The Other Me: A Life in Neurosis

 

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1. Weird

i.

I’ve always been weird, even for a kid growing up in a migrant family through the tumultuous 1970s. There were always things about me that were a bit odd.

Like, when I was eight, I went to get a drink of water from the tap and I’d usually rinse the glass three or four times before I filled it up. This time I kept rinsing and rinsing, because the glass didn’t feel ready to fill, kept rinsing and rinsing, unable to stop myself until my grandmother snapped at me about wasting water. That broke the spell and I got my drink.

About a year later, I stood in line at the canteen waiting to buy a Big M. My mum had given me a fifty-cent piece for lunch money that morning, which I twirled in my hand. In the line to the right of me, two girls – maybe three or so years older than me – argued. The first girl wanted a loan from the second girl; the second girl didn’t want to give her a loan, so she asked me if I’d swap my fifty-cent piece for the same amount in change. This meant she wouldn’t have change to loan the first girl.

Intimidated, I swapped.

Then I felt guilty. My mum had given me that fifty-cent piece. I was going to buy a Big M with it. Now I had money but not the fifty-cent piece. My unease grew. I became attached and loyal to possessions. Several years later I got upset because we were going to replace our fridge. It was a betrayal. Now, I thought about asking the girl to give back my fifty-cent piece, but I convinced myself the money was still going to the canteen, where it would be spent – just as I’d intended. Everything was okay.

Another time, I became obsessed my mum wouldn’t come home from work, so I planted myself in front of the TV and watched the evening news, certain they’d report her death. Every commercial break, I braced myself. Relief flooded me once the News was over, but the next day I was back at it. This went on for a couple of weeks, until the fear disintegrated.

About a year or two later I’d have episodes where I felt down and alone – even though I had plenty of friends. I became hyper-conscious, overly aware of the thoughts in my head. These times never lasted long. They touched me and then evaporated.

Maybe it was my imagination. All my teachers commented on how imaginative I was. Or maybe I was overly sensitive. I seemed to feel everything too much. Or maybe I just didn’t know how to relate. I was the youngest child in a family of four boys. My three brothers had all been born within a five-year bracket. I was born seven years later. I was the baby in the family.

It didn’t help that my parents spoiled me. They’d come here from Greece in the 1950s and toiled in low-paying jobs (as many migrants did, taking what they could get as they struggled with the language) to provide for their kids and save for the future. But I got whatever I wanted and they’d order my brothers to cave into me when I argued or played games with them.

My parents also shouted a lot. That’s how they communicated. That’s how a lot of European families talk. I don’t know if ours was any worse. It was loud, though. I could imagine that the walls cringed, unhappy to contain the barrages. If they could’ve got up and left, I’m sure they would’ve.

Funnily, there were public service commercials on TV about shouting parents and the effect it had on kids. In the commercial, two parents argued until their kid screamed at them to stop. Then the parents were all remorseful. Lesson learned.

One time my parents were shouting and it was getting to me, so I snapped at them to shut up. My dad shouted at me to shut up, asking who I was to tell him to shut up in his own house. So there was more shouting. About the shouting.

Naturally, when they shouted, there would be times people would shout back. Then it was shouting all over. It was a shoutfest. The only time my parents talked quietly was when they were deadly serious. Their voices dropped to a whisper, and they pronounced their words slow and with em-PHA-sis.

There were also the blasting tours. If my parents were unhappy, then everybody got it. They’d blast the offender; then whoever was in their line of vision, or make somebody be in their line of vision. My mum would hunt and destroy. There was nowhere to hide.

The other thing thrown around a lot was the guilt – lots of stories about how they’d travelled all the way from Greece to make a better life in Australia; how hard they worked to provide for us; and how (for example), when they were young in Greece, they had to walk miles through the snow and fight bears to get to school, (so we should be thankful for how easy we had it – and it’s true, I’d never fought a bear to get to school).

