into the soothing benefits of the ocean. Somewhere they might, even for a few moments, get to feel well again. My eyes well up with the complex dichotomy of gratitude and that old frustration that I cannot make the world turn my way, I cannot fix it, I cannot wave my magic wand.

I woke this morning trapped in the old familiar state. Desperate to get up, but too dizzy and achy to move. I fumbled for the bottle of water and my pills. I stared at the mosquito net shrouding my bed and wondered what I usually wonder: How will I manage today? And the thought occurred to me. I am between the devil and the deep blue sea.  I know which I prefer.
I will lie in the ocean. I will float in the sea.

I hope that you will find your reprieve, in whatever form it comes for you.  Maybe it is a laugh with an old friend, a book that transports you, making art or taking heart from a song.
I hope that you will recognise it when that moment comes, your moment of life and food for future years.

And I wish that I could make it last for longer. For all of us.


PS.  It turns out there are scientific reasons why…