MEMOIR: HISTORY (FINAL–BETTER)

MEMOIR: HISTORY (FINAL–BETTER)

When I was sixteen my entire life fell to bits, as if poorly made, the warranty long expired. 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. It felt as if my whole life had been building up to this eruption, and yet that very eruption turned out to be much less interesting than the question of why had it taken so long to turn up? Why hadn’t it happened 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 had failed the mid-year exams, and felt as if I were drowning every day and nobody could see the trouble I was in. I was going down. I couldn’t touch bottom. Between the work I couldn’t do, the bullies I couldn’t escape, and the noise in my head that wouldn’t leave me alone, I was done for, or so I thought–

XXX

Flashback. February, 1969. Man has yet to set foot on the Moon. One little boy has yet to set foot inside his grade one classroom, but today is the day. Day one, grade one.

And there I was, a little boy in grey polyester-cotton, with my my mum, and school was about to start. It was a big day. I was five years old. I was upset. This was a lot to deal with. My mum had walked me to school this morning. She held my hand in hers. When we got there, I asked her, crying, if she would wait for me. She was crying, too. She said she would. It was okay. I was scared. It was bad. There were all these other kids. The polyester-cotton shirt I was wearing chafed my neck. I can feel it even now. I remember that texture on my skin. I was scared. All my life up to this point I’d always been with family. I’d never been on my own. Not like this. Not for this long–half a day. It was too much.

Mum left to go and wait in the Boys’ Shed (she actually went home, because she wasn’t seriously about to spend half a day sitting in a drafty shed waiting for me). I joined the line for grade one. Everyone was nervous, fidgety, talkative. It was scary and exciting.

But just then a Level 1 Bully named Geoffrey and his droog Craig pushed me out of this line and I fell, shocked, hot with outrage, to the bitumen. That bitumen was hard, rough, and, on that February morning,it was hot under my tiny hands. Bits of dark grit pushed against my skin and hurt. I hurt all over. The world loomed and towered over me as I sat there looking up.

Sometimes, even now, I feel as if I never got up off that bitumen. As if I’ve been trying to get up off that bitumen my whole damned life.

And here we were. The beginning of the whole thing. My first day of school, and my first experience of bullying. I was five years old. Up to this moment, sprawled on the hot bitumen, my life had been good and happy. Now I was confused, and that was giving way to fury. I wanted to scream, and cry, because nothing like this had happened to me before. WHY DID YOU DO THAT TO ME? I wanted to scream at the other boy, who had shoved me over. Who had initiated me. Who had shown me that I was a joke, and you could see that because he and Craig were laughing at me.

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. That some bullies understand only brute force; while others know the power of cutting, quiet remarks; and others still understand how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully are many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I would think, Why did you do that to me? 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? Or is it just because it’s funny? Because it’s entertaining, toying with the weak, the defenceless, the soft?

I remember laughter. Bullies were always laughing and joking with their mates. So I guess that’s it. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. Sure, it’s dehumanising for the victim. But hey, it’s just a joke–can’t you take a joke? We’re just joking around! When did you get so boring, Bedford?

Trust me, I’ve always been boring.

XXX

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 need help and therapeutic interventions as much as their victims. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a child who’s been the target of systematic, daily bullying, mocking, harassment, torment–that his nemesis is also a victim of some kind of awful abuse will likely result in very mixed feelings at best and indifference at worst. “So what!” is what you’d likely say, at the time, nursing your own pain. But later, you’d think. You’d wonder.

My junior, short-pants self is on the bitumen. He’s furious about what’s just happened, what Geoffrey’s done to him, and the way the other kids are staring. He’s not interested in a seminar on Bully Studies. He wants justice. He wants, quite possibly, bloody revenge. I remember, as a boy, many nights in bed, imagining the Bruce Lee/Batman-esque action sequences in which I would destroy my tormentors—and those who allowed my tormentors to do their thing.

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 an 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, weren’t you, mate? 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 their 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 that the few girls who were nice to me in fact had 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.

XXX

When I was sixteen, my whole life, such as it was, with its unbearable burdens of grinding schoolwork, unending homework and constant bullying, simply broke and fell to bits, as if poorly made from cheap parts. 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: HISTORY PART 1 (FINAL)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART I (FINAL)

When I was sixteen my entire life fell to bits, as if poorly made, the warranty long expired. 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. It felt as if my whole life had been building up to this eruption, and yet that very eruption turned out to be much less interesting than the question of why had it taken so long to turn up? Why hadn’t it happened 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.

This trouble, this drowning, began on my very first day of primary school. That first morning, we had to line up outside the classroom on the bitumen quadrangle, and somehow we’d be told when to file into the classroom. I was upset. This was a lot to deal with. My mum had walked me to school this morning, and held my tiny pudgy moist hand, and when we got here I had asked her to wait for me, and I had cried when I asked. I was scared. All my life up to this point I’d always been with family. I’d never been on my own. Not like this. Not for this long–half a day. It was too much.

Mum promised she’d wait, and she was upset, too, and left to go and wait in the Boys’ Shed (she actually went home, because she wasn’t seriously about to spend half a day sitting in a drafty shed waiting for me). So I went and joined the line for the class, trying to be brave and grown up, and not a sticky, gooey mess.

And just then a Level 1 Bully named Geoffrey and his droog Craig pushed me out of the line of little kids waiting to go into the classroom for the first time, and I fell, shocked, hot with outrage, to the bitumen. That bitumen was hard, rough and, on that February morning, hot under my soft hands. Bits of dark grit pushed against my skin and hurt. I hurt all over. The world loomed and towered over me as I sat there looking up.

Sometimes, even now, it’s like I never got up off that bitumen. Like I’ve been trying to get up off that bitumen my whole damned life.

And here we were. The beginning of the whole thing. My first day of school, and my first experience of bullying. I was five years old. Up to this moment, sprawled on the hot bitumen, my life had been good and happy. Now I was confused, and that was giving way to fury. I wanted to scream, and cry, because nothing like this had happened to me before. WHY DID YOU DO THAT TO ME? I wanted to scream at the other boy, who shoved me over. Who initiated me. Who let me know there were predator animals and there were prey animals, and he was the former, and I was the latter, and always would be.

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. That some bullies understand only brute force; while others know the power of cutting, quiet remarks; and others still understand how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully are many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I would think, Why did you do that to me? 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? Or is it just because it’s funny? Because it’s entertaining, toying with the weak, the defenceless, the soft.

I remember laughter. Bullies were always laughing and joking with their mates. So I guess that’s it. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. Sure, it’s dehumanising for the victim. But hey, it’s just a joke–can’t you take a joke? We’re just joking around! When did you get so boring, Bedford?

Trust me, I’ve always been boring.

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 need help and therapeutic interventions as much as their victims. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a child who’s been the target of systematic, daily bullying, mocking, harassment, torment–that his nemesis is also a victim of some kind of awful abuse will likely result in very mixed feelings at best and indifference at worst. “So what!” is what you’d likely say, at the time, nirsimg your own pain. But later, you’d think. You’d wonder.

My junior, short-pants self is on the bitumen. He’s furious about what’s just happened, what Geoffrey’s done to him, and the way the other kids are staring. He’s not interested in a seminar on Bully Studies. He wants justice. He wants, quite possibly, bloody revenge. I remember, as a boy, many nights in bed, imagining the Bruce Lee/Batman-esque action sequences in which I would destroy my tormentors—and those who allowed my tormentors to do their thing.

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 an 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, weren’t you, mate? 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 their 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 that the few girls who were nice to me in fact had 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.

XXX

When I was sixteen, my whole life, such as it was, with its unbearable burdens of grinding schoolwork, unending homework and constant bullying, simply broke and fell to bits, as if poorly made from cheap parts. 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 CONDENSED MILK INCIDENT (TOTAL REWRITE)

MEMOIR: THE CONDENSED MILK INCIDENT (TOTAL REWRITE)

Nestlé Condensed Milk is a sweet, sticky, gloopy sort of “milk” that came in these tins, and the great thing about it was that until you opened the tin you did not have to keep it refrigerated. If you lived, for example, in a tiny, flimsy caravan only ten feet long in a red-dust mining camp in the middle of fly-blown nowhere, and your job involved working all night in temperatures cold enough to break your spirit, to freeze your heart, to burn your membranes as you breathed, and to cripple your hands, and it was just you and your demons, fixing giant yellow industrial machines—you might well feel entitled, when you got home to the caravan, to a reviving cup of tea. And when you made the cup of tea, you’d want to have a bit of milk in it.

Unless I’d beaten you to it.

I was three years old. Mum says I was a wilful, naughty boy. She says I was difficult. I know from my own recollection that I was weird, moody, mischievous and shy to the point of pathology.

My dad was a young man struggling in his role as a family man and breadwinner, good with his hands, who had landed a mechanic job on the nation-building Standard Gauge Project, in which the government of the day installed uniform rail gauge across the country. My dad’s part in the whole thing was to repair graders, bulldozers, etc, during the night when they were idle. But at night it was unimaginably cold, just as during the day it was unthinkably hot. My dad suffered with bipolar, same as me, but was never treated properly for it until he was forty-five. Working helped a little, but working alone, all night, when it was so cold, did not.

My mum, who is legally blind, learned how to drive, so she could take hot meals to my dad in the middle of the night, and to give him some company. She used to take me along, the blind lady and the little boy, out driving in the middle of the night.

