What a woman wants, what a woman needs…

28 Feb

Yesterday I visited a place on the NSW south coast that once served as a sanctuary, a place to which I fled after an almost terminal encounter with cancer left my whole being drastically weakened, terrified to live and equally terrified to die. Daily life had become impossible, I no longer knew how to fulfil its expectations. I needed solitude, away from city life, I needed to escape the claims and demands of human interaction, even with those I loved and who loved me, and I needed this so desperately I think I might have physically attacked anyone who tried to hold me in place. Fortunately, nobody did, I was reluctantly let go when I promised to allow visits, as long as nobody stayed too long, and how long was ‘too long’ was to be determined by me.


It was also fortunate that we owned a caravan behind the sand dunes on a largely deserted beach. You can’t live in a caravan, they said. You can’t live there all by yourself, you’ve been so sick, look at you, you have no hair and all your bones are showing. Fuck off, of course I can, I told them, unkindly. Any attempt at what I perceived as thwarting me made me frantically distressed, as if I was being pinned down by a body stronger and more powerful than mine that I had to fight off, or suffocate.

The caravan was in one of those old-fashioned parks where families spent their holidays year after year for as long as anyone could remember. When I arrived, exhausted from the four-hour drive and the emotion of goodbyes, the place was largely empty, being out of holiday season and in the middle of autumn. It was cold. The south coast climate is at best fickle, I have known us wrapped in sweaters and blankets on Christmas Day. The caravan, unoccupied for months during my illness and initial recovery, was musty and damp, a habitat for spiders and insects. The day was overcast, adding to the gloom, and while our spot beside the creek in a grove of melaleucas was idyllic, it allowed for little light under such a low grey sky. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t stay in the spider-infested gloom. I couldn’t go back to our light-filled Bondi Beach home where I suffered anxiety attacks every time I went out the front door into the neighbourhood I had, prior to my illness, loved to inhabit, with its cafes where I met my friends, ate weekend breakfasts with my husband and whoever else happened by, where we swam or walked the winter beach hand in hand talking as we always did with such energy and delight, even at the times we disagreed with practically everything the other said.


After the cancer, I couldn’t talk about anything anymore. The ongoing blows inflicted by the illness, so unexpected, so unpredictable, they seemed unending in their variety and persistence. After cancer is a time largely underestimated in its power to disrupt. Generally, people think you ought to be relieved, happy you got away with it this time, determined to embark on a recovery regime that will get you back in the swim of things just like you were before. In reality, at least for me, it’s when the horror of the experience actually hits home, something that is impossible when you’re going through the treatments and your world has become medicalised to the extent that it overwhelms all other realities. Post cancer, every little twinge in your body is noted with alarm: is it coming back? For months I woke in the night drenched in sweat, from nightmares the details of which I could never remember, and a debilitating weariness dogged my days. There was nothing that did not leave me exhausted, and tearful. I couldn’t manage all this, and human beings as well.

I walked along this same beach yesterday, under a similar low, soft grey sky, the familiar smell of kelp, the haunting cries of seagulls, the gritty south coast sand between my toes. At the end of my beach there’s a broken wooden jetty where I used to lie on my stomach, peering intently at the stingrays gliding through the clear water beneath me. The rhythm of those days and weeks and months of solitude came back to me. In the mornings waking up sweat-soaked and panicked, climbing out of my single bunk bed to make tea on the gas stove, cold, even if the day was warm, because what I remember from those months is how I could never warm myself, even under piles of blankets, even in the hottest sun, it was as if I had a frigid core that nothing could reach, it was as if I had entirely lost my previously automatic ability to regulate even my body temperature. The trembling of my body, most especially my thighs, and the cold sweat drying on my skin. The fear of moving. The terror of putting one foot in front of the other. The utter loss of everything ordinary.

