MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (FINAL)

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR

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 the play. The sets had been changed, 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 the secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret—and it turned out that 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, morbidly obese, lost in midnight seas, and, worse, his medication no longer working. 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 recovering, a year after leaving hospital.

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 the illness across 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 your mind 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. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t think. 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 most people would not miss you if you were to die. You imagine some people would be relieved and pleased to be rid of you. People you know would think this about you. Your friends on Facebook and Instagram. Members of your family would be pleased to be spared the burden of dealing with you and your crap.

This is the cobwebs talking. This is depression.

When you have major, heavy-duty clinical 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. 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.

Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs, too. I have done my best to scrape out everything, no matter how personal, how private, how intense, and put it in here for you to see. I have this idea that my cobwebs might resonate with your cobwebs. If I talk about my stuff, especially the really hard stuff, it might help someone else talk about their really hard stuff.

Mental illness, and especially male mental illness, needs to be brought out of the darkness. When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s it was all secret and terrifying. My dad had a terrible time, and there was no talking 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 as if I were fine. To conceal my stain. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when it is possible to write and speak about it.

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

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

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

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

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. Everybody told me so. I was wrong in all kinds of ways. First I was just weird and strange, but then I was sick. I was still pretty weird, too. And I had to hide it all, weird, sick, the lot. I had to seem normal at all times. It was the most important thing in the world. It was impossible. That strain, that impossible task, and what it did to me, is what this book is about.

MEMOIR: THE NOISE

MEMOIR: THE NOISE

The noise in my head is telling me to shut up. It says I talk too much. It says I’ve said too much already. Recently both my doctor and my psychologist told me I was doing fine, and I felt pretty decent at the time, but almost immediately I felt the familiar noise in my head return, the screaming, the abuse, the criticism. The noise hates that I’ve written this book about it. It tells me the book will fail, that it will blow up in my face, that Internet trolls will destroy my life.

It’s been months since I wrote most of this book. For much of that time, I found that when I go to try a bit of writing, immediately the noise pipes up, and right away I’m plagued with self-consciousness. This hyper-acute sense that I never stop talking about myself, that I’m the most conceited man in Australia, that I need to shut up or find something else to write about. I’m full of acute, blistering, embarrassment—except it’s a form of embarrassment that feels like nuclear sunburn, that makes you want to run, scrambling for cover, away from the screaming glare, from the noise.

I have a powerful urge to delete everything. The noise hates me writing. The noise has always hated me writing. Children should be seen and not heard. Nobody likes a show-off. Don’t rock the boat. The noise has always told me these things. Screamed these things, over and over, reminding me, reinforcing them, killing me with them. It hates me writing. It hates me posting my work in public where people can see it—and that’s why I do it, and that’s why I can hardly stand to do it. Why I find it nigh-unbearable, putting the chapters up, exposing myself, believing that there are countless people out there on Facebook who hate it when I put these pieces up, who are all, That bloody Bedford, showboating his “oh poor suffering me, waah!” sooky bullshit again!

The noise makes me believe there are all these people out there, even now, who never say anything, not even privately, but who secretly think this way. Who despise me. They are proper Facebook friends, and do all the usual Facebook friend stuff, wishing Happy Birthday and liking the Freckle photos and so forth—but nonetheless implacably, silently hostile to my chapter posts.

It doesn’t have to make sense.

The thing about the noise is that it’s NOISE. It’s LOUD. It dominates. It controls. It rules your thinking, and leaves no space for your own thinking. I call it the noise, but you could call it madness. You could call it any one of the mental illnesses. It’s thought distortion. Reality distortion.

The noise wants me to burn this book. It hates the book.

There are times, bad times, when I feel inclined to go along with it. That it seems like a good idea. Because, remember, ruling, controlling thoughts. It controls my horizontal and my vertical. It controls my everything.

The noise hates that I learned how to express myself. That I found a way out of the box. The noise is LOUD even when it’s winning, when I’m cooperating. But when I’m not, when I’m writing—and when my writing goes out into the world—

The noise wants me to burn this book. Destroy the book.

How it hates this book. It hasn’t liked any of my writing, just on principle—but this book, this book is something else. This book is like a stage magician writing a book revealing how all the illusions are done. This book is about the noise. This book shows you the noise. Pulls the curtain aside, and reveals the nasty, tiny, wizened, spidery, pale little creature who’s been sitting on a very high stool behind a big audio mixing desk all this time.

