FIRST PSYCHIATRIST

When you’re a sixteen years old, and your mind feels like a bomb just exploded, your first-ever encounter with an actual psychiatrist is quite a portentous moment. You’ve heard of psychiatrists and the world of psychiatry for years, or at least I had, because of my dad’s mysterious troubles. He had a psychiatrist who looked after him, but I knew nothing about him, so he seemed enigmatic, a robed genius, a liminal figure something like a wizard, and something like a cross between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

I had what was called a breakdown, but what felt like Vesuvius erupting, the night after I had my appendix removed at the old Mount Hospital, a big white wedding-cake of a hospital at the top end of St George’s Terrace, not far from the Barracks Arch. I remember the room seemed very large, and that the surgical dressing and a weird artificial smell about it I didn’t like. And I remember explosive crying for hours, and the fear, new and terrifying, what if you could die of crying so much?

My parents spoke to the medical staff at the Mount. Things were arranged. Calls were made. Mum and Dad, drawn and desperately concerned, told me that Dr Faulkner, Dad’s psychiatrist, would come to see me on Saturday, which was a few days hence. It was an “oh God!” moment, a crossing of a threshold from childhood into something altogether bigger, more grown-up, and much scarier. Psychiatrists, as I said, were up there with wizards. They dealt with the human mind, that elemental mystery. (Note: this is teenage me thinking here, pretentious tosser that I was.) I was scared stiff.

The few days between then and the doctor’s arrival were long, hard and fragile. My mum would probably say it was like holding a broken eggshell together with her hands.

The doctor turned up, a worn, comfortable, rumpled man in middle-age with a warm smile, a fatherly manner, and not the least bit of mystery, enigma, genius or pretense about him. He was like your favourite uncle, who’s always really pleased to see you. I lay in bed, watching him come in, cross the room, glance out the french doors at the rainswept day outside, and settle in a friendly heap in a chair by the bed. He was pleased to meet me. He’d heard a lot about me over the years from my dad, it seemed.

We chatted a bit. I was reluctant to get into Things and Stuff because I didn’t want to trigger another breakdown or event or whatever the hell that had been. I still felt exhausted, trembly and fragile, days later. Even so, the doctor eased me around to the Things and Stuff. He asked me what happened, what it felt like, how did I feel about it, about what happened? What did I think about it? Why did I think it happened? Why such a huge outpouring? Where had all that come from?

It took some time to explain it all. It was the first time anyone had asked me these questions. I wasn’t sure what to say, how to begin. My mum had some idea of what I had been going through. She knew about the bullying, the teachers, the abuse, the terror. She knew I had complicated feelings about my dad and his on and off moods. But I had never explained everything to her the way I was explaining it to the doctor (and the way I’ve been telling you).

He was a good listener. He didn’t make notes. He sat there, made little “mmm” noises for me to go on, or to express surprise, concern or amazement, and otherwise would just sit there in his rumpled brown leather jacket for seemingly ages at a time, thinking. I was not used to having someone take me so seriously. I kept thinking he’d be going at any moment, that my time would be up, that he’d have more important things to do–but he stayed for ages. He heard everything, until I was done. It was a kindness beyond measure.

A few weeks later, out of the Mount, my stitches removed, healing at least physically, it was Dr Faulkner who suggested I go to hospital “for a couple of weeks rest”, meaning the D20 ward at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, where I ended up staying for four months, followed by 20 further months as a day-patient coming in various days a week. When the doctor suggested this to me, I was scared. I only knew about psychiatric hospitals from movies like ONE FEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Fortunately, as I have said, it was nothing like that. I thrived.

I stayed with Dr Faulkner for a long, long time. He grew old and grey. Until late in his life he was still running in marathons and fun runs. I remember he had a consulting room in West Perth where some of his poorer patients paid him in giant bags of fresh produce, which accumulated behind the visitor chairs in his office, creating a sometimes interesting smell.

Towards the end of his career he developed narcolepsy, so was always dropping off to sleep without warning, even in the middle of speaking, or checking notes. I’d have to keep waking him up. It was disconcerting, but nothing personal, even if it did happen in the middle of telling him something of bombshell significance or urgency.

His retirement was hard, and finding a new doctor who was at least as good was even harder. But Dr Faulkner hung in there as long as he possibly could, longer than he was supposed to, all white-hair and huge eyebrows, very Gandalf, a proper wizard at last. And last I heard, he’s still with us, in his nineties now. Always sends a card at Christmas. One of the finest people I have ever met. I even wrote him into my book, BLACK LIGHT, as the psychiatrist my protagonist sees when she’s recovering from a suicide attempt. The guy in the book even has the mouldering bags of fruit!

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