MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (Major Rewrites)
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 his life, the fundamental problem was pretending to be normal, while definitely not being normal. The problem was keeping people from finding out the 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. She was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.
Act III of this show 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. An experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it and my whole life with the stain, the illness, my companion.
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 trapped, unable to act, because you believe terrible things will occur if you do act. You believe you might die, or people (or pets) might die. The cobwebs, or perhaps things living in the cobwebs, whisper in your ear, telling you these things. Sometimes they scream. Either way, you can’t do things you want to do, go to things you want to go to, see people you want to see, or even simply leave the house. You know it’s irrational, but you also believe it’s life and death—and you can’t make anyone, anyone, understand that. Everyone looks at you like you’re crazy, but you’re telling the truth.
Finding ways to get past these wrong ideas to the actual truth is what I’ve been trying to do. I have found that I am very susceptible to the cobwebs. I get them all the time. Sometimes I can clear them out on my own, but not always. Sometimes I need help, and for that I have a clinical psychologist who is marvellous. She helps me with the cobwebs I can’t quite reach.
Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs, too. I have done my best to scrape out everything, no matter how personal, 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. 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.
This book is about exploring my life as if I were a Time Traveller, especially as it has been affected by mental illness, my bipolar disorder and anxiety. What would I see, as a grown-up, middle-aged man, with all my experience with the illness and treatment, that my younger selves don’t see? I know, obviously, that I can’t help them. But I can bear witness. I can listen and report. I can tell you what it was like back when these things were never discussed. Back when being sixteen and bipolar was the end of the world.
All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I were fine. 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, 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, what might I see? A boy, crying so hard he’s worried he might die from it, that something might happen. 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.
I wrote this book in random chunks, in fragments and shards. It’s nonlinear. You can read it more or less in chronological order if you like and it is presented that way. But it was always intended, and was written, as an out-of-order, dip-in-and-out experience. Random Access Memory. Memories stored all over the map, not next to each other, one following the next. It’s organised chaos. My life has been like this. This book just happened. It grew accidentally out of a writing journal I started keeping by way of a bit of therapy, and next thing I’m writing about my life, about my illness. I saw an opportunity. I could maybe make a small contribution, me and my time machine.
This is not, I need to clarify, my whole life. I have left a lot out. My brief was material reflecting the way my mental illness has affected my life, and especially my life as a writer. It takes in my struggle with my weight, too, since I have long believed my weight and my illness were each manifestations of one another. Many chapters also feature extensive postscripts, written several months after the initial chapter, reflecting new developments, changed circumstances, or fresh thinking.
How did I get here? Just how much of a lucky bastard am I? Because I am a lucky bastard. Several young people I knew when I was in the D20 psychiatric unit at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital when I was sixteen did not survive their own Years of Hell. Their illnesses killed them. Mine never seriously tried to kill me. But I understand the thinking pattern, the way the illness calls out to you, the way it presents the argument.
I was lucky, so lucky.
All my life I had to pretend I was normal, but I wasn’t normal. Everybody told me so. I was wrong in all kinds of ways. First I was just weird and strange, but then I was sick. I was still pretty weird, too. And I had to hide it all, weird, sick, the lot. 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.