I loved Nestlé Condensed Milk. I ate it up. I couldn’t leave it alone. It was the best stuff ever.

But it was hard to replace. This work camp we lived in was in a place in the bush called Koolyanobbing. Some distance away was a small town called Southern Cross. If you needed groceries, that’s where you needed to go. It was a hard problem. It wasn’t like popping down to the local shops. It meant an expedition. It meant logistics, planning, and talking to people.

Things, because they were transported over land by truck from faraway big cities, were also expensive, and nervous men who worked all night on their own on gigantic yellow machines in freezing cold conditions so cold that their hands hardly worked found that their meagre pay did not go very far.

We could not afford to keep buying tins of Nestlé Condensed Milk because I had just devoured the latest tin.

Dad was always angry and frustrated and fed up.

Mum was always telling me off. Always, always telling me off.

The caravan was ten feet long. Imagine the three of us squeezed into that tiny space. Imagine the crushing, squeezing, unbearable heat. The pressure. We had to eat, we had to live and exist. We needed money. Dad had to go to work at the job that was driving him mad. Mum had to take her life in her hands getting behind the wheel of a car each night to take Dad a meal, even though she could barely see beyond the end of the car’s bonnet. Mum has albinism. Her eyes wobble uncontrollably. She can’t make them stay still or focus.

And I couldn’t leave the condensed milk alone. Three-year-old me loved it. Thought all the fuss over it was hilarious.

But then, one day, one fateful day, I ate a whole tin of Nestlé Condensed Milk while Mum was outside sweeping red dust. She came into the caravan unexpectedly, still carrying the broom, and she caught me in flagrante delecto. I may have laughed.

Mum went for me, and I ran. Mum came hurtling after me, broom and all. She chased me up and down the red dirt of the caravan park, yelling after me that she was going to kill me when she caught me, and I laughed and laughed, because this was the funniest thing ever! I felt like I could run forever, and maybe I could have, at the time.

Mum, though, a young woman in her twenties, a little overweight, not very fit, not used to running, was at a disadvantage. But she knew she had to catch me. If she failed to catch me and punish me properly, she knew (and we still, to this day, talk about this story), it would poison our relationship. She knew I would never respect her authority if I got away with this condensed milk thing. I would always see her as a joke. I think she’s right.

This moment, this chase through the caravan park, forged our entire future relationship, and to a large extent our characters as well. We do indeed still talk about this incident. It is seminal. Mum had to get me, and show me who was boss. Everything, our whole future, depended on it. It rose to the level of myth. I was a naughty boy, but the thing about being naughty is that it’s all about the moment of being naughty. There’s no future in it. What do you do later when you’re hungry again?

Mum did catch me. I forget how she caught me, but she did. I imagine I got cocky. I might have stopped to laugh, or tripped and fallen, or one of our neighbours might have apprehended me for Mum. Anything like that could have happened, or something else again. It hardly matters. The salient point is that Mum got me. And I was given the hiding of my brief life. I don’t remember it. I don’t even remember if they spanked me or if they just yelled at me or sent me to bed without dinner, or what. It was 1966, so I imagine Dad’s Belt might have seen some action.

What I do remember is that I lost my taste for Nestlé Condensed Milk. Not right away, not that night, but I lost the madness over it. Lost the need for it. Now I can’t stand the stuff. It’s too sweet. It’s too sticky. I react with horror if I touch anything sticky like that.

I still, sometimes, see my Mum, in the rear-view mirror of my imagination, charging after me, armed with her broom (red dirt, white caravans, Ektachrome blue skies), and it still makes me laugh. But it also reminds me that my mum is formidable and determined.

I love my mum.

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (FINAL)

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (FINAL)

One day when I was about ten or eleven years old, I believed I was dead. It was a bright, warm day, the sun beating down. It might have been a Sunday, but I am not sure. I have few details to go with this memory, other than that cold, numb sensation that, at the time, I thought, could only be death.

Living with mental illness is a bit like living with a terrible house-guest or room-mate, one who won’t pay the rent or won’t pay their share of the bills or help out with chores. One who makes everything that happens about them, as if it’s their house, and not yours. And I’ve been living with mine my whole life, but I only became aware of it as such when I was first diagnosed at age sixteen. The day I’m writing about here is the first instance I can now recollect of something seeming wrong. It was a hint, foreshadowing a looming story development.

I started thinking about writing this memoir in 2017 during the never-ending medication-change saga. The experience was so much worse than I was expecting–than even my doctors were expecting–so profound and transformative, that I started thinking it might be worth writing about it.

I turned to memoir how-to books, and read a stack of them. The Art of Writing Memoir by Mary Karr, and Handling the Truth, by Beth Kephart, were two that became my guiding stars. They showed me that it’s okay not to be able to remember every last detail. That it’s okay to say you don’t know, don’t remember. Also that you don’t have to follow a strict chronological sequence. You can fragment the narrative however you please, as long as it works. But the main thing they say is that you have to tell the truth as best you can remember it. Here it gets tricky. Truth is fuzzy. There will always be details missing. There’s the Rashomon effect, too, where three different witnesses will tell three different stories of what happened. So you have to make your best effort, and be honest with the reader when you’re at the fuzzy edge of what you remember, when you’re standing at the edge of fiction.

Looking back from my middle-aged perspective, I can see things from my pre-diagnosis past that look like episodes, or instances, of depression. The first that I can think of was this one where one Sunday when I began to be aware, as I lay in bed, that I felt very far away from my life as I had so far understood it. I was just a kid, and I was used to odd things happening–that was life: practically everything that happens is new to you. And this feeling was new. New and strange.

I felt as if I had died. It was the only thing that made sense. I was dead, but because I was already lying down in bed I hadn’t fallen over. It was odd that I was awake, that I could look around. But I felt abstracted from myself, distant. Adrift. Imagine the colour yellow with all the yellow taken out of it.

I’ve often thought about this time in my life, when I was about ten. I know very little about it. We were still living in Wembley, in my dad’s parents’ old house on Harborne Street, not far from Lake Monger. At school, bullies were always telling me they were gonna kill me after school by the bike racks. I had a male teacher who was very friendly, who invited me (and a few other kids) to stay after school for extra lessons. He was trying to teach us Esperanto, and while I can still count to ten in Esperanto, it all seemed a bit silly.

However, it was 1973. That teacher was interested in politics. He started telling us about Watergate and President Nixon. I don’t know about the other kids, but I was fascinated, and it was the beginning of a lifelong interest in politics.

This was my life. I tell you about all this and it sounds pretty normal—except somewhere in the midst of this I experience a day so awful that I feel as I’m actually dead.

Normal life, and then this in the middle of it. It makes no sense. What happened? I don’t remember. I pick and pick at my memories and I can’t see what was going on. I would get up in the mornings, do my thing, and go to school, and if I was lucky the bastard bullies would leave me be today. Sometimes they did. They were random and strange, like weather events. Sometimes they were so dreadful that I would feign illness to my parents to try and get out of going to school that day. It rarely worked. Not only did Mum rarely believe me, she knew I had to go.

They knew I was struggling, that I was in trouble, flying on one engine. They could see it, could Mum and Dad, especially Mum, who had the most contact with me. But there was little, at this point, she could do.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting here writing, Middle Aged Time Travelling Man, looking back at this poor young bastard living through a twelve-year car-crash, and from my future perspective it seems obvious why he feels so dead inside. I want to hug him, and tell him it’ll be okay, but not yet. But then you think about the ethics of this sort of time travel intervention, and you decide, hmm, maybe not. Because this kid is you, but in an important sense he is someone else, he’s a person living his own life. You have no right to interfere.

So you watch from a distance. You watch him suffer and struggle, remembering when you were him.

I remember in 1974 we had to move house from Wembley to Bassendean. I always hated moving to a new house, and we moved often, and at the time I never understood why. It was confounding. We’d live somewhere for a while, but then suddenly we’d have to pack up and go somewhere else. It was upsetting. I always got sick on moving day. Dad was always furious.

But I only found out years later it was because of my poor dad and his own illness, and his own struggle to hold down jobs, that meant we had to move so often, and so suddenly.

It meant leaving that primary school in the middle of grade six, and completing the year at the new school. It meant new bullies. But it also meant a wonderful best friend.

But on my last day at the original primary school, I walked around the grounds, looking at everything as the sun rode down the sky. I would never see these buildings, these classrooms, this bitumen quadrangle with its chipped white markings for netball and handball—ever again. I would never see the conical cap of the septic tank over by the bike racks where I had been informed in grade one that supporting the wrong footy team would ruin my life.

I cried walking around that afternoon, saying goodbye to all that. I bloody cried. I couldn’t believe it! Why the hell was I upset about leaving this hole in the ground where I’d never been happy? Was I somehow attached? Did I secretly love the old pile? Was I sentimental about a place where I’d been miserable for six years?

I’ve often wondered. I think for all its torments, it had been home, and was familiar. It was mine. I knew my way around. I didn’t want to go to a new school, to the unknown. I was scared. Scared not just of the unknown, but scared of the world of uncertainty I lived in, with my dad and his health. You never knew from day to day how things would be. You didn’t know what the future might hold. Much of the time you didn’t even know much about the present.

And there I was, lying in bed, dead in my head, and it was exactly what I needed.

