MEMOIR: SHIPWRECKED (FINAL)

MEMOIR: SHIPWRECKED (FINAL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that boy, on that shattering day as his blasted, post-diagnosis remains shuffled out of the room, did have one good, burning idea in his head. It actually came from the doctor, who, when she told him his diagnosis, also told him, “Now don’t go trying to look this up, will you?” The boy should trust that his medical team (three doctors, a squad of nurses, occupational therapists, two art therapists) knew what they were doing.

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

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

Again, screw that!

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

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

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

I staggered, carrying one to a table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEMOIR: HOWLING AT THE MOON (UPDATED)

MEMOIR: HOWLING AT THE MOON (UPDATED)

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

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

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

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

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

Then she smiled all warmly and said she was (as I’ll call her) Jenny Ross,” she said, and explained that we were at high school together.

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

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

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

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

For a couple of years I subscribed to LinkedIn. One day I got a hello from another woman from high school—this time one I did remember, whom I’ll call Sharon.

One time, around Year 10, there was a school dance. There were usually two or three of these each year, and I avoided them. Because who would go with the likes of me? But this one time I thought, Screw it, let’s try it! There was this girl I liked, so I screwed up every last iota of courage I could muster, and managed to mumble out an invitation to her—and she accepted!

This acceptance was possibly more stressful than a rejection would have been!

On the night we did go together, in the same car. I forget whether it was her dad or my dad driving. Sharon looked lovely! I was dressed as well as my mum could possibly make me. I was terrified. I remember we didn’t talk much in the car.

I could not believe what was happening. We were going to a school dance. It was like we were going to the Moon! The entire thing was impossible!

And it was, too.

We arrived at the school, and got out of the car. Already you could hear the dull thump of the music playing in the gym.

We really looked nice. I was so excited.

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

She peeled away from me without a word, without a look back, and was soon lost in the thumping, jumping, swirling crowd.

But, years later, there she was pinging me on Linkedin.

I deleted the request.

I don’t remember how I got home that night. I’d walked the distance often enough in daylight so I probably did that. I wasn’t so self-possessed that I could shake off such a development and dance the night away. I couldn’t dance, for one thing.

I remember seeing couples tucked away in corners “pashing on”, and I burned with teenage adolescent envy. I might as well go outside and howl at the Moon.

It was a long way home that night.

MEMOIR: MEDS (UPDATED)

MEMOIR: MEDS (UPDATED)

Clomipramine is an antidepressant medication, part of the tricyclic family of antidepressants. They are a family the way the Addams Family is a family.

I took Clomipramine for about 30 years. It kind of worked okay. It was the Uncle Fester of the tricyclics. You could imagine it with a lightbulb in its mouth, all lit up, but only sometimes. I was never happy with Clomipramine. It seemed to only work when it felt like it. My doctor thought it was good enough, and was always very loath to adjust it or change it. I was always asking him, please, please, change it, do something.

And then, in 2016, he did. Lesson: it pays to nag.

He put me in hospital. And so we set off on a grand adventure, trading function versus side-effects.

You want to be able to live your life, do your job, look after your family, maybe even enjoy yourself a bit, without finding yourself tangled up in a sticky web of nasty side-effects that make your life worse than the condition the meds are supposed to treat.

Last year, every time the doctors proposed a new medication for me (and there were many, many medications) there was a fact-sheet about it for me to inspect, and amongst all the facts and figures there was always a discussion of common, less-common, and rare side-effects that had cropped up during testing and trials, some of them guaranteed to be terrifying. So right away you’re thinking about trade-offs and compromises. You might get at least some of your life back, but at the cost of some other part of your life. Take your pick. And be aware that any given drug will only tend to work on about fifty percent of patients who receive it anyway.

Such as me and the great hope that was Zyban. Once I was installed in the hospital, the staff started reducing my Clomipramine dose, doing it over several days. This created some emotional turbulence with withdrawal symptoms, which they moderated with tranquilisers. Then it was time to start on the Zyban. The doctors had talked this up. It was new and exciting. It was an Italian supercar of a drug. Its biochemistry was amazing. It did so many clever and subtle things at once, it was like nothing else. I was going to love it. It sounded fantastic. And I was already feeling sufficiently unglued and stressed out, heading for a full depressive crash, that I would have tried anything if I believed it would help.

The night I had my last Clomipramine was a special occasion. I’d been on that stuff since about 1986. About the same time I was getting together with Michelle. I’d left university just the previous year. The Space Shuttle was still flying. I was in my twenties. I saw the last Clomipramine tablet in the little plastic cup, and wished I’d had my iPad with me so I could take a photo of that last tablet. It was lights out for a huge phase of my life. Every night for thirty years I’d swallowed ten of these little bastards, and while they’d done an okay job of moderating the worst of my depressive cycles, they had side-effects I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.

