When I fell for the last time the paper published a quote saying that I had lost a tooth. I had lost a lot of things, but a tooth wasn’t one of them.
‘Do you still have all your teeth?’
I remember the paramedic asking me, right after the fall. I had just regained consciousness to find out I was strapped into the back of an ambulance. My face was crusted over with dirt and blood and I ran my tongue cautiously around my mouth, tasting it. There were no gaps. It was only the mud from the track and the blood from my face that made it look that way. Mud and blood were both deceitful. They made things look worse than they were.
Things were pretty bad though. The horse had somersaulted over the third-last fence of the hurdle race and landed on me, fracturing two bones in my spine and crushing them together, before galloping off unharmed. Someone had taken a knife and stuck it right there, I decided that night as I lay on my back on the bed in Mt Gambier hospital, and the sharp pain twisted its way deeper and deeper into that place between my shoulder blades.
That someone arrived in the dark hours of the next morning. Somewhere between the sleepless time of 1 am and I want to die. He had seen my fall on TV and flown straight over from Melbourne. He looked at the cuts on my face and I watched his eyes fill, crying for my appearance, or maybe for his own. He was kicking the base of the bed in agitation, making the pain jolt through my spine with each kick. I told him to stop kicking and he shot me another tragic look. You don’t expect to leave someone and a week later find them looking down at you as you lie on your hospital bed with a broken spine. I stared back dumbly through the fog of morphine and concussion, wondering why every time I got away he managed to track me down.
This was not my first injury, or the first time he had turned my pain into his own. I’d had a broken neck from another race fall when I met him. I’d been wearing a halo brace frame secured by screws into my head, and he was obviously very attracted to caged women, and especially to building more cages around them. He was the most persistently possessive man I have ever met. He pursued me relentlessly to date him, and since I was in a vulnerable state with my injury, and he was a very successful jumps jockey, I was flattered and stupid enough to give in. I was soon to realise that with someone like him, once you’re in, you’re really fucking in.
It was not a good place to be. It was a place where his problems became my problems. Where his dealers started harassing me for the drug money he owed them, and even smashed my car window once when we were at the races. Where he swung the pendulum of his personality from charm to violence so quickly, it left me dizzy. I never knew where I was or what to expect, and I learnt to numb myself to everything. It was a place where the belief that everything was somehow my fault was so strongly held that guilt and fear were my only living emotions; a place where he so aggressively rejected any minor criticism that I just stopped saying anything. And it was a place where he fought so viciously in his desire to own me that escaping felt even more terrifying
I knew I could not survive in that place forever. But it had taken me six years to gain the courage and clarity to get out, only to find myself staring up at him with a broken back a week later. It was during those six years of insanity that I had started dreaming of losing teeth. They were very vivid dreams, I could feel the bones falling from my mouth, and the empty spaces they left behind. There was a real sense of loss, of something so preciously mine falling from me, with no way to stop it. I’d wake up shaking and sweating, intensely relieved to find all my teeth still in my gums, but unable to connect the significance of these dreams to the person I was with and to what I was really losing.
Losing hit its peak the day I broke my back. I couldn’t have felt any more like a loser, lying on that bed with a jockey career path as broken as my spine, and a man I had been trying to escape from for six years staring down at me, now completely helpless to get away. Moving back in with my parents was the next insult, as I literally had nowhere else to go. I had been living in a hotel for a week prior to my fall just to get away from my ex, with no real plans except to try to stay with friends after my interstate race. I had driven all the way from Melbourne with every-thing I owned stuffed into the back of my car and no home to take it to. I remember the paramedic asking me for my address to test my mental faculties after I came to, then looking at me with great concern when I told him I didn’t know. He wiped my tear away gently with his thumb as I explained.
So I stayed with my parents for the next two months. Eating mum’s soup, fending off deranged, coercive phone calls from my ex and going silently stir-crazy. I was missing the race riding intensely, so much more than I was missing him. But, although at night I dreamed of galloping madly into brush fences with a field of horses around me, the mud flying in my face, and that amazing surge of power underneath me, I often woke up with a start at the memory of the horse’s body tipping forwards underneath me, and those pointed ears disappearing into the earth, before I fell into the blackness.