What was I doing before that? I have no true idea. The memory consists of only the details I’ve described. I don’t even know what happened after that. I have a vague and therefore unreliable recollection, possible fabrication, that my mum appeared in the doorway and I asked her if I was dead. I was out of my mind. I was an astronaut doing a spacewalk, untethered to the ship, drifting far away, basking in the vast luminous blue-green-white sky of the Earth’s surface. Somewhere, far from where I was, lay a young boy beset from all sides with Earthly troubles, so many and so overwhelming that he imagined himself dead, adrift from his useless physical self. It’s nice. It’s a relief.

I don’t know how I came back to myself, but I did. Life went on. School, bullies, homework, girls, unending torment, confusion, terror.

On that occasion we moved to Bassendean, to an old breezy, cold fibro house with an outdoor toilet full of spiders and chills. The new primary school was different in many ways—but as I had feared, only too familiar in others. At this primary school I would meet the best friend whose fate was to be murdered in 1987; and I would encounter the notorious “Mad Boy”, an eleven-year-old storm of chaos, who would engulf me in an actual fist-fight.

I never had another day like that one, when I believed myself dead. I think I came to realise it simply couldn’t happen, so it didn’t. Instead I had days when instead I lay in bed and only wished I were dead. Laying there, talking to God. I wasn’t much for religion, and I wasn’t sure about God, but if there was a God, I wanted to keep in touch.

Dear God, please make it not hurt. Please make those kids leave me alone. Please look after my mum and dad. Look after my dad.

It’s now been a while since I felt that experience of being “dead inside”, that dissociated, numb, astronaut spacewalking sensation. But then again, not that long. I felt it a lot last year during the Medication Shuffle, when things were bad. And this year during rough patches. Unlike when I was a kid, when that feeling strikes now I know what it is, and can act on it. It’s like a boiling kettle has just run dry and you need to put more water in. It’s no big deal, and easily sorted out.

But nobody explains that to little kids with big imaginations.

MEMOIR: PROLOGUE: TIME TRAVEL (FINAL)

MEMOIR: PROLOGUE: TIME TRAVEL (FINAL)

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

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

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

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

His doctor decides to bring his medications into the 21st century, and admits him to hospital for what should be only a couple of weeks, but turns out to be five months of agony and turmoil, an unprecedented ordeal the like of which our protagonist has never known, and from which he is still, a year after leaving hospital, recovering.

It was an experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it, but in writing about my experience last year, I saw that I needed to address the influence of my illness on my entire life.

The thing about mental illness is that it messes with your head. It makes you think weird stuff. It makes you believe things that are not true. And you believe them the way you believe in gravity and your mother’s love. These wrong beliefs wrap you with cobwebs. You’re not even aware of it. It happens slowly. It’s like cataracts forming in your eyes. You never notice them, but then one day you can’t see. Same with the cobwebs cocooning your mind. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t move. Your whole sense of who you are as a person is tangled up in cobwebs. Pretty soon you’re dead inside. You’re barely able to get out of bed. You could sleep for a thousand years. You believe that everyone you know would actually like you to go away. Don’t come back! you imagine them adding. When you have major depression, it will try to kill you. It will talk to you about how you can help all the people around you by getting out of their way. It tells you that you are a dreadful burden on your friends and family, and that you can help them by going away.

This is not true. It’s the cobwebs talking. The cobwebs lie. Your friends and family love you. Stay. Please stay. Get help. We love you. Stay.

I’ve been fighting the cobwebs all my life, but especially this past year. It’s been a brutal year. When I was sixteen and first diagnosed was a bad time, too—but I would still rate last year as worse. You’ll see.

I can, by now, deal with the cobwebs and all the bollocks that goes with them on my own. But sometimes I need help to deal with the ones out of my reach, and for those I have an excellent clinical psychologist, who has a very long stick. I would not be here without her and her big long stick. This book is a tribute to the many mental health professionals who put me back together again when I thought I was irretrievably broken.

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

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

I imagine myself, middle-aged, married, a man in possession a time machine, visiting my teenage self the night I had my first huge terrifying breakdown, the night I feared I’d die of crying. If I visited that evening in June 1979, what might I see? A boy, crying so hard he’s worried he might die from it, that something might happen, that he might break open. The boy’s mother, my mum, much younger than I’m used to seeing her, holding the boy’s hand, stroking it, talking to him, doing her best to soothe him, to help him, armed only with the magic of love. On the other side of the bed is a nurse, doing much the same thing, only in a professional capacity.

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

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

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

This is a book of fragments and shards. My dad, back when he was a motor mechanic, used to have these huge trays full of screws, nuts, washers, bolts, and all manner of odd mechanical gewgaws, glinting dully in his workshop light, and all of it a bit sticky with a film of oil. How I hated having anything to do with any of that stuff! But that’s this book. It’s a big random mess of parts. It’s got stories from my whole life. There’s bits from when I was a kid growing up in the “Space Age” 1960s to right this week and everything in between, including my histories of mental illness and obesity, because I’ve always believed the one was a manifestation of the other.

All my life I had to pretend I was normal, but I wasn’t normal, and I wasn’t well. And I had to hide it. I had to seem normal at all times. It was the most important thing in the world. It was impossible. That strain, that impossible task, and what it did to me, is what this book is about.

MEMOIR: WHEN MUM MET DAD (FINAL)

MEMOIR: WHEN MUM MET DAD

It was the early 1960s, and Ken was a young man with tall dark and handsome movie star looks. He was up on the balcony at Perth’s classy Embassy Ballroom. He came here Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, every chance he got, for years. It was one of his favourite haunts, and he was well liked, cutting a handsome figure in a decent suit.

And on this one particular night he happened to glance down into the milling crowd below, where coloured light from a rotating mirror-ball spun stars around the room, and happened to catch one young woman’s hair at just the right moment, the fateful moment, and he saw a vision splendid.

He was breathless. He had never seen such beautiful hair, so pale, so luminous, a cloud of glowing light. He had to meet this girl, because he knew in that moment that he would marry her.

Marie was a sensible, well-brought-up young woman from a broken home who in addition to the social stigma associated with having divorced parents, she also had to live with the genetic disorder of albinism. The luminous cloud of pale hair that Ken had seen was Marie’s albino hair which had so little blonde pigment it was nearly white, and very fine. That night she may have had a mauve tint through it. But she was there at the only place in Perth known to be safe for young women. And if there was one thing she loved it was ballroom dancing and the Embassy Ballroom, in the very early 1960s, was the place to be. It was glamorous, stylish, exciting, and the best night out in Perth.

The Embassy had a capacity for perhaps as many as a thousand people, but never felt stuffy or hot because of ingeniously designed ventilation systems. Two live bands in different areas of the Embassy handled the tunes–one providing the latest “rock ‘n’ roll” while the other played all the classic ballroom dancing songs.

The night Dad and Mum met, according to their recollection, Dad wore dark trousers and a reefer jacket, and Mum was in a white blouse and a brightly coloured circle skirt with layers of petticoats. She looked lovely.

Marie lived in Fremantle in a huge, breathing, rambling red-brick pile of a house similar to the sort of place made famous in Tim Winton’s CLOUDSTREET. All the rooms seemed to have room for entire smaller houses to be hidden inside them. You could wear yourself out walking across the dining room. Marie had lived there for years, raised by her grandmother, a stern but loving matriarch from whom Marie learned many important lessons, especially about the importance of forebearance and persistence.

Ken at the time was a recently divorced, ex-army (dishonourably discharged) guy who was at the time working as a cocktail waiter in Perth’s Savoy Hotel. This was a temporary, passing thing. His work history before and after this all revolved around machines and engines in different ways. When he applied for his first job fixing outboard boat motors, having never seen one before, they showed him a workbench with a completely stripped motor, pulled into individual pieces, some 300 of them. They also provided a workshop manual, and all the tools he might need. “Fix this and you’re hired,” they said. It took him three days, but he did it and got the job.

The night Ken spotted Marie’s luminous hair down on the dance floor, and swore that he would marry her, Mum had already seen him around the place, in the company of a redhead woman named Mary who was wearing a red dress. Mum, even today, decades later, took a dim view of redheaded women wearing red. Especially that one, who seemed to have “gobbled up” Ken, as far as Mum’s weak albino eyes could tell. That woman seemed very confident, Marie thought, and even though Ken was very nice, polite and charming, Marie looked at him a little askance, believing he was taken.

But he wasn’t. Redheaded Mary might have been quite serious about him, but he was not serious about her. She was, he says, a mate, a pal. Ken was determined to marry Marie.

But Marie’s family suffered a great loss. Marie’s grandmother’s husband, Jack, suddenly passed away at work. Marie had spent a lot of her life growing up in this huge, baggy old house surrounded by older relatives, but over time they’d all left, leaving just Grandma, Jack, and Marie in a house much too large for them. And now it was even bigger, the rooms like furnished hangars with bric-a-brac and doilies.

Marie’s grandmother, an extraordinary woman in her own right, fell ill. Her heart was weak. Marie stayed home on her former dancing nights for three weeks to look after her grandmother, who knew her granddaughter was giving up something she loved. So she told Marie on the third Friday night to go dancing, but perhaps just come home a bit early. She, Grandma, would be fine.

Reluctantly, guiltily, Marie went.

