APPROACHING THE SINGULARITY

APPROACHING THE SINGULARITY

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 way off, beyond the horizon, 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 nearly happened. Earlier this year, the unthinkable began to occur. Since my hospitalisations last year, I’ve been on Nortriptyline. It’s good for depression, but bad for fat. It’s like standing in a wind tunnel machine, only the machine flings fat at you at high speed, and it sticks, and your weight balloons. And while my mood improved under this drug, my weight piled back on. I was in the fat machine. Part of me, the part with the sweet tooth, with the weak sweet tooth, the part feeling dismayed with the world news and eating to express that dismay, liked being in the fat machine.

I gained back 13 kilograms.

It scared me straight. It scared me so straight I took action the same day I saw that result on the scale, and in due course I lost those 13 kg. An observer might have noted a certain anger around my features as I went about losing those kilograms. That I was not under any circumstances letting that bollocks stand. It’s true. I was furious with myself. I had let myself go. If I had stayed on that track I would have gone back to my original weight in two years. I wasn’t having that. That’s the thing about major, long-term weight-loss. You start thinking in terms of sunk investments. In terms of asset insurance. You want to protect what you’ve worked so hard to achieve. And the further you go, the more you achieve, the more you want to protect it.

You’re Gollum, and your weight-loss is your Precious.

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 my 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 accelerated 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. It’s going to be a pasty, baggy, white 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.

But in his mind, in his heart, this Singularity will be every bit as grand as the technological 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 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 programme”, 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 programme 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—and can I just say I am really and truly fed up with unasked-for diet advice. Everywhere I go, online and off, when people find out what I’m doing and the unorthodox way I’m doing it, I get advice. I get all kinds of advice. All of it suitable for regular, healthy people with properly working metabolisms and who aren’t taking major psychiatric medications.

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 programme”. 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.

It’s the Singularity because it has consumed me and my whole existence. Nothing in my life is untouched by it. When I reach it, I don’t know what I’ll do, or how I’ll feel. So much of my life has been about getting there, but I don’t know about being there. Or about leaving it behind. Going beyond it. If what I’m doing here is writing a book about this experience, it’s mostly going to be about surviving contact with the Singularity, with your goal, and trying to rebuild your life beyond it. Because my life will be difficult. I can’t just resume eating like regular people. I still have all my food issues. And I still have my broken metabolism. I’ll still be in danger of regaining all the weight. I’m damned if I’m putting all that back on.

I may have to go into orbit around the Singularity. It might not be possible for me to go off into 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 am not well inside. I’ve known 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 clothes 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. Michelle will probably be quite excited. Mum and Dad will probably be more excited than both of us put together. A fair 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 kind of folding into myself a bit. So I’ll probably say more over here on my website, both about being pleased to be here at the destination, and about my sense of apprehensiveness about what might be next, that I’ve been so focussed on getting here that I have no plans for the future.

Maybe in the next eight weeks I should get on that!

NOTEBOOK: Describe the Voices

NOTEBOOK: Describe the Voices

I call them voices, but most of the time they are “just” persuasive noise in my head. They are urgings. They are football stadiums full of furious supporters screaming at a guy with a ball, trying to encourage him to either kick a goal, or to make him fumble the kick. Sometimes the screaming is about jinxing him; sometimes it’s about encouragement.

Sometimes it’s my mum, right in my ear, saying, “are you sure that’s a good idea?” And on those occasions, whatever it is probably is not a good idea.

I have over the past month or so had a hell of a bad time with the voices. It’s the major reason I haven’t been here much. It’s the major reason that when I have been here the thing most on my mind has been trying to figure out why I haven’t been here. Why I’ve been so silent.

Well, I can tell you why.

I’ve been scared.

I have these noises in my head. These anxieties. It’s a lot like having a group of friends whose every instinct is to hold you back from everything good that might come along for you, and that might lift you up and away from them. These clowns who surround you want to keep you down with them. They are bad for you. They mean you harm. They are holding you back. They want to keep the old gang together, the old gang from high school, or the block, or the hood, or whatever. You and they go way back. But you are or have outgrown them. You’re going places.

The voices mean you harm, and they will fight you.

Or, rather, they will seem to fight you. They will get right up in your face. They will invade your space. You will smell their breath. You will know what they just ate. You will hear their pulse. You will be so close you could kiss them.

These voices of mine had a real problem with me. They still have a real problem with me and they are up in my face as I write this. I am tempted to wear a string of garlic cloves around my neck to ward them off. My voices have a serious problem with me writing and talking about myself and all my stuff. My mental health stuff, my weight-loss stuff. All my endless stuff. The way I just never, ever, ever shut up about it all. It’s me me me 24/7.

And the thing is, they have a point. I am acutely conscious that I have been and continue to do exactly this. I’ve been talking and writing about all this stuff very intensively for a long, long time now. Anybody would be sick to death of it. Honestly, there are times when I am sick of it, the endless Bedford Show. Look at Me, Look at Me, check out Freak Show Under Glass, the Shameless Monster who just won’t shut up!

Yes, I get it. I started out with the simple intention of demystifying mental illness. I would write about the experience of treatment, show what it was like, what it felt like, the nuts and bolts, all the paraphernalia, the feelings, the whole ball of wax. And the whole thing kind of grew in the telling, and grew and grew. The more I wrote, the more I wrote—the more I could write. I got an actual book out of it.

And not long after that book got its first rejection, the voices in my head came out of hiding. They’d all been pretty quiet—unnaturally quiet, too quiet, and they hit me in what felt like a huge pile-on. One day the weather in my head was fine and clear. Nothing much going on. I felt okay. But the very next day, it was mental winter. It was a mental thunderstorm, and there was me caught in it without even the sort of hopeless umbrella that blows inside out at the first serious squall of cold wind.

The voices were on the attack. It served me right. They didn’t say this in so many words. It wasn’t like someone standing in front of me speaking to me, or someone on the phone. It was more like that football crowd erupting with furious delight because a hated player failed to score a goal. Yelling and screaming. People up on their feet, their arms up, waving banners and scarves, the atmosphere both electric and poisonous with hate. It was like that, but inside me.

They were glad I failed.

I tried to get going on the rewrites for the book. An extremely kind and generous friend offered to help me out. I made a start. But the noise, the noise.

Meanwhile, I’m still working hard on my weight-loss project. It’s going extremely well. It’s in its final stages. It’s so close, in fact, after such a long and arduous journey, that it’s affecting my mind. It’s stirring things up. It’s bringing stress and depression all of its own. And, meanwhile, it’s also filling my head with the urge to write about it, possibly at book-length. I could imagine writing about weight-loss, the closing stages of the project, and the struggle to keep it off, and the way it, the project these past five years, has in many ways, destroyed my mind, messed with my relationship with food and eating, distorted all kinds of things. I feel like a dreadful wreck. I will not, when I reach the destination in about eight weeks from now, be arriving in triumph. I will be like those marathon runners who stagger and hobble into the arena, barely able to move, their shoes full of blood, who have to be helped across the line.

The voices HATE this idea. More bollocks about yourself? More confessional writing? More me me me? More conceitedness, narcissism, self-involvement? More wanking off with an iPad? Have I, at last, no shame?

Can’t I just, you know, give it a rest?

It’s just, the idea struck. That’s it. I’m in the middle of the weight-loss. It’s in its closing stages. It’s on my mind. I can write about it. That’s all.

But the voices, they hate it so much! They hate it the way Gollum hates Frodo. They hate it, and they hate me, even though they are me. They are an expression of me, or part of me, of that part of me I’ve been dragging around like a prisoner’s ball and chain since bullied boyhood. Every resentment, every torment, every hatred, it’s all there in that iron ball, and in those voices. They don’t want me to succeed. They want me to be a stain on the couch, the way I used to be, before I went to hospital last year. They want me mentally ill, depressed, unable to cope or function, unable to write, unable to do a damn thing. Unable to break out of that old group, the guys from the old neighbourhood who don’t want me to succeed.

The thing about the voices is this: they can be loud, and they can be extremely intimate and persuasive. They can appear to you as your mum, your wife, or even as your own self. They can make the nest, most reasonable argument in the world, or the most terrifying, ball-shrinking threats. They can make you unable to speak on your own website. They can fill you with silence. They can make you believe nobody wants to hear from you. It’s eerie, how you end up believing all this stuff.

But the key thing is this: they can’t touch you. For all that they can get intimately close to you, they can’t actually touch you. All they have is words and special effects. They’re nothing. They can make you believe that bad things will happen if you do or don’t do the thing, but it’s all bluff. It’s just noise, a Ghost Train ride at the carnival, and when you go back in with all the lights on you see what a shabby lie it all was.

My voices are compelling, convincing, but they’re all talk. The thing is, though, their talk is so good, so powerful, that it conceals that fact. When they convey the impression that I’d better not write, that people are fed up, that they’re too polite to tell me to my face, but really, dude, give it a rest, just stop. The time has past. Get yourself a hobby. When the voices are telling me this, and making me feel so inhibited, so inward. When I open Ulysses (which, ironically, I’m supposed to be beta-testing!), look at the interface, feel all tense and conflicted and anxious, and put it all away again, it’s weird. It feels like I have all these people on my shoulder, telling me to step away from the writing app. Nobody needs to hear what you’ve got to say, dude. Your time is over. Move on.

This is what the voices are like. They are nothing, but that nothing can drive you to take your own life. My voices have never been like that (thankfully), but I understand how they might. I understand how it might happen, and seem like the most reasonable, sensible idea in the world. That it would seem like you would be doing the people in your life a favour, helping them. Relieving them of a terrible burden. I understand this.

