being myself, at any cost
it’s taken me a while to process the death of Sinéad O’Connor, Shuhada Sadaqat, but now i have had some time to do that, and had some conversations with people close to me about it, i want to come out of my online hiding and share some things.
Thanks for reading unfeesable! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
i’m not a celebs person. i used to work in theatre, where i’d regularly work with famous people. no matter how high their level of fame, or their aspiration to fame, they were just people. some dicks, some gems, some flitting between the two.
when celebs die i’m usually pretty untouched. sad that they and their work aren’t around anymore, sure, but it doesn’t impact my nervous system and leave me in a state of grief. i’ve often observed other people’s responses, their outpourings of grieving as though they knew them personally, and wondered why i didn’t feel the same (am i just dead inside?!). in more recent years i’ve wondered if that’s just my own wonky brain and trauma as much as my literal lack of personal connection to those people (it’s hard enough for me to process grief around losing people i do know personally). either way, famous people dying just hasn’t been a thing for me.
this one was different. this one i felt, and in the most curious and wondrously, unexpectedly, empowering of ways.
when i heard the news about Sinéad i felt a numbness, an absence, open up in my gut, a boundaried liminal space deep within my body. since starting somatics trauma practice, i now recognise that sensation to mean “there’s something here which you might want to explore, something deep which you might wanna tread carefully with”. so i stepped back, and i gave my subconscious some time to sit with it. if it wants to, when it’s ready to, it’ll open up to me, reveal its truths to me, in its own good time.
the story it told me was unexpected, powerful, and necessary.
chapter one: neurokin, the tribe we never knew we needed
Sinéad was diagnosed as bipolar and (according to some sources), was then later told it was a misdiagnosis. bipolar used to be called “manic depression”, a pathologisation which my mum used to hurl at me any time i wouldn’t do what she wanted, or couldn’t uphold the necessary masks she required me to wear against the impact of her abuse. i had no clue whatsoever that i was Autistic and ADHD, or that my childhood experiences (and many which followed) were actually creating and deepening my cPTSD. i held the story that i must be manic depressive inside me my whole life, as further reason to hate myself; the stigma of mental ill-health in a world which blames the individual, not the behaviours of others and the systems which created its wounds.
now that i’m far better educated about my own neurodivergences, and surrounded by a world of stories around late diagnosis and misdiagnosis within our communities, this feels like a quintessential core of the female-coded ‘otherness’ journey.
i haven’t been able to listen to Sinéad singing since she died, yet, but i have watched a few videos of her talking. one of which a friend tagged me in, and i shared. in it she talks from the safety of her own home, with her typical glimmering candour, about her relationship with fame, her trauma, and how singing was her life force “it’s a bit like prayer for me… or sometimes answers, if you’re lucky”.
she says something which surprised me, when asked “how do you know what to keep for yourself, what to keep as Sinéad, and what to sing about?” (a question which is at the deepest core of my current place in my own journey: my fears around sharing my writing publicly). she says “i’ve allowed you and the audience to feel that i’ve given absolutely everything, but actually i haven’t at all. and it’s all very coded, and it’s all very condensed, y’know? so i think i actually do keep, yknow, 99% back, believe it or not”.
if what we received from Sinéad is 1% of what she knew herself to be… just take a moment to let that sink in. and then - if you’re neurodivergent, or if you know NDs well enough to know our lived experience - let that sink in some more. because what i’m seeing here is a traumatised woman with undiagnosed autism. and holy fucking fuck do i relate with that.
the thing which helped me the most along my healing path, which helped me survive those early days and years post diagnoses, was the kinship which comes from being around other neurodivergent people. my current growth is speeding up exponentially thanks in large part to a new community of NDs i feel fully embraced by.
i spent so much of my life not knowing who i was, alone. i wonder, often, who i could have become if i’d had a community to connect with, a place to belong, from childhood. people who accepted me for who and what i am, not who and what they wanted me to be. i wonder if Sinéad might still be here if she’d had that too.
chapter two: singing with the faeries, silently screaming with the demons
since i was very, very little, i have loved singing. i was rarely brave enough to sing out loud unless i was alone in nature, where i would make up songs aloud, on the fly. they were my conversations with the magical beings i knew existed around me, inviting them to come play with me. or they were words of kindness and comfort to myself when such things were painfully absent from anyone else. sometimes they were made up words, more sounds with no intention of meaning, simply a desire to speak, to use my voice at all. to take up space without punishment. most of my younger life was spent in silence and invisibility in case anything i said or did brought attention… where attention meant becoming the target for someone else’s rage.
