It was a clear bright August Monday in 1979, when I was only 16 years old, and I was scared out of my mind. My parents and I were sitting in the reception area of the psychiatric unit, ward D20, of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. We were waiting for a nurse to appear who would take me into the ward itself and get me acquainted with everything.
The waiting area was the sort of oppressive quiet that makes you feel guilty if you speak at even normal inside-voice volume. And in a place like this, a psychiatric unit, you feel doubly self-conscious, worried that people would hear you and know you for the lunatic you feel you must be in order to find yourself in this situation.
It didn’t look or feel like psychiatric facilities I’d seen depicted in movies and TV. There was a nice carpet and comfortable furniture. It looked more like a three-star hotel than it did like the kind of place featured in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’d been expecting this latter, so finding this “nice” place was disorienting and stress-inducing in itself.
Some weeks before this, I’d been seeing a psychiatrist every week or so following what I was told was a breakdown back in June, when I’d been in a different hospital to have my appendix removed. One night just after the surgery (the appendix had been so inflamed it had been about to erupt into peritonitis) I found myself crying so much, and so hard, even nurses looked worried and scared. I remember it went on for hours. My mum was there as well as a nurse, and they got me through it. I still, decades later, don’t know what went wrong that night that led to this. I’d had some visitors come by, including friends from high school, and my folks, but some way into the visit I felt uncomfortable and stressed, and I asked if people would leave–and my next memory is lying there in bed howling like a baby.
In 1979 I was in my fourth year of high school, and I was in deep waters and couldn’t touch bottom. I was drowning, caught in a rip, and being dragged out to sea.
The first three years, I’d done very well in English, muddled along in things like Social Studies, and suffered horribly in Mathematics. In second-year high school I’d even failed Science altogether. I’d never seen such a thing before on a report card, a rude “F”. My parents were angry and mortified. I was humiliated, and felt a terrible weight of hot shame, that I carried into third-year, where I managed to do a bit better, but only a bit. The thing was, as happened when I was ten years old, and I had that day when I felt dead inside, I spent much of second-year dead inside, too. I remember sitting in Science class, just sitting, not listening, not writing, but sitting. I probably did this with my other classes, too, but I vividly remember my body occupying a seat in the Science classroom, but that I was only vaguely occupying my body. I was somewhere else, numb, remote, on the Moon. And I failed Science that year.
Back to 1979, two years later, when life in high school became much harder all at once. The first three years were like how primary school is to high school: all pretty slack and a bit of fun, but then things get a bit serious. In fourth year, things became deadly.
Fourth- and fifth-year were for kids who anticipated going to university after high school. Things became specialised: where we used to have “Science” we now had Physics classes and Chemistry classes, Biology and Human Biology. Where we used to have “Social Studies” now there was History, Economics, and much more. Mathematics metastasised into the numbered horrors of Maths 1, 2, 3, and 4–of which 2 and 3 were the most challenging, intended for advanced students only.
I had been assessed as being very bright, and a keen reader, so I was dropped into all the really hard stuff. I had Maths 2 and 3. Physics and Chemistry. History. And English (though not English Literature, a separate class). This line-up of classes was terrifying. I did not feel up to any of it, except English, which had been my great strength in the first three years of high school.
But the very first day of fourth-year English destroyed any feeling of security I had felt about my competence in that topic. The very first thing the teacher, a 30-something woman, said to us, perched on a stool at the front of the room: “Most of you will fail.”
She didn’t welcome us, showed no personal warmth. There was just this bombshell announcement right at the start.
And right away, sitting there in my grey poly-cotton shirt and grey cotton trousers, I felt something in me panic and die. I felt as if I had already failed. First I failed second-year Science; now I was going to fail fourth-year English. And English, of all things! The thing I was expected to ace! I was supposed to be good at this. By age 16 I was already a prolific writer, churning out vast numbers of truly-terrible science fiction short stories. I had entered and won the school writing competition a number of times (though had also often been the only entrant). I had decided, at 14, that I wanted to be a published author when I grew up. I was always reading, and always writing. Probably, when I was writing, I was also in a state of mania, my undiagnosed bipolar disorder enjoying a big upswing, manifesting as incessant typing.
Midway through fourth-year high school, in June, there were exams to see how everyone was doing. I was doing badly. I couldn’t do the mathematics, and I had no idea about the physics or chemistry. I had less than zero grasp of history (though it was interesting, at least), and in English I was drowning.
I did not know what to do. Sixteen years old, and doomed. I wasn’t going to university, and it was impossible to imagine anyone hiring such a dunce as I clearly was.
Oh, and there was bullying. There was bullying from other students, and there was bullying from teachers. Kids informed me early and often that I was fat, gay, sexually repulsive, dirty, unmanly, and useless in all respects. Certain of my teachers took the opportunity to inform me that I was dull-witted, a disappointment, and incompetent.
Then there was my dad, the poor bugger who was dealing with his own untreated bipolar condition, who didn’t understand why his bright, articulate, brainy son was struggling so much with school. I would get 8/10 for an assignment, and Dad would demand to know how I lost those two marks. Nine out of ten, the same routine. Ninety-five percent? How’d you lose that five percent? He thought he was being encouraging. All these decades later, he doesn’t even remember any of this. It’s strange, having a grudge against someone who has no memory of the events in question.
And, on top of all this, I was floundering so much in school in every subject that every night I had hours and hours of homework, sometimes as many hours of homework as hours I’d been at school. Grinding away all evening until a late bedtime, and even up early to squeeze a bit in before pedalling off to school for another day of abuse, confusion and despair.
In hindsight, the only real question is how did I hang on so long before that breakdown? Mum and Dad knew I wasn’t right. Two years before, when I was 14, the year I failed Science, the year of sitting and staring, they took me to a doctor, a specialist, who told them (I only dimly remember this event; what I know about it mainly comes from Mum) that I very likely had what was then called “manic depression”, but that for some impenetrable reason nothing could be done in the system until I had some kind of breakdown.
But once I had said breakdown, we were off to the races, so to speak. The whole rest of my life as a psychiatric patient began to unspool. In Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, where I stayed as an inpatient for four months, they ran all kinds of tests, interviewed me a great deal, and encouraged me to follow a program of various kinds of group therapy, as well as other more recreational kinds of groups. The doctors sat me down fairly early on, and informed me I had this condition, a “bipolar, biochemical, affective psychotic disorder.”
This was devastating. Psychotic? The word leapt out at me, wild-eyed, with a knife in its teeth. Nothing good came from that word. It was the 1970s. There were terrorists who were sometimes called psychotic. Mad bombers were psychotic. Psycho killers were psychotic. And I was 16 years old with a vivid imagination. My life, I saw, was over. Who would marry me? Who would even go out with me? Who would have me at all? This fat, wretched, pimply, nervy guy–this psychotic?
Flash-forward 38 years, and I’ve been married 24 years to the wonderful Michelle. She took me. She had some idea of what she was getting, having had “my sinister secret” explained to her by not only me but also my doctor at the time. I made sure she was as fully prepared as possible.
And for almost all that intervening time I managed with just doctor visits and medication. I managed okay, well enough. I even managed to get some books published, and establish a dimly glowing pilot-light of a career as an author.
But the psychopharmaceutical wheels fell off in the past few years, and I slumped into a deep despond, which, last year, prompted my current doctor to suggest I “come into hospital for a medication change”. He said this would take maybe two weeks, in and out, no different from putting your car in for a service, up on the hoist, everything checked out.
A year later, I’m still up on that hoist