I’m not burning the book.

I’m not deleting the book.

I believe there is something—maybe not much, maybe only a little—worthwhile in what I’m doing here. Maybe my noise will resonate with your noise. Maybe your noise has been screaming abuse at you all your life, too, and it’s time you looked behind your curtain.

I’ll tell you one important, true thing, though.

You know the noise, ultimately, is nothing. It’s a feeble little ugly homonculus with a sound system. Yay.

But the noise still gets to you. It still fills up your entire head. It still controls your horizontal and your vertical.

It still makes you feel like you should burn your book, because you truly are the most conceited bastard in Australia, and people really are sick of your poor-suffering-me-waaah! bullshit.

The noise is nothing—but it’s also EVERYTHING. Knowing the rational, logical truth does not destroy the irrational, crazy, madness. If only that worked!

XXX

This noise has kept me from working on this book for months on end. As I said, as soon as I opened the file, pulled up a chapter for revision, the noise would start screaming abuse, and that would be that. I’d hesitate. And in that hesitation, all would be lost. Because I’d believe the spin, the lies. Nobody needs to see this crap, Bedford. Put it away. Do everyone a favour. There’s a good boy. Nobody likes a show-off.

The noise lies to me, just as it does to everyone. I know not to pay attention to it, to disregard it. To regard it the way you’d regard the TV in a doctor’s waiting room—face away from it, ignore anything you hear, concentrate on a book, etc. I know the drill. I’ve been through this routine many times, and I’m good at it. It’s how I got this far. You ignore it as much as you can, and remind yourself that it’s just a sickly pale homonculus behind a curtain with a mixing desk. You can’t make the noise go away. It is hardwired into the physical structure of the brain. It is there for keeps, the homonculus, pale and spidery, screaming itself hoarse about children and show-offs. You have to find a way to coexist with it, and you do that by tuning it out the way you tune out the background noise of a radio playing somewhere nearby.

Noise, noise, noise. It’s never actually quiet in my head, but sometimes it seems quiet. Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking the noise is sleeping. Maybe it’s tiring keeping that racket going? All I know is that ever since I started this book, the noise has been truly desperate to get me to stop. Because when I’m writing I’m free. The noise can’t touch me here. I’m out. When I stop, and I’m done, and put it up online, then it comes back, and it’s furious, and it sticks its knives into me, and tells me how people on Facebook hate me and wish I would stop, and I burn with embarrassment and anxiety and fear.

But when I’m doing the writing itself, hitting the keys, like now, piecing it all together, hearing the words unspool in my head?

There’s no noise at all.

MEMOIR: EPILOGUE: FEELS LIKE A BEGINNING

MEMOIR: EPILOGUE: FEELS LIKE A BEGINNING

I finished my weight-loss project recently. 7 December last year, just three days before my projected “Landing Day”. Getting there, the final few months, with my “low-food program”, was almost impossibly hard. By the end—I’m crying, believe it or not, as I write this—I was forcing myself to subsist on just 2500 kilojoules of food per day, because I was so unbelievably desperate to reach my target weight.

It was harder than I ever imagined it would be, and it was just as hard on Michelle, who had to live with me, who felt it every day when I weighed myself and the scales said I was 100.3 kilograms, or 100.2 kilograms, or 100.4 kilograms. She heard the sharp intake of breath, felt the tension in the air. She felt the way I just wanted to scream and never stop screaming. The day when the scales said 100.1 kilograms.

100.1.

I always weighed myself at the same time every day. I had to have reliable data. It had to be consistent. I needed it for my graph. I spent a lot of time looking at that graph. And in the final six months, during the low-food days, as I starved myself, as I consumed myself, I stared and stared at the uncanny straight line leading down towards my target.

Before I started the low-food program, when I was just a regular weight-loss guy, before my medication was changed, before Nortriptyline entered my world, my graph was all over the place, up, down, up again, but mostly down. Trending down. It was fine. My weight was floating down like a drifting leaf fallen from a tree. People said I looked great, and asked me what was my secret.

But once I turned to low-food, the weight came off fast and easy. Four kilos a month, no problem.

No problem except I was always, always hungry. One small meal a day, at lunch. The rest of the time, nothing. Nothing but numbers. Kilojoules. Kilograms. Adding up, over and over and over. Projections, thinking about your weight today, your weight yesterday, and based on your recent figures, when you might hit your next milestone weight. So many numbers.

