Read Madness Online

Authors: Kate Richards

Madness (9 page)

Winsome's office is upstairs, up a narrow little staircase that creaks. On the ground floor of her building is a natural therapies shop stocking strange herbs and books on iridology and homeopathy and pranic healing. I am suspicious of everything.

‘Tell me why you're here,' Winsome says. I have my coat and my piles of notes and books. Winsome thinks there are only two of us in this consulting room, but she is wrong. I mumble something about blackness and despair, it is all they will allow, and then I look up at her and say, ‘Sooner or later I'll end up like the poet Hart Crane and my friend John.'



Because after each episode of illness, I kept getting up and trying again and I never knew it could or would ever happen again and it did. It does. It keeps happening.

She looks at me with eyes that are kind and tired. We talk about my normal family and then about my childhood which was also normal, until things started to go wrong at sixteen.

‘My mum and dad had a farm with hens and goats and cows and a horse and all sorts of fruit trees and acres of forest up the very back which I'd hide away in to think and to read. We lived there till I was about fourteen. I loved that farm. I was well there.'

‘School?' she asks.

‘All of us white, Anglo girls with very middle, middle class, white, Anglo backgrounds, all learning that Australia was discovered in 1789 but learning nothing that mattered about the traditional owners of the land. The school was a bit like a sheltered workshop, cocoon-like. I don't think we understood anything about real sickness or not having enough money, and we didn't ever mingle with the juxtaposition of cultures living an hour or so down the road. It's so sad to think about that. And embarrassing. But I had some great friends, beautiful, amazing friends. Still do. And my English teacher, Mrs Manton, saved my life back then. She showed me this other world: edgy theatre, modern art and literature. She was so generous. I think she kind of saw inside me and she didn't run from what she saw there. As a fifteen year-old, that meant more than anything.'

‘What happened when you were sixteen?'

‘It was strange. Although at the time I'm not sure I knew it was strange, which is itself strange. I'd always been a placid little lake and over a few months in 1990 I was overcome by a hurricane that never quite ever went away.'

Winsome's face mirrors compassion; it's there in her eyes so I know it's real, and it gives me courage.

‘I had these fits of black rage and fits of melancholy that went on for days and during both I thought seriously about dying. Some of the time I was terrified, some of the time I was okay and some of the time I was . . . kind of smug.'

Winsome doesn't say anything for a moment. Then she asks quietly, ‘Smug?'

‘Yeah, because . . . this is weird, I know, but for a year or so when I was about seventeen, I thought I was the only one who knew that
of us were being followed and monitored and periodically fiddled with.'

‘Fiddled with?'

‘Tinkered with, like electronic toys, and impregnated while we slept. Or if we didn't sleep, we were drugged. As part of The Great Experiment.'

‘Can you tell me more about that?'

Winsome has gently peeled back a layer, several layers, without me realising it and suddenly I'm aware of my awful nakedness. ‘No. That's all there is.'

‘Are you okay, Kate?' she asks. She sits still while I gather myself up.

‘Sure. Fine. See you next week, Winsome. Thanks.'

When I walk back down the stairs and out into the sunlight my knees hardly bend.

Hana is not at the Community Clinic in the morning, nor the following week or the one after or the one after that. Hana with her beautiful voice and yellow tights. Her web page of music and social commentary and poetry has vanished into the cyber-ether. I don't know where she lives. Staff of course, won't give client information to other clients. I wander around the city at night, buy a drink, sit on the steps of Flinders Street Station with the goths and the punks and a few homeless folk, put my hands under my chin and wrap my coat around me, let the night go by. The police appear out of their mirrored compound and start talking to people on the steps, encouraging us to move on. I walk over to McDonald's for a coffee and stand on the sidewalk of Swanston Street, feeling the air, feeling the coffee raw in my mouth. My heart hurts. My stupid heart hurts.

‘What do you do for fun?' Winsome asks one evening. She has big windows that run down the long side of the room and let in the last of the light. I look at her. Winsome is petite in the French sense: short in stature, slender, delicate feet and hands, stylish – in here my shabbiness sours.

‘Fun?' I say.


The silence expands.

I smile then and keep smiling and fold my hands together tight tight. It is a bittersweet feeling, like watching couples holding hands. The wonder of it. That touch. The wonder of fun.

When I leave her office I catch a tram to St Kilda, to the Voodoo Ink tattooing studio on Carlisle Street. I have a couple of cans of rum and coke along the way.

‘What can we do for ya?' asks Luis, the tattoo artist.

‘I'd like an owl,' I say. ‘On my ankle.' Luis gets out some books on birds – eagles and toucans and bowerbirds and emus. We choose a black-and-white barn owl. Luis traces the outline onto paper. The owl stands about 10 centimetres tall. Luis draws in a tree branch and then goes to mix up the ink; grey and black. He gets me to sit in the old leather chair with my leg out straight. He says nothing about the scars.

