Category: fiction

Why I forgive Belle Gibson

Last night saw unprecedented measures of anger, disbelief and absolute exasperation surrounding the 60 Minutes interview with disgraced ‘wellness’ blogger and creator of The Whole Pantry empire, Belle Gibson. For once, I went against my better judgment and watched the interview and as a cancer survivor, I have a few things to say.

Firstly, I forgive you, Belle. I forgive your lies, your shameless attention seeking, your money-grubbing, your terrible attempts at plagiarism, the damage you have caused to countless cancer sufferers and survivors, and the rest.

Over the years, countless people have recoiled at my capacity to forgive, and I’m ok with that. That is their journey and this is mine. But trust me – I’ve had to dig deep within my soul to get to a place where I can give amnesty to a person who has hurt me or the people I love.

Forgiveness can be an acutely terrifying and seemingly impossible process, but I’ve found that it’s requisite to heal and move on. Forgiveness is about you, not the other person. It’s about recognising a person’s humanness. It’s about accepting that vulnerability is a package deal with being human. The only alternative to forgiveness is anger and resentment, and one must forgive in order to strengthen ones spirit. It’s taken some bloody hard work, but it’s been worth it. But there’s one very important aspect of forgiveness that people often consign to the back of their mind, so let me set the record straight: forgiveness does not mean that you have to forget, nor does it mean that you cannot maintain the rage.

As someone who has actually had cancer over a sustained period, just like Belle has claimed to have done, I came away from the interview feeling a little despondent. But after reading the litany of comments following the  dialogue, I peeled away with fury. When people paint Belle Gibson as being ‘mentally ill’, as a woman who has suffered with depression (I use the word ‘suffered’, because I truly did), I find the branding of Belle Gibson as being mentally ill really bloody insulting.

That people are throwing around a diagnosis of Münchausen syndrome (otherwise known as Factitious disorder) has riled me no end. It has rattled my cage of compassion because after hearing her trying (and she tried really hard) to rationalise her catalogue of lies, including her stories of having heart surgery, dying on the operating table (that one actually happened to me), having multiple strokes and an inventory of other self-perpetuated medical myths; lying about her age, telling Tara Brown she has two birth certificates and has had four name changes and other fictitious ammunition, there was a moment when I actually burst out laughing. If I hadn’t have laughed, I would have cried. As Brown said, that’s a hell of a lot of bad luck for such a young girl.

But then I thought about my own (real and lived) catalogue of illness, or as I call it, dis-ease. Cystic Fibrosis, double lung transplant recipient, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, addiction, cancer, dozens of surgeries and more. Now considering I’m writing a book about my life, am I going to be offended should someone ask for direct proof in the form of my medical records? Well, thanks to the virtue of Belle Gibson and other charlatans selling their own brand of snake oil, I would expect a publisher or agent to ask for proof about my medical conditions. Is that right? No. Is it now necessary? Yes. Which appalls me.

Belle Gibson claims she had a traumatic childhood which her mother vehemently denied. Here’s the thing – people survive fucked up childhoods all the time. My own childhood was punctuated by dying and death where I lived in constant fear that my dis-ease would kill me. With C.F having killed over seventy of my friends, through the greatest of odds, I have survived. I’m a compassionate human being who wants to help others, and I’ve never felt a desire to embellish my own suffering, because the thought simply never occurred to me, and to be honest, my own suffering was enough.

People survive the unthinkable – genocide, rape, torture, violent relationships – and still, they grow into exceptional human beings with passion and purpose, determined to create change in the world. They don’t feel the need to weave a tapestry of corpulent mistruths for financial gain and communal pity. But Belle Gibson did. The thing is, I picked her as being a charlatan when a friend told me about her book and app last year. For me, her story just didn’t add up. I’ve known people with brain cancer and in most cases, they do not look the picture of health, whereas Belle always looked remarkably well and fresh faced. I also knew that it was next to impossible for brain cancer to spread to your liver, spleen, uterus and blood, and for a woman who suffered a forty minute seizure at her son’s birthday party, after which she did not go to hospital (instead going overseas not long after), my hackles went haywire. But who was I to question Australia’s wellness sweetheart? It was going to be a waiting game until Richard Gulliatt from The Australian cast serious doubts over her cancer claims after donations promised by Gibson to various charities hadn’t materialised.

Gibson manipulated the public with intent and great skill over a sustained period of time. She cultivated an empire that would ultimately be her undoing – one of lies and gross mistruths about her supposed battle with brain cancer and how she cured it by eating whole foods and engaging in alternate therapies such as coffee enemas. As she created this false empire, she made a great deal of money and inadvertently (or perhaps knowingly), lured people who actually had cancer away from evidence-based medicine, instead drawing them into her world of fantasy-based medicine and therefore death.

