ME VERSUS JAPANESE FOOD

I was more than fifty years old, and I was afraid of all sorts of food, but none more than Japanese food, and that was because of all the raw seafood content. In the dank and fevered interior of my mind, Japanese food loomed large and terrifying, a source of waking anxiety and awful dreams.

What was it, exactly, that scared me about it? What specific thing? As with all my food-related phobias and aversions it was the thought of public vomiting, and especially public vomiting in front of family or loved ones, just like when I was the little kid gagging on the boiled corn and Mum and Dad were furious.

So, there I was, 50-Year Man, who had lived his whole life afraid of so many things, but especially of food. It was time to do something, or at least try to do something, about it. I realised that my greatest fear was vomiting in public–but that it was only vomiting. There were probably worse things I could do in a restaurant, if I applied myself to the task, than merely spew. In any case, “merely” spewing was still plenty worrying, and I was in no rush to do it–but I was in a rush to put my plan into effect.

I told Michelle about it. That I wanted to eat Japanese food.

Once I’d revived her and helped her up off the floor, she agreed to take me to some suitable places.

The first place we went was a Japanese cafĂ© in Subiaco, a little place, not fancy, not crowded, and just right. I stood in the doorway, sniffing. It did not smell bad. It did not smell fishy. It had previously occurred to me that “smelling or tasting fishy” was one of the things that put me off about Japanese food, and that I equated that with the most disgusting thoughts imaginable. Once I stopped to examine that thought, it began to seem strange, and foolish.

Anyway, there I was, in the doorway of an actual Japanese establishment, nostrils twitching, checking for fishiness–and it was fine. There was a food or cooking smell, for sure, but I couldn’t identify it. One thing I could tell for sure: it was not non-food. It wasn’t my category 3.

We went in, and found a table. I felt weird and shaky, cold and wobbly in the legs, and jittery in my stomach. I was aware of a sensation of being a bit “brave”, for certain values of “brave”.

Then I was sitting there, looking around, an astronaut on a distant, alien world taking his first look round, aware that everything he sees and says is historic. The very fact of my being there was shocking. The last time I was in a Japanese restaurant was in about 2003, and I was an invited guest to the local science fiction convention, Swancon, and that year the convention committee thought it would be fun to take all the guests to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. It was excruciating and mortifying for me, but I couldn’t imagine not going because I was a guest–they’d been kind enough to invite me. I still remember the waitress on her knees begging me with the greatest humility to please eat just something, and having to politely, so politely, refuse. It was awful.

So here I was on my alien world, taking historic steps. I examined the menu. The names were mysterious. Michelle explained things. I settled on the grilled octopus balls, and the teriyaki beef skewers. I went for the octopus because they were the most objectively terrifying thing available. Octopuses wig me out, and the idea of eating them doubly wigs me out. The beef teriyaki skewers were intended as something rational, understandable, food from my home planet.

The octopus balls came out, hot and alive. They had these flakes of bonito fish on them which wafted about in the heat coming off the balls, making the entire thing look alive and menacing.

And, ladies and germs, I ate one of those bastards. I jammed it in my mouth, and it felt a bit weird in texture, but not disgusting, just unfamiliar–but the best part was that it tasted meaty, savoury. It did not taste the least bit seafoody or fishy. It was good!

I enjoyed the second of the two I was given, and felt like the King of the Freaking World, like I could do anything.

The teriyaki beef skewers were a bit sweet, but were grilled beef bits on sticks. Definitely food from my home planet, posing no problems.

I left this cafe 2–0, feeling pretty damned good, ready to take things up a notch. This was forthcoming. Michelle later took me to another Japanese restaurant she knew near IKEA, which she said was good because it was always crowded, which meant the food must be very fresh. I liked her logic.

I’d never been to a sushi train restaurant, so that was fun, with little plates of things trundling past, leading to a lot of intense, split-second decisions. On this occasion I was determined to investigate the whole raw fish thing, so when a couple of pieces of raw salmon sushi came by, I grabbed them. Again, I was nervous as hell, moreso than I had been at the other place. The stakes were higher. This food was raw, while the food at that other place had been grilled (which improves everything). The sense of being an astronaut was even more acute, and the sense of being far from home only too piercing.

This raw salmon sushi was exactly the kind of thing I was most afraid of. Imagine being afraid of spiders and then grabbing one with the intention of eating it. Imagine your your fears becoming manifest. But also imagine knowing your fears are stupid, and trying to beat them.

I picked up one of the salmon sushi pieces. It looked huge, but I had seen people eat these things in one go, so I tried that. I shoved it in my gob–

First, there was no fishy or seafoody taste.

Second, I was gagging hard. I was about to be sick.

This was it. The doomsday scenario. I’m aware that there is Too Much Food in my mouth, that it’s uncomfortable, like something’s about to burst. I’m glancing about, because obviously People Can Tell. I’m starting to sweat. I’m retching. Thinking about where the toilets might be, and how to tell Michelle. Can I remove the salmon from my mouth first–might that help, or is the situation too urgent? It feels like this situation has always felt: profoundly anxious and shameful, as if I’m bringing shame upon my household from which we will never recover. What’s more, I know this is nonsense, but it is nevertheless what I’m feeling.

I’m chewing like mad. There is so much to chew. I must be chewing an entire freaking fish! There is nearly no taste to it, which helps. There is just this mass of stuff in my mouth, and over time the feeling of it pressing down on the back of my throat, on my gag reflex, subsides. I swallow, and swallow again. I have a little green tea. I swallow more.

