Speaking up

No matter the size of a family, the role of each of its members will be unique.

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If the firstborn is a dictator, the second will be something else. Once a job description has been filled, another must be created. One might be the high achiever, the next might be the peace-maker and so on. I was the third of five children; the good girl; the little sister who knew her place; the older sister who indulged her younger brothers; the good student who wanted to do well. Let’s face it – I was the pleaser. My twin desires to do well and to please instilled in me a rather suspect work ethic. Combined with my ‘look at moy’ attitude, I must have driven my school friends crazy.

It was in Year 8 that I was forced to confront the unpalatable truth.

Miss McBride was the youngest, grooviest teacher at our all-girls school in the early 1970s. Everyone wanted to impress her. I seem to remember making a clever joke one day in class about wasting time and money (in ink expenses) in the discussion of some part of history of which I must have disapproved. My reward for this witty wordplay was a look from Miss McBride that will stay with me forever. It said ‘smartarse’ more clearly than words. Me – Elizabeth Barker – teacher’s pet and occasional top of the French class?  Sacré bleu! I had turned into an insufferable pain in the backside, and even the teachers could see through my sycophantic ways.

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The role of pleaser comes with some unappealing personality traits. Among them are thin skin and an unattractive need for signs of affection and proofs of gratitude. The realisation that my ‘pleasing’ ways weren’t working to boost my popularity had an immediate and devastating effect on my character. I withdrew: from class participation, from sport, from piano lessons and from engagement with the wider world. I resolved to cultivate a more modest demeanour, even a little shyness, in an attempt to regain the good graces of the likes of Miss McBride.

The only problem was that this new shyness became a primary and debilitating feature of my personality.

What started out as an attempt to temper my brashness became a disability that stunted my development in all aspects of my life. In my one-on-one interactions with close friends and family I could – if the conditions were right – still be my usual confident self, but put me in a room with two or more strangers and I became a blushing mute shadow.

My memories of university were not of impassioned discussions of French poetry and politics. I recall only missed opportunities and stomach-churning moments of incoherence. Speaking up was impossible with a face as red as a fire truck. My only relief was summer and the fervent hope that my discomfort could – possibly – be mistaken for sunburn.

And then there was alcohol.

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I discovered at around the age of 17 that the excessive consumption of alcohol restored to me the confidence and promise of my golden youth. The relief, however, was fleeting. The morning after, I would wake up in the same old skin with a massive hangover and little memory of how I’d earned it. My twenty-first birthday party posed a conflict between my inner desire – long suppressed but still buried somewhere – to stand in the full glare of the spotlight, and my terror at having to make a speech. So I got drunk instead.

At various times during my young adulthood I would comfort myself with the thought that by the time I was thirty, thirty-five, forty, I would have outgrown my affliction. I didn’t discuss it with my friends. I imagined that – even inadvertently – they would look for signs of my discomfort, causing me to blush and stammer even more.

My mother was certain that I, like she, would be able to come out of my shell.

All I had to do was find a subject about which I was passionate enough to overcome my fear of public speaking. For my mother, that passion came in the unlikely form of Australian wildflowers – Brachyscome or native daisies to be exact – a topic on which she addressed many chapters of the Australian Native Plants Society, from Anglesea to the wilds of the Victorian goldfields and back.

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I took some solace from Mum’s transformation in her forties from housewife to inspirational speaker, but come my fortieth birthday no such passion had gripped me. I took refuge in a 1950s-themed party with Grace Kelly dress ups. The dry martinis ensured I was sufficiently well-lubricated to be able to withstand the impromptu speeches. They didn’t, however, render me capable of answering in kind.

I faced the next decade with some trepidation.

How had I managed to reach that ridiculous age and still not be able to speak in public? There was still a faint light in me that refused to extinguish itself entirely; I had a longing to step on the stage and into that limelight. And so it was that, in my forty-eighth year, I learned how to tap dance. Not well, I hasten to add. But well enough to perform at the Glittery Tapping Wonderland’s Christmas Concert with a cohort of similarly challenged senior citizens with two left feet and a dream in their hearts. Along with eight other fearless souls, I tapped my way through the full three verses of ‘Que sera sera’ wearing a broad showbiz smile and a set of diamante-tipped false eyelashes. In the audience, my shell-shocked children’s faces said it all. When I heard the ultimate accolade, ‘You weren’t lame’, from one of my sons after the show, I knew I could die happy.

God in her wisdom chose not to take me then.

I made it to my fiftieth birthday still unable to speak my thoughts in public. But I did the next best thing. I invited my friends and family to a lunch in my back yard. The dress code – tizzy – was a subtle hint of the surprise entertainment I had in store for my nearest and dearest. With the help of my BTF (best tap friend) Tess, I reproduced the glory of ‘Que sera sera’ on the brick paving of my humble home. I was a hit.

But still no speeches.

Everything changed shortly after my fifty-first birthday. Driving along a country road, I was heading home to tell my children their father and I were separating. I was resigned, relieved and sad at the prospect of what lay ahead. My grieving had been done over the previous five years, but my children’s was about to start.

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The sound of two cars colliding at a speed of 100 kilometres per hour is unforgettable.

The impact is brutal and takes a split second to register. I saw the outline of a car bonnet appear directly in front of my knees, like an animated cartoon crash. (A week later, a photograph of what was left of my car proved my memory correct. The other driver hadn’t seen a stop sign and hit my car at a right angle. I missed a direct hit by centimetres.)

In the seconds following the crash, I understood I had survived the impact, but if my out-of-control car hit a tree in what I knew to be a tree-studded field, I could still end up dead. With the realisation that the car had come to a halt came a euphoria that sustained me through the next nine months; three months of living permanently inside an upper body brace and a further six months of the rehabilitation necessary to heal a neck broken in two places. I was The Girl Who Lived – to see her children grow up, to say good bye to a failing marriage and to experience the enormous capacity for kindness of family, friends and consequential strangers.

Twelve months after the accident, I gathered those groups of people in my backyard for another garden party.

No tap-dancing this time. During the long claustrophobic months in the brace, I had time to reflect on the transitory nature of life. I wanted to publicly acknowledge the love, kindness and generosity of those closest to me. I stood in front of my guests and thanked each in turn, and described their role in my recovery. Once I started, there was no stopping me.

I still experience a level of anxiety when called upon to express my opinion without notice in a large group, but when the occasion calls for public expressions of love and affection, I am the first one to my feet. Looking back, I can say without hesitation that I wouldn’t change a thing. Thanks to the accident and its aftermath, I have finally found my voice.

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7 thoughts on “Speaking up

  1. Elizabeth, as always, I love your writing. I didn’t know about the accident, so this part of the writing hit hard – I love that when something like this happens, it reminds me that even grief is sort of a privilege, because it’s life and you can be there for it. Cath

  2. Hi Lizzie,
    Your story awakens so many memories and shared emotions.
    I love your honesty and bravery,

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