Recently, someone I’ve known for about fifteen years said to me: “You don’t take risks, do you?” I was absolutely gob smacked. It really threw me for a while for two reasons. One was that it made me realise she didn’t know me at all, and the other was that my life has been nothing but a succession of risk taking.
It would be easy to look at my current life: all cosied up in a cottage I love, and spending my days doing work I enjoy, not too mention enjoying a honeymoon with my husband now that we’ve no children living at home. I have handcrafted my life to be one of daily pleasures. Maybe it looks, to the untrained eye, as if I live in a bubble immune from the pain of the world.
When I started counting off the risks I’ve taken in my life I came to the conclusion that, despite appearances, I am still a fab risk taker.
What does it mean when we talk about taking a risk? To my mind, it means doing something that has a potential for failure. It may mean that we’re stepping into the unknown. But it also means we’re doing something that takes us way beyond our comfort zone.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a risk taker. Growing up on 700 acres in rural Queensland, Australia, much of my childhood was spent barefoot. Each time I stepped out the door, I was at risk of something biting or stinging me. My mother had made the ‘best cubby house ever’ from an old dunny (outdoor loo), and decorated it into a little shop for me. It was so beautiful. The downside was that to get there I had to trek through some land where snakes loved to slither. Each time I headed to play, I sent a silent prayer up to the Gods: if you love me, please don’t let me see a snake.
Every time I went on one of our dozens of horses, I was at risk. And in those days, we simply didn’t wear riding hats. And half the time we didn’t bother with a saddle, and sometimes we even skipped using a bridle or halter and would simply use our whole body to guide the horse. One time I came off a horse, and I landed bang on my coccyx. I was about ten. It hurt like hell, but somehow my body adapted to the dislocation (don’t ask me why it was never treated!). I had no idea that injury would end up (after dislocating it twice in childbirth) leading to about twenty years of excruciating back pain as an adult. Risk, yes. I had a childhood full of it. And that’s not even counting in the many trees I climbed that I couldn’t get back down. I always managed to get down but my lanky little body often took hours to work out how to do it.
Each time I jumped over our waterfall into the dam I took a risk.
My childhood ‘play’ was about as risky as it is possible for childhood to be. We’d do crazy things like put on a parka and raincoat and float down a creek when it was in flood. We’d turn a corrugated iron rainwater tank on its side and using pedal power run inside of it to make it roll down a road. Ask my sister Heidi about risk. She’s got a fab scar on her cheek to prove it. We’d often toboggan down our hill on cardboard. Not so fast as corrugated iron! And fast soon becomes ‘no go’ when it hits a eucalyptus tree. I can recount dozens of risky acts in childhood.
Around the age of ten, I took off from an interschool sports day (I hate sports) with a bunch of lads and we headed towards the river for a swim. On the way, they got talking with a truck driver who’d broken down. Me, being the little conversationalist that I am, got talking with him too. The boys finished their conversation about mechanical stuff and left. I stayed talking with my new friend for hours. We talked about all the things that interested me, like angels, reincarnation, auras, and so on. We swapped addresses. Now, if your ten year old daughter stopped and talked to a truck driver for hours (not to mention playing truant from school), you might be freaking out. It was a risk. My friendship with Bluey lasted well into my adult life until he passed away. We’d spent many years as pen friends, and he even came to visit my parents to assure them there was nothing ‘dodgy’ going on. From my part, if felt such a relief to have a friend, besides my mum, with whom I could share my strong spiritual beliefs.
At the age of sixteen I caught a Greyhound bus and moved 2000km away from my family home. I had $100 in my purse, and nothing but my mother’s good wishes. She said she understood my need for freedom.
At the age of nineteen, I was pregnant. Didn’t expect that! However, after my boyfriend insisted I have an abortion (so I didn’t ruin his life as a ‘perfect Lutheran son’) I decided I’d be a single mother. Gulp. It was one thing looking after myself, but oh my goddess, being responsible for raising another human being? I pulled my socks up, and told him ‘no’. Mother Nature had other plans. The foetus shrivelled up, and I required a D&C. I can tell you right now that going under anaesthetic is always a huge risk! It was not something I ever intended doing in my life again (I’d have four more operations during those early adult years). When I emerged from anaesthesia, I was crying. The surgeon snapped at me and said “What are you crying for, the baby was dead anyway!” Oh to go back in time and slap his stupid little face.