Ken had been searching for her, this living vision like no other woman he’d seen. And when Marie arrived, the first person she saw at the entrance was Ken. They spent some time that evening. A mutual friend confided to dubious Marie that Ken was a great guy, and that he wasn’t involved with the redhead, who, Marie learned to her great surprise, had gone to Melbourne. This all made Mum lowe her suspicions somewhat. Even today, in her 70s, she is inclined to be suspicious of people she doesn’t know well, expecting the worst from them.

Despite Mum’s suspicions, and a droll misunderstanding involving a pair of Dad’s binoculars, he took her home to Fremantle that night, and was a perfect gentleman. Mum allowed that he might have been a decent young man. Over time, they went out a bit more, and a bit more. At some point Dad swapped his Morris Minor car for something like a Vespa or Lambretta motor scooter. There are family legends of Mum and Dad puttering around Fremantle and elsewhere in freezing weather, with Mum (pregnant with yours truly) riding on the back, wrapped in a blanket, helmet on skew-whiff, stopping at a burger joint in North Fremantle for snacks, and much else.

Dad has never once, not ever, given Mum a hard time about her albinism. I’ve always loved that about him. Mum’s eyes, a very rare pair of blue eyes (most people with albinism have colourless or pinkish eyes), wobble all the time, so that she finds it very hard to focus on anything. She’s legally blind. Her skin is exceptionally dry, and prone to skin cancers that are forever cropping up, sort of like pimples, only they have to burned off or cut out every few months. Her skin is also white like ghosts. No amount of sunlight is safe for her. Her condition also makes her allergic to summer heat.

Then there’s Dad’s troubles. He knew what he was getting with Mum because her problems are all very visible. But Dad “doesn’t look sick”. He tells me the first he knew something might be wrong was when he was 18 and his dad took him to a psychiatrist. He remembers little of the experience, other than that he was given an injection of something. It would have been the mid-1950s, so it’s very unlikely it would have been anything helpful or useful.

Dad’s troubles did not become serious problems until he was doing his national service in the army in the eastern states. By this point he was married (not to my mum; this was someone else) and at some point it collapsed and they divorced.

Dad was so distraught he attempted to take his life. I asked him about this. Was it “cry for help” or “actual suicide”? It was a large quantity of Librium, too, and it was definitely the latter. He was devastated. In time this led to the dishonourable discharge. Between his divorce and this discharge he must have felt dreadful.

But things had cleared up by the time he was back in Perth, and was working at the Savoy Hotel as the cocktail waiter. Mum never found out about Dad’s psychiatric past until ten months into their marriage when dad fell ill again, which is to say some form of breakdown. This is the early-to-mid 1960s. Treatment options at the time were not great. The only things available were very blunt instruments, and often as bad as the condition they were treating.

Dad spent years, from when I was little until I was 16 and went into D20, living like this. He struggled to hold jobs. It was hard. He had a great mind for the work he was good at. But the pressure of being the breadwinner, of fatherhood, of bringing in money, felt like it was killing him. He was often spirited away in the dead of night to places like the mysterious Graylands Hospital, and might be gone two days or two weeks or longer. I was never allowed to visit. It was considered a very hardcore place. When Dad came home again, looking harrowed, he told stories of the sort you can’t bear to hear.

It wasn’t until I was in D20 before Dad, and I, were both put on Lithium Carbonate, a metal salt. It changed our lives, though it took a long time to adjust. It was also a very blunt weapon–but it was a weapon. It was more than a stick or a club. It had a couple of rusty nails in the end. It did the job. Darkness and mist that had been with us so long it had begun to solidify around us started to melt away.

It saved us both.

But it nearly killed Mum. She had a heart attack around the same time I was being put on Lithium. Dad was in Graylands, and I was in D20. Then one morning a male nurse found me in the Art Therapy Room, one of my main haunts, and gently, as if defusing a bomb, explained about my mum being over in Accident and Emergency, and whether or not I’d be allowed to see her.

Mum, who has her own psychiatric history, had been holding Dad and me together all these years. Part of that was keeping me from fully understanding what was up with Dad. She was often pulled two ways at once. Sick Adrian was extremely reactive with Sick Dad. The two did not get on, not one bit. There was yelling, door-slamming, and suspicion.

Dad, now, when I visit, says he has no recollection of any of it. He thinks we’ve always gotten along as we get along now, which is great! For my part, I can’t believe how well we get along now, considering the past, and the potential for grudges. But there’s no point having a grudge against someone who doesn’t remember why you’re pissed off. Now he’s just a nice old man with way too many medical complaints (tonight it was tingles in his legs), and too much medication.

But Mum remembers all of it (just as she remembers how she felt when Dad came unglued on her just ten months into their marriage and he hadn’t told her about what happened to him in the army). When I’ve told Dad what it used to be like, she backs me up, which is good. It’s miraculous that we’ve turned out so well, that it’s come to this point. Neither Mum nor me expected Dad to last this long. He smoked until he was 45, but managed with Mum’s help to gradually quit, and never went back. He still, at 81, carries permanent lung damage and COPD, emphysema. He gets winded easily. We never thought he’d make it to this age. Now he says he’s going to live til he’s 90, and who can say he won’t?

I doubt they would say they are happy together, but I believe they would agree that they are content and peaceful. They and their many and various illnesses and conditions are great companions. Mum is still the boss, and is still keeping an eye on Dad, to keep him out of trouble (just as she still watches over me, whether I like it or not). One of Dad’s hardest adjustments is the gradual reduction in the range of physical handyman-type jobs he can do around the house. He always used to love being able to fix and maintain things. Never comfortable telling you he loved you, he was the sort of Australian male who showed you how much by cleaning your gutters. His long losing battle with time and entropy has been terrible to watch. Now it’s a lot for him to make me an instant coffee. I love his instant coffee.

Mum and Dad still have a framed head and shoulders photo of the two of them dating from the Embassy Ballroom years when they went there. I see it every time I visit, and it is striking how Dad could have been a matinee idol, and Mum could have been a wobbly-eyed platinum-blonde bombshell, if only she hadn’t been quite so self-effacing, modest–and suspicious!

MEMOIR: PROLOGUE: HOSPITAL MAY 2016 DAY 1

PROLOGUE: HOSPITAL MAY 2016 DAY 1

I’m sitting, nervous, trembling, in a chair in a hospital reception area. There is carpeting. I can see a sliding automatic door over there, and outside, it’s a bright sunny May day. Nearly winter. Next to me is my luggage. Michelle has packed me about a week, maybe two weeks of luggage. My doctor told me I would be in and out in mo time, a week, ten days, two weeks tops. He smiled saying that, expansive, infusing me with confidence. A minor thing. Take me off the old medication, deal with the withdrawal side-effects under 24-hour supervision, and ease onto the new one. Easy, he said. Two weeks, tops.

I’m trying to fill in the admission forms.

I can’t. Phones are ringing behind me at the reception desk. There are people coming and going. Michelle is next to me. She looks tense.

My hand holding the pen—it’s a black pen—is shaking. I can hardly write, my hand shakes so much.

The glare from outside, through the glass door—

There are at least seven pages to this form. Seven pages! I’m struggling.

My hand hurts. I try using my left hand to hold my right hand steady. It doesn’t help. I can’t do it. I’m only on page, I think, three. Some question wanting a list of current medications, or health insurance details, or medical history or some damned impossible thing and you just want to scream with frustration because who in their right mind designs a form for people entering a psychiatric hospital, people who are not well, people who are upset and agitated, and makes them fill in seven pages of tiny print forms?

I whisper all this to Michelle. I feel the way my heart gallops. The way I want to smash the glass in the door.

The phone! The phone ringing, always ringing!

Michelle says give me the form.

I give her the form.

I could weep.

I’m just about weeping telling you this story.

This was May 2016. I was a sick and troubled middle-aged man suffering from lifelong bipolar disorder.

By this point I was barely functioning. I was an absentee husband to Michelle. I could not get out of bed each day before 3 or 4pm. She goes to work at 3pm. It was a living death. When I did get up, I was functional to a point, but only a point. I was a writer by profession, but I felt deeply bitter and conflicted about it. I did not know whether I wanted to continue being a writer. I felt, despite six published books to my name, like a failure. None of my books had done all that well. Maybe writing wasn’t really a good fit for me. I thought and thought about this. What should I do instead?

I didn’t know. I’d always been a writer, since my earliest days. It’s literally all I knew how to do. I had no other skills. Typing. I am a proficient, office-ready touch-typist. I can do about 80 words per minute, with pretty good accuracy. And I have worked as a secretary and receptionist. Woo.

I’ve always struggled with the notion of work. Because of my illness. My dad, too. Same illness, but he was a provider, a breadwinner, and he went out to work for years and years, suffering dreadfully, without adequate treatment. He, like me years later, had trouble holding down a job.

The only other thing I’ve ever found that suited me like writing was study. I first went to university in the 1980s, made a big mess of it, did okay academically, but didn’t finish. I had another crack at it in the 1990s, but quit midway because I received word that I sold my first novel, and I imagined, naïvely, that the life of the full-time author lay before me. It didn’t. That book would not see print, for various reasons, for several years, during which time I could have finished that degree, and maybe a Master’s as well.

I have always deeply, bitterly, regretted that I never completed either of these degrees.

XXX

I was a patient in that hospital for a total of five months in 2016. It was the most harrowing experience of my life. I had to write about it. This book is the result. The more I wrote, the more I wrote.