I started the Zyban, and within a couple of days felt pretty decent, even fine. I thought, this can’t be the new drug already, can it? Some drugs come on very quickly, I was told. So who knows? I thought, all chuffed.

That weekend I went to a writers’ group meeting at Edith Cowan University in Mount Lawley. Right away, as soon as I arrived, I felt brittle, antsy, irritated, aware of noises, some in particular. Every chair I sat on seemed made of broken glass and spikes. Wherever I sat it wasn’t quiet enough. There were people talking and eating, and wandering about the stacks. I kept having to change desks, trying to find a quiet spot, and I couldn’t believe there was this much noise in a library, especially a university library.

I ended up sitting in the lobby of the library, heaving with tears from the stress of a few people talking and eating and walking around. Michelle came and got me. Two dear friends stayed with me while I waited for her. On the way home I felt hollowed out, raw inside, undone and broken.

Back in hospital after weekend leave, feeling like a failure again, I saw my doctor, and told him about my experience. He concluded that the Zyban, far from kicking in early and being great, was in fact having no clinical effect whatever. I was not in that lucky fifty percent who felt the Italian supercar thrill of the fabulous drug.

But this meant that I had no effective defense against depression. For the first time since my breakdown when I was sixteen, I was alone and naked far out at sea—and going under.

People get concerned about taking medication for psychiatric conditions in a way they don’t get concerned about taking, for example, painkillers for a headache, or cold and flu tablets when they’re under the weather. I think they worry that the psychiatric medication is going to profoundly alter their personality, their sense of who they are. And to some extent, with some medications, that can happen.

I’ve never worried about that. I’ve always seen medication as a corrective to a distortion caused by the illness. As something like using corrective lenses to fix bad eyesight. Taking the right medication, for me, has enabled me to feel more like myself than less like myself. When the stuff works well, and since my time in hospital my new medication has worked extremely well, it feels even like I’ve been upgraded to a higher, better version of myself. I feel like I can think more clearly, more creatively, and certainly more productively, than I ever could before. I tend to think of my former medication regime as like a nasty, dirty, noisy diesel engine, spewing out soot, rattling and banging, compared with the silent, efficient molten salt solar tower I’m using now. It’s as transformative as that—at least for me.

But I remember the bad old days, most of my life, in fact, starting from my first diagnosis right up until I left hospital for the final time in 2016. All that time running under a crap diesel engine. When D20 discharged me in 1981 it was hard. The new existence. Eighteen years old, diagnosed as psychotic, on medication forever. Doomed.

I and every psychiatric patient I knew at the time walked around looking like we’d all just escaped from a car accident. We all looked stunned, shocked, confused, kind of angry and nervous. We were hesitant and shaky, and we all had dry mouths. The blunt instrument medications we were on then were no Italian supercars. They were East German Trabants by comparison, belching out foul exhaust and barely functional. We were, as a group, either really fat and sluggish and prone to shaky-handed, sad-eyed smoking, or nervy, edgy, jittery and thin to the point of emaciation, and also inclined to smoke. We could barely function, let alone embrace the artistic, creative life. It was all some of us could do to make a cup of tea.

Medication has improved greatly. The Italian supercar drugs work a treat for the people who respond to them. The non-medication treatments work well, too, for some patients. I tried the transcranial magnetic stimulation but I couldn’t tolerate it. You have to lie perfectly still, in one position, with your head just so, for an hour, every day for three weeks. There is also the noise it makes. Many patients are fine with it, but I, with my noise anxiety, could not stand it.

It took me a very long time, back during those Years of Hell, to get used to the idea of taking medication every day, and to take so much of it each day. When I was eighteen I was taking about ten or twelve different pills each night. They all did something important. But it was hard to remember to keep taking them. With other things, like a course of antibiotics, you’re lucky if you can remember to take all of those, and that’s only two weeks, but this was every night forever. It did my head in, that forever. That I would never be well, not properly. I would always, as I came to see it, walk with a limp that only I noticed, but which I always noticed.

What helped in the end was coming to see the illness as no different from something like diabetes. When I found out what diabetes patients go through day to day, and across their whole lives, it resonated with me, and helped me very much. I could see my own chronic illness in context with another chronic illness. It helped to diffuse some of what at the time was still a heavy and suffocating stigma surrounding anything to do with mental illness. Nobody talked about it, but some people, once in a great while, simply disappeared, or died “and police report there were no suspicious circumstances”. It took me a long time to understand this bit of code.

