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.