Mentals

Scaffolding

Last Sunday, as the day slipped into dusk, I had a panic attack. I have different kinds – sometimes I just feel like I’ve breathed too quickly, or like I’ve slipped on a bit of wet road, and I can sit in a quiet place and reorient myself without too much chaos.

This was not one of those times. This was one of the times when the walls collapse around me and crush me to death and my ghost cries out from under the walls, and I can hear the voices of the living outside of the walls but we can’t connect, just bang on our respective bricks until fresh air comes to clear the rubble. Sometimes the people in the living world ask me to tell them about my plans for tomorrow, or the colour of the ceiling, or the specific sulphur smell of imminent-but-unlikely death (it’s “suffocating on the inside of a gas oven, but the oven is made from stale fish bones and you’re blinded by carbon dust at the time”), and that helps. Not every time, but enough of the time that it’s still worth making the effort. The people in the living world that is my house have big hands and low voices, and they say, “tell me what’s on this table,” and I tell them even though my eyes have been obstructed by the walls and the dust and the rushing blood, and eventually the air comes and I can stand on the earth again. Not every time. But some of the time.

So I had this panic attack, this world-ending, heart-stopping panic attack. And while I was there under the rubble, trying but mostly not trying to pluck my way through the bricks, I was also cooking dinner hot oil over a stove, and I was also finding a tin of gourmet cat food in the pantry, and I was also reading my emails on my smartphone, and I was also telling my partner about the cafe I was going to have breakfast at the next morning. And from inside my collapsed brick prison, I could see all the terrible things that had ever or would ever happen, not only to me but to every single person, and I knew it would stop if the fresh air would just break through and shove the walls away, but it did not and I was stuck there in the brick mausoleum for three minutes or an hour or several days.

Today is also Sunday. Yesterday I woke up, on Saturday morning, and I thought, “tomorrow when the day slips into dusk, I will have the kind of panic attack that traps me under the fallen walls of safety”. I had a new blanket I’d bought especially for the occasion of spending my entire Saturday worrying about what might happen on Sunday afternoon, bundled into the blue chair in the back room, which is the safest room for reasons I have not understood yet, and at the mid-century table, under which I spent some of my afternoon, trying to avoid the collapsing walls. And I was successful, for a while. For some of the day, I looked out through the window and the liquidambar next door waved to me with its yellow and orange hands. For some of the day, I helped a child I vaguely recognised cook pasta on a stove I’m sure I’d used once or twice before. For some of the day, I held out my palms to push back the walls and they bowed and bent and they were rubber and so was my brain.

(For some of the day, I looked deep into my computer screen and tried assimilating with the electroneuroplasticity inside, the simple and complex-but-not-complicated ways the information was carried from one place to the next without pausing to consider how many walls might fall on it. I played a video game with tanks and talked to my partner through a microphone, and my voice was carried the six metres to his headphones because I could not interact with another human whose face was too familiar for me to understand while I was hiding from the walls.)

Today I got out of bed, on Sunday, and thought about the afternoon. I tried not to have the afternoon, for a while. I packed someone else’s dishwasher and fed someone else’s cats and I poured a piece of meat into someone else’s oven and the house I was in filled up with garlic and bourbon and salt. I sat in the blue chair and the bending walls sprung at me and away again in their moderate but menacing way, reminding me they could cave in, reminding me to hide under the mid-century table, reminding me to wear a hard hat over the brain they would push into the gas oven with the fish bones. I took slow and deep breaths into someone else’s lungs, and pushed my hands into the digital pulses of the computer system that wasn’t me but could accommodate parts of me, and I took the meat from someone else’s oven to turn it over. I watched episodes of shows I don’t know if I like, and ate soup I had made without realising, and found chocolate I had hidden when I was someone else, on Friday.

My heart raced for all of Sunday, for all of the Sunday things like pyjamas and roast dinners and evening movies. I felt the collapsed walls in my knees and in my shoulders and in the space between my breastbone and my heart. I built scaffolding from the meat from someone else’s oven and the blue chair and the new blanket, and they pushed the walls, and I pushed the walls. I found the person who spoke in a low voice from the living world, and I attached him to the scaffolds, bolted him on like a mermaid at the bow, and he pushed against the walls. I trapped a little grey cat and a big black dog, and made beds within the metal frame of my defence against the bending walls. I took a soup spoon, and noise-cancelling headphones, and a game a kid had invited me to play on a phone, and a tub of yoghurt, and I hid beneath the mid-century table while the scaffolding swayed and brayed and shifted above me.

But it held.

For all of Sunday, through all those Sunday things, I thought about the inevitable collapse of the walls. But the scaffolding held. And now it is three hours to Monday and I am here at the mid-century table with the safe and pulsing heart of the computer staring back at me, and the low voice from the next room with the face I still can’t look at (just yet), and I am here at the end of Sunday in the world of the living.

grass and grass and grass

Mentals

grass and grass and grass

I miss standing on a verandah and seeing the way the world reveals itself. Not the neighbours’ patio, or the dog across the street, or the chime of the level crossing. Distance. I miss distance. Horizons. I go to the beach every day and they look like this, the painted edges and the minor vortexes and the rain. And there is the part of me that thinks, this is distance, the space between my feet in the car park and the boats at Williamstown.