In the early months I had boundless energy. I wrote all the rest of this book. I wrote most of another book. I took up language lessons. There was nothing I couldn’t do. It was an extraordinary time in my life, unequalled before and certainly not since.

Those early glory days on the low-food program faded. Things started to get harder; there was friction in my thinking. I couldn’t write so easily, or so much, or so often. Soon, I couldn’t write much at all, except here and there—but only in the way, when you have heavy side-effects from medication, and your mouth goes dry, you can only talk if you rehearse what you want to say first, and then take time to work up a lot of spit in your mouth. Then you can say your piece in one go, and it’s fine, and you hope nobody has follow-up comments. Writing in the latter months of last year was like that for me.

Because I was, literally, starving.

XXX

When I was close to my target weight, I told my psychologist how dreadful I was feeling. I was exhausted. I was more than ready for the whole ordeal to be finished. Michelle, perhaps, even more so. I had, a long time ago, entertained ideas of celebrations to mark the occasion of reaching the target weight. But by the time I was in the vicinity, it was clear I was a physical and emotional wreck. In no way was I up for any kind of celebration.

My psychologist referred me to a specialist clinic, the Swan Centre, which deals with people who have problems with food and eating.

They took one look at the state of me, and told me I had a form of anorexia nervosa.

They also told me I was suffering from a condition called “Starvation Syndrome”. The notable feature of which is where the brain, deprived of nutrients, shuts down all but non-essential services and functions. You become a potato. You lose interest in almost everything. You lose the ability to read and write anything substantial. Say goodbye to novels, short stories, magazine articles. You tune out of most conversation. Your head fills with something very like static. On my first day at the Swan Centre they gave me an information sheet about Starvation Syndrome. It felt like an arrow intended, designed, built and shot right at me. It was as if they had been secretly inside my head for months, looking at everything, taking notes, snapping photos, and had worked up a detailed report.

It was shaming.

This is why I cry. Five years ago I set out to lose a stack of weight, and I had a crazy, naive goal. I never seriously expected to reach the goal at the time, but what the hey? I’d always been fat, though, and had always hated being fat, had always hated taking up so much space. I always wanted to be small, to be thin. To be a regular size.

I never expected to get anywhere near the target, but as I got closer, the more I wanted to go the rest of the way. It mattered more the closer I got, because I started, bit by bit, to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could do something impossible.

Until it mattered more than life itself.

Did it matter more than Michelle? She might well have wondered that. But no. If she had ever said to me that enough was enough, and this far was plenty, I would have stopped. For nobody else, but I would have stopped for Michelle. Because I love her, and now look, I’m, oh geez.

XXX

At the Swan Centre I’m working with a psychologist and a very cool dietitian. They have me on a “re-feeding” program. I’m slowly being weaned onto eating again (as of this week I’m back up to 4000 kilojoules, and four small meals a day). The fact that I’m here writing again is evidence that this works. My brain is waking up. I’m finding I can do things again.

When I went to see the Swan Centre people I was at 2500 kilojoules once a day. I could barely think. I had been on 2500 for the final two weeks of the program. Before that I had been on 3000, but I had been frustrated. The weight was not shifting. I was desperate. I could not stand it. I felt like something had to give way. It had been such a long time. I was sick of being hungry all the time. All the time! So, out of my mind I twisted the knife of the diet and went down to 2500 kilojoules. It was a tiny amount of food. I logged everything, counting everything. But 2500 is extreme. It’s like a bad movie where the hero and the villain wind up trying to strangle each other, and they’re really going for it. It’s like that. You know it’s bad, that there’s a limit to it. You can’t do it indefinitely. It’s like holding your breath underwater. Sooner or later I was going to have to start eating again.

All I wanted, I told myself, all I wanted was to hit the 100 kilograms. That’s it. And in that final two weeks, every day, it hovered just above the zero. Every single day. 100.2, 100.4. When, at last, “Landing Day” arrived, the scales read, 99.8. By that point I was so weak, so angry, so burned out, so tired—

I was pleased, standing there in my undies and my loose bags and folds of skin. I told Michelle. She was pleased. We went out for lunch. Yay.

2500 kilojoules a day is like the floor at the bottom of a deep ocean trench, an extreme environment. There’s nothing there other than the rubbish that sinks down from the surface. Nothing lives down that far in the darkness. Eating so little food each day, and then spending 23 hours hungry with your thoughts, trying to keep busy, is like that dark sea floor. Cold, lonely, dark, too much time to think. No concentration for anything you might want to do.

