We sat around the desk in workshop formation. A nurse, an occupational therapist, some mental health patients and K, the colleague who’d signed me up to do the talk.
As I arrived she met me at the door and told me quietly that the morning had not gone to plan. The party from Morisset Hospital had been an hour late and they’d only brought along four clients. The clients were not teenagers, as we’d intended, but men. The men had not been ready for a DIY workshop on zine making, but they’d politely endured the session and flipped through the examples from the OCTAPOD’s vast collection of photocopied ephemera.
It was my second time inside the POD, a space set aside for creating and viewing ‘interesting and unusual, non-mainstream media’ opposite Civic Park in Newcastle – just down from the Conservatorium. My first had been back in the 90s, not long after it had been started. There were the same notice boards and Xerox machines and bean-bags. On that night, after they passed around a joint, polished off the hummus, unleavened bread and obligatory cask of white wine, everyone headed up to the Bogey Hole to go skinny dipping. You get the idea. The POD existed then as one of those places where people were always on the verge of doing something great, and were forever putting in Australia Council applications for funds to achieve those great things, in between hosting underground dance parties, makeshift exhibitions and the sort of workshops that I avoided then as a matter of pride. That is, the sort of workshop I agreed to run for no money twelve years later.
The chubby kid caught my attention first. Maybe twenty-one, he had his eyes half-closed and his head bowed. Anyone else might have thought him stoned, and naturally heavy, but I could see his problem immediately – anti-psychotics. I was looking at a younger version of myself. The details might have been slightly different, but I guessed that he’d been leading a textbook sort of life: high school juggled with a part-time job: then uni: big weekend binges with the mates: his first serious partner and a little bit of stress. Then the dance of the flaming bongs, smoked socially at first, before being consumed in isolation and leading one down the path to EUPHORIA. And before you can say bipolar, you’re sitting in the POD dozing while a couple of sober, incredibly sane volunteers try and get you hooked into making a zine: a process that involves writing, cutting, pasting and photocopying your own little self-published pamphlet before delivering it – often in person – to a select band of readers. I forgot to tell K when they planned the workshop, it seemed inappropriate to bring it up when it occurred to me during the stakeholder’s meeting, that a lot of youths with mental health problems would already have made their own zines – or manifestos, new religions, open letters to George Lucas – when they were crazy.
I know I did.
I didn’t confirm that the nurse was a nurse until after my presentation. Much madder than the clients he’d accompanied, he had a gleam in his eyes that I’d seen before. It made him try to hold my gaze the whole time I spoke. At the end of the workshop, he came towards me with a scrap of paper.
Do you know what this means?
There was one word scribbled in blue biro, Empyrean.
I wanted to know. His look suggested that I understood him, and that he knew all about me – a stare that hinted we were kindred spirits.
Empyrean, I said – stalling for time, not wanting to let him down.
It’s from the name of a solo album by the Chilli Peppers’ guitarist, he said.
In the wild eyes of the fanatic standing before me, that I knew Frusciante’s name seemed to make up for the fact that I didn’t know the meaning of his album’s title. But I made sure that I found out as soon as I got home.
Empyrean: the highest heaven, supposed by the ancients to contain the pure element of fire: the firmament: the dwelling place of God.
Though I hadn’t known the definition of the word, I knew the place well enough.
I’ve been there a few times.
We have a family connection to Morisset Hospital, which I didn’t know as a child, when we would throw the name of the Lake Macquarie suburb around as a term of derision without thinking. Call it what you want – the black dog: the blue funk: the crazy gene, but the DNA bounds through our family like a Great Dane through the long grass. My mother’s cousin, Joe, and his mother, Dot, are the closest. Aunty Dot spent almost a year in Morisset after giving birth to Joe, for post-natal depression. But they didn’t call it that in the 50s. All they knew then was that she needed her mind “wiped” – my grandmother’s term for shock treatment – and that she had experienced “a nervous breakdown”.
The psychiatric professionals almost killed Dot with Electro Convulsive Therapy – the scientific term for banging the side of a television in the hope of getting a better reception – and my grandmother and great-grandmother effectively kidnapped her to bring her home, her heart forever afterwards weakened from the ‘therapy’.
