The boy had been split asunder, a ship cast upon lightless rocks, its spine shattered. The boy had just been given his diagnosis. The words “psychosis”, “bipolar” and “disorder” were now carved into his face, as if branded.. He was only 16, but his old life was over. He was ruined. What girl would habe him? What employer? He was used to being a pariah at school, but he had always figured that it might be a school-only thing, that once he was free from school, he could get on with his life. But what if instead a new kind of curse had fallen on him? He knew that, at least as of that year, 1979, people did not talk about their mental illness diagnoses. Such things were steeped in burning shame. People so afflicted were “malingerers”, “it was all in their heads”, and they just needed to “snap out of it”. It was an impossible time. There was no air. You couldn’t breathe, if you were one of these people.
Each step he took along that passageway from that room led him into his new life–not that he could have been persuaded at the time that any future waited for him. If I had appeared before him that day, a Time Traveller from an unimaginable future that is unimaginable even to people who live here and who got here the hard way, I would never have been able to persuade him that his life would get better.
And one of the reasons for that difficulty is that it would take seven long years for everything to settle. I had been through a Vesuvian eruption of the mind. It would take a long time to recover from something like that, for the land o recover, for grass and animals to come back, for healing to take place. For the land itself to be convinced that there would be no more shattering eruptions.
But the boy did have one good, burning idea in his head. It actually came from the doctor, who, when she told him his diagnosis, also told him to not go looking it up, to try and find out about it. The boy should trust that his medical team (three doctors, a squad of nurses, occupational therapists, two art therapists) knew what they were doing.
Well, he was thinking that afternoon as he made his way upstairs, screw that!
The first thing he did was to visit the hospital’s medical library. It was one of Perth’s major teaching hospital. Medical students were thick on the ground. And the medical library did have a sign on the door: medical students and doctors only.
Again, screw that!
Over a few days I was able to acquire the right sort of clothes. I was obviously very young, and my 16-years bum-fluff did not exactly sell the image of a hard-working 20-something med student, but equipped with a clipboard in one hand and a determined manner about me, I damned well went in there, and I started looking for medical dictionaries.
Which I soon found. It was very quiet in the library. You know how regular public libraries can be quiet? These libraries are even quieter still. Or at least it seems that way when you’re scared of being rumbled and thrown out at any moment. Not only were the hairs on the back of neck standing up, they were standing on the tips of their toes. My shirt was soaked with tension sweat. I could hardly breathe.
And these books were ENORMOUS! I had never seen such immense volumes!
I staggered, carrying one to a table.
But once I had the book, and my notepaper with the full name of my condition jotted down, I could set about looking up what it all meant, at least in a dictionary-definition level of detail. This was no substitute for proper textbooks, but there was no point in near those without some basic awareness of the language.
So. Mood swings. Good-o. Psychosis meant silly buggers with how you perceive the world without you’re being aware of the silly buggers going on. You think it’s all normal, and react accordingly. Okay, that made sense. There were references to things like paranoid delusions (check), too, that made sense to me.
But the main thing I got from this expedition was a sense of relief. Nowhere in the discussion of the word “psychosis” was any direct or necessary connection with murderous violence. You could be psychotic, but you wouldn’t want to kill people because of it. Though you might want to if they were tossers, but that’s another matter.
I can’t imagine why that doctor told me not to try and find this information. It helped me enormously. It gave me a sense of direction, a compass heading, a lighthouse in stormy seas. The next several years, as I struggled to get used to medication, to get used to the world, to finish high school, to deal with girls, unemployment in a job market not interested in people like me–it was all impossible. And I was often impossible as well. My parents and I went through hell. It was the hardest time of my life, and I didn’t know if I would get through it. In the middle of all this it suddenly seemed like a brilliant idea to go to university, but again, I wasn’t nearly ready, the cake not nearly “done” yet, but I wasn’t to know
It was only when I met and settled down with Michelle that things started, at last, to take their proper, coherent shape. It was like emerging, in a kayak, from seven years of terrifying, deadly white-water rapids, in which you thought many times you would capsize and drown, into calm, clear waters at last, and you can breathe again.
It is good to have survived, and doubly so because of the knowledge, inside me, that despite my own happy-so-far story, there was never a guarantee that I would survive it. Plenty of young men experience what happened to me and don’t survive. Young women, too. They are lost in the brutal rapids of real life.
After my visit to the medical library I felt much better about things. I still felt branded, and still felt that I would always be alone, and that I would never have more than odd jobs, and struggle like my dad to hold them down. I grieved for the versions of me in alternate timelines who did not have the illness, who had never been cast upon the lightless rocks, and who I imagined would have relatively straightforward lives. I thought of those other Adrians often.
But in this timeline, it wasn’t all bad. One thing surprised me more than anything. In that hospital psychiatric unit, where I was an inpatient for four months, I found community and acceptance. Friendship and fellowship. I found girls who were only too happy to be with me, to talk to me, who never saw all the many ghastly things the girls at my high school seemed to see. These were the first girls I ever simply got on with. They were anorexics, self-harmers, with thick white masses of scar-tissue up their arms, and drug-addicts and sex-workers. All kinds of people. I often felt, a 16-year-old boy, out of my depth, but I also felt at home, that I was welcome.
That place was a lighthouse for me. It was a home from home, a safe harbour from the storms beyond.