Or there were times my mum would lie on the couch and lament how sick she was. She always had something. This happened lots after she’d done something for us or after you’d gotten in an argument with her. There’s not a lot to say when it seems your arguing has driven your mother to death’s door. Sometimes, she’d ask me to get her one of a pills – she had a couple of different ones and had been taking them for as long as I could remember. When I was about four or five, I stole one – a capsule that was black on one half, cyan on the other half – and smuggled it into the backyard. Hidden away, I examined it, wondering what it was and what it did. It wasn’t candy. Maybe the candy was inside. I toyed with the capsule until I pulled it apart, powder spilling out. That was it? Disappointed, I threw away the shells of the capsule, and that was the end of that great adventure.

But, like I said, this was normal. There was nothing malicious in anything. My parents were (and are) good people. In every other way, they would go out of their way for all of us. It was just the way things were.

So maybe it was just me.

 

ii.

In 1982, I was eleven-going on-twelve – my first year in high school – when the moods developed, although I think they’d always been there, and they just became more noticeable.

Sometimes, I’d become hyper, bounce on my feet, fidget, and my talking would speed up. I always wanted to do something, or nagged people to do things with me. In later years, I’d learn people thought I was taking speed.

Other times I was bleak. I’d look at the other kids – friends screwing around, doing the stuff teenagers do – feel detached and think, Why can’t that be me? It felt like something I couldn’t, that was broken in me and incapable of functioning. I wanted to cry.

There were other things, too. Like, I couldn’t get thoughts out of my head. Something irrational would spawn, and then I’d obsess on it. Once, when I was about thirteen, the thought got stuck in my head that one of my brothers was homosexual. He wasn’t, and there wasn’t any evidence to suggest he was. The harder I tried to get rid of the thought, the deeper it got stuck. It only left several weeks later when I was able to stop paying attention to it.

Despite it all, I was good at school. For stuff like English and Maths I always got pushed ahead a year, and I breezed through all my other subjects, even when I didn’t do the work. Teachers bought all my excuses for not turning work in. They knew I was capable. In Year 10, I barely did any homework. They really should’ve failed me I did so little.

I liked English most of all, although my writing was clunky and needed lots of straightening out, for which I credited my Year 7 English teacher, who taught me about breaking down sentences logically and in point form to see what belonged where.

I wrote epic stories, whether they were wanted or not. In Year 7 English, we wrote a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Mine was over one hundred entries long, a spy action-adventure shoot ’em up. The teacher read it to class, letting the class choose the courses of action. They loved it. It was my first taste of sharing a story with an audience.

In Year 9, I wrote a sixty page sci-fi story. I don’t think the teacher ever read it. Who wants to read sixty pages of messily-written student fiction? Those efforts were normal, though. I just wanted to tell stories. Stories were cool. Writing was cool – to invent worlds, people, plots. It was something I did because I had lots of ideas in my head, and getting them down was a good way to make them real.

But it wasn’t something I wanted to do. Not then anyway.

 

iii.

My oldest brother John bought a pool table when I was eight. It became the one arena where I could beat my brothers.

When you have brothers, you’re competitive about everything: sports, board games, who gets to lie on the couch. When you have three older brothers, you’re also at a physical and intellectual disadvantage in any contest that doesn’t rely on chance – unless you’re a prodigy, and I was no prodigy.

Originally, I played pool for fun. But I was good at it. Once, my brother had a friend over and I beat him game after game. On one occasion, he was ecstatic because he snookered me, but I fluked my way out of it. It must’ve been heartbreaking for this guy in his twenties to have this annoying ten-year-old kid beat him at pool.

I got better and better over the years, until I became the best in the family. Here was a game where size and strength didn’t matter. You still had to think your way through the game, but playing so much educated me – at least in the way that I could see how a game would unfold and the best tactics to use. Or maybe that was just my imagination helping me out.

My best friend Stan suggested I try play professionally. Unrealistic probably. But it was something I considered when I dropped out of school halfway through my second last year. I was sixteen.

School had become unchallenging. Being pushed ahead a year meant that once I got to Year 11, I was doing work I’d done the previous year. They couldn’t push me ahead any further, since Year 12 was self-contained. I just felt stagnant.

I also developed the attitude that a lot of the stuff I was learning was useless. I didn’t mind knowing the basics of Accounting or Legal Studies, but if I really needed them, I’d see a professional. It’s not like if I opened a business I’d do the books because I’d taken Year 9 Accounting.

