HAPPY-SO-FAR

The Time Traveller thinks it’s a stupidly hot day for a wedding, but he knows the groom chose today, of all days, 14 February, Valentine’s Day, less because he’s a giddy romantic fool (though he’d love to be that) than because he has a horror of being That Husband, who forgets his anniversary. And so far, the Time Traveller has never forgotten.

It’s over forty degrees out there in the hotel courtyard where the guests are sitting in a bit of afternoon shade, watching the happy couple recite their vows. The groom looks terrible, the Time Traveller thinks. The dumb kid really should have spent some more money to get a decent tux that fitted properly. For years following this day the groom will tell people that he looked like the long-lost Fourth Tenor, and the Time Traveller, watching from the shade of the hotel verandah, thinks there’s something to it, except for the cling-wrap shabbiness of the outfit, and the groom’s sweatiness. The kid looks worries, but he’s not, actually. At this moment, as the secular marriage celebrant leads the groom and the bride through their vows, the groom is so happy he’s just about in tears. And Michelle, the luminous bride in her handmade lace dress, shines in the sun, the way she’s always shone in my eyes.

It’s preposterously unlikely that we met. I have thought about this a lot, trying to wrap my head around the scale of the odds against it. Because it should never have happened. To say it was a million-to-one shot is most likely understating the remoteness by orders of magnitude. You’d have to be struck by lightning, on a plane that’s crashing, during a terrorist attack, on a Tuesday, to get a sense of the true weirdness.

There was, in the 1970s and 80s a gaming supplies shop in Perth called Simulations, a place you went for your Dungeons and Dragons and wargaming and boardgaming supplies. It was a little tricky to find, the sort of place you only found out about if you knew people who went there who would take you, or give you precise directions.

You started on Hay Street Mall, and headed east, past the old Cinema City (the Time Traveller notes that Cinema City, like all the cinemas in Perth, which used to be such a haunt for me, are no longer there), then down a little arcade, up some rickety old steps, and there it was: a hot, stuffy, creaky-floored room which always seemed oppressively quiet like a library, with its array of interesting items, the busy noises of the city floating up from Hay Street below. I went there a lot, and bought many neat things, often on lay-by.

And never, ever, not once, did I stop on my way in the door to look at the notice-board hanging next to the door. It was your standard sort of board, covered over with dubious-looking business cards and flyers with what what looked like gap-toothed phone-number pull-off tags. I saw that notice-board every time I visited Simulations year after year after year, and I never looked at it. Not once.

By 1986, I had left university. The whirling instability was spinning down like a mad top running out of steam. I was spending a lot of time outdoors, walking long distances, losing lots of weight, getting fitter, starting to feel better. I was missing being with people. One thing about university: you’re surrounded with people all the time. These days, the way I am now such a recluse, how being with people fills me with such anxiety, I look back at the comfort my Past Self had with groups with shock. And that Past Self was chock-full of psychosis and all kinds of weirdness. He had serious problems, especially regarding girls, but casual groups of people were more or less okay. It was company. It was like Facebook, but in real life.

But after I left university in 1985 I very rarely saw those people anymore, and some of them not at all. I was on my own. It was a shock. In some ways a good shock. I didn’t have to maintain an illusion of being okay. I didn’t have to put up with people I didn’t like, or listen to things I wasn’t interested in. Even so, once I started to feel better, once the worst of the instability eased, I started to miss the old life, and started to feel like I’d made a giant mistake.

One day around July 1986 I was out in the city with my friend Harry. I met Harry at university, and was very close to him. He was and remains a good egg. He was my best man at the wedding. He and I spent a lot of time hanging out in the city, getting a bite to eat, wandering around, harassing Scientologists, sitting chatting about everything, watching endless

Chuck Norris movies, and enjoying each other’s inestimable company. And one of the things we liked to do was to visit Simulations.

And on this one particular occasion, for no reason whatever, as were going in, I saw the fluttering papers and cards pinned to the notice-board, and, on a mad whim, decided to stop and have “a quick squizz”.

This was another bank vault door moment around which my whole life pivoted. If I had never looked at that notice-board, my life since then, and to this day, would be unrecognisable.

In amongst the flyers on the board was one promoting a gaming club operating in a community centre in Girrawheen.

The Girrawheen where I was living with my parents, and feeling so lonely and isolated.

The community centre was one I knew well. It was within easy walking distance of my house.

I could feel the wind of fate blasting against my face that day, you could say.

That night, I made a phone call. The following Saturday, nervous as hell, jittery, agitated, probably overdressed, not at all sure how to approach the whole thing, even based on the information I’d been given by the club president, I turned up, all teeth and hands and elbows.

They, the members of the Northern Area Gaming Association (NAGA) made me feel welcome. There were about twenty people, mostly younger than I was, and mostly guys, but there were some girls as well.

Michelle was one of the girls.

I was assigned to a roleplaying game, a system called SpaceMaster, a clunky, unwieldy beast of a thing with loads of cumbersome dice-rolling and chart-consultation in order to decide anything. The genre was gaudy space opera, and the scenario playing out at the table that Saturday was hard to fathom. But a bunch of guys on one side of the table seemed to have run off with the comedy-action-violence of the piece, and Michelle’s brother Neil, who was running the game, seemed inclined to indulge them.

That left Michelle and I on our side of the table to talk. Michelle was 18 (I was 23), bright, funny, attractive, and, as we talked between incidents of high-tech ultra-violence from the other side of the table, and chipping in our own contributions, I learned that Michelle had an interesting background, was studying some fascinating stuff at university, and we just got on.

It was simple. We could talk without any trouble or confusion. It’s still like that, all these years later. We don’t really fight or argue about things. We just talk things out. I have always loved this about Michelle, that we talk so easily. Even when things have been hard, we have talked.

Recently, Michelle told me that for the past few years she has felt she’s had to work hard to keep her head above water, to “keep on swimming”. As she saw me getting sicker and sicker (when in 2015, and we were visiting Sydney for a concert, and I couldn’t get out of bed before 3-4pm each day, she knew something was wrong), when I had my “meat section incident” in Mandurah Woolworths, and so many more similar indications, she had to work hard to provide practical and emotional support for me.

But since I left hospital last year, and especially over the past few months, as my health has stabilised, as I’ve started writing every day, as I’ve been doing exercise more often, and my medication working pretty well (sags in the testosterone cycle notwithstanding), things in general have been greatly improved. I’ve been working hard on my “recovery KPI’s”, those indicators of my mental health and how I’m doing (read at least one chapter of a book, or short story; write at least one piece for website; go for Thinking Walk or other exercise; do all maintenance jobs around home; and do at least one Korean language lesson (yes, Michelle and are learning Korean language)) that are good benchmarks. If I can get all five done in a day, it makes me feel content.

And it makes Michelle feel, as she said, that at last, she doesn’t have to paddle quite so hard.

I am skeptical of “happy-ever-after” as a story-telling device. I don’t know that life ever really works out that way, as it does in stories, though I suppose it depends on what you count as “happy”. But for us, at the moment, I will accept “happy-so-far”.

