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Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /home/billbmn/public_html/wcmi1/plugins/system/advancedmodules/advancedmodules.php:28) in /home/billbmn/public_html/wcmi1/plugins/system/admintools/admintools/badbehaviour/screener.inc.php on line 9

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Kelly Dunn’s Story Psychosis Consumer - WhatCausesMentalIllness.com
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Sanity is very rare: every man almost, and every woman, has a dash of madness.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
   

FAQ  


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Word Cloud  


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Latest Additions  


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Glimpses

Kelly Dunn’s Story Psychosis Consumer

Details

Kelly Dunn’s Story

Rain tinkles on the roof as I sit and smoke yet another illicit cigarette. My thoughts have great clarity at four a.m. After finding my car alight from wayward cigarette ash four days ago, you’d expect that I’d learn my lesson. But no, here I sit smoking and contemplating my navel. It’s been eighteen months since my ragged induction into the Victorian mental health system and my life is still in disarray. Spells on different anti-depressant medication, sleeping tablets to get me through the night, and a newly-acquired nicotine habit.

I sit on my veranda in my grubby, terry-towelling dressing gown pondering the sad fate of my car. It was the tool for my suicide attempt and now it’s bearing the brunt of my novice cigarette smoking. The back seat is burnt out, the seat belts scorched and the buckles melted blobs of plastic. The fire was over the fuel tank so I was lucky the whole car didn’t go up. I’m also lucky that my sister rescued me from the same toxin-filled car last year.

Life goes on. I make the same stupid mistakes as before and throw a few new ones into the cauldron. But I’m not the only one, not by a long shot. Our society, too, keeps making gross errors of judgement. In many ways the care of the mentally ill is as barbaric as it was in the nineteenth century. Time has moved on but in many ways it’s stood still. Sometimes, even with good intentions, time grinds backwards. To me my days on the psychiatric ward are like yesterday, burnt into a mind already trembling on the edge.

I’d been gassing myself for two hours by the time emergency services were alerted. My rescue necessitates the arrival of two police cars, two fire engines and an ambulance. There’s nothing like a discrete suicide. They peel open my garage door, smash the driver’s window and drag me out of the car by my wrists. I’m close to death. My stomach is awash with sleeping pills; my blood is charged with noxious gases.

But the physical rescue is the easy part. Afterwards I’m left to lie in a general ward for three days. The first night I try to hang myself in the bathroom with a conveniently-placed plastic chair and an electrical cord from my bed. The second night I try to suffocate myself with a large plastic bag that’s in my bedside table. The nurses don’t notice. They only need to check my vitals every four hours and once overnight.

Nick’s parents sit with him in Emergency till the early hours. Hardworking immigrants, they are mystified by their youngest son’s partying and drug-taking ways. They sacrificed their lives to give him the best of everything. They feel wounded. Confused. Worried. At 2am a nurse advises them to go home.

Will Nick be okay? Shouldn’t he be tied down?’ His mother hated saying the words.

No, no. He’ll be fine. We’ll take care of him. You get some sleep.’

Nick wakes some time later. He gets out of bed and wanders through the Emergency Department. He is struck by the sight of a father asleep at his son’s bedside holding his son’s small hand.

Nick’s parents are woken at 5am by the police. Is Nick at home? No? Apparently he walked out of the busy Emergency Department without staff noticing.

Nick wades through local creeks trying to throw authorities off his scent. When he reaches Coburg, he starts handing out business cards to the local shop owners. He tries impressing upon them the brilliance of his six-point business plan. His clothes are soiled and muddied. Police pick him up that afternoon and return him to the hospital.

I’ve been waiting to see a psychiatrist for three days. I’m starting to get worried that I’m going to be discharged and left to my own desperate devices. I ask the nurses when I’ll see a doctor, any doctor. They give me excuses and homespun clichés:

You should be thankful that you’re alive and healthy. There are so many people on organ waiting lists.’ (I say, ‘They’re welcome to all of mine.’)

It’s a beautiful day. God made us such a beautiful world to live in.’

In my country everyone would be happy with what you’ve got.’

The psychiatrist arrives on the afternoon of the third day. After I’ve answered his questions, I hand him the blue plastic bag. ‘Please take this with you. I tried to kill myself with it.’ He sits down again and looks at me seriously.

Ross has split up with his pregnant girlfriend. He didn’t see a problem with having a few quiet drinks after work each night. Now he’s sleeping on a mate’s couch. Then one night the police pick him up hiding in his ex’s backyard. He only wanted to see her, God damn it. Did they think he was friggin’ dangerous? Dumped off at the Emergency Department, Ross eventually wanders outside for a smoke. He sees the security guards eyeing him. He wants to see how far he can push them. When they lose interest, Ross walks off into the night. He’s amazed how easy it is. He walks down to the local pokies and spends the last of his cash.

The sitter nurse, Glenn, has arrived to sit with me. For my own safety. Apparently the ward nurses don’t have enough time to keep an eye on me. Glenn starts by checking over the room and ensuite, removing anything potentially dangerous. He knows his stuff. In no time he’s whipped off the curtains, removed the plastic chair and all electrical cords.

Glenn sits by my bedside all afternoon. We sit and chat. When I go to the toilet and have a shower, I have to leave the door open. It’s kinda embarrassing but I’m glad he’s there.

When Glenn goes on a break, he gets one of the ward nurses to sit with me. She’s not happy about it. None of the nurses seem to like Glenn encroaching on their territory and telling them what to do.

I ask Glenn what it’s like in a psychiatric ward. I’m worried about what the other patients will be like. Whether I’ll be safe.

He tries to reassure me. ‘From what I’ve heard that’s one of the best psychiatric wards in Melbourne. And I’ll come with you in the ambulance and help you settle in.’

Then ten minutes before I’m picked up, the charge nurse comes to see Glenn. ‘Your shift finishes when the patient is picked up.’

That’s not the normal procedure.’ He frowns. ‘I always accompany the patients to the psychiatric ward, help them settle in and then return to my car by taxi.’