A few weeks ago I went to dinner at my parents’ house, which is five kilometres from here. Sometimes I walk five kilometres on my treadmill, which is inside my house because that’s the only place I know how to do things. It’s not far. But it feels far. I went to my parents’ house for dinner and I sat on the chairs I helped to choose, when they moved in December, and I held my handbag. I held it so tight I thought I might squeeze it right back into a cow or whichever other animal they stole the skin from, and I held it while I ate pizza and while I sang happy birthday and while I went to the toilet. It was the only part of me I had brought with me from my house, not even a half-marathon away, not even a colour run.

Most of the time when I drive home from places, it takes about ten minutes. I don’t go further than ten minutes in case I drop off the world and the cliffs are too steep to climb back on. When I do go further than ten minutes, I am breathless. I breathe in the further-away air and it’s like being in space, like being in an atmosphere that’s proportionately less oxygen, like I have taken off my space helmet and my head is swelling and exploding. But on that night at my parents’ house, I took my handbag and I drove home and it took twenty minutes. I listened to the radio. I drove the long way around. It took longer than the instant I am used to, the seconds I allow myself to be separate from home, and I was reminded of so many things.

When I was little, my parents would take us into the Adelaide Uni bistro. The woman there was called Barbara, I think, and she had a whole kitchen filled with chest freezers, and the chest freezers were full of expensive Italian icecreams shaped like bananas and hazelnuts and pistachios. She let us go back there to choose them, after we’d had bread rolls stuffed with chips and gravy, and after we’d thrown paper planes into the thatched ceiling, and after we’d run up and down the balcony and hidden in the stairwell and put our arms inside the vending machines. I had a pocket mirror. On the way home I held it up and watched the distance disappear behind me, the lights dancing like insects with the movement of my dad’s second-hand Magna. And by the time we were home, so many streets had passed in the mirror.

On the night I went to my parents’ house and held my handbag and ate pizza, I was nearly home when I said out loud, ‘It’s nice to drive a long way home.’

Another time when I was a child, my dad let me choose the directions to get home. At each intersection I would say ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘straight’, and that’s the way he would go, down whichever road and through whichever suburb. A few years ago, I was in Camberwell and I took a wrong turn and got stuck behind a tram and down a street I didn’t recognise, and I had to pull over so I didn’t crash myself and my panic attack into someone’s Mercedes. When I was a teenager, I went to Europe with my parents and slept in a house built in the fifteenth century and ate a Rollup in the middle of the night without thinking about what bad dreams I might have, and slept on a plane and bought a t-shirt and sat in a bathtub and walked around an amphitheatre, and didn’t think at all about how many minutes were between me and the place where I lived.

I have been a person in the world whose place is anywhere. I have been between homes, not sure where I would end up. I have slept in a friend’s bed, on a friend’s couch, in a car. I have left my house and not thought about it at all.

I miss being in a field and under a gum tree and by a river and beside a rolling plain and driving on a highway and watching horses and floating in the ocean and listening to the night’s breath and stars and silence and quiet, which are different things, and inhaling and exhaling and hearing the pages of a book turn to the crack of the morning.

I miss being far away. I miss discovering something new. I miss going to a shop I’ve never seen before. I miss wondering if a pizza will be bad. I miss going on holiday. I miss cottage gardens. I miss snow. I miss trees you can’t photograph all at once. I miss holding a hand in a place I’ve never held a hand.

Once, I went out to the Yarra Valley for work. I was so afraid. I drove up through the eastern suburbs and through Kangaroo Ground, and I had to stop on the side of the road and push my fists right into my eyes until they stopped trying to explode from my face. I stopped at a chapel where the TV show I worked on was being filmed. It had a trellis by the doors, with the curled trains of peony roses and ivy, and beyond the chapel was a wishing well and rusted farm equipment, and beyond that was a film crew but beyond that was grass and grass and grass. And I realised I had forgotten what grass and grass and grass looked like. I had forgotten the way the closest blades are individual, the discrete bends and edges. I had forgotten the way the far off blades are so many colours but also just ‘green’, and that green can be a rainbow and still be green.

On the way home I went in the opposite direction, drove beside a creek and under a great canopy of gums with silver leaves, and out to the red and orange paddocks with their Friesian cow jewellery, and drove over a bridge and a flood plain and saw a tea house and a dirt track and a sign that pointed to ‘MELBOURNE’ and not just ‘ANNA’S STREET’.

Writing

2016 in writing

Not a lot about 2016 is worth reflecting on, let’s be honest. The state of politics worldwide is enough to send a girl hurtling into space, I can’t even watch Love, Actually because of Alan Rickman, and the hayfever’s been so bad I’ve resorted to sending ants into my sinuses.

