MEMOIR: GROUP (Revised, New Chunks)

MEMOIR: GROUP THERAPY (Revised, New Chunks)

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 scared. I was in what I was told was a “group therapy” session in the psychiatric unit of the hospital where I ended up after my breakdown. I was still in the early, orientation part of my stay, trying different groups, with different approaches and strategies, to see what worked for me, what I responded to, and what I didn’t.

And this, today, was Conversation Class. We were here, literally, to learn how to speak to one another. And for me to learn how to speak to women.

This probably seems odd. How could I possibly need a class to learn how to do something I had been doing all my life? Yes, true, but I had just escaped eleven years of daily terror, sometimes rising to actual trauma. I knew nothing about how to speak to girls or women. All I knew was mumbling about science fiction and astronomy, and staring down at my desert boots. I was extremely interested in women, but I didn’t know what to do or say.

In this class, 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 terrified I’d feel just going to school, either. But at no point in my conversations with Marina, who was one of the other patients (I never found out, and she never told me, “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. She was lovely. We learned to talk together. To ask questions, to draw each other out, to use humour. It was extraordinary! I had never known anything like it.

I have always wondered about Marina, about her story, what had happened to her, and what happened to her after. I wondered why a woman in her thirties might need such a class, to learn again how to talk to people, to express herself to strangers, and perhaps especially to men. What must have happened to Marina to leave her in need of such a class? I find myself faced with no good hypotheses. She’s been an enigma to me all these years, the first woman I ever knew, but never knew at all. We talked, though. She was the first woman not related to me who ever really talked to me. She wasn’t a teacher or a nurse or a doctor or some other kind service provider; she was a person, a human being, and she helped me out. I hope I helped her. I’ve always thought well of her.

When you’re a patient in a psychiatric hospital, whether 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 was 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. Which was how I wound up in the Conversation class. I was still very new, very much a boy made of broken glass, staring at my shoes, and I did what I was told, and went where I was told to go.

There were all kinds of group therapy classes, ranging from things you might expect (Relaxation, Meditation) to things you might not (Woodwork in an 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, knitting or crochet). 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. I found them unbearable. (When I was in hospital last year, the staff tried to get me to attend “group”, and I did go a few times. These days it’s all about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and trying to adjust your thought processes and how you respond to things. I hated it. I did much better one-on-one with a psychologist.)

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 a wide range of structured sessions with Art Therapists working with groups of patients as they worked with given artistic media to express a specific theme or response to a question. Often these questions raised deeply uncomfortable feelings for at least some of the patients, but the choice of medium offered a unique opportunity to express those complex feelings in a way that felt okay, rather than overwhelming. I enjoyed Art Therapy classes very much, and got a lot out of them.

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 bad 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 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, lank 1970s hair, slouching our way 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 been 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 Down and Virginia Webb-Ware), 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.

For the young man who remembered the girls in high school who were visibly disgusted to find themselves in his presence, who remembered all the bullying and torment, who remembered screwing up his nerve that time and inviting a girl he liked to a school dance, only to find she disappeared right after he and she arrived—it was seismic. It was revolutionary.

It was a new life.

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS WORK (Expanded, New Second Half)

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS WORK

I have not had a proper job since 1988.

When my whirling instability at university finally got the better of me and I crashed out of there in the middle of my third year in 1985, I landed at the family home, and began slowly to recover.

In time, I became well enough to go back to school, but I was done with university. I needed a job, and that meant skills. The only skill I had at that point was typing. I had always been able to touch-type. As a writer it was always very handy.

I landed at TAFE, technical college, and blasted through two years of office skills training.

During this time I was also going through a major medication overhaul: transitioning off lithium carbonate and the various support drugs I had been on since my diagnosis in 1979, and trying to find something new that worked as well or better. It was brutal. Two weeks to ease on to a new drug, then experience it for a while, see how it felt, then if necessary two weeks to ease off it again, then begin again a new cycle with something else. This went on for much of that year. The side-effects were the worst, both the effects of the different drugs, but also the withdrawal effects as they came and went. And during this time I was trying to study.

I did fine at the study caper. Office skills (different ways of filing, word processing on different machines, using an office calculator) were not too taxing, but having enough concentration to bring to bear on the material was hard. And here was the essential problem.

The essential problem was the need, at all times, for the mentally ill patient to appear to be a regular, well person. To appear not to be mentally ill.

Today, in 2017, this problem is, I gather, much less serious. This problem is part of the reason I’m writing this book. Because when I grew up, this sort of illness was always to be kept secret, shrouded in shame and terrible whispers. Living with this shame was itself part of the problem experienced by people afflicted with the illness. Today it is possible to say, in public, that you have anxiety, or depression, or one of the many other terrible conditions, and most people are supportive, sympathetic, and will at least try to understand. It’s wonderful, for someone old enough, like me, like my parents, who remember how it used to be (and how it still is in some unenlightened countries).

But back in the 1980s, as I worked my way through whole categories in the MIMS book of medications suitable for bipolar disorder, trying to find something, anything I could live with, I was having a bastard of a time pretending to be normal.

One of the worst situations, and the most common, was “dry mouth”. A great many drugs in the categories I was interested in came with dry mouth as a side-effect. Dry like the Atacama Desert. So dry you could imagine your entire face puckering and withering.

So dry, in fact, that you can’t talk. And that was a serious problem. That mattered, because it drew attention to your sinister secret, the fact you’re been trying so hard to hide, that you’re not mentally well, that you’re trying to pass as normal.

That you’re a giant fraud and liar.

This was a deeply serious problem for me. I had to find a way around it. The only thing that worked was to carefully think ahead and rehearse everything I wanted to say, for example to a teacher, and then sit and work my salivary glands to try to get a bit of saliva in my mouth, which was the most difficult part of the whole miserable operation. But once that was all sorted, I could go up to the teacher and say my piece, appear perfectly normal, smile and laugh, and then head back to my desk, my mouth already turning back to desert conditions.

Every. Single. Time.

The best job I ever had was a six-week posting at a non-government employment agency called Catch-22, whose aim was to provide work experience to inexperienced people looking for work. One of the major things people, especially young people, found difficult when looking for work was employers wanting applicants with experience–but you can’t get experience if you’ve never had a job. This organisation would wheedle employers into taking people on, as interns, and then once suitably skilled they would then become regular employees. I was the receptionist.

It was brilliant. The other workers were all young women, brainy, ambitious, full of amazing ideas and enthusiasm for how they could use this program and ventures like it to help people. And they liked having a young man as their receptionist. I enjoyed working for them. I wrote funny phone messages. Had great fun learning how to use their baffling word-processing system. Making cups of tea and running errands, listening to them chat over lunch. I stayed late and arrived early. I could have done that job forever and would not have minded. Helping people, working with lovely colleagues who appreciate your contribution. There were only two things wrong with that job: it was only six weeks, and there was no pay, but it was an excellent experience.

I also did a lot of temp work, various assorted office positions, in the public service. One, in the Australian Bureau of Statistics, was quite okay with good people looking after me. Another, in what was then something like Health and Human Services, was great because I was again a receptionist for an all-female section. I enjoyed working for them, and they enjoyed having me about.

But one, the last one, nearly broke me.

I got a ten-week placement to the Australian Tax Office, as a level one admin drone. Whenever I’ve spoken about this to people I know, especially to people in the local writing community, who between them have logged considerable time in the public service sector themselves, they all shake their heads sadly and sympathetically at mention of the dread phrase, “Australian Tax Office”. They are truly words to conjure with.

The main task I had to deal with was a tower of wide-format fanfold computer print-out of about my own height, bound up in a series of fat binders. These majestic beasts were the account details of every financial institution in Western Australia. If you had any sort of bank account in WA, your details were somewhere in that tower. And the job for the team I was assigned to was simple: look at the interest paid in each account. If there was more than $200 of interest, highlight it with a pink or yellow highlighter pen, one of the ones that makes a squeal like a dying mouse. An amount of $200 or more meant the account holder would be earmarked for further beady-eyed tax man attention, and it probably would not go well for that benighted individual.

But of course you’re reading this in the future. You’re reading this well into the twenty-first century. Who knows, you might be getting it beamed directly into your brain, eyeballs bypassed altogether. And you might be thinking, Dude, My toaster has more than enough brains to write a bit of code that could take care of a job like that in two seconds flat!

Well, quite. But this was about 1988. This was part of what went so very, very wrong for me. This was part of why I stopped having proper jobs.

Every day was going through these immense print-outs, line after line, page after endless page. There was me, and an older guy from Goa, named Henry, who was a lovely bloke, formerly employed by Pan Am, who told me amazing stories of international air travel in the glory days of jet travel, in 707s. And there was a young woman, whose name I don’t remember, who couldn’t seem to keep her stories straight, who was always taking days off, and who didn’t seem to do much work. Henry and I battled our way through vast piles of print-out, chatting all the while, but this woman didn’t help much.

This sounds like I’m having a pretty swell time. I can see how you would draw that conclusion.

