Saturday, March 01, 2003

Interview with Coral Hull

Special Australian Section

Q: You recently completed a book with Sandy Jeffs called Voices From the Dark which explored mental illness and creativity. What, for you, is the most important thing you found out working on it?

A: I discovered I had chronic PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after I suffered a minor breakdown and ended up in the Emergency ward at Darwin hospital with an acute panic attack and a dose of shingles. After accidentally viewing a special on PTSD on a small motel television where I had been hiding out and then researching on the internet, the pieces of the puzzle of 36 years of living with a neurological disorder and not knowing what the hell was going on inside myself fell into place in less than an hour. This was all a result of the Sept 11 crisis.

I wanted to put some of the trauma I had suffered over the years into words for the first time. I trusted Sandy because of what she has gone through over the years with schizophrenia. This allowed me to speak. For years I had known that there was something wrong. I remember as a child I used to hit myself in the head with my hands as if trying to knock the problem out. This was an act frustration. Working on the book with Sandy Jeffs was a satisfying way of claiming success over a very challenging life.

Q: And what was the process of putting your traumatic experience into words like?

A: When I create it is often an unconscious action, so I am unable to answer questions about creative process. I usually know what motivates me if I think about it afterwards, when I go back and analyze the work and wonder what motivated me to write or photograph. I guess it's like when I travelled out to the drought stricken country a couple of days ago in order to hand feed the cows. For some reason one of the most pleasurable things for me is standing among their huge dark heads as they burp and snort, gulping and tossing up the hay. I walk away in a euphoric daze, not knowing anything.

Q: You write poetry. Do you remember what motivated you to write your very first poem, how you came to write it? Under what circumstances was it written?

A: I was thirteen years old and the poem was called The Rainforest. I wrote it about Minnamurra Falls in southern New South Wales. It was a description of a dark moist landscape and included moss covered boulders and a lyrebird at dusk. How dark can a rainforest become without perishing? The motivation was power. It felt good to describe this place that had touched my life. I was probably trying to explain my own psychology to myself. It was the moment before the traumatic separation of my parents where I lost everything and was in fear for all our lives. It felt so good to write that I wrote hundreds more poems throughout my teens. There was a sense of achievement but mainly it was about trying to establish a sense of place and self. To quote the US poet Elaine Schwager, it was about "living in the falling apart."

Q: In relation to living with PTSD, how dark did it get? What did you have to overcome?

A: When the light is edging out of a rainforest darkness can be very peaceful. The psychosis that one experiences during a PTSD relapse is comparable to a state of terror, war, apocalypse or natural disaster. A majority of people respond to these real life situations accordingly and get over it once the threat has passed. In my case the threat did not pass. My problem is that my neurology is so well adapted to living with trauma that it stayed that way. To this day I suffer nightmares involving combat, crisis, war, secret agents, murderers etc. My sleeping patterns are distorted. I become edgy in social situations or where I feel exposed to threat. I am hyper vigilant and when in the grip of PTSD related stress I think I can hear animals in distress or people sobbing and whimpering, or those I cannot get to in order to assist. It is most often a case of mistaken identity rather than hallucination. I simply revert back to a time when certain responses were necessary in order to ensure survival -- which in my case was long term exposure to domestic violence that involved threat and torture. I could compare a number of my responses to situations to that of police, army, firemen etc. They are prone bouts of PTSD as well. My perception is often of a world in crisis. My response is one of fight or flight and I am always ready for an emergency.

Q: What have you done to cope? I imagine your writing, your photography, your drawings, all are part of ways of dealing with this?

A: Perhaps my entire life has merely been a series of coping mechanisms. Humour, drug use and abuse, the car I drive, the sex industry, where I chose to live, my creativity, animal rescue, obsessive travel, avoidance of intimate relationships, prayer and contemplation, workaholism, what I chose to wear, my politics, adrenalin addiction, escapism and the many qualities and layers these mechanisms involve.

For example; in order to cope with an acute 4pm anxiety I involve myself in outdoor activities. In order to cope with a fear of the dark, I may sleep with a bright light shining into my eyes. To cope with a world that is in crisis, I work harder in order to rectify the situation. There are dozens of things I do in a myriad of different circumstances that would seem complex, mysterious and even eccentric to some. But I now understand what motivates me. I am a lot more simple than I ever imagined.

While I have over twenty different creative projects I am working on at present, it has been more than just art for me. When I look back at how I have lived my life, I see a person coping not only within extraordinarily harsh environments, but with a brutal and unusual psychology to match. I believe that one of the reasons that I am doing so well today is my belief in myself and in love or god. I have always been a minimalist and these days I chose to live out of several suitcases. When I am asked why I point to the sky and say, "I'm on 24hr call or in my case, probably 24hr Emergency Service!"

Coral Hull was born in Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1965. She is the author of over thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, artwork and digital photography, and is an animal rights advocate. She is the editor and publisher of Thylazine, a non-profit biannual literary and arts e-zine focusing on Australian artists, writers and photographers in the areas of landscape, animals and in other areas of special interest, with a strong emphasis on indigenous Australian culture. She lives in Sydney's west.

Coral Hull Spike Rotundo Sandy Jeffs Michael Furs Mike Katzberg Elizabeth Kelso Lori Williams Danny P. Barbare

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