Meet Claire St Kilda - Quarter 2 2019 Creative Non-Fiction Essay Contest Runner Up!
Congratulations to Claire St Kilda and This Week I Discovered My Daughter… and all the winners of our 2019 Quarter 2 Creative Non-Fiction Essay Contest!
Claire St Kilda grew up the daughter of ex-patriots in Africa. After a life of moving from one city to another, Claire has spent the majority of her adulthood in Australia working in advertising as a copywriter and the performance industry as an audio engineer, writer and director. It was only recently that Claire began writing for publication. Her essay, “This Week I Discovered My Daughter…” is Claire’s second creative non-fiction essay submitted to WOW. While she’s very proud to have been selected in the top 10 of this quarter’s competition, she has learnt a very valuable lesson about non-fiction writing—its purpose is far greater than just therapy during your own struggles. Stories like this open discussion on really tough subjects and help readers who might be experiencing similar situations, feel connected and not alone.
Claire is currently working on her debut novel, a teen ‘dramady’ about drug use in a private college in Australia.
If you haven’t done so already, check out Claire’s emotional story This Week I Discovered My Daughter…. and then return here for a chat with the author.
WOW: Congratulations Claire! Your story is so moving and though it’s beautiful, the pain is woven throughout. How did you overcome your own pain and fear to submit this essay for the better good of complete strangers? You are so brave and I’m sure many of us can’t imagine – so help us understand what brought you here?
Claire: On a practical level, I overcame my fear of disclosure by using a pen name. Not for fear of my own exposure, but should my daughter identify herself in what I’ve written when she gets healthy, her shame would be all-consuming. It must be her choice to share her story later on, just as it’s my choice to share mine.
In the beginning, Mum asked me to consider that no matter how open minded friends are, humankind’s way of coping with difficulties is to categorize and assign labels. It makes people feel safe to be inside a box that is different to yours. She said that those boxes in their minds don’t change easily. She suggested I only discuss our situation with people who love our daughter unconditionally, or those who know nothing about us (family group therapy, writing etc). That way, their perception of her in the future wouldn’t be based on only this period in her life.
I wanted to share with strangers too, because I was one of those strangers at first. I had no idea how to cope and when I learnt, I wanted others to know tips much earlier than I did.
Emotionally, it was as though my husband and I were fighting a war. Building an arsenal, gathering information, asking advice and targeting an enemy we couldn’t pin down (the enemy being the drug not our daughter). Doing nothing was a crippling state to be in, so we strategized and acted, in shock. It was a very strange state to be in.
Sharing my journal with everyone was another contribution I could make to the fight. I’ve learnt more than I ever wanted to know about illicit drugs, addicts and how families can cope. I knew there must be others in early stages of this process – which is exactly what it is…a process. When we started out I expected services and professionals would know how to fix things. I imagined they would lift us all out of the quagmire, tell us exactly what to do, and we’d do it ‘until’.
That wasn’t the case at all. Counselors asked me, “What do you think would help?” Doctors said, “…it’s entirely up to the addict when they want to stop.” The wonderful drug advice line staff listened and gave us honest information about effects, risks and outcomes. But nobody could do anything to change our situation, or our daughter’s addiction. It was well and truly up to her.
WOW: Thank you for your transparency – it’s very clear that support is important. Who is your support – what have you found to be most supportive? How can those of us on the outside help those going through a similar experience?
Claire: I found the most supportive people were my husband and I for each other. You know how one day you can hold it together, then the next day he’s holding it together as you crumble? We recognised that and used it to our advantage. We promised not to blame each other for anything, not to argue about what to do, or how to do it – we’d do it my way first, then his way when that failed – there seemed room and time to try everything.
Our other teenage/adult children were struggling too and needed huge amounts of support from us. They felt betrayed and angry and told us they didn’t want to know all the details. I think they were preparing for another sibling’s funeral actually.
We reached out to our parents and our own brothers and sisters, but nobody believed how dire the problem really was. Short of screaming at them, we let them think what they wanted to think, and kept our stories of woe to a bare minimum. I know they wanted to help, but their eyes shone with judgement of our overreactions. After all, how could their kind, loving, warm, happy grandchild/niece really be the monster we were describing?
In the end I did feel I’d told my mother too much – she is now recovering really well from a stroke she suffered in February as a result of the stress.