Then, on Joe’s sixteenth birthday, he had an argument with Aunty Dot and her husband, my great Uncle Bob. Joe threw a tantrum and went to his room, slamming the door on his way. When Uncle Bob opened the door to go and talk to him, Joe pushed him back and shut it on his arm.
That was enough. Dot and Bob took Joe to Morisset for an assessment, where it was decided by the professionals that he needed his mind wiped, just like his mum.
On Dad’s side we have to go back a generation, but we’ve got it covered; his grandfather, who served with the Argyll Mountain Battery at Gallipoli in WWI, shot himself through the head a couple of years before the outbreak of WWII. And Dad’s grandaunt died in an asylum after thirty years of residing there – never able to cope with the outside world.
Then there’s me: Bipolar Affective Disorder Type II. Two serious hospitalisations, lasting about three weeks each, both of them after psychotic episodes – marijuana the main trigger. If you’ve got a problem up there, the pot will find it every time; Mary-Jane has an unerring ability to locate a glitch and make it sing.
The modern labels are cleaner – ‘bipolar disorder’ has a better ring than ‘nervous breakdown’, which suggests weakness, fault and limitation – and easier to label implies that mental illnesses are easier to treat. You have bipolar disorder, which involves fluctuating moods, so take some mood-stabilisers. You’re psychotic, so take an anti-psychotic. You’re having bad thoughts; these pills will stop them.
At the start, when you have no idea what has happened, this process appears logical. Unwell people need medicine, and the sense of shame that comes with the diagnosis, the realisation of how the world now sees you, and how utterly wrong your behaviour has been perceived, leads you to do what you are told.
Besides, you don’t get much choice with your treatment as a madman in a public hospital; it’s swallow the pills or else. If you don’t take the tablets, they stab you in the arse with a needle.
I experienced this during my first hospitalisation.
After a week of being inside, I finally asked what the pills contained. I knew the guy in the next bed was spitting his out after meals, and he swore something sinister was going on. So the next time the medicine cabinet was wheeled around I said, What’s in them? It seemed fair enough: I was the one who had to swallow the cocktail.
They tried to see if my mother could get me to take the medicine. I asked her what was in the tablets. I did not threaten anyone, or myself. I was not in any danger – physical or otherwise. But when my mother told the matron what I had said, it was declared that I’d refused medication. Then I found myself bent over a bed, with my pants down, getting pierced in the backside.
It’s still not funny, no matter how flippantly I try and phrase it. The indignity of such a punishment stays with you.
They didn’t reply to my question because they couldn’t. They didn’t know how; fools ask questions that wise men can’t answer. Psychiatric doctors have no idea why the pills seem to work sometimes, and don’t otherwise. Each time they treat a new patient they are taking their best guess, playing percentage psychiatry. All they really know is: the reception improves for some people if I prescribe this. If that concoction doesn’t work, then your apothecary moves on to the next.
And you just have to put up with the side-effects of the pharmaceuticals they pump into your system – massive weight gain, hair loss, slowness of speech, lethargy – unless you want to have shock therapy, which is still common enough for the team from Insight, on SBS, to have devoted an hour long program to the practise in Australia recently.
Thankfully it didn’t get that far for me. After being shown who was boss I took the pills and the hocus-pocus they preached with it. I’m not exaggerating how much they fudge the facts when they repeat this stuff – maybe they say it so often that they actually start to believe it. One minister of bumpology told me that the pills were to stop the bad thoughts, which at the time – when I was still groggy and under their influence – seemed reasonable. It was when I got home, and considered the absurdity of a pill so sophisticated that it could separate my Good Thoughts from my Bad Thoughts, that it clicked. The pills just stop thought. They’re drugs – very powerful ones – and there’s a reason why you can’t operate heavy machinery while using them, and why they have an exorbitant street value: they fuck you up. It’s a chemical lobotomy, and only slightly less medieval than the horror stories of last century. Whether it’s the cold water treatment, zapping you, removing part of your brain, or getting you so stoned that you dribble and lose the power of speech, the very essence of who you are is altered.
