MEMOIR History Part 2 (Updated)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART 2 (Updated)

I was sixteen years old and homework was killing me. I spent more hours per day on homework than I did in actual classes during the day. Each afternoon, when school was done, I had to load most of the books and files in my locker into my grey schoolbag to take home, to “help” with the homework. It was brutal, and never-ending. I was often awake into the wee hours, scribbling away, but sometimes just sitting there, staring at the matter before me, wondering what on Earth I was going to do with it.

I had colossal problems with everything. I felt as if I understood nothing, that I had no business in this “matriculation” part of high school. It was organised so that everyone first did three years of relatively painless stuff, and at the end of that, if you wished to, especially if you had no plans to go to university, you could leave and, for example, attend TAFE, do an apprenticeship, learn a trade, or whatever.

I couldn’t say I had a red-hot blazing desire, a longing, to attend university. It wasn’t really on the Bedford radar at the time. Even if I went, what on Earth would I study? I had no idea. All I did know, at the end of Year 10 (the old Third Year) was that just about all my tormentors left at once, having no interest in higher education.

I could have danced.

So I wound up staying on for the final two years, 11 and 12, for matriculation, not out of any concrete desire for this matriculation, as such, but because it would be two years of shelter away from most of my bullies and tormentors. This matriculation was a grim, harrowing process deliberately designed to prepare hapless students for the serious rigours of university-level education. It was hard by design. Brutal by intention. So hard you would find yourself wishing for a quick and merciful death sooner than you would ever imagine. I should never have been there. I still don’t know why I was there. The only answer I’ve ever come up with was simple inertia. I was there because it was the thing to do. Because it would be even harder getting a job, or going to learn a trade. I didn’t want to go that way. But I also wasn’t sure I wanted to go this way. I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted the noise in my head to stop. I wanted to be left alone so I could think.

When I was just fourteen, my parents knew Something was Wrong with me. They saw signs in my weird behaviour (see, “Weird Kid”), the way I did things, my moodiness, my temper, and much else. They took me to a special doctor. The doctor told them there was nothing he could do, no help he could offer, until “something happened”. There had to be a crisis of some kind. There had to be, in other words, a breakdown. The doctor sent us away.

I remember this doctor visit, but I remember only my parents’ worried, lined faces. I remember nothing of what they talked about (they filled me in much later). I only remember sitting there, my scalp prickling a little, knowing I was being talked about but not understanding, as if the whole thing was in a foreign language.

I have already sketched in a little of the bullying/abuse I faced throughout my schooling. But perhaps even worse, when it came to Years 11 and 12, was the work itself, and my mounting sense of panic as I saw that I was simply not up to it. I should have quit at the end of Year 10, like my tormentors. There would have been no shame in it, and I would have avoided, most likely, what came next.

At the end of Year 10 those students who were staying on had to have a think about their future plans, and then talk to the career guidance counsellor about course selection for the final two years. My careers guidance counsellor was my Social Studies teacher, who did not like me one bit, and I was less than pleased to see her, too. She asked me about my “plans”. I said I had no plans. I didn’t. I was a doofus fifteen year old boy. I didn’t even have plans for that afternoon, or the weekend. She said, well, you like reading, don’t you? Well, of course I did. If left to my own affairs I would basically just read and write full-time. So I stupidly said yes. She made a note. Then she said, Oh, and you’re interested in science and stuff, too, right? Again, yes, of course, naturally, but–

But nothing. With these two answers she fashioned a set of classes for me. She had me down for English, Maths 2 and 3, Physics, Chemistry, and History. Despite the names, Maths 2 and 3 were the truly advanced units in mathematics. There was a lower-intensity unit, Maths 1, which was more my speed, and one lower even than that, Maths 4. But I wound up in 2 and 3, which also meant a truly terrifying teacher whom I call Mr Bastardface (not his real name), who is the subject of a whole separate essay in this book.

This set of courses was just about the most intensely difficult group she could assign. I tried to protest, to explain, that I couldn’t do these things. But to no avail. If any one single person put me in hospital after my breakdown, she would be that person. She dropped me into the pit of vipers, and just about killed me.

Getting out of school at the end of the day was meant to feel like a wonderful release, the end of your day’s labours. But for me and students like me, dropped in water much too deep for them, it was only the end of Act One. Act Two lay ahead. In which the protagonist is trapped in a maze that only grows more baffling, more frustrating, that changes configuration around you, and quite possibly has no actual exit.

I sat in classrooms for all these different subjects. I listened as hard as I could, and I wrote notes like I knew what I was doing. I attended to everything, thinking that if I just paid enough attention, if I did my job well enough, it would pay off. The “aha!” moment would condense out of the atmosphere of panic, and I would understand at last.

It never came. I was underwater. I couldn’t touch the bottom. Every night there was more homework. It never helped. I never caught up; I was always behind, and had to keep lists keeping track of what I was doing now and what could wait.

I had a teacher for Year 11 English who, at the start of the first class of the year, when I’d been thinking, well, I should at least be okay here. English had always been my thing. In lower high school I’d done extremely well with it, and imagined that would continue. I was wrong. This teacher’s first utterance, as she sat on a stool in front of her desk, addressing us, was, “Most of you will fail this class.”

It was shocking. More shocking was finding out she meant it. We’d spent three years learning various ways of looking at books and stories and so on. That was all out the window. We were now expected to engage in a new mode of literary analysis which, when she described it, sounded like dead TV static, like off-key piano music, like something circling and then falling down a drain. It sounded like doom. I never did understand what she was talking about. My very best, most sincere efforts meant nothing. It was a language I did not understand, a note I couldn’t hear.

And that was my best class.

Physics and Chemistry started off utterly incomprehensible and grew more opaque from there. Nothing made sense. The textbooks made no sense. The measurement of error. The measurement of uncertainty. The problem of measurement itself. Wave motion. The sublimation of iodine straight from solid to gas was cool. The careers guidance counsellor had been right about one thing: I really was interested in science. Ever since the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, one of the cardinal points of my life, I had had a keen interest in science (especially in any science to do with astronomy, rockets, stars, planets, etc). I wanted to understand, but everything required several blackboards’ worth of mathematics to “explain”, and mathematics teacher Mr Bastardface was too busy dreaming up ways to humiliate me in front of the class to concern himself with my lack of comprehension.

How bad was my failure to grasp maths? My parents shelled out a great deal of money to a tutoring firm that promoted heavily at the time, which promised specialised, focussed tuition in specific areas, and that the student would make huge gains. So every Saturday morning, in winter that year, wet and bitter-cold, I got the train to Midland, and made my way to a rented hall, where a bunch of beleaguered-looking kids slogged through homework as tutors who looked like they might be university students tried to “coach” them to success.

My coaching sessions, despite the huge amounts Mum and Dad paid, made no difference. Mr Bastardface still hated me, and was still determined to prove that I belonged in Maths 1 or even 4. My grades did not improve. It was a miserable, dreadful experience, on top of all the homework, including maths homework, I was already doing, or trying to do.

It was June 1979. Exams were coming like a train and I was lashed to the tracks. Panic was already here, and growing, getting louder, more intense, more urgent. I couldn’t breathe. How the hell was I going to pass these exams?

