Three years ago, our family went on holiday to this very Pacific Island. It was a very different time. I was so sick back then, and full of trepidation that we would have a medical emergency while I was away. I remember how it took weeks of agonising effort to pack and how the things we brought with us included a box of medical supplies and equipment. I remember waking each morning into the humid air and swallowing down my medications, hoping I could cope with the day ahead. In the context of how ill I was, Tonga was very kind to me last time. But this time, my simple ease of being throws our last experience into stark contrast. I am amazed at how different I am.

I’ve been in remission now for two years. I’m stronger, fitter and have more stamina. Last trip, I managed some floating in the ocean. This trip, I’ve kayaked and snorkeled and swum and throroughly enjoyed everything the island has to offer. I was struck last time by the similarity of this place to my childhood home in Papua New Guinea. And last time, it was a kind of catharsis for me, being here. I had time to reflect on my childhood memories and say goodbye to that place in my mind I had never truly left. This time, it is a tangible physical remembrance and a positive one. Cruising over brilliant coral reefs, to the slow shushing of snorkelled air, takes me back to happy holidays in Madang and the Duke of York Islands. Scooping green coconut jelly from the shell for breakfast. So many strong memory cues. I feel peaceful and alive, rested and immensely grateful.

I hope the contrast between sick and well, will always strike me. I hope I will always feel this grateful for the gift of wellness. It is a beautiful thing to walk through the world without the weight of all that. Freedom. Yet I am perplexed by the necessary cost of wellness and ‘freedom’. They are not actually free at all, we pay in busy-ness, responsibility and pace. We lose the time to think, write, create. I haven’t blogged in so long and I’ve missed it keenly. Here, on a tropical island with no daily tasks to complete, no punishing schedules, no animals to care for and none of the usual husband/ kids/ homestay student demands it is easy to think I just need to change the way I do things at home.

But how?

None of the things that need doing are outsource-able. No one else will magically do them. I know, feeling rested as I am, I will put my shoulder into things when I get home. There will be a honeymoon period of almost enjoying all the motherly-housewifely tasks. I will be grateful for my own home again, eager to cook my family fresh New Zealand produce. Keen to drive my own car and be independent. Happy to get the laundry all tickety-boo. Maybe the answer is in micro-breaks. I’ll make a conscious effort to get out of the house and catch up with friends. Go alone somewhere for a morning just to write. Take a book to the top of the mountain with the dog. Start yoga.

But most importantly, I am going to begin planning the next holiday. Somewhere different next time. Somewhere it will take us a long time to save for, but that will create amazing memories. Travelling is a gift to the soul and a chance to breathe and get perspective. It pulls us all back together and we play cards again, minds cut loose from the relentless pull of social media. I need to prioritise travel more in our family budget. All of us are so relaxed. As I write, my hubster is swinging in the hammock, my kids are reading books; he on his tummy, idly circling his feet in the air, she, twirling her hair meditatively, small piece after piece. Their skin is nut brown, the dark circles gone from their previously pale faces. It makes me sublimely happy.

Speaking of reading, I read an extraordinary book in the first few days here that had me quite consumed. It’s a novel by a first time author, Gabriel Talent, about a girl growing up in Mendocino with a mentally unstable survivalist for a father. Harrowing and hard going, the writing is however, breathtaking. I found myself pausing frequently to marvel at his facility for description, more like poetry in parts than prose. I wouldn’t recommend it as a relaxing read, but it is stunning in it’s style and expression. ‘My Absolute Darling’ if you are like your fiction gripping, disturbing and even temporarily soul destroying….

Now I am reading W.Somerset Maugham’s ‘South Sea Stories’. He is also a king of description, although more sparse and understated. I love that he is describing the Pacific I love, but from many generations ago. Fascinating. Here is his description of the ocean, the very same that twinkles just beyond my fale doors.

“The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man. Sometimes it is grey like the English Channel off Beachy Head, with a heavy swell. And sometimes it is rough, capped with white crests and boisterous. It is not so often that it is calm and blue. Then, indeed, the blue is arrogant.