The results rarely end well. There is a certain amount of times that banging the TV will improve the picture before the connection is lost entirely.
A terrifying example of the result of this maiming could be seen on the episode of Insight where they interviewed patients who had received ECT. One of the main advocates of the treatment was a woman who had been having her mind shocked for over ten years. This had resulted in such horrendous memory loss that she could not remember being married, having a child or completing a bachelor of nursing degree. She couldn’t even remember her childhood; family photographs of important occasions elicited no spark of recognition. She subsequently had to take on a position as a nurse’s assistant, and needed to be retaught the job each time she came back from another bout of shock therapy.
The good news is that she didn’t want to kill herself. She can sit and be interviewed for TV, and answer questions politely.
It scared me more than anything I’d seen for a long time. What was left unsaid on the program – amongst all the talk of suicide – was that the poor woman had been killed already. The version of herself that felt suicidal had been wiped off the hard drive years before, taking her personality with it. She kept saying that without the ECT she would not be there giving the interview. But she wasn’t there giving the interview. The married mother and nurse had gone, and could no longer speak for herself. The woman speaking in her place was a totally different person. The suicide had still occurred.
The sad fact about my own recovery is that I only got better through fear. There is no quirky, beautiful little world to describe. You might have heard stories of soothing private rehabilitation centres out in the country, but that is not what you get in the Mental Health Unit of a public hospital in the south-west of Sydney. They needed your bed yesterday and can’t afford to have you sitting on your arse wasting resources while you find yourself. A place like that is full of the unwashed and unwanted; I was one of them, twice. They are kicked out every few weeks and then come back again two months later, with an unerring circular regularity. For the architecture, layout and general atmosphere of the hole just think of your average old people’s home: dim colours, an awful smell of death, faeces and urine – run by a workforce of nurses, doctors and cleaners who don’t care anymore – along with a wider public who couldn’t give a shit if the inhabitants of the place just died. There is no earth-shattering breakthrough to be had while inside a psych-ward, except this: if I don’t smarten up my act, I’ll end up like the demented old guy sitting next to me and still be here in thirty years.
So I quit the bongs, and haven’t had an episode for over ten years – being medication free for more than six.
But I’m still crazy. You can’t throw off madness so easily. Once you’ve had a psychotic episode, the world views you as an unreliable narrator of your own story.
This realisation hit me one night as I watched The West Wing, just after I got out of hospital. In that episode the character of Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, was debating with a colleague about the reliability of a witness. He said that the witness was “a clinically diagnosed manic-depressive with a history of institutionalisation.” The implication was clear; as the chief witness had been diagnosed as a manic-depressive, nothing he said in a court of law could be deemed admissible or truthful. His testimony and his opinion were of no value, because at one time or another he had lost the ability to reason.
Likewise, nothing I say about my episodes can take away from the fact that I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder; or, to paraphrase Sam Seaborn, I am a chronic manic-depressive with a history of institutionalisation. And though I may not classify myself by the title of ‘bipolar’, it still defines my actions to this day. Even a person who has experienced psychosis briefly will always carry a question mark of insanity with them. The way that I may argue the point in a heated family argument, or seem to go into my shell after a disappointment, will always be interpreted by those around me with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in mind; I could be either losing it again, or going into a depression and becoming suicidal. If not, just the fact that I’m bringing it up at all, or writing about it, can be used to indicate paranoia, and so on.
My lack of reason in the past continues to mock my attempts to acquire it in the present.
And while I may not identify with being bipolar now, I would certainly still be branded by the world as having bipolar disorder – particularly if I were ever linked to, or accused of, a crime: representations of mental illness in the mainstream media indicate that society still fears the madman. Therefore, I step forward to take my place in the assembly of the moon-maddened and accept the label gladly. The part of me that sees madness as defiance, and in superiority to others, takes pride in the title. But with this pride comes a sadness that in going along with the treatment all those years ago, I had to condemn my younger self. Part of making the madman ‘well’ involves shaming him and forcing him to acknowledge the idiocy of his actions – which for me manifested itself in a highly commended award in the Black Dog Institute Writing Competition.