My voices, the noise in my head, takes the thing I do best, the thing I am best at, and makes me believe everyone I know wants me to stop doing it because they are all fed up with me doing it. That they are sick of my writing, and wish I would stop talking about my life and issues. This is my own mind telling me this.

My own mind telling me right now, “Sure, but it could still be true, regardless.”

Wanting to punch my mind.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT WEIGHT-LOSS

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT WEIGHT-LOSS

I walk laps at the local swimming pool. Up and down, over and over. For years I used to keep count, which was hard, and I had to resort to all manner of mental trickery to do it. The pool is 25 metres long, and I tried to do 80 (2 km) to 100 (2.5 km) laps per session. During the winter months sometimes the pool admin people ran a competition where you could tally up your lap totals and imagine you were walking or swimming great distances, such as to Rottnest Island, or crossing the English Channel. I won this competition one year, with a total of 61 km of walking laps in that 25-metre pool.

I don’t count laps anymore. Keeping count is stressful and burdensome. Now I just slog out laps for 45 minutes or an hour, which works out about the same, but without all the stress. It gives me a lot of time to think. And today, I had a lot to think about.

Why have I not been writing lately? Where have I been? What’s been going on? For quite a while there you could not stop me writing. I was writing all day! Yes, you’ve heard me say all this before. I’ve chewed all this over previously, and I have. I’ve worried over possible depression, burnout, all kinds of things. Last time I saw my psychologist she suggested I might have experienced something called a “peak experience”, of all things, and I was now in the inevitable slump following such an intense phenomenon.

But I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think something else, after all this time, is going on, taking up more and more space in my brain.

I’m losing boatloads of weight.

I’ve been doing this now for nearly five years. It’ll be five years on December 28.

When I started, my initial weight was 165.5 kilograms.

This morning it was 109.4 kg.

The current rate of loss is about 3.3 kg/month.

I am aiming at 100 kg. I should be there by around Christmas, which will be the five-year mark.

BMI calculators, however, tell me that according to my height, etc, at 100 kg, I will still be obese. That I need to push on to 75 kg. I will have to think carefully about that.

Back to today at the pool.

I was doing my laps. Up and down. Thinking hard, wondering why I haven’t been writing. Because it wasn’t for lack of thought. My head this afternoon was bursting with stuff I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about essay ideas, about the novel I’ve been writing, rewrites I need to do on my memoir project—all kinds of things.

But one thing above all else: weight-loss.

About today’s weigh-in. About everything I had so far consumed today. Adding up all the kilojoules I’d consumed. My goal for today was to do exactly what I did yesterday, in hope of replicating the successful drop in weight I had on the scales today. And today I also did a big chunk of exercise at the pool, which should help a little. So far the plan is going well. I think about today’s scale result, the 109.4 kg. Wondering if I might drop into the 108’s this week. Because that would be neat.

Meanwhile, in another country, a man somehow smuggled at least ten high-powered rifles into a hotel room and managed to kill at least 59 people and injure more than 500 others.

This weight-loss bollocks has made me the most inward-looking, most self-involved, self-absorbed man on Earth—or so it often seems to me. I exist in a bubble of numbers. It is all kilojoules, kilograms, laps, grams, etc. I squint at labels of things I’m thinking of eating to see what “the damage” is going to be. Today Michelle suggested we go to a really nice café she knows I really like for one of my favourite meals, but I thought first of the huge kilojoule cost of it, that I would need a number of days either side of it to plan my consumption around it.

Why did the man with all those guns kill all those people? Because he seems to have planned it with some care. It must have taken some thought to figure out how to get all those rifles and ammunition into his hotel room without anyone noticing.

Why do people do what they do, make the choices they make? Why did this man do what he did? The US president says the man was simply “pure evil”, as if that explained anything.

Why am I doing what I’m doing? This thing that has taken over my whole life? At this point I am much more a weight-loss guy than I am a writing guy. I think much more about weight-loss than I do about anything else.

Why am I not writing? Why am I not reading?

Because I am “close to the Singularity” now. The reality-warping, mind-warping goal is close enough you can taste it, so to speak. It’s just 9 kilograms away. It’s taking up more and more of my brain.

And today, as I slogged up and down at the pool, I was thinking about this, and realised this is very likely what’s happened to me. I’ve been overwhelmed with weight-loss thought.

And, realising that, I felt myself, in the pool, almost come to a total stop. It was like “the wall” you hear about professional long-distance runners talk about, where they reach a point of exhaustion where they feel they can’t go on, but they keep pushing through it. I felt something like that today, when I wanted to stop, not the slog, but everything. The weight-loss, everything. I felt finished.

Because while I say that the weight-loss is eating my brain, I am still aware of at least some of what’s going on out there. I know about this man, this retired accountant with all the guns. I know about all the people our country has locked up in island gulags, people so desperate they take their own lives, and nothing changes. I know about indigenous people still dying somehow in police custody, decades after we had a Royal Commission into that very topic, but nothing changed. I think about these things a great deal. I can’t bear them. It’s easier to think about dwindling numbers on my scales, to stare at my stomach, to see how I am being hollowed out. Maybe my obsession with these numbers is a coping mechanism against an unbearable world, and intolerable injustice, even here at home.

I plan to keep writing about these numbers and the changing state of my body. I may also write more about the world around me, too, by way of trying to find out what I think, or how I think. All I know is when I walk my laps, up and down, up and down, it feels as if my head is full of lightning and thunder, as if I must write, but I’m afraid to write, afraid to see what I say, a d afraid to see what others say about what I say. But I must say something. My body and my thoughts are all part of the same thing. My thoughts about this man with all the rifles are all part of the same thing, too. It’s all something waiting to be born.

Bear with me.

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS MUM (Major Rewrite)

(Whole new chunks in the second half especially)

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS MUM (Major Rewrite)

Mum and I were in my untidy, always messy room, and Mum was telling me off about it again. She and Dad were always on my back about cleaning my room. Clean your room, it’s a pig sty, what’s the matter with you? Always, always, always. I did clean it sometimes, usually only when Mum threatened to come in one day while I was at school at clean it for me, which meant throwing out almost everything, which meant Mum would throw out important things, and things I’d rather Mum not find out I had. Let’s just say I was a teenage boy and I had some very meaningful junk that I was hoarding in very private places.

But this was bigger than just my messy room. Mum and Dad were always telling me off. Every day I was in trouble for some damned thing. I was an only child, too, so there was no-one else to blame for things going wrong, going awry, going missing (I’ve written before about how I went through a weird phase of taking things). It often felt to me that everything about my entire existence was in some way wrong. There were all the many ways I was wrong at school, and when I came home, there were different kinds of wrongness.

I was, I’ve said, a weird, moody, fat, probably not very nice kid. I don’t remember myself as “lovable”. I never had anything like a “winning” personality. There were things I was extremely interested in (astronomy, science and science fiction, and maybe girls), and there was the vast, dreary, lightless void of everything else in Australian life that I was really not interested in. If you were interested even a tiny bit in things that interested me, I probably liked you, and we might be friends. I didn’t have many friends, except for strange times, like when we got a big above-ground swimming pool, when suddenly I had loads of friends. Or when my dad, in one of his manic phases, got me a trail bike when I was 11 (see, “The Motorcycle Incident”). It was a crazy, magnanimous, unasked-for gesture on his part, and it made me, briefly, the most popular kid in school. And when it went away, so did they.

I was weird in lots of ways, and I’ve written about some of them here. Like how there was all sorts of food I would not eat, leading to Scenes and Problems and Upset. I got some serious tellings-off about food, about meals ruined, about my being difficult. I don’t recall wanting to be difficult, or wanting to embarrass my parents, or cause awkward scenes. It was just when I tried to eat certain things I suddenly knew right away that I was going to throw up, immediately, in front of everyone. It was terrifying. I didn’t want to vomit in front of people, but I would if I was forced to eat these things. No-one believed me, not even Mum and Dad. Eating was always an extremely fraught thing for me, and in many respects it still is, even today when I’m grown up and middle-aged. I remember this time when I was a stressed-out little kid, terrified of vomiting, and the trouble I was always in, very well. It was dreadful. I still, to this day, have all kinds of hangups about food and eating. It’s awful.

I was also weird about people, shy to the point of pathology, even with people I liked, even with family. And there was one friend I had, in the early years of my primary school career, who had a way of inspiring in me a towering rage, an anger like I have rarely experienced in the decades since. He had a strange way about him, a knowing, a smugness. Plus, he cheated at games we played, sometimes so obviously that even my legally blind albino mum, playing with us, could tell. He was confounding. We would end up in these situations where I would find myself screaming at him. Screaming. Top of my lungs. I’m not a person given to screaming at people. I’m pretty quiet on the whole. But this guy, when I was a kid, brought out my inner screamer. Why were we friends? I have no idea. When we moved from Wembley to Bassendean in the middle of Grade Six, that was the end of that and in all the years since I’ve never once missed him, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. I do wonder about myself, though. What the hell was all that about? Was it an early manifestation of my illness? It’s all I can think of.

So there we were, Mum and me, on this ultimate occasion in my room. Mum was exhausted. She was up against it, exhausted. Besides me and all my nonsense, she also had my dad to contend with. He was extremely “unwell”, and was spending a lot of time in bed, smoking and brooding, watching TV, not saying anything. Just burning through the smokes. So Mum was in no mood for any nonsense from me, so she gave me a thorough telling off. She let me have it. My mum was and remains formidable.