I was walking past the school the day I decided to quit. It was a Sunday. My friend Tim and I had played footy for the local football club. I’d spent the whole match getting smashed by the opposition after mouthing off to one of the opposition after he bumped me late. During one bit of play, I stood under a mistimed kick and an opponent whacked me over the back of the head as he attempted to spoil, while another cannoned into my back.

Tim commented how much he couldn’t be bothered going to school the next day and I told him I was quitting. Just like that. It was the first thought that popped into my head. I might’ve been concussed.

And that was it. My parents blasted me, threatened me, and all that. Why wouldn’t they? Work and stature was everything. You work, you save, nothing else matters. It’s about the nice job you have, the nice house you own, and all that. Then, when you’re too old to enjoy it you retire.

One of my uncles offered to buy me a car if I went back to school. I said no. Then one of my teachers called and asked if I was having any problems. Nope. I appeased my parents by telling them I’d sit a scheduled clerical exam later in the year and get a job.

They understood that: real work. It wasn’t like my brother Nick could’ve ever told them he wanted to be a concert pianist, or me a writer, because they were abstracts. Things like that earned an amused but condescending laugh, the way you laugh at a four-year-old who tells you they want to be an astronaut. My parents did that a lot. They disapproved of things they didn’t understand or for which they didn’t see a place. In contemporary society that was only, well, pretty much everything. In a lot of migrant society, it was pretty normal.

They would’ve preferred I became a doctor or a lawyer. That’s stuff they understood, stuff you could really boast about – well, not you, but they. Clerical wasn’t as good as those, but it was something else they understood – a 9–5 job. So that was my plan.

Then I played pool – all day. I’m not sure why. It might’ve been because Stan put the idea in my head, or just because I was obsessive. I played ten to twelve hours a day and I became really good.

About six months later, I broke my arm playing football, and that was that.

 

iv.

For years, my brothers – Lou and Nick – had a weekly social game of something or other with cousins and friends. Usually, it was soccer. I was hopeless at soccer, and only played it as a last resort. Lately, my brothers played football.

I’d never been invited to play because I was the baby. Regardless of my age and size, I always would be, so I was often excluded from these sorts of things. But my cousin Roo – who was several months younger than me – had been invited to play, so my brothers could no longer rule me out due to age.

The first game I played I was horrible. I had nil stamina. I’d been fit all my life. Awesomely fit. I could run anywhere without puffing – I could jog three or four kilometres easy. But in the last year or so I’d taken up smoking. All my exercising had also slipped. Walking around a pool table all day didn’t do much in that regard. So that first game I puffed and puffed. It was embarrassing.

For the next week, I quit smoking and exercised daily, riding the exercise bike we had in the garage, doing weights, and pushing myself as hard as I could. It wasn’t just about finding fitness – it’s not like you can just find fitness in a week – but reminding my body what it could do.

I dominated in my second game. I ran hard, hit hard, and felt good about myself. I wasn’t a champion footballer – I was okay and capable of some nice things – but in that game I fulfilled every bit of potential I had.

During one bit of play I leaped to punch the ball and was flipped in mid-air. All my weight came down on my right hand. Both bones in my right arm – about a quarter of the way up from my wrist – broke. It sounded like a plank of wood snapping – at least inside my own head.

My forearm dangled at a 45 degree angle from the point of the fracture. Seeing it, I thought, They’re not going to be able to fix that. Roo – who’d broken his arm twice – said, ‘That’s what mine looked like.’ That was assuring, that this might be normal. Assurance is an amazing thing.

Another cousin led me to the car. Roo shouted out they should take me to any hospital but the Preston and Northcote Community Hospital – or PANCH, as it was known. PANCH had a bad reputation. The reason he’d broken his am twice was he’d gone to PANCH the first time, they’d removed the plaster too early, and the bone had popped back out when somebody had grabbed his arm.

Lou and Nick drove me to St Vincent’s hospital. I clutched my broken arm in the back seat. The break didn’t hurt. But the lower half of my right hand screamed. My hand was on fire and the two lower fingers would contract. I couldn’t control it.