I still planned to return to it, though. It was the only world I knew, and I wanted to have a go on my own. I felt that maybe I would make a better go of it as a free woman, with no emotional turmoil to distract me. The first thing to do was find my own place. A friend of mine had just bought a neat little two-storey unit by the beach he was willing to rent to me. I went out with him to see it. I leaned out over the balcony and breathed in the smell of the sea, perceptible but not quite visible from where I was, and decided immediately to take it. I excitedly lugged an old bed up the stairs, ignoring the twinges in my still recovering back. That old bed was the only piece of furniture I owned. I had left everything else with my ex when I fled. For weeks I sat on the bare carpet in the living room, eating two-minute noodles and staring at the empty walls. I was alone and surrounded by all my loss. It was the happiest I had been in a long time.
Chaos theory is a strange thing. Losing it all and then through a series of events gaining much more back. If I hadn’t had that final fall, I wouldn’t have had to rely on my ex for help to drive my car back to Victoria, I wouldn’t have felt so obligated to return the favour and help him when he suffered a fall in a race trial and broke his leg several months later. I wouldn’t have gone out to his farm to feed his horses for him and we wouldn’t have fallen momentarily back together just long enough to make our son. His life is the result of all those elements combined, so it’s impossible to regret a single one.
His life is also the reason I stopped destroying myself physically on the racetrack and mentally with his abusive father. He did me a double service, barrelling into existence the way he did. With the sudden responsibility of motherhood, I had to give up those addictive, self-destructive things I was finding so hard to let go of, and make way for new, much less damaging pursuits. I stayed in my own place, but I did make a terrifyingly futile attempt at co-parenting. The attempt saw me torn between concern for my son and the belief that he should know his father, and nearly sucked me back into the whirlpool of denials, blame-shifting and danger. Then one day my two-year-old son leapt into my arms at the bottom of his father’s driveway, shaking all over and telling me that ‘daddy was naughty’. I knew I couldn’t do it any more.
I took out an AVO on my son’s father, and began one last journey back to freedom. I had taken up an online degree, studying writing and literature, when I became pregnant, and I put my head down to get it finished. Sitting up alone at night, I found a new form of addiction in classic novels, in the way a good writer can shoot an arrow of truth straight into your guts. I leapt inside the pages, finding a new world for myself, and falling in love with works such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Awakening by Kate Chopin and most of all, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, an immense novel in more ways than one, a work I could really sink my teeth into.
In Anna Karenina I saw love not between Anna and that manipulative sleaze Vronsky, but between Vronsky and Frou-Frou, his beautiful thoroughbred mare with the long, delicate legs. Frou-Frou suffers a fatal fall during a steeplechase with Vronsky riding her. Tolstoy describes the moment with the sentence, ‘Vronksy’s clumsy movement had broken her back.’ Those words shot an arrow of truth right through me. If my ex was like Vronsky (and he was), then I was like Frou-Frou, who ‘writhed at his feet’ with a broken back. My ex, like Vronsky, destroyed everything around him, but I was now doing my best not to give in to the destruction.
I did not want to be Anna. Anna loses everything, including her son, her sanity and her life. I had gained a son because two broken people sought momentary comfort in each other’s brokenness. I could keep gaining from these flaws, if I chose to. It was all about how I used them. I became passionate about finding a way to help other women who may have suffered similarly to me, but I knew I needed first to acknowledge and tend to my own broken pieces if I was going to be any use at all.
I sought comfort in meditation and mindfulness training. I learnt to see the broken bits, and to lose the temptation to bandaid over them or distract myself from them, but instead just to breathe through them. Breathing sounds so simple, which is what makes it so difficult. It’s like writing, learning to spotlight the truth rather than dance around it or ignore it. By spotlighting the broken parts we learn to accept our whole selves, which is why we connect and are comforted by those excellent writers who pinpoint universal human truths, flaws and warts and all. I wanted to reach out in that same way, to find other women who’d had Vronksys in their lives, and run a knowing hand over their broken parts, or wipe a tear away gently with my thumb.
I found an organisation dedicated to helping just these kinds of women, and I found a volunteer program they ran training other women to work the phone lines, answering calls and guiding women in those initial steps back towards sanity, freedom, life. I eagerly applied. The interview process asked applicants to relate their own experiences that could help them in their role assisting other women. I spoke of my own Vronksy, with his cages and my broken back and our son. Of desperate calls to police, hiding from his anger, fighting to keep a distance and surviving for the sake of my son. I watched the interviewers’ mouths drop open and saw the flickers of empathy behind their eyes. But I didn’t want to see that any more. I had seen enough of it, I was telling my story because I wanted to leave it behind and be in the same place as them. I wanted to be on the outside, giving back, and letting empathy dance behind my own eyes.