Normal service resumes. The crisis passes. I mop my brow. The manager comes by and asks if everything is all right. Michelle smiles for both of us. I just nod, exhausted.

That night I tried a bunch of different things, and that gagging emergency aside, I had a nice time. But that is also the last time we went out for Japanese food, and it must be more than a year now. It was good, but I didn’t love it madly. One thing that night I did enjoy was another salmon sushi thing, bit this was salmon whose skin had been lightly seared. I also took the precaution of eating it in two bites rather than one. It was great! I really enjoyed it.

There are still Japanese food things I want to try. I chickened out on the prawns that night. And I’d like to try sashimi, and Kobe beef, among other things. And I need to investigate the world of noodles at some point. I’m put off all things ramen (and related phenomenon of Korean ramyeon) by the very non-food smell of it) by the look and smell, but who knows, I might be wrong.

The main thing, when thinking about these remaining Japanese food challenges, is that they are simply challenges now. I can imagine going into a Japanese restaurant as a regular customer, knowing about certain items on the menu, and feeling fairly comfortable. I wouldn’t have to feel so much like an astronaut landing on a remote alien world, making history with every step and gesture. I could just enjoy myself. What a thought!

WEIRD GROWNUP: Food Again

I was in what I was assured was one of the very best Chinese restaurants in Perth. It had been booked out for the 21st birthday of a young woman in Michelle’s university medical laboratory science class, and she had invited the whole class, and their various assorted partners and plus-ones.

I was by now in my late twenties, at least on the outside, but inside, where it mattered, I was still a little kid who was worried about choking on the corn any moment now. Who was worried about making a scene, about vomiting.

As I grew up I learned that there were essentially three categories of food: category 1 was no-problem food, stuff that presented no difficulties, that you could eat all day, and that was often horribly bad for you; category 2 food was stuff that wasn’t super-yummy but then also didn’t make you vomit just from the smell of a saucepan of the stuff boiling on the stove, so most vegetables are in this group, and in fact most general food not otherwise included in categories 1 or 3 is in this group; and then in category 3 is what I think of as “non-food”.

Chinese cuisine, the go-to fast food cuisine of the entire world, the food that absolutely everyone loves, is very much category 3 for me. It is non-food.

It doesn’t smell like food. Though for context think about where and when I grew up, in suburban Perth in the 1970s, when Italian food was just starting to arrive. When meals at home featured meat and two veg more often than I can say. When food was conventional to the point of numbness. But as conventional as it was, it at least had the authentic smell and taste of food–to me.

Back to the restaurant. This evening was a special occasion for the birthday girl. The place was jammed, all the big round tables were full of happy friends and family. The conversational hubbub was lively and absolutely everyone else was having a terrific time. Not me, but you wouldn’t expect me to, would you? I subsisted through the evening, course after course, on coffee and polite smiles. So many courses!

The most challenging course was the Giant Fish, presented in its Giant Disgusting Entirety, on a platter the size of a continent, which was placed on the spinny thing in the centre of the table. I still remember the hot stinking fish aroma. I also remember the eyes. Then the people at the table began to spin it this way and that as they chose sections of the Leviathan for themselves, flensing out vast swathes of it. Around and around it went, first this way, then back that way, always somehow staring at me as it went by, “Not eating me, Adrian? I’m very tasty!” And the stench, my God, the stench! Back and forth, around and around, the demolition of the Great Beast proceeded, exposing ever more of the creature’s interior caverns and internal structures, frequently big enough for apartment/retail complexes. It was nightmarish. It never stopped. It was like those timelapse films of dead animals being devoured by ants, only the people around me were the very cheerful ants, completely unaware of the horror unfolding before me, how it was all I could do not to throw up just from the smell.

And yet, as bad as the Giant Fish was, it wasn’t the worst part of the night. That was still coming, and it came at the end. Things were wrapping up. There was speechifying. A consensus emerged among the speakers that Birthday Girl was a very fine young lady who would go far. There was applause and envelopes full of cash.

But suddenly, and I’m still not quite sure how this bit came about–it’s a sudden jump in the film, a missing reel and a bad splice–Birthday Girl is right in front of me, and she’s looking worried and imploring. There’s a Problem, a Serious Problem, it seems. There’s a matter of Luck, it seems. The fact that I haven’t eaten anything has become known, and this has caused Alarm, somehow. It seems I must eat Something in order for there to be Good Luck. I want there to be Good Luck, right? I wouldn’t wish Bad Luck on the Birthday Girl, would I?

Well, no, of course not. But I have what these days we call “food issues”. I understand about matters of Luck, but I also understand about matters of Vomit.

Next thing, a small white bowl of beef strips in some kind of sauce appears. To my great amazement, it’s actually quite tasty. The gods of Luck smile upon the proceedings, in more ways than one. Birthday Girl smiles upon me, and I on her. Lots of apologies and awkwardness. Inside I’m just about in tears at how my stupid bloody food bollocks nearly ruined someone’s special occasion, and the guilt is eating at me as we leave. Michelle doesn’t bring me to events like this again, and I am glad.

WEIRD KID 2: Food

WEIRD KID 2: Food

Mum and Dad were embarrassed, and I was in big trouble. I would hear about this when we went home. We were visiting friends of theirs, and these friends had gone to a lot of trouble, making dinner. And I could not eat it.