INSIDE THE CYCLONE (Updated)

You’ve seen these poor bastards many times. A huge weather event is coming to town–we call them cyclones, but you might call them hurricanes or typhoons–and look, here’s a TV news reporter, in some sort of raincoat, sou’wester and wellies, holding onto a tree or a telephone poll, because there’s lethal wind, and quite possibly horizontal rain, and God only knows what else, and this reporter’s job is to tell you, from inside the weather event, what it’s like, without quite getting swept away in it. In the US a number of years back, Michelle and I were enchanted by the Weather Channel coverage of a hurricane, and there was this guy whose whole job appeared to be deliberately throwing himself into the path of deadly weather to report live (“it sure is windy and wet out here!”).

Tonight, I’m that guy. I’m all those guys. I’ve got my heavy weather gear on, and my sou’wester hat, my wellies, and I’m lashed to a palm tree and my camera guy is yelling over the wind and the rain that he doesn’t get paid enough for this crap, but here we are. I’m depressed. I’m feeling lousy. I’m inside the weather event, reporting to you live.

The first question is probably, “how do you feel?” I feel terrible, sour, a little bitter and out of sorts. I feel like a piece of fruit that’s gone off. I have a miserable dose of mild depression. What I have is much like a nasty head cold, but it’s your mind, rather than your lungs and nasal passages. Think of how you feel exhausted, slug-like, because there’s an infection war raging inside you as your immune system takes on the intruders. Mild depression feels like that, only there’s no fountains of snot.

And you know what? Fountains of snot, or something physical, visible, obvious, would make this kind of thing much easier to deal with, because other people around you would be able to see that you’re sick. You’d get sympathy. People would cut you a bit of slack. Guys would probably get accused of being over-dramatic about their “man-glums”.

As it is, you can have this sort of depression and go about your daily life, and nobody would know, let alone care. You have little to no energy, you feel a certain numbness, a kind of remoteness from things, that your body is occupying space in the world but your mind is somewhere else feeling like the potato at the bottom of a 10 kilogram sack of potatoes.

You know how freezing cold winter’s days in countries where they get snow and frost and icicles, and there’s skating and skiing and toboganning and snowpersons, sound picturesque and lovely? That you can imagine dressing up in appropriate winter clothing, with beautiful handmade mittens and hats, and having a marvellous romantic time with your beloved in the snow?

Mild depression is like winter in Australia, or at least like it used to be. Where it’s wet and cold and the wind will go right through you like a sword. Where there are puddles so vast and deep you could drown. Where no amount of clothing helps warm you up. Where you feel cold and miserable and shivery all the time, and everybody talks about how horribly cold it is, and how much they hate the smug people who talk about their pot belly stoves. Mild depression is rain that lasts all weekend long, but clears up in time for Monday morning, but it’s still somehow cold and windy, as if to remind you to feel lousy even though the sun is at least theoretically out.

Mild depression means you can get out of bed. You can shower and dress. “You don’t look sick.” You feel abstractly pissed off, in that you can’t identify exactly what it is that’s bugging you. It could be anything or everything. It could be nothing. It could be random brain chemistry, and that thought gives you no comfort whatever. You can, as I did today, function. You can do your job, and hate every moment, feeling every moment scraping at your skin as it goes by, as if time had barbs.

So here I am, reporting live. So far the wind is not that strong, and the rain is not even horizontal. It’s miserable, but not deadly. I can still feel my hands. I’m shivering; I’m not yet numb. More serious depression makes you feel numb to everything around you, as if you’re not there at all. I know that what I’m feeling at the moment is just “the sags” while I’m waiting for my latest testosterone “power-up” injection to take effect. There’s nothing “wrong”. It’s just chemistry. Just weather in my head.

FAQ (Final)

Q: Who are you and why should I buy your book?

A: I’m Adrian Bedford, middle-aged, middle-class, over-privileged, white guy with bipolar disorder, and stuff. Or, as Woody Allen put it, I’m “basically a cucumber with anxiety”.

Q: What’s your book about? Is it like a self-help book, sort of thing?

A: No. This is in no way a self-help book. People and their troubles and problems, their conditions and illnesses are too various, knotty and intractable, for one book to tackle all of them, or even some of them. Plus, I don’t know anything. I know some things that have worked for me, at least so far, and to some extent. I know there is a lot of bollocks out there pretending to offer hope to the mentally beleaguered. All I can do is say I’m here, too, and this is my tangled story.

Q: Why would I want to read your tale of woe?

A: I don’t know. You might not. That seems like a reasonable response. This is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But I’m hoping it is for some people, people who have been through the same sorts of miserable experiences that I’ve been through. People who’ve felt the way I have and still feel about Stuff and Things. People who wish there was someone else out there, anyone at all, who also felt as weird, as wrong, as broken, as monstrous, as alien, as repulsive, as I have and sometimes still feel.

Q: Isn’t this whole thing all a bit self-involved/conceited/navel-gazey/narcissistic? Aren’t you just looking for attention?

A: When in the course of my life so far (I’m 54 as I write this) I’ve gone through bad emotional weather, the heavy seas, the deadly seas, often the very worst thing about the experience is the the thought that I’m alone. One of the essays in this book is about the time I nearly drowned on a Monday afternoon, when the sea tried to kill me. My illness has been like that. It has come after me. It has softened me up. It has played with me. It has made me believe I’m all alone. I was alone that day at the beach, but when it comes to my illness I was never alone. I had my family. I had my wife. I had support services. I mattered to people, whether I believed it or not.

This book is trying to stop people from drowning, to keep the sea from eating them.

Q: Aren’t the voices in your head telling you the truth, in fact?

A: It certainly often seems that they are telling the truth. They are very persuasive. That’s why they are so poisonous, so seductive, why they are so dangerous. Because you believe those voices the way you’d believe your favourite, most beloved family member. The way you believe your puppy loves you. The way you believe plants love the sun. It doesn’t matter what those voices are saying: you believe them wholeheartedly, because they have that inside-your-head access, so they must be telling you the truth.

But they’re not, and they don’t. The thing is, those voices are hardwired into thr foundation of your brain’s wiring at such a level that it’s impossible, imho, to remove them. All you can do is change how you respond to them, how you feel about them. It’s hard, but achievable.

Q: Well, is this all of it? The whole thing? Or are you going to be all Spike Milligan and spoon out seven volumes of mental illness memoirs, with ever-thinner content?

A: I’m including everything I can think of that might be worthwhile or interesting. There is bound to be material that I remember only after the book goes to press (assuming, and this is a big assumption, by no means guaranteed, that I manage to sell the thing), some huge, complex, centrally important issue that illuminates everything else, and I’m left muttering into my iced coffee and hoping for a second edition. I am not planning a second volume, though. I’d like to have just the one book with the whole messy thing contained between its covers.

Q: Isn’t this whole thing just a bit unseemly?

A: This is something I do struggle with. Writing about my life does feel very self-indulgent, and does make me feel like a wanker with too much time on my hands. I have to remind myself that I am trying to help people with this project, to make it easier to talk about the most terrible sense of burning shame. That shame feels like it will kill you if you talk about it, but it won’t. You’ll feel like shit, but you’ll live.

Q: Surely you’d better just talking about all this to a psychologist and leaving the rest of us out of it?

I do. Writing this project was in part her idea, and it has been a wonderful boon in my life. I am writing every day, often about the most excruciating, most personal things. I’m trying to explore the deepest recesses of my character, because in these very specific and personal depths is some degree of universality. I’m writing also as part of healing myself after the trauma of the past few years, and last year in particular, the medication change. It occurs to me that someone else might get something out of what I’ve been through. That they are not alone.

