MEMOIR: THE SINGULARITY (More Rewrites, Cuts, Better, Etc)

MEMOIR: THE SINGULARITY (More Rewrites, Cuts, Better)

I could have called it “Weight-Loss Christmas”. I could have called it “Adrian’s Retirement From Dieting”. I could have called it “the Summit of Weight-Loss Mountain”. It’s the moment when you have to Trust the Force, close your eyes, and launch the proton torpedoes and destroy the Death Star—and try not to be destroyed yourself in the process. This last strikes me as very potentially applicable.

I call it the Singularity. It’s the destination. It’s where I’ve been going these past five years. Most of that time my determination, my dedication, has not been as keen as it is now, when that destination looms up in front of me. Five years ago, four years ago, it was far away, only visible as a faint blue shadow on the horizon if at all. I said it was my goal, to lose 65 kilograms, but I had little serious expectation of doing it. I thought it much more likely that I would fail in the attempt somehow. That I would make a good attempt, get maybe 20, maybe 30, even 40 kg—but then it would all come thundering back, a deafening, wobbling stampede of kilograms charging back, piling aboard, taking up residence on my back, around my middle, on my arse, my thighs, everywhere.

It’s the Singularity because, like the singularities in physics, the dimensionless points of infinite density at the hearts of black holes, it distorts everything around it, including one’s own reality. It’s the Singularity because, like the mythical Singularity that was thought to be looming ahead of us in the near future as the pace of technological development accelerates to ever faster rates, to the point where mere humans could never keep up with it, that development would become the province of ever-smarter, ever-more-godlike machines—it would distort all of reality as we understand it.

The Singularity I’m heading for is perhaps not quite as grand as this.

My Singularity is going to be a pasty, baggy, middle-aged man in loose undies standing on a set of scales at midday one day about eight weeks from now, and he’s going to feel a little rush of excitement, and he’s going to tell his wife, and he’s going to squeal a bit, and look at that number, and not know quite what to do next.

But in his mind, in his heart, this Singularity will be every bit as grand as the technological one, and every bit as reality-distorting as the physics one. It will be an achievement years in the making. It will be a physical and mental transformation. Not, it must be admitted, all for the good. In his mind, he’s one of those crashed, burned-out old cars stuck up in an old dead tree you see out in the bush sometimes. These last five years, thinking about “the program” all the time, the counting of kilojoules, of laps, of kilograms, of keeping track of everything I’ve eaten, has been exhausting.

As hard as the past four and a half years has been, these particular last five months have been by far the hardest. These have been the time of the emergency “low-food program”, where I’ve lost, as of this writing, 19 kg in five months (eating around 3500 kilojoules per day). Where I plan to keep at it until Christmas, to complete the project, the remaining eight kilograms.

The unbelievably hard part is the waiting during the long hours of fasting. I call it, sarcastically, “Cruise Mode”, as if it were a glib LA-type diet. But it’s fasting. Twenty-two hours or so of fasting. Of being hungry. News flash: it turns out that feeling really hungry is unpleasant but it won’t kill you. It’s exactly like a headache, but in your stomach. You can have coffee with artificial sweetener, and skim milk. You can have all the water you can drink.

NOTE: I DO NOT recommend this approach to eating. I do it because the program I had been on had stopped working. My metabolism seemed to have more or less died. People who experience serious weight-loss find that their metabolisms slow to the point that any amount of food makes them gain weight, which is why so many people who lose major weight gain it back. They can’t help it. They reach the point where even breathing seems to make them gain weight.

This prospect is doing my head in.

No, that’s not true, I must confess. The ENTIRE PROJECT is doing my head in. Or, to be even more precise, and harking back to that burned out old hulk up in the tree, it HAS done my head in. By this point I am limping along. I am not romping home in the closing stages of the race. I’m buggered. I’m exhausted, fed up, hungry—I’m always hungry.

I’m only too aware that what I’m doing is not, strictly speaking, all that healthy or advisable. I won’t be writing a diet book advocating the “low-food program”. There wouldn’t be enough material for such a book. Eat 3500 kilojoules, and fast for 23 continuous hours a day. That’s it. You’re welcome. Bear in mind that the normal human intake per day is 8700 kilojoules. If you’re thinking, “My God, Bedford, you’re starving yourself!” you’re near the mark. I am almost starving. I am eating just enough to keep things ticking over. Most of my required daily kilojoules comes from my own stores of fat, of which I did have plenty, but now there is a lot less. I am being hollowed out. My skin is sagging on me. Where I used to bulge with round rude curves I now drape and droop with crêpey crinkles.

Five years ago, at my original weight of 165.5 embarrassing kilograms, I found myself in hospital for surgery to fix a shattered elbow. After the surgery at one point I needed to have a new cannula installed in my arm, but there was a problem: my pudgy skin made it hard to find my veins. I remember a young female doctor having the worst day of her professional life so far, trying again and again and again to find a vein in various points in the crook of my other elbow, in the back of my hand, and in fact anywhere she could think of, without success. It took ages, hurt like hell, and she was mortified at her lack of skill—and I was mortified at my pudgy skin getting in the way of her skills.

Flash-forward to now, 57 kilograms later. My blood-vessels are pipelines, terrain-features across the backs of my hands, along my arms. They cast shadows. Sometimes I find myself staring at them, turning my hand in the light just so, looking at shadows, thinking about that poor doctor, wishing I could contact her, and tell her how sorry I feel, how ashamed I felt, both at the time and still. How it was that incident that helped drive me on this weight-loss project in the first place. I had had enough of being too big. I had crushed too many chairs, gone sideways through too many doors, been unable to find clothes in my size too many times.

I may have to go into orbit around the Singularity. It might not be possible for me to go off into the unexplored darkness beyond its comforting light. I might be too damaged. I might also be a moth, attracted to bright lights. I remember, when I was younger, and travelled into the city a lot, there was a big advertising structure next to the Perth Bus Station. It featured all these big signs, lit by floodlights, and at night the bright floodlights would attract hordes of moths, and the moths would go too close to the lights, and would burn. There was always a terrible smell, and smoke as the moths burned. I think about those burning moths. I’m drawn to my Singularity like those moths were to their light. The closer I get the more weight I can lose, the less I’ll weigh, the thinner I’ll be.

I said I was broken. This is what I meant. I’m worried I am not well inside. I’ve been worried about this for some time. I want to be thin. I don’t want to be a muscle-bound hulk. I want to be just a regular thin guy, normal for my size. But I want it badly. I’ve always wanted it badly, ever since I was a bullied kid getting picked on for being fat. Because clearly the fat was the problem. There were other problems, too (I wasn’t interested in sport, or other manly pursuits), but they were all aspects of fatness. If only I wasn’t fat, see, then everything would be fine.

This is the thought I’ve carried with me since childhood.

But I know it’s bollocks. I could be made of twigs, and bullies would decide I was made of the wrong twigs, or that twigs themselves were stupid. Or that, suddenly, it was cool to be fat for the first time ever.

Because the key point about bullies is there is no reasoning with them. There is no logic. There is no negotiating with them. They are bullies. They are undisciplined power used towards a bad end. Usually a stupid end. To inflict suffering. For no good reason. Suffering for its own sake. Power for its own sake. So saying, if only I wasn’t fat, if only I was thin, is no good.

Being thin has to be a good thing in itself.

It’s good for my health. My joints love it. My heart and lungs love it. I love being able to buy regular clothes. I can run. I’m looking forward to not having the letter X on my clothing labels.

I’m about eight weeks out from the Singularity. I imagine the day I get there will be weird. I imagine I’ll be very excited, but also tired and perhaps a bit teary. I might stay in bed all day. Michelle will probably be quite excited, but also very glad it’s over. Mum and Dad will probably be more excited than both of us put together. A few people on Facebook will be pleased, but I’ll feel extremely self-conscious about making too much fuss about it there because I’m always worried about annoying people, and taking up too much space, and posting happy news when I know other people are suffering, so that I end up folding into myself, and being all self-effacing.

The Singularity, up close, distorts the fabric of reality. It makes you believe wrong things. It messes with your head. It’s anxiety. It’s madness. It’s exactly where you’re trying to go, but going there is doing your head in. You can feel it, the noise in your head. The voices in your head are telling you that all the people you know are this close to defriending you on Facebook because of your endless weight-loss posts. Because you never shut up about it. You believe this.

This is my anxiety talking, my voices, my nerves. Mirror Adrian, the guy who lives in the mirror world who is still fat like I used to be, and who wants me to be fat again, just like him. So just when you might think I would be feeling proud and excited, getting ready for my big moment, maybe even a triumphant moment—I’m not. I’m anxious. I’m worried. About bloody Facebook!

And here I’m still eight kilograms out.

POSTSCRIPT: Close to the Singularity

Today, some weeks after I wrote most of the above chapter, I went to see my GP. He recently sent me for a comprehensive suite of blood-tests. By now I’ve been on the “low-food program” for the inconceivable period of six months. I never imagined I could last this long on such a strict regimen. As of today, I’ve lost 24 kilograms in that time. It’s been an extraordinary experience, but one I would not recommend. I have in fact been worried about the long-term damage that might be accruing to me from the extremity of the thing, as I said above. I thought I might be making myself sick. So, blood-tests for everything.

And the results? They were excellent in all respects. I’m completely fine. My doctor was overjoyed for me. He knows exactly what I’m doing, the extremity of it, the restrictiveness of it, and his advice is to keep at it because not only is it working well, it’s doing me good.

Which was not at all what I was expecting to hear today. I thought there would be some evidence of malnutrition or some sort of metabolic problem. Likewise I thought I might have made myself ill in some obscure biochemical manner—but instead, to my great surprise, I’d made myself well. I have heard good things about limited, intermittent, controlled fasting. And I knew there was a program called alternate day fasting, but nobody, to my knowledge, was doing anything quite like I’ve been doing. I’m shocked.

My weight today is 103.2 kilograms. I am extremely close now, a matter of just a few weeks. My body is transformed. I have a great deal of weird, crinkly, crêpey loose skin everywhere. I’m thinking of getting photos taken of me wearing only Speedos, to keep as proof that I did it. I made it to the summit of Weight-Loss Mountain; I touched the Singularity.