Every day, around lunch time, I would phone Michelle. We were just engaged. I was just about in tears. The job. The endlessness. We’d been at it for weeks, but the tower of print-out seemed no smaller. I remember my wheedling, helpless voice, I remember being curled around the phone so my coworkers, and my supervisor, couldn’t hear me. Michelle would tell me it was okay, I was making progress, even if it seemed very slow, but it was still progress. She’d tell me she loved me, and remind me this was just a temporary placement, that I only had to hang in there for so many more weeks. She’d do everything short of coming in and doing my job for me

I felt terrible shame about this. What I was doing was not hard work. But it was intolerable. There was one kind coworker, who was nice to me, perhaps seeing that I was coming unglued. He was great. It didn’t help that my supervisor was a woman who seemed burned out and bitter, who didn’t care about problems her temp workers might be having. That was part of it, too. Being a temp, being only a partial person, not a whole worker. Just a pair of eyes and a pair of hands. Unlike my good experiences elsewhere in the public service, here I felt dehumanised. Here I felt my illness coming back.

I made it to week nine of the ten. Michelle had been coaxing me along, like someone in a window trying to talk to someone standing out on a ledge, who might jump at any moment. And I did feel that way. I was done. This job, the way it played on me, crushed me. I felt awful about being so weak. So many other people, I knew, eked along in jobs they felt were killing them, because they needed the money, needed the benefits, so they could pay the rent, pay for food, support their kids. And here was me, done in by a lousy temp job.

The rumours in my head were true. I was useless. I was hopeless. A man has to have work. This is hardwired deep, profoundly deep, into the very foundation of how our society works. You have to have a job. You have to work. There is dignity in work, it’s said. Especially for a man. A huge part of being male (see my earlier post, “The Wrong Team”) is all about the importance of work and having a job, and providing for your family. It’s as fundamental to being male as having a Y chromosome.

And I couldn’t even do this job. In week nine, I managed to secure the attention of my distracted supervisor for a few moments, and told her I was not well, and would not be coming in.

She was shocked. She told me if I did that, I could forget about future public service positions.

Not once, in all the years since then, have I regretted the decision.

Michelle told me to stay home and write. She did not mind being the bread-winner, and she does, fortunately, make enough money that we can live a comfortable life. We’ve paid off our house, and life is pretty decent, illness notwithstanding. I have come to see, slowly, that writing is working, that it’s a real and proper job. Cleaning up around the house is working. Looking after Michelle is working.

But still I struggle with writing as working. When it’s “there”, it’s wonderful, and it definitely feels like working. It turns out I wrote most of this book during what’s known as a “hypomanic phase”. A hypomanic phase is like when you’re playing an old-school videogame like SONIC THE HEDGEHOG and you get the power-up that makes Sonic flash and he’s surrounded by sparkles and nothing can hurt him, and it’s fabulous. It’s like that. You feel great, but not too great. Not manic. You seem happy, but you’re not the Joker. In my case it made me very productive. I wrote the first draft of this book and about half of a novel in about two months flat. But then it ran out, just like Sonic’s power-up runs out, and he goes back to being regular Sonic again.

All of which is to say, writing comes and goes, at least for me, and that’s okay. It’s tidal. When I wrote that first draft, and I was working every single day for those couple of months, it was exciting but it was exhausting. There are people who recommend that writers work every day. I don’t know if that advice is suitable for every writer in every circumstance. I do believe in not waiting for inspiration. Inspiration is bollocks. Ideas are attracted by the sound of writers already at work on something, but that’s a story for another time.

I was at the local swimming pool recently, and at the end of one set of swimming lessons, parents came to pick up their egregious noisy kids. Some of the parents were dads, and some of them were coming from the sort of heavy-duty jobs where you have to wear fluorescent yellow high-vis gear, big boots and protective goggles. And I thought, Now maybe if I dressed like that when I’m writing, I might feel like I’m doing a proper job! It was a pleasing thought.

I’m reading the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s MY STRUGGLE, Volume 1, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, in which he describes how, when his daughter was a baby, he rented an office, and would go to write there when he needed to. I’ve read about many other writers who do the same thing, who find it essential to have a work space separate from their living space, and they dress up as if for a real office job. I am not sure what to make of these writers. As far as I’m aware it’s only male writers who do this. Or at any rate, I’ve only heard of male writers needing an office in town for their scribble. It’s still a curious thing, all this bother, this dressing up, going off to the office. Rather than, say, slopping around all day at home in your pyjamas.

I don’t get around all day in my pyjamas. I do get dressed. But the couch is my office. Wherever I might be, as long as I have my iPad with me, is my office. Right this moment, as I write these words, I’m in a cafe, waiting for a doctor appointment. This is my office for the moment, and I’m working.

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (Extensively Rewritten, Expanded)

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (Extensively Rewritten, Expanded)

One day when I was about ten years old, I believed I was dead. It was a bright, warm day, the sun beating down. It might have been a Sunday, but I am not sure. I have few details to go with this memory, other than that cold, numb sensation that, at the time, I thought, could only be death.

Living with mental illness is a bit like living with a terrible house-guest or room-mate, one who won’t pay the rent or won’t pay their share of the bills or help out with chores. One who makes everything that happens about them, as if it’s their house, and not yours. And I’ve been living with mine my whole life, but I only became aware of it as such when I was first diagnosed at age sixteen. The day I’m writing about here, the day I was ten and thought I was dead, is the first instance I can now recollect of something seeming wrong. It was a hint, foreshadowing a looming story development.

I started thinking about writing this memoir last year during the never-ending medication-change saga. The experience was so much worse than I was expecting–than even my doctors were expecting–so profound and transformative, that I started thinking it might be worth writing about it.

I turned to memoir how-to books, and read a stack of them. THE ART OF WRITING MEMOIR by Mary Karr, and HANDLING THE TRUTH, by Beth Kephart, were two that became my guiding stars. They showed me that it’s okay not to be able to remember every last detail. That it’s okay to say you don’t know, don’t remember. Also that you don’t have to follow a strict chronological sequence. You can fragment the narrative however you please, as long as it works. But the main thing they say is that you have to tell the truth as best you can remember it. Here it gets tricky. Truth is fuzzy. There will always be details missing. There’s the RASHOMON effect, too, where three different witnesses will tell three different stories of what happened. So you have to make your best effort, and be honest with the reader when you’re at the fuzzy edge of what you remember, when you’re standing at the edge of fiction.

Kephart suggests lots of exercises to limber up your writing muscles, to start thinking like someone writing memoir, and I’ll be trying some of them here in the near-future. But the one I’m doing today is the recommended exercise of trying to write down your first memory of the illness.

Looking back from my middle-aged perspective, I can see things from my pre-diagnosis past that look like episodes, or instances, of depression. The first that I can think of was this one where one Sunday when I began to be aware, as I lay in bed, that I felt very far away from my life as I had so far understood it. I was just a kid, and I was used to odd things happening–that was life: practically everything that happens is new to you. And this feeling was new. New and strange.

I felt as if I had died. It was the only thing that made sense. I was dead, but because I was already lying down in bed I hadn’t fallen over. It was odd that I was awake, that I could look around. But I felt abstracted from myself, distant. Adrift. Imagine the colour yellow with all the yellow taken out of it.

I’ve often thought about this time in my life, when I was about ten. I know very little about it. We were still living in Wembley, in my dad’s parents’ old house on Harborne Street, not far from Lake Monger. At school, bullies were always telling me they were gonna kill me after school by the bike racks. I had a male teacher whomwas very friendly, who invited me (and a few other kids) to stay after school for extra lessons. He was trying to teach us Esperanto, and while I can still count to ten in Esperanto, it all seemed a bit silly.

However, it was 1973. That teacher was interested in politics. He started telling us about Watergate and President Nixon. I don’t know about the other kids, but I was fascinated, and it was the beginning of a lifelong interest in politics.

This was my life. I tell you about all this and it sounds pretty normal—except somewhere in the midst of this I experience a day so awful that I feel as I’m actually dead.

Normal life, and then this in the middle of it. It makes no sense. What happened? I don’t remember. I pick and pick at my memories and I can’t see what was going on. I would get up in the mornings, do my thing, and go to school, and the bastard bullies would leave me be today. Sometimes they did. They were random and strange, like weather events. Sometimes they were so dreadful that I would feign illness with my parents to try and get out of going to school that day. It rarely worked. Not only did Mum rarely believe me, she knew I had to go.

It occurs to me I’m wondering, gosh, why did I feel like death? While not seeing one plain-as-day reason for it right here.

I remember in 1974 we had to move house from Wembley to Bassendean. It meant leaving that primary school in the middle of grade six, and completing the year at the new school. It meant new bullies. But it also meant a wonderful best friend.

But on my last day at the original primary school, I walked around the grounds, looking at everything as the sun rode down the sky. I would never see these buildings, these classrooms, this bitumen quadrangle with it’s chipped white markings for netball and handball—ever again. I would never see the conical cap of the septic tank over by the bike racks where I had been informed in grade one that supporting the wrong footy team would ruin my life.

I cried walking around that afternoon, saying goodbye to all that. I bloody cried. I couldn’t believe it! Why the hell was I upset about leaving this hole in the ground where I’d never been happy? Was I somehow attached? Did I secretly love the old pile? Was I sentimental about a place where I’d been miserable for six years?

I’ve often wondered. I think for all its torments, it had been home, and was familiar. It was mine. I knew my way around. I didn’t want to go to a new school, to the unknown. I was scared. Scared not just of the unknown, but scared of the world of uncertainty I lived in, with my dad and his health. You never knew from day to day how things would be. You didn’t know what the future might hold. Much of the time you didn’t even know much about the present.

And there I was, lying in bed, dead in my head, and it was exactly what I needed.

