Hope Street Cards Book Club - February

Hooray! It’s the second “meeting” (aka the post where Sam rants about a book she has read recently) of the Hope Street Cards Book Club. Did anyone out there decide to join in? Is anyone out there actually there?

So, the book for February was Rosie Waterland’s The Anti-Cool Girl. For those who live under rocks – or who are of the male gender – Rosie Waterland writes for the Mamamia Women’s Network and her recaps of The Bachelor are followed and adored by thousands of people (these recaps are the reason I am hooked on Bachie and his peen).

The Anti-Cool Girl is Rosie’s memoir. She was 28 years old at the time of writing it. But when your 28 years of living on the planet involve the complexities and chaos that come with: parents who have substance dependencies; the experiences of childhood sexual abuse in foster homes and parental death at a young age; responding to regular parental suicidal ideation and attempts; and, then coping with your own mental health issues, eating disorders and complex adult relationships – then 28 is definitely not too young to write a memoir.

 

I am thrilled that this book has been written. Whilst this story and these experiences are unique and not in any way common, in some respects this is a reasonably ‘typical’ story of a proportion of people in our society. The difference is that for a lot of these people they don’t have the language, the means, or the hope to get their story heard. But it should be heard.

This story and these experiences are ‘typical’ of the majority of clients I have seen in a range of different mental health treatment facilities – disrupted families of origin, foster families, childhood sexual abuse, poor school attendance, community housing, parental violence, parental mental illness and comorbid substance dependence – a myriad of disturbing and painful emotional experiences that result in complex trauma. Reading parts of this book took me back to my own schooling days. I remember being in primary school and having full awareness of when the DOCS workers were at the school and when the principal would come with them to the classroom to take out the poor student, who always seemed to have trouble sitting still and obeying instructions. I remember feeling so very sad when these things happened and despite being fully aware that I found said student annoying, just wanting to put my hand up and say “I’ll take him home. My parents won’t mind”. Or in Kindergarten, when I used to be responsible for taking one of my friends, who was not one of the most well behaved students, to the principal’s office following some misdemeanour he had engaged in and every time we decided it would be best if he just left school for the rest of the day before heading home rather than go to the office. It was agreed between us two 5 year olds that it would be better for him to run away for the afternoon than to suffer the consequences of ‘troublesome behaviour’ both at school and at home. Eventually the responsibility of escorting ‘naughty’ kids to the office was taken off my shoulders.

My point is that these experiences are real for a lot of young children. And the consequences can be debilitating. More often than not, when someone experiences complex trauma in childhood the prognosis for later life is really not very good. Like, really not very good. It can often follow the trajectory of their own parents (and probably their parents before that etc. etc.).

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) is one of the most notable pieces of research into the effects of complex trauma in childhood and the correlated health and social issues as an adult. 17 000 participants were recruited from this study between 1995 and 1997 and were asked to complete an initial survey regarding childhood abuse, neglect and maltreatment and family of origin functioning. The ten types of childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) identified were:

- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Mother treated violently
- Household substance abuse
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member.

ACEs are relatively common, with two thirds of the study reporting at least one ACE. The ACE Score is used to assess the total amount of stress during childhood and the study (which is still finding results) has repeatedly demonstrated that as the number of ACEs increases, the risk for the following health problems increases in a strong and graded fashion. These problems include: alcohol abuse and dependence; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; depression; foetal death; health-related quality of life; illicit drug use; ischemic heart disease; liver disease; risk for intimate partner violence; mental health issues; multiple sexual partners; STIs; smoking; suicide attempts; unintended pregnancies; early initiation of smoking; early initiation of sexual activity; adolescent pregnancy.

So, back to the book. From her accounts, Rosie would have an incredibly high ACE score. And in adulthood she did go on to experience some of the issues mentioned above. But at 28 years of age, she’s made it through them and I get the feeling she’s in a really good place now, given the range of the experiences she has endured. So, how did she do it? Despite all the adverse childhood experiences how did she go on to develop a cult following based on her love for Osher’s hair? (Bachie ref. Sorry.)

There’s three things that especially stood out for me. The first is that it felt that throughout her entire childhood Rosie had a really strong sense of where she wanted to be and what she wanted to do.