I have developed a database of all the foods I typically eat, with details of kilojoules, carbs, and, for some, their weights as well. I am also keeping a daily food diary, with a running tally of how many kilojoules and grams of carbohydrate I consume. At the moment this is just scribbles in a notebook, but I can already see I might need a spreadsheet. I’m working on trying to transition to the ketogenic diet, so I am trying to keep carbs to 20 g/day.

But a funny, surprising thing has happened: I wrote above that I was exhausted. That my head was done in. That I was a burned out old hulk of a car stuck up in a tree out in the bush, that you wonder about as you drive from one dusty remote town to another.

I did indeed feel that way. I was a wreck. I was depressed. I would have quit the whole process just like that if someone had given me a good reason. But nobody did, and I still had good reasons to keep on. I loved what was happening to my body. It was what I’d always wanted. It was my heart’s desire, to be thin. Every fat boy’s fantasy. So I stuck with it. But it was a close thing.

But I made some changes, as I said. Notebook, database. And without all that calculation and information in my head all the time, my mind became a quieter place. I had room to think. I am now clear-headed. I can write again. I’m working on these memoir rewrites. I’m feeling, believe it or not, quite okay.

I had thought that when I got this close to the Singularity the stress and turbulence would be much worse. Maybe it will be harder when I get extremely close. Maybe when I pass the 100 kg mark, and enter maintenance, that will be hard. I don’t know. But right now, I feel okay. And the “burn rate” of the weight-loss is picking up, too, which may be the transition to ketosis starting up. I may reach the Singularity sooner than expected.

I’m not ready. I’m so not ready.

I don’t know what to do.

I am as surprised by this development as you must be to read it. It doesn’t fit the narrative. I’m supposed to be breaking up in flight like the planes that tried and failed to break the sound barrier before Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1 came along. But here I am approaching the sound barrier, as it were, looking to go transonic with a quiet boom and onward from there.

The hell with narratives. I’m going for it.

MEMOIR: INSTITUTIONALISED (Revised)

MEMOIR: INSTITUTIONALISED

One year ago, I was close to discharge from hospital. The ordeal was nearly over. My vertical hold was stabilising; the static-filled picture was clearing. A new medication was at last working. The new medication was only new to me. In fact it was an old drug, Nortriptyline, one of the venerable tricyclic antidepressants. I had come to the hospital in the first place, months earlier, to get clear of another tricyclic, Clomipramine. The fifth fundamental force of the universe is irony. But Nortriptyline was working. Psychiatric medication is a bit like corrective lenses for your mind. When the meds are working, you feel like yourself, and I felt like a recognisable version of myself again. I wasn’t a pod-version Adrian. I wasn’t an impostor. I was myself, and would only become more like myself as the new medication settled in. I started feeling restless. I started thinking about the future. About what I would do when I went home.

But this male nurse was talking to me.

He was telling me it was good that I was going home soon. I’d spent almost half the year in that hospital. He said I was running the risk of becoming “institutionalised”. I looked at him, a bit confused, not sure quite what he meant. It was the only time he mentioned it, and the only time I thought about it. Not long after that, I was discharged, and sent home with an enormous plastic bag full of expensive medication, to begin my new life.

Soon, it will be a year since I left that hospital. But I have only recently realised that in my head I had never really left. In my head I am still there, following the same schedule, the same routine, thinking about the same patterns of cause and effect.

These past twelve months, there have been many times when I’ve had bad days, off days, lousy days, a few rotten days, a period of “choppy seas”, a “bad run”, “a bad patch”, or whatever you would like to call an unspecified span of time in which I would tell you I felt at least somewhat depressed or down. But not only depressed or down, but “sick”. In trouble. Engines on fire. Anxious. Worried. Am I going back to hospital? Do I need to make an emergency appointment with my doctor? Calculating how many days before I see my psychologist.

Sometimes I can get myself out of these anxious states by reframing the thinking pattern, using techniques my psychologist has given me, or that I have figured out myself. Going for a walk in sunshine helps. Attending to some chores around the house helps. A bit of reading, and some other things. Things that matter to me. They help. They prove to me that I’m not a stain on the couch, that I have a pulse.

So I have these times when I feel bad, and my first impulse is to worry that I’m sick and at risk of hospitalisation.

But what if I’m just feeling blue and melancholy? What if I’m just a sad and soulful kind of guy?

Over the weekend I was listening to some KPop. I listen to lots of KPop. That and jazz. There was a female artist named Heize (pronounced “haze”). She has this wonderful sad song (https://youtu.be/afxLaQiLu-o). I love sad songs. Some of my favourite music of any sort, in any genre, from any tradition, is the sad stuff. It speaks to me. I feel it. This song by Heize is not the greatest sad song I’ve ever heard. For me, that will always be DeBussy’s “Claire de Lune”. My pick for Favourite Piece of Music Ever, and if you think I have no taste in music, you are probably right.

But over the weekend this Heize song came up on Spotify again. I happened to look at the album cover, and there is a picture of the singer behind a rainswept window, looking sad.

And, even though I have heard this song many times, and seen this image many times, and seen images like it countless times, this particular time was the first time I stopped and formed the thought: she’s feeling lousy but she’s not thinking about hospital. Her engines are not on fire.

In fact, as far as I can tell, her entire thought process, as an independent singer-songwriter, was, “hmm, I feel really sad and dismal. Things are crap. Nothing’s going well. I’m lonely. What to do? I know. I’ll write about it.” So she writes about it. Next thing, she starts forming these thoughts into a song, starts composing melodies and so forth, books some studio time, etc.

At no point does she think, Oh God, I think I’m sick.

Or thinks she’s gonna crash.

She feels sad, and turns it into a beautiful sad song that not only becomes a hit that makes her money, but it’s also a comfort to people out there who are also feeling sad. She understands how they feel.

I was institutionalised but I didn’t know it until that moment. It came as a huge shock. There have been many such shocks. It made me think of the elephant kept in an enclosure in the zoo for thirty years, and one day the enclosure was taken away, but the elephant stayed within that same space, even though there were no pillars anymore. The poor beast had to be coaxed out of there over a long time.

I have been living my life this past year against the backdrop of the hospital. It has loomed up behind me, sometimes huge and close, sometimes further back, but always in the shot, always the key reference. The inescapable detail. I feel like everything I go to say has to somehow include a reference to the hospital. It was like this after my stay in D20 when I was sixteen, too. It was the single biggest experience of my life. It dominated everything.

I want to change the point of view.

On November 9 it will be one year since I left the hospital. I want to turn the camera around. I want to see the view ahead. I don’t want to be in the shot anymore. I will still write about “all this” (gestures around). I particularly want to write about my weight-loss project, and some of that will intersect with my mental illness, because major weight-loss does things to your head you would not expect. It messes you up inside. As much as it is a physical, biochemical process, it is a mental process, too.

I want to stop picturing myself as a “patient in recovery”. I’m recovered. I’m fine (NB: am speaking only for myself here). When I have bad days, rough patches, choppy seas, it’s because I’m a moody, melancholy sort of soul. I should write about it. I should write the equivalent of a sad song about it. I should make some art. Be productive. And I should turn up the KPop, really loud, and rock out.

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (Major Rewrites, Updated)

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (Major Rewrites)

Suppose you had a time machine. What would you do with it? I’ve often thought about this. I’m a science fiction writer. Before I wrote this book I wrote a stack of science fiction novels, some of which have been published. I write about time travel a lot.

If I had a time machine, I would go back to try to help my younger self. That boy, that young man, was (and often, in middle-age, is still) in a world of strife, confusion and misery. At age sixteen, he discovered, the hard way, that he had bipolar disorder. He is still, to this very day, decades later, dealing with this problem. If I had a time machine, I would absolutely try to help that kid. Because I remember being him. I remember what his life was like. I remember the fear, the loneliness, and I remember the anger. I did not know what to do with all these feelings. It was as if I were constantly being struck by lightning, but had no means of earthing the current. I was a boy made of nerve-endings.

Growing up didn’t much help. It was Act II in a play. The sets had been swapped out, and the main character wore a different costume, but he was still made of nerve-endings, and still full of lightning and storms. In this part of his life, the fundamental problem was pretending to be normal, while definitely not being normal. The problem was keeping people from finding out the secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret. She was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.

Act III of this show covers the past few years, the “present day”, as the storm-filled boy finds himself middle-aged, his medication no longer working, hugely overweight, lost in midnight seas. He’s in trouble. He’s taking on water. He’s sinking.

His doctor decides to bring his medications into the 21st century, and admits him to hospital for what should be only a couple of weeks, but turns out to be five months of agony and turmoil, an unprecedented ordeal the like of which our protagonist has never known, and from which he is still, a year after leaving hospital, recovering. An experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it and my whole life with the stain, the illness, my companion.

The thing about mental illness is that it messes with your head. It makes you think weird stuff. It makes you believe things that are not true. And you believe them the way you believe in gravity and your mother’s love. These wrong beliefs wrap you with cobwebs. You’re not even aware of it. It happens slowly. It’s like cataracts forming in your eyes. You never notice them, but then one day you can’t see. Same with the cobwebs cocooning your mind. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t move. Your whole sense of who you are as a person, is trapped, unable to act, because you believe terrible things will occur if you do act. You believe you might die, or people (or pets) might die. The cobwebs, or perhaps things living in the cobwebs, whisper in your ear, telling you these things. Sometimes they scream. Either way, you can’t do things you want to do, go to things you want to go to, see people you want to see, or even simply leave the house. You know it’s irrational, but you also believe it’s life and death—and you can’t make anyone, anyone, understand that. Everyone looks at you like you’re crazy, but you’re telling the truth.

Finding ways to get past these wrong ideas to the actual truth is what I’ve been trying to do. I have found that I am very susceptible to the cobwebs. I get them all the time. Sometimes I can clear them out on my own, but not always. Sometimes I need help, and for that I have a clinical psychologist who is marvellous. She helps me with the cobwebs I can’t quite reach.

Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs, too. I have done my best to scrape out everything, no matter how personal, how private, how intense. Mental illness stuff, and especially male mental illness stuff, needs to be brought out of the darkness. When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s it was all secret and terrifying. My dad had a terrible time, and you couldn’t talk about it. There was this awful fraught silence. That deathly silence is a big part of why I wanted to write this book.