Q: Didn’t I read all this for free on your website? Why do I have to pay to read it all again?

I’m using the website, littleknownauthor.com, for rough drafts of each entry, to gauge response and interest. I’m intending to go over each post again for editing and further draughts, which I’ll not be posting online. I will continue posting journal entries of some sort on the site, though.

Q: Oh, so it’s all poor, innocent, suffering, good-hearted you against the mean old world, is it? Well, wake up! It’s nasty out there for everyone. What makes you so special?

Nothing at all. I am far from a good, innocent, special person. I have done things I am not proud of, and I have hurt people who have not deserved it, and I have not apologised to them as I should have. I try very hard to be a decent person, and I am a kind of work-in-progress. I am often in trouble with my mum, still, at my age. And it is indeed a hard, nasty world out there, especially for those who are poor, marginalised, ill, overlooked, ignored. I am only too aware of my privilege. It makes me extremely self-conscious. I want to help, if I can. And this is something I can do. I can write. I can observe and think and reflect. I can dig deep down into my own personal grease-trap, and pull out the nasty crunchy bits and show you. They might look a lot like the bits in your own grease-trap.

FIRST PSYCHIATRIST

When you’re a sixteen years old, and your mind feels like a bomb just exploded, your first-ever encounter with an actual psychiatrist is quite a portentous moment. You’ve heard of psychiatrists and the world of psychiatry for years, or at least I had, because of my dad’s mysterious troubles. He had a psychiatrist who looked after him, but I knew nothing about him, so he seemed enigmatic, a robed genius, a liminal figure something like a wizard, and something like a cross between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

I had what was called a breakdown, but what felt like Vesuvius erupting, the night after I had my appendix removed at the old Mount Hospital, a big white wedding-cake of a hospital at the top end of St George’s Terrace, not far from the Barracks Arch. I remember the room seemed very large, and that the surgical dressing and a weird artificial smell about it I didn’t like. And I remember explosive crying for hours, and the fear, new and terrifying, what if you could die of crying so much?

My parents spoke to the medical staff at the Mount. Things were arranged. Calls were made. Mum and Dad, drawn and desperately concerned, told me that Dr Faulkner, Dad’s psychiatrist, would come to see me on Saturday, which was a few days hence. It was an “oh God!” moment, a crossing of a threshold from childhood into something altogether bigger, more grown-up, and much scarier. Psychiatrists, as I said, were up there with wizards. They dealt with the human mind, that elemental mystery. (Note: this is teenage me thinking here, pretentious tosser that I was.) I was scared stiff.

The few days between then and the doctor’s arrival were long, hard and fragile. My mum would probably say it was like holding a broken eggshell together with her hands.

The doctor turned up, a worn, comfortable, rumpled man in middle-age with a warm smile, a fatherly manner, and not the least bit of mystery, enigma, genius or pretense about him. He was like your favourite uncle, who’s always really pleased to see you. I lay in bed, watching him come in, cross the room, glance out the french doors at the rainswept day outside, and settle in a friendly heap in a chair by the bed. He was pleased to meet me. He’d heard a lot about me over the years from my dad, it seemed.

We chatted a bit. I was reluctant to get into Things and Stuff because I didn’t want to trigger another breakdown or event or whatever the hell that had been. I still felt exhausted, trembly and fragile, days later. Even so, the doctor eased me around to the Things and Stuff. He asked me what happened, what it felt like, how did I feel about it, about what happened? What did I think about it? Why did I think it happened? Why such a huge outpouring? Where had all that come from?

It took some time to explain it all. It was the first time anyone had asked me these questions. I wasn’t sure what to say, how to begin. My mum had some idea of what I had been going through. She knew about the bullying, the teachers, the abuse, the terror. She knew I had complicated feelings about my dad and his on and off moods. But I had never explained everything to her the way I was explaining it to the doctor (and the way I’ve been telling you).

He was a good listener. He didn’t make notes. He sat there, made little “mmm” noises for me to go on, or to express surprise, concern or amazement, and otherwise would just sit there in his rumpled brown leather jacket for seemingly ages at a time, thinking. I was not used to having someone take me so seriously. I kept thinking he’d be going at any moment, that my time would be up, that he’d have more important things to do–but he stayed for ages. He heard everything, until I was done. It was a kindness beyond measure.

A few weeks later, out of the Mount, my stitches removed, healing at least physically, it was Dr Faulkner who suggested I go to hospital “for a couple of weeks rest”, meaning the D20 ward at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, where I ended up staying for four months, followed by 20 further months as a day-patient coming in various days a week. When the doctor suggested this to me, I was scared. I only knew about psychiatric hospitals from movies like ONE FEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Fortunately, as I have said, it was nothing like that. I thrived.

I stayed with Dr Faulkner for a long, long time. He grew old and grey. Until late in his life he was still running in marathons and fun runs. I remember he had a consulting room in West Perth where some of his poorer patients paid him in giant bags of fresh produce, which accumulated behind the visitor chairs in his office, creating a sometimes interesting smell.

Towards the end of his career he developed narcolepsy, so was always dropping off to sleep without warning, even in the middle of speaking, or checking notes. I’d have to keep waking him up. It was disconcerting, but nothing personal, even if it did happen in the middle of telling him something of bombshell significance or urgency.

His retirement was hard, and finding a new doctor who was at least as good was even harder. But Dr Faulkner hung in there as long as he possibly could, longer than he was supposed to, all white-hair and huge eyebrows, very Gandalf, a proper wizard at last. And last I heard, he’s still with us, in his nineties now. Always sends a card at Christmas. One of the finest people I have ever met. I even wrote him into my book, BLACK LIGHT, as the psychiatrist my protagonist sees when she’s recovering from a suicide attempt. The guy in the book even has the mouldering bags of fruit!

MY MURDERED BEST FRIEND

You were the brother I never had and always wanted. You were the funny, skinny red-haired, freckled kid with the self-deprecating, oddball humour, the boy whose idea of a hilarious prank was rigging door knobs so that when you grabbed them to open a door they’d come out, leaving you holding a door knob; you were the boy who had asthma in a bad way, but made a great comical show out of not wanting to take the medicine for it, a vile liquid you called “gluck”; and you were the boy who, when I first went to visit you at your house when we were 11, was using Lego to build the world’s most evil toilet, and I remember I laughed and laughed.

Right now it’s 30 long years since you were murdered. I still can’t get my head around it. I try, often, to imagine myself into what it must have been like for you when it happened. The Darwin CID contacted us last year, just before I went into hospital, to let us know your remains had at last been correctly identified (would you believe they had your remains the whole time but had you misidentified as Aboriginal? You always had a perverse sense of humour, and I can imagine a certain dry mirth over that).

The detective we met last year told me you were shot in the head. He said there was no question of suicide, because of the location and angle of the wound. They also don’t have all of you. It seems local animals might have interfered with your body over a period of time before you were found.

Bloody hell! What were you mixed up in? Towards the end, when you were having such a hard time with your parents’ divorce, when your work situation seemed uncertain, you took to the roads, sometimes hitchhiking, and sometimes in that giant purple Ford station wagon on which you painted all those strange and funny slogans. “He’ll never sell that car,” I said to myself the one time I saw it, that last time I saw you, when you came by to see me in Girrawheen, and you told me about your folks splitting up.