What was I doing before that? I have no true idea. The memory consists of only the details I’ve described. I don’t even know what happened after that. I have a vague and therefore unreliable recollection, possible fabrication, that my mum appeared in the doorway and I asked her if I was dead. I was out of my mind. I was an astronaut doing a spacewalk, untethered to the ship, drifting far away, basking in the vast luminous blue-green-white sky of the Earth’s surface. Somewhere, far from here, lay a young boy beset from all sides with Earthly troubles, so many and so overwhelming that he imagined himself dead, adrift from his useless physical self. It’s nice. It’s a relief.

I don’t know how I came back to myself, but I did. Life went on. School, bullies, homework, girls, unending torment, confusion, terror.

We moved to Bassendean, to an old breezy, cold old fibro house with an outdoor toilet full of spiders and chills. The new school was different in many ways—but as I had feared, only too familiar in others.

I never had another day like that one, when I believed myself dead. I think I came to realise it simply couldn’t happen, so it didn’t. Instead I had days when instead I lay in bed and wished I was dead. Laying there, more or less actually wishing or in fact actually praying to God or something God-like (an 11-year-old’s understanding of the idea of God). Dear God, please make it not hurt. Please make those kids leave me alone. Please look after my mum and dad. Look after my dad.

It’s now been a while since I felt that experience of being “dead inside”, that dissociated, numb, astronaut spacewalking sensation. But then again, not that long. I felt it a lot last year during the Medication Shuffle, when things were so bad. And here and there this year during rough patches. Unlike when I was a kid, when that feeling strikes now I know what it is, and can act on it. It’s more or less like a boiling kettle has just run dry and you need to put more water in. It’s no big deal, and easily sorted out.

But nobody explains that to little kids with big imaginations.

MEMOIR: MEDS (Major Rewrite)

MEMOIR: MEDS (Major Rewrite)

Clomipramine is an antidepressant medication, part of the tricyclic family of antidepressants. They are a family the way the Addams Family is a family.

I took Clomipramine for about 30 years. It kind of worked okay. It was the Uncle Fester of the tricyclics. You could imagine it with a lightbulb in its mouth, all lit up, but only sometimes. I was never happy with Clomipramine. It seemed to only work when it felt like it. My doctor thought it was good enough, and was always very loath to touch it. I was always asking him, please, please, change it, do something.

And last year, he did. Lesson: it pays to nag.

He put me in hospital. And so we set off on a grand adventure, trading function versus side-effects.

You want to be able to live your life, do your job, look after your family, maybe even enjoy yourself a bit, without finding yourself tangled up in a sticky web of nasty side-effects that make your life worse than the condition the meds are supposed to treat.

Last year, every time the doctors proposed a new medication for me (and there were many, many medications) there was a fact-sheet about it for me to inspect, and amongst all the facts and figures there was always a discussion of common, less-common, and rare side-effects that had cropped up during testing and trials, some of them guaranteed to be terrifying. So right away you’re thinking about trade-offs and compromises. You might get at least some of your life back, but at the cost of some other part of your life. Take your pick. And be aware that any given drug will only tend to work on about fifty percent of patients who receive it anyway.

Such as me and the great hope that was Zyban. Once I was installed in the hospital last year, the staff started reducing my Clomipramine dose, doing it over several days. This created some emotional turbulence with withdrawal symptoms, which they moderated with tranquilisers. Then it was time to start on the Zyban. The doctors had talked this up. It was new and exciting. It was an Italian supercar of a drug. Its biochemistry was amazing. It did so many clever and subtle things at once, it was like nothing else. I was going to love it. It sounded fantastic. And I was already feeling sufficiently unglued and stressed out, heading for a full depressive crash, that I would have tried anything if I believed it would help.

The night I had my last Clomipramine was a special occasion. I’d been on that stuff since about 1986. About the same time I was getting together with Michelle. I’d left university just the previous year. The Space Shuttle was still flying. I was in my twenties. I saw the last Clomipramine tablet in the little plastic cup, and wished I’d had my iPad with me so I could take a photo of that last tablet. It was lights out for a huge phase of my life. Every night for thirty years I’d swallowed ten of these little bastards, and while they’d done an okay job of moderating the worst of my depressive cycles, they had side-effects I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.

I started the Zyban, and within a couple of days felt pretty decent, even fine. I thought, this can’t be the new drug already, can it? Some drugs come on very quickly, I was told. So who knows? I thought, all chuffed.

That weekend I went to a writers’ group meeting at Edith Cowan University in Mount Lawley. Right away, as soon as I arrived, I felt brittle, antsy, irritated, aware of noises, some in particular. Every chair I sat on seemed made of broken glass and spikes. Wherever I sat it wasn’t quiet enough. There were people talking and eating, and wandering about the stacks. I kept having to change desks, trying to find a quiet spot, and I couldn’t believe there was this much noise in a library, especially a university library.

I ended up sitting in the lobby of the library, heaving with tears from the stress of a few people talking and eating and walking around. Michelle came and got me. Two dear friends stayed with me while I waited for her. On the way home I felt hollowed out, raw inside, undone and broken.

Back in hospital after weekend leave, feeling like a failure again, I saw my doctor, and told him about my experience. He concluded the Zyban, far from kicking in early and being great, was in fact having no clinical effect whatever. I was not in that lucky fifty percent who felt the Italian supercar thrill of the fabulous drug.

But this meant that I had no effective defense against depression. For the first time since my breakdown when I was sixteen, I was alone and naked far out at sea.

People get concerned about taking medication for psychiatric conditions in a way they don’t get concerned about taking, for example, painkillers for a headache, or cold and flu tablets when they’re under the weather. I think they worry that the psychiatric medication is going to profoundly alter their personality, their sense of who they are. And to some extent, with some medications, that can happen to some extent.

I’ve never worried about that. I’ve always seen medication as a corrective to a distortion caused by the illness. As something like using corrective lenses to fix bad eyesight. Taking the right medication, for me, has enabled me to feel more like myself than less like myself. When the stuff works well, and since my time in hospital my new medication has worked extremely well, it feels even like I’ve been upgraded to a higher, better version of myself. I feel like I can think more clearly, more creatively, and certainly more productively, than I ever could before. I tend to think of my former medication regime as like a nasty, dirty, noisy diesel engine, spewing out soot, rattling and banging, compared with the silent, efficient molten salt solar tower I’m using now. It’s as transformative as that.

And yet, I have encountered creative people who say that medication stops them feeling creative, or otherwise interferes with their artistic selves somehow. I’m never sure what to make of these claims. I can’t get inside their heads. I don’t know what else is going on in their lives that might be contributing to a crisis in their creative life. If everything was okay they wouldn’t have doctors prescribing medication. But it is possible the specific medications and the specific brains involved simply don’t work together. What should an artist or writer do?

My own feeling is that they should get the help they need that lets them work and function as normally as possible. If one sort of medication isn’t working, try others–there’s loads out there to try. And not only medication: these days there are non-medication treatment options (transcranial magnetic stimulation, for example, or even ECT), and the “talking cure”, meeting with a psychologist or counsellor to talk over your troubles can be very effective, too. The point of treatment is to help you get your life back. A life you can live with, that lets you do your thing. That lets you thrive.

Admittedly, this is a relatively new thing. In the years after my diagnosis, the Years of Hell, after I left D20, and tried to get used to my new existence, it was hard. I and every psychiatric patient I knew walked around looking like we’d all just escaped from a car accident. We all looked stunned, shocked, confused, kind of angry and nervous. We were hesitant and shaky. The blunt instrument medications we were on then were no Italian supercars. They were East German Trabants by comparison, belching out foul exhaust and barely functional. We were, as a group, either really fat and sluggish and prone to shaky-handed, sad-eyed smoking, or nervy, edgy, jittery and thin to the point of emaciation, and also inclined to smoke. We were on such heavy-duty medication we could barely function, let alone embrace the artistic, creative life. It was all some of us could do to make a cup of tea.

Medication has improved greatly. The Italian supercar drugs work a treat for the people who notice them. The non-medication treatments work well, too. I tried the transcranial magnetic stimulation last year, but I was in no condition to go through it. I couldn’t lie still in the chair, and the sound was, for me, at the time, intolerable. This was during my second hospitalisation, which while not as hard as the first one, still brought plenty of torment my way.

It took me a very long time, back during those Years of Hell, to get used to the idea of taking medication every day, and to take so much of it each day. When I was eighteen I was taking about ten or twelve different pills each night. They all did something important. But it was hard to remember to keep taking them. With other things, like a course of antibiotics, you’re lucky if you can remember to take all of those, and that’s only two weeks, but this was every night forever. It did my head in, that forever. That I would never be well, not properly. I would always, as I came to see it, walk with a limp that only I noticed, but which I always noticed.

What helped in the end was coming to see the illness as no different from something like diabetes. When I found out what diabetes patients go through day to day, and across their whole lives, it resonated with me, and helped me very much. I could see my own chronic illness in context with another chronic illness. It helped to diffuse some of what at the time was still a heavy and suffocating stigma surrounding anything to do with mental illness. Nobody talked about it, but some people, once in a great while, simply disappeared, or died “and police report there were no suspicious circumstances”. It took me a long time to understand this bit of code.

Another thing that caused me problems when it came to taking medication as a teenager was my dad, who was generally against medication for anything, and would wheel out the old chestnut, “pills for dills with aches and ills”, which was to say, only an idiot takes pills. The rest of us are too smart for that. And he would use that to justify not taking anything for himself, and that undermined my own efforts to keep at it.