This book is about exploring my life as if I were a Time Traveller, especially as it has been affected by mental illness, my bipolar disorder and anxiety. What would I see, as a grown-up, middle-aged man, with all my experience with the illness and treatment, that my younger selves don’t see? I know, obviously, that I can’t help them. But I can bear witness. I can listen and report. I can tell you what it was like back when these things were never discussed. Back when being sixteen and bipolar was the end of the world.

All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I were fine. To conceal my stain. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when it is possible to write about it and speak about it.

I imagine myself, middle-aged, married, man in possession a time machine, visiting my teenage self the night I had my first huge terrifying breakdown, the night I feared I’d die of crying. If I visited that evening, what might I see? A boy, crying so hard he’s worried he might die from it, that something might happen. The boy’s mother, my mum, much younger than I’m used to seeing her, holding the boy’s hand, stroking it, talking to him, doing her best to soothe him, to help him armed only with the magic of love. On the other side of the bed is a nurse, doing much the same thing, only in a professional capacity.

And there in the centre, that poor young bastard, afraid that he’s flying apart. That he’s burning up on re-entry. He’s just had surgery to remove his appendix, but he’s also just failed a bunch of upper high school exams. He believes he’s doomed, a failure.

I want to tell that poor kid that this is not the end of his life. This is his new life being born. Everything gets better from here—though admittedly not for a long, long time, and the road gets harder before it gets better.

It’s a seven-year slog, and he’ll one day look back on it and call it his “Years of Hell”, and it begins on this volcanic night in 1979 and ends in August 1986, on the fateful, lucky, sunny day when he first meets Michelle.

I wrote this book in random chunks, in fragments and shards. It’s nonlinear. You can read it more or less in chronological order if you like and it is presented that way. But it was always intended, and was written, as an out-of-order, dip-in-and-out experience. Random Access Memory. Memories stored all over the map, not next to each other, one following the next. It’s organised chaos. My life has been like this. This book just happened. It grew accidentally out of a writing journal I started keeping by way of a bit of therapy, and next thing I’m writing about my life, about my illness. I saw an opportunity. I could maybe make a small contribution, me and my time machine.

This is not, I need to clarify, my whole life. I have left a lot out. My brief was material reflecting the way my mental illness has affected my life, and especially my life as a writer. It takes in my struggle with my weight, too, since I have long believed my weight and my illness were each manifestations of one another. Many chapters also feature extensive postscripts, written several months after the initial chapter, reflecting new developments, changed circumstances, or fresh thinking.

How did I get here? Just how much of a lucky bastard am I? Because I am a lucky bastard. Several young people I knew when I was in the D20 psychiatric unit at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital when I was sixteen did not survive their own Years of Hell. Their illnesses killed them. Mine never seriously tried to kill me. But I understand the thinking pattern, the way the illness calls out to you, the way it presents the argument.

I was lucky, so lucky.

All my life I had to pretend I was normal, but I wasn’t normal. Everybody told me so. I was wrong in all kinds of ways. First I was just weird and strange, but then I was sick. I was still pretty weird, too. And I had to hide it all, weird, sick, the lot. I had to seem normal at all times. It was the most important thing in the world. It was impossible. That strain, that impossible task, and what it did to me, is what this book is about.

MEMOIR: SICK/WELL (Updated, New Postscript)

MEMOIR: SICK/WELL (Updated, New Postscript)

Yesterday, a cold, wet Monday in July, I did about three days’ worth of Korean language lessons on Memrise, read two chapters of a Joan Didion book I’m working through, went to the local pool and slogged out heavy-duty walking laps for a full hour (so probably a bit more than a hundred laps), despite dreadfully agitating noise conditions. Later, when I came home, I wrote two long chapters for this book (about 3500 words total), took a long nap, and was in pretty good shape for Michelle when she came in late last night from work.

Yesterday was a regular sort of day for me lately. Some days in recent times I’ve done three chapters for the book. Some days I’ve done four days’ worth of Korean lessons. Yesterday was the first time I’ve tried to do a whole hour of walking laps, though. Up to that point I’d been doing 45 minutes, and thinking that was plenty. I’m going to try for an hour again next time because today I feel quite okay.

I saw my psychiatrist last week. I told him the book has been gushing out of me. That I’ve been exercising every day. That I have a clarity of thought that is pretty much new to me. That I feel consistently decent from day to day. That even the Trouser Department is reporting for duty. I’ve even been losing weight. That part has been very hard. I’m having to drastically reduce what I eat down to one meal a day in order to get past the effects of Nortriptyline, but it’s working. My doctor tells me that the combination of fasting and Topamax, another medication I’m on, in part for its weight-loss properties, is good for clarity of mind. He said he’s never seen me look so well. He said I’m “overflowing with energy”.

The last time I was anything like as productive as this was in 2015, when I was writing ETERNITY LEAVE. But the rest of the day I was a heap of dirty laundry with sick flies buzzing around it. I wasn’t able to get out of bed before 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I was a greasy smear on the couch. But I was writing up a storm, because my doctor cut back one of my drugs, and suddenly I could think. Within a few weeks of him cutting back that dose, I started writing that book, and was finished the whole thing in only 80 days.

What I’m experiencing this time is different. I have much the same productivity, but I can get out of bed like a regular person. I can function and do things. I can think and learn things, and go to the pool and work really hard. And write a big pile of words.

I was thinking about this yesterday, while I walked, trying to think of another time in my life when I functioned this well, and I couldn’t think of a single one. I was having to think back to when I was a writing-mad teenager, whose bedroom walls were covered completely, all over, with science fiction artwork from SF MONTHLY, the 1970s British magazine that used paperback book cover art as pull-out posters, often featuring, for example, the dazzling work of Chris Foss. In those days, when I was a green potato of a boy, writing like mad, for hours and hours and hours a day, to the point that my parents would bang on the walls to make me stop, when I could produce multiple terrible short stories each day. Because I was mad about science fiction, and because I was mad. I was manic, and had no idea. All I knew was that the throttle in my brain was open all the way, and I was roaring.

That was the last time I had productivity like this. When I was desperately sick.

Am I sick now? Am I well?

I’ve been thinking about this for months now, because for years I have felt sick, like something was wrong. I often didn’t know what it was that was wrong. At one point, when going about my life was like pushing through heavy, sticky syrup in order to do the slightest thing, when it was as if breathing was exhausting, it turned out I had an underactive thyroid. Excellent, I thought at the time. We can get this fixed and we’ll be in business. The feeling of wellbeing lasted at most a couple of weeks, then it was back into the treacle. No matter what we tried, there would be a brief lift, then back to the treacle. It was terrible. Something was wrong, something obvious, something trying to get our attention, but we were distracted.

So yes, I was definitely sick then. And I appear to be in rude health now. Right? Right? Because what would “well” look like if not like the picture I described at the beginning? I feel fine. I’m able to work hard at my chosen activities. I can do all my jobs around the house, and I can study. All the activities I’ve designated as meaningful to me, as being part of the pursuit of a peaceful and contented life, are there.

So why do I hesitate? Why do I stand before the door, and not go through the door? Because something is making me hesitate. In part I’m not convinced I’ll ever truly be well. That I’ll always, in some profoundly fundamental way, never quite be right. When I was in hospital last year, going through the worst of it, when I “couldn’t regulate my emotions”, when I’d find myself in tears at the slightest thing, and feeling utterly broken, unable to function, I sometimes thought of myself as Pinocchio, who wants only to be a Real Boy. I think I have always, and especially since my initial diagnosis, been Pinocchio, and I have always wanted to be a Real Boy.

It would be nice, I sometimes think, to forget that I was ever sick. That I ever had a diagnosis, that I ever had a file thick as an old phone book. Over the course of many years I saw that file grow, like a tumour. It was a visible sign of my illness. I hated it. I wanted to burn it. I wanted to remove all trace of myself from the system.

But I know none of these ideas would work out. I’d be burning the map, not the territory.

People sometimes speculate about what they would do if they had a time machine, and where they would go and what they would go and see. I’ve written about such people at scornful length in a couple of books. Because for me it’s not a fun or idle question. It’s life and death. If I were to lose my memory of having the illness, the illness itself would soon remind me, and simply show up. I would fall ill because I wouldn’t be taking my meds. And that’s the thing. If you travel back too far, you lose access to good medication and civilised treatment options. It’s extremely scary to contemplate just how recent the current array of psychiatric treatment options really are. Not that long ago people like me were simply locked away. Or in any case would not have lived long because the illness would long since have driven them to suicide.

I can’t imagine actual wellness. I can be fine, functioning better than at any time in my life, but in my blackened heart I know that no matter how many thousand words a day I do, or how many laps at the pool, or whatever other measure I choose, I’ll never quite be a Real Boy, because I’ll always be just a tiny bit sick.

A FEW WEEKS LATER

There has been a development. On the whole, all is amazingly well, as I outlined above. I completed the first draft of this book in two months flat. I started writing a novel (am already up to almost 20K). But I am having an increasingly difficult time with noise at the local pool, and specifically the noise of very small children playing. I’ve written about the anxiety I have to do with certain kinds of sound (see my piece, “Murder Sounds”, about misophonia), and when I’m at the pool there are often a lot of kids, and those kids love to squeal, scream, yell, and otherwise loudly vocalise in a piercing manner because the indoor pool acoustics make such sounds really bounce around, and my hyper-vigilant brain interprets such sounds as mortal threats. They feel like knives going through me. They feel like punishment. It has come to the point where I have no problem slogging out the laps, but I hate being at the pool. It makes me very unhappy. I need to talk to my psychologist about this.

There must be something I can do. I often think of the techniques my psychologist teaches me as “Jedi Mind Tricks”, and I hope she’s got a good one for this problem. Because it’s a doozy. I’m currently wondering about going there early in the morning, for example, when there should be no kids about. I’m reluctant to choose the obvious option of simply not going because I have two good friends who work there. I need a way to be there that doesn’t feel like a threat to my life all the time. Because that’s how all that noise feels. Every squeal, scream, yell, all happy and joyful sounds, all little kids having a wonderful time–in fact just as I would have had when I was their age!–feels like it’s going to kill me. It hurts me and I don’t quite know what to do.

It is this sort of thing that pops up from time to time to remind me, when I feel, as I have been feeling, bursting with wellness, that I am in fact still very sick. That I am in fact still Pinocchio the puppet. That I’m not a Real Boy after all.