I listened to this, and felt something shift and give way. I’d been on the receiving end of this speech for years. I was fed up. I was always wrong. Always in trouble. I was never good enough, always unsatisfactory. I yelled back. Me yelling back was not so surprising. Mum and I yelled lots. Sometimes, even now, we still do. But this time a true thing came out of my mouth. Something that I had been thinking a long time, but kept to myself, held privately because it was unspeakably awful.

I said something along the lines of, Why do you yell at me so much when you obviously hate me?

It was the unsayable thought. I had thought it often but had never dared to say it, but there it was, naked and quivering in the air between us. There was a shocked pause. I could not believe I’d actually said it, that my own parents must hate me, which was why they were always on my back about everything. It must be like sport for them, picking on me all the time like that, the way it was for the bullies at school.

Mum looked as if she were shaken to her marrow. She could not believe I had said the thing, either. That I had even been thinking it. That I saw things that way. She said, and again I’m working from imperfect recollection, that it was because she and Dad loved me so very much that they cared enough to tell me off about things I did wrong. She said if they didn’t love me, they wouldn’t care. They’d ignore me. They’d throw me out, because why keep me? They told me off because they loved me.

This was one of the most important conversations I had ever had in my whole life. It changed everything. It changed my relationship with my parents. I suddenly understood them. I believed them. I was still often difficult, moody and weird (and hey look, I still am), but I understood them. I knew what they were about now. Even my dad, who was so unpredictable and moody, who could be so terribly angry, but then so magnanimous and funny and joyful, so elated and proud of his son–I understood him better, too. They loved me. And even though we still had our fights and arguments, especially when I was so sick, I loved them, too.

Our whole life together pivots around this conversation, and specifically that single exchange. I had believed they picked on me constantly because they were like bullies or something similar, but no. They were parents. I should have realised this beforehand. I should have known this the way I knew our street address and our phone number. I should have remembered years and years of Christmases and birthdays. I should have remembered countless late-night deep and meaningful conversations with my mum in which we talked about all the things weighing on me at the time, and from which I emerged feeling better and more settled. Even when I wasn’t sure what to make of Dad, I could always find safe harbour with Mum, even in the period I’m writing about here. How could I have forgotten all this? But I did forget. When I accused her and Dad of hating me, I believed it. I thought they did, because they were always on my back, always yelling, always picking at me, never letting me rest. There was always something wrong. You get to the point that there are so many things wrong it’s easier to think that what’s wrong is not some thing, but you yourself. And if it’s you that’s wrong all the time, maybe everything would be easier, and everyone would be happier, if you weren’t around anymore.

This is the significance of this conversation in my/our life. These are the stakes. My illness had persuaded me that I was worthless. That I was the wrong thing. It was working on persuading me that everyone would be better off without me. It would make them happier. The illness calls out to you like this, in the sweetest, most convincing of voices. You want to believe it.

But Mum and Dad loved me, and that’s why they were always on my back. That was even more believable. That made sense. We, Mum and Dad and me, still sometimes talk about that conversation, the importance of it, what it meant to me. To them, it was a bit of routine parenting, just another night’s work. But for me, it was life and death. It was everything.

MEMOIR: GROUP THERAPY (Updated)

MEMOIR: GROUP THERAPY

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 this was a group therapy session in D20, the psychiatric unit. This was very early in my time there, and I was trying things that were recommended to me as possibly being helpful. And it was thought that Conversation Class would be helpful to me. It was in this class that I literally learned how to talk to people. And how to talk to women, especially.

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 traumatised I’d feel just going to school, either. And at no point in my conversations with Marina, who was one of the other patients (I never found “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. I found this disorienting.

Only now, thinking back on this, do I wonder why a grown woman in her thirties might need such a class. I find myself faced with no good possible hypotheses.

When you’re a patient in a psychiatric hospital, whether one, 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 is 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.

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.

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 become 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.

MEMOIR: The Outboard Motor Incident (Fourth Draft)

(This contains lots of major new stuff, and is pretty much now finished for good.)

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

My dad was furious—again. This was just the latest. Certainly the most noteworthy. We were in Bunbury, having a cheap weekend holiday, the only sort of holiday we could afford in those days. Dad had borrowed an aluminium dinghy, the sort more commonly called a “tinny”, which came with a ten-horsepower outboard motor.

We’d done our best to have some fun with the boat on Bunbury’s Estuary that day but now as the sun was setting it was time to pack up for the day. The first job was to detach the motor from the boat and put it up on the jetty before loading the boat back onto its trailer.

It seemed like a foolproof plan. And my dad was so tired, so knackered after a long day on the water, in the sun, that he needed everything to work first time. The boat was next to the jetty, and right next to the ramp. Mum, up on the jetty, held the boat’s tether line, but she was also keeping an eye on me and my uncle Shane (a kid seven years older than I was). All Mum had to do was keep the boat close to the jetty while Dad hefted the boat’s outboard up on to the jetty. But he could see her attention was divided.

Dad had a temper. He was always yelling at us, and this was no exception. Mum was letting the boat slip away, and he’d yell, and she’d pull it back. Meanwhile, he was standing up in a boat, holding an outboard motor pressed against his chest. The boat was unstable, rocking from side to side, end to end. It was bad, but if could just get the motor onto the jetty, it’d be okay. But Mum kept letting her attention drift, and here, look, the boat was all the way out from the jetty, look, it was drifting all the way out—Dad was yelling and calling out to Mum, and she realised that this time she’d really let the boat go, so she gave the rope a really big pull.

My dad had a hard time with everything. He was always angry. Or at least that was how it seemed to me. Whenever I was around he seemed angry, or at the very least dark or gloomy, antsy. Restless. Unable quite to find a state of ease or comfort. Even in his own home, he looked and seemed like someone who felt like an awkward visitor. He had no time for my own moodiness, my own strange behaviour. My dad had been in the army in a different time, and had the former army man’s disdain for “malingerers” and illnesses that were “all in your head” rather than something “real” or “physical”. Even though his own mental illness had got him discharged from the army.

Note: Dad was never a drunk, and was never an abuser. Never. He was always a decent man with a terrible temper, and an even worse illness. He was under various forms of treatment for that illness, but in those days, the Sixties, the options available were not much good. Worse than blunt instruments. Dad knew there was something wrong. Ever since he was 18 he knew there was something wrong, deep inside. He had been in the army before he met my mum. He had been married at the time to another woman, but she wanted a divorce. The split drove the young man who would later become my dad to attempt suicide. He was later dishonourably discharged, the poor bugger.

By the time he met my mum his illness, he felt, was more or less stable, the current treatment he was on was working, so he never told her about it. But she found out the hard way. Dad, as I say, had black moods, and anger, tears, and days when he couldn’t face his job. It was hard just getting through each day. Harder still in those days than these days. Now there’s a bunch of services and places you can access or go where you can get some level of help. But back then you didn’t even have words in your head, the actual language you needed, to express the thought, that you were in trouble, that your engines were on fire, you were gonna crash, and you don’t know what to do.

Dad often had no idea what to do. He did the best he could. But sometimes he couldn’t. He couldn’t get out of bed. All he could do was sleep and smoke and sometimes cry. I didn’t know too much about this at the time. Mum has told me more since. At the time I was dragging my sorry carcass off to school each day, knowing what awaited me. All I knew about Mum and Dad was that Dad was sick. Sometimes he vanished in the dead of night to secret hospitals. It was like in a spy novel. One thing you knew for sure: nothing seemed to help. When he came home from the secret spy hospitals he always seemed more haunted, more hollowed out, more wretched.

It was not surprising that Dad was angry. Things had not gone that well. Everything had been a huge struggle. Just getting through a day, every day, was a struggle. And all the time, there’s your moody, troubled son staring at you like you’re the problem, like he’s lost respect. Like he doesn’t understand what you’re dealing with, and you could just kill him, but he’s your boy, your life, what you live for.

It was incredible to think he and I had gone through years of our lives fundamentally not understanding each other, just bumping past each other in the hallway, but that’s it.

Anybody would be angry in that world.

But angry people can’t keep jobs. And Dad had a dreadful time with jobs. He was great at the jobs. What he couldn’t do with marine engines wasn’t worth doing. His services were in demand among the boating set around Perth and up and down the coast. “Can Ken come and have a look at my boat this weekend, please?” And he did his best to accommodate as many of these extracurricular gigs as he could. We got to see a lot of Mandurah in the Sixties and Seventies this way, memories that live with me today, and inform the visits Michelle and I have made there since we’ve been married and had our honeymoon there, and no many wonderful holidays since.

But just as we got to see a lot of seaside Mandurah back then with Dad travelling far and wide to work on the boats of mates, we also went to seaside Bunbury, further south, with its own Estuary.

I started this story about my Dad with him, bloody furious, clutching an outboard, yelling at Mum, who was up on a walkway, holding the rope, distracted by the antics of us kids, and so allowed the boat to drift.

Dad was angry, but yelling at Mum, yelling at me, yelling abuse at the bloody outboard, it was all a mask. He was yelling at himself. He was inadequate. He wished he was better at his job, or had a better job, where he kept his hands clean all day long, maybe in management. Maybe as the owner of the place. That’d be something, being the boss! He could take the family on proper holidays to nice places instead of cheap places like the shack we were staying in here in Bunbury. We could stay in a hotel. He wouldn’t have to work so hard. He could spend his weekends with his family. He could, God, what a thought! He could enjoy himself! He might go beach fishing! He might take a boat out and just potter about, maybe let out a little trolling line, see what might be interested.

