One year ago, I was close to discharge from hospital. The ordeal was nearly over. My vertical hold was stabilising; the static-filled picture was clearing. A new medication was at last working. The new medication was only new to me. In fact it was an old drug, Nortriptyline, one of the venerable tricyclic antidepressants. I had come to the hospital in the first place, months earlier, to get clear of another tricyclic, Clomipramine. The fifth fundamental force of the universe is irony. But Nortriptyline was working. Psychiatric medication is a bit like corrective lenses for your mind. When the meds are working, you feel like yourself, and I felt like a recognisable version of myself again. I wasn’t a pod-version Adrian. I wasn’t an impostor. I was myself, and would only become more like myself as the new medication settled in. I started feeling restless. I started thinking about the future. About what I would do when I went home.
But this male nurse was talking to me.
He was telling me it was good that I was going home soon. I’d spent almost half the year in that hospital. He said I was running the risk of becoming “institutionalised”. I looked at him, a bit confused, not sure quite what he meant. It was the only time he mentioned it, and the only time I thought about it. Not long after that, I was discharged, and sent home with an enormous plastic bag full of expensive medication, to begin my new life.
Soon, it will be a year since I left that hospital. But I have only recently realised that in my head I had never really left. In my head I am still there, following the same schedule, the same routine, thinking about the same patterns of cause and effect.
These past twelve months, there have been many times when I’ve had bad days, off days, lousy days, a few rotten days, a period of “choppy seas”, a “bad run”, “a bad patch”, or whatever you would like to call an unspecified span of time in which I would tell you I felt at least somewhat depressed or down. But not only depressed or down, but “sick”. In trouble. Engines on fire. Anxious. Worried. Am I going back to hospital? Do I need to make an emergency appointment with my doctor? Calculating how many days before I see my psychologist.
Sometimes I can get myself out of these anxious states by reframing the thinking pattern, using techniques my psychologist has given me, or that I have figured out myself. Going for a walk in sunshine helps. Attending to some chores around the house helps. A bit of reading, and some other things. Things that matter to me. They help. They prove to me that I’m not a stain on the couch, that I have a pulse.
So I have these times when I feel bad, and my first impulse is to worry that I’m sick and at risk of hospitalisation.
But what if I’m just feeling blue and melancholy? What if I’m just a sad and soulful kind of guy?
Over the weekend I was listening to some KPop. I listen to lots of KPop. That and jazz. There was a female artist named Heize (pronounced “haze”). She has this wonderful sad song (https://youtu.be/afxLaQiLu-o). I love sad songs. Some of my favourite music of any sort, in any genre, from any tradition, is the sad stuff. It speaks to me. I feel it. This song by Heize is not the greatest sad song I’ve ever heard. For me, that will always be DeBussy’s “Claire de Lune”. My pick for Favourite Piece of Music Ever, and if you think I have no taste in music, you are probably right.
But over the weekend this Heize song came up on Spotify again. I happened to look at the album cover, and there is a picture of the singer behind a rainswept window, looking sad.
And, even though I have heard this song many times, and seen this image many times, and seen images like it countless times, this particular time was the first time I stopped and formed the thought: she’s feeling lousy but she’s not thinking about hospital. Her engines are not on fire.
In fact, as far as I can tell, her entire thought process, as an independent singer-songwriter, was, “hmm, I feel really sad and dismal. Things are crap. Nothing’s going well. I’m lonely. What to do? I know. I’ll write about it.” So she writes about it. Next thing, she starts forming these thoughts into a song, starts composing melodies and so forth, books some studio time, etc.
At no point does she think, Oh God, I think I’m sick.
Or thinks she’s gonna crash.
She feels sad, and turns it into a beautiful sad song that not only becomes a hit that makes her money, but it’s also a comfort to people out there who are also feeling sad. She understands how they feel.
I was institutionalised but I didn’t know it until that moment. It came as a huge shock. There have been many such shocks. It made me think of the elephant kept in an enclosure in the zoo for thirty years, and one day the enclosure was taken away, but the elephant stayed within that same space, even though there were no pillars anymore. The poor beast had to be coaxed out of there over a long time.
I have been living my life this past year against the backdrop of the hospital. It has loomed up behind me, sometimes huge and close, sometimes further back, but always in the shot, always the key reference. The inescapable detail. I feel like everything I go to say has to somehow include a reference to the hospital. It was like this after my stay in D20 when I was sixteen, too. It was the single biggest experience of my life. It dominated everything.
I want to change the point of view.
On November 9 it will be one year since I left the hospital. I want to turn the camera around. I want to see the view ahead. I don’t want to be in the shot anymore. I will still write about “all this” (gestures around). I particularly want to write about my weight-loss project, and some of that will intersect with my mental illness, because major weight-loss does things to your head you would not expect. It messes you up inside. As much as it is a physical, biochemical process, it is a mental process, too.
I want to stop picturing myself as a “patient in recovery”. I’m recovered. I’m fine (NB: am speaking only for myself here). When I have bad days, rough patches, choppy seas, it’s because I’m a moody, melancholy sort of soul. I should write about it. I should write the equivalent of a sad song about it. I should make some art. Be productive. And I should turn up the KPop, really loud, and rock out.