Category: TEDx

The Spirit of Things

For the last eighteen months, I’ve been on the organising committee for the 2017 Spiritual Care Australia conference, alongside three other incredible spiritual carers, Tanya, David and Pauline.

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Earlier in the month, the three day spiritual bonanza/lovefest was held on the Gold Coast where it was a resounding success (no, I’m not being biased – we kicked ass and totally killed it). We had extraordinary keynote speakers like Molly Carlile AKA the Deathtalker AKA current girl crush. I managed to score her autograph and a hug, which was like hugging an energetically super-charged sparrow.

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Good golly, Miss Molly!

I delivered a seminar about the duality of being a lifelong patient, and how that informs my work as a spiritual carer. Thanks Matt Glover for writing such lovely things about me! We’re going to miss you terribly as our EO, but our incoming EO Nalissa is also seriously fabulous.

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Thanks Matty G!

We were also lucky enough to have dementia advocate Christine Bryden speak. Her address was incredibly affecting, and she received a standing ovation. ABC broadcaster Rachael Kohn spoke about Spirituality in the 21st Century, and on the first afternoon, we had organised a death cafe to be facilitated by Dr. Ralph McConaghy who heads up the palliative care service at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane (I think I’m just a little bit in love with him).

Afterwards, I was invited to be a part of a three person panel which saw some strong opinions, and me say the word ‘hell’ in front of 200 odd chaplains, pastoral carers and priests. I may have also talked about the importance of sex when a person is dying (I swear I didn’t start it). After the panel, I was approached by the etheral Rachael Kohn, who is this curly haired Canadian goddess, and she asked to interview me for her Radio National program ‘The Spirit of Things’. Of course I said yes, and the following morning, we sat in her hotel room and talked. Here’s the interview, and a few photos from the conference. It was exciting, exhausting, hilarious, illuminating and everything in between. I met some incredible people, and connected with some old friends.

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Queenslandahhhhhh!!!!
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Getting through conference was mind bending. My hardcore half a nip of whiskey on the first night had me all like #CHAPLAINSGONEWILD
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Being the teetotaller I am, I was DJ for the party post-dinner. I may not drink, but I was DRUNK ON POWER.

The day after conference, I drove back to Brisbane where I spoke at International Nurses Day at the P.A. I spoke about how the role of nursing has changed in my lifetime, and how nurses have impacted my life (where do I even start with that?). I threw in some scandalous interesting stories from when I was growing up, managed to lose four pages of my notes, but did well enough to remember most of what I wanted to say. After I spoke, I was one of two judges for the nurses talent quest, and I have to say HOLY SHIT – do we have some gifted nurses at the P.A (I’m not even being biased). Singers, Johnny Cash tribute bands, fiddle players, and the rest.

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I had initially titled my talk ‘HOW NURSES ARE FUCKING RAD’ but was politely asked to drop the profanity 🙂
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Nurse holding my hand between recovery and heading back to theatre when I had my transplant #somuchlove

I promptly went home, and fell into a coma.

The birth of my fourth decade

I’ve been thinking about my thirties. About how they started, and how they’re about to end. Ten years ago at my thirtieth birthday party, I was bloated from massive doses of steroids I’d had to have earlier in the year due to a serious respiratory virus. I was puffy faced and swollen, and going into my third decade, I was fat (for me, anyway. Or at least my face looked like a puffer fish).

For what it’s worth, I haven’t exactly loved my thirties. They started off on a bad note when I had to be treated for the early stages of vulvar cancer. My oncology team and I tried  to keep the cancer at bay with a topical chemotherapy, which would leave my vagina looking like I’d sat on a cheese grater and ridden it like a champ. I know – so glam.

In November 2007, I underwent surgery so the cancer didn’t travel into my lymph nodes and metastasise, which would have afforded me protracted suffering and death, and while the surgery saved my life, it left me teetering on the brink of death. I had a poo bag and a broken vagina pieced together with skin grafts, and I honestly don’t know how I got through three months of non-stop shit explosions and blistered skin from a stoma that refused to stick, but I did (thanks for all the late night laundry, Mum).