This would never, ever happen. Dad knew it. He was a mechanic, not a manager. He could never be a manager. It was all he could do, holding the ten-horsepower to his chest in the rocking tinny as it drifted, to stay standing. His lot in life was fixing these damned things. What he knew about management you could write on the back of a stamp. It wasn’t for him. He was raised in the right social class for management, but it never suited him. There was too much motorbike hoon in him, too much ratbag larrikin. Too much illness and anger and restlessness. He wasn’t meant to sit in a chair all day long.

He yelled out to Mum again to pull the rope in, and this time she bloody well heard him, and she gave the rope an almighty bloody yank at exactly the wrong moment. He’d been standing there yelling and ranting, and she’d pulled the rope as he stood there with his mouth wide open, a particular look on his face, his mouth wide open, and as the tinny lurched under him in one direction, Dad lurched in the other direction. First one leg was in the air, and then the angle of Dad’s back was askew. There came a new, shocked look on his face, and he began to topple, and he turned his head, starting to see the water—and then it was all very fast. Over he went. Man and motor, all at once, into the drink in a spectacular splash, and the waters of the Bunbury Estuary closing over them.

I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. Proper treatment had transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for his treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often in that time. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding and wishing I could take back things I had said.

There was a strange period, when I was around 17, when my dad took overdoses of his medication sometimes. Not with serious suicidal intent so much (though the first couple of times we did worry greatly about that) as the idea that he felt badly messed up inside, so if he made himself sufficiently ill he would end up at the hospital, where they would have to fix him. This happened several times. He never got the fixing he was looking for. In time he gave up doing it. We were all grateful. But for a while I was very angry about it. I lost a lot of respect for my dad. Where was the flashy larrikin guy who raced speedboats? Little did I realise, but he was still there, but trapped inside, drowning.

I feel lousy remembering all this. It was a dreadful time for all of us. Mum had it worst of all. She was the one who had a sick husband and a sick son. The sick son was either an inpatient at D20 or an outpatient, heavily involved still with the hospital. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go.

And one day in the middle of all this, while I was in D20, Mum had a heart attack, and wound up in the Emergency Room.

I was sitting in the Art Room with a big wodge of clay, doing my dreamy thing, calm and quiet and happy, sitting in front of one of the big windows with its view across the carpark to A Block. A male nirse appeared and sat down next to me. He very gently introduced the topic that my mum was in the Emergency Department, just over there in A Block, with a suspected heart attack. He spoke very softly, and with extreme watchful care, worried about my reaction, by the thought that my mum was just over there, in A Block. I could just walk over there.

My heart boomed in my throat. The distance through the window foreshortened. I could reach out and touch A Block. “Is she okay?” I’m pretty sure I did ask that. I think I also asked if I could visit. That was a maybe, depends. I have a vague recollection that I was allowed over there at some point. I think.

I don’t know where Dad was at this time. He might have been off in one of the secret spy hospitals again. It was a horrible time for us Bedfords. We were in rotten strife. We were all in wars.

My fault, naturally.

I was not exactly thriving in D20. Not just yet. It was still hammering me into pieces, so it could then refashion me into a better, more pleasing form. My parents did not understand this. That there was something as much Arts & Crafts as well as Psychiatric about what was happening. I was being upgraded. I didn’t understand any of this while it was happening. At the time I was very angry, and took it out on my poor parents. My dad returned fire. Mum just stood between us and cried.

I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.

As you’ll recall, Dad had the engine clutched to his chest, and he had just disappeared into Bunbury Estuary with it, making a spectacular splash. I still remember the splash. That and the gobsmacked, “this cannot be happening to me!” look on my dad’s face.

And the laughter.

Our terrible laughter.

Mum and us kids were up on the jetty, and we had just seen a grown, angry man holding an outboard motor fall out of a boat. The fact of his anger was what made the story work. There was a certain Donald Duck angry-at-the-whole-world kind of thing about it. It was funny because he was so angry, even though the causes of his anger were ultimately dreadfully sad. All these years since, this story has been one of my family’s great legends. It had to go into this book. There has been a great deal of correspondence about it. There has been a great deal of tea and coffee as I sorted out details with Mum and Dad. We’ve relived what we imagine, today, were swell times. But the more I look into it, they don’t seem like such swell times at all. They seem pretty fun to me, because as a kid I didn’t know much, and that was because Mum deliberately kept things from me. The details I’ve included here about my dad’s troubled times are things I’ve only learned much more recently.

But one of the major reasons this story is in this book at all is for tje same reason the Condensed Milk Incident is here: it illuminates a lot of my dad’s character, then and now. Because while he was an angry, moody, disagreeable bugger when I was a kid, and haunted by his own shortcomings, and the pressures bearing down on him—today he is a lovely, sweet old man. It was his idea to include this story, and all these things, in the book. “You gotta put it all in the book!” he insisted, laughing. He freely gave his permission for me to use everything, no matter what, if it would help the book. Mum, too.

Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, spluttering—a volcano rising from the ocean. His titanic anger so great it has echoed down the decades in family legend. He let fly, and abused Mum and–

Sorry, but we were all much too busy laughing, because we remembered the look on his face, the absolutely marvellous look on his face as he turned his head and saw the water coming up to meet him, and as the water closing over him, and the look that expressed his opinion that this was all simply impossible, and couldn’t possibly be happening.

We also laughed because of all his anger and moodiness. Because of the tension. It got to us. We were supposed to be on holiday, but all the time, this feeling like a tug-o-war rope going, straining, back and forth over a puddle of mud. And this is the point of the whole story. We laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed our guts out. We laughed like we had never laughed before and seldom since. The bully had been rendered ridiculous. He looked like a drowned cat down there sputtering and yelling, and it was hilarious. He looked small and pitiful. We couldn’t believe we had been afraid of this soggy bastard’s fury for so long.

And our laughter only made him angrier. It was the funniest, most cathartic thing ever. The tyrant brought down to size. He was one of us again.

It took him a while, but by later that evening, showered, dried off, in clean clothes, he admitted, grudgingly, that he could start to see the funny side of the whole thing. Which was lucky for him because the rest of us never let him forget about it. The wicked tyrant brought down by ridicule. The captain who went down with his outboard. We still talk about it, just as we still talk about the Condensed Milk Incident. We talk about Dad and the Outboard because that was the first time we saw that he was just a bloke, and as flawed and foolish as the rest of us. That he was one of us. He had been such a fearful figure. I used to worry each day at school about how Dad would be each night. What would I have to prepare for? Would he be okay? Hoping so much for good days. Dreading the bad days, the arsehole clients, the idiot colleagues, the dimwit bosses. The furiously tense Cold War evening meals. Even chewing felt heavy with significance, as if it meant something. Dad staring into space as he ate, thinking, brooding. Mum strung on the wire between us, hanging on. Doing her best. Tense smiling. Every day for Dad was a hard day. And if he was having a hard day, we all had hard days.

I have included this story because it says a lot about my dad, both back in the past and now. He was a nervy moody tyrant then, with his dark moods and sudden flashes of warmth and humour that could just as suddenly flash away again. But now, decades later, he’s a sweet and lovely old man of 81. He takes way too many medications for too many medical problems, and he can feel his memory starting to fade—but there’s a lot of that going around, even amongst us 50-somethings. My dad today is like a different person. He is kind and loving. His greatest pleasure is coming to our place to “mind” our dog while we’re out, and Freckle just drapes herself against him and goes to sleep, and Dad lets her, and will just sit there patting and stroking her, the sweetest dog and the sweetest old man. They go on like that for hours. It’s beautiful.

There’s no sign of the father I grew up with, the baffling, impossible, moody bastard I never understood, and who never understood me. Over time he went away, maybe to the secret spy hospital, once too often, and never returned, and we got this lovely old guy instead. It’s extraordinary. I think he must have been this way all along, but the combined distortion caused by his poorly treated illness, and the crushing pressure he felt as the family breadwinner and provider, worked to destroy most of that person. He must have felt it killing him, at least at times, that pressure to get up, go to work, do what he was told, no matter what, no matter what shape he was in. You could imagine men like Dad with the illness, unable to talk about it, finding themselves driven to suicide.

Dad got lucky. Around the time I was sixteen in the D20 psychiatric unit, Dad was finally getting effective treatment. They were giving him (and me) Lithium, a metal salt similar to Sodium. It takes a long time to build up in the body, but then when it does, it’s great. Things began to change. Big things. It took many years, we were both lumbering works-in-progress, but we started to talk, a little bit. Dad settled down. I started to feel, if not fine, then like I had a rough map to the general vicinity of “fine”, and that I would know it if I saw it. It was a sign of life. I was getting better. For the first time in my teenage life, there was a bit of hope.

And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water that day in Bunbury? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. Salt water would wash through the inside compartments of the engine and the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with such things. And he had a full can of CRC, a seriously water-repellent spray. He used almost an entire can on the stripped-down parts of that motor. It took two hours, but in the end he achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water spat, coughed, roared, stinking with exhaust, and spluttered and roared back to noisy life once again, as good as new.

MEMOIR: Messing About with Boats (Updates)

MEMOIR: MESSING ABOUT WITH BOATS (Updates)

It was Dad and me and we were out off the coast on his 17-foot fibreglass cabin cruiser. It was a hot, sunny, Polaroid sort of day with a steady breeze and a gentle swell.