Perhaps she has complicity lead people to their deaths, just as Jess Ainscough did. We may never know. Ainscough touted herself as being the ‘wellness warrior’, also creating an  empire based on woo (fantasy-based medicine), and while I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, her belief in woo, such as Gerson therapy (which ultimately killed her mother who had a treatable form of breast cancer), ultimately cost Jess her life. Aincough’s fanbase will debate otherwise, but the truth is, this ‘medicine’ has no basis in reality or science. What’s just as disconcerting, is that Belle Gibson attended her funeral as a fellow ‘wellness warrior’. She mourned with Jess’s family. How must they feel?

Healthy eating and Gerson therapy was not going to cure my vulval cancer. Only surgery and the option of chemotherapy was going to save my life. Thankfully, I had world class surgeons who managed to remove all the cancer, so I didn’t need chemotherapy. By excising (cutting) all the skin away from my clitoris to my rectum, extensive skin grafting from my left thigh, as well as redirecting my bowel into an ileostomy (a poo bag), I survived. But only just. The aftermath of the surgery very nearly killed me and my family were told that I may end up in a vegetative state. That aside, I survived to see my 31st birthday. I am now 38, and had I not had the surgery, I would be long dead.

Gibson has fabricated her empire of lies for the sole purpose of gaining attention and garnering money to live an unsustainable lifestyle that she would not have enjoyed unless she had duped people into buying her ‘lifestyle’ app ‘The Whole Pantry’, followed by the publishing deal with Penguin and finally, her app appearing on the Apple watch. For me, this is unmitigated fraud masquerading as mental illness. Belle claims that she ‘cured’ her brain cancer with whole foods and alternative therapies, except that she didn’t. We all now know that she never had cancer, or any other of the medical conditions she lied about on skateboard forums and what not.

I have to ask – at what point are we not responsible for our actions? Many people would say when we no longer have the mental capacity to make safe decisions for ourselves. But does this absolve us of moral and ethical responsibility? It’s a very grey area. Belle has undoubtably harmed others by offering false promises and platitudes to the point where evidence-based therapies are called into question and oncologists are made to look like big Pharma pariahs for their trouble. The thing is, doctors take an oath when they begin practicing medicine, and we can only hope they honour it (primum non nocere, or ‘first, do no harm’). 

While Belle claims to have ‘lost everything’, I remember thinking the same thing after my cancer surgery, but I soon realised that I had come away with my life. If only Belle would come to the same realisation and tell the truth.

I do not know what will become of Belle Gibson. There is a part of me that understands the witch hunt, but I also feel an immense sense of compassion for her. Or perhaps my compassion is just misguided pity. Compassion and pity may be poles apart, but today both burn deep inside me. Does she deserve to be punished? I believe so. There are still so many unanswered questions, and after another soul rummage, I know that we may never know the truth, because Belle certainly doesn’t. Or does she? In a messy little corner of my mind, I can’t help but wonder how many people Belle has literally made sick. And what of the voiceless who can no longer speak their truth because they have died after believing her misguided and inexpert ‘advice’? People may be willing to forgive. Let us ensure they never forget.

9 1/2 weeks, Princess Diana and trampoline competitions

I’ve always dreamed wildly; the dreams being intensely vivid ever since I can remember. I’ve even dreamed about people who have ‘visited’ me. When I was six years old, my friend Rachel floated through my window and sat on my bed. I knew she had been very sick, and possibly knew she was dying. Rachel said that she had to go and that she was coming to say goodbye. We talked for a while and then she floated back out the window. I told my Mum about it the next morning, and as it happened, Rachel had died overnight. I remember Mum saying, ‘that wasn’t a dream,’ and giving me a big cuddle, then telling me that Rachel had indeed ‘gone’. I found it comforting that my friend had come to me to let me know that she was leaving.

I excessively dream/night terror. Many are strikingly real and can sometimes stay with me for days. A University of Iowa study in 2003 revealed that people who are creative, imaginative, and prone to fantasy are more likely to have vivid dreams at night and to remember them when they wake up. David Watson, a professor of psychology in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said that the more bizarre a dream was the more likely his subjects were to remember it.

Around 2.30am this morning, I woke in a horrific sweat that saw me tearing my sheets off (who wears clothes to bed anyway?) I was exhausted from all of the salt I’d lost with the series of sweats that I’d had, so I made a cup of tea, swallowed a handful of salt tablets, dried off and after about half an hour, I ambled back to bed.

And then the dream began.

It started with a friend and her young son who was – at least in my dream – a trampolining champion. She had made a dessert of creamed rice, sliced peaches and berry coulis, and while one of my best friends and I tried to calm her down about her sons trampoline competition, I dipped my spoon into the bowl, making sure I had loaded my it with extra coulis based on my love of berries. With my friend being so panicked, I decided to jump on the trampoline with her son to get him started, and he blitzed the entire competition, beating kids and adults alike. My friend then relaxed and wondered why she was worried at the outset. Her son had excelled, her face had unfurled from concern and she was happy, content and still.