When I was 31, I got myself into a destructive relationship, and my boundaries with men were still pretty woeful when in my mid-thirties, a person I was seeing got into a fight and called me for help. I cleaned and dressed his wounds, after which he pissed in my bed. The next morning, he helped me move the mattress out onto my balcony, but left before I had to bring it in myself. I was on home IV’s at the time, and nearly popped my CV line out of my jugular.

My response was an almost ethereal calm, simply because not much fazes me. I thought, ‘hey, that’s ok – mattresses can be replaced.’ WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK, CARLY?! My response now would be entirely different, and for all intents and purposes, he should have bought me a new mattress (he didn’t). Now, I’d kick him to the kerb without a second thought, block his number, and never connect with him again. It was only then that a close friend began to teach me about boundaries, self-worth and self-respect. This friend has also helped me plug in to my intuition – something I’d struggled to get in tune with before. There was other stuff. My sister’s divorce and its ongoing aftermath has been confounding in its cruelty and acrimony.

All in all, I’ve learned my most powerful and empowering lessons in my third decade. Yes, my thirties saw its share of death, but through this came unexpected gifts. I discovered my true purpose and passion with wanting to care and advocate for the dying. I went to my first Spiritual Care Australia conference which opened up the world of hospital chaplaincy (I call it spiritual care), and in 2015, I graduated from my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. My CPE training was one of the most rewarding learning experiences of my life, and I’m now working at the city’s biggest trauma centre as their only non-religious spiritual carer – such a privilege and so incredibly humbling (if you ever want a lesson in humility, go and sit with people at the bedside, and listen). In 2016, I was asked to be on the organising committee for the 2017 Spiritual Care Australia conference, and I’ve been made to feel welcome by all faith groups.

In 2014, I was invited to speak at TEDx Brisbane where I  shared my story and my hopes for how we can do death differently and how we must do death differently. After seventeen years, I discovered who my donor is/was after realising that I needed to know about her, even though I’ve had information about her since just after my transplant.

I have been lucky enough to work and learn with the best people in the death care industry, I did my first Vipassana, let go of my survivors guilt, and got clean. I’ve been clean for three years, and honestly can’t think of anything worse than taking opiates again. In fact, you’d have to render me unconscious to get any narcotic into my system.

On Christmas Eve, I was accepted into the Karuna Hospice Palliative Care Support Volunteer training program – an intensive I’ve been dreaming of doing for many years. It’s as though the world is opening up for me, and for that I sit in a space of deep gratitude. Transplanniversaries came and went, but never without much introspection and indebtedness.

I discovered what I needed to keep and what I needed to let go. I realised that just because I have a history with a person, that it doesn’t mean I have a present or a future with them. I know what ingredients help make me my best self, and I’m clear in my purpose. I’m settled, happy, and in love with giving zero fucks about what anyone may or may not think of me.

So why is that? It’s because I’m done with not being and living as my authentic, no-bullshit self. I was done with that a time ago, but as 2016 and this decade comes to a close, having lived with so much uncertainty, I am certain of one thing – life is beautiful, and all that matters in the end is the love you share and the love you get.

My wish for you, going into 2017, is that you embrace the simple things, because these too have been my greatest lessons. Go and hug trees, howl at the moon naked, walk in the rain (naked again), take less and give more, love yourself, treat others with kindness and suspend your judgment. Own your shit, be accountable, tread lightly upon the earth, and as my dear friend Andy who died last month waiting for a transplant would say, ‘don’t be a cunt’. Life is short – paint it your shade of spectacular.

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The power of choice

I made a big decision yesterday. I decided that I no longer need my opiate antagonist therapy. I had planned to stop on my birthday, which just happens to fall on New Year’s Eve, but I’ve been feeling so happy and settled that I knew I could do it. And so I did. The ‘high’ from not having to take the bitter pills I’ve been placing under my tongue for two years was unexpectedly immense. I felt as though I could scale a mountain. I danced and howled at the fireworks that are barnstorming the sky every night before Christmas.

But then the night’s hands stretched towards midnight, and I toddled off to bed where the inevitable withdrawal symptoms began to kick in. I was hot, then freezing cold. I had restless legs and my arms were flailing uncontrollably, so I clamped them shut between my thighs and dealt with it. Because that’s what you do when you make a choice.