My husband and my adolescent children would visit and though I loved to see them, the relief I felt at their departure, at the resumption of my solitude, made me ashamed. I remembered yesterday the feeling of my starved gulping, my greedy devouring of nourishment not from my loved ones whom I invariably felt I had to reassure, but from the solitude of the natural world in which I was immersed. That was my healing. My guilt at abandoning them was great. But my need to be alone in this wild landscape overwhelmed it. I wanted nothing except what I needed to stay alive, some books, some music. The hurt I caused them did not become fully apparent till some years later when my eldest son, beside himself with unexpressed distress from that whole period of our lives, shouted at me, You didn’t need any of us! You just left us! You didn’t let us help you, you are such a fucking loner, Mum, you don’t fucking need anybody!

Which left me speechless. And reaching out for him and he came into my arms, grown up, so much bigger than me, and sobbed.


I don’t know how it is for others, but I’ve always had a dreadful struggle between what I need for myself, and what others need from me, and what I want to give them because I love them. Sometimes I think I will die if I don’t have time absolutely alone. Sometimes I cannot bear to engage in one more conversation about, essentially, nothing, the kind of conversations that make up so much of our daily discourse, the words that serve to weave the binding threads between people, and that is their purpose. Sometimes I think if I am not able to sit in silence in the natural world for as long as I need to, I will start breaking things. It’s as if the healing never really finishes, needs to be topped up from time to time with a return to the inner self who increasingly becomes more solid, more real, than any outer persona and whose needs are so far from anything found in the everyday world with its constructed conventions, and its claims that largely require almost incessant, low-intensity interactions for their fulfilment.

For a woman to do what I did, leaving home, husband and family who cared for me through the desperate and dangerous phase of my illness, insisting on solitude rather than accepting their love was seen largely as selfish, and it was, there’s no denying that. It had a price, for all of us, but yesterday I understood that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or frightening about paying a price for something deeply desired, these are deals we strike every day, choices made, choices rejected, and almost every one of them has some effect on someone to a greater or lesser degree. I still don’t know, after all this time in this life, how much I am allowed to take for myself, how much selfishness I am allowed, how many choices I may make that cause another hurt or discomfort, how responsible I must be for protecting another from disruption in the pursuit of my own desires and needs. With every situation this must be weighed up anew, and I have made some horrible errors. It seems that the important thing is that I continue to bother to attempt these fraught calculations, even though my sums may be dreadfully wrong. I hope that is the case, though I don’t expect I shall ever know.

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

22 Responses to “What a woman wants, what a woman needs…”

  1. mix1127 February 28, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    Thank you. It’s so hard to find what my children (now adults) used to call “a piece of quiet”, and it can feel selfish or shameful – which of course it is not. I relish time spent away from the day-to-day juggernaut of work and family. If I can’t get to a coastline, I head for water. After a long period of illness several years ago, I did just that. Water seems to be the key to maintaining that inner balance.


  2. hudsongodfrey February 28, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    Well we can’t be expected to “cope” all the time or we’d probably wind up like Lester Burnham.

    I’ve had times when I’ve just had to pull the pin on the way things were going in life to protect my own sanity. I hardly think they’d rank alongside yours in absolute terms, but you know I think that whatever the worst thing in somebody’s life is it still approximates to the worst thing that they can imagine.

    Take care of yourself. If it were me I’d find a piece of seaside where the jetty was intact so I could fish. It isn’t much of an activity but you can dip in and out of your thoughts if you’ve something to busy your hands with.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 1, 2014 at 8:37 am #

      I can’t fish! I’ve tried, many times, but I just can’t take to it.


  3. paul walter March 1, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    I deeply identify with most of that despite not having had cancer (yet). I am starting to get older and a large part of me wants “away” from people a lot of the time.

    Loved those photos.


    • doug quixote March 1, 2014 at 8:11 am #

      “I am starting to get older” Really? My plan is to get younger, but as usual the devil is in the detail. 🙂


      • Jennifer Wilson March 1, 2014 at 8:36 am #

        Well, put a portrait in the attic?


        • doug quixote March 1, 2014 at 9:35 am #

          A good suggestion, Jennifer. I think your Avatar needs some work, by the way. 🙂


          • Jennifer Wilson March 1, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

            I know, I can’t see what’s going wrong with the bloody thing, DQ


        • paul walter March 1, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

          My, my.
          Who woke up on the right side of the bed this morning?


    • Jennifer Wilson March 1, 2014 at 8:35 am #

      Yes, PW.


