A New Year – (2013, the year that was).

At the end of each year, like many others I’ve always enjoyed looking back at the year that was and making predictions and plans for how what the next year will be. The end of 2013 was no exception, but I felt a strong need to finish writing and sorting photos for my post “Logging in WA’s South West” before I wrote this post.

For me, 2013 was a year of much personal and professional progress, but also a year of serious emotional ups and downs and mental health challenges like I had never experienced before. I started the year out on the streets of New York, inebriated by too much top-shelf alcohol consumed while watching comedy to bring in the new year at the Gotham Comedy Club. The hectic nature of New York city on New Years Eve was an accurate omen for how the rest of 2013 would play out, over-crowded and full-on.

My story for 2013 is one of a year not for the feint of heart.

Where to start?

As mentioned already, the year started in New York. But why was I in New York? Well at the end of 2012 my wife and I went on 5 week holiday to Brazil and the USA for our honeymoon. It was an exciting and full on 5 weeks.

My new years resolution for 2012 was to never work for exploitative organisations again, having both felt like hypocritical for doing so and also having been personally mistreated by such organisations in the past. To that extent I quit my job working at a ‘social media agency’ at the end of November 2012, and officially launched my own online communications consultancy in January.

The State Election was coming up in March and my experience in online communications, combined with my knowledge and connections in state politics meant I was in high demand immediately. During the state election I consulted with and trained several candidates, including independent candidates and members of both the Greens and ALP, in the use of social media for political campaigning.

Six weeks out from the election, I was asked to become a campaign manager by supporters of the then independent candidate for Cottesloe, Kevin Morgan, against the incumbent Premier, Colin Barnett. It was an interesting challenge, but I was keen. With 6 weeks to turn a virtually non-existent campaign into a potential election winning force, I got straight down to work activating volunteers.

I worked 70+ hours per week during that period of time, much of it unpaid. I wanted to see this campaign become a success, or at least become something the Premier would remember. With a handful of active volunteers and an almost non-existant funding base, we still managed to gather 11.8% of the primary vote in the electorate, one of the highest results of all independent candidates during the state election.

In an election which saw a 9% swing toward the Liberal Party, the swing was only a 1.2% swing in Cottesloe. A relatively good result by my measure, for a campaign with little hope or organisation in the first place.

Following the election was a period of consolidation for my consultancy, with the initial election related busy period falling off equally as quickly. For the first time in my life I was having to actively seek clients to work with.

It didn’t take long, after a couple of months I was busily working with not-for-profit clients ranging including the Cancer Council WA, Make Smoking History WA, the Centre for Excellent in Desalination Australia. I was also providing free consultancy to several activists and various community groups.

By June I was making a small but steady income from the consultancy, when an interesting opportunity came up to work Online Communications at a local union. It was a good position, 20 hours a week with a reasonable wage, good conditions and some flexibility of to continue working as a consultant with not-for-profit clients. When the position was offered to me, I was excited about the challenge and relieved about the secure income stream.

The year so far was feeling like one of the highlights of my life, having started in incredible fashion and having achieved so many positives so far, especially with my wife having just been accepted into university.

And that’s when shit got rough.

A couple of weeks after starting at the union, after a nice afternoon at a friends place on Saturday June 23, I stopped in to visit my brother. Between when I spoke to him on the phone before getting in the car to let him know I was on my way and arriving at his place less then 25 minutes later, he had received a devastating phone call from our father.

I knew something was up as soon as I walked in the room. Remembering now is difficult for me, not that the memory is hazy but rather because the emotion is still so real.

As I walked in, my brother’s wife looked me in the eye with a look I hadn’t seen since my 19 year old cousin passed in March, 2011. The look shook me and when my brother got up and asked to talk to me in private, away from our wives, I knew something was wrong.

My brother and I don’t hide things from our wives. This was something painful. Something too hard to deliver in front of other people.

Too many possibilities ran through my head in those few moments before we spoke. I don’t wish to mention them, but those who have lost family members to sudden tragedies will know the feeling.

We walked to the kitchen – only a few metres away and not really out of earshot – which is when my brother who rarely shows his emotions broke. I saw it in his face, which suddenly sunk, his shoulders which dropped and heard it in his voice as he asked if I had spoken to dad yet. I hadn’t. I wasn’t sure why I should have.

I checked my phone, 3 missed calls from dad in the last 15 minutes.

That’s when he said it.. “I’m so sorry man, so sorry… Tim’s dead.”

It hit me like a brick to the face and a foot to the stomach at the same time. This seriously couldn’t be happening. But it got worse. 

That’s not all… Connor too. Call Dad, he needs to talk to you.

Tim is my brother. He was 33 years old. Connor is his son, who was only 6.

I called Dad. He explained what he knew so far, which wasn’t really much.

Tim and Connor had been on holiday with Tim’s partner Katie and a friend James. Tim, Connor and James had been fishing off rocks in a calm area, when a rogue wave came through and swept them off the rocks, ending their lives.

Connor’s body was pulled out of the water a few hours later, but Tim’s body was never found. Katie. Poor Katie.

The first time I ever had the chance to meet her was at Tim & Connor’s funeral in Launceston. I’ll spare you the intimate family history, but I was the only member of the Skinner family at Tim and Connor’s funeral in Tasmania. The Skinner family held a funeral of their own a few weeks later in Perth, but I’ll come back to that.