But! it was a good year for writing, for me, and I’m strongly in favour of shouting out the positives right now, so here’s a rundown.

The Paper House

I BECAME A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. It was hard bloody work. I’ve spent most of my life thinking I couldn’t stick at things, couldn’t see things through to the end – I’m divorced, I’ve never graduated from uni, etc. – and the very very best thing having a book published taught me was that I can persevere even when I feel like giving up. And, like magic, that belief has leaked into other parts of my life. It’s been quite affirming indeed.

CkWVMfrVEAI-hrQThe feedback I’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive. Books + Publishing gave it four stars. It was on bloody the ABC’s Book Club! My mother-in-law sent me a Facebook message that said, “You didn’t tell me you were going to be on book club!” and I didn’t know! so I frantically refreshed the iView page until the episode came up and then stared at the screen for quite a long time.

A couple of my favourite reviews are this gorgeous one from Kylie Maslen at book-plate, and this beauty at the AU Review.

It was also the Readings Fiction Book of the Month. And, it was a top pick in Dymocks’s Sydney CBD store. And, it went to reprint before it was on sale. And, my local bookshops now give me an author discount.

I wrote, after my box of beautiful advanced copies arrived, about what it means to my childhood self to have ticked off this life goal. It’s fair to say I spent quite a lot of June 2016 crying happy tears.


Short stuff

14993349_10157579009950062_355612370054735062_nI wrote a non-fiction piece about my gramps, and how he taught me to love football, for Black Inc.’s anthology From the Outer. Then it was reprinted in the 2016 Best Australian Essays, and someone I really like said “it’s the best one in there”. Also, to deviate a little with a story, when I was a kid we went to the Goldsworthy house every Christmas morning for prawns and to have a sit in their porch swing. Peter Goldsworthy was the first “real author” I knew, and somehow his being my parents’ friend made writing seem legitimate (my parents are very discerning people and wouldn’t befriend authors if they were garbage). Now, in 2016, my essay abuts his in the Best collection. Cue: further crying, life affirmation.

I had short fiction published in Deakin Uni’s journal Verandah and in Verity La, and a little creative non-fiction flasher at Seizure. I have a longer short story coming up in The Wrong Quarterly, my first overseas publication.

I entered an essay prize for the first time (at my agent’s behest) and was shortlisted for “The Suicide Gene”. Now I can write “Shortlisted for the 2016 Horne Prize” on things!


 

The Gulf

spencer-gulfI finished writing my second book, The Gulf, and it was accepted for publication in mid-2017. I learned so much from writing and editing The Paper House, and this second book just poured out of me. It was one of those magical writer experiences — the story came to me fully-formed, I wrote it in three months, and never once felt like I had veered down the wrong path with it. I’m doing copyedits at the moment and should have a cover to share soon. There’s a tiny excerpt here.


 

Other things

I wrote 50,000 words for Nanowrimo. I’m not sure exactly what they are yet, but some of them are quite good.

Some good things on my blog were this and this and this.

I was asked to – and then did – interview superstar Hannah Kent, and to the best of my recollection did not say or do anything embarrassing.

The Australian Women’s Weekly called me a “literary star” and my nanna cried.


 

It’s been quite a year for writing in my corner of the lounge room. Thank you so much for reading, and for all the kind and generous feedback you’ve shared, and for tolerating my ride on the Writer Doubt waves.

9+1 books to buy somebody this festive season

Books

9+1 books to buy somebody this festive season

Hello! I was just thinking, how great are books in terms of things to buy for people? And then I thought, quite good! So here is a list of books I think would make an acceptable present for someone this year.

(All of these links are to Readings, but that’s just because I like Readings and think it’s great to support independent Australian booksellers, not because they’re holding me hostage or giving me pies.)


97819253242041. Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison

I think this is my favourite book of the year. But the thing is, I’m not sure I know exactly why. The language is lovely, but it’s sort of epistolary, which is never my favourite. But then the protagonist is sympathetic and authentic and sincere, although she’s also not entirely likeable. And the story is soft and hard and beautiful, but it’s not really a page-turner, but then I also read it in one day. So look, who knows? It’s brilliant. Buy it for everybody.

Buy it from Readings


 97817602937342. Goodwood by Holly Throsby

I didn’t know this was a murder mystery (sort of) when I picked it up. I really liked the cover, and I like Throsby’s music very much. At first, I wasn’t sure how to orient myself in it, but after about fifty pages I was so engrossed I forgot to pick my children up from school. So this might be a good gift for someone who needs a break from their afternoon chores.

Buy it from Readings


97807022540483. Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh

I bloody love surrealist storytelling, and this collection of short stories is everything I want from that corner of the room. Koh spins these very funny, often touching, occasionally deeply sad and always just totally bonkers yarns and, as a set, they are a wonderfully immersive and strange experience indeed.