It was my fault for writing the apologetic – opportunistic art at its worst. I entered because I could; I had impeccable credentials as someone with a mental illness, and a writing background to exploit my story for its full worth – which would have been $2000 had I won. But it came with conditions. I had to toe the official line; drugs are bad: prescribed medicine is good: I hit rock bottom, and resurfaced by listening to my doctors. The manic high is not worth the low, and so forth. The theme we had to inspire us was The Getting of Wisdom.
Depressed, and ashamed for still feeling a little pride in the achievement, I went and shook the hand of the Hon. Paul Lynch, the “Minister Assisting the Minister for Health (Mental Health)” for New South Wales, and received my framed award – hardly a substitute for the filthy lucre.
Six months later I saw the title Mastering Bipolar Disorder on the shelf of a bookstore I hadn’t been inside for years. The book was a selection of the essays written by myself and the other entrants, with an intro by the organisers. None of the actual contributors were mentioned by name. We were each assigned a number upon entry, and that was how we were identified whenever our work was quoted. Seeing the book for sale was the first I had heard of it. No one saw fit to email me an invite to the launch, or even give me a contributors copy. Not only had I shat on myself by writing the essay, I had been used to help the editors achieve a publication with a prominent publisher for a book which they had done little of the work – or suffering – and had received no share of the advance.
It served me right. I should never have tried to fit my experience into the narrative they wanted, and compromised my story. It is also dishonest to pretend that by giving up pot, and by taking the prescribed medicine, we all get cured and return to our pre-episode selves; many people who suffer a full-blown psychosis come away from the experience with some sort of permanent impairment.
I’m just very lucky.
Of course you’re not supposed to use words like crazy anymore, not if you’re talking about someone’s mental health. I know this because I learnt it at the 1st Global Conference on Madness. Held in Oxford, late 2008, it’d been roughly five years since I’d had my second episode.
An interdisciplinary event, the symposium had drawn a diverse bunch; there were two bespectacled philosophers who couldn’t smile: a spiky-haired Irish art critic, who looked a little like the one-eared Dutch painter Van Gock that he kept mentioning: a Japanese girl who whispered about the moon and its use in Kabuki theatre: a New York transgender performance artist who couldn’t condense her paper down to ten pages – she tried to read sixteen really fast – a kiwi lawyer: and a psychiatrist from Cairo wearing hijab. Basically, there were those that were mad, those that had been and who could tell you what it felt like, those who diagnosed it on a daily basis, and those who knew what it meant in literary, legal and theatrical terms. There were papers on Mad Pride and Stigma: Colonial Psychiatry in British Guiana: Auditory Hallucinations in Schizophrenia: Religious Insanity in 19th Century America: The Meanings of City-Syndromes, and Psychiatric Expertise in New Zealand Courtrooms.
I had not made use of my own madness to gain a berth at the conference, as had some of the other presenters. I was there strictly as a PhD student presenting a paper on an Australian author. My piece was on another lunatic writer – an old teacher of mine – Peter Raymond Kocan.
Unsurprisingly, nobody – not even the Australians present – knew of the reclusive Kocan. They didn’t know of his botched attempt to kill the Labor Leader Arthur Caldwell outside the Mosman Town Hall in 1966 and they hadn’t heard of his novel The Treatment or its award winning companion piece The Cure.
I first learned of him at the start of my second semester as a creative writing student at the University of Newcastle, in the mid 90s. Kocan was then doing his own PhD, and had just won the University Medal for his work as an undergraduate and honours student. I was among his first protégés, and in the hushed conversations before the opening workshop a few classmates compared trophies. One girl had brought along her copy of The Treatment, another had a typed and stapled collection of poems that Kocan had put together years before, while still in hospital. Someone had even brought along the Trivial Pursuit card which had a question that referenced Kocan and Caldwell, and that strange old day in 1966.
Kocan immediately dispensed with the official course book, and brought along his own primers every week. Each one had been typed using the same typewriter that he’d made his Morisset zines on – and there was a theme, written across the top of each sheet in his slanting, capital letters, like THE INTENTIONS OF THE ANGEL.