The short answer is that I didn’t pass them. The train arrived, hit, kept going, and chewed me over good and proper. I blundered my way through each one. I may have failed every one of those exams. I might have been better served writing sarcastic comedy answers to the questions. Because my honest, sincere answers were either all wrong, or mostly wrong. When I got the results, it felt like being at the bottom of a pit, then noticing that the walls are caving in on you. It felt like suffocating death.

Not long after this, towards the end of June, the mysterious “growing pains” in my abdomen I’d been complaining about for a couple of years suddenly turned out to be acute about-to-burst appendicitis. I was sent to hospital that night, and was in surgery the next day.

But it was the night after that when my life exploded like a volcano in my face, and everything began to change.

The day after my breakdown I was tired and wrung out. My parents told me they had arranged for me to leave school, effective immediately. This was the best news ever. Because even though I was stuck in a hospital for surgery, I had homework with me. I had at least one novel to read for English (AS I LAY DYING, by William Faulkner). There was a pile of stuff, and all at once, like a magic trick, it all simply went away. The burden was gone. I could stand up straight again.

I was no longer a student. I had become a patient.

MEMOIR History Part I (Updated Rewrite)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART I (Total Rewrite, Updated)

When I was sixteen my entire life was changed. It was the year I had what was then called a breakdown, following surgery to have my appendix removed. It was the year I met my first psychiatrist. The year I entered a psychiatric hospital for the first (but not last) time.

It was the year so much happened to me, inside me, and around me. My whole life up to now had, it seemed, been building to this point. The explosion itself was less interesting than the question of why did it take so long? Why didn’t it happen earlier?

I was in high school, in Year 11, what was once called Fourth Year. It was harder than I could manage, harder than I could even imagine. I felt as if I were drowning every day and nobody could see the trouble I was in. I was drowning. I was going down. I couldn’t touch bottom. These classes were much harder than I could do. It was bad, and there was no way out.

My entire school career, since the first day, the very first day, the first moments of the first day, of what was then called grade one, while we tiny, cute, awkward, happy, upset kids queued before going imto the classroom to commence our schooling, a bigger grade one kid named Geoffrey pushed me out of the line and knocked me to the ground. I sprawled, winded, my skin scraped on the bitumen, in pain but mostly hot shock and rage and WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

If I were a Time Traveller visiting this shocked and upset little boy, three feet tall and full of towering fury, I would tell him that that question would haunt him for the next twelve years. Every single day there would be bullies of one sort or another. Some understood only brute force; others knew the power of cutting, quiet remarks; others still understood how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully were many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I thought, Why would you do that? Why do it? What do you get out of it? Is it power? Is it the sight of someone else’s suffering? Are you like a vampire who feeds on the pain and misery of others

Many years later, I learned that bullies are often the victims of a higher-level form of bullies, or even of abuse at the hands of their parents or close relatives. They’re playing “Hot Potato”, and in many respects are to be pitied as much as scorned. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a little boy who’s angry and hurting about all this won’t help. He’s angry, and now he’s also afraid, in part of horrible Geoffrey but also, to some extent, the whole school environment where Geoffrey and predators like him roam.

I have thought a great deal about bullying, especially as I’ve grown older, and seen how we humans carry it with us into adulthood, this need to crush those we see as weak, those we think of of as “beta” animals or “prey”. I know there are people who have whole detailed personal mythologies built around the idea of themselves as “apex predators”. The Internet has been a wonderful thing in many respects, but it’s been fabulous for these creeps.

It seems to me the real problem with “bullying” is with the terminology. The word itself. The word “bullying” comes packed with connotations of the schoolyard, of kids’ stuff, of childish things we put away once we’re adults. Everything about the word reinforces these notions. It feels weird calling an adult coworker or abusive spouse a “bully”. The accusation lacks punch and sting, I think.

It would, I think, be better if, starting in school, or even in kindergarten if necessary, we referred to instances of bullying behaviour as abuse, personal abuse, and those who do it as abusers. It’s a word that does work in the adult world. It has a heft and weight about it. It matters. Bullies can smile at that accusation (“can’t you take a joke, love?”), but the suggestion that they might be an abuser might matter to them.

Though, also from my personal observations of such people over many years, maybe not. There are arseholes who live to piss off everyone around them, who love to “get a rise out of” people.

It was people like these, years and years of them, every single day at school, and by the time I got to high school sometimes even a couple of teachers as well, who contributed to my breakdown. Even now I think of them all the time. It’s as though they live with me, sharing their views and opinions. Their fascinating opinions. I see certain people in the media—pundits, columnists, opinion artists, people who get paid to be obnoxious and loud, to be, “controversial”, and I think, “you were a bully, mate, weren’t you? Maybe you’re you’re still a bully.” Politics and sports also seem like natural career options for the dedicated bully.

One of the most terrifying things about bullying, and even the psychological threat of bullying, in my opinion, was the certain knowledge that the teachers doing yard patrol tacitly approved of it. They would see it happening or about to happen, and they would walk off the other way. If you approached them, even if you were bleeding, they would often make various formal noises, demand to know who did it, but refuse to intervene. Some even seemed to find it difficult to suppress smirks. Even if you managed to drag your bully with you up to a supervising teacher to complain, the teacher would make various punitive noises in the right sort of scornful voice, as if playing a part in community theatre, and force you and the bully to shake hands, and you’d do it, all sullen and, “Yes, Miss,” about it, with a muttered sorry–but as soon as the teacher was gone, it was all back on again, and worse now because you got the teacher involved. And it was the same if you got your parents involved. They would visit the bully’s parents, and there would be a scene. Sometimes a nasty scene. There would be promises, and a sense of justice done. Until next day, when the bullying was back on, only twice as bad, because you tried to escalate matters. Because you tried to fight back. And that was not on.

There was no help. No-one was coming to save you. I had some friends who were oddballs and outcasts like me, but also like me they were prey animals and just as likely to find themselves on the receiving end of abuse. We did what we could (travelling in herds), but the predators had too many tricks.

“Watch out after school, Bedford, we’re gonna bloody kill ya!” I heard that many times. What puzzled me was why they expected me to turn up to my own beating. I didn’t. There were other ways to leave school. But they’d keep at you, day after day, these sneered whispers as you were exiting the classroom for lunch. “We’re gonna getcha, Bedford!” Now, they seem so hopeless, but when I was a kid, they made me afraid all the time. I was afraid the entire time I was at school, and all the way home. Before I got a bike I would often try to run home, and try to be sneaky about which ways I went to confuse anyone following. I couldn’t relax until I reached my bedroom.

Nowadays, I know even that sense of a final refuge is denied bullied kids. Bullies can get to them not just with nasty whispers in passing along a school corridor or on the playground but inside their phones, in your most personal, private place. There is no place such bullies can’t reach you. I see these reports, and it makes me think, especially when the story is about a kid who’s committed suicide due to bullying. I never seriously contemplated suicide, but then I had a safe place to go. Even when my dad was moody or strange or angry and yelling, I could retreat to my room. It was mine. Nobody could get me here. But if I was a kid today, and if I had a phone full of abuse? Of countless voices telling me I should kill myself?

I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t do it. I can’t guarantee anything. It’s terrifying, and I’m just plain lucky, simple as that, an accident of birth, that I came along in the time period I did, when it was possible to keep out the bullies.