Tim had left the WA for Tasmania over a 13 years ago and hadn’t been speaking to his family in WA since. Several attempts on my behalf to make contact were rebuffed, but I persisted. Just a few weeks before his death, Tim via a third parted invited me to visit him in Tasmania if I was really serious about reconnecting with him. I was.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance.

It was so heartbreaking, but at least I got that message.

Both myself and my father owe a lot to Katie, she managed to navigate a most difficult situation in a way that allowed estranged family members to make some form of peace with an incomprehensibly difficult and painful situation.

She allowed me to be fully involved in the funeral in Tasmania. Her friends looked after me the one day I did spend in Tasmania, as did Tim’s brother Chris and his partner. For this I will be forever grateful. She even got on a plane all on her own, from Tasmania to Perth, to meet a whole estranged family of grieving relatives in the worst possible circumstance, their son, grandson, brother or cousin’s funeral.

Her lovers funeral. Her son’s funeral. Her presence brought realness to what could have felt like a very empty funeral, thousands of kilometres from where Tim and Connor had died, in a place unrelated to Tim’s recent life and a family who had never met Connor.

Katie’s presence also gave Dad, who hadn’t been in contact with Tim for far too many years, a little chance to be a part of his son’s life again in his death. A small reprieve, but one which I’m sure meant the world to him, and certainly did to me. In a time of endless personal grief and pain, Katie was selfless, kind and caring. I can easily understand why Tim chose her to build his new life with.

I did my best to make a complicated situation easier for Katie and think I succeeded somewhat in that task. I spent time showing her around Tim’s old home and taking her to places they had spoken of. We visited Sci-Tech, ate Chicken Treat and drank spearmint milk. All things Tim had made regular reference to in his life with Katie.

It was a bitter-sweet couple of days, and then Katie flew back to face life in Tasmania absent her son and life partner.

And life moved on.

In fact it never really stopped. Earlier in the year my hip hop crew, Selekt Few, had performed at a couple of gig, and we had another performance on the friday night right in between the two funerals. That was a great show actually. I felt calm, confident and in control on the stage that night. When I rapped oursong about my cousin who had passed in 2011, the emotion was fresh and it just felt right.

A week later and I had crossed the country again, from Perth to Brisbane to play best man at the wedding for my good friend Jon and his lovely wife Kelly. I was supposed to be there a week and a half early to enjoy his bucks party and have a holiday, but couldn’t be.

It was difficult for me to be a good best man. I wasn’t feeling happy. It was hard for me to be as excited as I should’ve been for Jon & Kelly. Writing my best man speech within a week of writing my brothers Eulogy was uniquely challenging. Jon had been one of the most responsive and caring of all my friends when he heard what had happened.

He is also a confidant for me. I had spoken to Jon for several years about my attempts to connect with Tim. He was one of the only people I decided to tell when Tim invited me to go see him. So he understood. My speech was short but sweet. It said what I needed to say. It said a few things that needed to be said, for Jono’s sake. Most of all it let Jono know my appreciation for his friendship and Kelly my blessing for their union.

A couple of days later it was back to Perth and straight back to work.

And then the Federal Election campaign began.

It was a unique experience for me this time, being an online communications employee at one of the biggest unions in WA during an election campaign was an interesting experience. Despite an election loss, I consider the campaigns our union ran, especially online, to have been a limited success. But on top of that I was doing my own campaigning. As an activist. As an independent person and as a supporter of WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.

I had also initially been a strong supporter of the Wikileaks Party, though was left disenfranchised by the ‘preferences saga’ – which I won’t go in to here. At least I made some new and interesting friends through the process however.

It was already an overly hectic period of time, busy at work, busy after work flyering, letterboxing and running my own political commentary podcast. Not to mention debating with family and friends, ensuring those around me were informed and knew about the people and issues they were voting for, whatever their choice.

The choice was bleak; an ALP which had heavily compromised it’s moral credentials, or an LNP which doesn’t even believe it is the job of government to provide essential public services. An ALP which sold itself out on refugees, or an LNP who don’t even believe in the human rights of Refugees, or any human right other than the right to unrestricted profit taking and private property ownership.

I decided to put Greens candidates first in both houses, though the ALP’s Peter Foster and Louise Pratt were 2nd and 3rd on my senate ballot.

A couple of weeks out from the election, the WA State Government released it’s budget, revealing cuts to the Solar feed-in Tariff, plans to force commuters to pay for parking at all metro train stations and of course the notorious cuts to education (#EdCuts).

To cut a long story short…

I was overwhelmed with campaign priorities which took precedence over comprehending what happened in the months before. It wasn’t until November, when things had started to calm down a little, that I really began to process the grief. Before that I’d been taking care of what needed to be taken care of, then fulfilling my obligations to my new job. At this point I needed to look after myself.

At this point I was really glad I was working for a union. I had to take a few of days off for a mental health break. It wasn’t much that I asked for, but it was given without hesitation. It means so much when people choose to be intentionally helpful instead of getting in your way when you have serious emotional/mental health issues to deal with.

The year finished up slowly after all of that, with a couple of highlights being doing not much on either Christmas or New Years Eve other than BBQ with family. Other highlights include installing a basketball ring at home and planting more vegetables in my garden. Lowlights included multiple days in a row of secretly but unashamedly sobbing on the train or while driving on the way to/from work, sparked either by a song, by water, or simply by having a strange social anxiety I’d never really experienced in my adult years.

Here’s to hoping that 2014 has as many highlights as 2013, but a few less sever low moments.

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