I left the interview feeling confident and more intensely alive than I had felt in a long time. I had to wait a week for the phone call that would tell me whether I was in or not. They had only ten places and more than 90 applicants, so I knew it was a slim chance, but I felt that I could do it. I had six years of personal experience and I had done the work to recover from it.
I was booked to get my wisdom teeth removed the day after I would find out about the volunteer role. It was something I had been putting off for a long time due to pregnancy and breastfeeding and fear. But I could handle fear now. It was going to be a good chance to practise what I had learnt about breathing through something uncomfortable. I was feeling strong enough, I was ready.
I didn’t get the volunteer role. I turned up to have my teeth ripped out the next day.
I sat in the dentist’s chair and waited. I breathed. I tried to keep myself placed in the surroundings, rather than avoiding them. The white room, the white chair, the dentist and his white mask. Why do they make everything so white? How could I connect myself to this lack of colour? The dentist injected the anaesthetic into my gums and soon I lost all feeling in the bottom half of my face. Was my chin still there? My tongue sat somewhere in the cave of my mouth, cold and fat like a dead jellyfish.
Then the dentist took up his long, silver weapon and started digging.
You have to study the sensation in a distanced way so as not to let it overwhelm you. Take on the role of an outside observer of your feelings. It’s only worse when you fight it, meditation teaches you, explore the pain. Only this wasn’t pain exactly, it was something else. A new type of hurt that you can’t exactly feel, only sense. There’s a disconnect between your body and your thoughts, you know that what’s happening should be painful, there’s a sharp instrument digging into your gum trying to pop your tooth right out, this has to be hurting, yet it’s not, exactly, it’s just awful in another way entirely.
It’s like tearing yourself away from someone who is destroying you.
‘This root is going at nearly right angles!’ The dentist exclaimed, as he dug and dug and dug into my gum. Then took out his electric drill …
And I breathed.
‘You’re nice and relaxed,’ he yelled over the sound of the drill. ‘It’s very impressive!’
I could only breathe in reply.
I thought my dreams of losing teeth were real. They were not real. This was real. Really fucking real. I sat there, really inside this real experience. My teeth were stubborn, they didn’t want to let go. They held and held. They really fucking held as he twisted them around and around in my gum. And as they finally gave, millimetre by millimetre, I was hyper-aware of every millimetre of them giving, letting go, the not wanting to, but the gradual letting go all the same. Until with a massive shlucking sound like a bathtub emptying, each tooth was pulled free.
When I could speak again I rang the volunteer organisation for some feedback on my interview, as I still planned to apply again the following year. The woman I spoke to told me I had done well, but that she felt I hadn’t distanced myself enough from my own experiences to be effective in the role. I’d spent an afternoon in the dentist’s chair doing just that, I wanted to tell her. I can have my teeth ripped out now and not make a sound. The pain always comes later.
At the end of Anna Karenina Vronksy suffers a toothache. It’s his way of suffering over the death of Anna. It comes out of left field. It’s so unexpected it throws the reader into a different form of sympathy with him. His hurt is a physical one. You suddenly realise that despite being a manipulative sleaze who is largely responsible for Anna’s death, he’s also human and susceptible to pain and misery and loss. When he visits the train station where she died he momentarily forgets the ache, but we know it is still there: his physical remorse or punishment perhaps for driving Anna to madness. The toothache is a painful reminder that he is still living and she is not.
I was still living and my teeth ached. No, there were no longer teeth there to ache. What ached was the memory of each tooth, the empty space, the gaping wound. I was never going to heal all my broken bits. I could only acknowledge those empty spaces, all the breaks, and let the hurt flow through me and around me but no longer overwhelm me. And find a way of connecting these to the broken bits of everyone else in this world. Mindfulness teaches us this. To lose sense of the self as an individual being, and to expand into the universal truths of the collective unconscious. I want to achieve this, to lighten the crushing pressure of individuality and expand into every person in the world and every character ever written.
I was Vronksy with the toothache. I was Anna with her Vronksy. I was Frou-Frou with the broken back. We are all Frou-Frou. We are all handled too clumsily. We are all Vronksy. We all endure the pain of growing teeth only to have them ache in our heads. We are all Anna. We all suffer loss.