And yet, even with solid brick walls between me and them, it wasn’t enough. There were too many, and some of them were teachers. One of my high school maths teachers. One of my Phys Ed teachers. One of my Physics and Chemistry teachers.

What also went against me was that I was sick. My brain was messing with my perception of everything, including my perception of myself. I believed terrible things about myself. I suspected the few girls who were nice to me of ulterior, sinister motives, that they were playing a prank. I didn’t dare accept their fleeting gestures of kindness because I believed myself unworthy of it. I believed the bullies. I believed the voices. I believed I was monstrous.

When I was sixteen, my whole life exploded. At the time it felt like the greatest disaster I could imagine. But it was in fact the greatest opportunity, a blessing, a rare moment of cosmic grace offered to an unhappy and mixed-up boy. It took him a long time to see this.

But he did come to see it.

And it saved his life.

MEMOIR: The Outboard Motor Incident (Further Major Rewrites Again)

 

(The first part of this piece is still largely the same, but the back half is all new.

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

My dad was furious—again. This was just the latest. Certainly the most noteworthy. He was standing in the waist-deep salty waters of the Bunbury Estuary, and he was holding an outboard motor to his chest. It was a bulky, heavy bastard of a thing, and Dad was keen to dump it in the nearby aluminium boat. He just needed Mum, who was holding the rope tether line, to pull the boat over to where Dad was standing, in the water, with that engine. Yelling up at Mum. Yelling at everyone. Dad was in a mood. He was like this. Even without a heavy outboard motor. Even without the Bunbury Estuary. Even at home.

Especially at home, because there nobody could see or hear.

Note: Dad was never a drunk, and was never an abuser. Never. He was always a decent man with a terrible temper, and an even worse illness. He was under various forms of treatment for that illness, but in those days, the Sixties, the options available were not much good. Worse than blunt instruments. Dad knew there was something wrong. Ever since he was 18 he knew there was something wrong, deep inside. He had been in the army before he met my mum. He had been married at the time to another woman, but she wanted a divorce. The split drove the young man who would later become my dad to attempt suicide. He was later dishonourably discharged, the poor bugger.

By the time he met my mum his illness, he felt, was more or less stable, the current treatment he was on was working, so he never told her about it. But she found out the hard way. Dad, as I say, had black moods, and anger, tears, and days when he couldn’t face his job. It was hard just getting through each day. Harder still in those days than these days. Now there’s a bunch of services and places you can access or go where you can get some level of help. But back then you didn’t even have words in your head, the actual language you needed, to express the thought, that you were in trouble, that your engines were on fire, you were gonna crash, and you don’t know what to do.

Dad often had no idea what to do. He did the best he could. But sometimes he couldn’t. He couldn’t get out of bed. All he could do was sleep and smoke and sometimes cry. I didn’t know too much about this at the time. Mum has told me more since. At the time I was dragging my sorry carcass off to school each day, knowing what awaited me. All I knew about Mum and Dad was that Dad was sick. Sometimes he vanished in the dead of night to secret hospitals. It was like in a spy novel. One thing you knew for sure: nothing seemed to help. When he came home from the secret spy hospitals he always seemed more haunted, more hollowed out, more wretched.

It was not surprising that Dad was angry. Things had not gone that well. Everything had been a huge struggle. Just getting through a day, every day, was a struggle. And all the time, there’s your moody, troubled son staring at you like you’re the problem, like he’s lost respect. Like he doesn’t understand what you’re dealing with, and you could just kill him, but he’s your boy, your life, what you live for.

It was incredible to think he and had gone through years of our lives fundamentally not understanding each other, just bumping past each other in the hallway, but that’s it.

Anybody would be angry in that world.

But angry people can’t keep jobs. And Dad had a dreadful time with jobs. He was great at the jobs. What he couldn’t do with marine engines wasn’t worth doing. His services were in demand among the boating set around Perth and up and down the coast. “Can Ken come and have a look at my boat this weekend, please?” And he did his best to accommodate as many of these extracurricular gigs as he could. We got to see a lot of Mandurah in the Sixties and Seventies this way, memories that live with me today, and inform the visits Michelle and I have made there since we’ve been married and had our honeymoon there, and no many wonderful holidays since.

But just as we got to see a lot of seaside Mandurah back then with Dad travelling far and wide to work on the boats of mates, we also went to seaside Bunbury, further south, with its own Estuary.

I started this story about my Dad with him, bloody furious, clutching an outboard, yelling at Mum, who was up on a walkway, holding the rope, distracted by the antics of us kids, and so allowed the boat to drift.

Dad was angry, but yelling at Mum, yelling at me, yelling abuse at the bloody outboard, it was all a mask. He was yelling at himself. He was inadequate. He was no good. If he was better at his job he wouldn’t need to take on bullshit jobs like this. He could spend his weekends with his family. He could, God, what a thought! He could enjoy himself! He might go beach fishing! He might take a boat out and just potter about, maybe let out a little trolling line, see what might be interested.

This would never, ever happen. Dad knew it. Standing there in the waist-high waters of Bunbury Estuary on his precious day off, doing a favour for a mate, an outboard motor clutched to his chest and getting heavier by the moment, waiting for Mum to tow the tinny over so he could dump it—he knew how everything would all play out. He would never get better at this job. He tried. He was always studying those workshop manuals. That’s how he got his first job in marine engines: he was shown a bench covered in the stripped-down parts of an engine, and a copy of the workshop manual, and all the required tools. He was then told to rebuild it to working condition.

And he did. Because he was good at it.

I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. Proper treatment had transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for his treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often in thatmtime. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding and wishing I could take back things I had said.

There was a strange period, when I was around 17, when my dad took overdoses of his medication sometimes. Not with serious suicidal intent so much (though the first couple of times we did worry greatly about that) as the idea that he felt badly messed up inside, so if he made himself sufficiently ill he would end up at the hospital, where they would have to fix him. This happened several times. He never got the fixing he was looking for. In time he gave up doing it. We were all grateful. But for a while I was very angry about it. I lost a lot of respect for my dad. Where was the flashy larrikin guy who raced speedboats? Little did I realise, but he was still there, but trapped inside, drowning.

I feel lousy remembering all this. It was a dreadful time for all of us. Mum had it worst of all. She was the one who had a sick husband and a sick son. The sick son was either an inpatient at D20 or an outpatient, heavily involved still with the hospital. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go.

And one day in the middle of all this, while I was in D20, Mum had a heart attack, and wound up in the Emergency Room.

I was sitting in the Art Room with a big wodge of clay, doing my dreamy thing, calm and quiet and happy, sitting in front of one of the big windows with its view across the carpark to A Block. A male nirse appeared and sat down next to me. He very gently introduced the topic that my mum was in the Emergency Department, just over there in A Block, with a suspected heart attack. He spoke very softly, and with extreme watchful care, worried about my reaction, by the thought that my mum was just over there, in A Block. I could just walk over there.

My heart boomed in my throat. The distance through the window foreshortened. I could reach out and touch A Block. “Is she okay?” I’m pretty sure I did ask that. I think I also asked if I could visit. That was a maybe, depends. I have a vague recollection that I was allowed over there at some point. I think.