At hospital, I was told that broken bones are manipulated back into place up until the age of sixteen, but after sixteen they insert pins or plates. It had something to do with the way bones grew before and after that age. Because my sixteenth had been only a couple of months earlier, they were going to try manipulating the bones into place.

That worked, but concern grew over the next few days that I couldn’t feel the lower half of my hand. Fearing the cast was too tight, doctors ordered that it be split down the centre to loosen it, then wrapped up with bandages to ensure it didn’t fall free. The risk was that the procedure might cause the bone to pop out of the place.

The bone popped out of place.

As the doctors held a conference about what they’d do with my arm, I stood by the window of my hospital bay. Due to a lack of beds, I’d been stuck in a children’s ward.

I’d come in on a Sunday evening and been told that I would have to at least stay overnight. That agitated me. I’d been at camps and things like that, but they were places where you had a good time. This was a hospital. I was staying in here as long as something needed fixing. Now it was Tuesday.

I looked out the window and down into the parking lot. I was five storeys up. I wondered was sort of splatter I’d make on the concrete from this height. The thought popped into my head exactly as the thought to quit school had popped into my head. All I had to do was take a run-up and jump through the window.

Suicidal thoughts popped in every now and again. They were never serious. Irrational, more than anything. When I was about eleven, I’d even declared impulsively to Nick after something had gone wrong, ‘I’m going to kill myself!’ He laughed because, I guess, kids say stupid things. Now, it would be so easy to jump, to fall, crash, and know nothing more.

Just like that.

No more pain.

No more inconvenience.

 

v.

I was interrupted by the return of the doctors – five or six of them – who strolled in, joking and laughing. That had to be good. They wouldn’t be like this if it was bad news. I kept positive, telling myself over and over – like sheer repetition combined with hope would make it reality – that I wouldn’t need surgery.

They told me I needed surgery.

They were going to insert plates, and if my hand didn’t improve, well, at some point they’d cut me open to see what was wrong – not to fix it, mind you, but just to take a look. That was still their overriding concern – why I couldn’t feel or move half of my right hand. The break was almost an afterthought.

The surgery was successful, but now there was new pain. Of course, surgery does that. They slashed my arm open on either side and screwed six-inch plates into the bones to hold them into place. Each plate had six screws. It looked freaky on X-rays. I imagined nurses holding the incision open while a surgeon screwed in the plates with a power drill.

I was in hospital for eight days. But my mood improved. I had plenty of visitors. Nick brought me some books to read. Other kids came into the bay – including a fifteen-year-old who’d broken both arms playing football. He didn’t get plates, though.

When the plaster and bandaging came off six weeks later, I had seven-inch scars emblazoned down the top and bottom of my now-emaciated forearm. The incisions were covered in bloody scabs and looked like they were ready to burst at the seams. I almost fainted, seeing it.

Still, the concern was my hand.

I was booked in for a nerve test appointment, where they stuck pins into my hand and the top of my forearm. Electrodes ran from the pins into a machine that generated electricity. They shot electricity into the electrodes at the top of my forearm and let the nerve convey the current to the pins in my hand. This was meant to help gauge the extent of the nerve damage.

When they did this test on the nerve that controlled the top half of my hand, the pins would stand up and my arm would buck spasmodically. Even my brother Lou, holding my arm, couldn’t steady it. But when they did the test on the other nerve, there was only the mildest shock – like the static shock you get walking across carpet and then touching something metal.

This impressed the doctor in question, who took photos of the way my hand had contracted into a claw. He wanted to use the pictures for medical classes. The photos are probably still out there. He also thumped on my arm (unconcerned that I was only a couple of months out of surgery) to further demonstrate the extent of the nerve damage and how I couldn’t feel anything – like I needed to be told that.

The doctor estimated the nerve should recover in about eleven months. He said they’d give it six months and if it wasn’t healing, they’d cut me open to check out the damage. Until then, they put a brace on my right hand that forced my ring and small finger to function whenever I used the rest of my hand.

It left me wondering, Why me? I wondered that a lot growing up. Why did this stuff happen to me? The other guy in hospital had broken both arms – he didn’t have plates or nerve damage. Neither did my cousin Roo, who’d broken his arm twice. Or my cousin Steve, who’d broken his arm so badly that the bone had jutted out of the flesh.