I woke up early this morning feeling like I could swoop into the sky with those long gone fireworks, but now I’m a little tired simply because I’m functioning on very little sleep. I don’t know how long these side effects will last – maybe a few days or longer – but they beat being reliant on any substance EVERY FUCKING TIME. I ate a hearty breakfast, downed a legal addictive stimulant coffee and with my full belly and happy heart, I thought I would sleep, but I’m feeling so free and alert that I had to write.

The last two years I’ve been on Buprenorphine have been some of the most memorable and active, simply because I wasn’t wasting my life getting high and sleeping my life away. I got shit done – lots of it – and last year was an incredible year that presented me with some life changing opportunities. This year has been a little more sedate, but just as fulfilling, if not more.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my last appointment with my addiction specialist and we decided that I would stop taking the ‘bupe’ on my birthday so I could start the New Year clean and fresh as a daisy. I won’t go into the specifics of my final appointment, but it was rich with poignancy. I will miss my doctor’s wisdom and his ability to be transparent with the realities about my state of addiction. He has been such a source of encouragement, and when I last saw him, we hugged and exchanged kind words. He also gave me a beautiful healing stone which I’ve added to my mineral collection (or crystals, if you want to call them that).

After ruminating about the supportive relationship with my addiction specialist, I realised that I had met one of the finest doctors who had ever treated me, and I’ve met hundreds – maybe thousands – of doctors. I’ve met doctors who shouldn’t be doctors, but this man genuinely knows how to care for his patients. He knows that their – our – lives are in his hands. He was one of the very few people I trusted to show my TEDx talk to prior to speaking on the day, and he had nothing but lashings of encouragement and praise. He’s the kind of doctor and human being you want as your doctor. He was in my corner from the start and I couldn’t have done it without him. Behold the healing stone …

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Peace. Joy. Liberation. THAT is how I am feeling today, and how I will continue to feel even through the flailing limbs and mad body temperature fluctuations. I will hold that feeling of pride close to me and that is how I will get through, because there is no other way.

I’m excited about a whole gamut of stuff right now, but I’m mostly excited that I can turn that bloody alarm off my phone that used to remind me to ‘dose’ at four-thirty every afternoon. No more alarms. No more bitter pills. No more lining up at the junkie counter at the chemist to be ‘dosed’.

I get to enjoy Christmas with my loved ones with no attachments, and while last year may be tough to beat (I had my sister back, and my parents, her and I danced the night away), I’m not out to break records. I’m here to live, love, be loved and give. It really is that simple. Yes, there have been deep feelings of shame I can attribute to my drug use (and lining up at the junkie counter), but like the scars on my body that whisper to me that I am a warrior, I’m more than happy to share my stories of how I have seemingly conquered my addiction to narcotics.

Now this may or may not interest you, but I’ve been reading a lot of peer reviewed papers and first hand experiences of how psychedelics are used in addiction therapy and to heighten spirituality with the dying. I’m more invested in how psychedelics are used with the dying, and while I wouldn’t do it myself due to the risks to cognitive function and the potential psychiatric issues, I’d probably give it a go if I was at the end of my life. While the potential for dependency is very low, what a ride it would be. Now have a look at this diagram:

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I don’t do alcohol, nicotine and my intake of coffee these days is practically non-existent in comparison to what I used to consume. Prior to transplant, apart from morphine, I would continuously suck on nitrous oxide (Entonox) when physiotherapy became too painful. It helped, but it can cause bleeding, so I was closely monitored and as such never had physio again due to uncontrollable pain. When I was dying, all that mattered was that I was comfortable from both a physical and spiritual standpoint.

Now take a look at where Psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’), LSD and Mescaline are on the chart. Very low in dependency. It never seemed to hurt Jack Kerouac or Sir Ginsberg and their prolific writing. Until it did. A slew of writers ‘graduated’ to speed, benzodiazepines – and the rest – which inevitably lead to this: ‘Kerouac took so much amphetamine when he first discovered the inhaler high that he lost most of his hair and his legs swelled up with thrombophlebitis.’ Not sexy at all. So while it aided their art for a while, it swallowed them whole and Kerouac was dead at the age of 47. I am eight years away from 47 and do not want to die, so to think I was addicted to narcotics like morphine and pethidine horrifies me, because after heroin, they’re at the top of the list with both dependence and morbidity. Pentobarbital (often marketed as Nembutal) is right up there, too. Nembutal is the choice drug for euthanasia, and cocaine is not far behind.

