We had a chat with Tara J. Lal at the launch of her book Standing on my Brother’s Shoulders, recently out in paperback. Tara is a female firefighter in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Born and bred in London, she holds two university degrees and is a practising physiotherapist. She is trained in suicide prevention and crisis intervention, and managed the Critical Incident Support Program in Fire & Rescue NSW, working with the Black Dog Institute to promote mental health in firefighters. Her vision is to use her book to endorse evidence-based resilience training as a way to enhance growth through trauma.
Can you talk about your book? What should the reader expect from it?
Whilst it is a story of loss, grief and suicide, it is also a story of hope. A journey to find strength and growth from our deepest wounds. I hope the reader will be able to draw parallels with their own lives, whatever their experiences are and use my story to help them move towards finding their own peace.
What did you find particularly challenging in writing Standing on my Brother’s Shoulders?
It was challenging on many levels: emotionally, because I had to take myself back into the world of pain and grief that I had felt as a teenager. I essentially relived the grief of losing my mother, my brother and in some ways, my father.
Logistically and technically it was challenging as I had no previous writing experience whatsoever! Indeed I didn’t even read other than what I had to for my university degrees. My writing experience didn’t stretch beyond scientific essays at university. After my first draft, I was given a few tips about the basic laws of writing, by a friend who had written a book. That definitely helped!
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned many many things. So much more than I could ever have anticipated. Most profoundly, I learned about myself. I saw my life like a jigsaw puzzle before me. As I wrote, I saw the pieces of the puzzle come together. It helped me make sense of my life and of myself. It gave me self compassion and an entirely new level of insight into myself and my family.
Can you tell us more about your message: ‘connection is the antidote to depression’, which you are spreading to encourage the development of genuine relationship between people?
What I have noticed through reading my brother’s diaries and though witnessing my father’s illness is how isolating depression is. Almost every single person who suffers from depression will tell you they feel alone, irrespective of who they have around them. I don’t know if I was depressed or simply grief stricken after my brother died, but I know I felt as if I were living in a cage suspended above the world. I could see it but I couldn’t engage in it.
Gradually I peeled back all the layers I had created around myself as a child. As I did so I got closer to my true self and that enabled me to develop stronger, more meaningful and genuine relationships with other people. That feeling of connectedness to myself, to the world around me and to other people brought me so much psychological strength and resilience. I came to believe that not only is connection the antidote to depression; it’s the essence of life.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
To be honest, I didn’t think or realise that I had an interest in writing. I just wanted to tell my brother’s story. It was only when I started writing and began to vomit up everything that was inside out onto the page before me, that I felt an invigorating sense of ‘flow’. It was more than simply a catharsis. I truly engaged in it. I loved the journey it took me on; how, as I wrote things unfolded in all sorts of unexpected ways.
You work as a firefighter but also on research programs aimed at improving mental health literacy and outcomes in firefighters, promoting resilience and wellbeing. You also run your own mobile physiotherapy business and are a volunteer surf life saver. As a person who constantly faces dangerous and delicate situations, what empowers you in your daily work and life?
I’m so empowered by the realisation that I can use very single life experience I have to make a difference to another person; to lessen their pain, physical or mental and help guide them through their own experience in a constructive and positive way. I realise that the breadth and depth of my experiences from firefighting, to grief and loss, to writing, to suicide and physiotherapy and everything else affords me the gift of insight and understanding from many different angles and perspectives. It gives meaning to all the losses I have suffered in my life. That is truly wonderful.
This is your first book. What are your goals and intentions as a writer?
During the rollercoaster of writing the book, I was adamant I was never doing another one! Then one day after I had finished writing and around the time I was offered a publishing contract I just started writing again, another book. I wrote and wrote for a couple of hours. I haven’t added to it since, but the idea is there and you never know! For the moment, I’m really enjoying writing shorter articles and blogs based around themes in my book that I hope will make a difference to someone in some small way. I also found more of my brother’s writing only recently that isn’t in the book, so I’m thinking about publishing some more of his work.
Can you tell us about your next projects?
I am currently working with the team at Fire & Rescue NSW and University of NSW to implement an online e-learning program aimed at building resilience in firefighetrs.
I will also shortly be undertaking the training to become an accredited Mental Health First Aid instructor. Once completed I would like to hold some MHFA training courses for firefighters and surf lifesavers in particular.
I’d also like to do some more public speaking and writing of articles based on mental health, resilience and post traumatic growth.
In few words, what is the message that you want your readers to grasp?
That they are not alone.
That strength comes in asking for help.
That grief is a journey that can lead us towards a richer experience of life.
That through dedication, hard work and a commitment to learning and growing we can all lead a life of greater meaning, purpose and connection.
Tara J. Lal
Standing on My Brother’s Shoulders
Available on Watkins Publishing
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