Buy it from Readings


97802412070174. Autumn by Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a wonderful writer, especially if you’re someone like me who is heavily invested in the poetry and self-referential nature of writing. AUTUMN is almost an epic poem, sort of. It jumps between multiple generations, but it’s really a story about friendship and ageing and loneliness and togetherness. Don’t be put off by the very large type; somehow it all makes sense by the end.

Buy it from Readings


97807022542395. Doing It by Karen Pickering (ed.)

Do you know what’s great? Books by women. And do you know what else is great? Women writing about sex. This is a terrific collection of stories from women with all kinds of experiences and wisdoms and insights and swear words. I guess it makes the most sense for women in their 20s, but give it to the young gents as well, and other women, and people who have opinions about sex.

Buy it from Readings


97814088803956. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

I know people had mixed feelings about this book, but I bloody loved it. It’s a multi-generational epic that manages not to break your wrists with the magnitude of its 800 pages (it’s only 336!). The writing is sublime of course, but there is so much to like about the storytelling, too.

Buy it from Readings


97807022540557. Comfort Food by Ellen Van Neerven

This is a slim volume of the most gut-punching poetry I read all year. Van Neerven’s novella(?), HEAT AND LIGHT, was bloody stunning, and this collection builds on what she’s already explored there, with themes of identity, love, sensuality, and her relationship with her culture heritage, Indigenous and not.

Buy it from Readings


97819253553698. Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

On the off chance you want to spend some time in the hands of an absolute master, this is the book for you. Some of these stories may be familiar to you, but what’s so great about Garner’s writing is that there’s always something new to be found in it, even if you’ve read it several hundred times before. This is a masterful work that has the sense of a writer producing something she’s spent her whole training for.

Buy it from Readings


97807336322809. The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

If you want to be punched in the face by your own lack of awareness – of real awareness – this is the way to do it. Beneba Clarke’s writing is always astounding, but the stories and experiences she shares in this book are beyond understanding. This is a book about race (hence the title) but it’s also achingly about family and race, and friendship and race, and life and race.

Buy it from Readings


978174353520210. The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

Sorry. I wrote this book and I’m shamelessly adding it to my list not only because please god bring me a royalty cheque but also because I wrote my guts out and here they are, all in here.

Buy it from Readings

10 things I make a big effort to remember

Life

10 things I make a big effort to remember

1. My gramps’s laugh.

He laughed like a child on a swing. Not like the laughter of the child on the swing, but like the child moving on the swing. In and out. His laugh was like a bellows being squeezed, but if the bellows had a young man attached to it and the young man’s air was all being pushed out. He always laughed before he saw you, like he knew he was about to see you and the thought delighted him so much that he had to laugh. His laugh came around corners and up staircases and through doorways. When great things happened, his whole body rocked with it; when bad things happened, it limped out and fell dull on the table.

2. The way my daughter felt when she was just born

Like her skin had never touched the air before, except for seconds earlier when a snail had crawled over every part of it.

3. My mother’s basic cake recipe

4oz sugar, 4oz butter, 3 eggs, 8oz flour, 1tsp vanilla, 1/2 cup milk. You have to yell the whole time you’re making it, even if no one is getting in the way, because that’s how you cram your love into the batter. After the cake cools, add too much boiling water to icing sugar, then spend ten minutes putting in more icing sugar until you have a large icing brick, then put everything in the bin.

4. The way a heartbeat sounds through an ultrasound machine

Like a horse running in a gorge.

5. A time I fell over after art class and had to go to a birthday party anyway

I don’t know why I make an effort to remember this, except that when it happened I decided I would make an effort to remember it. I was running full pelt along the gravel path next to the creek, and, as I am inclined to do, came a cropper over nothing and filled my hands and knees with tiny stones. The art class instructor wiped Dettol on my grazes and wrapped gauze around them, which stuck to the blood and left me with bandage feathers like palm trees in beds of flesh and gore. My knees hurt so much I could hardly walk, but I had to go to Prue’s birthday party anyway because we had already bought her present, and mum said I would have to give it to her on Monday either way, so I may as well get a party bag.

6. The way no heartbeat sounds through an ultrasound machine

Like the inside and outside of the universe.

7. The time someone shot a silver bullet through our dining room window

The police came to our front door one morning. I suspect the police had never been to our front door before that morning, so when I opened it and saw them there, it was quite a surprise. I was even more surprised when they said, “Have you seen any bullets?” We told them that no, we hadn’t seen any bullets, but the next day I was lying on the floor in our dining room, following the afternoon sun around, and I found a silver bullet on the carpet, and a small, neat hole in the window above it. I didn’t know how to get back in touch with the police so I just kept it. Later, I read in the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter that the kids in the house behind us had been shooting them at other houses with a slingshot.

8. The way to get out of a room in a hurry

One foot after the other. Your face looks weird right now but no one cares.