I was dismayed, obviously, to hear it, but not surprised. It was a catastrophe, but I felt it had been coming a long time. Even when we were ratbag kids together, when I came to visit you at your place it always felt tense there, and especially when your parents were there. There was an atmosphere of hostility. I never quite felt welcome, like I was under your parents’ feet, and another mouth to feed. Bad enough they already had four kids of their own, but me as well? In any case, that last time you came over, and told me about your parents, how the split had happened, that your dad was now living in a new place, and your mum somewhere else, it was awful, and it was the first-ever time I saw you upset. I’d known you since we were both eleven years old, and we were as close as brothers, but I’d never seen you cry.

I met you, I suppose the way people meet everyone in this world, through sheer chance, because my family decided to move from Wembley, and the house we’d inherited from my dad’s parents, to a rickety old rental place in Bassendean (a place Mum and Dad refer to as “Mrs Brown’s House”, but I have no idea who Mrs Brown was), a house so old and shambling, of fibro and probably asbestos and wood that it had a separate backyard toilet and laundry block in its vast backyard.

Moving to Bassendean, landing on a particular side of Walter Road, meant one ended up at a particular primary school, so I finished grade six and did grade seven there. And my first day of grade six at this new school, standing there in front of a room full of unfamilar, bemused, unimpressed kids, I was terrified. The teacher, a middle-aged guy who would prove to be okay by reading books to us one afternoon a week, assigned me purely at random to an empty desk down the back, next to you.

That was all there was to it. I never knew why we had to move house (though I later gathered there were financial and employment reasons), and the teacher plonked me just where there happened to be a spare desk. Your whole life can pivot like a bank vault door around certain key moments in time.

You and I got talking, a bit, nothing much, but I have a vague recollection that you were friendly, helpful–and funny. You didn’t hate me on sight. You didn’t recoil from me. It was an excellent start.

My parents, who wanted to give me siblings, but should not even have been able to produce me (unclear reasons, possibly due to my dad’s military service in tropical Queensland), thought you were a truly wonderful kid, and adopted you whole into the family, so to speak. You had open invitations to meals, overnight stays, and whatever you liked. And you seemed to enjoy your life with my family, possibly because I was an only child. It was quieter at my place (moody dad notwithstanding). At your place there was always chaos and noise and people, usually kids, yelling and protesting. Also, you were the eldest kid in that bunch: you were always supposed to be responsible, and I know you sometimes hated that.

When you took off travelling and working after your parents’ split, you sent me a series of letters from various places. Long, weird, interesting, disturbing letters, often with all kinds of drawings. I remember you designed a perverted kind of Tarot deck at one point. The story of the time you hired a prostitute in Kalgoorlie, and what an embarrassing disappointment it was. I did not know what to make of all this. You and I had never once, in all the years we knew each other, discussed girls, sex, or anything even remotely related. I mean, a kid who was a total stranger to me in a hospital bed next to mine, just the previous year to when you and I met, showed me a funny trick he could do with his willy, but as far as I ever knew you didn’t even have one.

These letters you sent were upsetting. You’d never spoken to me like that before. In them I got a powerful sense that you were going through a profoundly bad time, working a series of mining industry chemistry jobs after graduating from Curtin University. These jobs took you to some of the worst places in the country, and you wrote about them in harrowing detail. You were lonely, and sometimes turned to drugs, or girls, or whatever. The people you hung out with seemed unsavoury, to say the least.

That you ended up murdered in the midst of this experience doesn’t seem completely surprising. But it does seem tragic. You were yet young, as we both were in those days, just 24. I had only recently met Michelle. She and I were still just dating. My whirling instability was spinning down. I think I may have started working. It was a different world to the one we knew as kids.

All those letters you sent me, and I never responded. I never knew what to say. I was too upset. Too angry, too. You told me all the time in those letters that I needed to get off all my medication, that it was all a scam. I have a vague recollection of what these days we think of as conspiracy theories, but in those days were just crackpot notions, the stuff of tiny classified ads in the back of certain magazines. You saw some of what I went through with my first hospital experience, though I remember you also looked wary, and uncertain about it, about how to deal with me afterwards, and that’s fair enough. I was still figuring that out, too. But you knew I was sick, seriously not well, that it went through my dad’s family.

You did in your last, longest letter, apologise, and especially for that suggestion. I kept that letter, and gave a copy to the police and to your family. They had no idea about your travels and adventures, and were gobsmacked and terribly sad to hear of them. But, as I say, you did apologise. I appreciated it, too. It was a great letter to receive, all 20-odd handwritten, funny, heartwrenching pages of it. I could see you were coming out of the dark. You were more like yourself again. Your thinking was clearer. No crackpot theories. A funny story about trying to chat up a woman. Some amusing hitchhiking stories, some colourful vignettes.

You had also embarked on some actual fiction-writing. You produced two chapters of a werewolf-in-the-Outback story, and the thing that absolutely killed me, reading it last year after tearing our storage room apart trying to find this last letter from you for the police, was how good it was. It was rough, very unpolished, but the things wrong with it were technique things that could be fixed, could be unlearned. Under the sometimes clunky bits was some terrific lean, evocative prose. It shone out of the page, just a little obscured by some overgrowth. You could have been a writer.

What was it like when they killed you? The detective said it was most likely an execution-type murder. It’s possible one person did the whole thing, but I wonder. And why you? What were you involved with? Did you get mixed up with bad people, or some bad deals? Was it drugs and money? What were you doing? How did it happen? Why were you up that way at all? I suppose you thought about that yourself. How did my life come to this? What did I do? Am I here because Mum and Dad split up? Am I here because I got out of bed today? What happened? Why me?

I think about you all the time. I’ve been thinking about you while writing this book about my life. Your birthday is coming up next week. I always take a moment, each year, to remember you, the funny, red-haired, crazy bastard who was friends with the big dumpy guy. I’ll always love you for that, for being my friend. You were my best friend at a time when I needed one. You kept me alive, and in the world. You, in your funny way, made it possible for Michelle to find me.

Thank you.

REGRET: Postscript

It’s strange to be working on this project, digging through my history like this, and deliberately doing so in a non-linear way. One moment I’m working on something from my recent history, but then there’s something from when I was a wee toddler. It’s a bit jolting, but also a bit interesting. Things surface together which you’d never previously thought of as two pieces of the same puzzle, and you get a moment of actual insight, that rarest of birds.

I wrote a hard piece, titled REGRET, about this girl I knew when I was at university in the 1980s, who I called Laura. In the piece I related what was, and has always been, since the day it happened, a shameful thing that I did to Laura. I wrote of how this thing has shamed me ever since, how it was so bad my psychiatrist tried to help me deal with it. He was able to help a bit. I no longer felt quite so ashamed. He pointed out that Laura had a part to play in what happened, too. She was no innocent. That all helped provide some perspective.

But I still felt lousy about it. It bothered me deeply. It was the one thing I would change if I had a time machine.

I wrote this piece, and laid it all out there. Most of these posts I’m writing get very little response, but some get a lot. This one actually got lengthy, thoughtful comments from women I know on Facebook. They all agreed that in no way had I done anything as terrible as I imagined I had done. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Yes, a woman’s point of view, and from women who had been in Laura’s situation, with those same emotions, gave me a great deal to think about, but I was reluctant to let myself off the hook.