POSTSCRIPT: HYPOMANIC PHASE

My psychologist has recently explained to me, after some investigation, that the extraordinary burst of creative, productive energy I experienced around April to Julymthis year, the time when I wrote the early draft of this book and eighty percent of my GOOD INTENTIONS novel as well, was very likely a “hypomanic phase”.

Not by a any means to be confused with a much more scary “full manic phase”.

It’s more that I had access to a temporary power-up that improved my INT and WIS for a limited time, during which I had extremely rare mental clarity and insight. It was really neat!

I was speaking to my psychologist about this, that I wasn’t happy it went away, or ran out, or whatever. How could I get it back? Could i get back? Maybe, she said, or maybe not. Okay, then. Well, how should I feel about the book I wrote under the influence of hypomania? Should I feel worried? Is it okay?

She smiled and pointed out that some of the most inspired, most wonderful and creative works of art ever produced were produced when their artists were in hypomanic states of one degree or another. That even actual full-on mental disturbance has, at times, sometimes (by no means every time) led to some great works.

So relax already, she said!

MEMOIR: MIRRORS AND VOICES (Huge New Postscript)

MEMOIR: MIRRORS AND VOICES (Huge New Postscript)

Recently, I was at the local aquatic centre, ready to do my laps. It was right around the time my weight seemed desperately out of control, when it seemed as if mere breathing could make me stack on the kilograms. I had gained back about 13 kg off the 51 I’d previously lost. I was close to panic.

After changing into my chlorine-faded swimming trunks, feeling worried and embarrassed, I saw myself in the change room mirror. There I was, Mr Potato Body. Then, worse, a huge roll of pale fat skin bulged over the top of my shorts. It looked like the sort of colourless bloating you associate with corpses.

And a voice in my head said, “You’re disgusting and loathsome!”

It was emphatic about the exclamation. That’s what that voice told me, utterly repulsed at what it saw in the mirror.

Mirrors, how I hate them. Speaking as a mid-career fat guy, I can report that I have been looking at myself in mirrors all my life. I’ve seen the way age has stolen across my features, and seen the way fat at different times in my life has come and gone, like a gruesome toxic tide. What you see in a mirror is true, but all wrong, backwards, sideways. It is how you look, but not remotely so. That’s why photos of you always look so odd. Your mirror self pipes up as if to cast doubt on the photographic evidence.

So there I was, a ghastly fat shambles of a man, fish-belly white and bulbous, ready to take to the pool, freshly informed of my loathsome and disgusting appearance. I felt terrible. That voice has not bothered me in a long time, but there it was, all refreshed and full of bile reserved just for me. I rearranged my attire to conceal the bulge, and went out onto the pool deck, playing that line, that voice, over and over in my head like an earworm, like the rantings of a mad cockatoo, “Loathsome and disgusting! Loathsome and disgusting! Rawwwrk!”

I bashed hell out of my laps that day.

But the voice remained, playing on a loop, round and round in my head. I finally managed to get rid of it by applying a technique I’d learned about in a book, THE HAPPINESS TRAP, by Russ Harris. He suggests, among other ingenious ideas, replaying messages like this one in different, funny voices. I tried it with the voice of Brian’s Mum in Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just loathsome and disgusting!” Which made me laugh, and that dislodged that specific message from that voice.

But I have other voices. They are often playing in the background of my mental awareness like a TV in a laundromat nobody’s watching. A steady murmur of running commentary, none of it nice or complimentary, a bit like the way Terry Wogan used to comment on the Eurovision Song Contest.

These other voices are all my anxieties eating away at me. They’re a game of Whack-A-Mole–every time you smash one, it or others pop up rudely. I have learned, with the help of that book I mentioned above, to pay less attention to these voices. They are not worth my attention. They are transmissions from the other side of the mirror, from my mirror self, who is me but isn’t. Who occupies a different, less pleasant reality.

Lately, since I started working on this book, my mirror self is telling me I’m a “smug narcissist wanker”. I feel as though I need a Suggestions Box, or Complaints Office to receive messages like this. Like “loathsome and disgusting!” I hear from “smug narcissist wanker!” all the time lately. The more I write here, the more I hear it. I know it’s my mirror self, dyspeptic and bitter, possibly even envious of the fact that I’m writing again for the first time in over a year. Definitely bitter. I know about bitterness. I can smell it miles away, and can definitely smell it from the other side of the mirror.

Still, despite knowing this, despite all the “Jedi Mind Tricks”, as I call them, that I’ve read about and learned from my psychologist, this one continues to sting like a tentacle lash from a bluebottle. Smug narcissistic wanker. Has a certain ring to it, of an old metal rubbish bin lid slamming into place. It has a powerful poison about it, and all the more effective for being from me, on the other side of the mirror, to me on this side.

I worried about this last year, while in hospital. I posted about the experience, the few ups and the many downs, on Facebook. One day, worried about it, I asked one of my doctors straight out, “look, am I just a narcissist?” He laughed, a huge head-back, full-throated laugh. He said no, not at all. “If you were a narcissist I wouldn’t be treating you.” That helped, but the niggle remained. The voice just whispered it instead of yelling at me.

That leaves the suggestion of smugness. This stings because I worry it’s true, and I hate it. I worry that I’m, perhaps, too upbeat about my recovery, that I’m obsessing over it, that I’m “pleased with myself”, perhaps to an unseemly degree. This really stings, this thought. My mirror self knows me well. Brian’s Mum’s Voice is no match for this drop of bitter poison.

But what if it’s true? Am I embarrassing myself here? Am I horribly self-absorbed? This is an abhorrent thought. I feel as if I’m paying as much attention and care to the rest of the world as I possibly can, and especially to Michelle, who needs me to be there for her, to be her “drummer”. She has no complaints, at least that she’s informed me about.

I don’t want to stop writing about this stuff, now that I’ve started. But the worry is there. Even if loads of people tell me it’s all fine and I shouldn’t worry, I would still worry. I’m a worry-based lifeform. And Mirror Adrian knows me too well to let go as easily as that.

POSTSCRIPT:

This chapter began life as a journal entry, in the early days of my return to regular writing. I think I kind of was a bit pleased with myself there. A bit, oooh, look at me writing again, look, no hands, I can totally still ride this bicycle just like I used to!

So bear with me. It’s now a long time later. When I wrote the material above it was May of this year. Now it’s November. In May my weight shot back up to 127.1, and I freaked out. But I found ways, highly unorthodox ways, to deal with it. It’s fine now, in November. I’m nearly finished my entire weight-loss project. Where in May I had that bloated corpse-like roll of fat that made my interior voice tell me I was disgusting and loathsome, now I just have crinkly, loose and empty folds of skin.

But I still have voices, and I still don’t like mirrors. Mirror Adrian is still fat. He’s still bitter. If anything he’s even more bitter, seeing me thin. And I am thin now. I’m lanky. My waist measurement is now under 100 centimetres. I’m positively skinny. But I know it’s all out there, just waiting, keen to come back. Mirror Adrian is looking after it, minding it for me. Keeping it warm. He sends me suggestions of things I should eat when I finish my weight-loss project. So many wonderful things I should go and eat, to celebrate the achievement. Because when people celebrate, they eat.

Tonight Mirror Adrian was telling me that Michelle and I should visit San Churro’s Chocolateria, and have a wonderful chocolate blowout. Mmmmmm, that does sound good, for sure, but somehow I don’t know if Mirror Adrian, who back in May told me I looked disgusting and loathsome, has my best interests at heart. My mirror self’s interest is in seeing me crash and burn. In seeing me wind up like him.

The thing is, though, I’d truly love to go to San Churro’s with Michelle. During the course of the five years of the diet project we have been several times, and I’ve managed to lose the bit of weight I’ve gained from it each time. Theoretically it shouldn’t be a problem.

But this suggestion is coming from that voice. It’s coming with a sneer.

It’s plugging into my very intense anxiety about regaining the weight. Back in May, that was a preview of what regaining the weight would be like. Thirteen kilograms piled back on in no time flat. Part was medication effects, bit there was emotional eating, worry about things in the news, and feeling so out of control that I gave up and binged. I was, for a while, lost at sea. It was horrible. I didn’t know what to do. Thirteen kilograms. At that rate, all the weight I’d lost would be back in about a year.

I was loathsome and disgusting, all right. Mirror Adrian was telling the truth.

I feel it, even now, with just over three kilograms still to lose, poised, trembling, ready to pounce, just over there, ready to jump me. It wants to come back. It misses me. It wonders what it did wrong. Didn’t we have some good times together? it says.

I don’t know if I can go through all the rest of my life keeping it at bay like this. I can barely do it now. I don’t know how much thin-time I’ll have. It’s an awful feeling. I’ve read Jon Krakauer’s memoir, INTO THIN AIR, about climbing Mount Everest. He writes about reaching the summit, and how by the time you get there, you’re so fatigued, so oxygen-deprived, so very nearly dead, and so short on time, that it’s all you can do to have a quick look around, maybe take a couple of photos, and then start back down again. It’s underwhelming. It’s not what you would hope the experience would be like.

I am beginning to understand what he means, I think. I worry my time at the weight-loss summit will be short. That the biological and metabolic forces in my body will drive what happens. Will I still be at target weight at Christmas? Next Christmas? I don’t know. I hope so. I’m hoping to get medical help. Up to this point I’ve been making it up as I go. My psychiatrist has supervised to some extent, but he’s a psychiatrist. My GP is just very pleased, and that’s it.

Mirrors and voices. Would it be too much to ask, when in the change room at the pool, or in my bathroom here at home, for a Mirror Self who was helpful and supportive? Who was maybe more like a male Oprah than what I do have? Because Mirror Adrian is a nasty piece of work. I’d much rather look in the mirror and see a sleek and stylish version of me, not only keeping the weight off, but working out at the gym (but not so much as to be obnoxious or vain), in nice clothes, who was nothing if not supportive and encouraging. “Hey, have you lost another half-kilo, dude? Niiiice!” Or even just pointing at me and going, “Phwoar!”