I’ve always been mentally ill, and I’ve always been fat. I’ve often felt that the two things were aspects or manifestations of each other, and especially that my fat was pure depression given form and substance. This book is about these two things and what I’ve been through because of them, and what I’ve done, the lengths I’ve gone to, to deal with them.

XXX

I left that hospital in November 2016. I’ve been seeing a psychologist to help me since then, and she’s been wonderful. I was in that hospital a long time, on and off, because it was hard to find a replacement medication to my old one, the one that seemed to have stopped working. I tried several possible replacements, most of them useless or otherwise no good.

But I did end up on a good one with a doozy of a side-effect, Nortriptyline. You’ll hear about the side-effect, and what I believed I had to do to counter that side-effect. You’ll be horrified!

My life is now transformed. It might seem strange to tell you that at the beginning of the book. But it’s true. Things, for now, are good. The poor bastard who couldn’t fill in that form is okay now. He is, I am, fine.

Keep that in mind as you read. I am, as I say in the epilogue, suspicious of tidy, happy endings. I do not think life is like that. I think life moves in waves and cycles, and sometimes in big messy scribbles. But sometimes things here and there work out okay.

I said I felt bitter about never completing a university degree?

I’ve applied to go back to study.

Today I received an acceptance from Edith Cowan University here in Perth. I start later this month.

Think back to the man in the hospital reception area with the shaking hand and the form to fill in. I think about him all the time. All the time. I would never have imagined it possible. I thought I was permanently broken.

If nothing else, this book is a tribute to the mental health professionals who, individually and together, since that day in 2016 and since, put me back together.

MEMOIR: GIRLS AND BOYS (BIG REWRITE)

 

Her name was Lynette, and she was the dreamiest girl in grade six. She was blonde and otherworldly. She, like me, was only eleven, but that was enough. It would do. I think we may have touched hands once, clammy and warm, soft and fleeting—but I can’t be sure that this piece of memory, this touch of hand, goes with Lynette.

But I do remember her, or an impression of her, and that was her name, and she was “my” girl, the first girl who ever mattered to me, who made my heart all nervous-bird fluttery. She was neat and special and I liked her so much I would never tell my parents about her. Because they would fuss. It would be excruciating.

Lynette never knew, or even suspected, that she moved my world. That I lay awake at night thinking about her. That I sat in class between morning recess and lunchtime, wondering if I’d see her. Wondering if I’d have the nerve even to mumble an awkward hello.

Lynette was the first girl I ever had anything resembling “feelings” about. And yet I knew nothing about her. I knew nothing about books she liked, TV shows she liked, music she liked, her favourite meals, where she lived, nothing. She was mysterious. I loved her the way, I suppose, you might love a painting with a velvet rope in front of it. You stand at a distance, admiring it, unable to touch it, but wishing you could. I think Grade Six Adrian wanted to touch Lynette’s brushwork, or at least get close enough to see it. But he only ever saw her, in passing, at school, from a distance—but like a fine painting she was a vision, and that vision sustained me, and got me through bad days.

I still think fondly of Lynette because I never learned anything about her to spoil the image I always had. She never became a real, complex, flawed, mixed-up collage of a person. She was all surface, no substance. She was glamour, made of reflected light and magic. I have no doubt that she was as lovely a person as she appeared, but we were never introduced.

This was the hurly-burly world of grade six, after all. Life moved fast.

Next thing, we were suddenly all in grade seven, and while on one hand we had at last become kings of the school, we were all preoccupied–and shit-scared. Because while it was marvellous to have at last clawed our way to the summit of the shit-heap at primary school—we are grade seven! fear us!—the sad fact was that the very next year we were all getting packed off to high school, and that meant a very snakes-and-ladders reversal of fortune for us as we would be lowly first-years, lowly grubs at the bottom of the academic and social heap! The humiliation of it! We would have to make sure we enjoyed grade seven.

In the end, as fickle fate would have it, Lynette and I were not to be: at the end of grade seven, she went to a different high school from the one I went to. We never saw each other again. Then again, I don’t know if we ever saw each other. I saw her; I doubt she ever saw me.

XXX

High school was like a new geological epoch. Things were different now. The air was different, the light was different. Everything was brighter, more fraught, more intense, more terrifying. The stakes were higher. Everything mattered now in a way it had not mattered previously.

And as everything was changing, we were changing, too. Puberty was erupting in all of us. Some it rendered monstrous (sticks hand up); some it rendered impossibly gorgeous, handsome and sexy. It was astonishing. You could almost smell the boiling hormones surging through everyone as you walked around. Some kids seemed to revel in it, enjoying it, playing up their newfound sexual feelings; others, like me, felt confused and bashful, blushing and sweating profusely. My mum commented that I was constantly growing out of my clothes as fast as bought them.

High school seemed much less about academic education, and much more about some other sort of education instead. There was a throbbing undercurrent beneath everything that even lumps like me could feel. You knew who was with whom. You knew who was popular. You knew some girls seemed to have a waiting list. You wondered how to get on those waiting lists. You knew some really vile guys (often the sort of guys who would help bullies, or otherwise clap and cheer bullies in their projects) who had no problems getting girlfriends, and you wondered how the hell they did that? What did the girls see in guys like that?

Some couples at lunchtime would lie around on blankets on the lawns and make out as if all alone, no doubt relishing the public display they were making. Teachers and admin frowned on such behaviour, but it never stopped anyone. The only thing I never saw was actual sex. Nobody dared go that far on the lawn outside the Manual Arts Block. But then you heard through the school grapevine that there were kids having actual sex out by the back fence of the school grounds, and using recycled plastic lunch-wrap and rubber-bands as makeshift prophylactics. The boys involved were said to be absolute legends, and the girls were slack molls, or worse.

There were always rumours surrounding such stories of accidental pregnancy from the Glad Wrap breaking, but I never heard or saw proof. I did hear stories of teenage pregnancy involving girls from other nearby high schools. There were inter-school rivalries, and one nearby school was considered a real hole, and it was no surprise that the boys there would use the sort of contraceptive sandwich wrap that would break. Only the boy geniuses at my school knew to use proper Glad Wrap as God intended.

XXX

When I was in high school, life was difficult and confusing. The bullying all the time was bad, as I’ve said. But what was worse was just being a boy, being male.

I learned many things in high school. I learned about different sorts of triangles (so handy!), and I learned that boys will be boys.

Boys in groups. Boys sitting around, waiting for a class to start, or on a school bus, smoking, on the way home. Anywhere, really. What mattered was the group. Groups of boys. Talking, having a laugh. Just mates together. Regular, ordinary boys, too; by no means “bad” boys, or “troubled” kids, nothing like that. Ordinary kids. They weren’t every boy; they were any boy. Any boy at all.

And God, how they laughed!

I’ve carried these memories all my life. They are some of the most difficult memories I’ve had to deal with in this entire project. I’ve gone over this chapter countless times. Right now this might be about the twelfth draft, because I’m trying to get this right. To tell the difficult truth about boys, and these boys, and me, the boy I was.

The thing I remember most, the thing that sticks, is this: it was a few minutes of downtime before a maths class. The teacher was late. I was sitting somewhere around the centre of the room. In the back corner was a group of boys, gossiping about girls they knew, girls with sexual reputations. One girl, a girl in this same class who had not arrived yet, who was quiet and shy, they said was so promiscuous, was such a slut, such a whore, that her vagina was huge and incredibly slack, that it hung loose between her legs.

They laughed themselves to the point of breathlessness, saying all this. They went over and over it. This girl’s grotesque genitals were the talk of the school. Everybody, it seemed, knew about it. And it was hilarious!

I remember that laughter. The hatred in that laughter. The contempt. Sure, they were just joking around, it was just idle banter, no harm intended. Just some boys blowing off steam. Nothing was meant by it. It was just some boys being boys, and can’t you take a joke?

I’ve been hearing these exact words all my life. I’m pretty sure I’m sick of hearing these words now. Because under cover of these words and this joke is every form of abuse, violence, misogyny that women (and many men) experience every day. It is a joke where the punch line can give you a broken jaw.

But it’s just boys being boys. It’s blowing off steam. Nothing is ever meant by it. You’re taking his words out of context. He never said that. It’s just a bit of fun. Can’t you take a joke?

I was often in or near those groups of boys, back then. It was difficult not to be. I sat there, in that room, ears and face burning red, sick inside, feeling angry, confused, frightened, all at once. I hated these boys. I hated being there, but I didn’t know what to do. I did not feel like one of them. When the greatest, funniest jokes were about the huge size and slackness of a specific girl’s vagina (significantly, a girl from a poor background, a girl with a parent on welfare), and everyone is rolling around laughing, killing themselves laughing, I felt a profound sense of shame and wrongness. What this called for was something like the Superman I read about in comics. Superman with his blazing sense of justice, who instilled in me that same blazing sense of justice, who would swoop in and pound the living shit out of these boys—or, better yet, Wonder Woman!

Time Traveller Me watches all of this with a certain cold disdain—both for the laughing boys, and for my younger self, wishing for Superman to come and dish out some mighty fantasy justice. My teenage, bullied, cowed self was given to this kind of thinking. He was always imagining himself in situations where he had such superpowers, where he could smash his bullies about.