One time my brother Nick said it could be worse. But worse was a sliding scale. If you lined up all the people who were worse on my right, I’m sure there were people on my left who were better-off. I’d be the worse one for them.

The next months were awkward. Once, while taking something out of the oven, I burned myself on my little finger so bad that the skin immediately blistered. I didn’t feel it. As for movement, I had only a little control, but no control of the digits.

There was novelty in this – a lot of people break bones, but with the plates, the nerve damage, and the brace I had to wear, I became a minor celebrity. People always wanted to see how contorted my hand was, the lower half a claw. Or the scars – a thick purple line smeared seven inches long down each side of my right arm. Some people thought I’d been in a knife fight.

The realities of my situation made me low. I couldn’t cut my own food. If I had a steak or something, my mum would have to cut it. One time, at the pharmacy, I couldn’t get change out of my jacket’s left pocket. My right hand wasn’t coordinated enough, (and my left was out-positioned). When I slept, I needed a pillow under my right arm and I had to stay mindful of not rolling around onto it.

Then there was pool. I tried to play left-handed. I did okay but would get frustrated when I couldn’t do what I wanted. So I went back to playing right-handed (but breaking left-handed), for the same result: frustration. The more I got frustrated, the more my ability deteriorated. I lost all confidence in myself.

I have no idea where my life was going before all this. Maybe nowhere. You never know. But now, every direction had become as fractured as my arm had been. I sat in the ravine of that break with too much time and with not enough to fill it.

The only real fortune was that my hand began to heal, so I didn’t need any more surgery.

 

vi.

A couple of years before I broke my arm, my brother Nick turned a third of the garage into a bungalow. He and his friend put up a wall, installed carpeting, a cork ceiling, chairs and everything. Nick played piano, so he wanted somewhere to practice, but that back room accumulated a lot of the amenities of life: besides my brother’s upright piano, a Commodore 64 home computer, a television, a radio, a couch, and several other chairs.

The back room became my escape. It was also a way to get out of the house without getting out. Better yet, it insulated me from all the shouting. Sometimes, I’d go in the back room and put the radio on LOUD to drown out the shouting coming from the house.

My friend Stan and I also spent a lot of time there, playing games on the C64 and talking. Stan had an abusive, alcoholic father, and while Stan was an awesome guy – the sort who’d do anything for you – he had his own blackness. We connected on that level. Stan also began drinking early in his life as a way of coping with things.

I wasn’t capable of much else right after I was discharged from hospital. My broken arm and damaged hand ruled out lots of jobs for me, and you could be really specific in the 1980s with the sorts of jobs you wanted. I told the job agency I wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t a lie, either. I really did want to become an actor.

Of course, I’d had different career ambitions – if you could call what I dreamed to be careers, or my dreams themselves ambitions. For a while, I wanted to be a computer programmer, because I had all these great scenarios for games. I drew up notes, jotted down ideas, and tried to learn computer code. Then I wanted to be a singer – or at least part of a band. I couldn’t sing; but I did play guitar for about six months, learning chords in the garage on an old guitar my brother Nick had bought. I also wrote heaps of lyrics, and imagined in my head the way the music videos would look, making stories out of them. Next, it was acting; I visualised myself in lead roles I concocted in my head.

Really, I just wanted to tell stories.

That was the realisation that began to dawn through all these aspirations.

I liked fantasy and science-fiction – maybe because the real world was so mundane to me. The Lord of the Rings was my favourite. I’d read it – and The Hobbit – when I was twelve, and was awed not only by the scope of this world J.R.R. Tolkien had created, but also the history.

I started penning my own fantasy series just after I broke my arm. Luckily, I was left-handed. I wrote by hand, making much of it up on the spot, but developing a mythology as I went on. The Lord of the Rings was my template; Tolkien had impressed upon me that the universe in which any story exists has to be internally logical and self-contained.

I wrote and wrote, coming up with the story of heirs to a lost kingdom, and magical crowns. Originally, I made stuff up on-the-fly, but the further I went on, the more I plotted the background of the story – the foundation that it would be built upon. The world and its people took form before me. Often, I sat up until the early morning hours. Sometimes, I went right through the night, because I was so buzzed with my ideas that I just didn’t want to go to sleep. As pool slipped away as whatever hope it had been, writing now took its place. This was something I could do.