my dad was a vicar, and while i held no stock in any of the religious doctrine he lived for during the eight years he was present in my life, i relished the escape of the hymns. any school which had a choir was a glorious way for me to hide in public. one school even had access to the local cathedral, where i could gleefully vanish into a chorus of faces, singing as loud as my little lungs could exhale, while receiving the somatic resonance of reverb. the synaesthetics of sound you could feel, which woke the ancient foundations of the building, and kept my dead self alive.
i would spend hours alone in my bedroom as a teen, painstakingly playing, rewinding and replaying cassettes to capture the lyrics of songs (including Sinéad’s), mining for their truths in an attempt to make sense of a world which made no sense at all (although most lyrics don’t make any literal sense at all, so it didn’t help much). i never thought of myself as a singer, never imagined myself under the spotlights or dreamed of one day becoming a rockstar. that would require me to stand on a stage and perform, and my life was already an unknown performance of the masks required for an undiagnosed auDHDer trying to survive a world not designed for people like me.
my grandad - the only human who demonstrated pure love - lived for music. he couldn’t sing for toffee but he played the piano and his jazz collection was vast, his most precious possession… until he developed Alzheimers and was conned into giving them away to a conniving stranger (i’ll never forgive that shithead, or my mum for forbidding me to record them all onto CD beforehand). at every visit to his place (including the six months we lived with him after mum left dad, and the four years i lived with him during my last school), i would sit on the floor next to his sound system wearing his giant over-ear headphones, cautiously placing one precious 78 RPM shiny black disc after another onto the rotating player, transfixed by the sounds and the spinning labels.
i stopped singing completely after one shameful afternoon, lost in grandad’s music, fully believing i was only mouthing along silently within my own headphone-covered mind before realising i had forgotten myself and had been singing along with some old musical, out loud. i couldn’t bear that some of my own family had taken this moment of raw connection between myself and my precious acoustic escape and turned it into an opportunity for ridicule. grandad’s was my safe space, music was my sanctuary, and now i could never dare to make the same mistake again.
except, sometimes, while listening to Sinéad in private, i would stretch open my mouth as wide as hers and silently scream along. my rage was not voiced so much as gutturally hissed until my throat was raw, but i was sure as fuck a member of her choir. and Troy was our anthem.
chapter three: not gay as in happy; queer as in “fuck you”
my sister came out to me when i was about 15years old. she, 3years older than me, had left home to do a foundation course in the arts, while i was stuck at home, deeply envious of her escape from the wrath of mum and the confusions of school’s social expectations. when she phoned to tell me this astonishing reveal, i’d said “well, dur. we’ve all known that for years, wtf took you so long?!”
i loved that she was gay, because gay made her happy, and neither of us had had much happiness. i loved hanging out with her and her gay friends whenever i went to visit her in London. i loved the flamboyance and camp of the drag shows, admired the intense and intentional celebration of living-life-at-all-costs against the devastating backdrop of AIDS, and was inspired by the raw unadulterated honesty of it all. i felt at home there.
thing is, my wonky brain had this core belief that whatever my sister was or did, i could not be or do. so despite the fact that my first kiss (at age 5, behind a hay barn near my first school) was with my best friend at the time, a girl called Amanda, i fully believed i wasn’t gay. i didn’t think i was gay at 13 when i had my first kiss with a boy and hated how sloppy and wet it was, or at 14 when i had a messy experimental fumble with another friend-who-was-female (which was neither sloppy, nor wet). and i didn’t think i was gay with any of the kisses and muckarounds i’d had with a woman from a mostly gay group of friends i had found myself within while living in the gayest part of the gayest city i had ever known: Sydney. no, i was straight. i wished i wasn’t, because these women were hotter and cooler than most of the men i’d ever encountered, but i was, i had firmly determined, straight.
until 2015… when i fell head over heels for a woman. suddenly i was spinning with confusion. i was 42 (the answer to life, the universe, and everything), and increasingly realising that i didn’t have a fucking clue about anything, least of all myself. that crush didn’t manifest into a relationship, although it was the kindest rejection i’ve ever had. amongst the swirls of desire and rejection, i felt like a fraud. i’d had all of the joys of gay culture without actually having to live with its sacrifices. i just got to swan in and reap the benefits now that homophobia was less violently prevalent (in my Western culture, at least). it was… confusing. during that year another woman had been hitting on me, hard, for months. i didn’t have the same feels for her to begin with, but over time (and especially after i’d revealed my realisations) she wore me down with her creativity, passion, talent, beauty and charms (oh my, such sweet charms!). we started dating, and i finally lost (or rather, wisely invested) my gay cherry.
on the morning of an LGBTQIA+ festival in Adelaide, which was to be my first sort-of PRIDE as a fully-fucked member of the establishment, after several days of the kind of intensely glorious sex that’s only possible when you know what the other body is experiencing when you do ‘that thing’ with your tongue… she dumped me. “we should end this before it gets too serious”, she said, as though all those months of her chase were somehow a joke. i didn’t react well.
