Nervous Breakthrough

Posted: April 10, 2004 in Uncategorized

As appeared in the Weekend Australian 10th April 2004

By Ruth Ostrow

There is a moment when you realise you’ve got it wrong: An epiphany, a breakthrough, a breakdown, a midlife crisis, call it what you will. It’s the moment when the wave hits. The moment you realise that everything you’ve ever aspired to is illusion and you have to change to save your life.

These epiphanies are pretty dramatic things. You would ideally be behind a closed door or under a couch when the tears start and the mascara runs and the panic rises and your skin turns red and itchy. Mine came at the most inconvenient moment possible, with cameras rolling and a film-crew monitoring my every word.

It was late 1998 and the ABC-TV series Australian Story was preparing a documentary on me which would subsequently air across the country to an audience of more than a million. The prospect had initially filled me with pride. It was validation that I was now a prominent Australian, recognition that I’d finally arrived where I’d dreamed of being since I was a little girl growing up in the then-outer Melbourne suburb of Bentleigh, the oldest of four daughters from a working-class, immigrant family.

I wanted the filming to be perfect. I had blow-dried my hair. My make-up was immaculate. In fact, everything was perfect in order to create the perfect media image. Sitting there in a spectacular long, red dress – my trademark – which I’d humorously dubbed “Aphrodite”, I had answered all the perfect questions perfectly. Until I was asked one probing question too many.

Suddenly I was in tears. Not a trickle, but a torrent. The filming had to stop as the camera crew and sound engineer prowled angrily around my apartment waiting for me to get a grip. Every time they started filming, the tears would start again.

This was the day, the moment, I credit with my nervous ‘breakthrough’ – and the realisation that everything I’d aspired to had left me empty. Within months I would be living on a farm, having traded stilettos for Blunderstone boots, a spectacular waterfront penthouse for a modest weatherboard, and money, status and professional respect for peace-of-mind.

I didn’t know it the time but I was about to become part of a quiet revolution called ‘downshifting’. Realising that happiness and success cannot be bought, many around the western world are sick of feeling like rats on a treadmill. Using “Voluntary Simplicity” as their mantra they are divesting themselves of possessions, pruning back work hours, or going bush, pulling kids out of private schools, growing their own food, in order to have a richer inner-life. Basically making more time for joy.

All across Australia this Easter weekend, people will live the life they should always be living – enjoying the company of kids, lovers, partners, family and friends, laughing and finding time for each other and the things that truly sustain us. The things that matter. But come Monday or Tuesday morning they’ll be back at their workplaces wondering why these are just moments in time. They will be asking each other as they lie on beaches and look out over rainforests: “Why can’t life always be like this?”

If I could speak to each of them I’d tell them this: “It can be like this. But it comes at a price. The price is realising that less is more. Less money, less creature comforts, less security, equals more time to live and love.”

It’s already happening in large numbers overseas. According to The Trends Research Institute, 15 per cent of America’s 77 million baby boomers will have joined the movement by the end of the decade. Here a staggering 25 percent of the adult population according to the Australia Institutehave begun the process of scaling down.

This is my personal story of the day I slid off the greasy pole or fell off it. Made a decision that precipitated my own sea change.

At the time you are meeting me, in late 1998, I was the woman who had it all. At 38 I was on top of the world. Splashed across magazines, on the cover of Who Magazine, I had made front page of The Age not as a journalist, my vocation, but as a news story. If you were young and ambitious you may have modelled yourself on me.

My sex & relationships column was being syndicated through the News Limited Sunday group with a readership of several million. The Triple M Sex Show I started on late-night radio across the country was rating brilliantly thanks to continued efforts by Senators Harradine and Alston to get me thrown off air due to the graphic honesty I was eliciting from my listeners.

I had the lavish apartment on Coogee Beach in Sydney, the adorable child and supportive husband, the respect of my colleagues for the decade I’d spent at The Australian Financial Review as a finance journalist and author of a best-seller on the secrets of success.

I had attracted the attention of Australian Story for my stand against censorship and my controversial views on love, marriage and sexuality. I’d been in the news for having taken on the Howard Government which had accused me in Parliament of “ushering in Sodom and Gomorrah”. I was defending the right of average people to speak their truth about what really goes on in their marriages, hearts, beds, and souls.

The producer, one of Australia’s very best, Vanessa Gorman who went on to make the extraordinary documentary Losing Layla about the death her daughter, and was later to become one of my dearest friends herself having just made a sea change to Byron Bay, was not a woman to suffer hype. She wanted me to speak my truth. Demanded my truth. “Why do you do this?” “But what drives you to work up to 16 hours a day?” She probed as I fielded each question expertly.