She returns after checking procedures with the doctor. Apparently the hospital budget won’t stretch to an extra hour’s pay and a taxi ride. And their psychiatric ward is full. So I’m being shipped out.

I sit on the trolley in tears. Glenn has become my lifeline. He’s being ripped off me just when I need him the most. I’m wheeled out of the ward. A horrifying introduction to a psychiatric ward awaits me.

Billie was subdued with capsicum spray after putting a knife to her own throat. Now she’s lying in the Emergency Department with her arms strapped to the trolley. Her eyes sting and her skin crawls. When she complains, the nurse says, ‘It’s your own fault.’ And leaves her there.

Later on Billie’s allowed to have a shower under the unsmiling gaze of a burly security man. It’s just another humiliation for Billie who’s had a male to female sex change. She turns towards the security guard and says, ‘Have a good look, mate.’ That’s as far as her bravery goes. If she makes an official complaint, the media will have a field day. She doesn’t want to be a circus act.

The trolley is pushed backwards into the ambulance. I’m dragged backwards through the local suburbs in the insipid afternoon sun. Past my workplace. Past streets, houses and shops that I’ve seen many times before. The buildings grow out of the stale ground. Familiar yet sterile. Rank. Pointless. I put my head back and close my eyes.

The stench of urine is the first thing that strikes me in the psych ward. My nostrils flare and my stomach clenches. I can imagine the patients peeing on the walls and in dark corners of the hallway.

The ambos wheel the trolley smartly into a lounge area. I’m hit by a barrage of colour and sound and activity. Patients mill around, walking nowhere in particular with the measured tread of those with too much time on their hands. Heated discussions are taking place; others are muttering to themselves, yelling or demanding something from someone. A few people are visible passed out on the faux leather couch. Everyone, it seems, is wearing street clothes.

The trolley is lowered. My seatbelt unbuckled. I’m left standing exposed in my striped flannelette pyjamas, clutching a bunch of droopy flowers. I hear the mocking serenade of ‘Bananas in Pyjamas’ from amongst the group. I flush. I didn’t know there was a dress code.

A nurse leads me into an adjoining bedroom. ‘This is where you’ll sleep,’ she says. ‘And this is Mary. Your roommate.’ My eyes widen when I see the twin beds covered with white blankets. As I turn to face Mary, I have to stop myself flinching.

Mary’s stooped shoulders are clothed in a navy-blue pinstripe suit. I’ll discover later that this well-worn suit is her only outfit. Her sandals don’t hide her thickened, crusty toenails which grow vertically off her toes. Mary’s salt-and-pepper hair spins out from her head in a wild afro. She is dithering at her bedside, shuffling to and fro, folding and refolding the bedcovers. She lifts her hangdog eyes towards her visitors but says not a word. Her eyes are large and brown; black rings are etched in the folds of loose skin underneath.

Here you go,’ the nurse says to me. ‘Pop your bag in here.’ She holds the cupboard door open invitingly. ‘And I’ll take care of your flowers while you go talk to Doctor Singh.’

I walk closely behind the slightly-built doctor through the lounge area. I try to shrink my frame down, using the doctor as a human shield. My eyes slide over the patients in the lounge chairs. A young man is asleep with his hand down the front of his pants. He has a large wet stain on his T-shirt, like a baby who hasn’t worn his bib.

The seats in the interview room are all stained with unknown substances. I find the least offensive-looking stain to sit upon. The doctor looks at me. ‘So. Tell me how you came to be admitted to hospital.’ She has a facial tic. Her face keeps going into spasm; her eyes close tightly and her nose twitches. I wonder if insanity rubs off.

She insists upon hearing the whole spiel: the day with no hope, the vial of sleeping tablets, my car, the hose, the locked garage and the car radio playing sweetly. My voice is a monotone. It’s something that happened to someone else. Fantastic. Unreal.

I ask the doctor for some water. My mouth’s so dry that my lips are sticking to my teeth. She returns with a white plastic cup, stale tap water only covering half the ridges on the side.

She asks about my childhood. My parents. My siblings. Any relevant family history. And she asks if I still feel like harming myself. And how do I feel today. These will become catchphrases.

I’m delivered back to the lounge area. The smell of old piss is suffocating. I notice that the staff are kept safe behind lock and key. Their staff station is protected with double-glazing and card access.

A nurse emerges from the inner sanctum. ‘Let’s take you on a tour of the ward.’ She points out the features like we’re at a three-star motel. ‘This is the TV room.’ ‘And here’s the craft room.’ ‘The courtyard.’

Panic bubbles up through my chest. I ruin the mood by gabbling, ‘I can’t stay here!’ I try appealing to her better side. Try creating a closeness that doesn’t exist. She ignores me.

The nurse is finding it hard to keep up the banter. A patient keeps interrupting, asking insistently for clean pyjama pants. ‘Not now, Renata! I’ll be with you in a minute.’ The nurse is getting irritated. Renata stands close by, wearing green hospital-issue pyjamas covered by a leopard-print dressing gown. She plucks at her bottom anxiously. She hovers around us, trying her luck every few minutes, revealing a mouthful of missing and rotten teeth.

The nurse capitulates. I’m left sitting outside the staff station. I sit as non-offensively as possible, staring straight ahead.

An old man with flowing white hair staggers past. He’s topped his green pyjama pants with boardshorts. He raps on the glass. The staff ignore him. He shuffles side to side. They don’t pause in their conversations. Some keep their heads firmly down, apparently absorbed in their paperwork.

The man raps louder. Two staff members amble away into a back office. The man starts yelling, his words incomprehensible. A burly nurse raises his head and gives the patient a measured look. The nurse slowly stands up and walks to the door.

Yes, Sid.’ Making him leave his chair is clearly an insult.

I wanna smoke.’ The door clips shut in Sid’s face. The nurse saunters over to a filing cabinet. He eventually returns with a single cigarette. Sid snatches it and breaks into a half-run heading towards the courtyard, clutching the string of his pyjama pants to stop them falling.

The nurse who took me on the aborted tour returns. I plead with her, explaining that I can’t possibly stay. Sweat trickles down my back. There are rings of wet flannelette under my arms.