But here, in this situation, and the situations like it that I have encountered all my life since, superheroes wouldn’t help. These creeps here are weak. They have nothing going on. They don’t think. Why are they making jokes about a girl they know, about her most intimate parts? Mainly because they can. Because nobody tells them they can’t or shouldn’t. Because they’re boys. Boys have filthy minds. We all do. I do, you do, we all do.

What should my younger self have done here? I would love to say that teenage me should have shown some gumption and stood up and said, “That’s enough. You know that girl. You know she’s a decent girl. Don’t talk about her like that.” Or something.

I should have done that. In an ideal, perfect world I would have done that. They’d laugh at me, mock me, and I’d have to persist, to keep making the point. In the end, though, they would smash me to pieces, like a piece of cheap furniture you break up to burn in a fire. Because they are many, and I am just one doofus. But that’s what is called for here. Someone to speak for that girl, and for all their girls. Because the point about you being right and them being violent is this: they can hit you and knock you down, and even kill you—but you are still right.

You have to speak up. Because just as boys will be boys, it is also true that boys will be boys.

And as I’ve grown older I have seen that this only gets more and more true. It’s unbelievable. Everything I ever needed to know about men I learned in school, in situations like these.

But I don’t know, in a realpolitik sort of way, if this sort of noble protest, this principled stand against braying beasts, would achieve anything other than further destruction. It would be good for the protestor’s own soul and conscience, but that would be thin comfort when lying in your hospital bed recovering from the beating of your life. You’re up against prevailing, deeply embedded male culture here. The patriarchy. The Empire. The Reich. You’ve encountered a group of Hitler Youth joking about the girls they chase but secretly hate. What do you think will happen if you protest to them?

But what do you think will happen if you don’t? I’ll tell you. You’ll die inside, little by little. You’ll be torn. You’ll struggle. What do you do about power when it’s used like this? What do you do about boys and power? What is the right thing to do? How should you live?

I’ll tell you one thing for sure: speaking from where I sit now, in this young man’s far future, in a world that’s gone to hell and shows no sign of coming back any time soon—those braying bastards, those young men laughing about that girl’s genitals, should never in any scenario, be allowed to win. You can disappear up your own philosophy-studying arsehole, thinking about “what is the right thing to do?” But bastards like these laughing and joking about this girl and her alleged extreme promiscuity and her genitals? Get yourself a cricket bat, and get stuck into them. They will crush you, most likely, but go down swinging.

(But wait, I know some readers would be dying to interject, #NotAllMen are like those boys. Some men are decent. Some are allies. Some have never trafficked in that kind of humour, have never been in those sorts of groups, etc. Well, yay for you, bro. But it doesn’t need to be #AllMen. It only needs to be a majority to create a culture of acceptable abuse of women. Where a group of schoolboys can sit around waiting for maths class to start, laughing about a fellow student’s enormous slack genitals, because she’s such a disgusting slut. It doesn’t require all men to be pigs to create a culture where behaviour like that is okay. It probably doesn’t even need to be a majority. It just needs boys to be boys.)

I hated—and to this day still hate—those bastards. I’ve been suspicious of boys and men ever since. It has made me deeply uncomfortable about my own maleness.

When women complain about systemic misogyny, about patriarchy, about whole global systems of oppression operating across centuries and millennia, when they talk about bastards like Harvey Weinstein, and about middle managers threatening jobs ordinary women desperately need, etc etc—I believe everything, and every one. I understand.

Because I was raised a boy. I was raised a man. I groped a woman at a convention when I was 17 and clueless and I was deeply wrong, and I have always felt ashamed and sorry. I once kissed a girl without specific permission, because I believed she had given me signals welcoming the gesture. She did not. She ran away, upset, and I felt gutted. We never spoke again. Much later I heard that she had died in mysterious circumstances, her car found abandoned in churning surf at a beach. It haunts me.

I carry these experiences and others with me all the time, burning rocks in the pit of my gut, hot and painful, never letting me rest. In different times nobody would ever even blink about such incidents. But now we know that consent is the most important thing of all. I know that now. But teenage me? University me? I was an idiot, but that is no excuse. My conduct is my responsibility. I treated people, the ones I mention here and others, very poorly indeed, and I am ashamed.

But I’ve gotten away with it because (a) the times were different, and (b) I was a white male.

When I say I’m suspicious of boys and men, I am one of them. I am an offender, too.

Since those days, I have worked hard to do better. It’s a work in progress.

XXX

High School Adrian, a creature so deep into his own murky interiority that he was like something fished up from a deep abyssal ocean trench, all weird body and shambolic appearance, liked girls very much, and was very interested in them, but they didn’t much like him.

I don’t blame them, to be honest. I was a hopeless case, and knew it. I had no idea how to interact with girls. Standard advice like, “just be yourself” was no use because I had no idea how to even begin just being myself. At the time I was a kid who wrote terrible science fiction stories all the time and wanted to work up to writing novels. I also read every science fiction novel I could get my hands on. My bedroom was covered, wall to wall, in sf artwork. I also had a 4.5-inch reflector telescope. On cold, still, late nights after the street lights were turned off (after 1:30am) I would take the clanky, cumbersome thing and its tripod out to the backyard and spend a chilly couple of hours staring in bliss at stars, planets, and anything else I could find that looked interesting. This is who I was when I was home. This was me being myself. I was a deeply “interior” kind of person. There were not many hooks where a notional girl might attach herself. Unless she was also a geek, into astronomy and science fiction. These days that would not be a problem. But back in the 1970s it seemed unimaginable. I felt I had a big brand across my forehead: UNDATEABLE.

I was lonely. I wanted someone who would look at the shambles of me and not immediately throw up. Who would smile, and extend her hand.

There were a few girls in high school who were nice to me. It wasn’t all bad. The problem I had was largely with me, and how I saw myself, the extent to which I bought into what the bullies had been telling me every day for years. Most girls, as I say, avoided me. I was ill-mannered, had no conversational skills, didn’t know how to chat, share a joke, just get along like a regular person.

(To some extent, even now, sometimes I struggle with meeting people.)

Plus I was always sweating, a hormone fountain. The endocrine gods were fickle. Some people they transformed into gods and goddesses; others they turned into cave trolls and toads. I would have given my right arm to have been even a cave troll.

XXX

Hospital, D20, August 1979. The Time Traveller standing in a ground floor corridor, leaning on a white-painted wall, when an office door opens, and a boy shuffles out, followed by a middle-aged female doctor with a bag and a bundle of documents. She looks concerned for the boy. He looks like a dead person, as if his living spirit has been blasted right out of his body. He’s moving slowly. He believes his life is over. He’s been told he’s psychotic.

Despite believing my life was over, I met many wonderful girls and women in hospital, from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. Some, who had been raped or survived childhood sexual abuse, were often blisteringly angry and that was hard to deal with for a sixteen-year-old boy. But on the whole everyone was splendid and I thrived.

One young woman, whom I’ll call Kelly, was my first great love. She was a fellow patient. I never quite found out what she was doing there but I have a feeling she might have been raped. She had a haunted look about her, and a sad sweetness, and freckles, that I liked. She and I got on well. We could talk. But I had no idea what to do. Once I began to realise I had proper, adult-scale feelings, I did not know how to deal with them, or how to proceed. I think she was a few years older, too, which didn’t help. But the main thing that got in the way was that we were both patients, with our respective histories. Relationships between patients were not encouraged. Such relationships generally contained far too much baggage to work in a healthy manner.

Nonetheless, I tried in my hopeless, clumsy way to woo her. I even told my parents about her. And, as I expected, they did indeed make a fuss. And it was excruciating.

Kelly and I never took off. We kind of just about achieved take-off speed, heading down the runway, but not enough. We ran out of runway. I was too young. She was too haunted. She did give me my very first kiss at a D20 Christmas party in 1981. It was quick and fleeting, but packed a lot of feeling in it. It lasted just a second, but I can still feel it, still feel my astonishment, my joy, my leaping over-full heart.

A year or so later she sent me a letter to tell me she was settling down with a guy in Bunbury, and there was a baby involved. I wrote back with my congratulations, but I felt hollowed out. It was awful. I was so sad. Many years later we met up again on Facebook. She said that when she got my reply letter that time, she could tell I was upset.

No kidding.

We corresponded for a while, but drifted apart. I think she was hoping the old magic might still be there, but I was long settled down. I wasn’t looking for anything new. She seemed lost, and I was sad for her, and wished I could help.

XXX

By 1982, I was 19 years old, still troubled by the idea of being psychotic, haunted by my whole psychiatric experience, and imagining my life as before hospital and after hospital. I felt smashed apart by what I’d been through, and lonely. I’d missed out on Kelly, I believed, because I did not understand women. Had no idea, not one clue, nothing.

I also believed, in a very deep and fundamental way, that I would never be able to marry, because of my illness. I had thought I might just possibly be able to marry Kelly because she of all people would understand about my illness. A regular woman, I imagined, would never accept such “damaged goods”.

Then, one day, waiting at the doctor for an appointment, I picked up a copy of CLEO magazine and started reading it. From cover to cover it was articles about exactly the things I wondered about, written for and by women. It was startling. I made a point of reading every issue of CLEO I could get my hands on. I started reading COSMOPOLITAN, too. My brain was lighting up with powerful and helpful information.

