“I can’t do it,” I say. My heart is pounding. I can’t think clearly. I look to the side, which I instantly recognise as a mistake. The height dizzies me, the drop-off nauseating. “I can’t do it,” I say again, snapping my head back, but this time it’s a whisper — no longer a call for help, but a fact I have resigned myself to.
“Just take a breath,” a voice calls out below me. “Just sit back and catch your breath, okay?”. I clutch the rock wall, press my face into its cool surface. I like how rough it feels. “I’ve got you,” she says. I slacken my legs, rest back tentatively. Then when I feel the tautness of the rope holding me, I sit all the way. I wonder if this is the right time to tell her I have never done this before. I decide that it isn’t. My legs start to shake. This very act feels like a betrayal.
The blue of the sky sits like a perfect horizon as I look up; the contrast against the brown of the jagged rock a burst of something good I can’t reach. It’s a perfect day. Sunny and cloudless, bubbling with that clean slate feeling only the early hours of the morning holds. It’s the very first day of the new year, the one I vowed would contain less crying to Adele on the kitchen floor and more acceptance of the new life ahead of me. It was symbolic, this rock climb, though nobody knew it but me.
I look around but I see nowhere to hoist my leg, no crevice to reach up and grip, no way around the ledge I am straddling. I’m stuck, unable to move either forwards or backwards, and I panic at the realisation of it. It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d see the parallel to my own life, and laugh at its irony. A voice pierces my panic. It’s hers again. “Just look at the wall,” she calls from below. “You just need to work out your next move.”
A wave hits again, sharp in my nerves. Are we not done with this? It’s tedious, even to myself. I get up, turn the handle on my apartment door, enter the lift, travel down the eight flights to the lobby. My mental health rests in the middle of a triangle between my thoughts, feelings and behaviours, my therapist tells me. The three points on the triangle all affect each other: Changing one has the power to change the other, she says. So I change what I do because what I think and what I feel lurk like shadows in a deserted alleyway I shouldn’t be down.
The room is almost empty when I enter. One woman already waits on the floor, looks up at me, smiles briefly. Another one comes in when I’m rolling out my mat. I don’t look at her. I give myself permission to avoid niceties. I’m not here to be friendly. Then our instructor enters the room. He lowers the lights, turns on the music.
Being here is a cliche’, even to me.
“Welcome,” he says. “Just take a moment to look around and greet your neighbours.” The two women turn to me, smile, say hello. It catches me off guard and I can’t keep up with what’s happening, so I just look back at them awkwardly.
“Close your eyes,” he says. “Take a breath in. Reach your arms up, bring them into prayer position, lower them to your forehead.” I do as he says. “Ahhhhhh”, he breathes out slowly, like he’s cracked a beer after a huge day and he’s exaggerating his joy about it. It’s almost an orgasm, the sound of his sigh. It makes me deeply uncomfortable, like I’m in one of those spiritual places where anything goes and everyone’s free. I cock my head, open one eye and look at him. He rests there like he’s at peace. Or like he’s not at peace but he’s pretending to be. His arrogance frankly annoys me.
“Ahhhhhh,” he sighs again, loudly, and I tell myself it’s going to be a long class.
The room is hot. Infrared lights shine down from the ceiling, eight of them in total. The wall straight ahead, behind the instructor, is a mural of autumn trees. Just as I contemplate how beautiful it is, I realize that it reminds me of the last family holiday we took to Japan. I look at the ground instead.
“Breathe in,” he says. “Right leg back. Breathe out. Left leg back into plank. Lower yourself down. Breathe in. Cobra. Breathe out. Downward dog.” His voice is rhythmic, specific. “Ahhhhhhh,” he sighs. And again, “Ahhhhhhh.”
He can’t be serious.
I hang in downward dog. My calves are tight, my shoulders burn. “Take care,” he says, and it strikes me as an odd thing to say. “Stay here,” he says. “Breathe.” The hot air clings to my face. Sweat begins to pool on my forehead. I fight myself to stay there, clinging onto every second until he says we can stop. We continue like this, his voice becoming a chant. Another cycle. And then another. And another. “Breathe in,” he says. “Right leg forward. Breathe out, left leg forward. Breathe in, reach up into prayer position, breathe out, lower your hands to your chest.” Ahhhhhhh.