The burly nurse leaves the fishbowl. He comes over. ‘What’s the problem?’

Please! I can’t stay here! I don’t feel safe.’

He crosses his arms. ‘Yes, yes, I can see that.’ He sounds sympathetic. I dart behind his massive frame, using him as protection from the great unknown. ‘You’ve made it perfectly clear. No one could miss it.’ I realise too late that he’s mocking me. He doesn’t care either.

I hound the female nurse. She agrees to talk to the nurse manager. I follow her and stand hunched and distressed against the glass door, trying to make myself as small and innocuous as possible. Staff walk in and out, swiping their identity cards and letting the door click shut in my face.

When the nurse manager opens the door, I push my way into the office. She struggles against me. ‘You’re not allowed in here!’

I stand my ground. ‘How come you get to lock yourself away where it’s safe and I have to stay out here?’

The door’s locked because we have medication and confidential documents in here. It’s got nothing to do with safety.’ She pushes me back out the door.

Please! I can’t stay here!’ My eyes beseech her. ‘This is my worst nightmare.’

This is where your doctor has sent you for treatment.’ Her tone is matter of fact.

I can’t stay here! It’s a freak show!’ In my desperation I’ve become reckless. I hear angry mutterings from the patients behind me. ‘Please! Send me back to the other hospital.’

She shakes her head. ‘I can’t do that. It’s not up to me to decide.’

I keep talking, clutching at straws. ‘I can’t sleep in there.’ I cast a thumb towards my twin share accommodation. ‘I can’t share a room. How can I possibly sleep in an unlocked room? With a complete stranger?’

She looks unconcerned. ‘There are no other rooms available.’

I try using logic as a weapon. ‘How’s this supposed to make me better? I’m so scared. So stressed. How can I get better feeling like this?’

She remains unmoved. ‘Look. You’ll just have to make the best of it tonight. You might be able to get a single room tomorrow. If someone’s discharged.’

I want to talk to the doctor.’

Dr Singh looks up from her notes. She listens to the nurse while looking at me. She makes me wait a few minutes before she comes out.

You have to stay here tonight. I’ll see if I can sort it out in the morning.’

Aren’t I a voluntary patient? ‘I’m pulling out the big guns in desperation.

Yes.’ Twitch.

Well, no one asked me if I wanted to come here. And I don’t give my permission. You can’t keep me here against my will.’

She doesn’t baulk although her eyelid tics. ‘If you don’t agree to stay then I’ll have to certify you. Make you an involuntary patient.’

My world falls away. I remember all the old movies about being locked away in mental institutions. Surely that doesn’t happen in this day and age? I stay flattened against the door for minute after minute. Staff walk past like I’m invisible. Click, click, click. The door keeps shutting in my face.

I can see someone out of the corner of my eye. It’s Renata. She appears fascinated by me. She moves side to side trying to get a look at my face. She has an intent look in her eye. I shrink further into the door. Soon the door and I will become one.

A young man wanders over. He’s doing the sleep shuffle, his arms swinging loosely at his sides, his eyelids nearly completely closed. He knocks on the glass for attention.

Yes, James.’ It’s the male nurse.

Is Mark working tonight?’ His words are slurred.

No, he’s not.’

He’s a criminal.’

The nurse pretends to take offence. ‘We don’t talk about each other like that, James!’ he bellows. ‘Mark isn’t a criminal. So don’t even bother saying it.’

James wanders off. ‘What’s your name? I’m James.’ It’s a mantra he repeats to anyone who’ll listen.

I notice a woman in a sloppy tracksuit sitting at the top of the lounge. Her toothless mouth and loose lips belie her girlish pigtails. She’s positioned herself strategically at the crossroads of three main thoroughfares, ready to abuse anyone who goes past.

Look at that b*tch.’ The taunts are directed towards a nurse passing up the corridor. ‘She’s a lazy b*tch. Look how fat her arse is.’ She raises her voice as the nurse moves further away. ‘Up your arse!’

What are you looking at, Princess?’ She’s noticed me. ‘Too good for the rest of us? Think you’re something special, do ya?’

I sidestep around the staff station, edging closer to the doctor sitting at the desk filling in the forms to have me certified. Only glass separates us. I sink down onto the floor, my back against the wall, and my knees against my chest. I feel safer with my back covered. I think I could possibly manage to sleep like this.

Renata is still staking me out. I turn my head sideways, letting my hair fall lankly over my face, staring blindly. Her leopard-print gown and pink thongs pass in and out my line of vision. When she walks, her right thong slaps against her foot but her left is silent. Step, slap, step, slap, step, slap. The sound chafes against my nerves.

The glut of patients seems to be clearing. I make the mistake of looking up and catching Renata’s eye. She bears down upon me with an outstretched hand. ‘Hello, I’m Renata Cerbasi.’

My head snaps towards her. ‘Can you leave me alone, please?’

Hostility seems to do the trick. ‘I’m sorry.’ She backs away. ‘I’m sorry.’ She walks away down the corridor.

A foreign-looking man in sandals and shorts wanders past. His eyes look at me piercingly, like I’m a desirable woman instead of a sweaty, dishevelled character crouched on the floor. I hug my arms tighter around my knees and look away.

Someone’s slept through dinner. He knocks on the glass and asks for sandwiches. ‘Are you all right, love?’ he asks as he walks back empty-handed. I hang my head further to the side, greasy hair covering everything but the tip of my nose. As soon as he’s gone I feel like calling him back. The way he called me ‘love’ reminds me of another world.

I can hear him talking to someone out of sight. ‘Yeah, she’ll be right. I was like that when I first come in. I was freakin’ out, mate.’

It finally dawns on me. The doctors and nurses see me as just another psychiatric patient who has freaked out on arrival in the ward. Everything I’ve said and done is seen through the perspective of me being mentally ill. As a human being I am less. They don’t see me: the university graduate, the mother, the professional worker. My heartfelt pleas are old hat. My terror is routine.