fast forward eight years (let’s skip the bit about being outed before i was ready to announce my queerness on my own terms)… and witness that i’m now fully showing up in my own life. i’m owning my neurodivergence, trauma, and queerness, and i’ve come out as gender nonconforming to boot. i know who i am, am healing the bits that can be healed, and learning to meet the needs of the bits that can’t. i am not who i was as a kid, not by a long fuckin shot. and i am proudly, resolutely, queer as fuck in every way that matters.
chapter four: Sinéad… never, and forever.
when i watched the video my friend, Cait, had tagged me in, all these thoughts i’ve just shared started coming out at me. my subconscious was done processing and now needed me to pay attention to what it had to tell me about myself-in-relation-to-Sinéad.
Cait said she felt sure that Sinéad was undiagnosed Autistic, and i knew i agreed in the way that we just know when we meet another queer (gaydar) or another ND (audar). i’m not saying Sinéad was queer, but i suddenly twigged that what i had felt for Sinéad as a kid was something i hadn’t been able to understand at the time, and hadn’t gone back to examine since. i loved Sinéad back then, in a fully gay way, and i never knew it until this week. instead i knew i wanted to be her, wanted to be as brave and powerful as her. not because of her status in the music industry (for whatever that was worth), but because of her music, her voice, her passion, her refusal to be silenced, and her ability to show up again and again and again and take up fuckin space despite all the hatred and silencing she suffered for doing so… all things that in my own way i have been struggling with.
in looking at her now with all these new lenses, i'm realising she reflects my unknown-at-the-time queer and autistic self back at me... which is why i've been struggling to process her death so much. i feel like this oversight meant i had abandoned her in the same way as i had, repeatedly, abandoned myself. she's the embodiment of that whole lifetime of pain for me. her power was so often too much for me as a kid, but i was drawn to it in ways i didn't understand at the same time; it hurt but i needed it (a typical trauma response). and realising all that while i'm right at the start of owning my own power, beginning a new life as a new self, is huge. she released her pain through her voice and words... the vagus nerve stimulation of the throat, and the empowerment of self expression. she healed herself as best she could, but couldn't heal the world which was killing her whilst she was fighting back at its injustices. how many of us feel the same way?
later in that video, Sinéad says “it’s always oneself that an artist is in communication with… i think an artist’s job is to be themselves at any cost… so if you do your job properly, which is to be yourself, and conduct that relationship with yourself and your soul honestly, then people will hear that in your music and get the message, which is to be yourself at any cost.”
i don’t make music, but i do make. i make worlds, with ideas, words, and more recently, wood. i used to live-tweet my life. i used to be an active part of online culture. i used to stand on stages and talk passionately and confidently in front of hundreds of people - and i used to fuckin LOVE IT, because i wasn’t playing a part covered in a mask, i was being myself in all my nerdy special interest glory. and what’s more, those audiences loved it, too.
i used to have a career that was everything to me - my only identity. and then i discovered i was queer, and then neurodivergent and traumatised, and i had no idea who or what i was as an identity anymore. and then amidst all that clusterfuck i was brave enough to ask for help, seeking protection from people in positions of alleged support… and one by one they punished me for it.
i lost my home, my self identity, my career, my voice, people i loved and thought loved me, and -almost- my life. i have been self-silencing for years, too humiliated to speak to all of the abuses i “let” happen to me, too scared of retribution if i dared verbalise them, and too clogged up with this backlog of pain and injustice and shame to feel free enough to write -to share- anything at all. writing is in my veins, i need it more than i need food, and i have been starving myself of it in the same way my disordered eating denies me three balanced meals a day.
this morning my friend, Kyriaki, said to me, “now that she’s fully in spirit, we can all access her strength. i believe it’s her final gift to us. we will carry on in our own time and in our own way, but i know it will happen” and i could not agree more. this reveal of reflections is helping me grow and see how far my growth has brought me. Sinéad’s death is an opportunity for us all to question our own limitations and say "is this what we want? isn't it time to step into our own power? what do we need to go fuckin do that?!" and, wow, what a fuckin legacy to leave behind.
i’m done self silencing in the same way i’m done with self-harming or not wanting to live. i’ve got a new life, doing a new thing, surrounded by new people, creating a new home… and in all of these things, i’m showing the fuck up for myself. i’m taking up space. i’m owning my inner Sinéad, and being myself at any cost.
may we open our mouths and scream with all of our soul’s ability, a chorus of loud and proud selves, holding our 99% back in self protection against a world not ready for the truths we embody, and using the rest to explode the eardrums and minds and control of the 1% and all who pray to their false and hateful gods.
Thanks for reading unfeesable! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.