MEMOIR: AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS (Updated)
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 to not go looking it up, to try and find out about it. 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 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.