I don’t know where Dad was at this time. He might have been off in one of the secret spy hospitals again. It was a horrible time for us Bedfords. We were in rotten strife. We were all in wars.

My fault, naturally.

I was not exactly thriving in D20. Not just yet. It was still hammering me into pieces, so it could then refashion me into a better, more pleasing form. My parents did not understand this. That there was something as much Arts & Crafts as well as Psychiatric about what was happening. I was being upgraded. I didn’t understand any of this while it was happening. At the time I was very angry, and took it out on my poor parents. My dad returned fire. Mum just stood between us and cried.

I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.

As you’ll recall, Dad had the engine clutched to his chest. He wanted to transfer it to a nearby tinny boat. Mum, holding the rope, saw she’d let the boat drift while she was distracted, and yanked on the rope to pull the boat back. She didn’t want to get yelled at again. And Dad was in one of his moods again, yelling at seagulls if they pissed him off just so.

Mum brought the boat over, and Dad got ready, but just as Dad went to dump the engine somehow the boat slipped aside anyway. Mum and Dad’s recollections are not clear on this moment. But the upshot is clear: Dad and motor fell into the water with a huge splash! I still remember the splash. The two of them were completely submerged. I remember the water closing over man and engine.

It was astonishing. There was a pause as we up on the walkway, Mum still holding the boat rope, took in what had just happened.

Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, spluttering, from the water, a volcano rising from the ocean. His titanic anger so great it has echoed down the decades in family legend. He let fly, and abused Mum and–

Sorry, but we were all much too busy laughing. And this is the point of the whole story. We laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed our guts out. We laughed like we had never laughed before and seldom since. The bully had been rendered ridiculous. He looked like a drowned cat down there sputtering and yelling, and it was hilarious. He looked small and pitiful. We couldn’t believe we had been afraid of this soggy bastard’s fury for so long.

And our laughter only made him angrier. It was the funniest, most cathartic thing ever. The tyrant brought down to size. He was one of us again.

It took him a while, but by later that evening, showered, dried off, in clean clothes, he admitted, grudgingly, that he could start to see the funny side of the whole thing. Which was lucky for him because the rest of us never let him forget about it. The wicked tyrant brought down by ridicule. The captain who went down with his outboard. We still talk about it, just as we still talk about the Condensed Milk Incident. We talk about Dad and the outboard because that was the first time we saw that he was just a bloke, and as flawed and foolish as the rest of us. That he was one of us. He had been such a fearful figure. I used to worry each day at school about how Dad would be each night. What would I have to prepare for? Would he be okay? Hoping so much for good days. Dreading the bad days, the arsehole clients, the idiot colleagues, the fuckwit bosses. The furiously tense Cold War evening meals. Even chewing felt heavy with significance, as if it meant something. Dad staring into space as he ate, thinking, brooding. Mum strung on the wire between us, hanging on. Doing her best. Tense smiling. Every day for Dad was a hard day. And if he was having a hard day, we all had hard days.

My dad, here in the present, was amazed when he heard that I was writing this book. He said, roaring with genuine laughter, I had to include the Outboard Motor Incident in Bunbury. Because, he said, it’s funny. That’s all he thinks of it, the comedy of it. And it certainly was funny, watching fall back into the water with the engine clamped to his chest after just listening to him yelling abuse at Mum. That was indeed funny as hell. But my interest is with that abuse, the yelling, the reasons why he was doing that. His illness. That sense about him all the time that he had only the loosest grip on whatever he tried to do, on even just getting through each day. He yelled at everybody, but was no doubt yelling at himself even more.

I have included this story because it says a lot about my dad, both back in the past and now. He was a nervy moody tyrant then, with his dark moods and sudden flashes of warmth and humour that could just as suddenly flash away again. But now, decades later, he’s a sweet and lovely old man of 81. He takes way too many medications for too many medical problems, and he can feel his memory starting to fade—but there’s a lot of that going around, even amongst us 50-somethings. My dad today is like a different person. He is kind and loving. His greatest pleasure is coming to our place to “mind” our dog while we’re out, and Freckle just drapes herself against him and goes to sleep, and Dad lets her, and will just sit there patting and stroking her, the sweetest dog and the sweetest old man. They go on like that for hours. It’s beautiful.

There’s no sign of the father I grew up with, the baffling, impossible, moody bastard I never understood, and who never understood me. Over time he went away, maybe to the secret spy hospital, once too often, and never returned, and we got this lovely old guy instead. It’s extraordinary. I think he must have been this way all along, but the combined distortion caused by his poorly treated illness, and the crushing pressure he felt as the family breadwinner and provided, worked to destroy most of that person. He must have felt it killing him, at least at times, that pressure to get up, go to work, do what he was told, no matter what, no matter what shape he was in. You could imagine men like Dad with the illness, unable to talk about it, finding themselves driven to suicide.

Dad got lucky. Around the time I was sixteen in the D20 psychiatric unit, Dad was finally getting effective treatment. They were giving him (and me) Lithium, a metal salt similar to Sodium. It takes a long time to build up in the body, but then when it does, it’s great. Things began to change. Big things. It took many years, we were both lumbering works-in-progress, but we started to talk, a little bit. Dad settled down. I started to feel, if not fine, then like I had a rough map to the general vicinity of “fine”, and that I would know it if I saw it. It was a sign of life. I was getting better. For the first time in my teenage life, there was a bit of hope.

And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water that day in Bunbury? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. Salt water would wash through the inside compartments of the engine and the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with such things. And he had a full can of CRC, a seriously water-repellent spray. He used almost an entire can on the stripped-down parts of that motor. It took two hours, but in the end he achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water spat, coughed, roared, stank with exhaust, and spluttered and roared back to noisy life once again, as good as new.

MEMOIR: The Outboard Motor Incident [Major Rewrite)

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

My dad was furious—again. This was just the latest. Certainly the most noteworthy. He was standing in the waist-deep salty waters of the Bunbury Estuary, and he was holding an outboard motor to his chest. It was a bulky, heavy bastard of a thing, and Dad was keen to dump it in the nearby aluminium boat. He just needed Mum, who was holding the rope tether line, to pull the boat over to where Dad was standing, in the water, with that engine. Yelling up at Mum. Yelling at everyone. Dad was in a mood. He was like this. Even without a heavy outboard motor. Even without the Bunbury Estuary. Even at home.

Especially at home, because there nobody could see or hear.

Note: Dad was never a drunk, and was never an abuser. Never. He was always a decent man with a terrible temper, and an even worse illness. He was under various forms of treatment for that illness, but in those days, the Sixties, the options available were not much good. Worse than blunt instruments. Dad knew there was something wrong. Ever since he was 18 he knew there was something wrong, deep inside. He had been in the army before he met my mum. He had been married at the time to another woman, but she wanted a divorce. The split drove the young man who would later become my dad to attempt suicide. He was later dishonourably discharged, the poor bugger.

By the time he met my mum his illness, he felt, was more or less stable, the current treatment he was on was working, so he never told her about it. But she found out the hard way. Dad, as I say, had black moods, and anger, tears, and days when he couldn’t face his job. It was hard just getting through each day. Harder still in those days than these days. Now there’s a bunch of services and places you can access or go where you can get some level of help. But back then you didn’t even have words in your head, the actual language you needed, to express the thought, that you were in trouble, that your engines were on fire, you were gonna crash, and you don’t know what to do.