Another thing that caused me problems when it came to taking medication as a teenager was my dad, who was generally against medication for anything, and would wheel out the old chestnut, “pills for dills with aches and ills”, which was to say, only an idiot takes pills. The rest of us are too smart for that. And he would use that to justify not taking anything for himself, and that undermined my own efforts to keep at it.

The most serious problem I had, as a bipolar patient with psychiatric medication was this: when on a manic cycle you feel so ridiculously great, at least at first, for a while, maybe at least a few days to a week, is that it’s like your whole brain has gone somewhere nice on holiday and is lying by a pool sipping cocktails and wearing sunglasses. You feel crazy-good, and you’re obviously not remotely sick, can’t you tell? So why do I need to take these stupid pills?

When you feel so fantastically upbeat, so cheerful, full of mad energy, hardly needing to sleep or eat, the last thing you want to do is take pills. And yet that’s exactly when you need to take them. I have had the conversation with my mum where she tells me the fact I feel so fine only proves how sick I really am.

I went into the hospital to get off the Uncle Fester of the tricyclics, Clomipramine. My doctor and his team went through several different replacements, trying to find a new drug that would,work as well as Clomipramine, but which would bring with it a much less nasty side-effect profile. We tried all kinds of things—so many I don’t remember them all. I do remember the misery, the crying, the constantly dashed sense of hope.

In the end, after I had spent a total of five months across three separate hospitalisations, one of my doctors told me they were not only running out of ideas, but they were up against the question of whether they were starting to actively cause harm.

So they had one last suggestion. “We want to put you back on a tricyclic,” the doctor told me. Yes, the Addams Family of psychiatric drugs. I couldn’t believe it. When I spoke to my senior doctor, and expressed my concerns, he understood my frustration, but he explained that my problem was that I had “treatment-resistant major depression”, and that for such a serious condition you need a heavy-duty drug, a weapon, something proven. All the drugs I’d tried up to this point, all the modern Italian supercar drugs with their fancy biochemistry and low side-effect profiles, were simply not up to what I needed. I needed something like a Monster Truck.

And, as it happens, there are tricyclics and there are tricyclics. This new one was Nortriptyline, which you might think of as the “Gomez Addams” of the tricyclic family. It’s the “good” one, with the most benign side-effect profile.

It works terrifically well. But it is a typical psychiatric drug, and then some: it really wants you to gain weight. (I have more to say about this later in the book. But my doctor putting me on Nortriptyline has had enormous consequences, and changed my life.)

That aside, it’s working well. I feel fine, even better than fine. I’m functional without serious compromises. I’ve gone up a level. I’m no longer, as of eighteen months after leaving hospital, “in recovery”.

It’s all working, at least for now. I’m having to take a great many little tablets every day, including four different psychiatric medications altogether that do different things. But the main driver of “how I’m doing” from day to day is Gomez himself, the Nortriptyline. The difference in how I feel now from how I used to feel under the Clomipramine is stark. Like the difference between old black and white standard-definition TV and 4K UHD TV on a screen as big as your wall. The difference is breathtaking. Because I remember those Clomipramine days, years. It was like living in Cold War East Berlin. And it seemed normal.

Where do I live now, in my head, on these meds? I don’t honestly know. But the sun shines, the sky goes on forever, and the gum trees smell of lemon.

MEMOIR: HISTORY (FINAL–BETTER)

MEMOIR: HISTORY (FINAL–BETTER)

When I was sixteen my entire life fell to bits, as if poorly made, the warranty long expired. It was the year I had what was then called a breakdown, following surgery to have my appendix removed. It was the year I met my first psychiatrist. The year I entered a psychiatric hospital for the first (but not last) time.

It was the year so much happened to me, inside me, and around me. It felt as if my whole life had been building up to this eruption, and yet that very eruption turned out to be much less interesting than the question of why had it taken so long to turn up? Why hadn’t it happened earlier?

I was in high school, in Year 11, what was once called Fourth Year. It was harder than I could manage, harder than I could even imagine. I had failed the mid-year exams, and felt as if I were drowning every day and nobody could see the trouble I was in. I was going down. I couldn’t touch bottom. Between the work I couldn’t do, the bullies I couldn’t escape, and the noise in my head that wouldn’t leave me alone, I was done for, or so I thought–

XXX

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I were a Time Traveller visiting this shocked and upset little boy, three feet tall and full of towering fury, I would tell him that that question would haunt him for the next twelve years. Every single day there would be bullies of one sort or another. That some bullies understand only brute force; while others know the power of cutting, quiet remarks; and others still understand how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully are many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I would think, Why did you do that to me? Why do it? What do you get out of it? Is it power? Is it the sight of someone else’s suffering? Are you like a vampire who feeds on the pain and misery of others? Or is it just because it’s funny? Because it’s entertaining, toying with the weak, the defenceless, the soft?

