Read Madness Online

Authors: Kate Richards

Madness (6 page)

Absurdly, given my mental state, I apply for a job as a medical writer for an independent company in the city. I wonder if medical writing might be a way to combine knowledge (medicine) and passion (literature). I wear a new suit to the series of interviews, I have clean fingernails and a new haircut and I only drink a third of a bottle of whisky the night before.

The interviewers are nice. During the interviews I summon every atom of energy to ignore the people in my head, to walk into the room with a straight back, to shake hands and smile, to remember the interviewers' names and make a warm-but-not-too-intense kind of eye contact, to consider their questions carefully and to answer calmly, but with precision. I am acting in a play. I am assuming a character I wish was me – articulate and responsive and measured.

The new job is four days a week, writing articles for GPs in the core areas of general practice: ischaemic heart disease, asthma, diabetes, depression, hypertension, common infections in children, soft tissue injuries, arthritis. The other members of the ‘team' are keenly self-sufficient and not particularly welcoming. I'm given a desk and a computer and I'm told to write an article on new drugs for congestive cardiac failure. There's a list of cardiologists and pharmacologists with whom I have to consult. My desk looks out onto the front of a BDSM house (bondage, discipline, sadomasochism). Occasionally one of the Mistresses comes out for a smoke dressed in a black shiny catsuit complete with tail and lace-up boots climbing her thighs.

The espresso machine confounds me. When I finally manage to make a cup of coffee my hands shake so much from the lithium that half of it spills as I walk back to my desk. The people in my head interject while I read journal articles—

spasm spam ride the blue train colitis mastitis arthritis red reel

Mornings I catch the train to work. There are other people on the train. Many of them. I'm afraid of their eyes. Carriage doors leer open, are disembowelled of people. Mobile phones ring and make me jump. Sometimes I can't find a space with enough air in it: there are bodies pressing, pressing, smelling of cigarettes and burnt cheese and blood and body odour. Bodies wriggling and scratching – the movement of flesh.

touch him touch her SCREAM

I stay very still, lines of sweat run down the back of my legs.

Once the sun is low enough in the sky after work I walk to the local pub. Candles along the bar and on the tables provide the only light, candles cosseted inside frosted glass so that the light is soft and foggy. The tables and chairs and floor and ceiling are old wood stained dark. It is warm. There are velvet curtains and few patrons, no racehorse or footballer photographs in gilt frames and no particular dress code. People sink into the couches. I unzip my coat and stretch out. I may stay here forever in this cocooning light, with whisky and black coffee, my scruffy notebooks and the sprung rhythm of GM Hopkins.

‘Gin and tonic?' repeats the bar woman to someone with his back to me. ‘Oh hell yeah, full of vitamins,' and they both laugh.

Dolly Parton is singing ‘Jolene'. Jolene, please . . .

Easter. Though not of the Christian faith, Jesus' sort-of-suicide is fascinating and I carry around a quiet sadness – not about his death in particular but about Death and Grief. To find some spiritual space I book the cats into a cattery and pack the tent and camera and food and drive up to the Alpine National Park in northeastern Victoria.

My father taught me about photography when I was quite young. He had a Nikon SLR. Before I was born he worked in the ABC television studios so he knew all about light and perspective.

‘Don't just snap away,' he'd say. ‘Take your time. Think about your foreground. How you can make the photograph appear 3-dimensional.'

I love trying out new angles, changing the ISO or filter, lying flat on my back looking up the trunk of a tree, crouching in a corner, or waiting for thirty minutes till the light changes in the rain for that one shot when the pink sun bloodies rain drops and makes them live.

There's a car park off the Bogong High Plains Road from which I begin walking. This is the traditional country of the Bidawal people, the Dhudhuroa, Gunai-Kurnai and Nindi-Ngudjam Ngarigu Monero people. For thousands of years, other community groups joined them on the highest peaks in summer for corroborees and trade and to catch the nutrient-rich Bogong Moths. I love this land, but it is not my land. I trespass. I try to walk gently across the alpine grass plains, in between bunches of snow gums. Here, time is measured in sunlight and the autumn wind breath and the moon in the corner, thinned to a thread.

Once the endglow of the sun lowers itself below the horizon one must lie on the earth and look up. Eyes take about thirty minutes to dark-adapt. Pupils dilate. Rods and cones (photoreceptors) in the retina adjust sensitivity. Breathe in from the diaphragm, lungs to veins to arteries to heart and here they are, as they always are, and there are more of them than I'll ever have the ability to count and the longer I look – awe. Then dizziness like losing gravity, losing a sense of what is up and what is down. Some of them appear to coalesce into a kind of fine lace and some appear to be winking blue and some are occasionally but not always winking red and some yellow and some the whitest white. Mine one tiny view of the piebald vastness.

Back home, I go with Lara, who is beginning her training in pathology, to see
21 Grams
, a film about grief. The title refers to the amount of mass said to escape the body at the moment of death, the supposed weight of the soul. I take hold of the character played by Benicio del Toro, lost in grief after running over a father and his children in a truck. I understand his desperate need to atone for being alive. I have a desperate need to atone for being alive. After the film ends we have lunch, and then I catch a tram home via a hardware store where I buy a bottle of 32 per cent hydrochloric acid.

your duty is hell you know it we know it we are watching we are you sickbitch do it do it

I look at the body, the lump of flesh, fat and wavery and hirsute. Jeff Buckley is singing. I sit down on the floor in the hallway, smoke a cigarette, slop some bitter coffee.

flesh is hell flesh is hell flesh is hell flesh is hell we know we are watching now we are you bitch do it

Pour acid into a bowl, soak a towel in the acid and wrap it around the lower half of the right leg. I do it slowly. The pain is not immediate; there is a small lull in which silence stretches through my head on wings. The people in my head howl. Then a prickling, radiant heat envelops the leg all the way to the groin. I rock back and forth, eyes closed, head locked. I atone for Benicio del Toro, I atone. I lie on my side on the floorboards and my fat grey cat curls up under my chin. Her breath, her rhythmical breath falls on my lips.

