WHITE NOISE

In this ex­tract from her book The Whole In­ti­mate Mess, Holly Walker de­scribes the time her anx­i­ety led her to break­ing point.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - COVER STORY -

“In fact, I had been punched in the face, but not by Dave. I got those bruises by re­peat­edly punch­ing my­self in the face to end an ar­gu­ment...”

I’m a ra­dio, turned up loud, but not tuned prop­erly. I’m try­ing to make sense but I keep emit­ting bursts of loud static. These fill my head and I can’t re­mem­ber how to find the right fre­quency, turn the vol­ume down. I’m play­ing a pro­gramme I’ve played over and over again, and it al­ways ends the same way. I’m stressed. I’m anx­ious. I’m over­whelmed. And I’m an­gry.

Dave’s here, and he thinks we’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, but we’re not. Most of the time I can’t hear him over the static, but what I do hear fills me with rage. He’s not lis­ten­ing. He thinks he knows what’s go­ing on. He thinks he can turn off the static by rea­son­ing with me. And when that doesn’t work, he gets an­gry too.

Es­ther’s here, and she def­i­nitely doesn’t know what’s go­ing on, but she’s get­ting up­set. Some­thing is wrong. She wants her mum, not this loud, stat­icky ra­dio. Or her Dad, not this cold, ra­tio­nal statue. Ev­ery few min­utes I turn to face her, smil­ing through tears, try­ing to re­as­sure her that it’s re­ally me, but I can’t make it stick.

I’m try­ing to show Dave that we need to stop be­cause the baby is here, but now he just thinks I’m hid­ing be­hind her, us­ing her as an ex­cuse to get the last word. He’s a pa­tient, kind and tol­er­ant man, but he’s also stub­born as f.... He’s latched onto his right­ness, and he won’t let go. He charges ahead with his ra­tio­nal­ity like a bull, ig­nor­ing the cry­ing, cling­ing baby. Why does he as­sume that I will be the one to stop and meet her needs? I’m fu­ri­ous.

I feel all the mus­cles in my body tense. I’m clench­ing my toes as tight as I can, try­ing to bury them in the car­pet, and then un­clench­ing them with a flick. This is a bad sign. Dave should know it, and he should stop. He should let me stop. ‘We need to stop.’ I say. ‘We’re freak­ing the baby out.’ ‘No,’ he says. ‘You don’t get to treat me like this.’ I blow. I sup­pose in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, if our gen­der roles were re­versed, or we hadn’t both been raised with an un­shake­able knowl­edge that do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is never, ever okay, I might have hit him.

In­stead, I hit my­self. I’m on the floor, rain­ing blows on the side of my own head, and then smash­ing it into the ground. I’m scream­ing, crawl­ing up the hall­way, sob­bing. I’ve lost hold of my ten­u­ous grip on my­self, be­come some­thing wild, an­i­mal. The ra­dio has been thrown into the bath, and ev­ery­one has been elec­tro­cuted.

Dave throws him­self over me, pin­ning me to the ground, forc­ing me still.

And then Es­ther screams a scream I’ve never heard be­fore. Her cries of pain, hunger, tired­ness and frus­tra­tion I know. This is a scream of ter­ror. She is nine months old, and ev­ery­thing she knows – mum is safe, mum is con­stant, mum will make ev­ery­thing all right – has been turned on its head by a sight she can­not com­pre­hend.

Es­ther’s scream brings me back to my­self and I am flooded with shame and re­gret. I pull her into my arms, kiss her face, tell her that we are all okay. I carry her to an arm­chair and she breast­feeds. I stroke her face. Dave wraps his arms around us both and we all cry.

For two weeks in March 2014, not long af­ter I had re­turned to Par­lia­ment full time, I sported a swollen face and colour­ful bruised jaw.

This was in­con­ve­nient, be­cause I was still an MP and I needed to ap­pear in pub­lic. I needed a good ex­pla­na­tion. I told my col­leagues and any­one who asked that I had had an emer­gency wis­dom tooth ex­trac­tion. They bought it. I told my fam­ily, who knew that I’d had all four wis­dom teeth out years ear­lier, that I had man­aged to hit my­self with the car door while try­ing to get Es­ther, then five months old, out of her carseat, jug­gling mul­ti­ple bags. This was so ridicu­lous they must have thought I couldn’t have made it up.

As the days wore on and the bruises re­fused to fade, I had to ex­plain my­self to more and more peo­ple. One time, I caught my­self telling the car door story within earshot of a col­league I’d told the wis­dom tooth story to. If she no­ticed she didn’t say any­thing.

Quite a few peo­ple joked that it looked like Dave had punched me in the face (which, given the preva­lence of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, was not funny). In fact, I had been punched in the face, but not by Dave. I got those bruises by re­peat­edly punch­ing my­self in the face to end an ar­gu­ment about who should in­stall the printer driver soft­ware on my lap­top.

Even be­fore I gave my­self a vis­i­ble in­jury that I had to ex­plain to peo­ple, since Es­ther’s birth I had found my­self fin­ish­ing ar­gu­ments with Dave by hit­ting my­self in the head. Usu­ally flat-hand­edly on the top of my head, so that some­times I had a bit of a headache and a sore spot, but no vis­i­ble in­jury. We would get into these cir­cu­lar ar­gu­ments, hours lost into a tun­nel from which I could see no other way out. Some­thing would snap, and I would lose it.

It hap­pened a few weeks be­fore the printer driver in­ci­dent, the night be­fore I went back to Par­lia­ment for the first time af­ter Es­ther’s birth. She was three months old. I wanted Dave to prom­ise to bring her into me for a breast­feed at lunchtime. He said he would try but couldn’t prom­ise be­cause he didn’t know how the day would pan out. I screamed that he didn’t un­der­stand how im­por­tant it was for me and smacked my­self on the top of the head re­peat­edly be­fore col­laps­ing in a sob­bing heap. I felt a wild, pri­mal fear about be­ing sep­a­rated from my baby, and an over­whelm­ing frus­tra­tion at not be­ing able to ex­plain my­self prop­erly. It felt as though I was tear­ing my­self in two.

The Whole In­ti­mate Mess, by Holly Walker (Brid­get Wil­liams Books) is out now, RRP $14.99

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