I tried to eat it. I tried many, many times. But it smelled weird. It felt weird in my mouth. It wasn’t like my mum’s cooking. Though there were times I couldn’t eat Mum’s cooking, either. Food was hard. Food was a world of anxiety and stress. And on this occasion, like so many others, it was making me gag. I was close to vomiting right there at the table, in front of my parents and their friends, and their friends’ own kids. Mum and Dad were glaring at me, whispering urgent instructions, telling me to get on with it, to stop making a scene. Mum and Dad’s friends were all stiff smiles, wanting to keep things light and fine, to reassure Mum and Dad that It Was Okay, and in their house nobody had to eat anything he didn’t want to eat. And you could see that Mum and Dad were not buying this for a moment. They were mortified.

They weren’t the ones worried about spewing undigested corn all over the table, though. I knew very well that I was the focus of all this stress and fuss. I felt awful. I did not want to be the weird kid who didn’t like certain kinds of food, but there were certain foods that I only had to smell to make me feel queasy.

Maybe this is why, when we went visiting other people, sometimes I wouldn’t get out of the car? I don’t know. I just know that food was always trouble, and I never knew why. It just was. Sometimes I wondered if I was a “super-taster” with exceptionally acute taste, but I don’t know. Food has always been trouble, to this day. I can’t stand chicken, for example. I’m not much for anything seafoody. I still cannot abide corn, which always makes me think of yellow teeth. Mushrooms. Raw tomatoes. Salads. Anything that smells “funny”. Don’t get me started on foreign food, though I have tried some Korean and Japanese food which, to my enormous shock, I liked.

I’m unhappy about this. I’m still that little kid gagging on the boiled corn. My psychologist and I have talked about it. She’s given me a referral to a woman who is part nutritionist and part psychotherapist, who might understand about this experience of food-related trauma. I’m interested in meeting her. If I do I’ll report in.

BREATHING

My dad was breathing and I could hear it. I could hear it over the general chatter of conversation between my parents and me. In and out, in and out. My dad has a cold at the moment; his voice is a bit croaky, and he’s congested. I can’t normally hear his breathing. Tonight, though, every breath, in and out, each one an epic undertaking, each one a journey, worthy of metaphor.

Not that long ago, this sound would have driven me screaming from their house. My fight/flight response would have switched over to FLIGHT mode, and I would be executing the order with extreme prejudice. It would, as I slunk home, dragging my sorry arse like an unloved doll, be the cause of much self-loathing and recrimination.

Instead, I was reasonably okay. I was aware of it. I noticed it. It was a feature of the environment, along with the chat, and the slight winter chill. It was okay. I managed. I did not have to leave early, in great haste. There was no sorry arse to drag home.

Where I come from, this is what recovery looks like. It’s when daily life, in all its manifold details, tasks and challenges, begins to resemble something less than a SAS obstacle and ropes course, and more like a Friday afternoon in Ballajura, visiting your mum and dad.

SEVEN MONTHS

(UPDATED)

Today, 9 June, marks seven months to the day since I left hospital for the third time last November.

It was also the day Donald Trump was elected President.

The time since has been almost as much of a struggle for me as the time before. There has been constant adjustment in my medications, especially the Nortriptyline: when I left hospital I was taking 75 mg; now I’m on 150 mg. And in that same time my weight has shot up at about the same rate. Only in the past fortnight have I managed to achieve some measure of control over the trajectory of my weight.

It’s also been a struggle in that here in the outside world it’s an uncontrolled environment. It’s very noisy. It’s crowded. There have been plenty of times when, finding myself floundering in response to noise and crowds, I’ve thought for sure I’d be going back to hospital.

I was hospitalised three times. I was only ever supposed to go in once. It was meant to be a quick, intense thing where I would come in, my meds would ne swapped out in favour of something better with a much improved side-effect profile, and they’d roll me out the door as soon as I looked stable. And this almost happened.

The first thing they put me on after taking me off the Clomipramine I’d been on for 30 years was called Zyban. It was meant to be this brilliant new high-tech modern drug with few side-effects, and was even meant to be weight-neutral, of all things! They put me on it, and there appeared, for a few hopeful days, to be a result. I seemed to feel a bit better (and I had been feeling very bad). But it turned out this was all placebo. There was no real clinical response. It was a dud, for me at least.

I wound up on a different new drug, Cymbalta, and that looked pretty good, and did seem to work. I was discharged, and went home, like Caesar returning to Rome from Germania, full of plunder. I was Victorious. Life was good. Or a close facsimile of good.

I was still brittle, and fragile. Sounds were a problem. Crowd situations were hard. People around me going out of their way to cater for my needs were upsetting me. I felt guilty. I still couldn’t write.

But I was home. I didn’t have to go back to my room at the hospital, my room that I took to calling the “Tupperware” because I often felt cold and like I was being stored in a box at the back of the fridge. Being home, I thought, made up for a lot of shortcomings and problems.

But the problems kept accumulating, especially the problems involving sound. I simply could not stand a whole range of perfectly innocuous, quiet sounds.

I lasted about ten days, and was back in the Tupperware.

The second time I was discharged, Great Caesar, this time back from Gaul, lasted three weeks, and was pleased to have lasted that long before winding up back in the Tupperware.

And now this third time seems to have stuck, at seven months and counting. The thing about post-discharge time is you are constantly looking back over your shoulder. The hospital looms behind you, dark and menacing, a huge and sinister presence, and no matter how you try, there seems no escape from it. I asked my doctor about this, that it seemed strange to fear a place that was actually so good and healing for me. He said it’s not the physical hospital but the emotional place you’re afraid of, that sense of profound brokenness, that you’ll never be “right” again. That’s the thing, and he’s right. It’s nearly impossible to know when you have attained this “rightness”, if you ever do. You might feel really good for a long time, but then something will happen, you’ll hear a triggering sound, or a stray fragment of dismaying news, and down you go into the pit again.