      • Maria Crystal-Paige March 1, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

        Beautiful reflective piece Jennifer,…your depth, intelligence, compassion, resilience & courage never ceases to amaze, enrich, challenge & inspire me. I also get accused of suffering from ‘loners disease’ & Iike yourself I also care deeply for others & give a lot of myself to those who need it. Solitude & quietude can’t be substituted in their power to soothe,comfort & heal & my psyche & body let me know when the wild sea, oh the water, fresh air & natural environments are essential to my mental health, nothing else will do. With all due respect, I don’t need the added burden of anyone disapproving or threatening what I consider my right to choose. That is all. I also had to deal with the nightmare of cancer & the traumatic journey of recovery. The years of deathly cold post-op, & 24/7 physical pain I’d never known before, that nothing could relieve & no-one seemed to understand, even other survivors. Still taking care of vulnerable disabled loved ones to protect them from family violence abusers. The ‘help’, that actually drained more of my precious energy. I empathize with your need to do what was right for you to heal at this time. Like an animal that ‘goes away’ instinctively to it’s chosen sanctuary if it is to survive & recover. Wouldn’t it be good if that was respected & understood & wholeheartedly supported. I mean is that really too much to ask. And even if it was a lot for other loved ones to deal with I don’t see your decision to do what you did as at all selfish. It sounds like it was more of a desperate escape to survive, an essential need rather than a selfish desire. I hope you’re not punishing yourself for being a woman/mother with needs who needed to mother herself in Mother Nature to recover & you did. Beautiful.


        • paul walter March 1, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

          That’s how I read it, too.. Survival.

          As for the family..it voiced its concern. That may have been a tonic.


        • Jennifer Wilson March 1, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

          Thank you so much for your understanding. It was indeed an act of survival


  4. samjandwich March 1, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    Wow Jennifer you certainly have a talent for translating emotions onto a page. It’s something that takes much more than just writing skill.

    You give so much of yourself through this blog, and I can’t imagine you approach your close interpersonal reltionships much differently. It’s interesting to think of the capacity to give as being fueled by a reservoir that is not inexhaustible and which needs to be regenerated every now and then – not least because this way of thinking about people doesn’t give any suggestion or guidance either was as to whether it’s healthy to find a balance between giving, recieving, and making more of one’s own stock. Maybe every person just finds their preferred way of operating after a while, through the daily course of events.

    Seems to me you have identified what is the hardest part about being an individual surrounded by other individuals – ie the “dreadful struggle between what I need for myself, and what others need from me, and what I want to give them because I love them.” Hits pretty close to home for me at the moment, partly after seeing the beginnings of my parents getting mired in a tit-for-tat process of bleeding each other for all they’re worth in the negotiations over their divorce (I’ve stepped in don’t worry*-), and partly after having been accused during the past week of being selfish for needing some space, by someone whom I once thought I could have had something lifelong with, and still wish I could, but for the fact that it’s emerged she is incapable of seeing my own feelings as being of equivalent value to hers.

    The conceptualisation of adulthood that I seem to be subscribing to at the moment is that it’s a state where you come to understand that we are all fundamentally alone in this world, and thus ultimately responsible only to ourselves (and also that everyone else is in the same boat, so you’d better let them live that way too or they will a) come down on you like a tona’bricks, or b) be being abused by you). When you love someone else though, they become a part of the way you think of yourself, and as such the almost represent an incursion into your sense of personal integrity – but you willingly expose yourself to this level of danger, perhaps because it is an instance where it is ok to “pay the price” of tearing a piece of your heart out and giving it to someone else.

    So yeah no, i’m losing my train of thought here, but I’m really happy that your beach is there to alert us all to the fact that if this is a balancing act then you can’t expect to experience the richness of life without causing pain to others occasionally. But then again, even if you did spend the rest of your life sitting in the lotus position and breathing in and out until you died of thirst, you’d probably still upset someone… unless perhaps you did it this in a part of the natural world where wild animals could devour you afterwards:-/


    • Jennifer Wilson March 1, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

      When I think of what I’ve had to deal with from others, I realise that, as you say, Sam, we are ultimately alone & ultimately responsible for how we react to events. This conflict between doing what I need to grow, & protecting someone who might be hurt by my need, is never-ending. I confess to sometimes thinking, oh fuck it, I want/need to do this, I’m sorry it’s hard for you, but you’ll just have to deal with it.