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

Trust me, I’ve always been boring.

XXX

Many years later, I learned that bullies are often the victims of a higher-level form of bullies, or even of abuse at the hands of their parents or close relatives. They’re playing “Hot Potato”, and in many respects need help and therapeutic interventions as much as their victims. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a child who’s been the target of systematic, daily bullying, mocking, harassment, torment–that his nemesis is also a victim of some kind of awful abuse will likely result in very mixed feelings at best and indifference at worst. “So what!” is what you’d likely say, at the time, nursing your own pain. But later, you’d think. You’d wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XXX

When I was sixteen, my whole life, such as it was, with its unbearable burdens of grinding schoolwork, unending homework and constant bullying, simply broke and fell to bits, as if poorly made from cheap parts. At the time it felt like the greatest disaster I could imagine.

But it was in fact the greatest opportunity, a blessing, a rare moment of cosmic grace offered to an unhappy and mixed-up boy. It took him a long time to see this.

But he did come to see it.

And it saved his life.

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART 1 (FINAL)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART I (FINAL)

When I was sixteen my entire life fell to bits, as if poorly made, the warranty long expired. It was the year I had what was then called a breakdown, following surgery to have my appendix removed. It was the year I met my first psychiatrist. The year I entered a psychiatric hospital for the first (but not last) time.

It was the year so much happened to me, inside me, and around me. It felt as if my whole life had been building up to this eruption, and yet that very eruption turned out to be much less interesting than the question of why had it taken so long to turn up? Why hadn’t it happened earlier?

I was in high school, in Year 11, what was once called Fourth Year. It was harder than I could manage, harder than I could even imagine. I felt as if I were drowning every day and nobody could see the trouble I was in. I was drowning. I was going down. I couldn’t touch bottom.

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

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

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

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

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

If I were a Time Traveller visiting this shocked and upset little boy, three feet tall and full of towering fury, I would tell him that that question would haunt him for the next twelve years. Every single day there would be bullies of one sort or another. That some bullies understand only brute force; while others know the power of cutting, quiet remarks; and others still understand how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully are many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I would think, Why did you do that to me? Why do it? What do you get out of it? Is it power? Is it the sight of someone else’s suffering? Are you like a vampire who feeds on the pain and misery of others? Or is it just because it’s funny? Because it’s entertaining, toying with the weak, the defenceless, the soft.

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

Trust me, I’ve always been boring.

Many years later, I learned that bullies are often the victims of a higher-level form of bullies, or even of abuse at the hands of their parents or close relatives. They’re playing “Hot Potato”, and in many respects need help and therapeutic interventions as much as their victims. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a child who’s been the target of systematic, daily bullying, mocking, harassment, torment–that his nemesis is also a victim of some kind of awful abuse will likely result in very mixed feelings at best and indifference at worst. “So what!” is what you’d likely say, at the time, nirsimg your own pain. But later, you’d think. You’d wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XXX

When I was sixteen, my whole life, such as it was, with its unbearable burdens of grinding schoolwork, unending homework and constant bullying, simply broke and fell to bits, as if poorly made from cheap parts. At the time it felt like the greatest disaster I could imagine.

But it was in fact the greatest opportunity, a blessing, a rare moment of cosmic grace offered to an unhappy and mixed-up boy. It took him a long time to see this.

But he did come to see it.

And it saved his life.

MEMOIR: THE CONDENSED MILK INCIDENT (TOTAL REWRITE)

MEMOIR: THE CONDENSED MILK INCIDENT (TOTAL REWRITE)

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

Unless I’d beaten you to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad was always angry and frustrated and fed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love my mum.

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (FINAL)

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (FINAL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But nobody explains that to little kids with big imaginations.

MEMOIR: PROLOGUE: TIME TRAVEL (FINAL)

MEMOIR: PROLOGUE: TIME TRAVEL (FINAL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEMOIR: WHEN MUM MET DAD (FINAL)

MEMOIR: WHEN MUM MET DAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctantly, guiltily, Marie went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It saved us both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEMOIR: PROLOGUE: HOSPITAL MAY 2016 DAY 1

PROLOGUE: HOSPITAL MAY 2016 DAY 1

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

I’m trying to fill in the admission forms.

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

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

The glare from outside, through the glass door—

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

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

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

The phone! The phone ringing, always ringing!

Michelle says give me the form.

I give her the form.

I could weep.

I’m just about weeping telling you this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

XXX

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

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

XXX

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve applied to go back to study.

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

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

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