And Dad was trying to show me how to bait a fish-hook. It was the most revolting thing in the world–and I was a boy of about twelve or thirteen, and knew about revolting things, being one myself.

All I’ll say about the baiting of hooks is that it involves the eyes of the fortunately dead bait-fish, a benighted creature called a “mulie”, which came in big frozen blocks, the individual silver fish with their dead black eyes pressed up against each other as if on a very cold Japanese subway train. Everything about fishing has always caused me deep revulsion, and that revulsion has always started here, with baiting the hook, with cutting up bait. That and the stark contrast between the cold, visceral horror of fish-hooks in eyeballs and knives in fish-guts—and the jolly atmosphere of everyone present having a fun, relaxing time. I was never able to reconcile these two things. The thought, too, of fish circling the baited hook. The urge to warn them off, as if from a ticking bomb and you’re Bruce Willis. And then when the stupidly caught fish finds itself on the deck of the boat, flapping and flopping, gasping, desperate, knowing it’s in deep trouble, knowing it’s in the fish equivalent of outer space. You can sense the adrenaline rush it must be feeling, the panic. You want to help it. You can imagine the terrible pain in its whole head and face from the hook. The way it must be kicking itself, what the hell happened? Why did I bite that damn thing? What was I thinking? Starting to fade. Breathing slowing.

And then someone picks up the fish and slaps the head hard against the gunwale of the boat, to “put it out of its misery”, and you reel, unable to breathe, staring at it, motionless now, and you feel all outside yourself.

Since I’ve been working on this piece, I wondered if my historic difficulty with eating seafood (see my earlier posts about food) might have its roots in my constant sense of horror and disgust on these days. The smell was inescapable. And Dad’s fishing knife was never cleaned after use, nor even wiped. There were many years of accreted bits of fish guts on it. I hated to have anything to do with it, and didn’t, if I could help it.

Once, aged about 11, I caught a monster, a giant Jules Verne-worthy beast of a fish my dad told me was called a North-West Blowie. Regular-sized blowfish, or “blowies”, are the bane of the fishing life: worthless, ghastly, ugly fish that are also extremely common, and extremely undiscerning about tasty morsels that might contain deadly traps. When you go fishing and catch more blowies than anything else, you feel bitter. You’d be happier catching old boots, or clumps of seaweed.

But I caught a kind of blowie that was in fact remarkable. It was like a dinosaur blowie. It was almost as long as I was tall at the time–and I only remember this because somewhere there is a photograph of my young self, standing in front of my dad’s electric blue six-cylinder Torana (how he loved that car!), holding, with a certain look on my face, this mighty creature of the sea. You would be less astonished if you saw a photo of me holding up a whale shark, because whale sharks are supposed to be huge. But blowies are supposed to be small little bastards that puff up, “blow” up, if they get agitated. This thing was immense. To this day I have no notion of what became of it once this old photo was taken. It’s hard to believe it got flushed like a dead goldfish down the loo: I can only assume it was given some form of burial in the garden. Its monstrous nature might have found redemption nurturing some beautiful flowers.

My dad, in those days, always seemed to me a man who loved fishing. Or at least he said he did. My dad was the kind of Australian man who “liked to mess about with boats”. He was a motor mechanic by trade, and could fix anything with an engine in it. It was true. I’d seen him work magic. I’d seen him bring the dead back to rumbling roaring life, against all the odds (see “The Outboard Motor Incident”). He would buy old, dead-seeming outboards, machines resembling corpses as well as simply not working, and Dad would bang away at them all weekend, get them running (asking me to pass him tools), then sell them on at a nice profit. And of all the motored things in the world, he preferred boats. Boat motors didn’t make your hands as dirty, he said to me once when I asked him why the choice. With boat motors, you very often had to head down to Matilda Bay, on the river, or to some marina on the coast, or some equally lovely, scenic spot in the sun in which to work.

He even had a career, when I was a young boy and he was still just hanging on to his own youth, racing speedboats on the Swan River on Saturday afternoons. There was an organised club, with a program of races of different boat and engine classes each Saturday. There were big powerful sleek fast hoon boats that went a million miles an hour and kicked up huge rooster tails of spray and emitted unearthly insectile whines from their warp engines as the hurtled by on the steel-blue afternoon chop. Then there were the tiny “go-boats”, little things, not much more than curved bits of plywood with a seat and an outboard engine, and a mad bloody bastard at what passed for the controls. The power-to-weight ratio was astronomical since there was no significant weight, other than the engine itself, and the pilot. Then there were the midsize boats, which, if their class had a name I’ve since forgotten it. But those midsize boats were my dad’s thing.

Dad built his own boats out of marine plywood and fibreglass with the help of his best mate, a Scottish guy named Hugh who was a cabinetmaker and knew his way around a piece of wood. They’d get together in the evenings and build these boats, and on Saturdays Dad would race them, a beautiful shade of deep iridescent blue and white, called Kingfisher, around and around the course, a serious competitor, carving his way through the water, and he won often enough it stopped seeming so remarkable.

(At the time it meant less to me than it does now, decades later, and my dad is an 81-year old man still in reasonable condition but elderly and frail, with a heart, and forgetful, among other things. He’s still a restless soul, though. He can’t sit still for long. He has to be up, bustling about, looking for things, doing things, organising things, has just remembered something, and will be right back. He has a framed photo of the 17-foot cabin cruiser taken by a professional photographer back in the day of Dad at the controls of the boat, slicing through Perth Water at top speed. I’m in the picture, too, or the very top of my head, just visible through the cabin window.)

Mum was unhappy. She believed the whole speedboat racing thing was dangerous, and she had evidence on her side. Dad did not. He thought it was potentially dangerous and risky, but that experienced racers had skills and knew how to handle their boats. Mum would not be persuaded. She believed that sooner or later someone would be killed.

These Saturday afternoons at Coode Street Jetty in South Perth went on, seemingly, for days. It always took ages for Dad’s event to come around. I had little to no interest in the other races. I wandered about, up and down the beach, inspecting all the other boats pulled up on the coarse beige sand, their hulls bright and popping with colour. It wasn’t the sort of beach, the sort of sand, that invited or encouraged sandcastles. The sand was too young for that. It was still a work in progress. It was still too evidently fragments of shell that hadn’t yet been sufficiently smashed up. Instead I inspected the giant washed up pulsing horrors that were the big brown jellyfish. If there’s one thing about the Swan River, it’s that it’s lousy with jellyfish: two kinds, one a translucent white sort of flimsy disc-shaped thing, and the other was a stonking great big brown-domed Lovecraftian horror, with tentacles, and wafting bits, and stuff underneath the dome that looked like the inside of your lungs. These things had a way of washing up on the river shore and expiring. It was fascinating yet also revolting.

Meanwhile, one afternoon one racer was very nearly killed. The boat behind his briefly became airborne during a turn, and somehow one of the big inflatable buoys was involved, and next thing the airborne boat, engine still running, propeller still spinning so fast you couldn’t see it, came down on that man’s head. He was left badly brain-damaged. I can’t remember whether the man had been wearing a helmet. I think he may have been, and that might be the reason he wasn’t killed outright.

All those Super-8 afternoons by the river, while I studied grotesque jellyfish dying on the coarse sand, my mum, sitting nearby on a tartan picnic blanket with a Tupperware box of sandwiches, had been deathly afraid for my dad’s life. Even when he wasn’t racing, she was afraid for him. She was just afraid. Of losing everything. Dad gave up racing without a protest.

That thought, that my dad might have been risking his life, that he’d been risking our entire way of life, had never once occurred to me.

He took me out in one of his speedboats one afternoon, while waiting for his race. We pottered at a sedate pace, the engine making polite coughing noises, as we made our slow way around the course, turning at the big green inflatable buoys. It was marvellous! I remember the smell of petrol, the living smell of the river, the wind, the afternoon angle of the sun, the feeling of being with my dad in Dad’s pride and joy.

I only recently found out that Dad was never interested in fishing, as such. A troubled man, haunted by his own past, and in those days yet to undergo successful treatment for his bipolar disorder, being out on the river, or just off the coast, enjoying the breeze, waiting for a nibble, just quietly whiling away a few hours, riding the swell or the current, was as close as Dad got to pure bliss.

There were lots of weekend afternoons, often with his Scottish mate and me, out at sea in Dad’s 17-footer. They’d enjoy a few beers in the stern of the boat and not really care too much if they caught anything. They talked and laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company.

I was a bit of a third wheel. I obviously wasn’t drinking. In fact, I was often the designated driver. Aged 12 or 13, given the job of driving the boat back into port through heavy seas and back up the river to the launching ramp. I always felt proud and competent doing that, especially in heavy seas, where you had to be careful with the throttle and the rudder, where you could easily end up sideways and capsized or at least swamped. But we were always, despite some hairy moments, fine. It was something I could do, and I was pleased to do it.

When I was about eight, my dad had a wooden, clinker-built, dinghy-type boat, a rowboat. It looked picturesque in the water, but it was a heavy bloody bastard to lift out of the water and manoeuvre, upturned, onto the roof-rack of your dad’s car. There’s a reason aluminium caught on as the material of choice for boat-building.

Dad and I, and sometimes with his Scottish friend, would take this wooden boat out on the river at night, starting in the area around East Perth, when it was still a nasty, run-down industrial zone. We’d putter around on glass-flat waters. It was so quiet, but for the chuffing of a tiny few-horsepower motor that looked like it was made from toothpicks, and powered with rubber-bands. In those days, we knew about boats and outboard motors the way these days we know about computers and broadband.