If you didn’t know his background, you would have thought he was just another eccentric writing teacher. His eyes always appeared wide, alarmed, as if expecting an attack at any moment, but his classes made perfect sense, and he tried to steer them away from theory – concentrating on the examples of the masters that he had typed up and given to us, before dissecting the student pieces we each had to workshop.
His fiction is the same – scary, powerful, confronting, but very balanced. In The Treatment and The Cure, the hero, Len Tarbutt – a criminally insane failed assassin – actually comes across as the one rational being inside the hospital. He rises up to become the most trusted of the prisoner-inmates in the maximum security wing, before winning a major literary award for his prison poetry and being released into the open section of the hospital, where there are women.
It’s one of these nymphs that brings him down; the only time that the doctors intervene and put Len Tarbutt on serious, mind-bending medication is when he finds love. They have no idea that he is in a relationship; they think he’s withdrawing into himself, spending time alone and being anti-social. But the reader knows that Len has fallen for a nice hippie girl admitted voluntarily by her parents, and has been spending all his free time with her as they shag each other senseless in the bushes by the lake.
Instead of explaining what he has been up to, or telling his supervisor or doctor that he has met a girl, Len dumps her. Ending the relationship is the only way he knows how to get back on track, and off the medicine that has ruined his mind.
This is probably the sanest thing that a mental patient can do in the circumstances. Most of us get locked up for unrequited love, which often turns into stalking, or, at the very least, imagining a relationship with someone who does not even know us, and who may not exist. I was locked up for just this offence. On being taken to the emergency ward at Liverpool, and evasively answering a series of questions by the on-call psychiatrist, I finally succumbed and gave the reply he needed to get me through the door and into the MHU.
Why are you here, Patrick?
To meet my soul mate, I replied.
I don’t feel stupid about that statement now, because what I felt at the time was real love. I could sense her presence in the next room, and I had physical evidence in the way my body responded. She was with me, and she sent me messages of her love in return – which only I could see, feel, or decipher. This made the love even more intoxicating; it was a private language that only we knew about. She just never showed herself.
Forbidden love – and lust – also informs the story of St Dymphna, the Patron Saint of the Insane. Dymphna was a princess, the offspring of a pagan Irish king and his Catholic wife, and when she was fourteen her mother, the queen, passed away. So the king established a search committee to find a replacement – someone who had the grace and intelligence (but above all the looks and the body) of the original. After the group found no one who came close, the dodgiest of his advisers pointed out that the monarch’s teenage daughter had all those attributes in spades and, if he wanted a proper substitute, his daughter was the obvious candidate. The king agreed, and in the grip of crazed lust commanded Dymphna to be his lover. She denied him and ran away to safety with her confessor, an old priest called Gerebernus. They headed for Gheel, in Belgium, but it was nowhere near far enough; a sovereign denied his portion leaves no hole unexplored. His heavies found the two of them in quick time and the king personally made the trip to intervene. He decapitated the priest and then politely asked Dymphna – before begging her – to return home and give him some satisfaction. Again, she refused. So the king decapitated her too. Thus, through being martyred by a madman, Dymphna became the Patron Saint of the Insane, as well as sleepwalkers: epileptics: the possessed: incest victims, and princesses.
Was she the one I sensed in the next room of the hospital? The one sending me messages? My beloved?
It would have been the Dream of Scipio – said Gerard de Nerval – the Divine Comedy…if I had been able to concentrate my memories into a masterpiece. But he discovered, like I have since, that trying to create art out of madness is a mug’s game.
For exercise, my man Gerard used to lead his pet – a red lobster named Thibault – around on a blue ribbon in the Palais Royal gardens. He otherwise busied himself with translating Goethe and Heine into French before writing novellas about his episodes of insanity. It didn’t work though; by 1855 he called it quits. Broke and chronically misunderstood, de Nerval hanged himself at the age of 46. “This life is a hovel and a place of ill-repute,” he said. “I’m ashamed that God should see me here.”
He’s still right. Yet it would be naive to think that people don’t envy the madman. One occupational therapist, who checked my motor skills by asking me to touch all the fingers of one hand with my thumb, admitted that he wished he could experience the manic high, particularly the early part of it, because he was lazy and he would like to get more done – the mediocre prick. This envy often turns into spite, and behind all of it is fear – a fear that the rules the madman is breaking are actually pointless, and that life itself holds little value.