I’ve been difficult. I haven’t gone along with their rules. And if I don’t play right, then they will strip me of all my rights. I’ll lose my freedom indefinitely. I’ll be locked up at their discretion.

I have to play or pay.

Like an old woman, I rise to my feet and hobble over to the engine room.

Dr Singh opens the door a crack. ‘Yes?’

Dr Singh- I’ll stay tonight. But can I please have my own room?’ I can’t let go of my fears. Getting knifed in my sleep being one of them.

She looks over her shoulder. ‘Oscar. Did you move Mary to another room?’

Yeah.’ Oscar looks at me unsmilingly. ‘I moved her ages ago.’

The bowl is full of yellow piss. A puddle spreads across the engrained floor tiles. I’ve found the source of the smell. It reminds me of the toilets that used to hide under the busy city streets, and my mother leading me down past the ornate railings into the depths of the city.

I straddle the seat with my thighs spread. My toes claw the tiles to keep clear of the mess. One hand clutches my pyjama pants, trying to prevent them dipping in the piss; the other arm is outstretched, ready to slam the door shut. Its lock spins uselessly upon itself.

I manage to perform eventually. Then I wash my hands with relief. It feels like a major achievement. I scuttle back to my room. Its door is heavy, and the air-conditioning sucks back against me. I lean my shoulder into it.

I sit on the bed looking out the thin venetians. They are entombed in a glass case, living their life in a vacuum, neither in this world nor that. Clearly venetian cords are dangerous and must live in isolation. Set at half-mast, the blinds let in languid, yellow street lighting. A dark bush obscures my view and throws leaf shadows on my white hospital blanket.

I think of my kids, my little house, my garden. They seem so good now. This sh*t-hole makes me want to get better. Perhaps they deliberately designed it that way. They’ve convinced me. My face stings from the smack back to reality. I want my kids. I want my life. I want to spend my whole weekend gardening alone. I’m so sorry.

God, give it back and I’ll be happy with it.’

I hide myself in bed, tucking the blankets in close around my neck and back. I face the door. It’s hard to relax and maintain a vigil at the same time.

I wake early, still in the sentry position. My sleep was torn by the clanging of doors on the three-hourly rounds. Click. Clang! Click. Clang! Coming down the hallway. Then my turn to be in the spotlight.

I venture out. Strain back against the suction of the door. Only one body is visible on the couch, wrapped in white and sleeping. I turn left and find a toilet with a working lock. Another victory. I sit and will my body to function. Do it now before the others awake.

I’ve been reduced to my sum elements. Waste products. So have all the other patients in here. We are all piss, sh*t, sweat and tears.

Then I notice it - like a confirmation. A face-washer is balled up on the hand basin. It’s covered in sh*t. I stand and flush. I can barely look at it but can’t leave it there to goad me another time. I haul out handfuls of paper towel and toss it into the bin. I look at the taps. The germs are almost visible crawling across their steely surface. And so begins the ritual.

I haul out handfuls of protective paper towel. Tap on. Throw paper in bin. Pump soap. Wash. More fistfuls of paper. Tap off. Bin them. I dry my hands on more. Open the door with them. Block the door with my foot and lob the rubbish in the bin.

It will be like this for all of my stay. The paranoia. The obsessive-compulsive disorder that I never knew I had.

I return to my room and firmly shut the door. I sit on my bed with my back to the ward. I unpack my bag to find what’s left of myself. Two pairs of pyjamas. A pair of big undies that should’ve been thrown out. A comb. Toothbrush and toothpaste. Two bananas. A packet of salt and vinegar chips. A bottle of lemonade. A book from my sister. But there are no socks or shoes of any kind. My feet are hanging in mid-air, creeping with bacteria. I know that I have to abandon them. I have to leave them to their fate.

I slowly refold my clothes. I hide my bag under the free edge of the blanket. I hope it isn’t visible from the door. It’s all that I have of my life. I crawl under the covers, cold and weary. The ceiling has been repainted but only halfway across. Beige over off-white. Rough roller marks. There are two single beds and two white cupboards. No hanging points anywhere. No mirrors. No sharp corners. Entombed venetians. It makes me feel secure. Maybe they care.

My lips are sticking to my teeth. My throat is hot and dry. I reach for the last of the lemonade. I could reuse it as a water bottle. I keep it. I eat one banana but save the chips. My mouth is still mucky.

I venture out. There are too many people in the common room now. I refill my lemonade bottle with dank tap water and retreat. I’ve been reduced to my base urges: thirst, hunger and fear.

I lie still. Try to warm myself. Keep my back to the door, blocking them out.

Morning! Breakfast’s ready!’ I don’t respond. ‘You coming for breakfast?’ I shake my head. ‘A cup of tea?’ I shake again. She doesn’t understand that I can’t go near those people, those loonies. ‘Okay then.’ The door sucks closed.

I lie still. Thoughts crawl through my mind. I lie looking numbly at the bush, the venetians, the ceiling. I spy my flowers sitting in a plastic jug high on the cupboard. They hold the only colour in the room.

She comes back again. ‘How about a nice, warm shower?’ It’s tempting. Without powder and deodorant I’ve discovered smells that I never knew my body made.

She escorts me to a bathroom that only the women use. Supposedly it’s cleaner than those I’ve encountered so far. After she leaves I see that someone has shat all over the toilet seat. I can’t ignore it when it’s right next to the shower.

I slink back to the bathroom of the sh*tty washer fame. I wash with a matchbox-sized piece of soap. The soap also improvises as hair shampoo. A sample bottle of hand lotion doubles as deodorant. I tuck both away in my bag. Everything is valuable, nothing wasted.

It’s amazing how long you can lie doing nothing. Time ticks over. Eventually I sit up and re-examine the contents of my bag. Stroke my pyjamas. I can hear someone yelling in the lounge. ‘Aaaargh! Aaargh!’ And murmurs of conversation. Doors clang. I pull the book out of my bag.