Three years later, I was pregnant again. Truth be told, I thought I might just miscarry again, so ignored my tummy getting bigger and bigger. Eventually I went to the doctor who discovered that my ‘baby’ had in fact become a hydatidifoid mole (essentially turned into a large bunch of grapes = tumour). He said that if I’d left it another month, I’d have been dead. Back under anaesthetic! RISK. Tumour removed, and the next year was spent having weekly blood tests and chest x-rays to ensure I didn’t end up with cancer in my lungs. By this time I was living back in Queensland where I’d gotten a job as a phlebotomist (someone who takes your blood) at the local hospital. I ended up taking my own blood each week! Given I dislike pain, and cringe at anything to do with needles, that I managed to do this to myself each week was pretty risky!
What I haven’t yet mentioned is that I’d had a childhood of being sexually abused. Every time any man (other than my dad who was about the only man who didn’t do that to me) came near me, I was filled with fear. Would he do those things to me? When you’ve been sexually abused, your aura has holes in it so you somehow keep attracting paedophiles.
When I was working in the hospital lab, my boss was a fun guy. We dated for a bit, and then he moved overseas. The new boss (who I found physically repulsive and creepy from the outset) had heard about our relationship and clearly thought he could step into A’s shoes in more ways that one. I felt ill, and made it absolutely crystal clear that I was not interested (and not just because the idiot was married).
He persisted, and I kept declining. The work situation was intense. I went and saw the hospital counsellor. I was becoming ill with stress. In one of our conversations, she asked me what job I’d do if I could just make it happen. I told her I’d love to be a writer. She immediately asked me if I’d been to the local paper to see about working there.
Well, little risk taker Veronika took herself down to the editor and put her heart on the table. “I want to be a journalist.” To his credit, Neil didn’t laugh at me. Instead, he asked if I’d be willing to come in each evening after work and volunteer. Hell yes!
So, I started that night. My job was to phone the emergency services (fire, ambulance and police) and see if there were any stories. At the end of that week, Neil came up to me and said he had no journalists rostered on for the weekend, and ask if I was free to write and photograph stories. Oh my god yes! Now, if I was averse to risk taking I’d have said ‘no’. I’d be too paralysed with fear of doing it wrong. After all, I had NO experience. He showed me how to load the camera (no digital cameras in those days!). Guess who had a front-page story on Monday morning?
Several times over the next few months my editor would say to me “How did you get that photo?” I could see the colour disappear from his face when I’d described either climbing to the top of a derelict building or crane or going out on a lake in a speedboat. “Veronika, my insurance doesn’t cover you doing this like that. Stay on dry land.” I’d become a professional risk taker and had no idea that I was doing stuff others deemed dangerous.
In the meantime, the situation at my hospital job was getting worse. The hospital manager called me in and said my boss in the lab was complaining that my work was shoddy. I broke down and told him the truth: my work was absolutely fine, the issue was that he was sexually harassing me and that I wasn’t interested. The hospital manager was a genuinely lovely man, but he felt his hands were tied. He told me I’d have to go: that it was, in his exact words, easier to hire a new phlebotomist than a scientist.
After a lifetime of having had men walk all over me (in one form or another), something in me shifted that day. The injustice of going through life being treated like “I” didn’t matter was going to end.
I took my case to the Ombudsman. As it turned out, there was no law (at the time) to protect staff in Queensland hospitals from such harassment. Guess what? There is now! Yes, I took a risk. Every time you speak up, and every time you say something is NOT okay, you take a risk.
Somewhere around this time I had started to write more poetry. Before long, I had a small collection which I self-published (HUGE RISK). There was no such thing as social media back then.
Publishing my own work meant traipsing up and down the city and selling my books to bookshops and newspaper shops. It also meant checking in all the time to see if they were selling, and suggesting better places for them to position my books (oh if only I had that sense of self these days ~ it would make marketing my books so much easier). My poems were deeply personal and autobiographical. If publishing that isn’t risk taking, then I don’t know what is.
My work at the newspaper gave me a foot in the world of media, and I shall always be thankful. Before long, I took another risk. I decided to move to New Zealand. I wrote to my old friend, Bluey (who now lived in a cave!), and asked if he’d meet me at the airport.
I stepped off the plane in Auckland. No Bluey. Crap. Next-to-no money on me. Crap. One of the ladies I’d been sitting near on the plane saw me and asked if I was okay. I explained my dilemma, and she took me to her house for a couple of days. Phew. In the meantime, Bluey had finally received my letter. He arranged to come and get me.