Listen to women. Believe what they say. Don’t be a dick. Ten things women are looking for in a potential boyfriend. Don’t interrupt. Don’t leave the toilet seat up. And so much more besides, much of which I see reproduced these days on websites written by women for women. CLEO, I believe, has not survived, and that’s a shame, because it saved my life. It was not a perfect guide by any means. But it was a sound foundation on which to build an understanding. I could start with CLEO and go on from there. I could use tips and ideas from there and start talking to women that I met.

It changed my life.

It made it possible, when I chanced into meeting Michelle when I was 23, to talk to her, to become friends, to build a relationship, to not be a dick. To be a decent guy with her. On our first proper date in the city, though, I did sit her down, first thing, and told her about what I called “my sinister secret”, the whole psychotic, bipolar thing. I told her because she needed to know. If it was going to be a deal-breaking thing, better it happen at the beginning.

But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. She and my doctor at the time had a meeting, and talked all about it.

Meanwhile, for quite some time now the vast majority of my closest friends have been women. I treasure them, one and all. I feel as if I earned their friendship, in more ways than one. They are more interesting than men, have more to talk about, or at least I feel as if I have more in common with them. While I do have some good male friends, they are generally guys like me, who have been turned off by notions of traditional masculinity, of what blokes are supposed to be like—and what boys and men have always been like, the way I saw them in high school.

There are times I hate being male, and wish I were not, that I were blank. There are times I’d love it if there was something like a Japanese onsen or health spa where you’d go in, for a fixed, limited time, and you’d take off your whole gender and sexual identity, your entire masculinity. Just take off the whole thing like a bathrobe and hang it on a hook. Because this would likely include your brain you’d hang that up, too. You’d be eyeballs on a stick. And for an hour or so you’d just take a break from all the bullshit tied up in being a man, the responsibilities, the obligations, the posing, the competition, the oneupmanship, the sexual anxieties, the worries about work and being a breadwinner, all of it. A break from being male. I think it would be lovely. Just eyes on a stick, and all the noise in your head gone.

This is why I like women. They’re not men. They’re more interesting. They’re funnier. More articulate. They’re allowed to have feelings. There’s no masculine bullshit. I can relax. Women are marvellous.

MEMOIR: THE SINGULARITY (FINAL, NEW POSTSCRIPT)

MEMOIR: THE SINGULARITY (Final, New Postscript)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This prospect is doing my head in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being thin has to be a good thing in itself.

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

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

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

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

And I’m still eight kilograms out.

POSTSCRIPT: February 2018

Shortly after I reached my target weight on 7 December 2017, after a period in which I was consuming only 2500 kilojoules, I was diagnosed with a form of anorexia nervosa.

Since then I have been meeting with a psychologist specialising in eating disorders and working on a re-feeding program. It has been shocking, truly shocking, to find out how desperately ill I had become—how ill I had made myself—during the low-food program.

I had always thought, during the five years of my weight-loss project, that achieving the goal would be something to celebrate. But I found, when I reached the goal, the Singularity, that while I had indeed lost the weight, I was a shipwreck. I lost the weight, but also my health. My vim and vigour. My spirit. I was grey and haggard, hollow and sunken. Worse, my brain was starved, and barely functioning.

All self-inflicted. Because I had to lose the weight. That drive, that madness.

I still feel it now, calling to me.

I had planned to go skydiving when I reached my target weight. But once I got there, I knew there was nothing to celebrate. I felt awful. I felt like I’d failed at something, that I’d crash-landed. I staggered about, forgetful, vague, unable to concentrate. Miserable, foggy, barely present. All signs of prolonged starvation.

I’m a weight-loss survivor. I think that’s the best I can say right now. I got through it, and lived to tell the tale. One day I may write a book about it. For now, I’m just sorting through the burning wreckage at the crash-site, looking for clues and evidence. Signs and portents. I may have to lose weight again one day. It would be handy to know a better way to do it. Maybe I can learn something from what went wrong this time.

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS GIRLS (FINAL)

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS GIRLS

Her name was Lynette, and she was the dreamiest girl in grade six. She was blonde and otherworldly. She, like me, was only eleven, but that was enough. It would do. I think we may have touched hands once, clammy and warm, soft and fleeting—but I can’t be sure that this piece of memory, this touch of hand, goes with Lynette.

But I do remember her, or an impression of her, and that was her name, and she was “my” girl, the first girl who ever mattered to me, who made my heart all nervous-bird fluttery. She was neat and special and I liked her so much I would never tell my parents about her. Because they would fuss. It would be excruciating.

Lynette never knew, or even suspected, that she moved my world. That I lay awake at night thinking about her. That I sat in class between morning recess and lunchtime, wondering if I’d see her. Wondering if I’d have the nerve even to mumble an awkward hello.

Lynette was the first girl I ever had anything resembling “feelings” about. And yet I knew nothing about her. I knew nothing about books she liked, TV shows she liked, music she liked, her favourite meals, where she lived, nothing. She was mysterious. I loved her the way, I suppose, you might love a painting with a velvet rope in front of it. You stand at a distance, admiring it, unable to touch it, but wishing you could. I think Grade Six Adrian wanted to touch Lynette’s brushwork, or at least get close enough to see it. But he only ever saw her, in passing, at school, from a distance—but like a fine painting she was a vision, and that vision sustained me, and got me through bad days.

I still think fondly of Lynette because I never learned anything about her to spoil the image I always had. She never became a real, complex, flawed, mixed-up collage of a person. She was all surface, no substance. She was glamour, made of reflected light and magic. I have no doubt that she was as lovely a person as she appeared, but we were never introduced.

This was the hurly-burly world of grade six, after all. Life moved fast.

Next thing, we were suddenly all in grade seven, and while on one hand we had at last become kings of the school, we were all preoccupied–and shit-scared. Because while it was marvellous to have at last clawed our way to the summit of the shit-heap at primary school—we are grade seven! fear us!—the sad fact was that the very next year we were all getting packed off to high school, and that meant a very snakes-and-ladders reversal of fortune for us as we would be lowly first-years, lowly grubs at the bottom of the academic and social heap! The humiliation of it! We would have to make sure we enjoyed grade seven.

In the end, as fickle fate would have it, Lynette and I were not to be: at the end of grade seven, she went to a different high school from the one I went to. We never saw each other again. Then again, I don’t know if we ever saw each other. I saw her; I doubt she ever saw me.

XXX

High school was like a new geological epoch. Things were different now. The air was different, the light was different. Everything was brighter, more fraught, more intense, more terrifying. The stakes were higher. Everything mattered now in a way it had not mattered previously.

And as everything was changing, we were changing, too. Puberty was erupting in all of us. Some it rendered monstrous (sticks hand up); some it rendered impossibly gorgeous, handsome and sexy. It was astonishing. You could almost smell the boiling hormones surging through everyone as you walked around. Some kids seemed to revel in it, enjoying it, playing up their newfound sexual feelings; others, like me, felt confused and bashful, blushing and sweating profusely. My mum commented that I was constantly growing out of my clothes as fast as bought them.

High school seemed much less about academic education, and much more about some other sort of education instead. There was a throbbing undercurrent beneath everything that even lumps like me could feel. You knew who was with whom. You knew who was popular. You knew some girls seemed to have a waiting list. You wondered how to get on those waiting lists. You knew some really vile guys (often the sort of guys who would help bullies, or otherwise clap and cheer bullies in their projects) who had no problems getting girlfriends, and you wondered how the hell they did that? What did the girls see in guys like that?

Some couples at lunchtime would lie around on blankets on the lawns and make out as if all alone, no doubt relishing the public display they were making. Teachers and admin frowned on such behaviour, but it never stopped anyone. The only thing I never saw was actual sex. Nobody dared go that far on the lawn outside the Manual Arts Block. But then you heard through the school grapevine that there were kids having actual sex out by the back fence of the school grounds, and using recycled plastic lunch-wrap and rubber-bands as makeshift prophylactics. The boys involved were said to be absolute legends, and the girls were slack molls, or worse.

There were always rumours surrounding such stories of accidental pregnancy from the Glad Wrap breaking, but I never heard or saw proof. I did hear stories of teenage pregnancy involving girls from other nearby high schools. There were inter-school rivalries, and one nearby school was considered a real hole, and it was no surprise that the boys there would use the sort of contraceptive sandwich wrap that would break. Only the boy geniuses at my school knew to use proper Glad Wrap as God intended.

About these boys. They regarded themselves and their mates as legends. Men among men. Heroes. They chased girls, flirted, chatted them up, groped when they could, laid on the bad boy charm, harassed—and ultimately won them, used them, and dumped them, Glad Wrap or no.

They would sit around in groups, these boys, teenagers, during idle moments, waiting at the beginning of a class for a maths teacher to turn up, or a bus driver to get back from a toilet break, and they would talk about these girls they chased and seduced and dropped. They would gossip about the girls in the class generally. They had the greatest, most horrifying contempt for them. Such loathing. Such vileness. They were all fat ugly molls. But it was all good fun. It was just joking, of, course. Boys being boys, and you know what they’re like, there’s nothing to it. Just blowing off steam.

(Boys being boys. This phrase, when I hear it now, in middle-age, and I’ve been hearing it all my life, used always vile and reprehensible behaviour, makes me gag.)

