PROLOGUE: HOSPITAL MAY 2016 DAY 1
I’m sitting, nervous, trembling, in a chair in a hospital reception area. There is carpeting. I can see a sliding automatic door over there, and outside, it’s a bright sunny May day. Nearly winter. Next to me is my luggage. Michelle has packed me about a week, maybe two weeks of luggage. My doctor told me I would be in and out in mo time, a week, ten days, two weeks tops. He smiled saying that, expansive, infusing me with confidence. A minor thing. Take me off the old medication, deal with the withdrawal side-effects under 24-hour supervision, and ease onto the new one. Easy, he said. Two weeks, tops.
I’m trying to fill in the admission forms.
I can’t. Phones are ringing behind me at the reception desk. There are people coming and going. Michelle is next to me. She looks tense.
My hand holding the pen—it’s a black pen—is shaking. I can hardly write, my hand shakes so much.
The glare from outside, through the glass door—
There are at least seven pages to this form. Seven pages! I’m struggling.
My hand hurts. I try using my left hand to hold my right hand steady. It doesn’t help. I can’t do it. I’m only on page, I think, three. Some question wanting a list of current medications, or health insurance details, or medical history or some damned impossible thing and you just want to scream with frustration because who in their right mind designs a form for people entering a psychiatric hospital, people who are not well, people who are upset and agitated, and makes them fill in seven pages of tiny print forms?
I whisper all this to Michelle. I feel the way my heart gallops. The way I want to smash the glass in the door.
The phone! The phone ringing, always ringing!
Michelle says give me the form.
I give her the form.
I could weep.
I’m just about weeping telling you this story.
This was May 2016. I was a sick and troubled middle-aged man suffering from lifelong bipolar disorder.
By this point I was barely functioning. I was an absentee husband to Michelle. I could not get out of bed each day before 3 or 4pm. She goes to work at 3pm. It was a living death. When I did get up, I was functional to a point, but only a point. I was a writer by profession, but I felt deeply bitter and conflicted about it. I did not know whether I wanted to continue being a writer. I felt, despite six published books to my name, like a failure. None of my books had done all that well. Maybe writing wasn’t really a good fit for me. I thought and thought about this. What should I do instead?
I didn’t know. I’d always been a writer, since my earliest days. It’s literally all I knew how to do. I had no other skills. Typing. I am a proficient, office-ready touch-typist. I can do about 80 words per minute, with pretty good accuracy. And I have worked as a secretary and receptionist. Woo.
I’ve always struggled with the notion of work. Because of my illness. My dad, too. Same illness, but he was a provider, a breadwinner, and he went out to work for years and years, suffering dreadfully, without adequate treatment. He, like me years later, had trouble holding down a job.
The only other thing I’ve ever found that suited me like writing was study. I first went to university in the 1980s, made a big mess of it, did okay academically, but didn’t finish. I had another crack at it in the 1990s, but quit midway because I received word that I sold my first novel, and I imagined, naïvely, that the life of the full-time author lay before me. It didn’t. That book would not see print, for various reasons, for several years, during which time I could have finished that degree, and maybe a Master’s as well.
I have always deeply, bitterly, regretted that I never completed either of these degrees.
I was a patient in that hospital for a total of five months in 2016. It was the most harrowing experience of my life. I had to write about it. This book is the result. The more I wrote, the more I wrote.
I’ve always been mentally ill, and I’ve always been fat. I’ve often felt that the two things were aspects or manifestations of each other, and especially that my fat was pure depression given form and substance. This book is about these two things and what I’ve been through because of them, and what I’ve done, the lengths I’ve gone to, to deal with them.
I left that hospital in November 2016. I’ve been seeing a psychologist to help me since then, and she’s been wonderful. I was in that hospital a long time, on and off, because it was hard to find a replacement medication to my old one, the one that seemed to have stopped working. I tried several possible replacements, most of them useless or otherwise no good.
But I did end up on a good one with a doozy of a side-effect, Nortriptyline. You’ll hear about the side-effect, and what I believed I had to do to counter that side-effect. You’ll be horrified!
My life is now transformed. It might seem strange to tell you that at the beginning of the book. But it’s true. Things, for now, are good. The poor bastard who couldn’t fill in that form is okay now. He is, I am, fine.
Keep that in mind as you read. I am, as I say in the epilogue, suspicious of tidy, happy endings. I do not think life is like that. I think life moves in waves and cycles, and sometimes in big messy scribbles. But sometimes things here and there work out okay.
I said I felt bitter about never completing a university degree?
I’ve applied to go back to study.
Today I received an acceptance from Edith Cowan University here in Perth. I start later this month.
Think back to the man in the hospital reception area with the shaking hand and the form to fill in. I think about him all the time. All the time. I would never have imagined it possible. I thought I was permanently broken.
If nothing else, this book is a tribute to the mental health professionals who, individually and together, since that day in 2016 and since, put me back together.