Anne of Green Gables seems like an old friend. I run my fingers over the hard cover and open the book reverently. My sister must’ve bought it second-hand. The pages are yellow. Someone’s written her name in old cursive script on the first page. I read through the publication details like they might be able to tell me something. I need something to go on. I raise the book and smell another world. Eighty years of living. Children growing. Youthful hopes and dreams. Pleasure. Pain. Life. Death. It’s a pattern, a connection. I cling to it with both hands. Others have come before me. They, too, have been in places like this. They have felt the same despair. They are here for me. I’m not alone.

I open to the first chapter. The life of an orphan girl has never felt so real. I feel her loneliness. I suffer her suffering. I grab at her courage. And I submerge myself into her world.

Lunchtime!’ Little Miss Sunshine pokes her head in the door.

Okay.’

The door clicks shut. I inhale the pages again. I’m no longer waste products. I’m no longer base urges. There are words, and while there are words there is company, there is history, there is comfort and there is hope.

I hide the book under my pillow and head out for lunch.

You’re discharged from the psych ward after five days of wandering the corridors. Despite the group classes listed on the notice board, you’ve only scored two art classes run by a volunteer. Occasionally your assigned nurse comes to have a chat with you. Other days you don’t even get to meet her. The doctors take three days to start you on anti-depressants. You leave with enough tablets for five days, instructions to visit your local doctor for a script, and a list of internet sites so you can find yourself a support group.

Dom had a great future ahead of him. He breezed through uni and snagged a great job at a top firm. But then he’d become obsessed about an ex-girlfriend. She was all he could think about. It’s been three years since they split up but he can’t get her off his mind. Even the letters in her name gave him secret messages. He’s been in the psych ward for months, his brilliant career down the gurgler. He spends his days playing his guitar, kicking around a soccer ball and doing tai chi.

Dom’s aggravated because he wants to go home. Some days he takes his frustration out on his fellow patients verbally. Another day a tree in the courtyard takes the brunt of his anger. Luckily Dom’s hand isn’t broken. Another night he makes a break for freedom after his family leaves for home. He charges the locked doors of the psych ward and forces his way through. His parents and an elderly aunt turn and bar his way, their arms outstretched like an Elderly Citizens soccer team. Then the psych nurses jump Dom from behind. They don’t take him gently. He’s lead away for a booster dose of tranquilisers and another night wandering the corridors.

You didn’t know that life could get any worse but it has. Your teenage daughter is furious about your suicide attempt. She goes to live with your mother. Suddenly you find yourself ditched by your family. You’re not invited to family get-togethers. You’re not allowed inside your mother’s house. Your brother doesn’t invite you to his wedding. As if life wasn’t hard enough as a single mother, now you’re a single mother with no family. You overdose a second time.

When you wake with heart palpitations, you call triple zero. Suddenly you’re scared of dying. When the ambulance officers arrive, they seem to find your overdose unimpressive. They treat you with disdain, making jokes at your expense. They think you’re putting on an act. You hear the ambos passing on their opinion of you to the Emergency doctor as you lie in a stupor on a trolley.

The next morning the Emergency nurses leave you to your own devices. You don’t have any pressing medical needs that they can measure, monitor and record on charts. They have real patients to attend to.

Billie’s been in the psychiatric ward for two weeks. She goes out with the social worker to look at share accommodation. The house is squalid. As they sit in the car outside, Billie sees a drug deal in action. But the social worker has no other options. Due to the housing shortage, local caravan parks are full, and rental properties are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Billie decides to go back home. She’s happy to see her housemate Susie again but is wary of Susie’s abusive, violent boyfriend. Karl has been staying over so often, he’s virtually taken up residence. And he’s got the spare room set up growing a crop. He’s got an unpredictable temper and sometimes knocks Billie and Susie around. The tension and stress totally mess with Billie’s mind but what else can she do? Live on the streets?

You’ve been lying alone for several hours. The nurses’ station is right outside your cubicle and you can see the staff bustling around. Finally a nurse comes in. She flips through your hospital file and reads about your recent overdose. ‘What’s a Dry Strongbow?’ she asks the others. They all laugh. You feel your insides shrivel. No one bothers to read about your first admission to the hospital three months previously.

You notice that your pillow is covered with a plastic cover. You get out of bed and swish your curtain shut. You place the plastic bag over your head, bunch it around your neck and cover yourself with the blanket. You lie there for twenty minutes. Reflex guttural noises from your throat finally alert a nurse. She rips the bag off your head. Your head falls out, sweaty and semi-conscious.

What are you doing?’ she yells. She sounds like she’s talking to a naughty child.

Nick is one of the lucky ones; he’s got loving parents to go home to. He tries to go straight for a while. Finding a job. Going to bed when his parents tell him. And taking his tablets like a good boy. But he doesn’t like the side effects from his medication. No twenty-four year old man wants to be turned into Mister Floppy. Soon he starts flushing his tablets down the toilet. Then he begins dabbling in recreational drugs again. Before he knows it, his hobby lands him right back in the psychiatric ward.

When you come to, you’re surprised to find that you’re alone. Your curtain’s open and the staff outside are talking as if nothing’s happened. Did you imagine suffocating yourself? Then you see the plastic bag. It’s just been thrown on the chair in your cubicle.

You retrieve it and bag yourself up again. The nurse returns after five minutes. She’s getting really annoyed with you now. She puts up the side on your bed. ‘That’ll stop you,’ she says. Then she leaves, taking the bag with her.

.

You notice that there are two bins in your cubicle. You let down the side on your bed. You tip the rubbish onto the floor and bag yourself up with a bright yellow Hazardous Waste bag. A different nurse finds you. She puts an oxygen mask and a heart monitor on you. When you keep removing them, she leaves in disgust. It’s the end of her shift. You watch her depart with her handbag.

David’s used up his father’s good will; he’s not welcome at the family home anymore. At the age of forty-three David has to finally fend for himself. The problem is, David can’t afford share accommodation. Not when all his money goes on the love of his life, marijuana. So as soon as he’s released from hospital, David loads up his car and takes off for Nimbin. He reckons he’ll be happy there. And crossing the state border means he can’t be rounded up by the CAT team and returned to hospital. It’s a win-win situation.