But another friend pointed out another post, the one about me in the theatre class, sitting over to one side of the theatre, away from everyone else, because I was so profoundly uncomfortable and anxious, plagued with terrible thoughts about myself, the toxic residue of more than ten years of schoolyard bullying fused and baked down into sheer psychosis. Where what you see, including yourself, is distorted, but you don’t know the distortion is there. You believe you really are monstrous, that it’s the objective truth of the matter. I sat over to the side of the theatre because I believed I was not fit to sit with the human students. I was psychotic, just like my diagnosis, presented only four years before, said.

This business in theatre class was happening at the same time as the situation with Laura. Laura was in the theatre class. I very likely had placed her on an unattainable shining pedestal. I very likely did not think myself truly worthy of her. I was psychotic, and misperceived her, and myself. I misperceived everything.

This is blowing my mind. I never saw this connection before today. I’ve been carrying this whole story around since 1983. Since I was 20. Since the day I selfishly confessed my unworthy love over the phone, and apologised for doing so, for letting her down. I certainly did not cover myself in glory there. I could have handled it better, in person, but I think the result would have been the same.

And I’d never have met Michelle, the greatest time machine what-if imponderable of them all. What if we’d never met? What if Laura and I had become a couple? I think about these things a lot.

WEIRD GROWNUP IN BOOKSHOP

I was in the Crime and Mystery section of the bookshop, looking for Inspector Wallander books, by Swedish author Henning Mankell. I had recently been engrossed by a Swedish TV adaptation of what turned out to be the fifth book in the series, SIDETRACKED, featuring the tremendous actor Rolf Lassgård in the title role. I must read the book, I decided. The character was gloomy, broken, had a messed-up private life, did not take good care of himself, but was pretty good at his job. I had not previously encountered what we now know as Nordic or Scandinavian Noir, but it felt like my kind of thing, detective fiction for broken people. Stories about broken people who can still function, still work despite their troubles. That means a lot to me. One thing about carrying my kind of illness, about adjusting to its presence in your life, is the thought that you can’t do things, that you’re broken. Inspector Wallander was a hero to me.

It was a big store, the biggest bookstore in Perth at the time. Michelle and I went there as often as we could. There were chairs, and a cafe. You could sit and read. It was extremely pleasant, when not stupidly busy. I’ve never done well with crowds, and in a store like that I tried to focus on what I was after. I’m good at focussing, at concentrating.

My back was hurting from being bent over, peering at the author names on the spines of books on the lower shelves. Author Mankell had not yet become a huge literary star. He was a midlister, there on the shelves with some of his catalogue but no special eye-catching promotion. At last I found it. Book 5, SIDETRACKED. The one where Wallander is called to a rape seed farm because a strange immigrant girl is standing out in the middle of the dazzling yellow crop, and she has a jerry can of petrol. And when Wallander approaches to talk to her, the girl panics at the sight of a policeman and sets herself on fire.

Book located, feeling satisfied, pleased to note that the store had several other Mankell titles in the series, all helpfully numbered, I stood up, clutching at my aching back–

And spotted a group of friends in the middle distance, near the café, chatting.

Oh God, no, was my first, panicked, thought. My guts clenched, I stopped breathing, and immediately ducked into a crouch and crabbed my way sideways, along the row of black-spined detective novels, to an aisle, where I could scarper to a distant part of the store, where nobody could find me.

Nothing, in that moment of panic, was more important. There was no conscious thought involved. I’ve often reflected on this moment in the years since. This was my fight/flight response, the same circuit that takes over when these days I hear certain sounds. But this was several years ago.

It made no sense. The people I spotted were and remain dear friends. I love each of them madly. But on that day, at that time, seeing a group of four or five of them like that, I panicked. To the extent that I thought at all in the moment, in the rush, my brain shifting my lumpen body out of there as if I was the president and it was my Secret Service detail and they’d spotted someone with a gun–I thought, “oh, they won’t want to see me rocking up”.

Because why would they? In my brain, deep inside, signals running along circuits laid down when I was just a kid, the message was clear. Nobody likes Bedford. He smells, he’s poor, he can’t kick a football, he’s weak and useless, and ugh.

All that, in my head, going around and around as my heart beat hard and fast, as my breath rushed in and out, as the emergency unfolded, adrenaline fizzing through my body. It was all I could do to stay in the store.

This is why I see a psychologist. This is why I take medication. This stuff is hardwired in. It’s built in to the fundamental structure of my brain, regardless of whether it’s true (which of course it’s not). It does not respond to reason, to argument. The Russ Harris book, THE HAPPINESS TRAP, is one of the few mental health books I’ve encountered which can even touch this sort of problem, and it does so by acknowledging that these disabling beliefs and messages can’t be removed or changed. They are welded into the fundamental structure of the brain, so instead you have to have a strategy for accepting them, living with them, and, most importantly, for paying them much less attention.

When 9/11 happened, when it was still just a harrowing Tuesday in September, when buildings collapsed and thousands of people died in terrifying ways and vast billowing clouds of dust that layer turned out to be composed of a tiny percentage of human tissue, when that happened, I sat in front of the TV, flipping channels, for three days and nights. I barely slept. I had to watch. I had to be there for the next thing. I thought for sure there would be another attack, and I had to be there. The news people, and they were on every channel, all believed there would be more, but they weren’t sure, information was coming in from all over the place, but it was always sketchy, always a bit vague, and often quite wrong. It was live, in some ways it was even more than live. It got inside your head and filled it up. I barely remembered to eat, because I had to watch coverage.

This is also the sort of attention I used to give to the messages from these parts of my brain, with their cheery reminders about what sort of horrible monstrous non-person I was. The messages so loud, so constant, so debilitating I wound up in hospital–twice!–and have now been seeing a psychologist on a regular basis. She recommended the Harris book. I recommend it, too. It’s a credible approach. It doesn’t make promises of any sort of cure. It says you are stuck with those voices and those messages, but you can change your attitude towards them.

You can instead, maybe, sit in a laundromat late at night, or in the waiting room at your GP’s office, where there’s a TV on the wall somewhere, you can’t quite hear it or see it, but you know it’s there, you can ignore it. You can try to regard the voices in your head, the appalling hurtful things they tell you, the way they want you to run away from your own life, and from your own dear friends, as just background chatter of no consequence, just a TV on somewhere nobody, least of all you, is paying any attention to. That is the goal. It’s achievable. Wish me luck.

GROUP

Her name was Marina, and she was a woman with reddish-brown hair and a nice smile in her 30s. She sat opposite me. The other people in the group had been similarly paired up. I had never met Marina before. And I had never done anything like this.

I was sixteen, and this was a group therapy session in D20, the psychiatric unit. This was very early in my time there, and I was trying things that were recommended to me as possibly being helpful. And it was thought that Conversation Class would be helpful to me. It was in this class that I literally learned how to talk to people again. And how to talk to women, especially.

We started with basics. Hello, how are you? What’s your name? This kind of thing. The kind of thing you most likely can’t imagine ever needing to take a class to re-learn. I never imagined myself in such a situation, but then when I was a little kid I never imagined how traumatised I’d feel just going to school, either. And at no point in my conversations with Marina, who was one of the other patients (I never found “what she was in for”, as everyone tended to speak of reasons for being a patient in a psychiatric unit), did she ever regard me with loathing, disgust, mockery, or anything other than kindness and curiosity. I found this disorienting.

