First published in Orange City Life, 23rd March 2017
Popular author Kim Kelly talks about anxiety, grief, love and kidneys… all of which have formed the narrative of the woman she is today.
Google the words “Kim Kelly Author”, and you’ll find a range of interviews from Sydney Morning Herald to Goodreads to ABC. Each of them will tell you Kim specialises in historical fiction and has published a stack of highly-regarded books (the current count is 6 novels), that she’s also an editor, and a few even mention the fact she gave her hubby one of her kidneys.
But when you meet Kim, what really floors you isn’t that she’s done some seriously amazing shit. What you’ll notice first is her confidence, humour, honesty, and unabashed authenticity. Particularly when she openly discusses how she’s grown into the woman she is, managing (but not overcoming) crippling anxiety and self-esteem issues. To believe that now is like imagining her in a parallel universe.
When I asked Kim how she describes herself, I knew I wasn’t going to get a typical answer. “A whole bunch of relationships and stories. That’s who I am. I see everything through a lens of narrative and character. I’m not someone who has plans, ambitions, goals, or a set idea of what I should be doing.”
Her lack of interest in career goals is amusing, given her industry success. But she holds her focus elsewhere, within that world of relationships and stories. “I love other people’s success. I love to see people grow into themselves.”
The journey to become the remarkable woman she is today has not been easy.
“I’ve taken some really hard roads to get where I am. I don’t mean in terms of kicking goals, I mean in terms of feeling ok about myself. There are two threads to that, one is a family history of pretty savage anxiety which I still struggle with. That doesn’t go away, you just get better at dealing with it. The other kind of goes hand in hand with that, which is a terrible grinding lack of confidence and a shyness, that really for most of my life until my mid-30s, stopped me from doing things. It stopped me from having conversations, stopped me from going places, trapped me in a really awful marriage, and until I sorted that out, I couldn’t be this creative creature. I couldn’t achieve that freedom.”
I asked Kim how she “flicked the switch” to find her confidence.
“I don’t think it was a switch, so much. If there was a switch, it was probably the most massive trauma in my life which was my mother’s death. She died only 3 weeks after a diagnosis of cancer. I found her passed out and I tried to revive her and she went cold in my hands. It sent me into a spin for about 3 years. As much as it was very painful and did awful things in terms of my anxiety, it also dared me to start doing things before I die.”
Kim set herself a personal challenge to “be free by forty”.
“I had it in my head I would try and break out of this anxiety web by forty. If I was going to write a narrative of my own, I’d have to do it now. So when I was about thirty-four or thirty-five I shut myself in my office and dared myself to complete this manuscript, which ended up being Black Diamonds, my first novel. I sent it to a close friend who is also an editor, and she confirmed it was actually a novel, and I was relieved,” Kim laughed.
After Kim’s first book was published, at what should have been a time of celebration, came the aftermath of the earlier chaos.
“I had a bit of an emotional collapse after my first book got published. My mother had died, I got divorced. Let’s just say [publishing a book] helped precipitate the divorce, for obvious reasons. There’s a certain amount of excitement involved in publishing your first book, but for me, because of the way things occurred, there was a huge amount of grief as well, so I had this tension going between excitement and grief going the whole time, then after the book was published I fell in a hole, it took me about 18 months to get clear of that.
“I went to a few different counsellors and a few different doctors saying, ‘no, I actually don’t want drugs. I need someone who will talk to me to try and sticky tape me back together somehow. I know what my problem is, I just need some help’.”
Perhaps stupidly, I asked Kim what problem she was referring to.
“Oh, I knew it was the anxiety. I had difficulty getting out of the house to get to the doctor, that’s how bad my anxiety was. One of the reasons why I didn’t want to have any drugs when I knew that I was falling apart, was that my father had been drugged to the eyeballs for all of my life. He had a breakdown just after I was born, and he basically lived on Valium and alcohol. Not that he was terrible or anything like that, it was just the way people treated mental illness back then.”
Knowing yourself, and your own body, became quite important for Kim and her very personal situation. Although, she’s careful to point out that her choice not to medicate has nothing to do with any stigma, or “toughness”.
“The idea of having drugs was an anxiety trigger for me. It had nothing to do with trying to be tough. It had everything to do with trying to not get madder than I already was. And I am quite chemically sensitive, and I didn’t want to be like my dad.