The most serious problem I had, as a bipolar patient with psychiatric medication was this: when on a manic cycle you feel so ridiculously great, at least at first, for a while, maybe at least a few days to a week, is that it’s like your whole brain has gone somewhere nice on holiday and is lying by a pool sipping cocktails and wearing sunglasses. You feel crazy-good, and you’re obviously not remotely sick, can’t you tell? So why do I need to take stupid pills?

When you feel so fantastically upbeat, so cheerful, full of mad energy, hardly needing to sleep or eat, the last thing you want to do is take stupid pills. And yet that’s exactly when you need to take them. I have had the conversation with my mum where she tells me the fact I feel so fine only proves how sick I really am.

I went into the hospital to get off the Uncle Fester of the tricyclics, Clomipramine. But they ended up, after everything I went through, all the different meds I tried, putting me on another tricyclic in the end, Notriptyline. This one, though, is “the good one”, the Gomez Addams of the tricyclics. It has the least obnoxious side-effect profile, though is still very keen to see me GAIN ALL THE WEIGHT!

That aside, it’s working well. I feel fine, even better than fine. I’m functional without serious compromises. I’ve gone up a level. I’m no longer, as of one year after leaving hospital, “in recovery”.

It’s all working, at least for now. I’m having to take a great many little tablets every day, four different psychiatric medications altogether that do different things. But the main driver of “how I’m doing” from day to day is the Nortriptyline, Gomez himself. The difference in how I feel now from how I used to feel under the Clomipramine is stark. Like the difference between old black and white standard-definition TV and 4K UHD TV on a screen as big as your wall. The difference is breathtaking. Because I remember those Clomipramine days, years. It was like living in Cold War East Berlin. And it seemed normal.

Where do I live now, in my head, on these meds? I don’t honestly know. But the sun shines, the sky goes on forever, and the gum trees smell of lemon.

ME VERSUS GIRLS (New Version)

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS GIRLS

Her name was Lynette, and she was the dreamiest girl in grade six. She was blonde and otherworldly yet still somehow accessible, though I’m a little unsure how I knew that since she and I never just about never spoke, as far as I can remember. I think we may have touched hands once, clammy and warm and soft and fleeting, but I don’t know that that was her, exactly. I have only the briefest impression of her, less a small black a white photo in a box than a dim recollection of having once seen such a box, and seen her photo in that box. But I do remember her, and that was her name, and she was “my” girl, the first one who ever mattered to me, who made my heart all nervous-bird fluttery. She was neat and special and I liked her so much I would never tell my parents about her. Because they would fuss. It would be excruciating.

Lynette never knew, or even suspected, that she moved my world. That I lay awake at night thinking about her. That I sat in class between morning recess and lunchtime, wondering if I’d see her. Wondering if I’d have the nerve even to mumble an awkward hello. That I was attracted to her like a planet to a star.

Lynette was the first girl I ever had anything resembling “feelings” about. And yet I knew nothing about her. I knew nothing about books she liked, TV shows she liked, music she liked, her favourite meals, where she lived, nothing. She was mysterious. Not only did I never even get to first base, I could not even find the change room. I loved her the way, I suppose, you might love a painting with a velvet rope in front of it. You stand at a distance, admiring it, unable to touch it, but wishing you could. I think Grade Six Adrian wanted to touch Lynette’s brushwork, or at least get close enough to see it. But he only ever saw her, in passing, at school, from a distance—but like a fine painting she was a vision, and that vision sustained me, and got me through bad days.

I still think fondly of Lynette because I never learned anything about her to spoil the image I always had. She never became a real person. She was, in a way, the first celebrity I ever encountered. She was all surface, no substance. She was glamour, made of reflected light and magic. I have no doubt that she was as lovely a person as she appeared. We were never introduced.

This was the hurly-burly world of grade six, after all. Life moved fast. Next thing it was grade seven, and while on one hand we had at last become kings of the school, we were all preoccupied–and shit-scared–at the terrifying prospect of what was happening next year. Just as we were finally starting to get the hang of primary school, we would suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of the heap as first-years in high school. Lynette went to a different high school from the one I went to. Alas, we were never meant to be.

High school changed everything. It was like the transition between geological epochs. Things were different now. The air was different, the light was different. Everything was brighter, more fraught, more intense, more terrifying. The stakes were higher. Everything mattered now in a way it had not mattered before. Primary school now seemed like clownish rehearsals for an amateur theatre production; high school seemed like opening night on the West End.

And as everything was changing, so were we. Puberty had arrived, erupting in all of us, but acting differently from person to person. Some it rendered monstrous (sticks hand up); some it rendered impossibly gorgeous, handsome and sexy. It was astonishing. You could just about smell the boiling hormones surging through everyone as you walked around. Some kids seemed to revel in it, enjoying it, playing up their sexual feelings; others, like me, felt confused and bashful, blushing and sweating profusely, and growing out of my clothes all the time.

High school was, it often seemed, was much less about academic education, and about some other sort of education instead. There was a throbbing undercurrent even shambling, sweaty lumps like me could perceive (and desperately, pathetically want somehow to be part of, if truth be told). You knew who was with whom. You knew who was popular. You knew some girls seemed to have a waiting list. You knew some really vile guys (often the sort of guys who would help bullies, or otherwise clap and cheer bullies in their projects) who had no problems getting girlfriends, and you wondered how the hell they did that? What did the girls see in guys like that?

Some couples at lunchtime would lie around on blankets on the lawns and make out as if all alone, no doubt relishing the public display they were making. Teachers and admin frowned on such behaviour, but it never stopped anyone. The only thing I never saw was actual sex. Nobody dared go that far on the lawn outside the Manual Arts Block. But then you heard through the school grapevine that there were kids having actual sex out by the back fence of the school grounds, and using recycled Glad lunch-wrap and rubber-bands as makeshift prophylactics. The guys involved were said to be absolute legends, and the girls were slack slags, or worse.

There were always rumours surrounding such stories of accidental pregnancy from the Glad Wrap breaking, but I never heard or saw proof. I did, though, hear of a great number of girls who were widely dismissed and disparaged (though never to their faces) on account of alleged extreme sexual activity. It was normal at the time, but was still shocking to hear boys around me talking about girls in the class this way, based on no facts, no information. Just malice. Hatred. It was the sort of thing that made me start not liking guys. Because guys could be monsters and think nothing of it. It was revolting.

There were girls, it was alleged, whose vaginas were so loose and slack, dangling wide open, from constant sexual activity, that you could presumably park a Toyota Coaster Bus in there. These boys could sit and discuss these matters for hours, seemingly about each girl in our year. How did they “know” any of this information? Moreover, if any of it were true, it might be that the affected girls could be horribly traumatised at what had happened to such an intimate part of their bodies. They would need counselling and support, especially from their male counterparts. They would need solidarity.

(You’re thinking, Yes, and where were you in all this, Bedford? Were you chortling along with these disgusting lowlifes? Were you defending the girls? What did you do in the war?

I listened. I was a spy. I was such a nothing person, so non-threatening to the natural order of things, that I could sit right in the middle of these discussions, and nobody questioned my presence. I was an algebra variable. I stood for nothing and everything. I was blank and meaningless. I was harmless. But I was listening.)

I liked girls, but at least in high school they didn’t much like me. I don’t blame them, to be honest. I was a hopeless case. I had no idea how to interact with them. Advice like, “just be yourself” was no use because I had no idea how to even begin just being myself. At the time I was a kid who wrote terrible science fiction stories all the time and wanted to work up to writing novels. I also read every science fiction novel I could get my hands on. My bedroom was covered, wall to wall, in sf artwork. I also had a 4.5-inch reflector telescope. On cold, still, late nights after the street lights were turned off (after 1:30am) I would take the clanky, cumbersome thing and its tripod out to the backyard and spend a chilly couple of hours staring in bliss at stars, planets, and anything else I could find that looked interesting. This is who I was when I was home. This was me being myself. I was a deeply “interior” kind of person. There were not many hooks where a notional girl might attach herself. Unless she was also a geek, into astronomy and science fiction. These days that would not be a problem. But back in the 1970s it seemed unimaginable. I felt I had a big brand across my forehead: UNDATEABLE.

And it didn’t help that I fundamentally did not understand girls. I was extremely curious about them, interested, not just in a hormonal, sexual way (I was a teenage boy and the nights were long, let’s just say), but in the sense of simply having a relationship, a companion, of having someone in your life beyond a friend, beyond even a best friend. I was lonely. I wanted someone who would look at the shambles of me and not immediately throw up. Who would smile, and extend her hand.

There were a few girls in high school who were nice. It wasn’t all bad. The problem I had was largely with me, and how I saw myself, the extent to which I bought into what the bullies had been telling me every day for years. Most girls, as I say, avoided me. I was ill-mannered, had no conversational skills, didn’t know how to chat, share a joke, just get along like a regular person.

(To some extent, even now, sometimes I struggle with meeting people.)

I later, once I ended up in hospital, had to learn all this in an actual class (see my piece about “Group”). Plus I was always sweating, because I was a hormone fountain. The endocrine gods were fickle. Some people they transformed into gods and goddesses; others they turned into cave trolls and toads. I would have given my right arm to have been even a cave troll.

XXX

One day in the middle of high school, a weird thing happened that led to one of the nastiest experiences of my life. I was having lunch with some misfit buddies one day when this older girl comes by with her friends. They’re all smiling and laughing. The older girl smiles and tells me, and it’s definitely me she singles out here, that she fancies me–but then she and her friends flounce off and are soon lost in the crowd.