Dad often had no idea what to do. He did the best he could. But sometimes he couldn’t. He couldn’t get out of bed. All he could do was sleep and smoke and sometimes cry. I didn’t know too much about this at the time. Mum has told me more since. At the time I was dragging my sorry carcass off to school each day, knowing what awaited me. All I knew about Mum and Dad was that Dad was sick. Sometimes he vanished in the dead of night to secret hospitals. It was like in a spy novel. One thing you knew for sure: nothing seemed to help. When he came home from the secret spy hospitals he always seemed more haunted, more hollowed out, more wretched.

It was not surprising that Dad was angry. Things had not gone that well. Everything had been a huge struggle. Just getting through a day, every day, was a struggle. And all the time, there’s your moody, troubled son staring at you like you’re the problem, like he’s lost respect. Like he doesn’t understand what you’re dealing with, and you could just kill him, but he’s your boy, your life, what you live for.

It was incredible to think he and had gone through years of our lives fundamentally not understanding each other, just bumping past each other in the hallway, but that’s it.

Anybody would be angry in that world.

But angry people can’t keep jobs. And Dad had a dreadful time with jobs. He was great at the jobs. What he couldn’t do with marine engines wasn’t worth doing. His services were in demand among the boating set around Perth and up and down the coast. “Can Ken come and have a look at my boat this weekend, please?” And he did his best to accommodate as many of these extracurricular gigs as he could. We got to see a lot of Mandurah in the Sixties and Seventies this way, memories that live with me today, and inform the visits Michelle and I have made there since we’ve been married and had our honeymoon there, and no many wonderful holidays since.

But just as we got to see a lot of seaside Mandurah back then with Dad travelling far and wide to work on the boats of mates, we also went to seaside Bunbury, further south, with its own Estuary.

I started this story about my Dad with him, bloody furious, clutching an outboard, yelling at Mum, who was up on a walkway, holding the rope, distracted by the antics of us kids, and so allowed the boat to drift.

Dad was angry, but yelling at Mum, yelling at me, yelling abuse at the bloody outboard, it was all a mask. He was yelling at himself. He was inadequate. He was no good. If he was better at his job he wouldn’t need to take on bullshit jobs like this. He could spend his weekends with his family. He could, God, what a thought! He could enjoy himself! He might go beach fishing! He might take a boat out and just potter about, maybe let out a little trolling line, see what might be interested.

This would never, ever happen. Dad knew it. Standing there in the waist-high waters of Bunbury Estuary on his precious day off, doing a favour for a mate, an outboard motor clutched to his chest and getting heavier by the moment, waiting for Mum to tow the tinny over so he could dump it—he knew how everything would all play out. He would never get better at this job. He tried. He was always studying those workshop manuals. That’s how he got his first job in marine engines: he was shown a bench covered in the stripped-down parts of an engine, and a copy of the workshop manual, and all the required tools. He was then told to rebuild it to working condition.

And he did. Because he was good at it.

I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. Proper treatment had transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for his treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often in thatmtime. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding and wishing I could take back things I had said.

There was a strange period, when I was around 17, when my dad took overdoses of his medication sometimes. Not with serious suicidal intent so much (though the first couple of times we did worry greatly about that) as the idea that he felt badly messed up inside, so if he made himself sufficiently ill he would end up at the hospital, where they would have to fix him. This happened several times. He never got the fixing he was looking for. In time he gave up doing it. We were all grateful. But for a while I was very angry about it. I lost a lot of respect for my dad. Where was the flashy larrikin guy who raced speedboats? Little did I realise, but he was still there, but trapped inside, drowning.

I feel lousy remembering all this. It was a dreadful time for all of us. Mum had it worst of all. She was the one who had a sick husband and a sick son. The sick son was either an inpatient at D20 or an outpatient, heavily involved still with the hospital. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go.

And one day in the middle of all this, while I was in D20, Mum had a heart attack, and wound up in the Emergency Room.

I was sitting in the Art Room with a big wodge of clay, doing my dreamy thing, calm and quiet and happy, sitting in front of one of the big windows with its view across the carpark to A Block. A male nirse appeared and sat down next to me. He very gently introduced the topic that my mum was in the Emergency Department, just over there in A Block, with a suspected heart attack. He spoke very softly, and with extreme watchful care, worried about my reaction, by the thought that my mum was just over there, in A Block. I could just walk over there.

My boomed in my throat. The distance through the window foreshortened. I could reach out and touch A Block. “Is she okay?” I’m pretty sure I did ask that. I think I also asked if I could visit. That was a maybe, depends. I have a vague recollection that I was allowed over there at some point. I think.

I don’t know where Dad was at this time. He might have been off in one of the secret spy hospitals again. It was a horrible time for us Bedfords. We were in rotten strife. We were all in wars.

My fault, naturally.

I was not exactly thriving in D20. Not just yet. It was still hammering me into pieces, so it could then refashion me into a better, more pleasing form. My parents did not understand this. That there was something as much Arts & Crafts as well as Psychiatric about what was happening. I was being upgraded. I didn’t understand any of this while it was happening. At the time I was very angry, and took it out on my poor parents. My dad returned fire.

I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.

As you’ll recall, Dad had the engine clutched to his chest. He wanted to transfer it to a nearby tinny boat. Mum, holding the rope, saw she’d let the boat drift while she was distracted, and yanked on the rope to pull the boat back. She didn’t want to get yelled at again. And Dad was in one of his moods again, yelling at seagulls if they pissed him off just so.

Mum brought the boat over, and Dad got ready, but just as Dad went to dump the engine somehow the boat slipped aside anyway. Mum and Dad’s recollections are not clear on this moment. But the upshot is clear: Dad and motor fell into the water with a huge splash! I still remember the splash. The two of them were completely submerged. I remember the water closing over man and engine.

It was astonishing. There was a pause as we up on the walkway, Mum still holding the boat rope, took in what had just happened.

Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, spluttering, from the water, a volcano rising from the ocean. His titanic anger so great it has echoed down the decades in family legend. He let fly, and abused Mum and–

Sorry, but we were all much too busy laughing. And this is the point of the whole story. We laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed our guts out. We laughed like we had never laughed before and seldom since. The bully had been rendered ridiculous. He looked like a drowned cat down there sputtering and yelling, and it was hilarious. He looked small and pitiful. We couldn’t believe we had been afraid of this soggy bastard’s fury for so long.

And our laughter only made him angrier. It was the funniest, most cathartic thing ever. The tyrant brought down to size. He was one of us again.

It took him a while, but by later that evening, showered, dried off, in clean clothes, he admitted, grudgingly, that he could start to see the funny side of the whole thing.

And he did, as I said, just the other day insist I include this story, because it illustrates my dad’s character so well. He is a kind and decent man whose poorly illness rendered him monstrous, as mine made me feel monstrous. He was consumed with frustration and anger, but it was all just his illness. Now, elderly, he is a sweet old man. He loves nothing better than sitting with our dog snoozing against him. He takes joy in all my doings. He’s interested in things. Concerned about his fading memory, but there’s a lot of that going around, I can report.