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS JAPANESE FOOD (Major Rewrites)

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS JAPANESE FOOD (Major Rewrites)

I was more than fifty years old, and I was afraid of all sorts of food, but none more so than Japanese food. It was full of raw seafood. I couldn’t cope with the thought of it. It messed with my head. It was horrifying. It reminded me of going fishing with my dad when I was a kid. There were dreadful, disgusting things when you went fishing. The things you had to do with raw baitfish. The things you had to do with fresh fish you’d just caught, when they were still alive. In the dank and fevered swamps of my mind, Japanese food loomed large and terrifying, a source of waking anxiety and awful dreams. I couldn’t bear it.

What was it, exactly, that scared me about it? What specific thing? As with all my food-related phobias and aversions it was my old problem of the gag reflex and the possibility of public vomiting, and especially public vomiting in front of family or loved ones, just like when I was the little kid gagging on the boiled corn and Mum and Dad were furious. All my life, with countless foods, even the thought of trying something would put me in a very high defensive state, leading to gagging when I put whatever it was in my mouth, then retching if I managed to get past the gagging. And all of that in public, in restaurants, in front of guests. The mortification, the humiliation. You feel yourself burn to ash. This was my entire life with food of all sorts.

So, there I was, 50-Year Man, who had lived his whole life afraid of so many kinds of food. I felt ridiculous, ashamed. It was time to do something, or at least try to do something, about it. My greatest fear was vomiting in public–and all my life that felt to me like the atom bomb of personal fears. It was a mortal, overwhelming terror. It was so vast, urgent, suffocating—you did not dare stop and question it. It was a classic major anxiety trope. You don’t question the anxiety. You don’t look behind the curtain.

But I was fifty years old and fed up, so to speak. I was ready to ask questions. All my life I’d had this mortal terror of vomiting, losing control, embarrassing myself, making a scene, drawing attention to myself, in public. It was intolerable. Shaming. It would shame me, and especially my family. There would be no way to recover lost dignity. No apology could ever be sufficient. It would be the atom bomb of social gaffes.

Yes, I thought, examining the apparatus of the anxiety my brain had put together. It was pretty impressive as these things go. There was no easy way to disassemble it, and open it up to see what made it tick. But I did get it open. I started to think: was vomiting in public truly as bad as all that? Couldn’t I just use a napkin to catch whatever came up? Couldn’t I run to the bathroom at the first sign of distress? It occurred to me that I could very possibly do these things. It had never previously occurred to me that I could do these things.

Then there was data. How often had I ever actually vomited in a restaurant, in public, bringing unbearable shame upon my family, etc?

I could not think of a single instance across my fifty years. I had just about always gagged on food, from tiniest childhood until the present day. Any time I was in a situation where I was expected to eat something over which I had no control, and the food in question was not something I knew about, I would almost certainly gag on it. And if I persisted, despite the gag reflex, and tried to swallow that food, then I would get the retching, and that would likely lead to vomiting. But if I’ve got the gagging, I’m not likely to proceed further. Because why would I? I would rather go hungry.

So as far as I know I was terrified of vomiting the way I was terrified of nuclear war: something urgent, overwhelming and suffocating, but which has never so far happened.

Also, on reflection, it occurred to me that there were probably worse things I could do in a restaurant, if I applied myself to the task, than mere spewing. In any case, “mere” spewing was still plenty worrying, and I was in no rush to do it–but I was in a rush to put my plan into effect.

I told Michelle about it. That I wanted to eat Japanese food.

Once I’d revived her and helped her up off the floor, she agreed to take me to some suitable places.

The first place we went was a Japanese café in Subiaco, a little place, not fancy, not crowded, and just right. I stood in the doorway, sniffing. It did not smell bad. It did not smell fishy. It had previously occurred to me that “smelling or tasting fishy” was one of the things that put me off about Japanese food, and that I equated that with the most disgusting thoughts imaginable. Once I stopped to examine that thought, it began to seem strange, and foolish.

So there I was, in the doorway of an actual Japanese establishment, nostrils twitching, checking for fishiness–and it was fine. There was a food or cooking smell, for sure, but I couldn’t identify it. One thing I could tell for sure: it was not “non-food”. It wasn’t my category 3.

We went in, and found a table. I felt weird and shaky, cold and wobbly in the legs, and jittery in my stomach. I was aware of a sensation of being a bit “brave”, for certain values of “brave”.

Then I was sitting there, looking around, an astronaut on a distant, alien world taking in the vista before him, aware that everything he sees and says is historic. The very fact of my being there was shocking. The last time I was in a Japanese restaurant was in about 2003, and I was an invited guest to the local science fiction convention, Swancon, and that year the convention committee thought it would be fun to take all the guests to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. It was excruciating and mortifying for me, but I couldn’t imagine not going because I was a guest–they’d been kind enough to invite me. I still remember the waitress on her knees begging me with the greatest humility to please just eat something, and having to politely, so politely, refuse. It was awful.

So here I was on my alien world, taking historic steps. I examined the menu. The names were mysterious. Michelle explained things. I settled on the grilled octopus balls, and the teriyaki beef skewers. I went for the octopus because they were the most objectively terrifying thing available. Octopuses wig me out, and the idea of eating them doubly wigs me out. The beef teriyaki skewers were intended as something rational, understandable, food from my home planet.

The octopus balls came out, hot and alive. They had these flakes of bonito fish on them which wafted about in the heat coming off the balls, making the entire thing look alive and menacing.

And, ladies and germs, I ate one of those bastards. I jammed it in my mouth, and it felt a bit weird in texture, but not disgusting, just unfamiliar–but the best part was that it tasted meaty, savoury. It did not taste the least bit seafoody or fishy. It was good!

I enjoyed the second of the two I was given, and felt like the King of the Freaking World, like I could do anything.

The teriyaki beef skewers were a bit sweet, but were grilled beef bits on sticks. Definitely food from my home planet, posing no problems.

I left this cafe 2–0, feeling pretty damned good, ready to take things up a notch. This was forthcoming. Michelle later took me to another Japanese restaurant she knew near IKEA, which she said was good because it was always crowded, which meant the food must be very fresh. I liked her logic.

I’d never been to a sushi train restaurant, so that was fun, with little plates of things trundling past, leading to a lot of intense, split-second decisions. On this occasion I was determined to investigate the whole raw fish thing, so when a couple of pieces of raw salmon sushi came by, I grabbed them. Again, I was nervous as hell, moreso than I had been at the other place. The stakes were higher. This food was raw, while the food at that other place had been grilled (which improves everything). The sense of being an astronaut a long way from my home planet was even more acute. I was here with Michelle but I felt all alone, just me and my treacherous, ready-to-spew stomach.

This raw salmon sushi was exactly the kind of thing I was most afraid of. Imagine being afraid of spiders and then grabbing one with the intention of eating it. Imagine your fears becoming manifest. But also imagine knowing your fears are stupid, and trying to beat them.

I picked up one of the salmon sushi pieces. It looked huge, but I had seen people eat these things in one go, so I tried that. I shoved it in my gob–

First, there was no fishy or seafoody taste.

Second, I gagged hard. I was about to be sick.

This was it. The doomsday scenario.

I’m aware that there is Too Much Food in my mouth, that it’s uncomfortable, like something’s about to burst. I’m glancing about, because obviously People Can Tell. I’m starting to sweat. I’m retching. Thinking about where the toilets might be, and how to tell Michelle. Can I remove the salmon from my mouth first–might that help, or is the situation too urgent? It feels like this situation has always felt: profoundly anxious and shameful, as if I’m bringing shame upon my household from which we will never recover. What’s more, I know this is nonsense, but it is nevertheless what I’m feeling.

I’m chewing like mad. There is so much to chew. I must be chewing an entire freaking fish! There is nearly no taste to it, which helps. There is just this mass of stuff in my mouth, and over time the feeling of it pressing down on the back of my throat, on my gag reflex, subsides. I swallow, and swallow again. I have a little green tea. I swallow more.

Normal service resumes. The crisis passes. I mop my brow. The manager comes by and asks if everything is all right. Michelle smiles for both of us. I just nod, exhausted.

The sense of relief afterwards. That I got through that piece of salmon. I had thought about eating raw salmon sushi for years and years. I had seen people in YouTube videos jamming the stuff into their enormous mouths and exclaiming about how good it was. I’d seen this kind of thing so often I wanted to try it, but it made me anxious. Surely there’s a fishy taste and smell. But they always said there was no taste or smell when it’s fresh—but how could that be? I lay in bed, wrestling with this problem, wrapped around it like a Colossal Squid wrestling a Sperm Whale in the inky depths of the ocean. The squid is all, “No fishy taste!” but the whale insists, “It must be fishy—it’s fish!” And on they go into the abyssal depths, unable to resolve their differences. I don’t understand it, either. But I was shocked at the lack of fishy taste. If I hadn’t been having a four-alarm vomiting freak-out emergency, I might even have enjoyed it!

That night I also tried a bunch of different things, and that gagging emergency aside, I had a nice time. But that is also the last time we went out for Japanese food, and it must be more than a year now. It was good, but I didn’t love it madly.

One thing that night I did enjoy was another salmon sushi thing, aburi, but this was salmon whose skin had been lightly seared, with a blow torch. I also took the precaution of eating it in two bites rather than one—and this proved the highlight of the entire evening. It was tasty in a way I did not expect, and eating in multiple bites was exactly the right idea. There was no anxiety, no panic, and no gagging. I enjoyed it.

There are still Japanese food things I want to try. I chickened out on the prawns that night. And I’d like to try sashimi, and Kobe beef, okonomiyaki, and much else. And I need to investigate the world of noodles at some point. I’m put off all things ramen (and related phenomenon of Korean ramyeon) by the very non-food smell of it. Michelle is a ramen devotee, but every time she has it there’s a distinct non-food smell to the stuff that I do not like. I’m not sure what it is that causes that smell, but it puts me right off. It would be curious to see if that smell is an artefact of the instant-noodle process, or if you get it with restaurant ramen as well.

The main thing, when thinking about these remaining Japanese food challenges, is that they are simply challenges now, rather than existential problems and threats. I can imagine going into a Japanese restaurant as a regular customer, knowing about certain items on the menu, and feeling fairly comfortable. I wouldn’t have to feel so much like an astronaut landing on a remote alien world, making history with every step and gesture. I could just enjoy myself as a regular doofus Earthling. A regular doofus Earthling who nonetheless managed to get himself to go up a level with this whole experience. It is a powerful thing to face down a fear and push yourself through it and out the other side.