I was astonished. In a way it was like a great many dreams I’d had. Beautiful woman appears out of nowhere, professes undying love, swoons at your feet, roll credits. Typical teenage boy fantasy. And here was an event kind of in that genre. The gods had leaned down from Olympus and touched you in a very deliberate way. It messed me up inside, to say the least. My buddies were also amazed. I did not know what to think. I was stunned. I remembered she was very attractive, in an unobtainable sort of way. In an out-of-your-league sort of way. My guts were in boiling knots. I couldn’t sleep. I bumped into things, and couldn’t pay attention in classes. Who was that girl? She never told me who she was, I realise. How was I supposed to get in touch with her? Was I supposed to respond? Were we meant to be together? Was that what this was? Is this how it might work? Were there actual feelings here? It seemed impossible, but what if there were?

Then someone helpfully told me that girl was not only on the student council, but that a portrait gallery of the whole student council was up on a wall in the library. Getting this information takes days and days of unbelievable stress and turmoil. My whole life is in flux. It’s a genuine offer/it’s a big con. These are the two sides of a coin that won’t stop flipping and settle. One side seems more likely, but you know that weird and unlikely things happen all the time.

But you do get this information. Her photo is in the library, along with her name. You set off for the library, a detective in hot pursuit of the truth. And once you get there and you find the gallery of headshots, your main reaction is that you’re surprised there are so many people on the council! Surely maybe four or five would have been plenty.

But then, as you’re thinking all this, boom, there she is, her face, that smile, cocky, looking down towards the camera a little, and you’re reminded of how she looked at you, too. By this point you’re angry. You haven’t seen her again. It’s been days. You’ve barely slept. The voices in your head scream all night. You can only sometimes eat, when you eat everything, or not at all. You’re upset, prone to long showers, and your parents are No Help.

You finally track her down at school, laughing it up with her friends. She sees you, the look on your face. She says it was just a joke, and laughs, and her friends laugh. “Who’d fancy you?”

And all you can think as you burn in the fire of her scorn and mockery is that she’s right.

XXX

Hospital, D20, August 1979. The Time Traveller standing in a ground floor corridor, leaning on a white-painted wall, when an office door opens, and a boy shuffles out, followed by a middle-aged female doctor with a bag and a bundle of documents. She looks concerned for the boy. The boy looks like a dead person, as if his living spirit has just been blasted right out of his body. He’s moving slowly. He believes his life is over. He’s been told he’s psychotic.

Despite believing my life was over, I met many wonderful girls and women in hospital, from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. Some, who had been raped or survived childhood sexual abuse, were often blisteringly angry and that was hard to deal with for a sixteen-year-old boy. But on the whole everyone was splendid and I thrived.

One young woman, whom I’ll call Kelly, was my first great love. She was a fellow patient. I never quite found out what she was doing there but I have a feeling she might have been raped. She had a haunted look about her, and a sad sweetness, and freckles, that I liked. She and I got on well. Like with Michelle and me, Kelly and I could talk. We got on. But I had no idea what to do. Once I began to realise I had proper, adult-scale feelings, I did not know how to deal with them, or how to proceed. I think she was a few years older, too, which didn’t help. But the main thing that got in the way was that we were both patients, with our respective histories. Relationships between patients were not encouraged. Such relationships generally contained far too much baggage to work in a healthy manner.

Nonetheless, I tried in my hopeless, clumsy way to make with the woo. I even told my parents about her. And, as I expected, they did indeed make a fuss. And it was excruciating.

Kelly and I never took off. We kind of just about achieved take-off speed, heading down the runway, but not enough. We ran out of runway. I was too young. She was too haunted. She did, though, give me my very first kiss at a D20 Christmas party in 1981. It was quick and fleeting, but packed a lot of feeling in it. It lasted just a second, but I can still feel it, still feel my astonishment, my joy, my leaping over-full heart.

A year or so later she sent me a letter to tell me she was settling down with a guy in Bunbury, and there was a baby involved. I wrote back with my congratulations, but I felt hollowed out. It was awful. I was so sad. Many years later we met up again on Facebook. She said that when she got my reply letter that time, she could tell I was upset. No kidding. We corresponded for a while, but drifted apart. I think she was hoping the old magic might still be there, but I was long settled down. I wasn’t looking for anything new. She seemed lost, and I was sad for her, and wished I could help.

XXX

So there I was in about 1982, 19 years old, haunted by the idea of being psychotic, haunted by my whole psychiatric experience, imagining my life as before hospital and after hospital. And lonely. I’d missed out on Kelly, I understood, because I did not understand women. Had no idea, not one clue, nothing.

I also believed, in a very deep and fundamental way, that I would never be able to marry, because of my illness. I had thought I might just possibly be able to marry Kelly because she of all people would understand about my illness. But she was the exception. A regular woman, I imagined, would never accept such “damaged goods”.

Then, one day, waiting at the doctor for an appointment, I had the brainwave that would save my life.

I picked up a copy of CLEO magazine and started reading it. From cover to cover it was articles about exactly the things I wondered about, written for and by women. It was startling. I made a point of reading every issue of CLEO I could get my hands on. I started reading COSMOPOLITAN, too. My brain was lighting up with powerful and helpful information.

Listen to women. Believe what they say. Don’t be a dick. Ten things women are looking for in a potential boyfriend. Don’t interrupt. Don’t leave the toilet seat up. And so much more besides, much of which I see reproduced these days on websites written by women for women. CLEO, I believe, has not survived, and that’s a shame, because it saved my life. It was not a perfect guide by any means. But it was a sound foundation on which to build an understanding. I could start with CLEO and go on from there. I could use tips and ideas from there and start talking to women that I met.

It changed my life.

It made it possible, when I chanced into meeting Michelle when I was 23, to talk to her, to become friends, to build a relationship, to not be a dick. To be a decent guy with her. On our first proper date in the city, though, I did sit her down, first thing, and told her about what I called “my sinister secret”, the whole psychotic, bipolar thing. I told her because she needed to know. If it was going to be a deal-breaking thing, better it happen here at the beginning.

But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. She and my doctor at the time had a meeting, and talked all about it.

Meanwhile, for quite some time now the vast majority of my closest friends have been women. I treasure them, one and all. I feel as if I earned their friendship, in more ways than one. They are more interesting than men, have more to talk about, or at least I feel as if I have more in common with them. While I do have some good male friends, they are generally guys like me, who have been turned off by notions of traditional masculinity, of what blokes are supposed to be like. There are times I hate being male. There are times I’d love it if there was something like a Japanese onsen or health spa where you’d go in, for a fixed, limited time, and you’d take off your whole gender and sexual identity, your entire masculinity. Just take off the whole thing like a bathrobe and hang it on a hook. Because this would likely include your brain you’d hang that up, too. You’d be eyeballs on a stick. And for an hour or so you’d just take a break from all the bullshit tied up in being a man, the responsibilities, the obligations, the posing, the competition, the oneupmanship, the sexual anxieties, the worries about work and being a breadwinner, all of it. A break from being male. I think it would be lovely. Just eyes on a stick, and all the noise in your head simply gone.

This is why I like women. They’re not men. They’re more interesting. They’re funnier. More articulate. They’re allowed to have feelings. There’s no masculine bullshit. You can just relax. Women are marvellous.

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS FAT (Major Rewrite Plus All-New Postscript)

MEMOIR: ME VERSUS FAT

They say that when you lose weight, the actual material that you lose is expelled from your body in your breath, that you breathe it out. I found this out just recently. For years as I’ve slogged away at my weight-loss efforts, I tended to think that the material I was losing was exiting my body via urine and faecal matter. And when I had a particularly big dump, I was a proud father, you might say.

As of this writing, in late July of 2017 (flash-forward: as of November, as I’m editing this book, the weight I’ve lost is now 61 kg), I’ve lost almost fifty kilograms. I could not lift a fifty-kilogram weight. A while ago we visited an Asian grocery store, and I saw they had these twenty-five-kilogram bags of rice, and they were huge, like mattresses. The thought that I’d lost just about two of them was shocking. The thought of trying to move two of them was impossible. When I was in hospital last year I was looked after by a great many nurses, many of them young Irish women. On hearing that I’d lost fifty kilograms they’d be all, “That’s me! You’ve lost me!” As if I’d been staggering about for years with an entire person riding on my back. That was a disturbing thought. An entire, full-grown person on your back, everywhere you go, upstairs, downstairs, every step you take. No wonder I was always tired. No wonder my knees were always screaming in pain.

All my life I’ve been fat. I was a fat baby, a fat toddler. I’ve seen photos, including some that my parents still have on display in their living room. There I am smiling gamely, but already what my mum has always called “a little pudding”.

It was because I was fat that I attracted the attention of bullies in primary school. You take up more space than you’re allowed to. Than you’re entitled to. Than is fair. All my life I’ve been “fatso”, “fat pig”, “fat arse”, and many other appellations as lacking in wit as they are numerous. I’ve had the oinking, snorting noises in the locker area as people go past me. I’ve been in the hateful phys ed classes where it’s just assumed that I’ll be the anchor for the tug-of-war event, and that I’ll of course be up for shot put and discus, and of course I’ll be a great scrum man for rugby.

I have always hated my fat. I think it’s always hated me right back. I’ve always felt that it has meant me harm, the way the depression has meant me harm. I would not be surprised to learn that the two are in fact directly connected, that the one is a manifestation of the other. It would explain some things I’ve seen.