And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. All the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with such things. And he had a full can of this stuff called CRC, a seriously water-repellent spray. He used almost an entire can on the stripped-down parts of that motor. It took two hours, but in the end he achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water lived, roaring, screaming, again. My dad’s legend was burnished.

NOTEBOOK: The Voices

NOTEBOOK: The Voices

The voices are telling me to shut up. They say I talk too much. They say I’ve said too much already. Recently both my doctor and my psychologist told me I was doing fine, and I felt pretty decent at the time, but almost immediately I felt the familiar noise in my head return, the screaming, the abuse, the criticism. The voices hate that I wrote a book about them. They love that the book got rejected. They say it serves me right. You shouldn’t talk about these things. They’re private. They’re subject to non-disclosure agreements. Commercial-in-confidence.

This is why I’ve not been here. Why I’m not writing. I go to do some writing, and immediately a voice speaks up, and I’m plagued with self-consciousness. This hyper-acute sense that I never stop talking about myself, that I’m the most conceited man in Australia, that I need to shut up or find something else to write about. I’m full of embarrassment. I have a powerful urge to delete everything. I won’t, because there is a part of me that believes there is something good there, but at the moment the noise in my head is what’s keeping me from even looking at the manuscript to do the needed rewrites.

I know the voices are lying to me. I know not to pay attention to them, to disregard them. To regard them the way you’d regard the TV in a doctor’s waiting room—face away from it, ignore anything you hear, concentrate on a book, etc. I know the drill. I’ve been through this routine many times, and I’m good at it. It’s how I got this far. You ignore the voices. You can’t make them go away. They are hardwired into the physical structure of the brain. They are there for keeps. You have to find a way to coexist with them, and you do that by tuning them out the way you you tune out the background noise of a radio playing somewhere nearby.

This is me sneaking out after curfew. I’m typing very quietly, as if by torchlight, under the bedcovers. I can’t promise I’ll be back here as often as I’d like. As we speak, my weight has entered the 110 kg range, which means I have lost almost exactly 55kg, and have only 10 kg to go. My head is extremely messed up about this. The brain capacity lately that would have gone into writing has gone into thinking about weight-loss. Seriously. I am ALL-ABOUT weight-loss at the moment. My day revolves around the midday weigh-in.

And, hissing away in the background, always, always, the voices yelling and screaming at me, hurling their abuse, telling me I’ve said too much, that nobody wants to read my writing, that I should burn it all, burn it all now, right now, while the urge is fresh in my mind.

I’m not going to burn it, even if just to spite the bastards.

NOTEBOOK: Royalties

NOTEBOOK: Royalties

Ladies and Germs, I got paid today! I got paid quite a bit, even. Royalties for BLACK LIGHT turned up, which means that two years after the book’s publication it has earned out its advance and is now a profit-making little machine for the publisher, and for me.

Today I found out that in the first half of this year 329 copies of the BLACK LIGHT ebook were sold, and a whopping 2 copies of the beautiful trade paperback were also sold.

I am astonished. For years and years I have not received royalties for anything. The only money I have made from the book business has been either from selling books,to publishers (infrequent) or from Public Lending Right, the royalties-like money authors get in exchange for people borrowing their books from libraries. PLR money has been my lot for a long time. So this today has been wonderful! It would not be stretching the point or engaging in hyperbole to describe it as an actual thrill!

I took Michelle out to lunch.

For the last few years I have felt increasingly like a failure as a writer, for many and complicated reasons (fed, too, by growing anxiety and depression, all those screaming, lying voices whirling around in my head at all times), and this financial situation, the lack of money has been a big part of that. It has felt like drowning, like finding oneself in water so deep and dark and cold you can no longer see where the sun might be.

But this, today, felt like breaking back to the surface, and seeing daylight.

PS: if any of those 331 sales are from people who have bought my book in response to reading my writing here on my website, THANK YOU! I appreciate your support. It means the world.

NOTEBOOK: Portraits of Weight-Loss

NOTEBOOK: Portraits of Weight-Loss

Or, Most Self-Involved Man Ever Plumbs Even Greater Depths of Self-Involvement.

My weight-loss project is almost finished. I have just 11 kg to go. I might be able to finish by Christmas or soon after. That will be 65 kg in five years. All this time, it’s been a far-off, abstract goal, never remotely seeming like something that might be achievable.

But now all of a sudden it’s looking so achievable I could just about plot the likely date of its appearance on a graph.

Because I keep a daily graph where I record my midday weigh-in figures. And since May, when I began what I call my “Low-Food Diet” (the one with the severe fasting and the one meal a day), that graph has recorded a very steady, very nearly straight downhill line that makes me think of alpine skiing. It has a very slight curve to it. As the months have gone on the amount lost per month has dropped very slightly; I’m adapting to it, it seems. But I still average around three and a bit kilos per month, sometimes more.

The point is it is going in a very predictable way. You could plot a nice trend-line. You could work out almost exactly when it will hit the 100.0 kg line.

I have been tempted. But I haven’t. I want to be surprised.

Already, though, this close to the destination, huge things are going on with me physically. I look like I’m wrapped in crêpe paper. My arms, legs, and oh my God, my abdomen! Yikes! What happened to my stomach? And my face! I look so old and gaunt, like ten miles of bad road! There’s a photo of me on Facebook at the moment, my most recent author photo, taken in 2015 by a professional photographer, quite a few kilograms ago, where I still have lots of soft padding about my face. I look warm and jolly. I look like, with appropriate false beard, I could play Father Christmas in a shopping mall. But now? The way I’ve been hollowed out? I look like I could play a serial killer.

When I reach my destination, I want a record of it. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay there. A great many people who lose massive amounts of weight regain it all and some more besides. It’s my greatest fear. I couldn’t bear it. After all this. All these years. All this sacrifice. All this mental torment. Going to bed hungry every single night. Thinking about kilojoule maths all the time every day. Right now, as I write this, I’m aware that I have so far had two thousand kilojoules today, and have one thousand spare, which I’ll be spending on a coffee or similar (possibly a fruit and vege smoothie), and that’ll be it until tomorrow. This kind of thing, every day.

So I want a record of it. I want proof that I got there. Like people who reach the summit of Mount Everest.

I want to get photos. Portraits. I’m thinking I’d probably be wearing just my swimming togs, or maybe my underwear, so you can see what’s happened to my legs. My legs are sticks compared to the tree-trunks they once were. The loose skin down there wafts and floats about like fabric, like curtains.

You know what’s weird? I’ve written here on this site about the most personal stuff in my life. I’ve told you everything. I’ve revealed things it was most likely unwise to reveal. And it was all fine, as far as I was concerned. I was being transparent. I was hoping to maybe start a conversation, or show that these things are nothing to be embarrassed about. Certainly suitable topics of conversation.

But here’s what’s weird.

I felt embarrassed about this. I felt so embarrassed. I even felt embarrassed telling Michelle about this, that I wanted to get these portraits done. I thought she would object. I thought she’d laugh. Tell me I was being foolish. I finally worked up the nerve last night and told her. She was shocked, but not at the idea. She was shocked that I was volunteering to have photos done! The idea itself she thought was good. She understood the idea. That the weight-loss might not stick.

So here I am telling you, and I’m more worried telling you about this than I was telling you anything else I’ve talked about on this site. It’s one thing to reveal all about what goes on inside your head, I suppose, but quite another to reveal all under your shirt, and behind your pants.