A tattoo machine deposits ink into the dermis via four or five needles that press into the skin 80–150 times a second. It feels like a thousand tiny insect bites. I watch the slow creation of art on my skin; a body, a face, a pair of wings. Gracile and clear. I offer Luis some rum and coke. He laughs. ‘No thanks, love. I'll get into trouble.'

When the tattoo is finished there's a raised red reaction around the edges of the inked skin. It's mildly tender. Luis covers it in glad wrap and suggests I get some cream from the chemist. ‘Don't pick at the scab,' he says. ‘Wash it with ordinary soap and warm water.' It costs me a hundred dollars.

I take my owl home on the tram. We already have a special bond. I feel it is his nature to be supportive, nurturing. I know already that I can tell him things; he has kind eyes. At home the cats are waiting for their dinner. I take an alprazolam and a swig of vodka and look at the homework Winsome has set – to note down the dreams that wake me in the middle of the night, dreams in which I am tied up, locked up, stabbed or suffocated or thrown off a precipice while tied up. Sometimes I'm force fed or injected or tied to a bed. There is a lot of background jeering and laughter. I write this down, read it through and then screw the paper up and toss it in the bin. It sounds ridiculous.

The new psychiatrist at the Community Clinic, replacing Jim, reminds me of an Amazon horned frog. He asks the same six questions in the same order every week. It's obvious he's bored and he doesn't want to be here and I don't much want to be here either, but Winsome, as a psychologist, cannot prescribe medication or assess symptoms medically. After the third consult he gives me a prescription for a drug called Risperidone.

‘What's this for?' I ask.

‘It will settle your thinking.'

‘There's nothing wrong with my thinking.'

‘Okay, well, see how you feel after a few days.'

Communication between psychiatrists and patients is a complex thing. There are many obstacles. There is a real difference between how one should communicate with an acutely unwell patient and how one should communicate with someone who is relatively stable. I do not ever feel like a true ‘partner' in the process of illness-management. I feel instead like a recalcitrant child, rarely taken seriously and confusingly in need of discipline.

‘I tried to discuss the finer points of diagnosis with him,' I say to Helen, later. ‘And the potential side-effects of this new drug.' I wave the prescription high in the air. ‘He responded by looking at his watch and saying he had another patient waiting to see him.'

Helen's on maternity leave from next week – for a year. I give her a bunch of multi-hued gerberas, alight, and a card that says all the meaningful things I'm too scared to say out loud. At home I look up MIMS (the list of pharmaceuticals available in Australia) for Risperidone. It is an anti-psychotic drug, indicated for the treatment of schizophrenia and related psychoses. I put the prescription in the rubbish bin.

One afternoon after work I go to the hospital to visit Anna for coffee. I have to walk past the psychiatric ward. My knees start to shake. I look through the glass door for a moment – people are shuffling, their eyes on the ground, their arms stiff by their sides. Anna's office is filled with light. She greets me with a quick hug, which I almost enjoy and I thank her for saving my life. We talk about her family and my family.

‘It's a terrible thing, I guess, to watch your only child falling apart,' I say, thinking of my mother and father.

‘Yes. A terrible thing. One of the worst things.'

‘I don't know how to make it better for them. And they don't know how to make it better for me. We try – we spend whole days together trying so damn hard not to upset each other and not knowing what else to do or say except to wonder if the coffee's freshly ground or if it's forecast to rain.'

‘Ah, but they love that you are at least
, to talk about the coffee and the rain,' says Anna.

My eyes flush bright for a second with tears, and then Anna's do too. She suggests the name of a psychiatrist whom I could see privately for medication and symptom review, away from the informal chaos of the Community Clinic. ‘I trust him,' she says. We have coffee. When she speaks, I sit very still, and as we walk slowly back to the psychiatry wing arm in arm I feel almost human.

Another weekly visit with Winsome.

‘What helps you stay grounded?' she asks.

‘Books, music – cello – sometimes if I just play the notes with my left hand there's this feeling of the music rising up through the fingerboard.'

‘You love the cello?'

‘Well, I love it when Adam, my teacher, plays. Me, not so much. I've got a shitty ear for pitch. Can't hold a tune for anything as a singer. Maybe it'll get better with practice. But when Adam plays, say, Bach's Fourth Suite, the sound . . . it resonates like . . . like photons of light through water – it's the purest sort of energy. It runs right through me.'

‘Is it joy?'

‘I hadn't thought of it like that . . . Yeah. I think it is.'

‘Can you hold onto it? Can you let go of what's happening in your mind and hold that feeling – joy – in your body?'

I consider. There's something in this room that's hard to give a simple name to. It's a kind of stillness, a kind of warm uncluttered stillness, like the room can expand and contain and hold safe anything that's said inside it. Then it occurs to me that the room being inanimate means Winsome is creating this aura, this echo of unconditional shelter.