My memories of this time in my life are infused with the smell of two-stroke petrol, often in a metal, red-painted tank for connection to an outboard motor, and the smell of the river. It was never quite the same as the smell of the ocean. There was a lot of salty water in the river, but there was a lot of something else as well. At least in theory you could say, well, that would be the fresh water coming down from out in the countryside, but freshwater wouldn’t smell like that. There was something alive, or living, biological, about Swan River water. When you smelled it, that miasma of sea and life and something possibly else, you knew you weren’t alone.

There were many nights, just us blokes out in this little boat on the river, fishing from hand-reels, my dad and his mate chatting ever so softly, because there was no need to speak any louder. We were in the quietest place in the world. The loudest thing might be an irritable seagull a few miles away having a squawk.

We often ended up in front of what used to be the old Swan Brewery. In those days, there were lights mounted on the outside of the building facing out over the water, coloured lights, that when lit would take the shape of a ship, a swan, and a sailing ship. Those nights we ended up parked out on the water in front of the Brewery, bathed in that silent electric light, were sublime. I had no staying power, eight-year-old me, and I would curl up, rocked to sleep, in the bottom of the boat, listening to the whispering talk, to the silence, to the light.

MEMOIR History Part 2 (Updated)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART 2 (Updated)

I was sixteen years old and homework was killing me. I spent more hours per day on homework than I did in actual classes during the day. Each afternoon, when school was done, I had to load most of the books and files in my locker into my grey schoolbag to take home, to “help” with the homework. It was brutal, and never-ending. I was often awake into the wee hours, scribbling away, but sometimes just sitting there, staring at the matter before me, wondering what on Earth I was going to do with it.

I had colossal problems with everything. I felt as if I understood nothing, that I had no business in this “matriculation” part of high school. It was organised so that everyone first did three years of relatively painless stuff, and at the end of that, if you wished to, especially if you had no plans to go to university, you could leave and, for example, attend TAFE, do an apprenticeship, learn a trade, or whatever.

I couldn’t say I had a red-hot blazing desire, a longing, to attend university. It wasn’t really on the Bedford radar at the time. Even if I went, what on Earth would I study? I had no idea. All I did know, at the end of Year 10 (the old Third Year) was that just about all my tormentors left at once, having no interest in higher education.

I could have danced.

So I wound up staying on for the final two years, 11 and 12, for matriculation, not out of any concrete desire for this matriculation, as such, but because it would be two years of shelter away from most of my bullies and tormentors. This matriculation was a grim, harrowing process deliberately designed to prepare hapless students for the serious rigours of university-level education. It was hard by design. Brutal by intention. So hard you would find yourself wishing for a quick and merciful death sooner than you would ever imagine. I should never have been there. I still don’t know why I was there. The only answer I’ve ever come up with was simple inertia. I was there because it was the thing to do. Because it would be even harder getting a job, or going to learn a trade. I didn’t want to go that way. But I also wasn’t sure I wanted to go this way. I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted the noise in my head to stop. I wanted to be left alone so I could think.

When I was just fourteen, my parents knew Something was Wrong with me. They saw signs in my weird behaviour (see, “Weird Kid”), the way I did things, my moodiness, my temper, and much else. They took me to a special doctor. The doctor told them there was nothing he could do, no help he could offer, until “something happened”. There had to be a crisis of some kind. There had to be, in other words, a breakdown. The doctor sent us away.

I remember this doctor visit, but I remember only my parents’ worried, lined faces. I remember nothing of what they talked about (they filled me in much later). I only remember sitting there, my scalp prickling a little, knowing I was being talked about but not understanding, as if the whole thing was in a foreign language.

I have already sketched in a little of the bullying/abuse I faced throughout my schooling. But perhaps even worse, when it came to Years 11 and 12, was the work itself, and my mounting sense of panic as I saw that I was simply not up to it. I should have quit at the end of Year 10, like my tormentors. There would have been no shame in it, and I would have avoided, most likely, what came next.

At the end of Year 10 those students who were staying on had to have a think about their future plans, and then talk to the career guidance counsellor about course selection for the final two years. My careers guidance counsellor was my Social Studies teacher, who did not like me one bit, and I was less than pleased to see her, too. She asked me about my “plans”. I said I had no plans. I didn’t. I was a doofus fifteen year old boy. I didn’t even have plans for that afternoon, or the weekend. She said, well, you like reading, don’t you? Well, of course I did. If left to my own affairs I would basically just read and write full-time. So I stupidly said yes. She made a note. Then she said, Oh, and you’re interested in science and stuff, too, right? Again, yes, of course, naturally, but–

But nothing. With these two answers she fashioned a set of classes for me. She had me down for English, Maths 2 and 3, Physics, Chemistry, and History. Despite the names, Maths 2 and 3 were the truly advanced units in mathematics. There was a lower-intensity unit, Maths 1, which was more my speed, and one lower even than that, Maths 4. But I wound up in 2 and 3, which also meant a truly terrifying teacher whom I call Mr Bastardface (not his real name), who is the subject of a whole separate essay in this book.

This set of courses was just about the most intensely difficult group she could assign. I tried to protest, to explain, that I couldn’t do these things. But to no avail. If any one single person put me in hospital after my breakdown, she would be that person. She dropped me into the pit of vipers, and just about killed me.

Getting out of school at the end of the day was meant to feel like a wonderful release, the end of your day’s labours. But for me and students like me, dropped in water much too deep for them, it was only the end of Act One. Act Two lay ahead. In which the protagonist is trapped in a maze that only grows more baffling, more frustrating, that changes configuration around you, and quite possibly has no actual exit.

I sat in classrooms for all these different subjects. I listened as hard as I could, and I wrote notes like I knew what I was doing. I attended to everything, thinking that if I just paid enough attention, if I did my job well enough, it would pay off. The “aha!” moment would condense out of the atmosphere of panic, and I would understand at last.

It never came. I was underwater. I couldn’t touch the bottom. Every night there was more homework. It never helped. I never caught up; I was always behind, and had to keep lists keeping track of what I was doing now and what could wait.

I had a teacher for Year 11 English who, at the start of the first class of the year, when I’d been thinking, well, I should at least be okay here. English had always been my thing. In lower high school I’d done extremely well with it, and imagined that would continue. I was wrong. This teacher’s first utterance, as she sat on a stool in front of her desk, addressing us, was, “Most of you will fail this class.”

It was shocking. More shocking was finding out she meant it. We’d spent three years learning various ways of looking at books and stories and so on. That was all out the window. We were now expected to engage in a new mode of literary analysis which, when she described it, sounded like dead TV static, like off-key piano music, like something circling and then falling down a drain. It sounded like doom. I never did understand what she was talking about. My very best, most sincere efforts meant nothing. It was a language I did not understand, a note I couldn’t hear.

And that was my best class.

Physics and Chemistry started off utterly incomprehensible and grew more opaque from there. Nothing made sense. The textbooks made no sense. The measurement of error. The measurement of uncertainty. The problem of measurement itself. Wave motion. The sublimation of iodine straight from solid to gas was cool. The careers guidance counsellor had been right about one thing: I really was interested in science. Ever since the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, one of the cardinal points of my life, I had had a keen interest in science (especially in any science to do with astronomy, rockets, stars, planets, etc). I wanted to understand, but everything required several blackboards’ worth of mathematics to “explain”, and mathematics teacher Mr Bastardface was too busy dreaming up ways to humiliate me in front of the class to concern himself with my lack of comprehension.

How bad was my failure to grasp maths? My parents shelled out a great deal of money to a tutoring firm that promoted heavily at the time, which promised specialised, focussed tuition in specific areas, and that the student would make huge gains. So every Saturday morning, in winter that year, wet and bitter-cold, I got the train to Midland, and made my way to a rented hall, where a bunch of beleaguered-looking kids slogged through homework as tutors who looked like they might be university students tried to “coach” them to success.

My coaching sessions, despite the huge amounts Mum and Dad paid, made no difference. Mr Bastardface still hated me, and was still determined to prove that I belonged in Maths 1 or even 4. My grades did not improve. It was a miserable, dreadful experience, on top of all the homework, including maths homework, I was already doing, or trying to do.

It was June 1979. Exams were coming like a train and I was lashed to the tracks. Panic was already here, and growing, getting louder, more intense, more urgent. I couldn’t breathe. How the hell was I going to pass these exams?

The short answer is that I didn’t pass them. The train arrived, hit, kept going, and chewed me over good and proper. I blundered my way through each one. I may have failed every one of those exams. I might have been better served writing sarcastic comedy answers to the questions. Because my honest, sincere answers were either all wrong, or mostly wrong. When I got the results, it felt like being at the bottom of a pit, then noticing that the walls are caving in on you. It felt like suffocating death.

Not long after this, towards the end of June, the mysterious “growing pains” in my abdomen I’d been complaining about for a couple of years suddenly turned out to be acute about-to-burst appendicitis. I was sent to hospital that night, and was in surgery the next day.

But it was the night after that when my life exploded like a volcano in my face, and everything began to change.

The day after my breakdown I was tired and wrung out. My parents told me they had arranged for me to leave school, effective immediately. This was the best news ever. Because even though I was stuck in a hospital for surgery, I had homework with me. I had at least one novel to read for English (AS I LAY DYING, by William Faulkner). There was a pile of stuff, and all at once, like a magic trick, it all simply went away. The burden was gone. I could stand up straight again.

I was no longer a student. I had become a patient.