You notice a young nurse watching you from across the ward. Your heart lights up. She comes over to you. ‘I’m just going to borrow this,’ she says, and wheels away your monitor stand. She takes it back to her own patient. She doesn’t seem to notice your IV line and needle hanging off the machine. You pulled those out earlier.

You lie flat, becoming one with the mattress. You count for nothing.

Your nurse replaces your bin liner while talking to staff at the nurses’ station. She places the bin back in your cubicle, laughs and then places it just outside. They treat you like you’re a joke.

A psychiatric nurse comes to visit you in the afternoon. Her friendliness is a shock. You open up to her and tell her what’s been happening at home. She knows the right things to say; she reassures you and soothes your anxieties. You tell her how your cubicle wasn’t safety checked and how the nurses have been treating you.

She smiles grimly. ‘The nurses have labelled you an attention seeker.’

You wonder what that means.

Marco was lucky enough to snare some share accommodation after his discharge from hospital. But now he’s returned to his old stomping ground: the psychiatric ward. The local police gave him a no-frills economy ride back in the divvy van.

Marco reckons that one of his housemates was pinching stuff from his room. When he got jack of it, Marco started a fire in the culprit’s room using a cigarette lighter. He wasn’t planning on burning the whole house down like the police suggested. It was just one of those mistakes.

You’ve finally made it to the psychiatric ward. You never thought you’d say it but ‘Thank God!’ You settle in quickly to your share room. It’s reasonably clean, and your roommate looks human. There’s even an ensuite. You feel safe.

Your mother visits that evening with a supply of desperately needed toiletries and clean clothes. She walks into your room and hugs you. It’s so good to see her, you have trouble letting go. She sits on the edge of your bed. ‘I had to wait ten minutes while the nurse checked what was in the bag I brought you,’ your Mum says. ‘But I don’t think she took anything out.’

Your Mum picks up the bag from the floor, and places it on your bed.

It’s a plastic bag.

Jane Doe meets Joe Blow

You venture into the television room for the first time. A man comes in sporting a small red goatee and green hospital-issue pyjamas. You watch TV together and chat about the show. ‘Hi, I’m Phil.’ He leans across to shake your hand. You become friends. Whenever he finds you crying he says, ‘Come on, mate. Don’t cry. You’ll be right.’ He gives you hugs like the brother you never had.

Phillip’s parents died when he was young. He does seasonal work on farms. Recently he decided to make a new start in Queensland. The police picked him up at the airport after he made a scene about his ticket. He’d also been stalking an ex-girlfriend after she snubbed him at a pub. He was brought to the facility with the clothes he stood up in. He washes them every other day. They’re his only possessions.

You spend the afternoon cutting up Chinese characters with an artist’s scalpel. You like the way that the art teacher trusts you with it. When Robert sees ‘Peace, Prosperity and Good Will’ stuck on his door, he kisses your hand with a flourish. You throw your arms around him in a big hug.

Robert is an only child, the hope of his elderly parents’ dreams. His father travelled to Australia so Robert could study engineering. His father speaks no English; Robert has no practical skills. They need each other. Robert will be in hospital for seven weeks. It is his first episode.

Sid turns up at the table when you’ve got a visitor. He shoves a plastic cup at you. ‘Hi, Sid.’ You tip lemonade into his cup. He throws it down the hatch. He shoves the cup at your sister. She laughs nervously and pours him some coke. Sid disappears in a half-shuffle run. You resume your conversation like nothing’s happened.

Sid played in bands for thirty years and is well-known on the streets of St Kilda. The only remnants of his past life are black sunglasses and long hair. Now his days revolve around snaring another fag. He’d play music for everyone but the guitar on the ward has broken strings.

You’re lying on the couch watching Shawshank Redemption. You feel something in your hair. You look back in the darkness.

You’ve got beautiful hair.’ It’s Markus. ‘Can I play with your hair?’

Okay.’ In here inhibitions shrivel. It feels nice to have someone touch you again.

He reaches for your hand and holds it tight. ‘I’m lonely.’ The words come from his soul.

Markus is a refugee from Iraq. The police brought him in after he set a boarding house alight. Markus’s childhood consisted of war and refugee camps. He remembers standing on the roof and watching the planes fly in while his family hid in the basement. They have nothing to do with him now. They’ve been burnt by his illness.

You’re making a Valentine’s Day card for your kids. Steph sits across from you making one for her partner Sue. Steph’s having a bad day and isn’t as talkative as normal. She concentrates hard on her card. As you walk back to your rooms, you ask her about the scars on her arm. There are no secrets in here.

I cut myself with a razor, she says. ‘I was trying to prove that there’s a robot inside me.’

Steph’s life has been sliced and diced by her paranoid schizophrenia. She lives quietly on a pension and finds peace in Buddhist meditation. Her home is like a shrine to Buddha. Wind chimes fill her tranquil garden. She’s been in and out of psychiatric wards for twenty years.

Renata’s wandering around in her leopard print dressing gown. She appears lost. Her eyes are filled with tears. They beseech you: ‘Help me.’

Are you okay, Renata?’

She shakes her head wordlessly. She had ECT this morning and it always makes her feel sad. You rub her back and then enfold her in a hug. By the time her husband and son arrive that evening, all Renata has is a dull headache. She manages to sit and make conversation.

Renata’s depression hasn’t been responding to regular medication. So now the doctors have brought in the big guns. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are the dreaded ECT days. It knocks out short-term memory. Renata wanders around the ward introducing herself repeatedly to anyone she meets. ‘Hello, I’m Renata. What’s your name?’

Maureen’s abusing the patient at the top of the lunch queue. ‘Up your bum, you stupid cow.’ She’s second in line and trying to pull rank. Her repertoire consists of bum, bloody and b*tch. We’re sick of it. Eventually the patient bites back. A nurse steps in and gets Maureen’s lunch ‘to go’. We shuffle forward with appreciation.

You see Maureen three months later at your local health centre. She doesn’t remember you. You almost don’t recognise her. She has her teeth in. And she seems like the sweetest old lady. Polite, gentle, well-bred.