I would write a fantasy epic.

 

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2. Normal

i.

The Arabs were coming! 427 million of them!

Almost a year after breaking my arm, I’d gone with my parents on a holiday to Canada and to Greece. Now we were staying at my parents’ village in Greece at our cousin’s farm. I woke in the middle of the night, terrified that 427 million Arabs were about to invade.

The village was tiny and sat in the mountains isolated from civilisation. It was maybe half a kilometre long, and comprised a single road with houses on either side. There was probably only a population of six or seven hundred. There was no way we’d be able to contend with 427 million Arabs.

I considered waking a Canadian guy I’d been hanging around with. He’d have no idea what to do, but at least then I’d have an ally. But, again, it was the middle of the night. I knew the house he was staying in, but didn’t know the people there. What was I meant to do? Wake them all?

I woke my dad.

I wanted to tell him about the Arabs, but then felt embarrassed. Instead, I told him I wanted an escort to the toilet, which was outside and at the end of a yard filled with the farm’s animals. A few days earlier, I’d come out of the toilet and found myself face to face with a cow. It had stared at me. I stared back, then turned and ran for the stairs. The cow chased me.

Stupid cow.

My dad escorted me to the toilet as my mind nailed the incongruities of the threat. 427 million Arabs? Attacking a remote village in Greece? In 1987? The terror simmered. What I needed to do was go back to sleep. Things would be okay in the morning.

They were. I tried to piece together what happened. I’d gone out and had a few beers – just a few, as I also had a bad flu. The last few days, I’d been reading a spy thriller about a politician’s daughter who’s kidnapped and sold into white slavery. I rationalised I’d woken up, delirious, and my mind had still been trapped in the remnants of some dream fuelled by the book I’d been reading.

That was the best explanation I had. I didn’t want to tell anybody else – friends I’d made in that village, or my parents – because it was embarrassing. People would think I was mad. I was struggling to convince myself that I wasn’t. Best to try forget it.

But something similar occurred about six months later, back at home, when again I woke panicked in the middle of the night. A friend, Carl (and Carl wasn’t a very close friend) wanted us to wallpaper 349 million houses.

The enormity of the job staggered me. How long would it take? If you did one house a day, and a house every day of the year, that would be 365 houses, leaving the figure still in the 349 million mark. This was going to be impossible.

I woke my brother Nick, who slept in the bed next to mine, and tried to tell him what was happening. But even as I spoke, I realised the absurdity of it all.

Nick told me to go back to bed. When I woke in the morning, the episode was so dim I thought it had to be a dream. But my brother brought it up the following day, asking me what had been going on. I played dumb, telling him I couldn’t remember. He said I must’ve been drunk. I had been out that night and, in fact, the circumstances were similar to what had occurred with the Arabs: I’d had a few beers, and was suffering from the flu. Was this delirium again?

It occurred again about a month later, but not as bad. I awoke panicked. Something about a lottery and millions of dollars. Now, it was immediately apparent this couldn’t be real. I was able to settle and go back to sleep, thinking nothing more of it.

 

ii.

I finished the first book of my series shortly after returning from holiday – not a bad accomplishment for a seventeen-year-old dropout. It was written by hand, and took up two-and-a-half A5-sized exercise books. Immediately, I redrafted, beginning in a new exercise book, one that was A4-sized (I was moving up in the world, after all) but it felt redundant. I’d done the handwritten book. My productivity tapered until I wasn’t doing much of anything for the next month or so.

Then I felt like I was losing myself.

One night, I went out with my cousins. We were coming home from a bar when we saw a warehouse on fire. We pulled into an opposing driveway to watch the fire-fighters battle the blaze, and were talking when I sheared in two. My consciousness slid to the left, but funnelled until I was losing awareness of my surroundings, my thoughts, even myself. I had to shake my head – as if trying to clear a fog – to ground myself.