Because of this, you spend almost all your time monitoring yourself. Awake, asleep, in conversation with other people, even your beloved, even your dog, you’re wondering, in the back office of your mind, am I okay? Am I going all right? How am I? You’re taking note of everything around you, from what people are eating and drinking to the ticking of clocks and the hum of refrigerators.

(As I write this, I’m sitting by an open window looking out into our backyard. We have a gigantic eucalyptus tree, a beautiful shaggy monster of a thing, and local birds love it. I love it, too, the size and scale of it, and the sound of wind wishing through it. But most of all I love that bird sounds don’t bother me in the least. If you eat a TimTam next to me I might wish you harm, but honey-eaters chirping outside are welcome anytime.)

Even when nominally relaxed, I’m still just a bit vigilant, a little bit alert, watching my surroundings, keeping an eye on people who might be problems, which is to say, who might drag a chair, who might have a noisy child, who might stir a cup of coffee, who might not stop talking in a certain tone. It’s tiring. I want to not care. I want to not even notice. Sometimes, in recent months I have achieved this. I’ve been places, done what I came there to do, and only on leaving did I realise that the entire time I was there I didn’t once notice the noises around me.

It hasn’t just been external noises making my recovery difficult. It’s also been the news every day. I said that the day I was last discharged, Trump got elected. And every day since then, as I’ve attempted to put my life back together, the news is full of him and his people. And when I say the news is full, I mean full to overflowing. I have never seen anything like it before. It’s distressing. Every day is Trump Day. Every story is refracted through the lens of Trump. We are living in the Trumpocene Era.

It’s unbearable. I no longer watch regular TV. I limit my daily news consumption. It was harming my recovery. My psychologist, when I tell her about this, and how it makes me feel, tells me she has lots of other clients (and her professional colleagues have other clients) who are likewise in despair over what’s happening. And there’s so little we can do, here in Australia. Terrible things are loose in the world, vile forces and ideas, things once thought utterly defeated, but reborn and embraced by the worst people, and there’s nothing anyone can do.

I’ve been interested in US politics since I found out about Watergate, aged 11, in the 1970s. I watch US election campaigns, especially presidential campaigns. So when I saw Trump campaigning over the past two years, I could see how utterly unconventional he was, and how his candidacy should not have worked, but it did work. There were enough people in the US who bought what he was selling. And one of the most scary things about what Trump was selling in that campaign, is that politicians here are starting to sell that same thing, and it’s going over well.

It’s not politics-as-usual. It’s not the same cynical system politics we’re used to. It’s something raw and brutal. I don’t know what to make of it. All the maps I’ve always used to make sense of my place in the world in relation to the larger features and structures no longer make any sense. There is no longer a clear path from the past to somewhere that might be the future. Where there used to be the future is now just “later”. I’m more or less in my right mind, but I have rarely felt so vulnerable, so lost, so anxious. A new sort of anxiety, and a new sense of loss. I don’t know where I’m going.

I hope I don’t wind up back in hospital.

THE WALKING CURE

(This is another long one. 1900 words.)

 

THE WALKING CURE

I’m just now back from a lovely long walk to the nearby 7-11 convenience store and service station, where they have a machine that makes damn good coffee, fast, cheap, and consistently. Two lousy dollars gets me an iced coffee as good as any I’ve had from most cafes around Perth. It seems like a modern technical miracle, like wifi.

The main point of going to this little cave of wonders, though, is the walk itself. There and back it’s almost exactly two kilometers, and takes me about 30-35 minutes. And lately, even though we’re at least theoretically in winter here in Oz, the weather has been perfect for late afternoon strolling. Clear, sunny skies, faint breeze, slanting, setting sun. And there’s a picturesque park to walk through, with a winding path. It’s so nice it’s sort of ridiculous!

The walk does me good. Gives me time and space to think, often about what I’m going to write about on a given day. Today I was thinking about this post I’m writing now, and about another possible piece about “fear of relapse”, since today is seven months to the day since leaving hospital. I may do that as well, or I may not. My only rule with this journal is that I do at least one thing each day.

Walking has always done me good. I stumbled across it by accident when I was about 12 and very likely in a manic phase. I convinced my friend Michael (my murdered friend Michael) to join me in entering, for laughs, the annual City to Surf Fun Run. We’d done enough running in school to know that Nothing Good ever came of running. It was a wholly terrible enterprise with no redeeming features. We were especially amused by the name, “Fun Run”. This was hilarious, and oh, how we laughed!

The thing was, though, you were also allowed to walk the distance. In fact it didn’t matter how you covered the distance, as long as it was under your own power. People in wheelchairs would have a go. People on crutches. Crazy morale-fuelled teams of hospital staff would push a hospital bed over the distance. And the sheer numbers of participants! It was as if a mass street protest decided spontaneously to run to the beach.

Once Michael understood that I had no intention of actually running the distance from the centre of Perth to, I think, City Beach, he was fine with the whole mad idea. It was just walking. How bad could it be?

As it happened, it could, and was, very bad indeed. The course for the event snaked the length of the Canning Highway that is one of the two main ways to get from Perth to Fremantle (the other being Stirling Highway, on the other side of the river). Canning Highway is extremely hilly. And we slogged our way up and dragged ourselves down each one.