You notice Kim mothering the other patients. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ ‘How are you today?’ ‘Make sure you come to the craft class this afternoon.’ When Kim comes back from day leave she leaves thoughtful gifts outside the other patients’ doors. A pot plant. A deodorant. A soccer ball. When she isn’t giving away her love, she sits crying in the lounge. Or the TV room. In the garden. Wiping away tears wordlessly.

It’s not Kim’s first suicide attempt. Her wrists are purpled black and blue. She blends back into regular society upon discharge. Holds down a job. Services her mortgage. Raises her kids. Volunteers at the school. If she revealed her other side people would say things like, ‘But you always looked so happy.’

Zoe is abusing her ex-boyfriend on the phone. ‘It’s your fault that I’m in here, you f*ckin’ b*stard! You’ve been speaking to my Mum and Dad.’

You don’t like Zoe. She stands around looking at everyone with a nasty look on her face. Scheming and planning to stir the pot. Causing mischief with her lies.

Zoe’s mum has pinned down a nurse outside the station. ‘She’s been in here for a month and she hasn’t improved at all. No one ever returns my calls. No one tells us what’s going on. Who do I have to speak to here?’

The nurse holds out her hands. ‘I’ve just started my shift. But I’ll see if the doctor’s available.’

Zoe’s mum hitches her grandson further up her hip. He’s been smacked by Grandpa and is snotty and screaming. ‘I know it’s not your fault. But I just need some answers...’

Yes, yes...I’ll see what I can do.’ The nurse disappears into the cone of silence.

Mary won’t stop talking. She tells convoluted stories in her thick accent. The stutter and obsessive rehashing of details add to your discomfort. When your eyes start to wander, she hits you on the upper arm. ‘Listen! Listen! I’m talking to you.’ She wants you to be her friend.

In the 1960s Mary travelled to Australia by herself. She held down a factory job until she wed Hugo. After their marriage broke down, Mary was left holding the baby in a foreign land. Her erratic behaviour estranged her from her only relatives. Today Mary lives with her adult daughter who also has schizophrenia. She is Mary’s life. Mary is hers.

Fatma arrives in the dining room to serve us our morning portion of abuse. ‘If you don’t believe in Allah, you’re lost. You’re stupid!’ She collects her tray in a flurry of fabric and disappears into her room. She eats alone, every meal, every day. She won’t talk to male patients. She tries to convert the females. Her isolation is biting.

Fatma was picked up by the police in Thomastown. She’d been trying to convert people on the street but couldn’t resist throwing in an insult or two. The social worker is trying to find her a new place to live. Her brother and sister-in-law won’t put up with her anymore.

You come back to visit Steph two weeks after your release. She gobbles up the Easter eggs that you brought in. You chat about everything and nothing. When your time is up Steph says, ‘Thanks for coming. Thanks for the sanity.’

You laugh. ‘Thanks for the insanity.’ You mean it. The honesty. The lack of pretence. The warmth. You miss it. You miss them. Their insanity feels more comfortable, more stable, more real, than the sanity masquerading on the streets of Melbourne.

Sex and the Sh*tty

You meet Barry when you arrive in the psychiatric ward’s high dependency unit. You’re wearing a hospital gown and you’re wrapped in a blanket. He’s onto you in a flash. The HD unit offers him slim pickings and limited opportunities. He chats you up in the presence of the attendant nurse. You try to fob him off in a non-offensive way. It’s a wise move. Big Barry has a nasty temper.

Barry rejoices when he’s released from HD. He likes talking to all the female patients. He regales them with the same old stories and corners them physically, if not intellectually. He gives out his address and telephone number freely. He just won’t leave them alone. When you’ve had enough, you make a complaint to one of the nurses. Barry turns nasty. He knows that it was you. You try to act innocent. Luckily after a few hours he’s forgotten about it.

You’re sitting on the bed with your mum. She’s finally arrived with some proper clothes and toiletries. They’re like gifts from heaven.

A nurse appears in the doorway. ‘No visitors in the bedrooms.’

It’s my mother.’

I’m sorry but rules are rules.’

You’re puzzled but you and your mother rise to your feet. You move to the door with stained cheeks.

The nurse smiles apologetically. ‘I worked at another facility. Years ago. One of the mothers used to visit her son on the ward. And have sex with him in his room. That was how she mothered him.’

Taryn appears at breakfast wearing a skimpy top and short skirt. She routinely wears a wig. Today she’s a blonde. When the nurse arrives to count heads, her head reels round when she catches a glimpse of Taryn’s outfit.

Those clothes are totally inappropriate,’ she says in a loud voice.

Taryn tries protesting.

Go back to your room right now. Get yourself changed.’

The pscyh ward is charged with sexual tension. You discover this on your first night when you’re sitting sweaty and scared in your pyjamas, and you notice Marcus checking you over. You’re not comfortable staying in a unisex ward. You feel vulnerable sharing toilets, bathrooms and common rooms with men. Especially psychiatric patients. Once your mother brings your clothes, you feel more protected. Maybe you even enjoy looking good.

Marko has been playing with your hair while you watch TV in the dark. One of the female patients glares at you from the doorway. When Marko goes out for a smoke, Phil tells you that Marko has been fooling around with a few women on the ward.

When Marko comes back, he whispers in your ear. ‘I want to come visit you in your room.’

I’m sharing with Mary.’ It’s a good enough excuse.

That’s okay. I’m sharing with Paul. He can sleep in your bed.’

No! Mary would freak out!’ You’re freaking out.

Well. Go to the bathroom. Don’t lock the door. Then I’ll come in…’

We can’t do that!’ You’d thought he was lonely, romantic even.

Why not?’

The thought of having sex against the hand basin, with the foul-smelling toilet close at hand, was enough to turn your stomach. ‘We’ll be in huge trouble if we get caught.’ You can’t believe he’s so brazen.

You avoid Marko for the remainder of your stay. It doesn’t matter anyway; he acts like you don’t exist now you’re not on his menu. He lies around in the TV room in a drug-induced stupor.