It’s drawn attention to me, and never good attention. It’s always made clothes shopping an excruciating experience. Reaching the point where regular menswear shops could no longer help me was dreadful, and a bracing experience in shame, and then my first and all subsequent visits to Kingsize Menswear was even worse. Yes, they had a huge range of all kinds of things in my size. They had everything. It was extraordinary. It was colossal. This was indeed my kind of store. They would have you believe your dignity would be restored here, for a price. And in some ways it was. But the simple fact of your having to be there at all. That your life had come to this. That you needed to wear clothes that might be better suited to a giant. You had become freakish and monstrous, though at least you were a stylish monster.

One of the great pleasures of major weight-loss is being able to go back to regular stores to buy clothes, and finding plenty of options either side of my size. Of being able to buy the funny and clever t-shirts I’d always wanted but could never previously fit into.

All of this aside: I hate being fat. I hate it with a fury. I would remove it from my body with a spoon if I could. I would get the bariatric surgery if I could. At one point, before embarking on the long-way-round diet-exercise campaign, I actually looked into the surgical option. Even with top level health insurance coverage, it would still be $4000 for the cheapest option. But one of the things that killed the whole thing was a specific note, that the surgery was not available to patients with a history of depression. Absolutely not, no exceptions, not even if you have a letter from your doctor. Just no.

I hate taking up so much room. I hate getting winded from doing simple jobs. This happens less than it used to, I’m pleased to say, and the stairs at IKEA are much easier than they were. Though I remember when I went to see the top orthopaedic surgeon in the state, an actual professor, and I hadn’t started losing the weight yet, so it was me and my 165.5 closest friends, and they were screaming about everything I tried to do. Could he help with knee reconstruction? He said no. He said my colossal weight would crush any device he might install, and I would be worse off. He suggested I come back when my weight got down to 140 kg. I never did go back to him, though I blasted past 140 on my way down to my current 117 kg (November 2017: 104 kg).

Ever since I was a kid, people have seen my fat before they saw me. They’ve seen me clumsy, pasty, gormless, awkward, embarrassed and pre-emptively apologetic, getting in first before you have time quite to register your unease. I see this often when we travel on planes. Nobody wants to sit next to the fat man. You could shower all day long in scalding water. You could remove an entire layer of skin. You could undergo actual nuclear irradiation to remove all trace of anything that might cause an odour—and people would still feel as if they’re stuck next to an open and leaking bag of rubbish. The fat man is not welcome. He does not fit. Nobody wants him near them in a confined space. He is Doesn’t Fit Anywhere Man, and knows it.

Meanwhile, my current helter-skelter weight-loss efforts are paying off so well I’m having to confront the question of how to ease out of weight-loss mode once I reach my target weight of 100 kilograms. At the moment I am pursuing a low-food/high-fasting regime that is not for the faint of heart, but which is working with my flatlining metabolism. I’m a hurtling downhill skiier racing at insane speeds down the slick and icy slopes of the Peak of Madness. Sometimes I’m just on the narrow edge of one ski, and sometimes I’m in full downhill tuck screaming down a slope, and sometimes I think I’m going to crash.

I’ve been doing this for a month, and it’s still working, to my amazement. I’m eating one meal a day, and some treat chocolate. The rest is fasting. Up to 22 straight hours of fasting. For real. In that time I have to keep busy. At noon each day is weigh-in. Sometimes it’s good news, and sometimes not. I brood about weigh-in. Three-quarters of my daily total thought is entirely kilojoule math. Everything I eat I first inspect to see the kilojoule cost, the weight in grams.

If I eat any more than this, I gain weight. It’s the thing I fear most. During the period when I was going up the Peak of Madness, when it all seemed out of control, I was petrified and did not know what to do. In the end what helped was adopting the 5:2 intermittent fasting program, only I just did the fasting. There were no feeding days. I tried having feeding days and my weight would just spike up again. So it had to be all-fasting, all-the-time.

Recently Michelle cooked some sausages. I love sausages. I had two, and they were outstanding–but I felt terrible about them all day long, worried about their effect, their mass, on the scales the next day. It was bad. I obsessed about it much more than you would believe. (They were more or less fine, a great relief.)

And this is the thing. I have had to put aside the world of eating and food. I have to be extremely careful. Food is dangerous. Because I am close now to a goal I set almost five years ago. And even closer to getting back onto the main road of that quest. Last year in hospital I reached 114.3. Now I’m 117.1. I’ll be there soon, and then I push on to 100, and when I get there I’m going skydiving.

Because I have always, always hated being fat. Hated always having to ask for seatbelt extenders on planes. Hated never having clothes that quite fit. Hated never being athletic, or seen to even be potentially athletic (notable exception: in high school I did once win a walking race, and it was seen as the strangest, most unlikely, but also most “typical” thing ever, “that Bedford would win a walking race”). I’ve always hated the weird difficulties I’ve had with food, and how that’s contributed to my being fat. I always hated with a fiery passion the way my medications have made me stack on weight. That has always seemed among the cruellest side-effects of all, when you have people who are already at a low ebb in the way they see themselves, and then you give them a drug that might save their life, but might also destroy their self-esteem.

All I’ve ever wanted, from my earliest days, was to be thin, to be normal. When in high school phys ed class, we all had to head into the change room, strip off, change into sports gear, and later have showers. I always found the change room experiences traumatising. Getting naked in front of other boys is bad enough, but with bullies in the mix is worse. Add in acute self-anxiety, self-horror. I was fat. There was no way to hide it. It made you big and pale, a white whale wrapped in a bath towel, covered in goose-flesh, and boys laughing and pointing at you. I still, to this day, hate change rooms. When I go to my local aquatic centre to slog out some laps, I avoid the change room altogether, and change room altogether, and get into my togs in one of the toilet cubicles. It’s awkward and cramped, but nobody can see me.

And that has always been the point. The shame of it. The shame I have always felt about the fat. The awful, searing shame. I could not bear people to see it, to be seen. It is unbearable. You feel as if you have failed to control yourself, your greedy, disgusting, undisciplined urges. That you are filthy, sweaty, that you stink. That your rolls of horrible fat ooze everywhere. Your mind supplies the imagery and the thoughts. The people you interact with casually, impersonally, provide the rest. The looks, the glances. The movements, the stepping out of your way, around you. You burn with shame. The shame makes you eat.

You don’t learn until much later, if at all, that it’s genetic. That it’s a disorder. You are not a disgusting glutton. You have an illness. There are things that, now, can be done to help you deal with it. They are, on the whole, hard things. You have to want it like you’ve wanted nothing else.

I just wanted to be unremarkable: normal height, normal weight, nothing to see here. My current project—the “low-food diet”—is my best-ever chance at that. I just wish it was not so miserable. The discipline required is unimaginable. My psychiatrist says if I can keep this going for six months (!) it will become easier because my body will reset what it’s “normal” weight is. He says that right now it’s thinking that my initial starting weight, 165.5 kg, is my normal weight and wants to push me back there. But if just hang in there with my impossible regimen, he thinks I can hack my body into thinking this much lower figure is “normal”.

I hope he is right. I want this so much. I want to be a normal-size boy for the first time in my life. I don’t want there to be X’s in my clothes labels. I want to look good to my wife. I want her to look at her husband and think, “phwoar!”

POSTSCRIPT: Six Months Later

When I wrote this essay above, six months ago, I’d been skiing down the upper slopes of the “Peak of Madness” for just over a month. I started the descent in May of this year, at 127.1 kg. Today, as I write this, it’s November, and I’ve left the Peak far behind and have kept hurtling downwards. Today the scales read 104.6 kg. Tomorrow I’m expecting to reach or pass 104.5, which will mean I’ll have lost at least 61 kilograms since starting this weight-loss project five years ago.

I should reach my target weight, 100 kg, within the next several weeks, possibly before Christmas.

And I have rarely in my life been more terrified by any other looming prospect. I am currently extremely focussed on weight-loss. I am treating it like a job, or a study program. I take notes on everything I eat. I record kilojoule and carb details. I have a file recording the key stats of all the things I typically eat and drink, because before I set that up that information whirled around in my head and drove me nuts. I think about numbers all the time.

My psychologist has referred me to a specialist psychologist whose task is to help me achieve a “soft landing”. Because I have no plan for the day after I reach the target weight. I have a profound fear of regaining the weight, of it all coming back like a tide. But I need to eat. I need to start eating normal food, but not so much that I regain weight. Yet the medication I take is all about weight-gain. That’s why I eat so little every day, to the point where I’m almost starving myself. I’m telling myself it might be possible to simply increase my daily allowance, but I don’t know. This specialist psychologist should know.

It is very hard to fully convey to anyone the intensity of the madness whirling around in my head these days. I am well aware that it’s not healthy. I want this whole thing to be over. My mum and dad want it to be over. My mum talks to me the way you’d talk to your child if you were worried he was involved with drugs, or maybe a vampire.

Michelle is great, though. She doesn’t get too involved in all my more obsessive stuff, and she just nods and smiles when I tell her the latest result on the scales (unless it’s really impressive), but she’s looking forward to this phase (the weight-loss) being over. She’s been living with all this crap for five years. We are both exhausted. We want the whole thing to be over. We want to move on.

I recently wondered what “the big day”, the day I hit the target weight, might be like for us. By now, at this point, we are so wiped out, so tired, that I could imagine the two of us just collapsing on the bed and having a little cry of exhausted relief.

We might later go out for lunch.

So why bother? What’s the point? Why not just quit if it’s so much bother? Because I’m getting my wish. The things I wanted to achieve, I am achieving. In my head I’ll always be a fat man, but in my body, I am going to be thin. Sleek, even. At least for a while. Long enough to try it out, take it for a spin. Show it off to Michelle. With a bit of luck, and good management, I might get to keep the thinness long-term, but the odds are not good.