Within seconds of her son winning the championship, a media fracas erupted. My friend was interviewed and for some strange reason they interviewed me. Just as the reporters left, the article instantly materialised in the newspaper we were holding, just as they do in the Harry Potter books and films. The headline read ‘Born to trampoline’, but the article was about my medical journey, which of course bothered me immensely. This wasn’t about me. The reporter who had got it so wrong was Brisbane city councillor Milton Dick, so I chased him and Princess Diana up an escalator to tell them they’d made a mistake; that if they wanted an article about me than they should do one solely on my friend’s son and his trampolining talents and if they were that desperate for a piece on me, they could write a separate story. After all, it was all about the little boy winning the championship.

As I climbed the escalator, the air so dense and humid – like swimming through jelly – Princess Diana, who was at the top along with Mr. Dick, was trying to get a literal foothold of two books that kept being swept away by the lip of the escalator. I tried to get to the books, but she eventually trapped them with her feet and they both walked away. Because I was trapped at the top of the escalator, I threw a fishing rod and a broom at Milton Dick.

Meanwhile, at my 20 year high school reunion where the mean girls were still mean, I was standing in a communal bathroom – much like a toilet and shower block at a school camp, but with fancier fit outs – when a fierce African-American woman began swearing at me and spraying offensive words as she stood behind me. I looked into the mirror and I had long, dark brown hair, brown eyes and olive skin. I swore at her in a language I had made up, and she laughed maniacally because she thought she had me. She presumed I was speaking Columbian, which would mean I was speaking Spanish and I knew that she was an ace at the Española. I bit back, telling her it was Swahili, at which point she became bitterly affronted, flying into a rage. I’d won the first battle and so left the bathroom with a feeling of empty victory.

I then found myself at an event that Tom Cruise was MC’ing. There was a big room, much like one you’d find at a runway show where my school friends and I were getting dressed and made-up for some sort of grand event. I was the last to leave and thought it odd that Tom Cruise had waited until everyone had left, because he wanted to talk to me. I remember feeling panicky and not flattered at all. I thought (just like in real life) that he was weird and had dastardly plans to make me his concubine, or worse – his wife. The second time he waited for me, Uma Thurman was in the room and wouldn’t leave. Thanks Uma.

Skip to the next frame, and I find myself in the company of a tiger – his coat silken, but flocculent. In the foreground was a rawboned looking woman who had been looking after the tiger as though it was her child, and though she said the tiger really liked me, I just couldn’t trust it. It would deliberately catch a claw or scratch a tooth on my skin like some sort of weird power game. It was in control and it was like 9 1/2 Weeks, except without Mickey Rourke. And without the food and the hot sex and Kim Basinger’s hosiery and the horse whip. Dream fail.

And so the lady and the tiger were separated which left her bereft. So bereft that she collapsed and was laid down on a stretcher. Who cares, I AM STILL FANTASISING ABOUT CRAWLING ON THE FLOOR FOR VINTAGE MICKEY ROURKE BECAUSE I MAY HAVE WATCHED IT LAST WEEK. It then emerged that she had lost her daughter to Cystic Fibrosis many years before, and so the tiger was akin to a replacement for her child. She showed me photos of her daughter who she said I had known. But I couldn’t remember her child and felt an acerbic stitch of guilt.

I comforted her until her wailing became a soft sound of regret. She stayed on the stretcher, and her face shrunk as the minutes passed. It was as though the more she talked about her dead daughter, the more life drained out of her. She was pallid and cyanotic, having taken on the look of an end stage AIDS patient. We were at the top of an amphitheatre full of people; a massive audience. My parents were there, as were girls I went to school with and I ran down the sparsely spaced steps. The audience turned their attention from Tom Cruise to me; my bare feet hammering into the timber thumping through the air.

Skip to another room and there’s a young man with Down Syndrome who was sweet, but was using his condition by trying to kiss me. I resisted and told him ‘you can’t use your disability as an excuse to do whatever you want’. I said that it would be like me having CF and taking advantage of people and situations, and that it was morally wrong – ‘I know how having a terminal illness works, buddy. You can get concessions and things that would otherwise be out of reach, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’ PREACH!

A group of people made up of strangers and friends nodded in approval, and then I fell into a pond after missing a stepping stone because of the darkness that quickly peeled over me.

NOW ANALYSE THAT.

CrazyDreams

Books on my bedside table …

What I’m reading (and re-reading) this month:

{fiction}

Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth

Beneath a Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba

 

{non-fiction}

Collins Italian Dictionary

The Tree in Changing Light by Roger McDonald (re-read)

Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Bhagavad Gita

Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (re-read), because a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Thank you, Ms. Woolf.

 

{poetry}

The Coral Sea by Patti Smith

Last month I didn’t read much at all:

{fiction}

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell

{non-fiction}

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Until Further Notice, I am Alive by Tom Lubbock

 

{poetry}

A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The First 30 and other poems by Graham Nunn

Home {sic} by Julie Beveridge

 

I’ve now had my television turned off at the power point for three weeks. Instead of watching the nightly news bulletin which is anything but good for me, I’ve been able to double my reading load. Something positive I can take with me into the new year. Who needs t.v when you have books and music and beautiful conversations*?

 

* until Offspring is back on next year. Cannot. Live. Without. It. Oh, and Puberty Blues. And Dexter and Breaking Bad on demand.