“Since I had always assumed I would win an Oscar by the time I was ten (obviously for playing the lead role in one of my many works-in-progress, or Atreyu’s girlfriend in the sequel to The Never Ending Story, the kind of star treatment offered by this totally legitimate modelling operation seemed right up my alley.”

In a round about way, Rosie had hope and dreams. And this hope made her inner world really strong, so whilst the world around her was continually changing and offering up trauma after trauma, and instability after instability, she had her hope. And this, I think was a pretty massive protective factor in her life.

Secondly, I have a hunch that Rosie has not taken these deeply traumatic memories and just made them darkly comedic. Whilst, no doubt these experiences would have been incredibly traumatic – and I would expect that the process of reimagining them all to write this book would have been a totally crap task and possibly a chance to experience a traumatic response all over again – I get the impression that Rosie has somehow been able to see the humour in them. I think that this again would have been a big protective factor. Because humour makes us stand back a little and be a bit more objective and look at a really extraordinary situation and go WTF, this is absurd. And that absurdity, despite it being horrendous, can also be a bit funny. Can it not?

Thirdly, and I feel that Rosie makes a big point of this, there’s Mamamia. Waterland attributes a lot of her personal success and triumph to Mamamia and Mia Freedman in particular. I don’t think it’s the organisation so much, or its founder. I think that it was finding something that really brought meaning to her life. Something that helped her get out of bed of a morning. Being with an entire group of people who not only accepted her, but supported her which quite possibly led to enhancing her levels of self esteem and self confidence. When so many previous connections with people had been based on misused power and control, lack of trust and unstable attachments, the connections formed at Mamma Mia quite possibly would have been life changing.

And that’s something I think we can all learn from. Sometimes in the world of psychological treatment and in society at large, when we are faced with individuals and families where dysfunction and illness and complex trauma seem insurmountable it can feel like there are just too many barriers in the way to achieving any sort of positive outcomes. But providing someone with a positive connection is possible. It’s something they might not have experienced much before. And it’s something that can have a very big impact.

And in case anyone is still reading this rant, here’s my final summation.

The good things about this book:

  • Everything mentioned above.
  • The brutal honesty. Two incidents really stuck out for me: the memory where Rosie’s Grandad falls over and she wakes her Dad to help, with drastic consequences; and the memory where Rosie’s mum attempts suicide whilst Rosie watches from a window. Both of these scenes were harrowing to read. But both of these scenes really highlighted the honest complexities of supporting and living with someone with a severe mental illness.
  • The use of humour. Without it, I think this book would be much less accessible and not just Rosie’s voice and story, but so many other voices and stories wouldn’t be able to be heard.
  • The description “toxic butterflies” in relation to anxiety. She nailed it. I want to put it on a card.
  • Hello excellent role model for other ‘Houso’ young girls!
  • That the book ends with a sense of hope.

The less good things about this book:

  • Only one less good thing. Overall, the way language was used around mental illness was quite good. But when it came to substance use it was not so good. I really shudder when the term “addict” is bandied about. People with dependencies on substances face even more stigma than those with mental illnesses. When we call someone an “addict” we’re doing that thing where we label a person by his/her illness. By making no distinction between the person and disorder, we deny the individual dignity and humanity. We also imply a permanency to the condition, leaving no room for a change in status. Saying ‘drug-addict parent’ is the very same as saying ‘depressed parent’ or ‘cancerous parent’. I see the term ‘addict’ on par with ‘junkie’ (and what an awful way to refer to a fellow human by comparing them to rubbish!). ‘Addicts’ are purely people experiencing substance use disorders. They have an illness and they are humans. And most of these people go untreated for their illness. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was some sense of shame stopping them from accessing some help.

So, that’s my very long review. Loved the book. I will strive to be some sort of anti-cool girl.

Here’s your chance book clubbers – let me know what you thought of it. Submit your own review by commenting on the blog or leave your thoughts on our Facebook page (Hope Street Cards) or tag your photos and feedback on Instagram (@hopestreetcards) or with the hashtag #hscbc.

Next month we’re getting graphic. We’re going to check out ‘Living with a Black Dog’ by Matthew and Ainsley Johnstone. This gem of a picture book discusses how to best take care of someone with depression while looking after yourself. You can find it at good book stores. Happy mental health reading!



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