Musician Clare Bowditch's new book, Your Own Kind of Girl, is a new memoir about love, loss and family

Musician and author Clare Bowditch. Picture: Anna Robinson

Musician and author Clare Bowditch. Picture: Anna Robinson

Clare Bowditch has a lot of achievements under her belt. Musician, broadcaster, actor - she's a sultry red-headed fixture on the Australian music-and-screen scene, with a voice and a personality to match.

But by the time she turned 42, there was one thing she still hadn't done, a promise she had made to herself that was yet to be fulfilled. It haunted her dreams and kept her awake at night.

And so, she set out to do it, to write the book that, as a frightened and sick 21-year-old, she vowed to complete.

The result, Your Own Kind of Girl, is a jarringly honest memoir of her childhood, adolescence and first, tentative years as a musician. From her early childhood in the centre of a large and loving family, she navigates early trauma, struggles with her body image and self-esteem as a teen, a nervous breakdown at 21, finding love and her voice as a musician and, finally, a sense of her place in her own story.

It was not, she says, an easy book to write. Having put it off for years, as she recorded albums and toured, had three kids, founded a business for creatives, acted on the television show Offspring, and hosted a show on ABC radio, she needed to take time out to write it.

"I was well aware that digging back into that space, I knew I had to do it maturely," she says, from her home in Melbourne.

"Us human beings, we're not meant to go back into those neighbourhoods on our own."

Bowditch was the youngest of five kids, "each one of us one and a half years apart in age - perfectly spaced, like beads on a rosary". They lived in the bayside Melbourne suburb of Sandringham - they were the "Sandy Bowditches".

Musician and author Clare Bowditch. Picture: Anna Robinson

Musician and author Clare Bowditch. Picture: Anna Robinson

They were a happy family, but then Rowena, the second youngest, died of a rare disease, similar to multiple sclerosis. She was seven at the time - Bowditch was five.

It's the defining event of the book, and one that comes to explain many things that happen later, although Bowditch herself was never aware, at the time, of the lasting effects of Rowena's death on her own life.

"We don't have excellent language to talk about the long tail of grief, particularly the effects of childhood trauma which we might not frame as trauma, because it's just our reality," she says.

The way children see the world is often far more complicated than we ever realise at the time. Bowditch writes that even in the time immediately after Rowena's death, she believed, perversely, that it had somehow been her fault. That she could have done something.

"She was dead. I was alive, and I was going to need to make up for that, somehow," she writes.

But at the time, Bowditch, and her family, had to get on with the business of living. Always a gregarious, larger-than-life kid, she got it into her head, around the age of 11, that she was too big. She went on a diet - a terrifying-sounding regime of deprivation - and shed half her weight. She grew several inches, and suddenly, people were telling her she was beautiful. She felt, somehow, let down by the world that this was so.

This was the start of years of disordered eating, body image issues and low self-esteem, even as she got a job out of school, made friends, fell in love for the first time, and suffered her first breakup.

It was when she travelled to England by herself, at 20, that things fell apart. Although she made friends, turned 21, wrote a song and performed it on stage - her first-ever performance in front of an audience - she was depressed, lonely and starving. Eventually, she became so unwell that a friend and her mother had to help her get back home.

"Clare, you will write songs about this one day," the friend's mother said at the airport.

Once home, stick-thin and in a fog of depression, she struggled to find a way forward. But then, someone passed her a copy of Self Help for Your Nerves, by Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor who pioneered modern anxiety treatment using cognitive therapy. It would be her saving grace, and would stand in for what could otherwise have been hours, weeks and years of "psychological muckraking on the therapist's couch".

The anxiety-management techniques she picked up from this book have stayed with her ever since. It turned out that her symptoms were both common and treatable, and that although "nervous suffering" and anxiety were scary, it was really the fear itself that was underpinning it all.

"[It was] that liberating, simple thought of, oh right, I'm spooking myself," she says now.

"I was very fortunate I found a practical technique, I was desperate enough to practice it and it allowed me to live the kind of life I wanted to live."

She would go on to make a full recovery, meet her future husband, the drummer Marty Brown, record her first album and have her first baby. This was 17 years ago, and is the point where the book ends.

But between the beginning and the end, there is plenty of repressed trauma that needed unpicking.

"To write this book, I had to go back to a lot of primary resources," she says.

"It was just a remarkably intense time, so what I learnt was that I wasn't going to muck around. I got a therapist, I weekly, sometimes twice weekly downloaded, I processed, I checked in with my family, I tried my very best to adopt all the good habits that helped me recover."

Fortunately, she says, those techniques she learnt at 21 - essentially facing your feelings, letting them waft through, and telling your anxious voice (she christened hers Frank) to piss off when it gets too much - were just as effective two decades later.

But she also realised that her mind and body had not rebelled or done anything wrong - they had simply reacted to years of repressed trauma.

"I think it only started to make sense to me when I was able to reframe it more gently, and think wow, how remarkable, this piece of my brain, this old brain, this survival brain has been inherited back thousands of generations, it's one of the things that's got me all the way here, and in reality it's my buddy," she says.

"The liberation for me came in going, oh wow, there's also a more civilised part of my brain, there's an adult there who can say, 'F--- off Frank'...In a way it's this little Eyore of a thing that lives in there having a whinge, and the opportunity of recovery is that we get to learn how to disrupt it and talk back to it."

She ends the book as she records the final song on her first album, Autumn Bone, and gives birth to a baby daughter.

"My new point of beginning and courage was really when I became a mother and I was able to put to rest some of the fears that I had as a young woman.

"I was just able to start getting on with this life that I wanted to live, and I just thought that was a good place to end, because that's probably the most interesting part of my story," she says.

"People think the interesting part is the touring with Leonard Cohen, or Offspring and all the rest of it. In actual fact, the most interesting part is this question of why some of us are able to count ourselves into our dreams, and why some of us take longer to do that.

"I wanted to remind people that you can kind of start anywhere, really."

  • Your Own Kind of Girl, by Clare Bowditch. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
This story The many stories we tell ourselves first appeared on The Canberra Times.