Sensing a sadness I’d never admitted to, she kept probing me off-camera. “But what would you be doing if you could?” Before I could stop it, it was coming out of my mouth. “I would be sitting on a mountain top, away from all this bullshit and real estate madness. I would have a quiet life, simple and full of love and joy. I’d be dancing and hanging with friends. What’s the good of having all of this if you haven’t got the time to enjoy it?

“We don’t own anything anyway, it’s all an illusion,” I blurted out. “I’m trapped by my huge mortgage. And people die. Even Princess Diana died. Why do people wait until they’re old and retired before enjoying life?”

As the grief rose up in me I realised the tidal wave I had run from all my life was inexplicably crashing down. I was a sex writer who never saw her own bed so gruelling were my work hours, a pleasure activist who forgot her body. “Where is the meaning of it all?” I cried, as she stroked me gently, keeping one eye on her watch.

One spiritual guru would later coin the phrase “nervous breakthroughs” to describe what I’d been through. It is the point where we know we’ve reached the end of deluding ourselves. In mythology it’s the Hero’s Journey into the deepest parts of ourselves. We go down into the darkness, to find the light. For being lost is the beginning of being found.

When I’d regained my composure and the cameras started rolling again, I wanted to tell the truth. But shame and guilt got in the way. I was ashamed that with all my blessings, all the opportunities my parents had worked so hard to give me, I wasn’t happy. It has taken me four years of solitude to shake the cloying feeling that somehow I’d failed by walking away from the ‘Happy Ever After’ myth. In fact, I now realise it was the most courageous thing I’ve ever done. And I’m ready to tell the truth.

But where to start telling the truth that no one dares speak of? The disappointment that life went too fast, the lack of understanding at how marriages fray at the seams, the boredom, the greed, the jealousy we feel towards others, the sense of missing out, the sense of being pulled in too many directions, the exhaustion, our sexual confusion, potency problems, hatred of our bodies. The sense that someone is always coming up from behind – a younger woman, a younger business rival. We cling with sweaty fingers to an illusion of permanence, yet we can’t keep anything – not our looks, not our youth, not those we love.

At the height of my success, thousands of Australians were either writing to me each week or calling me on radio. When I asked for people to talk about their hidden world of fantasies I got 10,000 letters in two weeks which became the book now retitled ‘Burning Up’. Yes, there were letters that were titillating and sexy but so many people used me as a Mother Confessor for things I could hardly read for the pain and confusion buried there.

To know how unhappy people are in their bodies, in their souls, in their marriages is a huge burden to carry. Many feel silenced, forbidden from grieving too hard or long, punished for aging, lonely behind the picket fences of suburbia. There’s the resentment at always having to prove themselves, feelings of not being valued and appreciated. The sense of being trapped on the mortgage treadmill – the capitulations we make to others because if we don’t we’ll lose the house, the status, money for school fees.

There’s also the guilt at the neglect of our children, particularly from working women like me. Where do we begin to unravel the knots we tie ourselves in our attempt to have it all?

But most of all the desperation we feel when we realise this material life, this youth-obsessed, beauty-driven culture, isn’t making us content. Renowned academic Joseph Campbell in his masterpiece Myths to Live By talks of a sense of meaninglessness that pervades our competitive western life. We don’t know why we are here.

And here was I, forged in a working-class home, following like a sheep my parents’ capitalist dream. I was a consumer-society pin-up girl. A walking close-peg for designer life and designer body, as my personal trainer took me out for a trot three times a week so I could look good on daytime Tele giving three-minute grabs on “How to keep your marriage hot and spicy.” And I woke up every morning with nausea because of some undefined fear.

Were it just me who felt lost, I’d probably be too embarrassed to speak up. But it isn’t. Looking back over my career I see it was everywhere, this sense of emptiness. I dated some of the wealthiest men in the world. I rode the crest of the ‘Greed is Good’ 80s. I wrote my book on secrets of success from jacuzzis and private jets.

But what did it all amount to, all the money, all that so-called power? Back then, George Herscu had just taken over Hooker Corporation and couldn’t stop: “I love it. I am an entrepreneur, a workaholic…” he told me from his lavish home in Toorak which he modelled on Tara from Gone With The Wind. His words were echoed by another colorful identity of the 80s, head of FAI Insurance, Larry Adler, father of businessman Rodney. “I work golf, I work tennis, but I play work. I absolutely love it and if another heart attack is the price I have to pay to keep going at this pace, then I’ll pay it gladly.”