You feel reborn, as if you can do anything.

MEMOIR: AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS (Updated)

MEMOIR: AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS (Updated)

The boy was a ship cast upon lightless rocks and split asunder. He had just been given his diagnosis. The words “psychosis”, “bipolar” and “disorder” were now carved into his face, as if branded. He was only sixteen, but his old life was over. He was ruined. What girl would have him? What employer? He was used to being a pariah at school, but he had always hoped that it might be a school-only thing, that once he was free from school, he could get on with his life. But what if instead a new kind of curse had fallen on him? He knew that, at least as of that year, 1979, people did not talk about their mental illness diagnoses. Such things were steeped in unspeakable shame. People so afflicted were “malingerers”, “it was all in their heads”, and they just needed to “snap out of it”. It was an impossible time. There was no air. You couldn’t breathe.

Each step he took along that passageway from that room led him into—what, exactly? What possible future might unspool from this moment? He could not imagine anything, or at least nothing decent. Nothing good.

Would I, with my fancy Time Machine, be able to help this kid? I am inclined to think not. This kid is facing an unimaginable future. Unimaginable in the sense that he doesn’t believe even in the theoretical possibility of a future. He thinks tomorrow will be like today. That next year, that ten years from now, will be like today. His life will still be over. His life will be like when the TV signal stops at midnight and goes to the Test Pattern, and then to static. He imagines his entire future to be that static. There is nothing for a Time Traveller coming from his own unimaginable future to do here.

The kid’s only task is to keep putting his feet down, one in front of the other, day after day, trying the things his doctors suggest, the other people on his team suggest, and with a bit of luck and a lot of effort, something might just work. The static might clear. The picture might stabilise.

I remember that it took at least seven long years, what I think of as “the Years of Hell”, to go from that day, shuffling out of the room after receiving my diagnosis, to the day I met Michelle.

I had been through a Vesuvian eruption of the mind. It would take a long time to recover from something like that, for the land to recover, for grass and animals to come back, for healing to take place. For the land itself to be convinced that there would be no more shattering eruptions.

But that boy, on that shattering day as his blasted, post-diagnosis remains shuffled out of the room, did have one good, burning idea in his head. It actually came from the doctor, who, when she told him his diagnosis, also told him to not go looking it up, to try and find out about it. The boy should trust that his medical team (three doctors, a squad of nurses, occupational therapists, two art therapists) knew what they were doing.

Well, he was thinking that afternoon as he made his way upstairs, screw that!

The first thing he did was to visit the hospital’s medical library. It was one of Perth’s major teaching hospitals. Medical students were thick on the ground. And the medical library did have a sign on the door: medical students and doctors only.

Again, screw that!

Over a few days I was able to acquire the right sort of clothes. I was obviously very young, and my teenage bum-fluff did not exactly sell the image of a hard-working 20-something med student, but equipped with a clipboard in one hand and a determined manner about me, I damned well went in there, and I started looking for medical dictionaries.

Which I soon found. It was very quiet in the library. You know how regular public libraries can be quiet? Medical libraries are quieter still. Or at least it seems that way when you’re scared of being rumbled and thrown out at any moment. Not only were the hairs on the back of neck standing up, they were standing on the tips of their toes. My shirt was soaked with tension sweat. I could hardly breathe.

And these books were ENORMOUS! I had never seen such immense volumes!

I staggered, carrying one to a table.

But once I had the book, and my notepaper with the full name of my condition jotted down, I could set about looking up what it all meant, at least in a dictionary-definition level of detail. This was no substitute for proper textbooks, but there was no point in venturing near those without some basic awareness of the language.

So. What did we have here? On my piece of notepaper, I’d jotted down what the doctor had told me, which was a long-winded way of saying bipolar disorder, known in those days as “manic depression”. But the doctor, in telling me my diagnosis, had also used the phrase “psychotic disorder”, and it was this that had hit me like a sniper’s rifle round. Psychotic disorder? Psychotic? I was psychotic?

Careful looking up of terms left me with the following: Bipolar meant mood swings. Good-o. Psychosis meant silly buggers with how you perceive the world without your being aware of the silly buggers going on. You think it’s all normal, and react accordingly. Okay, that made sense. There were references to things like paranoid delusions (check), too, that made sense to me. You end up believing all manner of nonsense because your capacity for seeing that things are nonsensical is offline. So you believe, for example, that your dad can read your thoughts. You believe the hospital is spying on you when you’re in the toilet.

But the main thing I got from this expedition was a sense of relief. Nowhere in the discussion of the word “psychosis” was there any direct or necessary connection with murderous violence. You could be psychotic, but you wouldn’t want to kill people because of it. Though you might want to if they were evil tossers, but that’s another matter. Up to this point I had only ever associated the word “psychotic” with murderers and terrorists (it was the Seventies), evil, crazy bastards, villains, all of them sweaty and with lists of demands, and sometimes bombs. The novelist Arthur Hailey had a popular novel, AIRPORT, which featured, in fact, “a psychotic with a bomb”! In my mind, it was me and that guy, two psychotics together.

I can’t imagine why that doctor told me not to try and find this information. It helped me enormously. It gave me a sense of direction, a compass heading, a lighthouse in stormy seas. The next several years, as I struggled to get used to medication, to get used to the world, to finish high school, to deal with girls, unemployment in a job market not interested in people like me–it was all impossible. And I was often impossible as well. My parents and I went through hell. It was the hardest time of my life, and I didn’t know if I would get through it. There were a few people I’d known in hospital who did not survive their own Years of Hell.

In the middle of all this it suddenly seemed like a brilliant idea to go to university, but again, I wasn’t nearly ready, the cake not nearly “done” yet, but I wasn’t to know.

It was only when I met and settled down with Michelle that things started, at last, to take their proper, coherent shape. I had spent years in a kayak, in deadly white-water rapids, and many times had capsized and I thought I was going to drown. But at last I was emerging into calm, clear water, the sun was out, and I could breathe again.

It is good to have survived, and doubly so because of the knowledge, inside me, that despite my own happy-so-far story, there was never a guarantee that I would survive it. Plenty of young men experience what happened to me and don’t survive. Young women, too. They are lost in the brutal rapids of real life.

After my visit to the medical library I felt much better about things. I still felt branded, and still felt that I would always be alone, and that I would never have more than odd jobs, and struggle like my dad to hold them down. I grieved for the versions of me in alternate timelines who did not have the illness, who had never been cast upon the lightless rocks, and who I imagined would have relatively straightforward lives. I thought of those other Adrians often.

But in this timeline, it wasn’t all bad. One thing surprised me more than anything. In that hospital psychiatric unit, where I was an inpatient for four months, I found community and acceptance. Friendship and fellowship. I found girls who were only too happy to be with me, to talk to me, who never saw all the many ghastly things the girls at my high school seemed to see. These were the first girls I ever simply got on with. They were anorexics, self-harmers, with thick white masses of scar-tissue up their arms, and drug-addicts and sex-workers. All kinds of people. I often felt, a 16-year-old boy, out of my depth, but I also felt at home, that I was welcome.

That place was a lighthouse for me. It was a home from home, a safe harbour from the storms beyond.

MEMOIR: THE HUNCHBACK OF LOCKRIDGE HIGH (New Ending)

MEMOIR: THE HUNCHBACK OF LOCKRIDGE HIGH (Rewritten Ending)

We were in Mandurah one night several years ago, a warm clear night full of stars and the smell of the sea. We were eating at an outdoor restaurant with a view of the famous Mandurah Estuary, enjoying the food, and enjoying each other’s company, as always. It was as perfect a moment as it’s possible to have in this life.

Mandurah is a place I’ve felt close to all my life. It was a big part of my childhood and growing up during my dad’s “messing around with boats” period. It feels to me now like we were always down there, and I was always paddling around in the Estuary, getting terribly sunburned, or walking around town dressed only in my underwear because I was too clueless to know better, while Dad laboured away on some bastard’s expensive boat. When Michelle and I got married, we had our honeymoon in Mandurah, and the place still had at least some of the old seaside salty magic. We’ve gone back there every chance we’ve had ever since, and on this particular night we’d just arrived at the beginning of our stay.

“Excuse me,” a woman was suddenly standing up a few metres away, at another table, looking at me. She looked about my age, brownish hair, possibly hazel eyes.

It developed that she wanted to speak to me. “You’re Adrian Bedford, aren’t you?”

Ah, I thought. She must be someone who’s read one of my books. This sometimes happened, though usually readers know me as K.A. Bedford. “Yes. That’s me. Can I help you?” I smiled a blank sort of smile.

Then she smiled all warmly and said she was (as I’ll call her) Jenny Ross, from Lockridge High? We went to high school together.

This was as astonishing as encountering an actual space alien while eating one’s dinner.

I said hello, and hi, and we both stood there, at our respective tables, and it was getting a bit awkward. Because, as much as she explained, I only very vaguely remembered her. I did not know what to say. I never expected to run into anyone from “that life” ever again. Even to this day, I retain only one friend from high school, who lives in New York; we hang out on Facebook.

We asked after each other, and we both said we were doing okay, that we were doing all right, that life was pretty good, and that it was nice to see each other, and I still had no blessed idea who this nice lady was who had bobbed up out of the sea of time, and whom I never saw again.

But ever since, all these years later, drifting along on the surface of the sea of time, I think about Jenny Ross a lot, gnawing on the mystery of her. Who was she? Why did she remember me so much, and so fondly that she was happy to see me years later–when so many girls in my own recollection of that time regarded me as the worst sort of filth? Not all, by any means, but you don’t need every single individual to make an impression. There were, in those days, some girls who were at least neutral towards me, who would chat. There was even one girl, a pretty English girl with strawberry blonde hair, who was so nice she tried to help me learn to ice skate one time during a school excursion to a dilapidated old ice rink, but I kept slipping, self-conscious, clumsy, humiliated, on my cold, wet, arse. The sight of her soft, warm, pale hand was terrifying. How could I tell her how utterly grateful I was for her graciousness towards me, the Hunchback of Lockridge High? I couldn’t. I felt loathsome. I felt that my loathsomeness was contagious. She reached out to take my hand, to guide me round the rink, and all I could think, looking at her winning smile and pale hand, was that what was wrong with me would rub off on her perfection. This is psychosis. It affects the way you see the world, and the way you see yourself–without your being aware there’s any problem, that what you see is the truth, that you truly are monstrous.