9. The only time my auntie ever hugged me

Someone called in the middle of the night. I can’t think now who it might have been, because when we got to the hospital, everyone was crying. It was a private room with a window, and when I looked out I could see where we had parked our car, under the plane trees in the dark. My nan’s face was puffy and her chin hairs had been left to grow long and soft, and she called for my dad so he sat beside her and stroked her hand, and I watched all the blue veins swell while her heart was filling. Everyone was there – in the hospital room in the middle of the night, listening to the beat of one machine and another machine, and occasionally availing themselves of the metal en suite toilet – including my dad’s sister, whose husband had sometimes served me at the butcher down the road. We all looked at nan and her blue hands and her polyester hair, and my auntie was overcome by her emotions, and she pulled me into a very tight hug and the only thing I knew was that I wished she would stop.

10. The way my dad is

Calm but urgent, as though he must fit in every beautiful detail into his one and only life.

The sometimes terminal nature of mental illness

Mentals

The sometimes terminal nature of mental illness

Content warning: suicide, the state of mental health support in Australia


I read that when creative writing students are starting out, one of the things they write about most is suicide. It’s a “gimmie subject,” professors say (their words, not mine!), “like the Holocaust.” It’s easy to write about it evocatively. It’s easy to create a passionate and tortured story. But what of suicides that are not evocative? Not a tragic, twisted, macabre shriek but just a silence at the end of a life sentence? Not despair and heartbreak and shock but just the inevitable end?

In 1980 my father sat in a room in Adelaide’s Flinders Medical Centre with his own father, who was recovering from carbon monoxide poisoning. They were both young men — dad in his 30s and my grandfather in his 50s — but the weight of what had happened made them old.

“What should we do?” dad said, and the doctor said, “Prepare yourself to be back here again soon.” Two weeks later they were, this time to view the body.

As a society, we lack empathy when it comes to matters of depression, delusion and fear. And we demand recovery of the mentally ill in a uniquely aggressive way. We expect sufferers of incurable and treatment-resistant mental illnesses to tough it out, to brighten up, to think differently. The fact that these illnesses are borne from brain function must mean the brain can also fix them, that through neuroplasticity we may be cured. There is rarely a consideration of non-recovery. Even the incurableness of mental illness does little to deter friends and family from their insistence that things will improve. Tomorrow is a new day. What have you got to be sad about?

We lack a nuanced way to speak about mental health treatment. We insist on trying new things in perpetuity. Many treatments have known limited periods of effectiveness. Many treatments have challenging and sometimes dangerous side effects. Many treatments reduce quality of life. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the same is often true of end-of-life treatments for patients with terminal physical illnesses.

We think about terminal illness as a physical inevitability. A body with stage VI cancer will die. A person with degenerative neurological disease will die. Someone with progressive organ failure will die. What we don’t do is consider the terminal nature of mental illness. That to be diagnosed with specific mental illnesses is to carry around a probably-terminal illness. People with bipolar disorder die, on average, 20 years earlier than people without. Up to 80 per cent of people with schizophrenia die by suicide. There is an inevitableness to these illnesses in the same way that there might be in a cancer diagnosis. There is a reasonable likelihood you will die as a result of this illness.

In fact, when it comes to bleak life-ending illness, we don’t even necessarily expect the patient to die of the illness. Most of the time, the body becomes weak and therefore more susceptible to infection, disease, etc. A broken immune system exposes a patient to respiratory illness, organ failure, cardiac arrest. They don’t die of their disease but just because of it.

Mental illness is usually not the direct cause of death but the reason the mind and body is exposed to fatal circumstances. Is suicide as a result of having a chronic and incurable mental illness different from succumbing to pneumonia because of a compromised immune system? People who make a serious attempt on their own life (which we will gently and empathetically differentiate from a “cry for help”, a completely valid experience not intended to end in death) are more than 80% likely to make another serious attempt within six months. This number is even higher when limited to people with “serious” mental illnesses — including schizoid and psychotic-type illnesses and mood disorders.

Euthanasia, the subject of much debate in this country, is always spoken of in the context of terminal physical illness. Supporters promote its availability to people who will eventually succumb to their painful, debilitating or otherwise life-worsening condition. In these cases, the patient is empowered not only by the assisted suicide but also by the people around them who support it. There is oblique support of the terminal nature of brain disease: we accept the degenerative nature of neurological disorders like ALS and dementia, but not the endless reinforcement and battering of illnesses like borderline personality disorder or chronic psychosis. Having a mental illness is not a “good enough reason” to sign on for euthanasia. The inevitability of death is only explicit if the body is in decay, not the spirit. And by excluding mental illness from the “terminal” definition, we ignore the many ways in which mental health can have an impact on physical health. Studies have shown that people with mental illnesses are also more likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke. They are more likely to be obese, to have higher cholesterol, to have higher blood pressure.

Which isn’t even the whole truth about mental illness. Different disorders affect the patient in different ways. Not every illness has a depressive symptom, where the patient becomes severely melancholy. A deep sadness is not necessarily required for suicidal ideation. Manic symptoms — where a patient may experience feelings of extreme euphoria — can be equally debilitating. Then there are people, like my grandfather, who have a resigned sensibility about their suicide.  He asked that no one make a fuss, spelled out his wishes for his funeral and subsequent arrangements for his adult children, then signed off. It was devoid of despair. His wife had died, his children had grown up, and his business here was simply finished.