I think my body will always, despite my doctor’s thinking, want to be humongous. I will always be fighting its Nortriptyline-fuelled longing for mass and size. I don’t know if I will always have this degree of fanatical willpower. It’s been months on end now, forcing myself each day to confine myself to around 3500 kilojoules. I’m always, always hungry. I go to bed hungry every night, and wake up starving every morning. My one meal each day is always over too soon. My psychiatrist says I’m doing fantastically well. He has me on a drug called Topamax, which is a psychiatric drug with the unusual side-effect in some patients of weight-loss, to the extent that it is prescribed off-label in US weight-loss clinics. I don’t know if it’s working for me that way.

All I know is that this program I invented when I was at the Peak of Madness in May has worked fantastically well. Too well. I am now in imminent danger of achieving a goal I never expected to reach. I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know what to do.

I’ve never been thin.

How do I do this?

MEMOIR: THE WRONG TEAM (Extended Postscript)

MEMOIR: THE WRONG TEAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And not only did I support the wrong team, I was also no good with an actual football. One of the main things for a bunch of bored kids to do during breaks during the day was kicking a football about. These were miserable, leathery “balls”, oval-shaped, and so inclined, when bouncing or rolling, to behave erratically. I hated the damned things. And it seemed they hated me back. When I tried to execute the “drop kick”, the “torpedo punt” or whatever, the ball always either went flying off sideways, or simply fell unkicked to the ground. I persisted, though. It seemed crucial that I learned how to kick the ball, that it was important. I’d still rather have been left alone to read my book, but I did my best to get along, and managed, sort of, possibly via the miracle of osmosis, of watching how other boys did it, to figure out the problem and learned to kick the damned ball.

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

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

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

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

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

One important reason I had no cricket skills was simple: no-one ever bothered themselves to explain the game to me. I had no idea what was happening. What the terminology meant. How batting worked–how bowling worked (and how was bowling different from throwing or pitching). Scoring was a mystery for the ages. Sundries? What on Earth were Sundries? And overs? What’s an over? No-one ever said. You were simply assumed to know and understand. And I did not. When I was sometimes given a job to do it was fielding, way, way, way out on the periphery of the ground. So far away you notice the light-sound lag between seeing tiny figures batting and a few long, sluggish seconds later when the sound arrived. Once in a great while a ball might come my way. Woo. I managed to reinforce everyone’s pre-existing views of me and was soon back picking dandelions.

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

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPT: Six Months Later

It’s half a year later. The Time Traveller in me has been thinking about the issues stirred up in these chapters, and this one in particular. This one, about what it means to be a man, is fundamental to who I am as a person, to the kind of person I have become, an outsider, someone always out on the fringes of things, sometimes looking inward, but also sometimes looking out.

(The old “Space Nut” in me, baked in when I was a little kid in the febrile 1960s, still loves to look up, and up, and up.)

I have never felt welcome here in this country as an Australian man. It has never occurred to me to visit a pub. It’s a large part of the reason I don’t drink.

But the Time Traveller has been thinking about other timelines. Suppose, on that first day of grade one, Geoffrey and Craig, instead of pushing me out of the line, and knocking me on my arse, had instead made friends with me? And what if, instead of giving me a hard time about going off by myself to read books, kids had just left me alone, or maybe came to join me? There were times when I did have a go at kicking footies around. Maybe I might have tried harder to get good at it if I’d felt more accepted.

And those times when I was forced to play football or cricket, but feeling all at sea? Why did it never occur to me, not even once, to actually ASK SOMEONE FOR HELP? I sat there like a glum potato, feeling all bitter, when all I had to do was just ask someone. This lapse says more about kid-me feeling superior to these idiots and their stupid game than it does about anything else. I was smug in my bitterness. It was a small, cold flame, but it was mine. The only problem was that my kid-self had no idea that sitting there on his own, feeling bitter at the world around him, would come to shape his entire character.

How would my timeline have unspooled if these changes had been made? If I’d supported the right footy team? If my name had been John or Michael. Who would I have been? How would I have turned out? Would I have still met and married Michelle?

So much of who I am is bound up in not being with everyone else, with going to the party and spending the entire time in the kitchen with the dog. Or, in fact, simply not going to the party. Or not being invited in the first place. But in the timeline where I am accepted by mainstream Oz, what happens to me then? How do I turn out? Do I still get bullied? Do I still get fat? Do I still get the bipolar?

The weight is a matter of genetic predisposition, I gather, so I’d say there’s an excellent chance it would still show up. The bipolar, too, is a genetic predisposition, and seems to run through my dad’s side of the family. So if I got fat and got the bipolar, I can definitely imagine bullying. Nobody likes a fat kid. Fat kids know this, and they eat to hide their anger and shame inside a fortress of fat. Bullies take this as a challenge. They are like medieval siege engines against these fortresses.

But I think it would be different. I think it would be expressed differently. I would most likely have more male friends. A lot would depend on whether I discovered geek interests and culture. In my own timeline, I got interested in science fiction and related things very early on. This alternate Adrian would most likely also be just as excited by Moon Landings and Doctor Who and Star Trek and so forth as I was (even if they did give me nightmares). But these interests also gave me an outlet, and later a community—a community of fellow introverts, shy people, awkward people.

Otherwise, if I didn’t become a geek, what then? It’s hard to say. I’d probably spend time at the pub. I’d fit in to Oz male culture. I might actually be interested in the big Oz sports, or at least in the nerdy sporting statistics where you can chew over pages of numbers.

I’d probably be the kind of Australian man with repressed emotional problems that the RU OK Day campaign was started up to try and reach. I’d probably eat my feelings, my rage, my bitterness, my loneliness, my inability to find a girlfriend—the feelings I couldn’t express to my mates, my wonderful, do-anything-for-ya, fabulous, best mates.

I’d probably have seriously considered suicide, and seen it as a way of doing the people around me a great favour, freeing them from a terrible burden.

Because I simply can’t picture this version of myself running into Michelle. I ran into my Michelle at a role-playing game club near where I was living with my parents in the mid-1980s after I left university. It was the purest chance that I found out about this group. It was likewise the purest chance that she was even there. The odds against stack up and up and up. And if I had little to no interest in geeky pursuits like gaming, well…

What then?

Life, Jim, but not as we know it. It’s impossible to say. I don’t know what sort of parameters to use. What sort of work? I’d almost certainly always be interested in books and writing, regardless of timelines. So that’s something, though not exactly a source of decent income. Where I’d be living, how much money, how my health might be, my mental health? How fat would I be? I have a terrible feeling I’d be the size of a car and confined to a very big wheelchair, and in very bad shape indeed. If there was no Michelle, or someone like her, in my life, I think I’d be in huge trouble, and most likely living with my aging parents still.

I would probably think about death all the time. Suicide on one hand, and death from countless chronic illness (morbid obesity-related) on the other. If I had meaningful work, books, and writing to do, I might be relatively happy, but I fear the mental illness side of this picture. The man in this scenario can barely move, barely breathe. And books are nice, but they are no Michelle.

Ye gods, I feel sorry for that poor bastard.

MEMOIR: INSTITUTIONALISED

MEMOIR: INSTITUTIONALISED

One year ago, I was close to discharge from hospital. The ordeal was nearly over. My vertical hold was stabilising; the static-filled picture was clearing. A new medication was at last working The new medication was only new to me. In fact it was an old drug, Nortriptyline, one of the venerable tricyclic antidepressants. I had come to the hospital in the first place, months earlier, to get clear of another tricyclic, Clomipramine. The fifth fundamental force of the universe is irony. But Nortriptyline was working. I felt like a recognisable version of myself again. I wasn’t a pod-version Adrian. I wasn’t an impostor. I was myself, and would only become more like myself as the new medication settled in. I started feeling restless. I started thinking about the future. About what I would do when I went home.

But this male nurse was talking to me.

He was telling me it was good that I was going home soon. I’d spent almost half the year in that hospital. He said I was running the risk of becoming “institutionalised”. I looked at him, a bit confused, not sure quite what he meant. It was the only time he mentioned it, and the only time I thought about it. Not long after that I was discharged, and sent home with an enormous plastic bag full of expensive medication, to begin my new life.

Soon, it will be a year since I left that hospital. But I have only recently realised that in my head I never really left. In my head I’m still there, following the same schedule, the same routine, thinking about the same patterns of cause and effect.

These past twelve months, there have been many times when I’ve had bad days, off days, lousy days, a few rotten days, a period of “choppy seas”, a “bad run”, “a bad patch”, or whatever you would like to call an unspecified span of time in which I would tell you I felt at least somewhat depressed or down. But not only depressed or down, but “sick”. In trouble. Engines on fire. Anxious. Worried. Am I going back to hospital? Do I need to make an emergency appointment with my doctor? Calculating how many days before I see my psychologist.

Sometimes I can get myself out of these anxious states by reframing the thinking pattern, using techniques my psychologist has given me, or that I have figured out myself. Going for a walk in sunshine helps. Attending to some chores around the house helps. A bit of reading, and some other things. Things that matter to me. They help. They prove to me that I’m not a stain on the couch, that I have a pulse.

So I have these times when I feel bad, and my first impulse is to worry that I’m sick and at risk of hospitalisation.

But what if I’m just feeling blue and melancholy? What if I’m just a sad and soulful kind of guy?