“Breathe in,” he says. “Right leg back. Breathe out. Left leg back into plank. Lower yourself down. Breathe in. Cobra. Breathe out. Downward dog.” It becomes a trance. “Ahhhhhhh,” he sighs. And again, “Ahhhhhhh.” My heart is pounding, the heat closes in around me. Everything ramps up with intensity. He doesn’t let us stop. Over and over again, he chants. Sweat pours down my face, splattering the mat. My hands eventually wrinkle, like I’ve been in water for too long. “Take care,” he says. Ahhhhhhh. The muscles in my arms begin to shake. I dangle in downward dog, squeezing my eyes shut. I can hear the woman next to me panting. I gamble with myself about how I can cheat. Everything burns. I grip to each second begging it to be the last. The air suffocates me, there is nowhere to escape. Then his voice cuts through. “Your mind is your biggest obstacle,” he says. It’s then I realise where he’s trying to take us.
“Left leg forward,” he says. “Then your right. Reach your arms up, close your eyes, bring your hands to your forehead. Breathe.” Everything is thudding. I feel like I might cry. “Slowly lower yourself to your mat. Settle into Savasana. Close your eyes. Rest.”
The sheer relief of stillness floods me. He turns the music up. It’s slight but it’s enough to feel enveloped by — the soft chanting, the gentle pitch of a woman’s voice singing, like a mother soothing her child. My heart rate slows. The heat cradles me.
I’ve ruined my family. I’ve lost my children. I didn’t try hard enough. Stop it.
The woman’s singing swirls around me.
Mum, she’s so nice. She has such long nails! I hope daddy marries her. I hope she becomes our step mum! Stop it.
Ahhhhhhhh, he sighs.
What did you think was going to happen? It serves you right. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
And then his voice, rising over the building swirls of the music. “Notice what’s there, in your mind. Accept what you find there.”
Another sigh, only it no longer bothers me.
You’ve ruined everything. You fucked everything up.
This time I don’t fight back.
I lie in the dark, the familiar feeling of punishment like an abuser I can’t leave.
He speaks again, more quietly this time. “Accepting what’s there does not mean you have to believe it.”
It was then that I felt something crack inside my chest. I lay there crying silently in the dark. If it was a cliche’ before – taking a yoga class to heal – then it definitely was one now, only I no longer cared. I felt brief relief that the lights were off. “Take care,” he says again, and what struck me as odd initially, I now understand. He knows about the stories we tell ourselves. And he knows, above all, that we must take care from our own selves because of them. We must. We must be the child who is taking the care and the mother who is giving it. We must simultaneously be both. Because we are both the cause of and the solution to our own suffering. And because of all the things I’ve experienced to be true, nothing is truer than what I realised, lying there in the dark: The greatest threat to our survival is not what happens to us. It’s the belief in our own wretchedness.
I look up at the rock wall and force myself to exhale sharply. “Take you time”, she says. “Just figure out your next move,” she tells me again.
And there it is – the tiniest crevice to reach with my right hand. I wedge my left foot into the rock wall so I have more leverage. A quick lurch upwards. I grab on. My breathing is calm, focused. I pull myself up. From here, I can see the final hook, three metres up. I’m flat against the wall, like it’s no longer something that’s separate to me. I curve around some rock. Left foot up, then right, grab, pull, left hand, right. And then I’m there. I’m at the top. I turn around and look down at my friend. She beams at me. Cheers loudly. Tears prick my eyes, and I turn back to the wall, because though it might be ridiculous to everyone below that I am crying over a silly rock climb, it isn’t to me.
Two weeks later, I pick up the phone, dial a number. It answers on the second ring.
“Hello. QUT Student Services, this is Amanda speaking.”
I start talking.
“Oh, hi,” I say. “I just wanted to talk to someone about what post graduate courses I can do in relation to my previous degree?”
“Of course,” she says. “Let me just transfer you through to someone now.”
She puts me on hold, and I look out at the view from my apartment balcony. Cars bustle below, couples cross the street, dogs bark at their owners on the street corner. One year ago, I jumped off a cliff and I’ve been free falling ever since. When my marriage ended, I lost my home and the financial security of my future. I lost my family. I lost my children for half of their childhoods. I lost the goodness of their memories, now punctuated with the reminder of what’s no longer there. I lost the validity of my previous degree when I had children and stopped work, and as a result, I lost the stability of a regular income to fall back on. I lost the dream of how my life was and would have been and I lost the joy of yearly events now laced with pain and grief. Christmas was spent without my children, crying myself to sleep. The year was a slow and agonizing death and in the end, I lost myself.
An ambulance drives past, a bout of laughter erupts from the cafe below me. And as the phone clicks off hold, I feel a glimpse of certainty for the first time in a long time. The sheer relief of it floods me with a strength I had forgotten the feeling of. I have the beginning of a plan, and that’s all it takes for my friend’s voice to clang around in my head like a church bell.
Take your time. Just figure out your next move.