For a couple of years I subscribed to LinkedIn, though I have no notion of why I would. One day I got a hello from another woman from high school—this time one I did remember. I’d liked her, but knew little about her. Then, a school dance came along. I asked her if she’d go with me—I only ever did this once, because of the harrowing stress involved. But she said yes! I probably died of shock and an ambulance!

And we did go together, in the same vehicle. She looked nice. I looked nice. I remember nothing about that aspect, because I only remember what happened next:

She dumped me as soon as we got in the door.

What the entire point was, I don’t know.

But, years later, there she was pinging me on Linked in.

I’ve lost a huge pile of weight, but I’m always going to see myself as the Hunchbach of Lockridge High, at least sometimes. Thin body; monstrous shadow.

MEMOIR: REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING (Revised, with All-New Postscript)

MEMOIR: REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING (Revised, and with All-New Postscript)

All the books I read on writing memoir say that memory is a difficult substance, that it turns to dust just as you go to grasp it, that it runs through your most careful, most delicate grip–and so I have found as I have been writing this book. Events I have always thought locked, fully preserved in the amber of memory have turned out to be barely there at all in any but the most cursory detail. Which would not be too troubling, were it not for the thought that memory is one of the foundations of identity.

Nonetheless, I do my best with what I have, and deliberately refrain from filling in absent details with the fiction-writing part of my brain.

But bugger me if there aren’t things I’d like to forget. Even when all I have from some incidents is a worn and crumpled postcard with a missing stamp, I would still send them back and be rid of them. Memories I don’t want to savour and reflect upon.

Some lowlights. The dentist Michelle’s parents recommended when I needed some work done, whom I might refer to here as Dr Wanker (not his real name). Who was old, and none too careful with the technique, and who, before launching in on major root-canal excavations without bothering to provide sufficient anaesthetic first, told me in his creaky, breathy old voice, “This is going to hurt.”

I don’t see what necessary, character-forming work a memory like this is doing for me. It seems like an entirely gratuitous experience of profound, tears-inducing pain. The sort of pain you stagger away from, feeling lucky to be alive. So if I had a magic button for erasing non-load-bearing memories, Dr Wanker might be at the top of my list.

High up on the same list would be my high school headmaster, whose name I don’t remember, but who might have been Mr Drunkonpower (pretty sure I’m not remembering his name right either). One day we had an assembly, and I was caught at one point whispering an asinine comment to my best friend while the headmaster was speaking. Nothing earth-shaking. Nothing profoundly funny or witty. But it did occur at the same time Mr Drunkonpower was delivering his speech, and I was busted. A teacher spotted me, called me out of the crowd, made me wait there for the end of the assembly, and then sent me to the headmaster’s office. It was home-time. Everyone else was headed either to the school buses or the bike racks. I was headed for doom.

I don’t remember anything other than standing there in the headmaster’s office, crying my eyes out for what felt like hours, burning with shame, unable to do anything that might help my situation. He was furious with me, yelling and yelling. Somehow my innocuous whispered comment was an intolerable threat to the fundamental order of how things in the school community were supposed to work. Someone must serve as an example.

I could not have been more sorry, and genuinely wished I could take back the stupid offense. But mostly I hated myself for the weakness, the intolerable weakness, of crying in front of the headmaster. I was a poor excuse for a man. At this point I was a boy of about thirteen, big, lumpy, awkward, self-conscious in my deeply unfashionable long shorts that everybody mocked. I had not been in high school long, but long enough to understand the contours of power and privilege, and that I had none of either. I was useless, and going nowhere. And there was no greater offense than crying like this. It was worse than the original whispered remark. It was intolerable. The horror I feel about crying to this day stems in large part from this incident. It is a load-bearing memory, in that sense. It holds up part of the superstructure of misery I carry around on my back. So yes, I would zap that memory, too.

Quite a few of the bad memories I’ve written about in this book I would remove, too, given the chance, but I suspect they, too, are load-bearing, character-forming experiences I have to keep. But why them and not others? Why can I remember Dr Wanker so well, but the birthday party my mum organised for my eighth birthday, which people actually came to and seemed to have a nice time at, exists in my head only as fragments?

There’s a lot of what I went through last year, especially during the first, worst, hospitalisation, when I was taken off the Clomipramine, and the replacement drug Zyban didn’t work, leaving me exposed, my reactor core uncovered, and a full-on Fukushima-scale meltdown in progress. I only remember bits. I posted a lot about it on Facebook at the time (my Facebook friends are wonderful, every one), because I had this idea at the time that at some point in the future I might like to write about the experience. So I needed to document everything.

The thing about putting everything on Facebook, though, is that Facebook makes it very difficult to get your information back out again. It is possible, in the way it is now possible to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, to extract your old posts from Facebook, but it’s laborious to a degree that’s impossible to convey without using scientific notation. I struggled greatly with the interface (I’d love to be able to zap my memory of all that time) and managed to retrieve about six weeks, but the information was largely useless in the form it was in. As it’s turned out, I’ve not referred to any of that even once since beginning this project, which surprises me. I thought for sure I would need it, the way you hoard up old magazines and lengths of wood or old computer cables because “you never know” when they might be important or necessary in the future. I’ve also ended up writing a lot more about my childhood than I thought I would.

All the same, do I need to keep these memories of what happened in that first hospitalisation, fragmentary as they are? Most of what I remember is withdrawal symptoms, like the time I suddenly started talking really fast, which was at least interesting, or the times I couldn’t sleep during “cross-titration” periods, where you’re transitioning from one drug to another.

I have this memory from somewhere inside that experience, of standing barefoot in my pyjamas at the nurses’ station at 5am one horrible morning after about three nights of no sleep, trying to convey to two night nurses, themselves exhausted and drawn, how I felt, how unglued, how desperate, how I just wanted to sleep, and crying my guts out in abject wretchedness. I remember that feeling only too well, and wish I did not. I could do quite well without it. It’s not adding anything to my character. It’s not load-bearing. It’s doing nothing but reminding me of that sense of weakness I experienced that day in front of the headmaster, that sense of shame, crying in front of people, and especially women. I would delete that memory, given the chance.

I would much rather have back things I’ve forgotten. The first things Michelle and I ever talked about. Our wedding vows. Exactly how we decided to get married. I know we both kind of hit on the realisation around the same time, that we simply would marry, because obviously we would, but I’d love to remember what we said, exactly. I’d love to time travel back and watch and eavesdrop on all of that. I’d love to time travel back to my birth, and see my mum and dad, my dad eating breakfast with the doctor, all of it. My dad being in the delivery room. I’d love to remember what my dad said to me the day at Coode Street, in South Perth, in his racing speedboat, when he took me out on the course, and we just puttered around. I know he talked to me but I don’t remember what he said. Why must I remember bloody Dr Wanker, but forget what my dad said on what must have been one of the proudest days of his life?

We talk all the time about our memories, telling each other stories about our lives based on those memories, but after writing this book and struggling with my own slippery bits of memory, I wonder about those stories. So much of who we feel ourselves to be is bound up in our stories and our memories (or so we believe) but what if we don’t have accurate or even detailed memories of anything? What if all we have is just bits and fragments, and a few postcards? What if the solid foundations of our homes are not big blocks of limestone like my dad’s parents’ house in Wembley, but just loose bits of gravel and dust and dog hair? Who are we if we can’t trust our memories? I have really wondered about this as I’ve worked on this project. Who am I? What am I? I’ve always thought, among other things, that I’m the product of my memories, but am I? It could also be said that I’m the product of the choices I’ve made, and the way I’ve responded to things around me. But what if my memories and recollections are phantoms and ghosts and hardly real at all, except in vague outline, no more real than dreams? Is that enough? I don’t know, and I wish I did. I wish I had a firmer sense of a floor beneath my feet. A foundation, a ground, a world.

POSTSCRIPT: When Memories Converge

I said, above, that I was finding that memories, on close examination, turn to dust and blow away, leaving me wondering whether I’m even real, if anything is real.

So you’ll understand my surprise—my utter shock!—this past week when I was talking to my parents about my most recent visit to my psychologist.

My psychologist, Dr B, is interested in helping me sort out my ghastly food/eating anxieties. I was telling my parents about this, and they wanted to know exactly what anxieties they were, because they weren’t sure.

So I explained. Dinner party when I was about four. We were visiting friends. It was a big deal, everything laid on. Hosts had gone to a lot of trouble. And I couldn’t eat anything. Everything made me gag. Everything. It was horrible. The slightest thing in my mouth and I thought I would vomit. The situation escalated, became extremely stressful all round, and I got in loads of trouble over it, Mum and Dad were embarrassed in front of their friends—it was a disaster.

But it left me with a severe problem with food. Most food triggers a gag reflex. I get all anxious about almost everything. There are tons of things I either can’t or won’t eat. It’s dreadful. But I’m getting help.

This is where the story gets interesting, though. I am used to the pattern where I describe my recollection of something I remember, or think I remember, from years ago, and find out I’m wrong, or misremembering.

But this time, I described the dinner party to Mum and Dad—and they remembered the exact night. I had a pretty good idea who the friends were, and Mum and Dad confirmed it! We were all talking about the same night, when I was four years old, and I was four years old! I remembered the whole thing correctly! It wasn’t just dusty old fragments and bits of Super-8 film. It was a real thing that we all remember.

Kind of a shame that it’s such an unpleasant memory, and that the consequences of that experience have been such a blight across my entire life, but you can’t have everything!

It is just such shared, vivid memories that begin to give us confidence that maybe we do exist, maybe we are real, and there is ground beneath our feet.

MEMOIR: GROUP (Revised, New Chunks)

MEMOIR: GROUP THERAPY (Revised, New Chunks)

Her name was Marina, and she was a woman with reddish-brown hair and a nice smile in her 30s. She sat opposite me. The other people in the group had been similarly paired up. I had never met Marina before. And I had never done anything like this.

I was sixteen and scared. I was in what I was told was a “group therapy” session in the psychiatric unit of the hospital where I ended up after my breakdown. I was still in the early, orientation part of my stay, trying different groups, with different approaches and strategies, to see what worked for me, what I responded to, and what I didn’t.

And this, today, was Conversation Class. We were here, literally, to learn how to speak to one another. And for me to learn how to speak to women.