MEMOIR History Part I (Updated Rewrite)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART I (Total Rewrite, Updated)

When I was sixteen my entire life was changed. It was the year I had what was then called a breakdown, following surgery to have my appendix removed. It was the year I met my first psychiatrist. The year I entered a psychiatric hospital for the first (but not last) time.

It was the year so much happened to me, inside me, and around me. My whole life up to now had, it seemed, been building to this point. The explosion itself was less interesting than the question of why did it take so long? Why didn’t it happen earlier?

I was in high school, in Year 11, what was once called Fourth Year. It was harder than I could manage, harder than I could even imagine. I felt as if I were drowning every day and nobody could see the trouble I was in. I was drowning. I was going down. I couldn’t touch bottom. These classes were much harder than I could do. It was bad, and there was no way out.

My entire school career, since the first day, the very first day, the first moments of the first day, of what was then called grade one, while we tiny, cute, awkward, happy, upset kids queued before going imto the classroom to commence our schooling, a bigger grade one kid named Geoffrey pushed me out of the line and knocked me to the ground. I sprawled, winded, my skin scraped on the bitumen, in pain but mostly hot shock and rage and WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

If I were a Time Traveller visiting this shocked and upset little boy, three feet tall and full of towering fury, I would tell him that that question would haunt him for the next twelve years. Every single day there would be bullies of one sort or another. Some understood only brute force; others knew the power of cutting, quiet remarks; others still understood how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully were many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I thought, Why would you do that? Why do it? What do you get out of it? Is it power? Is it the sight of someone else’s suffering? Are you like a vampire who feeds on the pain and misery of others

Many years later, I learned that bullies are often the victims of a higher-level form of bullies, or even of abuse at the hands of their parents or close relatives. They’re playing “Hot Potato”, and in many respects are to be pitied as much as scorned. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a little boy who’s angry and hurting about all this won’t help. He’s angry, and now he’s also afraid, in part of horrible Geoffrey but also, to some extent, the whole school environment where Geoffrey and predators like him roam.

I have thought a great deal about bullying, especially as I’ve grown older, and seen how we humans carry it with us into adulthood, this need to crush those we see as weak, those we think of of as “beta” animals or “prey”. I know there are people who have whole detailed personal mythologies built around the idea of themselves as “apex predators”. The Internet has been a wonderful thing in many respects, but it’s been fabulous for these creeps.

It seems to me the real problem with “bullying” is with the terminology. The word itself. The word “bullying” comes packed with connotations of the schoolyard, of kids’ stuff, of childish things we put away once we’re adults. Everything about the word reinforces these notions. It feels weird calling an adult coworker or abusive spouse a “bully”. The accusation lacks punch and sting, I think.

It would, I think, be better if, starting in school, or even in kindergarten if necessary, we referred to instances of bullying behaviour as abuse, personal abuse, and those who do it as abusers. It’s a word that does work in the adult world. It has a heft and weight about it. It matters. Bullies can smile at that accusation (“can’t you take a joke, love?”), but the suggestion that they might be an abuser might matter to them.

Though, also from my personal observations of such people over many years, maybe not. There are arseholes who live to piss off everyone around them, who love to “get a rise out of” people.

It was people like these, years and years of them, every single day at school, and by the time I got to high school sometimes even a couple of teachers as well, who contributed to my breakdown. Even now I think of them all the time. It’s as though they live with me, sharing their views and opinions. Their fascinating opinions. I see certain people in the media—pundits, columnists, opinion artists, people who get paid to be obnoxious and loud, to be, “controversial”, and I think, “you were a bully, mate, weren’t you? Maybe you’re you’re still a bully.” Politics and sports also seem like natural career options for the dedicated bully.

One of the most terrifying things about bullying, and even the psychological threat of bullying, in my opinion, was the certain knowledge that the teachers doing yard patrol tacitly approved of it. They would see it happening or about to happen, and they would walk off the other way. If you approached them, even if you were bleeding, they would often make various formal noises, demand to know who did it, but refuse to intervene. Some even seemed to find it difficult to suppress smirks. Even if you managed to drag your bully with you up to a supervising teacher to complain, the teacher would make various punitive noises in the right sort of scornful voice, as if playing a part in community theatre, and force you and the bully to shake hands, and you’d do it, all sullen and, “Yes, Miss,” about it, with a muttered sorry–but as soon as the teacher was gone, it was all back on again, and worse now because you got the teacher involved. And it was the same if you got your parents involved. They would visit the bully’s parents, and there would be a scene. Sometimes a nasty scene. There would be promises, and a sense of justice done. Until next day, when the bullying was back on, only twice as bad, because you tried to escalate matters. Because you tried to fight back. And that was not on.

There was no help. No-one was coming to save you. I had some friends who were oddballs and outcasts like me, but also like me they were prey animals and just as likely to find themselves on the receiving end of abuse. We did what we could (travelling in herds), but the predators had too many tricks.

“Watch out after school, Bedford, we’re gonna bloody kill ya!” I heard that many times. What puzzled me was why they expected me to turn up to my own beating. I didn’t. There were other ways to leave school. But they’d keep at you, day after day, these sneered whispers as you were exiting the classroom for lunch. “We’re gonna getcha, Bedford!” Now, they seem so hopeless, but when I was a kid, they made me afraid all the time. I was afraid the entire time I was at school, and all the way home. Before I got a bike I would often try to run home, and try to be sneaky about which ways I went to confuse anyone following. I couldn’t relax until I reached my bedroom.

Nowadays, I know even that sense of a final refuge is denied bullied kids. Bullies can get to them not just with nasty whispers in passing along a school corridor or on the playground but inside their phones, in your most personal, private place. There is no place such bullies can’t reach you. I see these reports, and it makes me think, especially when the story is about a kid who’s committed suicide due to bullying. I never seriously contemplated suicide, but then I had a safe place to go. Even when my dad was moody or strange or angry and yelling, I could retreat to my room. It was mine. Nobody could get me here. But if I was a kid today, and if I had a phone full of abuse? Of countless voices telling me I should kill myself?

I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t do it. I can’t guarantee anything. It’s terrifying, and I’m just plain lucky, simple as that, an accident of birth, that I came along in the time period I did, when it was possible to keep out the bullies.

And yet, even with solid brick walls between me and them, it wasn’t enough. There were too many, and some of them were teachers. One of my high school maths teachers. One of my Phys Ed teachers. One of my Physics and Chemistry teachers.

What also went against me was that I was sick. My brain was messing with my perception of everything, including my perception of myself. I believed terrible things about myself. I suspected the few girls who were nice to me of ulterior, sinister motives, that they were playing a prank. I didn’t dare accept their fleeting gestures of kindness because I believed myself unworthy of it. I believed the bullies. I believed the voices. I believed I was monstrous.

When I was sixteen, my whole life exploded. At the time it felt like the greatest disaster I could imagine. But it was in fact the greatest opportunity, a blessing, a rare moment of cosmic grace offered to an unhappy and mixed-up boy. It took him a long time to see this.

But he did come to see it.

And it saved his life.

MEMOIR: The Outboard Motor Incident (Further Major Rewrites Again)

 

(The first part of this piece is still largely the same, but the back half is all new.

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

My dad was furious—again. This was just the latest. Certainly the most noteworthy. He was standing in the waist-deep salty waters of the Bunbury Estuary, and he was holding an outboard motor to his chest. It was a bulky, heavy bastard of a thing, and Dad was keen to dump it in the nearby aluminium boat. He just needed Mum, who was holding the rope tether line, to pull the boat over to where Dad was standing, in the water, with that engine. Yelling up at Mum. Yelling at everyone. Dad was in a mood. He was like this. Even without a heavy outboard motor. Even without the Bunbury Estuary. Even at home.

Especially at home, because there nobody could see or hear.

Note: Dad was never a drunk, and was never an abuser. Never. He was always a decent man with a terrible temper, and an even worse illness. He was under various forms of treatment for that illness, but in those days, the Sixties, the options available were not much good. Worse than blunt instruments. Dad knew there was something wrong. Ever since he was 18 he knew there was something wrong, deep inside. He had been in the army before he met my mum. He had been married at the time to another woman, but she wanted a divorce. The split drove the young man who would later become my dad to attempt suicide. He was later dishonourably discharged, the poor bugger.

By the time he met my mum his illness, he felt, was more or less stable, the current treatment he was on was working, so he never told her about it. But she found out the hard way. Dad, as I say, had black moods, and anger, tears, and days when he couldn’t face his job. It was hard just getting through each day. Harder still in those days than these days. Now there’s a bunch of services and places you can access or go where you can get some level of help. But back then you didn’t even have words in your head, the actual language you needed, to express the thought, that you were in trouble, that your engines were on fire, you were gonna crash, and you don’t know what to do.

Dad often had no idea what to do. He did the best he could. But sometimes he couldn’t. He couldn’t get out of bed. All he could do was sleep and smoke and sometimes cry. I didn’t know too much about this at the time. Mum has told me more since. At the time I was dragging my sorry carcass off to school each day, knowing what awaited me. All I knew about Mum and Dad was that Dad was sick. Sometimes he vanished in the dead of night to secret hospitals. It was like in a spy novel. One thing you knew for sure: nothing seemed to help. When he came home from the secret spy hospitals he always seemed more haunted, more hollowed out, more wretched.

It was not surprising that Dad was angry. Things had not gone that well. Everything had been a huge struggle. Just getting through a day, every day, was a struggle. And all the time, there’s your moody, troubled son staring at you like you’re the problem, like he’s lost respect. Like he doesn’t understand what you’re dealing with, and you could just kill him, but he’s your boy, your life, what you live for.