I’ve spoken at length with friends who have tried all manner of substances over the years: ecstasy, methamphetamine, mescaline and LSD, heroin, morphine, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. That’s right – alcohol is also on the list with a level of high morbidity too. Is this a cautionary tale about drugs? Perhaps.

So enough of the horror for me. Instead, I am going to try to not be horrified with how close I came to death when I was using, but will tap into the subtleties of that emotion when I need to feel proud. Did I win the fight against drugs? Did I win the fight against CF and cancer? Not quite, and for a couple of reasons. I’ve never particularly liked or understood the militarisation of illness or death, and I don’t plan on using that model for how I got through my addiction. I GOT THROUGH IT. And I got through it with support, love, the right medication, meditation, music, writing and fuck off stubbornness. I can’t say that I single handedly came through the other side without help, but I did most of the work myself because I’m not one to ‘lean in’ – I never have been.

Having an addiction specialist and a supportive family was one thing and while I only told a handful of my closest friends, they knew from day one that the only way I get through the really tough shit is on my own. I attribute that to spending so much time alone in hospital once my Mum had to leave so she could love and look after my sister and my Dad. Being alone gives you a tremendous sense of temerity and independence, as well as an imagination to rival Tolkein (although I was never going to be as crafty as he was – not even close).

I’ve never been codependent on another person, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. More often than not, I’ve reasoned that it’s for the best because I’ve always wagered that I will live the rest of my life alone. Except that I’m not. I want to thank everyone for letting me just be. For still loving me. For asking how I’m going. For always asking and accepting that wherever I am, no matter what may be happening, ‘I’m fine, thank you’, even when I’m not.

Endnote: this is what I strutted – really strutted and danced – around the house to last night. Because I’m feeling good.

Learning to Die: my TEDx talk

Yesterday my TEDx talk went live on TEDx Brisbane’s YouTube channel, and I’ve had an almost overwhelming response about speaking about my life (and deaths), and my beliefs and truths about death and dying. Here it is – Learning to Die.

I’ve been bathing in the beautiful waters of Death Walking training over the last two days, the last of which is today, and being able to come together with other ‘deathies’ has been such a gift; so serendipitous in its timing. When I looked at my phone at morning tea, I couldn’t understand why I had a flurry of messages, though it soon registered when friends and strangers alike were reaching out to congratulate me. Mission accomplished! And so here it is. It’s been released to the the world, and it’s there for people to do with it as they wish.

So make yourself a cuppa or an espresso or whatever your poison is and sit down to hear what I have to say. And please – let me know what you think. Comment, share, repost. I’m feeling happy and grateful that my words can be heard should you so desire to listen, and if just one person walks away – or leaves their desk or kitchen table – a little more fluent in the language of death, then my work here is done. Peace.

TEDx – the lovers, the dreamers and me …

So things have really ramped up for Sunday’s TEDx event. Because I’ve only had three weeks to prepare (the usual turn around time from being asked to speak and actually speaking is six weeks, but I was a late inclusion – thank you for asking me, TEDx!) sleep has been elusive and nerves a little frayed, though that was stoppered yesterday when I learned I could have a lectern to put my notes on. Some people have had the luxury of having three to four months to prepare, but I think that amount of time would be harder to cope with because it’s so drawn out.

I’ve tried to commit an 18 minute speech to memory in two weeks, and I have to say, it’s not easy. Just when you think you have it together, you say ‘fuck’, and glance at your notes (again) Well, that’s how I’ve been doing it, anyway … I’ve done a lot of public speaking over the years, but it’s never been broadcast to the world via YouTube.

I LOVE that the theme for this year is ‘the lovers, the dreamers and me’. I want to just kiss it through the floor! Looking at the lineup, the theme resonates even more richly, and I have to say that I believe that each of us is all three – I know I am 🙂 We even have our own water bottles, because talking is thirsty work!

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My beautiful sister posted the following photo on Instagram this morning, and I’ve had so many well wishers/wishes, which has made me feel a bit spesh and less nervous, and I’ve managed to churn my nervous energy into excitement and am looking so forward to sharing my story with you and the rest of the world if they so care to listen. Love to all 🙂

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