I walk home. Another evening with booze and benzos and books. I'm reading
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
by James Agee. What a fusion of art and politics, philosophy, social commentary and the wretched, desolate minutiae of human life! Of course, it's the form, the style, the juxtaposition of themes and points of view that are so unique. Some reviewer said, ‘This book might just re-wire your brain.' I think I agree, all the better after a quart of whisky and some clonazepam. Rose and Henry lie on the couch beside me. The night leans in, the darkness presses.

The next day is blue and white and warm. It's a day off work. I drive to St Kilda, walk by Luna Park down to the sea, drop my bag of books on the sand and take my shoes off, let the sand run through my toes. Then I go down to the water's edge and walk into the water in my clothes, long pants and a jumper. I walk out until my feet have to leave the bottom to keep my head above the water. The water is cold with sudden patches of warmth where sunshine has penetrated. I swim slowly. My clothes flow around me like an extension of my skin; I am some kind of sea creature. I turn onto my back and drift, arms out wide. There's a nice swell this far out, but no waves. The water touches me all over like silk. If I lie so that my ears are under the water I can't hear the people in my head, just the slop and gush of the sea.

After an hour or so I come back in to shore, sit down on the sand with my clothes steaming and watch other people on the beach. There's a young man quite close to me with an enormous silver ring through the centre of his nose and a series of rings running right up and over the shells of his ears. His eyebrows are tattooed into a pattern of unfolding fern fronds. I raise my own eyebrows at him and smile.

In the evening I take the tram to a terrace house in the city. The house, including the iron lace work, is painted a deep red-brown. Inside it's cool and dim. I join other people in the waiting room where there are old copies of the
Medical Journal of Australia
lying in a pile beside the coffee table. I read an article on ‘Substance misuse in patients with acute mental illness'. The authors found that 60 per cent of patients admitted to an acute psychiatric facility in Adelaide had a co-morbid substance misuse disorder, be it with cannabis, alcohol, amphetamines, heroin or benzodiazepines. Many patients misused more than one substance. ‘No shit,' I mutter out loud.

Aaron, my new psychiatrist, calls me into his consulting room. I remember him from my time in the hospital. He's rotund; short and round with a youthful face and pink cheeks and pale blonde hair. His room, on the second floor, looks like an old ballroom. It has a parquetry floor and a high ceiling. I imagine people doing the cha cha down the centre, music playing on a gramophone in the corner. Aaron asks me all the usual history-taking questions: age, marital status, parents, work, intimate relationships, family history of mental illness, personal history of mental illness, medication, alcohol and other drugs. By the end of the fifty minutes my skin is peeled back to expose my innards, my naked, painful self. I stumble outside, straight to the nearest bottle shop, keen all through the night, finally take enough lorazepam for a few hours sleep and then reel back into work the next morning.

‘Japanese sushi chefs have at least fifteen different knives for the slicing of fish,' I say to Winsome. ‘Did you know that?' I'm thinking about slicing my flesh. I confess to her that I've started carrying a hunting knife.

‘Where did you get it?' she asks.

‘Local army surplus store. It's a Dewey, for skinning, 3.5 mm thick.' I say it with pride. Winsome does not look impressed.

‘Have you got it with you?'

‘No, it's at home.'

‘Will you bring it in and give it to me?'

I think about this. I like my knife. It lies on my bedside table at night, all cool metal, full of possibility. But Winsome is still in her chair, hands relaxed on her thighs, a string of understated pearls around her neck.

‘Please go home, Kate, and bring in the knife. It's a dangerous thing to be carrying around.' She says it very clearly, quietly, so calmly, and yet her voice fills the room. ‘It can never come to any good.'

I picture running the knife lightly over the tips of my fingers. Bubbles of blood, miniature red balloons form above the faint pink of my skin, slide into the circles and whorls of my fingerprint.

Then again. Could this be a good kind of leap . . . of faith . . . in someone else that she (Winsome) knows better, is wiser? Is thinking rationally? At home I wrap the Dewey knife in layers of newspaper, secure it with packing tape and drop it in an industrial rubbish bin.

On my way to work on the train I swallow several No Doze tablets, wash them down with Red Bull, follow up with several cups of strong coffee. Then in the evening I strangle the caffeine hit with benzos and alcohol and codeine. Lurching from a minor high in the morning to a semi-coma at night, I'm distilling and then diluting the people in my head. It is a simple chemistry experiment: take two of this and three of that, add half a cup of whisky, wait a while and repeat if no effect.

Zoë and I go to Brunswick Street on the weekend, wander through the shops, through the filigree jewellery, the hopelessly funky clothes.

‘You'd look great in this,' I say, stroking a dark red dress.