NOTEBOOK: Memoir Renovations Underway

NOTEBOOK: Memoir Renovations Underway

Today I had an appointment with my psychiatrist, but since we got there about an hour and a half early we popped into the nearby bike shop café for a bite of lunch. Michelle got busy with some tatting and I started in on the memoir rewrites.

First up is the chapter titled TIME TRAVEL, which discusses both the idea of time travel and my interest in it as a sf writer and fan, and how I thought about it as a way to explore my life, the way I imagined my whole memoir project. The publisher who rejected the book did nonetheless give me some excellent editorial notes on ways in which the book might be improved, and one was to bring this chapter forward and to develop it more, make the theme more explicit, so I’ve given the chapter a complete second-half rewrite, and made it, I hope, much stronger.

This is one of the most important renovation jobs required in the manuscript, so I’m hoping it turned out okay.

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL (Rewrite)

TIME TRAVEL

I have always been interested in time travel. My earliest memories include not just watching men in bulky white suits bouncing around on the Moon, but also Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who, battling Cybermen. I understood, even as a very little kid, that he could travel in time as well as through space. How I could understand, I do not know. It seems like an advanced concept to me now. Though I have written about fictional time travel many times (most successfully in my books about beleaguered time machine repair man Spider Webb, starting with TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT), I have no real grasp of how it might in fact happen, what it might look like, how it might feel, or anything. I’ve read lots of popular science books, and I can just about wrap my brain around the ideas of “closed timelike curves”, and the distinction between “timelike” and “spacelike”, but as I am lacking a grasp of the fundamentals of physics, I’m stuck. I tend to think of my time travel books as fantasy books more than science fiction because, for all that they go on about quantum this and nano-that, it’s plainly obvious that the stories run on magic. I need time travel to work to make the stories go, so here it is, working. And, oh look, here it is not working, hence the need for a repair guy.

I think about time and time travel a lot. I stand in places and imagine time passing. I imagine what it would be like to spend twenty-four hours in just one spot, watching time pass. I visit the same spot every day for several days, just to see how it’s different each time, how the passage of time has changed it. I think about car accidents, where but for a matter of seconds, or even split-seconds, everything would be different. If person A had done something just a moment earlier or later, how everything would turn out differently. Single moments when gigantic consequences pivot about like bank vault doors.

I have often thought about time travelling into my own past, generally with the intent of giving my gormless younger selves a kick in the arse. For one thing I would attempt to persuade my teenage, writing-mad self that he should allow for the possibility that there might be more opportunities in mainstream or literary writing than in science fiction, that he could do both, and perhaps introduce him to the work of Scottish writer Iain Banks, who wrote excellent mainstream novels, but who, writing as Iain M. Banks, wrote dazzling works of science fiction.

I have often thought, too, about my life, about my memories, the residue of what I’ve experienced, and it has often been dismaying how little remains, or seems to remain, from what I was pretty sure were rich and complex experiences. Why is there not more to show for all of that? Why am I left with these lousy snapshots? What do I do with these? When I think about these fragmentary bits and pieces, they often resemble, to me at least, fragments of film, or maybe very old snapshots (like the photos I remember from the 1940s-1960s, tiny things, smaller than a playing card, often black and white), random detritus of the sort you might find in a drawer belonging to someone who’s died.

What would it be like to time travel back across my life? To inspect the whole thing, from my earliest days, to now, my nervous present? What would the middle-aged grown adult novelist time traveller see when visiting the past that the poor bastard trying to make it through that day doesn’t or didn’t see?

And just how reliable is memory? Is it reliable at all? Is it more like what we have left of dreams after we wake in the mornings? How many times have I had (sometimes under the influence of amazing psychoactive medications) extraordinary, cinematic dreams that seemed, at the time, coherent and vivid, only to wake and find myself clutching at dissolving threads from a rich but inaccessible tapestry? Memories seem like this to me, the veil between now and the past like the one between waking experience and sleep.

But I’m trying to write about my life here. I’m trying to tell you the truth about it. I’m digging down into my emotional grease-trap to find you things I’ve told either nobody or only my psychologist. There are things I’ve been dying to tell, and here I am telling them–but are they true? Did they happen? Am I making it up?

I don’t think so. I hope not. I remember something like these stories, but often even as I’m writing I’m aware of selection and omission for the sake of storytelling. There are details I’m highlighting for dramatic purposes, and others that I’ve left out. The people I’ve mentioned, whether by their real names, false names, or no names at all, all did and do exist. The events did occur. But I worry. After I write one of these pieces, I stew and brood over it. Some of them I’ve rewritten, and some I’ve rewritten almost completely, and I expect to rewrite at least some of them again in the course of making all this into a proper book.

I’ve been reading a lot of books about writing memoir. They all talk about this problem, about dealing with truth, about trying to wrestle it to the ground, that it’s elusive because the actual truth is none of us remember everything in precise, encyclopaedic detail (such as, for example, the poor bastard in Borge’s story, “Funes the Memorious” who was cursed with complete, detailed memory of everything, all the time, ever). We all have gaps, sometimes big gaps.

How did it feel to be you in that moment when it happened? What was it like? How does it feel now, looking back on that draft of yourself? What do you do with that urge to warn your former self, to yell, “watch out!” Or “duck!”?

Time is a funny bastard. Some scientists would tell you there’s no such thing, that it’s imaginary, that it’s not a fundamental part of the universe, the way space is fundamental. Time is an illusion. Time is some kind of illusion brought about at least in part by the way we humans perceive the universe. That we create time in the course of creating the consensus reality we see around us.

I honestly don’t know. I’ve been reading all these impressive popular science books for years. Some of them are very choppy seas indeed. I read Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME about twenty years ago and am still in the recovery ward. I did manage to get through the thing, and “got” most of it, enough to make me angry I didn’t do better in high school maths and physics. I wanted to understand the real thing, not this dumbed down, talking-to-children account. I’d like to see the Schrödinger Wave Equation in person, and understand it, to follow its mathematics, see how it works, and why it works. It bothers me that I had such crappy teachers in school, and a head full of illness and noise, that I couldn’t understand this profoundly interesting thing. It bothers me so much, even all these years later.

Is time travel possible? Time travel to the future is certainly possible. You just have to approach the speed of light. The closer you get, the more time passes for the people you left behind back home. For you, time passes normally. But for people back home, ages pass.

Travel into the past? Nobody knows for sure. There’s a lot of research going on. A lot of intense mathematics.

But if you could time travel into your own past, would you? Should you? One of the essays in this book (“The Best Use of a Time Machine”) explores a hypothetical, the idea of a man who had an unhappy, guilt-ridden childhood where his parents were always fighting, and he always felt it was his fault, going back to visit that wretched boy, to tell him, to relieve him, to let him know that the house’s unhappiness is not his fault. None of it is his fault. He is not to blame. His father has an illness. He himself has the same illness. It’s okay. Where the Time Traveller comes from, Mum and Dad are okay and happy and together

But I thought, having written this essay, about my own unhappy past and my own comparatively happy present and happy elderly parents, why not write this up as a story? Why not start with this initial premise, but have it go wrong somehow? How could it go wrong? How could a gesture carried out with the best intentions lead to catastrophic results? This book is two-thirds finished. It’s currently on hold while I think through some truly catastrophic time-travel-related developments.