Only now, thinking back on this, do I wonder why a grown woman in her thirties might need such a class. I find myself faced with no good possible hypotheses.

When you’re a patient in a psych hospital, whether one, a small public unit like D20 was in the 1970s, or a larger, private hospital like the one I was in last year, one of the first surprising things is that the staff like to see the patients organised into activities. In D20, at the start of each week, patients had a meeting with an occupational therapist for “goal setting” in which the idea is you plot out your week like a school timetable. I generally hated this very much and tried to weasel out of it when I could. This was mainly because I was starting to recover from my initial stunned passivity when I was too broken to do much more than nod and do whatever was asked.

There were all kinds of group therapy classes, ranging from things you might expect (Relaxation, Meditation) to things you might not (Woodwork in actual workshop). In the “day room” you could sit in the bright sunlight pouring through the huge windows and participate in “Arts & Crafts” (rug hooking, bas relief work in copper). There were groups of a more conventional nature, in which the participants sat around in a circle, all of them fidgety, angry, unhappy, bristling, sometimes smoking, sharing their views and feelings in response to questions from the occupational therapist leading the group. These groups were sometimes extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable.

My favourite was Art Therapy. There was a fully-equipped art room, with everything from pencils to charcoal to paint to clay, whatever you wanted to work with. There were structured sessions, such as the one where you render in your chosen artistic medium the feelings you have about whichever issue was the topic that week.

The marvellous thing about the art room was that it was open all the time, and patients were welcome to come in, anytime, and just do stuff, whatever you felt like. Out of the two years I spent as an inpatient and then as an outpatient, I probably spent at least half of that time in the art room, and a big fraction of that time working with clay. Many days it was all I did all day long. There was a table by the big windows offering a view towards A Block, and I would just sit there and sit there for hours and hours, and the therapists, Margaret and Jo, who became good friends with me, were happy to let me do so. It was bliss, richly satisfying. Hours would pass and I wouldn’t say a word to anyone, and no-one would disturb me.

But the most surprising, the most unexpected class, for me, was Ballroom Dancing on Thursday afternoons. It was suggested that maybe I should put myself down for it.

I panicked. Fight/flight response engaged. I have a vague memory of actually running from the room, breathless. Of a running battle over several weeks between the occupational therapists and myself over whether I could be coaxed into this class. Every Thursday afternoon, I made sure to be busy elsewhere. The entire proposal was upsetting. Nothing good could come from it. It reminded me of things.

High school. The gym. Blonde wood and varnish and basketball markings in worn white tape. An atmosphere of stale sweat. Something unpleasant, as if there was a rubbish bin somewhere in there you couldn’t quite see.

And us, all of, I think, Year 9 or 10. Girls on one side, enthusiastic, glowing with a light sheen of perspiration, their uniforms tidy, mostly enjoying themselves. Us boys across the other side, slovenly, sarcastic, fed up, shirt tails hanging out on one side, 1970s hair hanging lank, sloping through the same basic cha cha cha, the same box steps.

How I hated all of this. We were informed that Ballroom Dancing was the very stuff of romance, and that knowing how to dance would open up a world of social possibilities for us that we simply could never imagine. In that stuffy, stinky gymnasium on those afternoons it was simply impossible to believe such nonsense. It was like maths teachers telling us how when we grew up we would use algebra every day to help us design bridges. Time Traveller me would like to blip back to those classrooms and provide an itemised list of all the bridges I’ve designed in the years since I left school. It would be a similar list to the number of romantic dates I’ve been on with beautiful women I’ve met via the medium of Ballroom Dancing.

There was an instructor gliding up and down the gym’s centre line, showing us the waltz, the rhumba, all of it. It was all so beautiful, so elegant, floating on air, so evocative of a glamorous, gleaming soft-focus past. He’d show us a few fancy moves, always done with a certain panache, and then it was our turn to try it out. I just remember the noise of all those shuffling footsteps, the sight of crowds of people manoeuvring in a box step.

Then, at last, the part I truly hated. The part I would fake illness in the mornings of these classes so that I could avoid it. The part that made me react so poorly a few years later in hospital.

We were told to choose a partner.

About ninety-eight percent of us had little trouble here, and were soon teamed up. Of the handful left, the girls tried to hide behind each other. The boys, most of us fat and awkward and pale, bumbled about, asking any girl not huddled behind someone else. It would take a while, and it was excruciating. There were pained smiles, and reluctant nods, and no hand-holding. The happy couples came back to the centre of the room.

The girls I found never looked at me. They looked at the instructor. When instructed to hold their partner’s hand, they might–might–link pinky fingers. Sometimes not even that. I burned white-hot with horror and shame, but not with shock. All of this was my lot in life. I was loathsome. I was filth. I was not a person.

We went through steps. Some girls consented to be touched, but we stood as far apart as it was possible to stand. Others simply refused, and did the steps as if I were not there. I sweated, and probably stank. I would like to have died, had the option become available. The music from the lousy PA system boomed and echoed, reverberating hollow and lifeless around the gym. It was the opposite of romance, the opposite of fun. It was horror and torment. It was institutional bullying. I’d rather be taking a group shower after Friday sports class.

At D20 they did, at great length, and after a very considerable amount of persuasion on the part of the wonderful occupational therapists there (especially Maggie and Virginia), talk me into it. I had explained my horror of the whole thing. I told them I wasn’t making it up. It really was like that. It had been one of the worst experiences of my entire high school career. They were very good about it. They understood. They helped. They did not tell me I was imagining things. All this while nudging me down the hallway, past all the Van Gogh prints on the walls, to the art room, where the Ballroom Dancing class was held.

I was terrified. It was all coming back. I could smell the gym, the sweat, the horror of it. Maggie and Virginia promised it would never be like that, that the teacher was lovely and kind, and was used to helping people who’d had terrible school experiences. It would be okay. I heard them say all this, and it was reassuring. But it was just about true that they needed to put me on a trolley to get me down that hallway.

I went in through the art room door. Inside, the tables and desks had been moved into a corner. There was a group of patients (I was the youngest), and some of the current batch of student nurses doing their psychiatric nursing rotation. People seemed pleased and surprised to see me. The teacher, whose name I forget but might have been Susan or Suzanne, welcomed me and thanked me for coming. She seemed enormously kind and reassuring. I smiled and smiled, nervous, scared, as if hiding behind the façade of my teeth.

Immediately, this class proved different from what I remembered. It was much smaller, most obviously. But it was also intimate, with only perhaps a dozen of us. And we were all, I soon noticed, equally nervous and awkward. This was new to all of us, patients as well as nurses. Teacher Suzanne took it slow. She was funny and disarming. There was lots of nervous laughter, and lots of regular laughter, when things worked, when the steps operated as shown.

When it turned out to be fun. When women consented to be held. When there was conversation, some nervous humour. Tangled feet. When there was no horror. The opposite of horror, in fact.

Weeks and weeks later, I was still going, and it had become a highlight of my week. I looked forward to dancing in the art room as much as I looked forward to messing about with giant lumps of clay. I grew to enjoy the dancing so much that I started to get a bit good at it. I had been a patient so much longer than almost everyone else that I had attended more classes than anyone, so Suzanne would choose me to help demonstrate steps and moves. Me! Traumatised, psychotic, non-human, loathsome me!