This is the kind of story told about one’s childhood adventures that seems hilarious given forty years of hindsight, but which, truth be told, was an agonising, backbreaking, blister-bursting ordeal at the time. And we never even got to the beach. Once we reached Fremantle I suggested we go and visit my grandparents, who lived in Freo. Previously, I’d only ever been there with my parents, in the family car. I didn’t realise that their rambling, breathing old red-brick pile of a house, the sort of house immortalised by Tim Winton in CLOUDSTREET, was way over on the far side of Fremantle. Needless to say, my grandparents were extremely surprised, indeed shocked, to see us stagger in!

This ridiculous and painful enterprise gave me a love of walking long distances, though. My dad, when I was a kid, sometimes told a story about how, in something to do with his military service (back in the 1950s, during a period of conscription), had a thing about walking from Perth to Fremantle, in full battle-dress and pack. This is one of those family tales that comes down to you delicate, as if made of the dust that has settled all over it, and is so fragile that peering at it to pick out details can make it dissolve into nothing. But I think my dad did this because at the beginning of his military service he was very fat, and the epic walk in full gear was a way to lose weight in a hurry.

I was always intrigued by this account. I look back now at my younger self’s fascination, remembering how Dad telling this story ignited the desire to replicate the feat. Perth to Fremantle, if you go along Stirling Highway, is about 12-15 miles. (Miles! Who remembers miles! How quaint! But a mile is 1.6 kilometers.) And along Stirling Highway, unlike Canning Highway, the gradient is different: rather than a succession of steep hills, Stirling Highway is just uphill almost all the way.

Michael and I, purely for laughs, and sometimes sticking as close as we could to the river shoreline as possible, walked this journey a number of times. It was always my daft idea. “Hey, do you wanna walk to Freo again?” and, if sufficient time had elapsed, he’d groan, but agree, and off we’d go, full of adventure and sunburn. And what sunburn! Sunburned and peeling earlobes! Toes! Who knew you could even get sunburned toes?

We got older, and Michael went off to university to pursue a degree in chemistry. The world turned, and life moved on, as it always does.

In time I went to university as well, starting in 1983, at Curtin University, which at the time was still known as Western Australian Institute of Technology, or WAIT. I was signed up for Theatre Arts and Creative Writing.

University was, at one and the same time, the very best and the very worst experience I had ever had. One day I may write about it. For now, though, what you need to know is that I crashed and burned, my emotional life in ruins, my mind like the surface of the Moon, and quit in the midst of third-year, 1985. I went home, shrouded like a mummy in bitterness and depression, and lived on icecream and sleep for months.

Then one day I discovered I weighed 140 kilograms. This was the first message from the outside world that reached me in ages. It was like a fire alarm going off. I started eating properly. I started walking, and even running, every day at a local park.

Somehow, I no longer remember how, I went from doing laps of the local oval in Girrawheen where we lived at the time in government housing, to walking from Perth, along the river, to Matilda Bay in Crawley, near the University of Western Australia, one of my favourite places.

I feel as if I’ve lost the third reel of a feature film. How did I get from doing laps in Girrawheen to walking to Matilda Bay? I have no idea, but I did.

I used to walk to Matilda Bay almost every day. I’d get the bus into the city, change into walking gear, then head out along Mounts Bay Road, which runs right by the river on one side, and the looming bulk of Kings Park on the other. It was a spectacular walk. The sight and the smell of it, the wind in my face. Even on stinking hot days, it was a wondrous experience.

Matilda Bay has been one of my favourite places since childhood, when we, the family and me, would go there. Dad, a marine motor mechanic, was often there working on someone’s boat, or he might be playing with a boat of his own (so many memories of launching and retrieving boats from the ramp there), or sometimes we’d just sit there and eat fish and chips at sunset, in the gathering, salt-smelling twilight, watching yachts and other boats, cranky seagulls hoping for a chip. Some of the happiest times of my life were spent at Matilda Bay.

And in the 80s, as I recovered from university, walking there from the city did me a world of good again. I’d spend hours building sandcastles. Or just sitting on benches, watching the birds, or boats coming and going, listening to the wind in the beautiful trees. It was healing.

Then one day, as I walked along Mounts Bay Road, heading for Matilda Bay, I wondered for the first time: what if I kept going? Mounts Bay Road becomes Stirling Highway. In order to go to Matilda Bay, you go along Mounts Bay Road until you get to the point where you can turn left onto Hackett Drive and there you are–or you could keep going. Less than fifty meters further on, the beginning of Stirling Highway beckons you on to Fremantle.

How far along Stirling Highway could I go? Could I go to Fremantle, like I did in the old days, with Michael? Was I fit enough? Was I mad enough?

I was, and I did, and it was bloody brilliant fun! I would go and walk to Fremantle from Perth three or four times a week. I lost loads of weight, just like my dad, back in his army days, and I got fit. It was invigorating.

It took me two hours, plus two short breaks along the route. It was a beautiful walk. Exhausting, but thrilling. And I only stopped because one day I got a job, working for the government at the Bureau of Statistics. Which was fine. By this point I was starting to go out with Michelle. I needed the money. Up to this point I’d been on disability because of my illness.

(I’d been on what was then known as the invalid pension since 1980, when I finished high school. I was also at the time in the outpatient system at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. My capacity for work was thought not good because of my illness. And it was a very different, more generous time. People today enmeshed in the grinding, maddening gears of the Centrelink “service” with its deliberately punitive approach to people with problems would be shocked, and quite possibly enraged at how very decent the system was 30 years ago. Once Michelle and I started living together, our combined income was too great for me to continue receiving the pension, and it was stopped.)