      • doug quixote March 1, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

        Exactly so, Jennifer. To be able to help others you must first help yourself. We are born alone and we die alone; what happens in between is (mostly) up to us as individuals.

        Thank you for the post, by the way; it often goes without saying, but I always enjoy your writing.


        • samjandwich March 1, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

          Or to put it another way: “fit your own mask first, then assist the children”…

          …In fact while we’re on catchy mottos, could we say that the phrase “I’m sorry it’s hard for you, but you’ll just have to deal with it” is essentially the overarching secular intellectual’s viewpoint summarised to its fullest extent??

          I certainly think it pertains to the realm of “all we can really know”, along with “the successful worker is the worker who creates more work for themselves” and my personal favourite and guiding light, public servant that I am: “just keep doing it”!


      • paul walter March 1, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

        Yes, it is grist for the mill.

        “After the sunshine, there has to be a little rain” was a claim made in jest be those who found out a little the truth of this.

        samjandwich did right unpacking the issue, which is life itself, the human condition and offered a personal example of how it works and what adaptability and effort is required to adjust, as a response. Jennifer reiterated this.

        Some times, without going too fatalist or determinist, I’ve found I have to just accept that I am subject to processive forces outside my control, a humbling thing. It doesn’t go the way I want which isn’t what I was told on all those US sitcoms when I was younger. That is a part of the getting of wisdom.

        The adversity that is unrelenting in famine in Africa or a peasant war in the tropics rarely afflicts us, but where would be the justice if we didn’t suffer a bit occasionally, too? There is yet existential justification for solipsism and “thank God for consequence”, other wise where would be the process and the distant better times earned be either.

        But not everyone falls. For every unlucky and oppressed Charlotte Dawson, there is going to be someone who finds the wherewithal to survive and complete their life’s task, whatever this is.

        My old nanna used to say to me with a twinkle in her eye, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken”.

        After a moment’s pause she would then directly look you balefully in the eye and say quietly, “butcha never wanta weaken”.

        Or, put another way,

        “Love and other bruises,
        makes us better losers.”


  5. Gruffbutt March 1, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    You do a good job in analysing your feelings, Jennifer, if not fully realising the whole picture, which is a bloody hard thing to do anyway (I’m still lining up to get into the gallery). I do wish more people would turn to nature and a little solitude just occasionally instead of gathering supposedly like-minded souls around them for feel good, think less sessions, as much as these social occasions have their place, i.e. sometimes hurt can run so deep that no amount of seemingly twee communion can compensate, and this will hopefully become apparent to all well-wishers – both those who are moved by something they can’t name and those who follow convention because it’s somehow the best they can summon.

    That’s probably as clear as mud, but that’s why you have a much-followed blog and I hang around in the comments section.

    Your family might never get you, Jennifer. We might never get you. You might never get you. But at least your life won’t pass by unexamined. I’m sure Aristotle nods his approval.

    I, for one, will drink to your health (and possibly the demise of mine…okay, just one drink…cheers…)


    • Jennifer Wilson March 2, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

      Ah, Gruffbutt, you are so right, nobody may ever get us but at least we wonder about things.
      A drink to you too, friend


      • doug quixote March 2, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

        “Drink to me, drink to my health you know I can’t drink any more . . .”

        Pablo Picasso. vale.

        I hope you’re with us a lot longer, JW!


        • samjandwich March 2, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

          Yes me too!

          I’ve been thinking quite a lot about your post this weekend Jennifer – myself being holed up and alone at home trying to escape the rain that seems to insist on starting again every time you want to get out and do something.

          Good chance to get through some music though. I only discovered Kurt Vile (that’s his real name!!) relatively recently. He really is the most ridiculously over-talented individual… but you know how there seems to be a song for every occasion? Well this one of his sounds like the perfect soundtrack for someone holding on in a lonely caravan park in a rainy coastal enclave. Hope you like it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31qMWqJ1xM8


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