So there I was in a new country, no income, no job. But within no time I had a roof over my head (not a cave roof), and got work on an orchard cutting wire. Yes. Cutting wire. BORING. I soon got work picking apples, and then work in a Steiner Boarding School. I was dating a lovely, lovely man, J. Lovely, expect for his ex-wife who wasn’t at all happy that I was on the scene. She made my life hell. Imagine waking up at 3am to see your lover’s ex-wife standing over you. FFS. It was like something out of the movies. To say I was at risk of a nervous breakdown was a bit of an understatement. For my own health and well-being I knew it was time to move on, even though it was going to break my heart. It was at this time I learnt the danger of being in a co-dependent relationship: it’s one where you think if you love hard enough you’ll be able to change the other person. The thing is he simply didn’t have what it takes to put up a boundary and tell his ex that she needed to stay away.
I packed my bags and moved to Tasmania, that gorgeous little island at the bottom of Australia. I managed to pass my time creatively by writing book reviews for the newspaper in Launceston. My heart was aching and I really wanted to see J again. In an act of who-knows-what, I changed my middle and surname by deed poll. My surname was now the same as J’s. (It still makes me laugh. I’d written to tell him and he had opened it during a business meeting and nearly fell off his chair!) After two months, I returned to him only to find (cue: tears) his bloody ex had moved all her stuff into his house.
Air fares aren’t cheap. I could hardly go back to Tassie. What to do? Bluey was heading up the country to Auckland. I asked if I could hitch a ride. About half way up country, we stopped so I could buy the New Zealand Herald. I immediately looked for rooms to rent. As soon as we hit the city, I found a phone box and called. I arranged to go straight there and look at the room. Perfect, I said. I waved Bluey off and knew I had to find a job asap.
One of the things my mother had taught me early on was that sometimes you have to ‘jump off the cliff’ (aka take risks!) and to trust the angels will catch you. Truth be told, I have lived my whole life this way.
The Universe had my back. I quickly secured a job with the New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as their media officer. My primary role was to write a book on the society’s history for their upcoming Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I was already vegetarian, so the care of animals came naturally to me. However, working within that field and seeing the horrendous cruelty that goes on, not just domestically, but within the animal-food industry, absolutely crushed me. I couldn’t bear it. Soon it was no longer enough just to be writing a book. I needed to take action. I was horrified in learning about the plight of hens kept in battery cages, and I headed to war. I was going to put an end to this. With my journalist hat on, I immediately started writing articles left, right and centre about where people’s eggs come from. It’s an uncomfortable subject. People don’t want to know they’re involved in animal cruelty and would rather turn a blind eye and just pay other people to do it for them. Things heated up, and my boss (bless him!) called me into his office. He was shaking in his boots. Five top men from the Egg Board had come. They wanted me sacked. They wanted to sue me. I was causing damage to their industry. If I look back over my whole life, this moment was one that will forever remain a highlight: I felt so powerful. Five old men trying to lord it over me. My response was this: I haven’t written a single word that isn’t true.
Those jumped-up men knew that. They knew they didn’t have a leg to stand on. I will forever be proud of my role in launching the Ban the Battery Cage campaign.
During this one-year contract with the NZRSPCA, I was tasked with taking a VIP (the head of Eurogroup for Animal Welfare) around the country as part of our Diamond Jubilee celebrations, culminating in a conference where he was keynote speaker. We hit it off the second we saw each other at the airport. Within half an hour of meeting, we were talking about my job coming to an end, and how much I’d love to work for an animal charity group in the UK called Compassion in World Farming. He said he could organise an interview for me. I couldn’t believe it! True to his word, he put in a word for me.
I left NZ on a one-way ticket (once again, with next to no money ~ ah well, that’s what you get for spending a year working for a charity), with no job or accommodation to go to, just an interview. What sort of person takes such risks? Seriously? Am I just an idiot? Maybe. Or maybe I just really believe in myself and the Universe.
Arrived in freezing England (oh my god, who knew a place could be soooo cold?), and David met me at the airport and drove me to the interview after whisking me off to Brussels for a few days to recover from jetlag. I’d applied to be a media officer for CIWF. I was stunned to find a job offer in my hands by the time I’d left the building. One of the people who worked there mentioned a B&B he stayed at nearby, and checked with the landlady to see if I could stay there. I stayed until my first pay check and was then able to get a studio flat. I’d arrived in November, and with Christmas coming up I was aware that I’d not have any friends or family near me. David asked what I was going to do. I jokingly said how much I’d love to see my old friend Amy who lived in Pennsylvania. Bless! He bought me a ticket to visit her for Christmas. I was so happy. One small detail: The flight left a day before the office closed. My new boss wasn’t having it. I had a choice to make. Have the time of my life and see my best friend, or be a ‘good girl’ and obey the rules. You have no idea how much fun I had in the USA! #risktaker One of my favourite memories in this lifetime was spending that New Year’s Eve in an outdoor hot tub with snowflakes drifting down.