Walking has always been good to me, and continues to be so. These days, middle-aged and arthritic, I’m not as flexible or strong as I was. I have managed, for some years now, to slog out laps in the pool at the local aquatic centre, which has been a big part of my current weight-loss program. But in the past week or so my right knee has started playing up, complaining at almost all times, and a visit to the doctor, and most likely scans, are in my future. It’s conceivable I might even be a candidate for knee-replacement surgery now. Last time I was referred to an orthopaedic surgeon for a consult, before I’d lost so much weight, he said my weight at the time would crush any knee replacement device he installed. It’s now 40 kilograms later. Things may have changed.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my 7-11 robo-coffee, and the pleasant walk there and back, giving me time to think.

VOICES AND MIRRORS

Recently, I was at the local aquatic centre, ready to my laps. It was right around the time my weight seemed desperately out of control, when it seemed as if mere breathing could make me stack on the kilograms. I had gained back about 13 kg off the 51 I’d previously lost. I was close to panic.

After changing into my chlorine-faded swimming trunks, feeling worried and embarrassed, I saw myself in the change-room mirror. There I was, Mr Potato Body. Then, worse, a huge roll of pale fat skin bulged over the top of my shorts. It looked like the sort of colourless bloating you associate with corpses.

And a voice in my head said, “You’re disgusting and loathsome!”

It was emphatic about the exclamation. That’s what that voice told me, utterly disgusted at what it saw in the mirror.

Mirrors, how I hate them. Speaking as a mid-career fat guy, I can report that I have been looking at myself in mirrors all my life. I’ve seen the way age has stolen across my features, and seen the way fat at different times in my life has come and gone, like a gruesome toxic tide. What you see in a mirror is true, but all wrong, backwards, sideways. It is how you look, but not remotely so. That’s why photos of you always look so odd. Your mirror self pipes up as if to cast doubt on the photographic evidence.

So there I was, a ghastly fat shambles of a man, fish-belly white and bulbous, ready to take to the pool, freshly informed of my loathsome and disgusting appearance. I felt terrible. That voice has not bothered me in a long time, but there it was, all refreshed and full of bile reserved just for me. I rearranged my attire to conceal the bulge, and went out onto the pool deck, playing that line, that voice, over and over in my head like an earworm, like the rantings of a mad cockatoo, “Loathsome and disgusting! Loathsome and disgusting! Rawwwrk!”

I bashed hell out of my laps that day.

But the voice remained, playing on a loop, round and round in my head. I finally managed to get rid of it by applying a technique I’d learned about in a book, THE HAPPINESS TRAP, by Russ Harris. He suggests, among other ingenious ideas, replaying messages like this one in different, funny voices. I tried it with the voice of Brian’s Mum in Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just loathsome and disgusting!” Which made me laugh, and that dislodged that specific message from that voice.

But I have other voices. They are often playing in the background of my mental awareness like a TV in a laundromat nobody’s watching. A steady murmur of running commentary, none of it nice or complimentary, a bit like the way Terry Wogan used to comment on the Eurovision Song Contest.

These other voices are all my anxieties eating away at me. They’re a game of Whack-A-Mole–every time you smash one, it or others pop up rudely. I habe learned, with the help of that book I mentioned above, to pay less attention to these voices. They are not worth my attention. They are transmissions from the other side of the mirror, from my mirror self, who is me but isn’t. Who occupies a different, less pleasant reality.

Lately, since I started keeping this journal, my mirror self is telling me I’m a “smug narcissist wanker”. I feel as though I need a Suggestions Box, or Complaints Office to receive messages like this. Like “loathsome and disgusting!” I hear from “smug narcissist wanker!” all the time lately. The more I write here, the more I hear it. I know it’s my mirror self, dyspeptic and bitter, possibly even envious of the fact that I’m writing again for the first time in over a year. Definitely bitter. I know about bitterness. I can smell it miles away, and can definitely smell it from the other side of the mirror.

Still, despite knowing this, despite all the “Jedi Mind Tricks”, as I call them, that I’ve read about and learned from my psychologist, this one continues to sting like a tentacle lash from a bluebottle. Smug narcissistic wanker. Has a certain ring to it, of an old metal rubbish bin lid slamming into place. It has a powerful poison about it, and all the more effective for being from me, on the other side of the mirror, to me on this side.

I worried about this last year, while in hospital. I posted about the experience, the few ups and the many downs, on Facebook. One day, worried about it, I asked one of my doctors straight out, “look, am I just a narcissist?” He laughed, a huge head-back, full-throated laugh. He said no, not at all. “If you were a narcissist I wouldn’t be treating you.” That helped, but the niggle remained. The voice just whispered it instead of yelling at me.

That leaves the suggestion of smugness. This stings because I worry it’s true, and I hate it. I worry that I’m, perhaps, too upbeat about my recovery, that I’m obsessing over it, that I’m “pleased with myself”, perhaps to an unseemly degree. This really stings, this thought. My mirror self knows me well. Brian’s Mum’s Voice is no match for this drop of bitter poison.

But what if it’s true? Am I embarrassing myself here? Am I horribly self-absorbed? This is an abhorrent thought. I feel as if I’m paying as much attention and care to the rest of the world as I possibly can, and especially to Michelle, who needs me to be there for her, to be her “drummer”. She has no complaints, at least that she’s informed me about.

