Episode 2: Karen
You’re listening to This Girl Can – real stories from real women celebrating getting active in all different kinds of ways.
This series was recorded during the coronavirus pandemic in Australia when the women that you’re hearing from were at home either with their families or on their own. All the interviews were done over the phone. We hope that these stories inspire you to feel good and get active in your own way.
I think I must have been about 10 years old and my sister and I were visiting a family who lived up in the mountains in New Guinea. It was an afternoon and we were playing on the side of a hill. If you could just imagine that it’s cloudy and really humid. It’s just rained and we’d been playing outside in the mud. And I just remember chasing my friends and we ran down the hill. We ran through these big, long, tall grasses. There was the scent of moist soil, the scent of grass, the scent of rain on lush foliage around me and my bare feet. I remember them slapping on this hard mud path.
I felt totally at one with nature – 100% happy and free and wild. And I remember the memory involves me running. And so the part that I play in that memory is that I was physically engaged and I was running – my heart racing and just a big grin on my face.
So it was a very visceral experience and I often recall that and it brings me so much joy just to remember that.
My name is Karen. I am 50 years old. I work as a spiritual care practitioner, which is the new word for ‘chaplain’. So I’m a hospital chaplain – I work in a public hospital in Melbourne’s east. I was actually born in Papua New Guinea on the very north coast. My father was a missionary pilot and we grew up in Papua New Guinea and also the Northern Territory in Australia. So my childhood was very natural. I was just in shorts and t-shirt every day, bare feet. I grew up in the tropics. I had short hair. I look back now and I think we were fairly wild, actually. It was a very natural and a very outdoorsy childhood. But I had to be the fastest. I had to climb the highest tree. We used to do these things called the drops, where you would hang upside down and then drop onto the ground. And I had to be the one that dropped from the highest branch or the highest bar. I just had to beat everyone all the time. So, very physical. And that expressed who I was I think.
So when I was 17, I’d actually left school already, I was working and I just suddenly felt a bit of pain above my right knee and actually felt like I’d pulled a muscle. It was that sort of muscular pain. So I did all the normal things to try and fix it, but it didn’t get better. So I went to the doctor and I ended up having an X-ray and they found that I had a tumor growing in my femur bone – so the big bone above your knee. Completely out of the blue.
I remember when they told me that I was going to hospital I just laughed – it was a hysterical laugh. It was just such a shock. They found out that it was cancerous. I had 9 weeks of chemo, which was just awful. Basically I vomited for 9 weeks but it did the trick. It stopped the cancer. But at the end of that 9 weeks the doctors suggested that I have my leg amputated just to give 100% guarantee that the cancer was all gone. So that happened. My leg was amputated. And I went to rehab.
The months of rehab were really hard, but I think the biggest aspect of losing my leg for me was the grief of losing my physicality.
For me, being physical, being very physically able – I was always a really strong, fast, agile person and kid – that was the biggest grief. I probably spent a lifetime working on that, working through that and regaining my relationship with my body in its different form.
So when I lost my leg, I think it was so deep – the grief of what I’d lost – that I didn’t actually attend to it. I didn’t deal with it for many years. I packed it away into some box, into some chest at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. And I thought that I could just put it away. I thought that now that my leg’s gone, I can’t dance. I can’t run. I can’t do all the things that my heart and my soul want to. And it was too painful to even think about. So I did bury it and I buried it for, I think, at least 20 years.
So I was married. I had children. I was working. We bought a house. You know, you do all those things. I found having children brought up another unusual grief in that my body became someone else’s. But my relationship with my body was weird for many years until I went to a performance of mixed ability dance group and I was watching them perform. Being funny, being physical. But all the people, they were moving really differently and they were just accepting of how they moved and they were absolutely enthralled by what they were doing. And we were laughing. And I just thought, I want to do that. I want to move again. I want to explore what my body can do.
I was swimming at that point, but not so much. And I think I was fairly unfit as well. And the relationship with my body, I think the conversation had sort of come to a standstill and I didn’t really know my body anymore. I didn’t have a working relationship, a more comfortable relationship with it.
So I took up creative dance with this group and for several years the rehearsing and the activities that they gave us to move our bodies, it gradually brought me into communication with my body in the new way that it moved. I would hear music and I would imagine a particular kind of movement, but my body had to balance a different way and it would actually force me to learn its new language. And sometimes that was hard and sometimes it was a joy. So I think through that, I began to fall in love with it again and to realise that it could do a whole lot. I started riding a bike, so riding one-legged. I realised I could go really fast. And that was an absolute thrill. And I was swimming and I was dancing. And it’s just been an absolute homecoming to come back to my body, to love it and to be thrilled with what it can do.