The lesson I’m mainly learning from writing about this specific scenario, though, is that it’s too glib and easy. The complex and messy people in the story, the whole family around the boy in question, are all affected by the Time Traveller’s attempted intervention. It’s like God leaning down into their lives. It’s like aliens from an advanced civilisation, or the Spanish intruding on the ancient Aztecs. There’s no safe, easy, simple way to do it. People are too complicated. They have complicated reactions. They have complicated feelings about things. They are not necessarily happy to hear from the “Future Bastard”. He does, in so many words, ruin their lives.

What the family in the story need in order to help their very difficult troubles is family therapy, and possibly some medication. They need proper professional help. They are in a big, serious mess. A well-meaning civilian, even if he is the grown-up middle-aged version of the teenage son in the story, is not equipped to help these people.

Which lesson might be why I’m having trouble with the book’s third act!

I suspect, though, that this missionary zeal among time machine owners would be a widespread problem. It might even bring about an entire subclass of actual religious missionaries blipping into the past to try to assist people in certain parts of the world. It might well be, though, that the people most in need of time machine-related help would be the owners themselves. Someone would have to hide the keys.

Because I think even if you’re declared intention was something as benign-seeming was “documenting my life” (or paying a videographer to do it for you), even that is going to be a problem. Not at all, you object, you’d never do anything so intrusive. You’d fly in some tiny drones with 4K telephoto cameras. Your kid self would notice and remember something weird. You as an adult would remember a weird feeling about visiting the beach, but not quite be able to explain why.

This book is about exploring my life as if I were a Time Traveller, especially as it has been affected by mental illness, my bipolar disorder and anxiety. All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I was fine. As if I had no illness. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when you can write about it and speak about it.

I imagine myself, middle-aged, married, man in possession a time machine, visiting my teenage self the night I had my first huge terrifying breakdown, the night I feared I die of crying. What might I see, watching from the corner of the room that teenage me, at the white-hot fragmentary centre of the event failed to notice? The smallness, the intimacy. The nurse and my mum, each holding one of my hands as I howled and screamed into the night. Wanting to tell the kid it gets better, but really, remembering back, remembering my own experience, it does get better, but it takes geological ages first. It takes many years, and much, much more pain. No amount of glib, “it gets better” mottos will cut it here. There is only one path ahead for this boy and it’s the hard path.

This book is about what that path was and is like for me.

NOTEBOOK: Peak Experience

NOTEBOOK: Peak Experience

I learned this new term today–peak experience–a phrase from the 1960s I’ve heard here and there on the margins of things–especially on the margins of things like the so-called “human potential movement” I used to read about in OMNI magazine in the 80s. There were these overpaid dudes, and it did seem to be all dudes, who were all convinced that there was this secret password or something in their brains, some mysterious key or thing or widget, that if they could simply access it or use it or, even better, OWN IT and license its use by the grubby proletariat, then they would become somehow superhuman, super-intelligent, possibly immortal, and certainly overcome their meagre, middle-aged, 1980s, humanity. They would ne born again, better, smarter, sharper, more like their imagined fantasies of themselves. Girls would like them at last. The guys who bullied them in high school and college would instead buy them drinks and maybe work for them in deliberately menial jobs. It would be sweet.

But yes. Peak experience. Also related to another buzzy term: “flow”, when you’re “in the moment”, when you’re “in the zone”. When you’re not tired and struggling a bit to write a blog post.

Today I saw my psychologist. I told her I was experimenting, while I’ve been having a hard time lately, with imagining what she would say to me if she were here, and then following that imagined advice. That advice worked previously, so it should work again. She liked this approach. I described what I’d been doing and how I felt it was helping. I told her I’d been thinking about the question of, “what can I do, on my own, that might help me?” I call it Self-Rescuing Princess Mode.

She loved all this. She loved that rather than give way to catastrophic thinking (everything is hopeless, I’m lost and nothing can help), I was instead curious, looking around for things that might help, and then trying stuff. And as a result, starting to feel better for taking some action.

I said I was trying to find my way back, if possible, to how I felt earlier this year when I felt so on fire, and was so extraordinarily productive and capable.

She said that experience was most likely a “peak experience” that was just shy of psychiatric “hypomania” and certainly nowhere near actual “mania”. I knew at the time that it wasn’t the latter. It in no way felt like that, but I had been worried about the former. I worried that I had produced a book under the influence of a sick mind.

Can I get back to this peak experience? I don’t know, and neither does the psychologist. It might be a rare thing. She does definitely believe I can “turn my own lights back on”, and use my various Recovery KPIs to bring myself back to life–and she says the reason I can do that is because I am in fact quite okay as it is. I have been feeling dreadful, but I have remained functional in important ways.

To show me what she meant, and provide context, she flipped back through my file to when I first went to see her last year, in July. I was a ship smashed against the rocks on a dark and storm-wracked night. I was broken. I was a teary, desolate mess, crying all the time. I believed writing was long since gone, that it had left and was never going to come back, let alone come back and hit me between the eyes like a sniper round from Zeus. I was also quite a bit heavier then, too. The medication change was going badly, I was in my second hospitalisation, and there was no clear path to the future from where I was then. I was lost. I could hardly talk without crying over some damn thing.

That, right there, is what a guy who’s properly sick looks like. A guy who is clinging for his life to the end of his rope. This past month or six weeks I have often felt lousy, felt melancholy, felt actually depressed and fogged over. I have felt my brain wrapped in cobwebs. I have been full of anxiety, and I have been full of the dead TV static the kid in my current novel talks about. I’ve had it all.

But I haven’t cried over anything. I’ve been able to wave Michelle off to work each day without having a meltdown over it. A publisher rejected my memoir and I was quite okay about it. I did later feel a bit bittersweet about it, but not crushed, not devastated, not crying fully-dressed in the shower. I was fine.

The psychologist says that when you have a peak experience, it’s a magnificent, magical thrill for as long as it lasts, but then it runs out and you move on to the next phase in the cycle, a necessary and normal down cycle, where you rest and gather yourself again. No word on how long this phase might last. But it’s fine.

She says I’m fine. I’m spending loads of time learning Korean language, which appeals to the part of my brain which enjoys games and puzzles. Since I started on Memrise in May, I have not missed a day. I’m getting pretty good! I’m also now doing Korean on Duolingo, too. I told the psychologist about this. She says the time I’m sinking into all this is good. It’s productive. I’m doing something positive and healthy. I’m not just vegetating on the couch. I’m learning. It feels that way to me as well. And I’m doing it with Michelle, too. We enjoy doing it together–it’s good for our relationship!

Already I feel better than I did even recently. I’m okay. I’d love to get another one of those peak experience thingies, but who knows? I suspect you can’t make yourself have them, and can’t order them up like pizza. But just regular, everyday doing-okay-ness would be just fine. I also suspect my psychologist would counsel me to concentrate more on “living more in the present moment” rather than concentrating on trying to bring about a future that may never come. You’d end up being one of those people I’m always rubbishing who are never happy with what they have, who are always after the next, better house, and the next, better car, and so on. Who can’t ever relax with what they have right now. Don’t be one of those guys.