One of the things I insisted on each day was chocolate, the good stuff. Lindt 85% Dark Chocolate, two squares, 483 kilojoules. And there, right away, you can see one-fifth of my daily food budget gone just like that. But that chocolate was, in a way, my reason to live. I dreamed about that chocolate. Our fridge was and is full of chocolate.

And that’s the other thing about extreme weight-loss and mental illness and madness and reality distortion and starvation: you stop eating food. You eat kilojoules, units of energy. You might as well eat Lego.

Did I mention madness? Because I’ve got madness. This whole book is about my life with mental illness, and it’s about my weight. I have said it has often been my impression that my depression and my weight, my fat, were each manifestations of one another. That you could carve out a nice chunk of wet, semi-solid depression and hold it in your hand, and squeeze it until the blood comes oozing out; and that you could find yourself kept awake at night by persistent, moody thoughts of fatness. I don’t know if this is the case for other people like me, but it feels that way for me.

And I’ve still got the madness. I wound up losing 67 kilograms of fat, but I didn’t get a new brain, so I’m thin but still crazy. That said, I got down to 98.1 kilograms, slightly surpassing my goal weight of 100 kilograms. I would cheer, but no. I’m pleased to be here at target weight, for as long as I can be here, but I worry, wondering for how long I can hold back the tide. Because that’s the thing. The odds, I gather, are not ever in my favour. I read conflicting reports. Some say it’s possible to hoodwink the body into believing your new weight is your normal weight. Others insist that your original weight will reassert itself and your body will do its best to get back to it. Then some clever bastard comes along and mutters about set-points and flavonoids and who the hell knows? Will I still be under 100 kg this time next year? Next month? I don’t know. It bothers me.

I told my Swan Centre psychologist that I might be thin now but I still feel like a fat man. Like I cast a fat shadow. I can’t escape who I have always been. You can cut the fat off the bacon, but it’s still bacon.

This chapter is at the end, but it’s not the end. I’m suspicious of endings. Of tidy endings, everything resolved. Perhaps that’s it. Nothing with me is resolved. Some might see what’s happened to me—arrived at target weight, medication sorted, new book, huzzah!—as a wonderful, happy ending, full of major achievements. But it’s not. This is just a pause while we catch our breath, grab a bite to eat, some coffee. It’s only the end of Act One. Maybe even just Chapter One. It doesn’t feel like an ending. Maybe it feels like a cliffhanger.

Maybe it feels like a beginning.

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (Third Draft)

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (Third Draft)

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 the secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret. She was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.

Act III of 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 and sleep for a thousand years. Take two thousand, you imagine them suggesting. Don’t come back! you imagine them adding. When you have major, heavy-duty clinical 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’s the things in 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. Everybody told me so. I was wrong in all kinds of ways. First I was just weird and strange, but then I was sick. I was still pretty weird, too. And I had to hide it all, weird, sick, the lot. I had to seem normal at all times. It was the most important thing in the world. It was impossible. That strain, that impossible task, and what it did to me, is what this book is about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This prospect is doing my head in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being thin has to be a good thing in itself.

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

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

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

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

And here I’m still eight kilograms out.

POSTSCRIPT: Close to the Singularity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not ready. I’m so not ready.

I don’t know what to do.

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

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

MEMOIR: INSTITUTIONALISED (Revised)

MEMOIR: INSTITUTIONALISED

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

But this male nurse was talking to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or thinks she’s gonna crash.

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

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

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

I want to change the point of view.

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

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

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

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (Major Rewrites)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was lucky, so lucky.

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

MEMOIR: SICK/WELL (Updated, New Postscript)

MEMOIR: SICK/WELL (Updated, New Postscript)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I sick now? Am I well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A FEW WEEKS LATER

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPT: HYPOMANIC PHASE

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

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

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

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

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

So relax already, she said!

MEMOIR: MIRRORS AND VOICES (Huge New Postscript)

MEMOIR: MIRRORS AND VOICES (Huge New Postscript)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bashed hell out of my laps that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS JAPANESE FOOD (Major Rewrites)

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS JAPANESE FOOD (Major Rewrites)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, there was no fishy or seafoody taste.

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

This was it. The doomsday scenario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You feel reborn, as if you can do anything.