“Interestingly, I was working at the time with a World War II veteran Ernie Brough. I was helping him write his memoir, and he said something that really resonated with me. He was a mad gardener and what not, but he’d slipped tying up his tomatoes or something and hurt his knee… he was in his late 70s by this time. He goes to his local doctor who says ‘oh jeez, I don’t know about this, it’s not looking good, I think you need a knee replacement’. And Ernie thought ‘stuff that! I’m not having that’. So he devised his own set of exercises in order to help his knee and he sorted it out himself. It’s not a matter of being tough with your illness. It’s a matter of knowing yourself, and doing the right thing for you at that time. I sort of saw my anxiety like that, too.”
Kim managed her anxiety by starting to understand the symptoms.
“It’s very scary not being able to get out of the house because your heart is belting, you’re terrified you’re going to faint, you can’t stop crying, and all that sort of stuff, those sorts of things are really frightening. But once you start to understand those things as symptoms, as opposed to some disease that you can’t do anything about, you can pick them off.”
For Kim, it was a matter of obtaining balance.
“You have to be kind to yourself. The other thing is recognising where the anxiety has overstepped a mark and become a daily thing. It often happens to me in the car, and I think I can’t drive, I think I’m going to have a car crash. That’s quite a common one that a lot of people get. They’re the sorts of things I have to challenge. I go ‘right, ok, I have to get in the car.’ And if I only get halfway to the shops, that’s fine, I can turn around and come home. I can turn around and come home at any time, but if I don’t get in the car, then this is not going to stop, this is going to get worse.”
Kim’s ultimate challenge was faced when her now-husband Dean, who made her feel like she was “constantly dancing” ever since they first met, became very ill.
“I met a wonderful man who opened me up to a new understanding of what love is, and what it is to be loved. It was the first time I’d ever been seen – allowed myself to be seen. I called my uncle and said ‘this guy makes me feel safe. Like I can reveal all of myself’. My uncle said, ‘never underestimate what a sexy word safe is’. And he was right.”
“Then of course, within a couple of years Dean got really sick,” Kim laughed. “So that was an interesting challenge for me in terms of my anxiety, and another layer of giving things up and letting go. It was devastating. He was so sick at one point, I used to go into the shower where he couldn’t hear me and cry. Then I gave him a kidney and everything was OK.”
I asked Kim if the operation itself caused a lot of anxiety.
“It was interesting, it was almost like bookends to my struggle with issues of mortality. So I’d had that horrible event with mum, and then Dean got so sick, ironically when I’d just finished my second book. He ended up in ICU, very very ill, and I felt at one point he was going to die and I was so rattled by that. I can still see Dean right now in that state, and I’ve never gone back to the level of fearfulness about anything. The worst of the kidney stuff was undergoing the tests. I’d been a smoker until a few years earlier, maybe drank too much alcohol at times, I thought there was going to be some terrible result from the tests but there wasn’t. The operation itself was like ‘huzzah!’,” Kim said, punching the air.
As for how she lives now, Kim manages her anxiety well. Furthermore, she values life far too much to do anything other than express her creativity with unapologetic authenticity.
“I’m healthy, he’s healthy, and we have a huge appreciation for what’s going on today. I work in the publishing industry, I’m a writer, the industry is not made to make authors feel appreciated or wanted. I have struggles with that sometimes, but I’m able to line that up against what Dean and I have done and who we are, and I just go ‘plewt’,” Kim said, the sound effect accompaniment to her shrug.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve become a lot braver with my own creativity. A few times I’ve come across that suggestion of ‘oh Kim, you know if you would just write a little bit more like the mass market success stories we could push you more, and put more money behind you,’ and I just think, ‘neeeh.’ I’ve got one life. I’m very conscious every day that I’ve got one life. There was quite a marked shift after the kidney surgery of the risks I take in terms of the way I structure my narratives, the language I use. I’ve always been lyrical but now more so. I want to be me on the page.”
In an inspiring way that perhaps many of us should take on board, Kim now sees the obstacles she’s faced as invaluable gifts.
“I think in an awful way some of the best things that happened to me are some of the worst things to happen to me.”