Over the weekend I was listening to some KPop. I listen to lots of KPop. That and jazz. There was a female artist named Heize (pronounced “haze”). She has this wonderful sad song (look up song details) singing a sad and beautiful song. I love sad songs. Some of my favourite music of any sort, in any genre, from any tradition, is the sad stuff. It speaks to me. I feel it. This song by Heize is not the greatest sad song I’ve ever heard. For me, that will always be DeBussy’s “Claire de Lune”. My pick for Favourite Piece of Music Ever, and if you think I have no taste in music, you are probably right.

But over the weekend this Heize song came up on Spotify again. I happened to look at the album cover, and there is a picture of the singer behind a rainswept window, looking sad.

And, even though I have heard this song many times, and seen this image many times, and seen images like it a millions of times, this particular time was the first time I stopped and formed the thought: she’s feeling lousy but she’s not thinking about hospital.

In fact, as far as I can tell, her entire thought process, as an independent singer-songwriter, was, “hmm, I feel really awful and dismal. Things are crap. Nothing’s going well. I’m lonely. What to do? I might as well write about it.” So she writes about it. Next thing, she starts forming these thoughts into a song, starts composing melodies and so forth, books some studio time, etc.

At no point does she think, Oh God, I think I’m sick.

She doesn’t think her engines are on fire.

Doesn’t think she’s gonna crash.

She feels sad, and turns it into a beautiful sad song that not only becomes a hit that makes her money, but it’s also a comfort to people out there who are also feeling sad. She understands how they feel.

I was institutionalised but didn’t know it until that moment. It came as a huge shock. There have been many such shocks. It made me think of the elephant kept in an enclosure in the zoo for thirty years, and one day the enclosure was taken away, but the elephant stayed within that same space, even though there were no pillars anymore.

I have been living my life this past year against the backdrop of the hospital. It has loomed up behind me, sometimes huge and close, sometimes further back, but always in the shot, always the key reference. The inescapable detail. I feel like everything I go to say has to somehow include a reference to the hospital. It was like this after my stay in D20 when I was sixteen, too. It was the single biggest experience of my life. It dominated everything.

I want to change the point-of-view.

On November 9 it will be one year since I left the hospital. I want to turn the camera around. I want to see the view ahead. I don’t want to be in the shot anymore. I will still write about “all this” (gestures around). I particularly want to write about my weight-loss project, and some of that will intersect with my mental illness, because major weight-loss does things to your head you would not expect. It messes you up inside. As much as it is a physical, biochemical process, it is a mental process, too. I want to stop picturing myself as a “patient in recovery”. I’m recovered. I’m fine (NB: am speaking only for myself here). When I have bad days, rough patches, choppy seas, it’s because I’m a moody, melancholy sort of soul. I should write about it. I should write the equivalent of a sad song about it. I should make some art. Be productive. And I should turn up the KPop, really loud, and rock out.

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVELLING THROUGH YOUR LIFE

(Believe it or not, this is a new version, with all-new middle bits and updated ending bits. Am having technical trouble with Ulysses, no doubt due to the whole “beta-testing” thing! 😉

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVELLING THROUGH YOUR LIFE

Suppose, just for a moment, for the sake of argument, that you had a time machine. What would you do with it? I’ve often thought about this. I’m a science fiction writer. Before I wrote this book I wrote a stack of science fiction novels, some of which have been published. I write about time travel a lot. And I think about this question a great deal.

I would try and help my younger self. That boy, that young man, was (and often, in middle-age, is still) in a world of strife, confusion and misery. He discovered, the hard way, at age sixteen that he had bipolar disorder. He is still, to this very day, decades later as I write these glowing blue words on my iPad screen, dealing with this problem. If I had a time machine, I would absolutely try to help that kid. Because I remember being him. I remember what his life was like. I remember the fear, the loneliness, and I remember the anger. I did not know what to do with all these feelings. It was as if I were constantly being struck by lightning, but had no means of earthing the current. I was full of teenage poison. I was a boy made of nerve-endings.

Growing up didn’t much help. It was Act II in a play. The sets had been swapped out, and the main character wore a different costume, but he was still made of nerve-endings, and still full of lightning and storms. In this part of his life the fundamental problem was pretending to be normal, while definitely not being normal. The problem was keeping people from finding out the secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret. She was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.

Act III of this show covers the past few years, the “present day”, as the storm-filled boy finds himself middle-aged, his medication no longer working, hugely overweight, lost at sea, the storms now outside as well as inside. He’s in trouble. His doctor decides to bring his medications into the 21st century, and admits him to hospital for what should be only a couple of weeks, but tuns out to be five months of agony and turmoil, an unprecedented ordeal the man has never known, and from which he is still, a year after leaving hospital, recovering. An experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it and my whole life with the stain, the illness, my companion. The limp only I can feel.

The thing about mental illness is it messes with your head. It makes you think weird stuff. It makes you believe things that are not true. And you believe them the way you believe in gravity and your mother’s love. These wrong beliefs wrap you with cobwebs. You’re not even aware of it. It happens slowly. It’s like cataracts forming in your eyes. You never notice them, but then one day you can’t see. Same with the cobwebs coccooning your mind. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t move. Your whole sense of who you are as a person, frozen, pinned down, unable to act, because you believe terrible things will occur if you do act. You believe you might die, or people (or pets) might die. The cobwebs whisper in your ear, telling you these things. Sometimes they scream. Either way, you can’t do things you want to do, go to things you want to go to, see people you want to see, or even simply leave the house. You know it’s irrational, but you believe it’s life and death.

Finding ways to get past these wrong ideas to the truth is what I’ve been doing. I have found that I am very susceptible to the cobwebs. I get them all the time. Sometimes I can clear them out on my own. But I also have a terrific psychologist, and she has a very good stick.

Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs.

This book is about exploring my life as if I were a Time Traveller, especially as it has been affected by mental illness, my bipolar disorder and anxiety. What would I see, as a grown-up, middle-aged man, with all my experience with the illness and treatment, that my younger selves don’t see? I know, obviously, that I can’t help them. But I can bear witness. I can listen and report. I can tell you what it was like back when these things were never discussed. Back when being sixteen and bipolar was pretty much the end of the world.

All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I was fine. To conceal my stain. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when 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.

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVELLING THROUGH YOUR LIFE (Total Rewrite)

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVELLING THROUGH YOUR LIFE (Total Rewrite, Revised)

Suppose, just for a moment, for the sake of argument, that you had a time machine. What would you do with it? I’ve often thought about this. I’m a science fiction writer. Before I wrote this book I wrote a stack of science fiction novels, some of which have been published. I write about time travel a lot. And I think about this question a great deal.

I would try and help my younger self. That boy, that young man, was (and often, in middle-age, is still) in a world of strife, confusion and misery. He discovered, the hard way, at age sixteen that he had bipolar disorder. He is still, to this very day, decades later as I write these glowing blue words on my iPad screen, dealing with this problem. If I had a time machine, I would absolutely try to help that kid. Because I remember being him. I remember what his life was like. I remember the fear, the loneliness, and I remember the anger. I did not know what to do with all these feelings. It was as if I were constantly being struck by lightning, but had no means of earthing the current. I was full of teenage poison. I was a boy made of nerve-endings.

Growing up didn’t much help. It was Act II in a play. The sets had been swapped out, and the main character wore a different costume, but he was still made of nerve-endings, and still full of lightning and storms. In this part of his life the fundamental problem was pretending to be normal, while definitely not being normal. The problem was keeping people from finding out the secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret. She was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.

Act III of this show covers the past few years, the “present day”, as the storm-filled boy finds himself middle-aged, his medication no longer working, hugely overweight, lost at sea, the storms now outside as well as inside. He’s in trouble. His doctor decides to bring his medications into the 21st century, and admits him to hospital for what should be only a couple of weeks, but tuns out to be five months of agony and turmoil, an unprecedented ordeal the man has never known, and from which he is still, a year after leaving hospital, recovering. An experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it and my whole life with the stain, the illness, my companion. The limp only I can feel.

The thing about mental illness is it messes with your head. It makes you think weird stuff. It makes you believe things that are not true. And you believe them the way you believe in gravity and your mother’s love. These wrong beliefs wrap you with cobwebs. You’re not even aware of it. It happens slowly. It’s like cataracts forming in your eyes. You never notice them, but then one day you can’t see. Same with the cobwebs coccooning your mind. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t move. Your whole sense of who you are as a person, frozen, pinned down, unable to act, because you believe terrible things will occur if you do act. You believe you might die, or people (or pets) might die. The cobwebs whisper in your ear, telling you these things. Sometimes they scream. Either way, you can’t do things you want to do, go to things you want to go to, see people you want to see, or even simply leave the house. You know it’s irrational, but you believe it’s life and death.

Finding ways to get past these wrong ideas to the truth is what I’ve been doing. I have found that I am very susceptible to the cobwebs. I get them all the time. Sometimes I can clear them out on my own. But I also have a terrific psychologist, and she has a very good stick.

Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs.

This book is about exploring my life as if I were a Time Traveller, especially as it has been affected by mental illness, my bipolar disorder and anxiety. What would I see, as a grown-up, middle-aged man, with all my experience with the illness and treatment, that my younger selves don’t see? I know, obviously, that I can’t help them. But I can bear witness. I can listen and report. I can tell you what it was like back when these things were never discussed. Back when being sixteen and bipolar was pretty much the end of the world.

All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I was fine. To conceal my stain. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when 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.