Here’s an unpalatable fact to consider: mental illness is a big bucks industry. Medications like SSRIs, SNRIs, tranquilisers and beta blockers from a substantial part of a multi-billion dollar pharmaceuticals industry. Psychology, psychiatry and other therapies can command upwards of $500 per hour. Mental health care plans bring in approximately $160 to a clinic every time a patient requests one. I have been told by psychologists that their local GPs are referring more patients than they can fit into their books for just one session, because the financial benefits of MHCP offer such a good time-to-money ratio. There are financial incentives for prolonging the treatment of mental health patients. There is a dichotomy that must be recognized in the “wellness” of a patient also being the end of their invoices.

There is no palliative care for people with mental illness. There is no, “here is a person at the end-stage of their life with a chronic mental health issue.” I have a treatment-resistant kind of mental illness. I’ve been on anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, anti-psychotics and beta blockers. They had different effects: one made me lactate, one stopped my ability to orgasm, one made me suicidal. These medications work for lots of people, but not me. I’m not “terminal” now, but one day I might be. In many ways, my eventual inability to drum up the energy to face any more days seems inevitable. I hope, when and if that time comes, someone shows me the same kind of empathy they’ve been taught to show their oncology patients.

Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36

Writing

Free writing – 19

We had a party when I turned 19, in the backyard of my friend’s dad’s, who was a church minister. The night before, I’d caught the train from Melbourne to Adelaide, all night in the smoking car with a man who thought he was Jesus and another man who thought I was Jesus, turning our cigarettes on their heads to light them with the last cigarette, and banging on the blinds of the restaurant car because we wanted Cheezels. The darkness in the carriages was a deep blue, from the moon following us and the people reading books by torchlight because sleeping upright in a train is like being tossed into the sea in a galvanised coffin. So I had arrived that morning, and bought a strudel bun from the Keswick train station, and caught a bus to the city and bought a brand new pair of blue and silver Vans, and the biggest bottle of tequila I could find, then caught the bus again to my friend’s house, and listened to his band rehearse in the church hall – not the things you would expect in a church hall but songs with the word “fuck” in them, and even worse words. On that day, a girl who had decided she was my nemesis had planned her own party in competition, even though it wasn’t her birthday, and the band and I sat in my friend’s dad’s backyard and waited to see if anyone would show up.

They did, these people I knew, and some I didn’t know, and my best friends and the people I pretended to like and who pretended to like me. I did a tequila shot with every person who arrived until I had to puke into my new Vans, and then an old friend brought a joint the size of a toilet roll and a keg of terrible beer he’d brewed himself, and we stared into the blinking vertigo abyss and the next memory I have is of a goldfish bowl, and plucking cigarette butts out of the lawn to roll into a single smokable one, because it was 5am on a Sunday morning, and in Adelaide the shops don’t open until 10 on Sunday, and sometimes not at all. Later we went to the service station on the main road and bought as many Chupa Chups as we could afford, which wasn’t many, and later still we walked our hangovers down to the best pizza in the world, which could have been just bread dipped in tomato sauce and we’d still have been satisfied because we’d burned our tastebuds off, blazing the j from my friend who brewed the beer.

Four-times tables

Mentals

Four-times tables

8.

I was eight when I realised my hand was on backwards, standing in a car park with my friend Fleur, who was a violinist. ‘Isn’t it crazy,’ I said, ‘how you just think about moving your hand and then it moves?’ But it wasn’t strange to her. Being a violinist meant she was fully aware of how to use her hands.

My anxiety was so sparse then that it is possible to recall every distinct time I felt it: running down the hall at school because I had just figured out I could see (and how bonkers was that?); sprinting from my bedroom to my parents’ bed because my school shirt had given me an existential crisis; the groaning nightmares in which I was adrift on a steel beam, just moving from one empty space to the next while the world turned under me.

Being an anxious child was not terrible. I was reflective and introspective. I thought deeply about everything (which was, as a child: television, space, cats, making cakes with my nanna, ten-pin bowling and the day my parents would inevitably be dead). The anxiety crept up and bowled me over from time to time, but all of my feelings were new then, so it was just another thing to learn about being a person (something I also thought about at length). I struggled, as all children do, to give labels to the things I was feeling, so I only knew the way my body felt: full of warm milk (‘happy’); like someone was pushing on my shoulders (‘sad’); exploding (‘anxious’).

I assumed that everyone felt the way I did. Certainly my parents told me that. I would sit down with my mother and tell her about the way the walls caved in and she would say, ‘Yes, I felt just like that at your age.’ and I believed her.

(Maybe she did. Who could ever say?)