When I was a kid – going back to New Guinea – I was always in shorts and t-shirt. I always had short hair. I actually felt that I had no gender when I was a kid. And it wasn’t until we moved back to Australia when I was about 12 that I came across a culture where girls don’t play footy on the oval with the boys. Girls don’t go jump in a pool when you have a pool party. So all of a sudden I came across these gender roles that were really strongly enforced on me at about 12. And so, as you do, when you’re that age, you start hiding away those other parts that are laughed about or looked judgingly on. And you start to kind of try and fit into what your environment is telling you to be.
And I didn’t even know that that was happening, really. You know, it’s just a very subconscious assimilating. So in my 40s I came to the realisation that I was gay. And that was a complete surprise to me. So my sexuality, coming home to that, was another homecoming. And again, very much a part of how I move and how my body feels. So, as you can imagine, that was a big change that had huge ripples for my marriage and for my family.
I think what I’ve come to realise over my life, and it’s taken me till I’m 50, that for me, being physical is like this sort of essence of who I am. One part of who I am, it’s physical, but it’s also spiritual, emotional, psychological. And I don’t think we can separate those things. So for me, I’ve discovered that being active and making sure that I do it regularly is really vital for my happiness, for my mental health.
I remember when I was going through my marriage breakup, I would get on my bike, my exercise bike, and I’d play music and I would go and go and go and go and go. And I would do that every day. And then when I was swimming, if I wasn’t swimming regularly enough, my kids would say, Mum, I think you need to go for a swim. Because when I went for a swim, I always came back happy. I came back joyful. I came back integrated with my body, my mind, my soul. So definitely being physical is almost like No. 1 for my happiness.
Swimming gives me a weightlessness that I don’t feel regularly, being one-legged. All my weight is on my arms or on my one leg. And there’s a certain degree of heaviness and effort moving through the world. But when I get into the water, I am as free as a bird.
So that’s one aspect of it, but the other aspect of it is that I love being active, moving my body and pushing it and thinking about all the different things that I’m doing while I’m swimming. I love the cerebral and the physical aspect of swimming. When I swim, I also play. So after I do my laps, I go down to the deep end and I dive down like a dolphin. I’ll dance because I wear these underwater headphones. I do spins, I do somersaults. I go to the bottom. I push up and I basically play. I think it’s the freedom of being in the water that I love the most.
So obviously, everything’s changed around the world and individually since the coronavirus pandemic. And what that’s done to my exercising is I can’t go swimming, which was a regular thing. That was the first thing that was taken away. Then I started hiking in the forest. And a week ago, that was not allowed. So gradually my options are getting smaller.
What I am doing now is I’m walking more often. So when I say walking, I mean, I use crutches. So it’s not just a walk, it’s usually quite an upper body workout. So again, I grab my headphones and sometimes I grab my daughter and she’ll put her headphones on and we’ll just go for a walk, again using the music to inspire us. So I do that. And also at home, I’ve got weights and I’ve got an exercise program from my physio.
And I’ve actually just started doing TikToks with my 15-year-old daughter, which is hilarious and a little bit frustrating but it gives me joy, absolute joy. Keeping my body maintained and keeping it in a state that makes me feel good is really key to my overall wellbeing, because I know what I feel like when I’m lying on the couch and I’m eating chips. And I do that. I do. I’m not like a slave driver to myself, but I know that I do feel so much better when everything’s working really well. And by that I mean my body and my mind and my soul. When I don’t feel like it I usually ask myself why. And then I think back to when was the last time I exercised?
It’s just a matter of balance. I’m not going to be super psyched every day. I don’t exercise every day. But I know that, two or three times a week, I know how much better I feel about myself, how much better I feel about the world. I feel optimistic. I feel empowered. I feel hopeful. I feel like I can achieve anything after I exercise. So knowing that that is the effect of exercise, that gets me up when I don’t really feel like it.
I don’t know if I go searching for those [childhood] memories, but I come across parts of that experience. Last weekend my daughter and I went up to the back of the Dandenongs in Melbourne. We were walking through a favourite forest trail that I love and it started raining. My daughter ran back to the car and I said, look, I just need to be out here a bit longer.
So I started walking through the forest and I started running and I use crutches and you can’t really run with me. You can do like a bit of a hopping skip. And I just found myself running through the forest. It was humid. It was raining. As I was running, I was getting hot. And so I was feeling hot and sticky. And I had this grin from ear to ear. So, again, it was that active running and feeling my body doing the things that it does. But in the midst of this beautiful wet that just oozes the breath of the forest I did ‘whoop!’ – a bit of a ‘woo-hoo’ as I was running! I reckon that’s about as close as it gets to re-living that memory.
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This episode was produced by Dewi Cooke and edited by Nick King. Thanks for listening.