How does one atone? It is partly the pain and partly the damage done that matters.

In the morning the leg is mottled pink and red with blisters and large patches of dried grey tissue that indicate third degree burns. I pull my pants over the mess and go to work as usual. First we have an all-department refresher in biostatistics to assist with our assessing of journal articles: hypothesis testing using p-values, confidence intervals, meta-analyses, quantitative versus qualitative research. I sit and listen with my forearms clasped under my right leg so that I don't have to put my right foot on the floor. After the meeting we stretch and yawn and make coffee.

‘Good weekend?' I ask Tara, one of my colleagues.

‘Oh great,' she says. ‘We bought a pram that converts into about fifteen other things. Dan's obsessed with it.' Tara's six months pregnant with twins, so her belly looks more like eight months. She's switched from exhausted to glowing to exhausted to somehow rather serene.

‘Excellent,' I say and smile. I've got all my weight on one leg, holding the wall.

‘How was yours?' Tara asks.

‘Went to see this amazing film.'

‘Oh yeah? What was it?'

21 Grams

‘With Sean Penn? I know someone who saw that and said it was a bit, you know, blah blah blah. Awful script, I think he said. Did you like it?' She looks at her watch. ‘Shit, sorry, teleconference. Catch up later?'

‘Sure.' I walk back to my desk carefully. I've got a deadline in two days for an article on community-acquired pneumonia.

sick sick sickbitch hahaha

I ring a respiratory physician to get a second opinion about some of the recommended medications in the article. His secretary pages him and he rings back and we chat for awhile and I thank him and finish the article and email it to my boss for his opinion and I don't leave my desk all day because walking is too painful. I say I've brought lunch from home, thank you anyway, and leave my bladder to fill and fill until everyone has left for the evening and I half-creep half-limp to the bathroom and then to the train.

Over the week the patches of grey enlarge like moss over tiles. I'm careful to wear opaque stockings. When the pain prevents sleep, I visit Jenny, my GP, who takes a look and writes a referral to the local emergency department. In the waiting room are an old Greek couple, some young men from Africa and a man lying on his back on the floor in a corner. The triage nurse takes me straight through to a cubicle. Next door someone is having a catheter inserted, I can hear him moaning.

Vanessa, the nurse, sets up an IV line. ‘I think you'll be admitted,' she says. ‘Is there anyone I can call?'

‘No thanks.' She gives me a starchy white gown, open at the back. I wait several hours, staring at the nylon curtains; pale blue with a thin white stripe. I follow the stripe with my eyes updownupdown. The plastics registrar examines the leg. He's young and efficient in his clean white coat, and he looks at my leg but not at my face.

‘It probably needs surgical debridement and a split-skin graft. I'll go and get your file.' He returns some time later. ‘I'm not prepared to give you the surgery.'

‘Why not?' I ask.

‘Because this is deliberate self harm, not an accident.'

My insides sink down below the bed. The registrar shuffles through my file.

‘Would you have the surgery, if you were in my position, with this injury?' I ask.

‘Of course.'

‘Are you discriminating against me on account of mental illness?'

‘It's not cost effective for the hospital because you have a history of self-harm. In the same way we discriminate against smokers who need lung transplants.' He walks away.

sick sick sickbitch sick sick sickbitch sick aahhaha

Vanessa looks surprised. ‘I'm sorry,' she says. ‘Would you like to make a complaint?'

Still with my insides sunk down below my feet, I smile, ‘No bloody point.' Anyway, the registrar is probably right. I'm not cost effective. After she leaves, I get off the bed; put my clothes back on and slide the IV needle out of my arm. Walk out into the night.

It is Friday evening. Zoë and I are at the Northcote Social Club to see an Adelaide band called Fruit. Zoë and I found each other at a personal development course in St Kilda five years ago. Somehow we survived the barely controlled rooms of people shouting and crying and bashing pillows. We both knew depression and we were looking for a way through. Not a way out necessarily, but insight into the why of it. If we understood that, maybe we could stop it. Maybe we could become strong enough to just stop it – make it go away, make it never come back.

Zoë is clever, shy, beautiful. Cornflower blue eyes, perfect skin. But much more than that, in her eyes and smile, is depth. The depth is, I think, part intellect and part warmth and part knowledge of suffering. We click without effort, occasionally opening our naked selves; finding connection and then the relief that we're not so alone.

Still, I'm too scared to ask the people I love for help. Tonight the acoustic guitar and harmonising voices wash over me like warm honey and I'm sweating and shivering and swaying with the music. I try to dance on one leg; the pain in the other is intense and unrelenting. Lymph nodes behind my knee and deep in my groin are swollen and tender, sweat runs down my back and pools in my underwear. The leg itself is pink as salmon. After the concert I assure Zoë that I'm ‘fine, really, don't worry,' and instead of asking her to come with me, I drive alone to the nearest Emergency Department.

The surgical registrar calls the plastics registrar who decides on emergency surgery. I'm wheeled off to theatre after a dose of morphine and a dose of antibiotics. The anaesthetics registrar explains the procedure for the anaesthetic but I'm too drowsy to hear her. I wake up with someone rubbing my sternum.

‘Breathe Kate,' I nod comprehension. ‘Your oxygen sats are too low.' I nod again and breathe. Up in the ward I'm given another dose of morphine and I float up to the ceiling from where I look down on the body as it lies in the bed. The ceiling light is very white.

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