Floyd Podgornik was a racing identity and the man behind Melbourne’s famous Florentino’s restaurant. One of the leading property developers in Australia he shared his secrets of success with me. “I never sleep. I work all night…I hate wasting time. I look at my watch and I get frightened that another day is passing me by.”

The three men, who became the subject of fascination during the turbulent 80s for their rags-to-riches achievements, echoed an obsessive work ethic and desperate need for financial success that belied all physical evidence of fatigue, exhaustion and burnout of either themselves or their families.

Within a few years of my book The NewBoy Network being published Larry Adler had suffered a massive coronary and died, his son Rodney is now facing criminal charges, George Herscu was in jail, and Podgornik, a man unable to sleep for fear of wasting a moment of work time had allegedly taken his own life in the bathroom of his elegant St Kilda road apartment. Their demise reflected the fate of many our monied elite: Alan Bond, Robert Holmes a Court, Coles-Myer’s Brian Quinn, Christopher Skase.

American psychologist, Judith Viorst, writes in her best-seller Necessary Losses that there needs to be a spiritual context in order for us to live happily ‘For no matter how triumphant we are, no matter how high we may climb, the course of a normal life will lead us to losses. To illness, to age… to separation and loneliness and death… Without some larger meaning beyond the “m”-“e”, the passage of time can only bring horror on horror.’

When Vanessa Gorman finished filming, I curled in a corner of my bedroom staring at photos of my late father who died too young. He was an absent parent trying to make good. I looked at the child I was, and knew I would have given up all the material comforts he provided to have had more time with him. Which child wouldn’t?

When I finally came out of my room, I stood bravely in front of my own little girl and asked: “Are you happy?” “I don’t see you much, Mummy. It makes me feel sad,” she said. I turned to my husband. “It has to stop!”

“I got it wrong, so wrong. I want peace. We can rent a shack somewhere and grow our own vegies. I don’t need this apartment. We spend so many hours working to pay it off we never get to see the view – or each other. I don’t need all the applause if I can’t be proud of my own self.”

Ah…the ramblings of a crazy visionary. Breakdowns should be revered as times of profound insight and wisdom. My husband, a finance journalist, tried to talk me out of the madness: “If we get out of the Sydney real estate market we’ll never get back in!” he warned ominously. I let him have his say. But within a few months my career had unravelled. Accidentally-on-purpose things came crashing down around, whether sabotage or fortune, deals fell through. I couldn’t sustain the mortgage and without my financial input nor could he.

I loved watching it all fall apart, loved seeing the responsibility fall from my shoulders. The day we finally sold the fabulous apartment, I wept in relief.

During that time I dropped from public view, took a modest job at The Australian and started writing my column on life-matters and spirituality whilst arranging the move, taking my daughter off waitlists for private schools. Her birthright would now be the love of life and books we’d instilled in her, not a fancy school name.

I’m writing this from my beach shack in Byron Bay. When we first arrived we spent three years on a farm. Now we’ve moved close to the sea. It’s a very basic house, but surrounded by rainforest. I can hear the ocean outside my door.

I’m surrounded by great friends, fresh food, good music and lots of love. And how much do we really need? A pair of jeans, a few pair of sandals, a sarong, a guitar, a drum to bang with friends. And at what cost to our souls do we take more?

My daughter’s school is a spiritual place. I don’t care a hoot about her grades – the arbitrary definition of success in a consumer world. When she rescues an ant and quotes the Buddha on compassion at nine years of age, I couldn’t be more proud.

My husband, who reluctantly came along on the sea change “just for one year” would never go back to the rat-race. “You should not have sold,” said one Sydney friend recently. “Your place would be worth millions by now! Millions!” he said looking exhausted, grey-skinned, geared to the hilt. His wife tells me that don’t make love often.

What have I learned from my tribulations? That we can change. I am different. Softer, gentler. Finding meaning makes you full and plump. No money, no possession, no fame can plump you up like self-satisfaction. I have watered my soul, taken up guitar, singing, and cooking. I work from the heart nowadays not to service a stupidly-high mortgage or out of poor self-esteem.

I’ve learned never be afraid to let go. In the world of mountain climbing, the creed is “cut loose or die”. You have to let go of where you are, before you can move to the next place. All relationships, all things have their time, and their use-by date. It isn’t a failure to let them go. We are trained to cling on, but when we unclench our hands, new energy floods in to fill the void in ways we can’t imagine possible. It’s the law of Nature.

And I’ve learned the most important lesson of my life, to be repeated every day like a mantra: “Often less is more.”

 

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