I don’t want to stop writing about this stuff, now that I’ve started. But the worry is there. Even if loads of people tell me it’s all fine and I shouldn’t worry, I would still worry. I’m a worry-based lifeform. And Mirror Adrian knows me too well to let go as easily as that.

ME VERSUS MALENESS

I was six years old and there was a serious problem. I was just starting in grade one of primary school. Today was day one. I had already been through the wrenching experience of Mum dropping me off (tearfully, I asked her to wait in the big shed across the bitumen quadrangle, but of course she couldn’t sit there all day), and I had pulled myself together, all set for the beginning of my schooling. It was a big moment. I was scared and excited, standing there in line in my grey polyester-cotton shirt and shorts, and my play-lunch safe in a bag.

This is really hard to remember. It’s all fragments and clips, a Zapruder film recollection of my first day in primary school.

I do remember Geoffrey, though. He was a big, sullen kid, or at least he seems bigger than I remember myself being at the time, and as we stood there, lined up outside our classroom, waiting for the signal to file into the room, Geoffrey and his minion Craig decided they didn’t like my face, and pushed me over. There were probably some hostile, sneering comments as well, but this is badly-spliced Super-8 footage of a memory at best, and all I remember is the push and the ignominious landing on the bitumen quadrangle, that it hurt.

I was shocked, stunned. Nothing like this had ever happened to me in kindergarten. Nothing like it ever happened at home. What on Earth was I to make of it, this attack? I’m guessing I got up and dusted myself off, and duly began my formal schooling. But it was also the beginning of my life under attack from the Geoffreys of this world. He and Craig became my enemies. There was no placating them, or asking them to leave me alone. They were the way they were, for no obvious reason. They were unstoppable, like weather, like rain.

I got rained on a lot. I had so many shortcomings as a person, it turned out. Geoffrey, Craig, and their sullen colleagues were very keen to inform me of all the ways I did not measure up as a person, and most particularly, as a man.

What I wanted, when it came to morning recess, lunch, and afternoon recess (was there an afternoon recess as well? Am not sure) was to be left alone so I could read or maybe write. I would sit on a bench outside the classroom with a book, and disappear into its pages.

This was no good. I needed to have a sound opinion about football. “What team do you barrack for?” I spent most of my short life so far in Fremantle, but we had just moved to Wembley, so my answer to this question came easily. I reported that I was a fan of South Fremantle (the local Australian Rules football team).

It was as if a loud quiz-show buzzer went off. The kids I was with, hanging around one recess near the conical lid of the school’s septic tank, laughed and jeered. This was Wembley. Everyone here supported West Perth. It also didn’t help that Souths at the time were weak and West Perth were all-powerful. These kids revelled in their borrowed power.

And not only did I support the wrong team, I was also no good with an actual football. One of the main things to do during breaks during the day was a bunch of kids kicking a football about. These were miserable, leathery “balls”, oval-shaped, and so inclined, when bouncing or rolling, to behave erratically. I hated the damned things. And it seemed they hated me back. When I tried to execute the “drop kick”, the “torpedo kick” or whatever, the ball always either went flying off sideways, or simply fell unkicked to the ground. I persisted with this, though. It was crucial that I learned how to kick the ball, bit while in time I osmotically figured out more or less what to do, I was never any good, and hated the whole experience.

Once, only once, I somehow found myself on a team playing an actual football match. I’m not sure what to make of this bit of Zapruder footage, because all I have are tiny bits, two or three frames. I’m standing on the oval on a sunny afternoon, looking off to my right, where I see the ball rolling and bouncing towards me, pursued by an angry noisy mob of kids, half of whom wanted me to pick up the ball and do something good with it like maybe run off and kick a goal, and the other half who wanted to go all Lord of the Flies on me. I did the rational thing and simply ran screaming from the whole horrible business.

But what was I doing there at all? How the hell did I wind up on any sort of football team? I have no idea. I remember it was terrifying, in part because, despite growing up in a football-mad culture, I didn’t know or understand the game. When I tried to watch them on our boxy old black and white TV, matches seemed interminable free-for-alls.

So I was suspect on football, and had a sissy tendency to sit and read books, when there were perfectly good footies to kick around. It also didn’t help that I had a “poofy” name, Adrian. I was surrounded by kids named John, Michael and David. I knew no other Adrians. Nobody anywhere knew of any other Adrians. It was so foreign a name that some people simply gave up and called me Andrew instead.

Which was better than being called and thought a poof. I didn’t even know at the time what the word meant. All I knew was that my book-reading, football-hating, weird-name self did not measure up. I did not have the stuff of Australian maleness as then understood. I was also bad at cricket, when summers came. If there is a game more tiresome than football, it is cricket, a full game of which can last five long days, at the end of which you might have a drawn result.

Team selection for cricket games was brutal. Two popular boys stood before the great unwashed mass of us boys, and they took turns picking out their mates and other kids known to have some skill with the game. I was usually last. And while I did not enjoy the game, and still would rather have been off with a book somewhere else, it stung to always, always be last. I picked a lot of dandelion flowers sitting there on the grass those days. Last, always last.

One important reason I had no cricket skills was simple: no-one ever bothered themselves to explain the game to me. I had no idea what was happening. What the terminology meant. How batting worked–how bowling worked (and how was bowling different from throwing or pitching). Scoring was a mystery for the ages. Sundries? What on Earth were Sundries? And overs? What’s an over? No-one ever said. You were simply assumed to know and understand. And I did not.