This probably seems odd. How could I possibly need a class to learn how to do something I had been doing all my life? Yes, true, but I had just escaped eleven years of daily terror, sometimes rising to actual trauma. I knew nothing about how to speak to girls or women. All I knew was mumbling about science fiction and astronomy, and staring down at my desert boots. I was extremely interested in women, but I didn’t know what to do or say.

In this class, we started with basics. Hello, how are you? What’s your name? This kind of thing. The kind of thing you most likely can’t imagine ever needing to take a class to re-learn. I never imagined myself in such a situation, but then when I was a little kid I never imagined how terrified I’d feel just going to school, either. But at no point in my conversations with Marina, who was one of the other patients (I never found out, and she never told me, “what she was in for”, as everyone tended to speak of reasons for being a patient in a psychiatric unit), did she ever regard me with loathing, disgust, mockery, or anything other than kindness and curiosity. She was lovely. We learned to talk together. To ask questions, to draw each other out, to use humour. It was extraordinary! I had never known anything like it.

I have always wondered about Marina, about her story, what had happened to her, and what happened to her after. I wondered why a woman in her thirties might need such a class, to learn again how to talk to people, to express herself to strangers, and perhaps especially to men. What must have happened to Marina to leave her in need of such a class? I find myself faced with no good hypotheses. She’s been an enigma to me all these years, the first woman I ever knew, but never knew at all. We talked, though. She was the first woman not related to me who ever really talked to me. She wasn’t a teacher or a nurse or a doctor or some other kind service provider; she was a person, a human being, and she helped me out. I hope I helped her. I’ve always thought well of her.

When you’re a patient in a psychiatric hospital, whether a small public unit like D20 was in the 1970s, or a larger, private hospital like the one I was in last year, one of the first surprising things is that the staff like to see the patients organised into activities. In D20, at the start of each week, patients had a meeting with an occupational therapist for “goal setting” in which the idea was you plot out your week like a school timetable. I generally hated this very much and tried to weasel out of it when I could. This was mainly because I was starting to recover from my initial stunned passivity when I was too broken to do much more than nod and do whatever was asked. Which was how I wound up in the Conversation class. I was still very new, very much a boy made of broken glass, staring at my shoes, and I did what I was told, and went where I was told to go.

There were all kinds of group therapy classes, ranging from things you might expect (Relaxation, Meditation) to things you might not (Woodwork in an actual workshop). In the “day room” you could sit in the bright sunlight pouring through the huge windows and participate in “Arts & Crafts” (rug hooking, bas relief work in copper, knitting or crochet). There were groups of a more conventional nature, in which the participants sat around in a circle, all of them fidgety, angry, unhappy, bristling, sometimes smoking, sharing their views and feelings in response to questions from the occupational therapist leading the group. These groups were sometimes extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable. I found them unbearable. (When I was in hospital last year, the staff tried to get me to attend “group”, and I did go a few times. These days it’s all about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and trying to adjust your thought processes and how you respond to things. I hated it. I did much better one-on-one with a psychologist.)

My favourite was Art Therapy. There was a fully-equipped Art Room, with everything from pencils to charcoal to paint to clay, whatever you wanted to work with. There were a wide range of structured sessions with Art Therapists working with groups of patients as they worked with given artistic media to express a specific theme or response to a question. Often these questions raised deeply uncomfortable feelings for at least some of the patients, but the choice of medium offered a unique opportunity to express those complex feelings in a way that felt okay, rather than overwhelming. I enjoyed Art Therapy classes very much, and got a lot out of them.

The marvellous thing about the Art Room was that it was open all the time, and patients were welcome to come in, anytime, and just do stuff, whatever you felt like. Out of the two years I spent as an inpatient and then as an outpatient, I probably spent at least half of that time in the Art Room, and a big fraction of that time working with clay. Many days it was all I did all day long. There was a table by the big windows offering a view towards A Block, and I would just sit there and sit there for hours and hours, and the therapists, Margaret and Jo, who became good friends with me, were happy to let me do so. It was bliss, richly satisfying. Hours would pass and I wouldn’t say a word to anyone, and no-one would disturb me.

But the most surprising, the most unexpected class, for me, was Ballroom Dancing on Thursday afternoons. It was suggested that maybe I should put myself down for it.

I panicked. Fight/flight response engaged. I have a vague memory of actually running from the room, breathless. Of a running battle over several weeks between the occupational therapists and myself over whether I could be coaxed into this class. Every Thursday afternoon, I made sure to be busy elsewhere. The entire proposal was upsetting. Nothing good could come from it. It reminded me of bad things.

High school. The gym. Blonde wood and varnish and basketball markings in worn white tape. An atmosphere of stale sweat. Something unpleasant, as if there was a rubbish bin somewhere in there you couldn’t quite see.

And us, all of Year 9 or 10. Girls on one side, enthusiastic, glowing with a light sheen of perspiration, their uniforms tidy, mostly enjoying themselves. Us boys across the other side, slovenly, sarcastic, fed up, shirt tails hanging out on one side, lank 1970s hair, slouching our way through the same basic cha cha cha, the same box steps.

How I hated all of this. We were informed that Ballroom Dancing was the very stuff of romance, and that knowing how to dance would open up a world of social possibilities for us that we simply could never imagine. In that stuffy, stinky gymnasium on those afternoons it was simply impossible to believe such nonsense. It was like maths teachers telling us how when we grew up we would use algebra every day to help us design bridges. Time Traveller me would like to blip back to those classrooms and provide an itemised list of all the bridges I’ve designed in the years since I left school. It would be a similar list to the number of romantic dates I’ve been on with beautiful women I’ve met via the medium of Ballroom Dancing.

There was an instructor gliding up and down the gym’s centre line, showing us the waltz, the rhumba, all of it. It was all so beautiful, so elegant, floating on air, so evocative of a glamorous, gleaming soft-focus past. He’d show us a few fancy moves, always done with a certain panache, and then it was our turn to try it out. I just remember the noise of all those shuffling footsteps, the sight of crowds of people manoeuvring in a box step.

Then, at last, the part I truly hated. The part I would fake illness in the mornings of these classes so that I could avoid it. The part that made me react so poorly a few years later in hospital.

We were told to choose a partner.

About ninety-eight percent of us had little trouble here, and were soon teamed up. Of the handful left, the girls tried to hide behind each other. The boys, most of us fat and awkward and pale, bumbled about, asking any girl not huddled behind someone else. It would take a while, and it was excruciating. There were pained smiles, and reluctant nods, and no hand-holding. The happy couples came back to the centre of the room.

The girls I found never looked at me. They looked at the instructor. When instructed to hold their partner’s hand, they might–might–link pinky fingers. Sometimes not even that. I burned white-hot with horror and shame, but not with shock. All of this was my lot in life. I was loathsome. I was filth. I was not a person.

We went through steps. Some girls consented to be touched, but we stood as far apart as it was possible to stand. Others simply refused, and did the steps as if I were not there. I sweated, and probably stank. I would like to have died, had the option been available. The music from the lousy PA system boomed and echoed, reverberating hollow and lifeless around the gym. It was the opposite of romance, the opposite of fun. It was horror and torment. It was institutional bullying. I’d rather be taking a group shower after Friday sports class.

At D20 they did, at great length, and after a very considerable amount of persuasion on the part of the wonderful occupational therapists there (especially Maggie Down and Virginia Webb-Ware), talk me into it. I had explained my horror of the whole thing. I told them I wasn’t making it up. It really was like that. It had been one of the worst experiences of my entire high school career. They were very good about it. They understood. They helped. They did not tell me I was imagining things. All this while nudging me down the hallway, past all the Van Gogh prints on the walls, to the Art Room, where the Ballroom Dancing class was held.

I was terrified. It was all coming back. I could smell the gym, the sweat, the horror of it. Maggie and Virginia promised it would never be like that, that the teacher was lovely and kind, and was used to helping people who’d had terrible school experiences. It would be okay. I heard them say all this, and it was reassuring. But it was just about true that they needed to put me on a trolley to get me down that hallway.

I went in through the Art Room door. Inside, the tables and desks had been moved into a corner. There was a group of patients (I was the youngest), and some of the current batch of student nurses doing their psychiatric nursing rotation. People seemed pleased and surprised to see me. The teacher, whose name I forget but might have been Susan or Suzanne, welcomed me and thanked me for coming. She seemed enormously kind and reassuring. I smiled and smiled, nervous, scared, as if hiding behind the façade of my teeth.

Immediately, this class proved different from what I remembered. It was much smaller, most obviously. But it was also intimate, with only perhaps a dozen of us. And we were all, I soon noticed, equally nervous and awkward. This was new to all of us, patients as well as nurses. Teacher Suzanne took it slow. She was funny and disarming. There was lots of nervous laughter, and lots of regular laughter, when things worked, when the steps operated as shown.

When it turned out to be fun. When women consented to be held. When there was conversation, some nervous humour. Tangled feet. When there was no horror. The opposite of horror, in fact.

Weeks and weeks later, I was still going, and it had become a highlight of my week. I looked forward to dancing in the Art Room as much as I looked forward to messing about with giant lumps of clay. I grew to enjoy the dancing so much that I started to get a bit good at it. I had been a patient so much longer than almost everyone else that I had attended more classes than anyone, so Suzanne would choose me to help demonstrate steps and moves. Me! Traumatised, psychotic, non-human, loathsome me!

One Friday night, long after I had left D20, I found myself in the city on my own. I went to (I think it was called) Gilkison’s Dance Hall, a place where they actually had proper Ballroom Dancing in a social atmosphere, where you could meet people, and who knows? I managed to screw up my nerve, and went in. There were a lot of stairs. The place was loud. I loved the UV lighting, which made white shirts fluoresce, but also white stitching in shoes. I did manage to find a young woman who agreed to try a rhumba with me, and we got our feet tangled up real good, laughing. That was as far as we went, but for me it was everything. Conversation and dancing with a woman unrelated to me, and who did not seem horrified in my presence.

For the young man who remembered the girls in high school who were visibly disgusted to find themselves in his presence, who remembered all the bullying and torment, who remembered screwing up his nerve that time and inviting a girl he liked to a school dance, only to find she disappeared right after he and she arrived—it was seismic. It was revolutionary.

It was a new life.