One Friday night, long after I had left D20, I found myself in the city on my own. I went to (I think it was called) Gilkison’s Dance Hall, a place where they actually had proper Ballroom Dancing in a social atmosphere, where you could meet people, and who knows? I managed to screw up my nerve, and went in. There were a lot of stairs. The place was loud. I loved the UV lighting, which made white shirts fluoresce, but also white stitching in shoes. I did manage to find a young woman who agreed to try a rhumba with me, and we got our feet tangled up real good, laughing. That was as far as we went, but for me it was everything. Conversation and dancing with a woman unrelated to me, and who did not seem horrified in my presence.

It was nice.

DROWNING

I was drowning on a Monday afternoon at Trigg Beach. Other than the friend who came with me, and who was off somewhere else doing his own thing, no-one knew I was there. The beach was deserted. There were no lifesavers. And I was taking on water.

I was in a rip, and it was carrying me out to sea. Already the beach looked a long way away. Even if I screamed, no-one would hear me. The roar of the sea would always be louder, more insistent, would always win. I could not touch bottom, and I was out of strength and, worse, breath.

The sea was going to kill me, but first, like a cat with a mouse, it was going to slap me around a bit. The water was cold and sharp, and it was indeed slapping me around, especially during those panicking moments when I was trying to get my mouth above the turbulent waterline–wham! Mouth full of water, lung full of water, sink a little lower, fight a bit harder to come back up to try again.

I could feel it wanting to kill me, that it had the intention, the malice aforethought, the desire. That it believed I was fair game, coming out here on a day when I should have known better, when there was no-one to save me. I have rarely felt so in the presence of something so full of wanting to harm me, something immense and unstoppable.

I strained downwards with everything I had, trying to lengthen myself, to stretch, to strain, to touch bottom. It was simply out of reach. It might have been a gap of only a single centimetre, the sand beneath my pale feet stirred by my flailing, or there might have been an unfathomable abyss. No way to tell. Not without going under to see. And if I went under, I might not come back.

The essential problem here was that I couldn’t swim.

But the really essential problem, the root of the whole situation, the thing that looked like it was going to get me killed, was that I had been a weird kid, as I have previously indicated.

When I was in primary school, at some point, I no longer remember exactly which year it was, the school sent the kids in my grade to the blue and white majesty of Beatty Park Aquatic Centre (built for the 1962 Empire Games, and very impressive for the time), where we were to be taught how to swim. Because if there is one true thing about life in Australia, it is that you need to know how to swim. Because if you don’t, well, you don’t want to think too much about that.

I was excited. This was going to be excellent fun. I had always, always loved water, being around water, playing in and with water. As much as I was crazy about space and rockets, I was crazy about water. My earliest memories involve a lot of mucking about with garden hoses, and sitting in canvas paddling pools with my young dad (still with thick dark Brylcreem hair) pouring buckets of water over me.

But there was also the Floreat Forum incident. I was truly tiny. I’m not sure how much of what I remember of this incident is genuine first-hand memory, or whether it’s you-wouldn’t-believe-he-did-that! family legend. One day, when I was very little, my grandfather on my dad’s side (the one forever lives in my heart for being the one introduced me to the wonder of Milo on icecream) took me for some sort of outing or shopping expedition to the Floreat Forum Shopping Centre, which was a bit flash and posh.

There were these water fountains. Which featured beautiful white and blue ceramic tiles, with running water flowing in a very appealing manner. Please be aware that I’m piecing this together out of image fragments, as of stray dusty things found in a long-neglected box. I barely remember this, but have heard the story so many times.

It seems I was so entranced by the way the sunlight fell through a skylight onto the flowing water in the fountain, over the white and blue tiles, that I just had to get closer to it. I had to be part of it.

So I stripped off my clothes, and climbed up and got into the main fountain basin, and had a perfectly lovely, fabulous time laughing and splashing about. It was the best thing ever!

My grandfather, who had fought in World War I, was mortified. Passersby pointed and laughed, and probably made a few funny comments.

I remember boundless joy. I was happy beyond measure. And my grandfather’s discomfiture was part of that. It was funny, how upset he got. (Sorry, Pop!)

The situation was retrieved. I was dried and reclothed, and a family legend was born, one of many, but one of the better ones.

This is all by way of establishing my bona fides as what my mum has always called “a water bug”. To her I was “a space nut” and “a water bug”.

So, primary school swimming lessons at Beatty Park. I had never smelled chlorine before. What on Earth was that? The change rooms were huge, too huge, as if for vast numbers of people. The glare out on the pool deck, the bright sun reflecting off the surface, made for squinting and shading your eyes with your hand.

But the water, in those enormous long so long huge endless pools, was entrancing. The play of light. The white tiles with the black stripes and markings. I’d never seen anything like it. I could not wait to get started. All of us, I remember, were excited and restless, a bunch of little boys, fidgeting, as if on the night before Christmas, and they’ve noticed some particularly large and promising presents under the tree with their names on. It was a wonderful moment of anticipation.

The teacher, when she arrived, was a young woman with pointy 1960s breasts in her one-piece swimsuit. I was very young but I was very much a boy. I noticed things like that. This teacher, I no longer remember her name, had a lovely, kind, patient manner about her. You wanted to do well for her approval. The lessons went well. The water seemed to glow, it was so white in the sun.

Weeks passed. The swimming lessons were a highlight of the week.

But then one day we turned up, bursting with excitement and enthusiasm, ready to go. As usual there was a lot of talk about flirting with the teacher, and speculation about who she liked of all of us (obviously not me, but I was used to that by now).

A different teacher turned up, a middle-aged woman with a tight, curly hairstyle, and a solid build. I also forget her name, but it was almost certainly Mrs Someone. She had a very authoritative manner. She was firm. She tolerated no nonsense, and would tell you if your efforts were not measuring up to her standards. None of the boys speculated about which one of us she liked best. As far as we could tell, she disliked all of us. She looked, when dealing with us, like she was sucking a lemon.

I lasted about two weeks before making the decision that many years later was going to get me killed one Monday afternoon at Trigg Beach. I stopped going to swimming lessons. I decided I didn’t like the new teacher. She was a permanent replacement for the nice pointy-breasted teacher. We never learned what happened to her. I still miss her. She was nice. I felt encouraged. I always wanted to do well because her approval felt so warm and genuine.

I no longer remember exactly how I managed to get out of swimming lessons. I think I was the only one who did. It seems conceivable that during that time I was sent to the school library, but I really have no idea. I also don’t remember why my parents went along with my decision, or if they even knew about it. My recollection of events stops here, with my decision that I didn’t like Mrs Someone, and that was that.

So I never properly learned to swim. Because I was a weird, foolish, moody, strange kid.

That afternoon at Trigg Beach, when the sea tried to kill me, only one thing saved me–luck. I remembered something I had read long before about rips. Australian beaches are lousy with rips, and there is a great deal of literature available about how to survive them. I had read some of this. If I had not, I doubt I would be sitting here telling you this story.

A rip forms a deep channel along the axis of the current leading out to sea. This means you can even be quite close to shore, and still find you can’t touch bottom. But either side of the channel the bottom is the usual height for thag distance from shore. If instead of trying to swim against the rip’s current, which will get you killed, you swim just a bit to the side, you’ll find much shallower water. You might be able to touch bottom.