One time I somehow found myself with a cricket bat in hand, standing at the designated location (the “crease”), defending my “wicket”, and a boy came at me from the other end of the pitch, and let fly with the ball. I had grasped that I was supposed to hit the ball. And Lord knows I tried. Lord also knows I missed the ball, but hit my wicket instead, and so was “given out”. I left, as confused and upset as I had been before, the jeers and mockery of the other boys ringing in my head as I made my way back to “my” team.

I’m playing this account of my schooldays more or less for laughs, but there is a sting in this tale: nearly 50 years later, I’m still dealing with all this crap. I’m now a middle-aged man who feels deeply messed up inside about maleness and masculinity in general. Who has great difficulty expressing powerful emotions. Who feels life-threatening shame when crying in front of people.

Because it makes me feel “weak”. It makes me a “sissy”. It makes me not a proper man. I have never, ever felt comfortable as an Australian male. I do not, and have never, fit in. I have little to no interest in male pursuits or preoccupations. About the only male thing I have any interest in is sex, and even that has been a fraught matter for painful years thanks to medication bollocks. I still have a fear of very masculine-seeming men, the ones with muscles, with tattoos, with a look of competent menace about them, who look like they could handle themselves in a fight. These men freak me out. I hear them often in my head, telling me how useless I am, how unworthy, how unmanly.

I deal with all this with my psychologist. She helps me deal with these guys in my head. These guys who have been there, in one form or another, since that first day of school when I was six years old, and ran afoul of Geoffrey and Craig, and I supported the wrong footy team.

PRIVILEGE AND SHEER DUMB LUCK

I’ve just been for a long walk, thinking about the post I just uploaded here. While it is great that my doctor, and his team (including numerous other people), was able to help me so much, I find myself unable to let go of one piercing, painful issue:

I could only get all this fantastic and wondrous help because of Michelle, who works at a job where she gets paid more than the average salary. This means we can both be covered by the maximum level of private health insurance. And that in turn means I don’t pay anything to see my psychiatrist; it’s bulk-billed (he once told me, when I asked about this, because he used to bill me upwards of $150/visit, “I don’t need the money”). Each of the three times I was laid up in hospital last year, it cost about $200 for admission, and that was all, for 3 x 7 weeks of inpatient care. I only had to pay at the end of each stay for the medication I consumed.

This is a high-end private psychiatric hospital. In their orientation book it does say patients who don’t have such robust health insurance, who are on Medicare, have to pay $800/week, each week, to get the level of care I received.

This is outrageous. I am no more deserving of that level of care than anyone else. I’m just ridiculously lucky. I’ve long thought I was the luckiest man in the world, but there are times when you have such a painful apprehension of the magnitude of your own privilege (white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, home-owner, university-educated, no serious debt) that you can hardly stand to face anyone.

It’s unjust that the high level of care that I received, and continue to receive, is only available because of my fortunate circumstances. This bothers me very much. It makes me burn.

POINT OF INFLECTION

Today at my psychiatrist visit, it was all the usual stuff with medication review, discussion of mood, ups and downs, and all the usual stuff.

But then he surprised me out of my gourd: he said, “Thank you,” for placing my faith in him, for going along with his treatment plan this past year, for, I suppose, not being angry with him over the unexpected ghastliness of the whole exercise.

I was taken aback. It has never occurred to me to be angry with him. The “medication change” plan from last year was meant to take, at most, a few weeks. But here it is more than a year later and we’re still working the problem, seeking a fine balance between treatment and function, that lets me live an ordinary life. Indeed, today my doctor filled out a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug, Topamax, and talked about cutting back one of the two anti-depressants I take, Cymbalta. He says it’s time to “simplify” the baroque complexity of my medication, and fair enough if I can get decent coverage without quite so much faffing about with pills.

During the truly bad times last year, I did contemplate changing doctors, not because I wasn’t comfortable with the way things were going, but because of the near-impossibility of actually seeing the guy. I was one of dozens of patients under his care, and for the most part I had to make do with seeing one of his junior doctors, one of the registrars. Who were excellent doctors in their own right, and would all go on to become consultant psychiatrists in time. But I was always in a hurry to get well again. I wanted to be fixed now.

Because every time I saw a registrar to talk about my case, they would tell me that they would have to talk to my consultant and get back to me, and that could take days. When you’re badly strung out, and vibrating with spiky anxiety, that wait seemed eternal. I did sometimes see my actual doctor, when he knew I was in catastrophic shape. But for the most part I was assigned to the registrars.

I did understand that my doctor had dozens of patients in the hospital, plus his usual line-up of outpatient visits in nearby consulting rooms. I also saw him sometimes in the hospital, in the midst of meetings, bustling about carrying laptop and files, talking on the run. I didn’t know it then but he saw me at those times, too, and was deeply worried for me. Sometimes I wondered not so much about when he might squeeze in a few stolen moments for me, but about when he might see his family.

I think he has come to regard what happened last year as an horrific mistake, something so dreadful that he would not recommend it to me again. I think he feels sorry for what happened to me, and that was why, today, he thanked me for staying the course, and having faith in him.

While I would not say it was a pleasure, I would and did say it was no trouble. It was also worth it, to reach this point, in far better emotional and psychological shape than I have been in for years. It has been nothing less than a transformation in my life, much like everything that changed in my life in 2012 when I broke my arm. This experience has certainly been a personal crisis, bit also an inflection point, from which I have a new trajectory.

I should be (and have, many times) thanking him.