‘Nah,' she says. ‘Check this out,' she holds up a sleeveless dress with a black owl sewn into the front.

‘Gorgeous,' l say.

‘Would you wear it?'

‘Scars, dammit.'

‘Dammit. Long tee underneath and opaque stockings?'

‘In winter, maybe.'

‘Try it on.'

‘Nope. Too embarrassed. You try it on.'

She grins. ‘I'm not obsessed with owls.'

We both order a double vodka and orange at the nearest pub and share our recent experiences of therapy and shrinks and medication. We listen intently to each other's stories; we laugh a lot, blackly, but shy away from tears.

I'm starting to count the days down until my next appointment with Winsome. It's Saturday, four days to go, it's Sunday, three to go. I turn up to her rooms immersed in the people in my head, insistent about the bleakness of life, stumbling over that thing called sanity. I leave with a sense of lightness, my feet firmly on the ground and a slight warmth in my heart.

‘This relationship is about trust,' she says. ‘Do you trust me, Kate?'

Almost, I think.

Outside Winsome's office is the sky. Oh, the sky. Falling through low bunched clouds are strands of sunlight that open out like a fan or a bird's wing stretched in flight. I walk as fast as I can to the sea – striding, breathing in . . . out . . . in . . . deep and long. Past the cafes, the windows with clothing I will never fit into, the gelato shop's tubs that look like mountain peaks in pink (berry) and pale green (pistachio) and white. Up one hill past the liberal synagogue, down another hill past the Yeshiva and the Uniting Church Hall and the op shops. There's a photo of Janet Leigh screaming on a wall with the sign ‘Warning: Keep Clear' above her head.

At the edge of the sea I sit on a concrete wall. Spaced fairly equally along the railing are a group of terns, their black and white feathers drying in the sun. One of them stretches its wings and its black wingspan is thick and wide as a cape and I imagine it velvet, soft as the wind that roars up from the Southern Ocean before settling into a cushiony breeze around the bay. Sunlight is touching the water about a hundred metres from the shore and each point of light that quivers there polishes the water into cut diamonds. I can't stop smiling. Perhaps god is revealing something of heaven.

But there is a Holocaust documentary on television when I get home. It is shot in black and white. The footage is of Nazi destruction of Jewish homes and businesses, the ghettos and the camps, the horror. After it has finished I find some sticks of incense and light them. It is essential that I know something of suffering so I use the lit ends to burn a Star of David into the skin of my shoulder. It takes about an hour, it is a brand.

I visit Aaron but I can't tell him anything that matters. I look at his face and my resolve to be honest leaves me, leaves me flailing about in the minutiae of how many hours I'm sleeping, how many tablets of lithium I'm taking, while the real stuff sits beside me in a great lump on the couch. He asks questions, I'm evasive. My answers are convoluted and only slightly relevant to the topic at hand. I create pictures out of words, I rarely stop talking but nothing I say has real meaning, nothing gets at the heart of things.

‘I think we're making progress,' he says at the end of fifty minutes. I pick up my bag of books and smile and walk out of his office onto Chapel Street where it is dusk, a flock of fruit bats flies low overhead quite silently. I imagine the air flowing over and under their leathery wings, keeping them afloat.

‘Kate,' Winsome says. ‘You've been coming here every week for six months, all through spring and summer, and you haven't once taken that enormous coat off.'

I wrap the coat tighter around me; clutch the pile of books to my chest like the characters and the writers are sitting here too.

‘You must be boiling hot,' she says.

‘I don't know – or at least ever notice – if I'm hot or cold.'

‘That isn't normal,' she says gently.

‘Isn't it?'

‘Will you take Berocca?' she asks.

‘What for?'

‘To give your body something with nutritive value. You only have to drink it.'

I consider this. ‘The body hasn't had anything of nutritive value for years.'

‘Now is a good time to change that,' she looks at me directly; she holds my eyes in hers. Her eyes are not softly lit; they are darker than I've ever seen them before. They are solid, determined.

After the session I walk to the supermarket. Immediately I'm through those automatic doors the people in my head start up.

seven plus three is nine align witch you're an ugly bitch weeeeeee we're killing you killing killing killing killing

I stand just inside the doors and hit the back of my thighs with my fists to get my legs to move forwards. It's hard not to look at the ground – if I look up, into the faces of other people, then they can see me, if I look at the ground, I'm invisible. I walk through the fruit and vegetables, ominous in their gleaming piles. I know there are cameras in here, behind the little bulbs of dark blue glass. Monitoring.

Berocca is in the medicinal section near the back of the store. I keep my head down and promptly collide with some children, one of whom sits on the polished linoleum and begins to cry.

‘God, sorry,' I say. ‘Sorry.' My vision goes all blurry, I can just see a parent in the distance and I turn and walk out fast, before the monitoring people can arrest me.

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