The sun shines fiercely from and unclouded sky. The trade winds get into your blood and you are filled with an impatience of the unknown. You forget your vanished youth, with it’s memories, cruel and sweet, in a restless intolerable desire for life.

But there are days also when the Pacific is like a lake. The sea is flat and shining. The flying fish, a gleam of shadow on the brightness of a mirror, make little fountains of sparkling drops when they dip. There are fleecy clouds on the horizon, and at sunset they take on strange shapes so that it is impossible not to believe that you see a range of lofty mountains. “

I love Maugham’s observations of the changing moods of the Pacific. Each day here is so different. Today we are overcast and the ocean is grey on grey, rippled by a warm breeze and gently lapping on the shore. The palm fronds are swaying gently and the wildlife mostly quiet, indolent in the heat and waiting for the cool of evening. I am about to get up and make myself a chai tea. I will take it down to the beach and blow the steam across the rim and over the horizon. Exhale, inhale.


Drowning in the Wake.

I hear footfalls, voices.  Light shifts the shadows on my eyelids.  But I cannot move. I am suspended, somewhere between asleep and awake. Is it night? No, I can feel the warmth of the sun, a band of warmth pinning my legs to the bed.  It slides through the window, deceptively light. How does it imprison me here, a concrete statue, prone? I try to lift my head but it won’t move; my mouth will breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, but will not make words.  I cannot cry out.  I try to calm myself by listening to my heart; it is panicky fast, I try to slow it down with my mind. Count it out. Calm down. Settle, girl. You’ll be alright. I listen, numbed, to the sounds of people who cannot hear me. The air is heavy, thick with exhaustion. Gravitational pull beckons me deeper into the mattress, further into the earth, I am sure I can feel the world turn, I am deep enough in to hear the thrum and lullaby of life itself.  I acquiesce. The grey forgetfulness of sleep is soft around me.

The morning waking is difficult, always a transition of struggle. At first I become aware of myself again; the feel of the sheets against my skin, the ambient sounds around me. I check to see if I can move. And then I am wading out into the waves of waking, pushing my legs against the tide of light and life. Daylight foams around me.  The cold air smarts against my skin.  I am fighting to stay upright on the shifting sands, eyes open, forging forward into the wakeful time. Into the white light of morning.


Ivan Aivazovsky (Armenian Painter) 1895
Ivan Aivazovsky (Armenian Painter) 1895

“How are you today?” he asks me, hopeful.  Hopeful that today might be one of the good ones. I always know, in this moment.  If the waves of wakefulness break high and the sea spray drowns out his voice, I know that I am in the path of the storm for another day.  If the seas are calm, and pushing into the day is easier, I might smile, roll onto my back and float into the sunshine.

Becoming vertical takes time. Walking the short distance to our bathroom is like controlling a marionette from the rafters.  The strings are loosely tied and my gait comical. My legs are heavy and unresponsive in the mornings. The messages seem to take so long, the feet on the ends of my legs don’t feel like they are owned by me. They drag.  I walk by employing a swing and heft of the hips. I keep my head down, hobbled over, reaching for the walls, doors, furniture. As fast as I can I swing and shuffle myself into the bathroom and sink down onto the toilet seat; head on the bath to still the oscillations of vertigo and nausea.

I have learned to take the mornings slowly. To find the gentlest pathway into the upright world. It isn’t easy to stay afloat among the surging tide and rush of a busy family. They are preparing to cast off from the jetty, speed boat engines revving. I tread water, take my medications, open my arms for morning snuggles before the children eat and dress. I manage my horizontal hairdressing duties and tie adjusting. I am the director of movements while my husband shoulders the load. I am the strident voice of mother; teeth-brushing reminder, final inspector.  And then they are gone and I sink into the peace of my quiet house, letting the day arrive on my time scale. Letting what will be, be.

When finally, my head has given me more clear stretches than dizzy, I swallow back on the nausea and swing my legs out of bed for the second time. I sit there for a bit, bracing for the stand.

I am surrounded by the water.
It swings strong around my legs, trying to pull me under. I kick, cycling against the current. I will not drown in the wake. Not this day.

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?




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:

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 10.57.03 am

“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…