There’s been a scandal on the ward. Mehmet has been caught having sex with a patient in her room. He’s been placed in the High Dependency Unit as punishment. No official mention is made of his absence but the patients in nearby rooms are talking. You can see Mehmet through the glass while you stroll the corridors.

Mehmet is frustrated. Sexually and otherwise. He’d finally been released from High Dependency after five weeks. He’d been able to mingle with the other patients. Walk around the yard. Have a smoke. Watch TV. Check out the women. He relished the freedom. Now he’s blown it.

Sandra is heavily pregnant. Her husband and two young daughters come to visit her in the ward. The girls look like little blonde angels. The husband is attentive. They look like the perfect family. They could be on a picnic. A trip to the beach. Going shopping. Except they’re not. They’re sitting in a psychiatric ward. The girls make their fun by running up and down the corridor.

Sandra’s marriage is rocky. Her psychiatric illness puts a big strain on the relationship. Sandra and her husband split up for a few months last year. When she was admitted to the psych ward, she became friendly with one of the male patients. Their friendship blossomed once they were discharged. Now she is pregnant with his child. Her husband knows the truth but he’s standing by her. He says he can accept the baby.

Andrew has been a good friend. He seems normal most of the time. His manic personality appeals to your depressive one. He’s fun. He’s happy. He’s warm. He says that he’s engaged but his fiancée never visits him. You wonder if she’s real. When he returns from a day visit, he says that it’s all over with his fiancée. She was freaked out by his psychotic episode and just wants to be friends. He snuggles up to you on your bed and tells you that he likes older women. They’re so much more interesting than those young ones.

Andrew asks you to visit him after the last ward round. You say okay but fall asleep after your medication. You wake up when a dark figure appears in your doorway. ‘You said you’d come down to my room!’ You know what he wants and it seems like anything goes in here. You feel so lost. You’ve been a model citizen for your whole life and where has it got you? Depressed and locked up in a psychiatric ward. You like the fact that Andrew is fifteen years younger than you. You sneak down the corridor and tap on his door. It’s open.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Drugs

David finds it difficult to leave his room. He sits on his bed with hunched shoulders and a wasted frame. He wants to get out of here so he can go back to his one true love: marijuana. He doesn’t like having to take his medication. His thoughts are his. The doctors have no right to tell him that his thoughts are wrong. What about all the millions of people who believe in a God that they have never seen? Why aren’t they locked up? David enjoys philosophical debates but they get him nowhere.

David’s ideal world is one in which marijuana is free and legal. He makes no link between his heavy dope smoking and his paranoid schizophrenia. Dope is his only friend. He lives at home with his elderly parents. He didn’t mean to push his father over in a fit of rage. And he didn’t mean to yell at his mum’s friend. Or smash his mum’s framed family photos when he wasn’t invited to his nephew’s birthday party. David is 43.

Jelena is wailing again. Her cries echo up and down the hallways. Morning, noon and night. Everyone’s fed up with the noise and histrionics. They just want to eat in peace. Today she’s wailing about how fat she is. ‘I used to weigh seven stone! Seven f*cking stone. Now look at me! These f*cking meds! They’re messing with my body. I’m f*cking fat, man.’

You find it hard to imagine Jelena weighing seven stone. You think she’s just being melodramatic. A bloody whinger. But after a year on your anti-depressants, you put on seven kilos in the blink of an eye. Maybe Jelena wasn’t exaggerating after all.

Andrew is so happy to be out of HD. He talks a mile a minute to his fellow patients. He’s like a chipmunk. Chitter, chitter, chatter. He hugs you if you say something he likes.

Andrew loves his rave parties. He knows how to handle his drugs. Those people who overdose don’t understand their drugs properly. He has the knowledge. He does admit that he overdid it when he didn’t eat, drink or sleep for 48 hours. But he still believes that his 8 point business plan will make him a millionaire within a year. He writes down the plan for you and makes you promise to hide it in your room.

After he’s discharged, Andrew stops taking his medication. First it’s the one that affects his sexual drive. No young man wants to be Mr Floppy. Next he stops taking his anti-psychotics. Andrew doesn’t like the way they dampen his mood. He doesn’t feel like himself when he takes them. He’s got a naturally high personality. He enjoys it.

After a few months Andrew is back on the rave scene. He’s got his supply of E for his party nights. And he’s got weed hidden in his bedroom where his parents won’t find it.

Of Meds and Men

These are my thoughts to have. I’m not hurting anyone,’ David tells you. ‘So many people in history could be considered crazy. What about all the people who believe in God when they can’t even see him?’

David spends his days in the same loose track pants and a T-shirt. His bad breath fills the hospital room. Occasionally he plucks on the lifeless strings of his electric guitar. Most of the time he just sits, his shoulders hunched and his buttocks wasted from years of inactivity. His life consists of weed. Smoking it and getting more. He has no other aspirations. He resents being locked away merely for going off his meds. He had a push and shove with his Dad and then the police turned up. It’s clearly unjust. He can argue the point for hours. He loves philosophising. Occasionally he bails up a nurse, arguing why he should be released. Why he shouldn’t be forced to take meds. Why he should be left alone. He’s not hurting anyone.

I don’t feel like myself anymore. That’s my personality. Having ideas. Talking fast. Being the life of the party. Now that’s gone.’

No more party drugs for Steve. He’s locked up in a psychiatric ward at the age of 24. The official terminology is a ‘drug-induced psychosis’. He had grand plans to conquer the business world with his ten step plan. He writes it out for you on a scrap of paper. ‘Don’t show anyone,’ he says. ‘I’m trusting you with this.’

I’m going off my meds. They’ve turned me into Mr Floppy. I’m only 24 for God’s sake.’

Suzi’s wailing and crying again, the echoes reverberating down the corridors. It’s hard to feel sympathetic. Everything’s a drama to her. She’s still carrying on at lunchtime. ‘I used to weigh seven stone.’ It’s hard to imagine. ‘All these drugs have made me fat. I’m sick of it!’ So were we.

Antidepressants that don’t do enough.

Meds never completely stopping psychotic thoughts.

I sleep all the time.’


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