It was incredible to think he and had gone through years of our lives fundamentally not understanding each other, just bumping past each other in the hallway, but that’s it.

Anybody would be angry in that world.

But angry people can’t keep jobs. And Dad had a dreadful time with jobs. He was great at the jobs. What he couldn’t do with marine engines wasn’t worth doing. His services were in demand among the boating set around Perth and up and down the coast. “Can Ken come and have a look at my boat this weekend, please?” And he did his best to accommodate as many of these extracurricular gigs as he could. We got to see a lot of Mandurah in the Sixties and Seventies this way, memories that live with me today, and inform the visits Michelle and I have made there since we’ve been married and had our honeymoon there, and no many wonderful holidays since.

But just as we got to see a lot of seaside Mandurah back then with Dad travelling far and wide to work on the boats of mates, we also went to seaside Bunbury, further south, with its own Estuary.

I started this story about my Dad with him, bloody furious, clutching an outboard, yelling at Mum, who was up on a walkway, holding the rope, distracted by the antics of us kids, and so allowed the boat to drift.

Dad was angry, but yelling at Mum, yelling at me, yelling abuse at the bloody outboard, it was all a mask. He was yelling at himself. He was inadequate. He was no good. If he was better at his job he wouldn’t need to take on bullshit jobs like this. He could spend his weekends with his family. He could, God, what a thought! He could enjoy himself! He might go beach fishing! He might take a boat out and just potter about, maybe let out a little trolling line, see what might be interested.

This would never, ever happen. Dad knew it. Standing there in the waist-high waters of Bunbury Estuary on his precious day off, doing a favour for a mate, an outboard motor clutched to his chest and getting heavier by the moment, waiting for Mum to tow the tinny over so he could dump it—he knew how everything would all play out. He would never get better at this job. He tried. He was always studying those workshop manuals. That’s how he got his first job in marine engines: he was shown a bench covered in the stripped-down parts of an engine, and a copy of the workshop manual, and all the required tools. He was then told to rebuild it to working condition.

And he did. Because he was good at it.

I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. Proper treatment had transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for his treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often in thatmtime. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding and wishing I could take back things I had said.

There was a strange period, when I was around 17, when my dad took overdoses of his medication sometimes. Not with serious suicidal intent so much (though the first couple of times we did worry greatly about that) as the idea that he felt badly messed up inside, so if he made himself sufficiently ill he would end up at the hospital, where they would have to fix him. This happened several times. He never got the fixing he was looking for. In time he gave up doing it. We were all grateful. But for a while I was very angry about it. I lost a lot of respect for my dad. Where was the flashy larrikin guy who raced speedboats? Little did I realise, but he was still there, but trapped inside, drowning.

I feel lousy remembering all this. It was a dreadful time for all of us. Mum had it worst of all. She was the one who had a sick husband and a sick son. The sick son was either an inpatient at D20 or an outpatient, heavily involved still with the hospital. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go.

And one day in the middle of all this, while I was in D20, Mum had a heart attack, and wound up in the Emergency Room.

I was sitting in the Art Room with a big wodge of clay, doing my dreamy thing, calm and quiet and happy, sitting in front of one of the big windows with its view across the carpark to A Block. A male nirse appeared and sat down next to me. He very gently introduced the topic that my mum was in the Emergency Department, just over there in A Block, with a suspected heart attack. He spoke very softly, and with extreme watchful care, worried about my reaction, by the thought that my mum was just over there, in A Block. I could just walk over there.

My heart boomed in my throat. The distance through the window foreshortened. I could reach out and touch A Block. “Is she okay?” I’m pretty sure I did ask that. I think I also asked if I could visit. That was a maybe, depends. I have a vague recollection that I was allowed over there at some point. I think.

I don’t know where Dad was at this time. He might have been off in one of the secret spy hospitals again. It was a horrible time for us Bedfords. We were in rotten strife. We were all in wars.

My fault, naturally.

I was not exactly thriving in D20. Not just yet. It was still hammering me into pieces, so it could then refashion me into a better, more pleasing form. My parents did not understand this. That there was something as much Arts & Crafts as well as Psychiatric about what was happening. I was being upgraded. I didn’t understand any of this while it was happening. At the time I was very angry, and took it out on my poor parents. My dad returned fire. Mum just stood between us and cried.

I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.

As you’ll recall, Dad had the engine clutched to his chest. He wanted to transfer it to a nearby tinny boat. Mum, holding the rope, saw she’d let the boat drift while she was distracted, and yanked on the rope to pull the boat back. She didn’t want to get yelled at again. And Dad was in one of his moods again, yelling at seagulls if they pissed him off just so.

Mum brought the boat over, and Dad got ready, but just as Dad went to dump the engine somehow the boat slipped aside anyway. Mum and Dad’s recollections are not clear on this moment. But the upshot is clear: Dad and motor fell into the water with a huge splash! I still remember the splash. The two of them were completely submerged. I remember the water closing over man and engine.

It was astonishing. There was a pause as we up on the walkway, Mum still holding the boat rope, took in what had just happened.

Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, spluttering, from the water, a volcano rising from the ocean. His titanic anger so great it has echoed down the decades in family legend. He let fly, and abused Mum and–

Sorry, but we were all much too busy laughing. And this is the point of the whole story. We laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed our guts out. We laughed like we had never laughed before and seldom since. The bully had been rendered ridiculous. He looked like a drowned cat down there sputtering and yelling, and it was hilarious. He looked small and pitiful. We couldn’t believe we had been afraid of this soggy bastard’s fury for so long.

And our laughter only made him angrier. It was the funniest, most cathartic thing ever. The tyrant brought down to size. He was one of us again.

It took him a while, but by later that evening, showered, dried off, in clean clothes, he admitted, grudgingly, that he could start to see the funny side of the whole thing. Which was lucky for him because the rest of us never let him forget about it. The wicked tyrant brought down by ridicule. The captain who went down with his outboard. We still talk about it, just as we still talk about the Condensed Milk Incident. We talk about Dad and the outboard because that was the first time we saw that he was just a bloke, and as flawed and foolish as the rest of us. That he was one of us. He had been such a fearful figure. I used to worry each day at school about how Dad would be each night. What would I have to prepare for? Would he be okay? Hoping so much for good days. Dreading the bad days, the arsehole clients, the idiot colleagues, the fuckwit bosses. The furiously tense Cold War evening meals. Even chewing felt heavy with significance, as if it meant something. Dad staring into space as he ate, thinking, brooding. Mum strung on the wire between us, hanging on. Doing her best. Tense smiling. Every day for Dad was a hard day. And if he was having a hard day, we all had hard days.

My dad, here in the present, was amazed when he heard that I was writing this book. He said, roaring with genuine laughter, I had to include the Outboard Motor Incident in Bunbury. Because, he said, it’s funny. That’s all he thinks of it, the comedy of it. And it certainly was funny, watching fall back into the water with the engine clamped to his chest after just listening to him yelling abuse at Mum. That was indeed funny as hell. But my interest is with that abuse, the yelling, the reasons why he was doing that. His illness. That sense about him all the time that he had only the loosest grip on whatever he tried to do, on even just getting through each day. He yelled at everybody, but was no doubt yelling at himself even more.

I have included this story because it says a lot about my dad, both back in the past and now. He was a nervy moody tyrant then, with his dark moods and sudden flashes of warmth and humour that could just as suddenly flash away again. But now, decades later, he’s a sweet and lovely old man of 81. He takes way too many medications for too many medical problems, and he can feel his memory starting to fade—but there’s a lot of that going around, even amongst us 50-somethings. My dad today is like a different person. He is kind and loving. His greatest pleasure is coming to our place to “mind” our dog while we’re out, and Freckle just drapes herself against him and goes to sleep, and Dad lets her, and will just sit there patting and stroking her, the sweetest dog and the sweetest old man. They go on like that for hours. It’s beautiful.

There’s no sign of the father I grew up with, the baffling, impossible, moody bastard I never understood, and who never understood me. Over time he went away, maybe to the secret spy hospital, once too often, and never returned, and we got this lovely old guy instead. It’s extraordinary. I think he must have been this way all along, but the combined distortion caused by his poorly treated illness, and the crushing pressure he felt as the family breadwinner and provided, worked to destroy most of that person. He must have felt it killing him, at least at times, that pressure to get up, go to work, do what he was told, no matter what, no matter what shape he was in. You could imagine men like Dad with the illness, unable to talk about it, finding themselves driven to suicide.

Dad got lucky. Around the time I was sixteen in the D20 psychiatric unit, Dad was finally getting effective treatment. They were giving him (and me) Lithium, a metal salt similar to Sodium. It takes a long time to build up in the body, but then when it does, it’s great. Things began to change. Big things. It took many years, we were both lumbering works-in-progress, but we started to talk, a little bit. Dad settled down. I started to feel, if not fine, then like I had a rough map to the general vicinity of “fine”, and that I would know it if I saw it. It was a sign of life. I was getting better. For the first time in my teenage life, there was a bit of hope.

And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water that day in Bunbury? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. Salt water would wash through the inside compartments of the engine and the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with such things. And he had a full can of CRC, a seriously water-repellent spray. He used almost an entire can on the stripped-down parts of that motor. It took two hours, but in the end he achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water spat, coughed, roared, stank with exhaust, and spluttered and roared back to noisy life once again, as good as new.