My girlfriends were amazing. We’d have coffees and walks on the beach. They asked questions. They offered suggestions. They wanted to understand and get into my head. Some people might not like that, but I felt relieved they weren’t tip toeing around me. During lunch one day a girlfriend said “It is what it is and that’s that. Let’s love your girl, not judge her and cuddle her when she comes out the other end.” For me, her pragmatism and loyalty was like fairy dust.
My advice to help others is to try not to tip-toe around the situation. Ask straight up questions. Make them see you’re not casting aspersions about their parenting or their child’s ‘goodness’ (or otherwise). You’ll soon know if the person doesn’t appreciate your approach. If it fails and they ask you to stay out of their business, don’t take it personally – bake or buy them a meal or some muffins!
WOW: I’m so glad you could find support in your girlfriends and thanks for the wonderful advice about not tiptoeing around the situation. What other advice would you give when it comes to self care during difficult times in life?
Claire: I’m pleased to say that there’s a definitive answer to this question that I learnt from a grief counselor. It’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever received because self-care is a ridiculous concept when you are so desperate you’ll chase drug dealers around suburban streets at 3 am on a Tuesday morning to check your daughter is safe.
This grief counselor told me that when it comes to your children and the grief of losing them (or imagining you will lose them), stick to the two week rule. That is…
The caveat to this rule is for drugs and alcohol. At every turn I’ve been advised to stay right away from alcohol and drugs. They cloud your mind and make it impossible to find your way through the emotion.
WOW: Thank you for sharing – this will be a help for friends and family who may be worrying a bit too prematurely on day 6 or 7. You reference the “rules” – which is most difficult to follow and why? What have you done to help you follow those rules?
Claire: The easiest rule to follow is to call the drug and alcohol phone line whenever you need to. Find that number in whichever city you’re in and use it all the time.
Loving and reaching out to her through whichever means was easy most of the time. During blow-ups, abusive texts and broken plates it was hard not to take it personally.
Not giving cash was hard. Imagine your skeletal, ferocious baby on the verge of homelessness, begging you for money to eat – it was tough. I had to keep the words of the D&A Counselor in my head… “She’s lying and doesn’t actually care about food. Any money will be spent on a hit of crack. Feed her if she wants food.”
Believing it will take time was hard. Why doesn’t our society have the infrastructure to convince someone so possessed by an insidious drug, to get well again? Sure there is detox and rehab, but the waiting time is months, and the addict has to make that decision for themselves. Effectively ‘they’ believe that the person whose veins run thick with mind altering poisons is in the best position to know what is right for them? Worse still, we were also told not to investigate some rehab facilities because there are staff there who are dealers!
“Look after yourselves” is such a silly thing to tell parents of a drug addict. How can you not wake at 2am in fright, imagining them dead in a gutter? We ate too much and slept too little. Our business suffered in a big way. We were close to discussing the situation with the bank because the mortgage was becoming harder to pay. We fought with each other more than we should have. Some professionals (and law enforcement) convinced us that following our daughter through the nights was very dangerous, so we stopped doing that. I tried exercise class, yoga and meditation. But I now see that those things only make you feel good when you already feel good. As I write I’ve just realized what our self-care was – no guilt and no expectations of ourselves or each other. If I didn’t feel like doing the laundry, I’d wear a dirty top three days in a row. Here’s a secret…I even washed my knickers in the shower and left them to dry on the towel rail – just like I was camping!
WOW: I’m so impressed with your resilience and ability to make readers laugh about camping knickers in the midst of such emotional turmoil. You are quite the writer Claire! Where do you write? What does your space look like?
Claire: What a great question! I work in my daughter’s old bedroom. She hasn’t lived at home for almost three years now. It’s still her room but with my desk at the window. The view is into our back garden where I can see our German Shepherd dog chasing birds. We live in a small home and since I’ve worked in this room rather than our work office, my writing has been prolific. It’s a beautiful bedroom. I so wish my girl was back here in it, holding all the innocence she grew up with. But she’ll never live at home again. Even as a clean, functioning woman now, she has too much horror from the drug world inside her, to feel comfortable surrounded by her childhood again.
WOW: That is truly beautiful – your ability to find joy even during the darkest times is absolutely awe inspiring. Congratulations again and we look forward to reading your debut novel as soon as it’s available!
Interviewed by Crystal Otto who just keeps on keeping on!
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