I arrived back in the UK with no job to return to, and somehow ended up down in Cornwall. I stayed for a few months managing to get a job wrapping flowers for sale in service stations, and staying with people who were kind enough to put me up. I started to miss New Zealand, and felt drawn to go back. Although my work and passion had led me into animal welfare and rights, I’d been having such a strong pull towards becoming a mother. It all happened after I was woken from a dream where a voice told me I’d write “the beautiful birth book”. I had no idea what it meant, but went into the local New Age bookshop the next day. Two books on waterbirth literally fell off the shelf in front of me. I had no idea the turn my life was about to take.
I managed to get a tax refund and used the money to get a ticket back to New Zealand. I arrived home with about ten dollars. Usual story. No job. No home.
Within hours of landing, a friend offered me a job in a jigsaw puzzle factory (to date, one of the most boring jobs of my life, but I am, of course, thankful that it gave me the chance to get on my feet), and I quickly had shelter. Nothing is by chance, of course, but my new landlady attended a place called Unity: it was a metaphysical church/school. She invited me along. I immediately felt at home amongst the New Thought teachings. Before long, I had a job working there, first as office manager, and then teaching personal-growth workshops. It was at this time that I trained to become a wedding celebrant.
One day, a man came walking through the door and I dropped everything. Where the heck did I know him from? All the women around me were divorced, and were as taken with him as I was. But, he was 19 years older than me. He was hardly going to notice someone like me when he had all those available women his own age. Mind you, I’d thought that about J, and he was 21 years older than me.
Oh how this man made me laugh. He was so funny. But it was more than that. He was different to any other man I’d ever met: there was a depth of kindness and sincerity that I’d never experienced before. It felt as if I’d always known him. I invited him for dinner, and we moved in together the next day. Bit of risk, don’t you think? Next month we’ll celebrate 22 wonderful years together. You could say that was one of the biggest risks of my life.
I was pregnant six weeks later. We, in our culture, often talk of the risks of pregnancy and birth and whether a child will be healthy or not, but how often do we consider the risks involved in sharing our life with an unknown person for possible the next eighteen years. We have no idea of whether we’ll gel with the child we’re bringing into this world. It’s a huge risk having a child.
I was absolutely delighted to be pregnant. I did yoga, aquanatal classes, walked regularly, swam with the dolphins, and made plans for my waterbirth at home. Everyone around me said “you’re so brave having a baby at home”. Given my mum had her last three babies at home, unassisted, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. But, to the world, I was taking a huge risk.
Twenty two months after her beautiful birth, we welcome our second daughter. Six months later, when my husband’s work life changed, we decided to move to Australia in the hope he’d pick up work there in his chosen field of voice over and broadcaster. We were given the wrong immigration advice (although he was a NZ resident, he was a British citizen), and arrived in Oz with two babies and Paul not being allowed to work. Holy crap! We’d sold everything to come to Australia. Risk, risk, risk. I had two breastfeeding little ones, and there was no way I was leaving them to go to work. What to do? Well, honestly, we were on the bones of our bum for six months. Somewhere near Christmas time there was a competition on the radio: Sing a Christmas carol and the winner will have $1000 to spend at the local shopping mall. My darling sang as Pavarotti, and won the competition. The mall had a travel agent. I’d suggested that if we came to England (even though I’d vowed I’d never go back to such a cold country) he’d at least be allowed to work. So, plane tickets bought, and me just scraping through in time with Indefinite Leave to Remain, we arrived in the UK. We’d left 38 beautiful degrees Celsius and arrived to minus 12. I cried. We came with two toddlers, a ventriloquist doll, some suitcases…and £10. If anyone ever tells me again that I don’t take risks, I might just…
Paul’s brother kindly took us in, and within a short time Paul managed to get some work. Within three months we moved to the village we’ve lived in now for 18 years.
You’d think that would be enough risk taking for one life time. By 2002, I had the bright idea to start a magazine on natural parenting. For twelve years I published a subscriber-based magazine. Each issue is a risk. It’s a risk financially, because you NEVER have any guarantee if people will continue subscribing but you are obligated to keep publishing. It’s also a huge risk editorially. Or, at least it was for me. I wanted to adhere to a strict ethos which was all about meeting a child’s biological needs. This is not an easy stance to take. It immediately means you RISK alienating readers as well as advertisers. Financially, the first few years were particularly risky. I was starting from nothing. Although I had journalism experience, I certainly didn’t have design experience (as is evidenced from those early issues). Each magazine was put together in my home, in and around busy family life.