And it’s harder still to know whether it was encouraged by her nervous parenting. As a nearly-teenager I begged to be allowed to catch the bus to school but was told there would be robbers, kidnappers, rapists. I believed that, too. I let her drive me to school every morning, watched my friends get off the bus and thought, It’s lucky they made it another day without being kidnapped by rapists.

 

12.

By the time I reached tweenhood, the anxiety had mostly eased. Unfortunately, it had been replaced by it’s often co-morbid pal Depression. And I found depression very hard work indeed.

It was much easier to identify. Depression was obvious because everything in my life was good. I just couldn’t get up in the mornings.

My mother called this “being at a loose end”. It frustrated her. She told me to find something to do, or to call a friend, or to read a book. Back then, I didn’t know that I couldn’t. I was still lingering in the how I felt, a long way from the why I felt it. So I just … didn’t. It wasn’t conscious – I didn’t explain to my mother that my spirit had vanished – but my body would not perform the functions.

On a wet school day, I told my parents I didn’t feel well. They didn’t believe me, and the truth was that I wasn’t sick. Not in any way I’d been given permission to feel sick, not with a stomachache or a cold or cramps. I had got up on that day and not been able to find a single reason to push through to the next minute. I looked out at the rain and I knew in the very engine of me that I could not go out in it.

I could have. Easily. I’ve been opening doors since I was a small child. But that was the first day I experienced this other kind of door. Invisible. Impenetrable. I stood on the inside of that spectacular force field and I could not. I pulled a mattress in front of the TV and stayed in bed for the entire day, listening to the rain, and at some point someone brought me soup but I can’t imagine who it would have been because my parents had both gone to work.

(I was twelve.)

In my first year of high school, our homeroom teacher told us a story about his brother. His brother had been depressed. It was the first time I’d heard someone use that word: depressed. But his brother had been it — another actual human in the world whose spirit had vanished — and for a moment I could see myself as an actual human in the world.

His brother had shot himself. In the mouth, he told us.

I lost twenty kilos that year. Sat on my bed and couldn’t make my body go to the dinner table, and so I faded into the carpet.

 

16.

The day I decided to talk to someone was perfect. It was spring. Not just spring, but Adelaide spring. Broad and blue and clear. I walked across my school’s netball courts in that gleaming sunshine and there was nothing in my body. A husk. Not even a husk, but a hypothetical husk. What a husk would have been, if it had the energy to be something.

My school had a chaplain who doubled as a counsellor. He had his own cottage, at the end of the row, with a little garden out the front and roses. I sat in his room that day and he said, “How can I help?” and I said, “Sometimes I want to die.”

We just sat there for a while. He looked at me so earnestly, as though waiting for me to unsay it. I was joking, it was a dare. He seemed struck by the realisation that he would have to tell somebody. It was lunchtime and little kids were playing underneath the window and I had told a virtual stranger that I wanted to die. I wasn’t even sure it was true.

‘Not die, I guess.’ The words were so hard to find. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to not exist. Completely different.

(It became true, later. The dying part. But we will get to that.)

There was a moment after I was first diagnosed when I was relieved. That in understanding why my brain behaved the way it did (badly), it would be curable. I’d been living in a pit, in a staircase, in an attic. My head was everywhere and my thoughts were cloudy and illogical but in that moment of clarity I thought, “That makes sense.”

The cure for my illness seemed inevitable, then. That’s what happens when you’re diagnosed with something – the doctor says to you, this is your illness, and then the doctor says, here is how we fix you. I waited for it. I waited in a blue chair and listened to the road noise and watched the doctor roll his thoughts around on his tongue.

“You’re sixteen,” he said, finally. “You can get your own Medicare card.”

With his bony fingers he wrote a phone number on a Post-It.

“Nobody has to know.”

I went home to the couch and sat, for the first time, with relief and burden together.

 

20.

Anxiety and depression finally — inevitably — collided once highschool was over and the world loomed.

It had been a hard year. At the beginning of Year 12 we’d moved from Adelaide to Melbourne, leaving behind everyone I’d ever known. I found a new boyfriend, pretty on the outside but cruel as hell. The depression clawed at my bones and, for the first time, it fed my anxiety. One morning I was with a friend, eating breakfast in her bedroom, and she suggested we go out. Catch the tram into the city.

And I couldn’t.

I couldn’t get through her front door. We stood there together and I tried to explain it, that I couldn’t bear people’s eyes on me. I told her that my boyfriend had tried to strangle me in a churchyard. I told her how he’d asked me to meet him at McDonald’s but when I got there he had his tongue in another girl’s mouth.

And then I couldn’t get on the tram, but I didn’t realise the two things were related.

(They were.)

The next year, I had a psychosis. And then I had another psychosis.

(They sure were.)

It was a November night. I’d moved into my first share house, just me and three guys who on reflection were quite a bit older than me but So Cool. They had parties all the time and then got up to go to work the next day, and more friends than I’d ever seen in one place. A particular group of people came around a lot. They were my age, and the guys I lived with took them under their wings as proteges. Party proteges. There was a plastic table under the back verandah and we spent the nights out there, batting mosquitoes and smoking bongs.