I was often in those groups of boys, back then. It was difficult not to be. I sat there, ears and face burning red, sick inside, feeling angry, confused, frightened, all at once. I hated these boys. I hated being there, but I didn’t know what to do. I did not feel like one of them. When the greatest, funniest jokes were about the huge size and slackness of a specific girl’s vagina (significantly, a girl from a poor background, a girl with a parent on welfare), and everyone is rolling around laughing, killing themselves laughing, I felt a profound sense of shame and wrongness. What this called for was something like the Superman I read about in comics. Superman with his blazing sense of justice, who instilled in me that same blazing sense of justice, who would swoop in and pound the living shit out of these boys—or, better yet, Wonder Woman!

This was teenage me. Child me. Reaching for a comic-book hero to serve up justice because even at this age I knew that real world justice would let me down here. Everything was in their favour, not mine. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve encountered this sort of behaviour countless times, everywhere. It’s unbelievable. Everything I ever needed to know about men I learned in school, in situations like these. Listening to arseholes laughing about the slackness of a sweet shy girl’s vagina because she was fucking so incredibly much, and wasn’t it just the most hilarious thing!

I hated those bastards. I’ve always been suspicious of boys and men ever since. When women complain about systemic misogyny, about patriarchy, about whole global systems of oppression operating across centuries and millennia, when they talk about bastards like Harvey Weinstein, and about middle managers threatening jobs ordinary women desperately need, etc etc—I believe everything, and every one. I understand.

Because I was raised a boy. I was raised a man. I groped a woman at a convention when I was 17 and clueless and I was deeply wrong, and I have always felt ashamed and sorry. I once kissed a girl without specific permission, because I believed she had given me signals welcoming the gesture. She did not. She ran away, upset, and I felt gutted. We never spoke again. Much later I heard that she had died in mysterious circumstances, her car found abandoned in churning surf at a beach. It haunts me.

I carry these experiences and others with me all the time, burning rocks in the pit of my gut, hot and painful, never letting me rest. In different times nobody would ever even blink about such incidents. But now we know that consent is the most important thing of all. I know that now. But teenage me? University me? I was an idiot, but that is no excuse. My conduct is my responsibility. I treated people, the ones I mention here and others, very poorly indeed, and I am ashamed.

But I’ve gotten away with it because (a) the times were different, and (b) I was a white male.

When I say I’m suspicious of boys and men, I am one of them. I am an offender, too.

Since those days, I have worked hard to do better. It’s a work in progress.

XXX

High School Adrian, a creature so deep into his own murky interiority that he was like something fished up from a deep abyssal ocean trench, all weird body and shambolic appearance, liked girls very much, and was very interested in them, but they didn’t much like him.

I don’t blame them, to be honest. I was a hopeless case, and knew it. I had no idea how to interact with girls. Standard advice like, “just be yourself” was no use because I had no idea how to even begin just being myself. At the time I was a kid who wrote terrible science fiction stories all the time and wanted to work up to writing novels. I also read every science fiction novel I could get my hands on. My bedroom was covered, wall to wall, in sf artwork. I also had a 4.5-inch reflector telescope. On cold, still, late nights after the street lights were turned off (after 1:30am) I would take the clanky, cumbersome thing and its tripod out to the backyard and spend a chilly couple of hours staring in bliss at stars, planets, and anything else I could find that looked interesting. This is who I was when I was home. This was me being myself. I was a deeply “interior” kind of person. There were not many hooks where a notional girl might attach herself. Unless she was also a geek, into astronomy and science fiction. These days that would not be a problem. But back in the 1970s it seemed unimaginable. I felt I had a big brand across my forehead: UNDATEABLE.

I was lonely. I wanted someone who would look at the shambles of me and not immediately throw up. Who would smile, and extend her hand.

There were a few girls in high school who were nice to me. It wasn’t all bad. The problem I had was largely with me, and how I saw myself, the extent to which I bought into what the bullies had been telling me every day for years. Most girls, as I say, avoided me. I was ill-mannered, had no conversational skills, didn’t know how to chat, share a joke, just get along like a regular person.

(To some extent, even now, sometimes I struggle with meeting people.)

Plus I was always sweating, because I was a hormone fountain. The endocrine gods were fickle. Some people they transformed into gods and goddesses; others they turned into cave trolls and toads. I would have given my right arm to have been even a cave troll.

XXX

Hospital, D20, August 1979. The Time Traveller standing in a ground floor corridor, leaning on a white-painted wall, when an office door opens, and a boy shuffles out, followed by a middle-aged female doctor with a bag and a bundle of documents. She looks concerned for the boy. The boy looks like a dead person, as if his living spirit has just been blasted right out of his body. He’s moving slowly. He believes his life is over. He’s been told he’s psychotic.

Despite believing my life was over, I met many wonderful girls and women in hospital, from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. Some, who had been raped or survived childhood sexual abuse, were often blisteringly angry and that was hard to deal with for a sixteen-year-old boy. But on the whole everyone was splendid and I thrived.

One young woman, whom I’ll call Kelly, was my first great love. She was a fellow patient. I never quite found out what she was doing there but I have a feeling she might have been raped. She had a haunted look about her, and a sad sweetness, and freckles, that I liked. She and I got on well. We could talk. But I had no idea what to do. Once I began to realise I had proper, adult-scale feelings, I did not know how to deal with them, or how to proceed. I think she was a few years older, too, which didn’t help. But the main thing that got in the way was that we were both patients, with our respective histories. Relationships between patients were not encouraged. Such relationships generally contained far too much baggage to work in a healthy manner.

Nonetheless, I tried in my hopeless, clumsy way to woo her. I even told my parents about her. And, as I expected, they did indeed make a fuss. And it was excruciating.

Kelly and I never took off. We kind of just about achieved take-off speed, heading down the runway, but not enough. We ran out of runway. I was too young. She was too haunted. She did give me my very first kiss at a D20 Christmas party in 1981. It was quick and fleeting, but packed a lot of feeling in it. It lasted just a second, but I can still feel it, still feel my astonishment, my joy, my leaping over-full heart.

A year or so later she sent me a letter to tell me she was settling down with a guy in Bunbury, and there was a baby involved. I wrote back with my congratulations, but I felt hollowed out. It was awful. I was so sad. Many years later we met up again on Facebook. She said that when she got my reply letter that time, she could tell I was upset.

No kidding.

We corresponded for a while, but drifted apart. I think she was hoping the old magic might still be there, but I was long settled down. I wasn’t looking for anything new. She seemed lost, and I was sad for her, and wished I could help.

XXX

By 1982, I was 19 years old, haunted by the idea of being psychotic, haunted by my whole psychiatric experience, and imagining my life as before hospital and after hospital. I felt smashed by what I’d been through, and lonely. I’d missed out on Kelly, I understood, because I did not understand women. Had no idea, not one clue, nothing.

I also believed, in a very deep and fundamental way, that I would never be able to marry, because of my illness. I had thought I might just possibly be able to marry Kelly because she of all people would understand about my illness. A regular woman, I imagined, would never accept such “damaged goods”.

Then, one day, waiting at the doctor for an appointment, I picked up a copy of CLEO magazine and started reading it. From cover to cover it was articles about exactly the things I wondered about, written for and by women. It was startling. I made a point of reading every issue of CLEO I could get my hands on. I started reading COSMOPOLITAN, too. My brain was lighting up with powerful and helpful information.

Listen to women. Believe what they say. Don’t be a dick. Ten things women are looking for in a potential boyfriend. Don’t interrupt. Don’t leave the toilet seat up. And so much more besides, much of which I see reproduced these days on websites written by women for women. CLEO, I believe, has not survived, and that’s a shame, because it saved my life. It was not a perfect guide by any means. But it was a sound foundation on which to build an understanding. I could start with CLEO and go on from there. I could use tips and ideas from there and start talking to women that I met.

It changed my life.

It made it possible, when I chanced into meeting Michelle when I was 23, to talk to her, to become friends, to build a relationship, to not be a dick. To be a decent guy with her. On our first proper date in the city, though, I did sit her down, first thing, and told her about what I called “my sinister secret”, the whole psychotic, bipolar thing. I told her because she needed to know. If it was going to be a deal-breaking thing, better it happen at the beginning.

But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. She and my doctor at the time had a meeting, and talked all about it.

Meanwhile, for quite some time now the vast majority of my closest friends have been women. I treasure them, one and all. I feel as if I earned their friendship, in more ways than one. They are more interesting than men, have more to talk about, or at least I feel as if I have more in common with them. While I do have some good male friends, they are generally guys like me, who have been turned off by notions of traditional masculinity, of what blokes are supposed to be like—and what boys and men have always been like, the way I saw them in high school.

There are times I hate being male. There are times I’d love it if there was something like a Japanese onsen or health spa where you’d go in, for a fixed, limited time, and you’d take off your whole gender and sexual identity, your entire masculinity. Just take off the whole thing like a bathrobe and hang it on a hook. Because this would likely include your brain you’d hang that up, too. You’d be eyeballs on a stick. And for an hour or so you’d just take a break from all the bullshit tied up in being a man, the responsibilities, the obligations, the posing, the competition, the oneupmanship, the sexual anxieties, the worries about work and being a breadwinner, all of it. A break from being male. I think it would be lovely. Just eyes on a stick, and all the noise in your head gone.

This is why I like women. They’re not men. They’re more interesting. They’re funnier. More articulate. They’re allowed to have feelings. There’s no masculine bullshit. I can relax. Women are marvellous.