A year after starting, I decided to buy some land. RISK!! Having grown up on 700 acres, I needed to get my hands in the soil and have a sense of freedom. It was a financial risk buying the land as I had to take out a loan. Two loans, actually. What I didn’t know at the time was the huge, and life-changing, risk I was about to take to my health. From that point of view, it turned out to be one of the worst risks of my life.
The land had a right of way which involved going through someone else’s land. It never occurred to me that it would prove to be a problem as I had deeds. But what I didn’t see on paper was the biggest a***hole of a farmer, who made it his mission to make my life hell. He had wanted the land, and most certainly didn’t want a woman with young children up there growing flowers and fruit trees. What started as an absolute joy, going there each day with my girls to grow food, became a living nightmare. Just getting to our land became a risk. He’d tip truckloads of turnips on the track so I couldn’t drive down. He’d padlock the gate. He’d cover it in barbed wire. He’d put a ‘dangerous bull’ sign on the gate. In short, he did everything he could to stop me getting to the land. One day he and his wife barricaded me and the girls in our car, his wife in a vehicle on one side, and he in his tractor behind, and then came up banging on the window and effing and blinding at us. Ah well, at least the five page statement my little girl wrote was enough to have the Crown Prosecution Service bind him over.
Long story short, he took us to court on the grounds of ‘trespassing’. I had been following my right of way deed, going directly from his gate to my gate, but he wanted me to go another route, about two metres to the right, on a steep camber that my car couldn’t manage.
If you’ve ever been involved in a court case, you’ll know the toll it takes on your health. While all this was going on, I was publishing my magazine and homeschooling our two girls, and dealing with major back pain from my old horse-falling-off injury. My stress levels were going through the roof.
Court came and we ended up representing ourselves. By this stage I had severe but undiagnosed adrenal fatigue. I could hardly stand up, and would eventually need about three weeks of bed rest.
I took a risk going to court. A huge one. Financially, but most importantly for me, emotionally. I had literally put down roots on that land: planting hundreds of fruit trees, a hundred blueberry bushes, hundreds of raspberry canes. We had goats, a polytunnel, vegetable beds. This place was my children’s playground.
One thing I was clear about: that rotten farmer was NOT getting my land. I sold it to a friend for WAY less than I’d paid for it. Broke my heart, but at another level I felt grateful that it wouldn’t all be ripped out just to have sheep on it. I trusted that she would treasure the land.
The years between 2003 and 2006 were deeply painful, and the risk I took to my health is one of such damage that I am still paying the price with a frustratingly fragile endocrine system.
Also, around the year 2003 I dislocated my shoulder for the first time after slipping on wet paint. I have never known such excruciating pain. I would go on over the years to dislocate that shoulder more than a dozen times, and the other shoulder about half a dozen times. It got to the point my arms were permanently pinned close to my sides. I was scared to reach up or move them in any way. Every physical movement felt like a risk. And don’t even start me on stepping outside when it’s icy. My huge fear is falling over and risking another dislocation. Women who say childbirth is painful have no freaking idea of what pain is if they’ve not had a shoulder dislocation.
Last Summer, I decided to do the Couch to 5K programme, and in eight or so weeks I learnt to run five kilometres without stopping. Sure, I don’t run fast, but who cares? I don’t. What I do know is that every single time I run, every single time I go to the gym or an aquafit or Pilates class, I am taking a massive f****** risk of putting myself in a situation where I might cause a dislocation. I’m also hypermobile.
If I wasn’t a risk taker, I wouldn’t leave my home. Hell, I wouldn’t leave my bed. I wouldn’t exercise. I wouldn’t do anything. But I do take risks. Sure, I have the luxury of being in a marriage that is beautiful, easy and harmonious, and living in a home that feels peaceful, but does that mean I don’t take risks? No. The fact I choose to abstain from alcohol and drugs doesn’t mean I’m not a risk taker. What it means is that I am comfortable and confident in my self and my life choices that I don’t need to anaesthetise myself from life’s harsh reality. I can simply be.
I am self-employed. I have been since 2002. Every single work day of my life is a risk. It’s a risk financially and creatively. I never know where the next celebrant client is coming from, or if they’ll come. It’s the same with my astrology clients. And as for my books: each time I put a book out into the world, I risk rejection. I risk people saying “well that was crap!” Being a writer is an incredibly vulnerable career and not for the weak of character. I write for myself, but if I want to earn a living from my words, then I am risking myself every single day.
It’s true: I love my life. I love my family. I love my home. I love my work. But I got to this place through one thing, and one thing alone: risk.