It was my last possible move. I had taken on a lot of water. It tasted like doom, salty doom. I was choking and coughing. I was spending more time underwater looking up at the surface than I was above the surface. My arms and legs burned with fatigue. My eyes burned from water exposure. I didn’t want to die, and certainly not like this.

I tried swimming, dog paddle, to the side. I put my feet down.

I touched bottom. It was shallow. I could stand easily. The water here, just a metre or so from where I had been, from where the sea was going to eat me, was about chest-deep. I could breathe. I coughed up so much water. The cold waves and chop slapped against me, but no longer had power over me.

I was a lucky bastard. I have since, at my local aquatic centre, learned to swim. The teacher was an older Scottish woman with a mother’s warmth and humour, whom I like very much. I was so grateful to her for teaching me to swim that I gave her signed copies of two of my books, TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT and my most recent, BLACK LIGHT. One night she told me about a niece who had spotted BLACK LIGHT on her shelf, saw that the author had signed it, and was all impressed, and wanted to know how she knew the author. This story warmed me at a time when I was badly depressed. My freestyle technique is excellent, though I can only do about one and a half laps of the centre’s 25 metre pool. I can do most of the other strokes to some extent, but breast stroke remains a baffling mystery. I am not too concerned. I now know enough to save myself, should I again find myself in trouble at a lonely beach.

THE MEAT SECTION INCIDENT (Updated)

We were in the busy meat section of a supermarket one weekend afternoon a couple of years ago, and I could not stand it. I could not.

I thought I had been fine, earlier that day. We’d driven down to Mandurah, a brief weekend break in our favourite seaside home away from home. That first day, we needed some supplies, so we hit the local Woolies supermarket.

As soon as I walked in, there was something wrong, something off. I felt as if I were made of scissors. Everything bothered me. It was too noisy. The lights were annoying. The people going about their business were too peoply. It felt as if my tooth enamel was on too tight.

I took little notice of these obvious warning signs. You might think, given what you know of my history by now, that I might have demonstrated the possession of a few clues, and recognised these indications as bad signs, and taken appropriate action. Yes, you might very well think that. But I didn’t. I didn’t think about those signs until much later.

We shopped. We indulged in a few holiday treats, the sorts of things we wouldn’t ordinarily buy back home.

I was noticing all the people around me. The place seemed very busy, more than you would expect, or more than I expected, anyway. It felt like I had to be extra-careful with the trolley to keep from hitting people as we made our way around.

Up and down the aisles we went, grabbing the few things we wanted. We chatted as we went, but I was distracted by all the people.

I did notice that I felt hot, as if it were a hot day, but it wasn’t. We were in an airconditioned store. I felt threatened, and tense, hunched in on myself, as if to repel boarders who might try to pilfer our chocolate treats. I can make a joke of this now, but at the time it felt like I needed to be standing there with a cricket bat, to let people know not to mess with me.

And that would be the me who never learned how to defend himself. Who when he was a boy and everyone was picking on him, people told him he should learn to defend himself, to pound the living hell out of the bullies who tormented him in school and elsewhere, but who was too chicken to do anything about it, and wound up in a psychiatric unit to stew over his own cowardice.

But I was going to defend that trolley, from all these–from all these–just look at them all! Look at them, all around me, coming and going, all directions, and all of them talking and laughing and playing with their phones and I don’t feel okay I don’t feel okay mayday mayday my engines are out I’m going down mayday–

Then it’s cold and we’re in the Woolies meat section and you can smell chickens roasting and I’ve burst into horrifying sobbing tears, and Michelle has heard something odd and turned–

“Sweetie! Are you…?”

I’ve pulled over to the side. People are swooping and looping all around me, as if to keep me in place, and I can’t stop crying, and I feel hot and if there’s one thing I hate more than anything on Earth more even than Nazis it’s crying in public, and here I am in nuclear shame God, and I’m telling Michelle

“I feel so anxious!”

She gets me out of there.

I don’t remember what happened next. When I told my psychiatrist about it a long time later, he was shocked. I was shocked that the incident even happened. This sort of thing never happened to me. My post-marriage psychiatric profile was much more likely to feature loads of low-level depression, chronic tiredness, and feeling stuck to the couch like a stain. I didn’t get manic phases. I had good periods here and there punctuated by down phases. It had always seemed like the best I could hope for, that pharmaceutical science could do for me.

God knows, though, I had been nagging my doctor for years that I wanted to change my medication. I used to get, for more than twenty years, these godawful tension headaches that went on and on, sometimes for days, sometimes with such intensity that I threw up. I had every conceivable medical investigation, and they all came up empty. Medical science was officially baffled. Good luck with the future, Mr Bedford.

A neurologist who charged me $300 to walk in his door once suggested I try an experimental treatment involving Botox shots in my forehead. My headaches presented usually as a tight, squeezing, vise-like sense of agonising pressure across my forehead. This brainiac imagined that Botox would paralyse the nerves in the forehead. I was absolutely up for a medical experiment (who wouldn’t?) so I said yes. At the very least I thought it would make a good Facebook post.

The treatment involved 20 injections across my forehead, one after another, in a quick sequence. It hurt like you would not believe. The result looked like a chorus line of bees had stung me. But to no avail. I even had one of my notorious headaches during the treatment. The headaches laughed at the Botox, and went on merrily tormenting me, even if for six months I couldn’t frown to express my vexation.

I was pretty sure my medication was causing my headaches. Again and again I pleaded with my doctor to get me some new stuff. The headaches, for such a long time, were driving me nuts. I gave them a name, and a personality. I named them Mr H Ache, Concerned Citizen, a filthy, ghastly old man, living in a dirty old singlet and gaping, stained old y-fronts, with a bit of fag behind his ear, who spends altogether too much time writing Letters to the Editor of various newspapers, trafficking in conspiracy theories and crackpot notions. I figured Mr Ache would turn up at the front door every so often, a disliked relative, wanting to borrow money, and maybe to crash on the couch for a few days. I seriously wanted to be rid of Mr Ache.

But every time I asked my doctor to get me new medication, he said my existing meds (which at the time were carbamazepine and Clomipramine, which I’d been on for about 30 years) were working “well enough”.

It was more or less true. As I said: no manic phases. And only relatively mild depressive phases, rather than the full catastrophe. True, they brought with them some horrific side-effects in the Trouser Department, and the Weight Department, but those things aside, I was more or less okay. I could function in the world. I could work. I had six novels published, though to strictly modest sales.

But last year, he proposed the medication change to me. What had changed? The main thing was “the meat section incident”, which was greatly out of character for me. Things like that simply never happened to me. It’s true that I had never liked crowds, and there had been times when, for example, I’d experienced panic attacks in close situations while shopping. But the meat section incident was orders of magnitude worse. My doctor is my age, and has been a psychiatrist a long time. He’s seen everything. He’s even counselled hardened sex offenders in prison. He’s seen some things, man. You would think nothing would surprise him.

The meat section incident surprised him very much indeed, not for what happened but for whom it happened to.

Flash-forward to now: I’ve been on my current medication regimen for a bit more than seven months. I have some pressing concerns, but on the whole things are better than they were. I am calmer. My mood is consistently good. Not happy, but content. I can work well, and do all my jobs.

And I don’t get those headaches anymore. The few headaches I do get are easily dispatched with simple painkillers. They don’t put up a fight. I haven’t from Mr Ache wanting to borrow money in months. Life is better. Embrace change.