Historically, through being locked up and rendered a non-member of society, the madman had no recourse to state his case, and no way of trying to explain his soulful happiness. This power dynamic meant that the madman could categorically be labelled an invalid, someone weak, and lacking in moral fibre. But the language that described his condition was not his own; it was the language of his oppressors.
The question of why this language cannot adequately express the experience of psychosis has never been satisfactorily examined, because it was being used by people who – to quote de Nerval again – have an interest in remaining ignorant.
To understand why we cannot understand, it is necessary to borrow from the world of the novel, the fantastical land of metaphor, because – as will become apparent – madness, so often spoken of as being only in the mind, is actually a physical experience more than anything.
The psychotic high fills the system with a desire not to sleep, and a sense of immense lightness. Whereas a major depression leaves one feeling like a heavy weight has been tied around the waist, and the centre of one’s gravity is drawn to the ground.
Thus, quite literally, these are described as the highs and the lows: where you are either pulled up towards the Empyrean or down towards Hades. In my experience I have felt both – and, having tried to write an unwritable book about it, I can say that nothing can describe how madness actually feels. To feel it, you would have to make yourself mad – through drugs, sleep-deprivation, trauma or Divine intervention – and then you would not need it explained; it would be felt by you, and language would become useless.
The state can, however, be conjured, using the following analogy:
Imagine that you have been born into a world of blindness – that is, out of the one hundred people living in your village, everyone is blind. They cannot see colour, they cannot use their eyes to tell the difference between night and day, they cannot read or write, they do not see beauty or ugliness and they cannot see you. These people have no knowledge of, and no possibility of understanding, ‘sight’.
Now imagine that – miraculously – you have been born with vision. Out of the one hundred in your village, only you can see. How will you describe to those around you what is happening? You only have their language to try and make sense of it – a language of blindness which has no word for sight – and no words to describe any of the things that you can see: no language to describe the opposite of their non-sight.
Imagine the loneliness of being the way you are – yet the beauty of the experience, after all, you can see – and the sadness you must feel at having to close your eyes. For, surely, that is the only way you will be able to survive. This will not be too hard, though; if you do not close your eyes, or at least stop trying to tell everyone how great they look – thereby making them anxious, confused, and thinking that you have taken leave of your senses – they will close your eyes for you. Your eyes, like Gloucester’s, will be put out. There may have been one like you in the village before, and there may be others in neighbouring villages now, but being one in a hundred they will have shared the same fate as you; they will have been blinded. Suppose another miracle occurs and you find someone like yourself, someone into whose eyes you can look and say “I always knew I’d find you.” What then? Being the only two around, you might understand each other, but you’ll be separated. To leave you together would only perpetuate the sad myth you have invented, that you – the special two – can see, when everyone else is blind, as the Lord Almighty intended them to be. Your desire – your compensatory delirium – is actually a result of your unbridled ambition and pride; you want to be different from us. You want to see.
Really, is it worth it? No. It’s best to shut your eyes, and experience the world as a soundtrack; forget the images that are there before you. What use are they if only you can see them? How will they ever understand?
And so it goes. The madman experiences the language of madness through sight, symbols, and images. Those around the madman, blind to his vision, can only hear the soundtrack, and the foreign descriptions that he shares with them; unsighted, they cannot see or feel the story of the film. Explaining madness to them would be like describing each scene of a movie – in real time – to one of those villagers blind from birth, someone to whom the word blue means nothing, and is the same as red, or purple. The madman can experience sanity, by simply closing his eyes, but the blind cannot experience sight – only its inadequate description with language. Not experiencing the sight of the mad, the sane blind person says that sight does not exist.
The implication for the mad – who have experienced both lunacy and sanity – is that they are the whole ones, and that those who have not experienced madness, because of their blindness, are the incomplete.
Thus discovering this of themselves, or suspecting it, the incomplete name wholeness ‘madness’, and inadequacy ‘sanity’.
The madman is made blind, because the incomplete cannot see.
The Lifted Brow, Issue 22, April 2014.