I had only used a bong once before, the first time I’d ever smoked pot. My boyfriend had made it, as is tradition, from a juice bottle and a bit of hose he cut from my grandfather’s garden. We went to a quarry and he showed me how to smoke it and I felt nothing but boy was I cooler. After that, I went to Off Ya Tree and bought a little silver pipe with a strip of blue enamel, kept it in the back pocket of my jeans. We would stand on the balcony at the Adelaide Unibar and pass it around, go inside afterwards to eat chips and gravy from a porcelain bowl.

The second time I smoked a bong —

(Wait.)

A psychosis is a break from reality. People have them for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they have no lasting effects. Sometimes they have lots of lasting effects. Sometimes they go on and on and on forever. A psychotic episode is really any period of time during which you have no idea what’s real and what’s just a unicorn you impaled on a bit of palm frond from the moon.

(Okay, go.)

In one breath I was ripping this bong and in the next, I was outside of my body. I called an ambulance, but one of the guys called them back to cancel it. I was sure I heard it anyway, lying in my housemate’s bed with my forehead pressed against his, melting into his face, melting into the floor, listening to the jazz flautist that had appeared by the door. Trying to trap the pieces of my brain as they dripped from my fingertips.

 

32.

I thought about it again today. About driving my car into the ocean.

(Nothing is working.)

 

 

Author’s note: thank you to everyone who’s asked if I’m okay. I am okay! This is a reflective piece rather than a thought I’m having about driving into the ocean right now. I really appreciate you checking in.

If you need support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Stop it, Mother Nature!

Ranting

Stop it, Mother Nature!

This originally appeared on the now-gone JustB website.


Mother Nature, we need to talk.

The thing is, down here in the most southern part of the most southern hemisphere, our bones are frozen. We are grey, cold, tired and stiff. Our joints creak when we walk to the kitchen and you can forget going to bed because the sheets are like an ice shelf.

It’s not that I don’t like your winter. You put on a cracker this year, and we all lived in blankets and slow cooked everything and rubbed our hands together. That’s my schtick, I’m good with that.

But the teasing has got to stop.

Last Thursday I headed out into the morning with the kind of easy breeziness usually reserved for that supermarket makeup brand. I was waxed within an inch of my life. My hair fell in glossy waves about my face. My pedicure laughed. It was 27 degrees.

Last Thursday I headed home into the evening in the bitter cold. Without their usual layer of hairy warmth, my legs became cramped protesters. My flirty summer skirts danced a draughty tango. I was an Ice Princess. It was 12 degrees.

You see why I’ve come to you, Lady Weather. You are a commitment phobe.

It’s okay if you’re not ready for spring. I get it. All the pollen and underarms and Christmas shopping is not my style either. I will sit in your corner and wear jumpers for the rest of the year and complain no more than four times. Hell, we can skip summer all together if that pleases you. I’ll put away my bathing suit right now and we need never speak of it again.

I just need you to make up your mind.

No more teasing, you beastly broad. It’s either spring or it isn’t. It’s not “spring in the morning.” Or worse, “spring on the days you have to go to work.” It’s not “mostly spring” or “looks like spring from inside but is actually winter outside.”

You build me up just to bring me down, Duchess of Barometer. Three times this month I have put away my doonas and hot water bottles and fluffy cats, only to begrudgingly take them out again the next day. Twice you’ve thrown me in the deep end with ice on my car, then sweaty feet and sunburn. Who are you?

There are social implications to this, Princess of Pressure Systems. No one can make plans. No one feels safe sitting in beer gardens. We are full to bursting carrying a hat, an umbrella, galoshes, a Japanese paper fan, slippers and an Esky because who knows when the next season will arrive? And then leave again? And then come back? And leave and come back?

Now you’re obviously busy, with all this forgetting to maintain the current season. No one can blame you, really. Weather patterns are not what they used to be. Earthquakes in Moe. Volcanos in Moe. Icebergs in Moe. It’s okay to admit that it’s too much for one person, however ethereal she may be.

Here’s what I propose.

Just outsource it. You could get an intern! La Nina tells us she’s on her way out. She’s clearly organised, what with the clear cut in and out, bring the rain, fill the dams, job done.

You can focus on the good bits: those fluffy clouds that look like turtles, waxy white blossoms grandmothers love and the way the air smells when the wind changes to south-easterly. These are the things you’re good at, High Priestess of Meteorology. Leave spring to the juniors.

And please, let’s not drag it out. We’re freezing down here.

Book club: The Dry

Books

Book club: The Dry

xthe-dry.jpg.pagespeed.ic.8qaFJ_Y27lI feel almost as though The Dry needs no introduction – it began life winning the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and has been a top 10 bestseller since its release in June. I must admit to not being a crime reader at all, but I bought into the hype around this book and am so pleased I did.

We’ll talk more about it on September 1, but here’s what the publisher has to say:

Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well…

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret… A secret Falk thought long-buried… A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface…


 

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