Over the next month, this happened repeatedly. I felt like I was slipping out of reality. I thought maybe I was being possessed and started reading the Bible. I also thought that my deteriorating physical condition – since breaking my arm, exercise had gone out the window; and I was smoking and drinking whenever I went out – might be a contributor, and began to exercise.

Something else that occurred to me was I had all these ideas in my head – for my book, for other stories – and I wondered whether my imagination was running rampant and I was losing touch with reality. I needed to find a way to get this stuff out, or it would consume me.

I had to write seriously. If not because of all this other stuff, but because the desire was building up in me. And I wanted to tell my fantasy epic. I wanted to get it out on the page, because if I could do that it would become part of fantasy canon.

I went to a typewriter store to look at the manual typewriters. That was all I could afford, but it was enough. I found a second-hand clunker that had a lovely tap-tap-tap feel whenever I hit the keys. That was important to me. It had to sound right, to feel right.

In fact, the whole back room – which I’d infested, and little by little was taking over – had to be that way. I rearranged everything – couches, chairs, bookshelves, TV, C64 computer. Then I cleaned up. I tried to keep things neat. But all it took was one thing out of place, and that was an invitation to lose all order. Then books wouldn’t be put back, papers wouldn’t be filed, nothing would be returned to where it belonged. There’d be anarchy, and anarchy always clouded me in a way I felt I couldn’t write.

But that stuff aside, I wrote every day. I worked on short stories and on part one of my fantasy epic. The short stories were good in that they were small, self-contained entities. I could write them, be done with them, and move on.

The fantasy epic was something else entirely.

I called my book The Warriors’ Triangle, because it involved three warriors – one, the young, inexperienced King of Men through whom the story is told; the King of Elves; and a Half-elf warrior – on a quest to regain these mystical crowns that would bring hope back to the people and prosperity to the land, (a la the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend).

First, I drew a map. This involved spreading five by four A4 sheets across the pool table and drawing everything in – the kingdoms, the forests, the mountains, lakes, rivers, all that. There’s something … Godly about creating a world. Oh wait. Map-making-slash-world-building was therapeutic. It gave me control. I taped the sheets together, and stuck the map on the wall above my writing desk. The map allowed me to see where my characters were and where they were heading at any given time.

There were lots of false starts to the writing itself – lots of times I got a hundred pages in and felt I didn’t have things right. On those occasions, I contemplated finishing the book and fixing everything in the rewrite, or just starting over. I took the latter option on each occasion, doing that maybe four or five times. I’d rather get it right from the onset, than keep going with something that wasn’t quite working.

When I finally developed some momentum, my second-hand clunker bit the dust. Damn. Still, I’d gotten months of service out of it, but now it was back to the typewriter store. I bought a new manual typewriter this time. It didn’t have the same tap-tap-tap feel of its predecessor. It didn’t even get close. Nor did it have the same type-face. That meant I had to start my book again. Again.

I worked for a year, and had no more spells of losing myself. And although I still smoked, and drank too much when I went out (like most teenagers), I exercised regularly, playing tennis weekly with a cousin. I wasn’t in awesome shape – as I was just before I broke my arm. But I was in good shape.

As I neared the completion of the book, I became aware that I had no idea what to do with it. Where did writers go with their books? I looked at some of the fantasy series I owned, and found out they were published by Doubleday. So, there was a place to begin. Well, begin isn’t right, because that would suggest I’d go somewhere next, and my book was going to be accepted first off.

I never expected anything different.

 

iii.

From about sixteen, I began going out. Whenever I did, I tried to look cool – just like any other teenager. I spent a lot of time on my hair, and sometimes blow-dried it, although the hair-dryer – in combination with the gels and mousses I used – always made me feel sticky and stifled. That was something that seemed to be developing as I got older, a physical hypersensitivity to external sensation – not that I thought much of it.

I also had good facial growth. Some people said I looked like George Michael, although that was never my intention. Whenever I went out, I’d shave a few days earlier, timing it so that my growth would be just the right shade to look my best – teenage vanity at its best.

Clothes were something else entirely. My wardrobe was modest, but I tried to look good – even if it meant discomfort (which it often did). Like my overcoat: that came everywhere, even inside clubs or parties in garages where wearing an overcoat was suffocating. It became my trademark. Jeans were something else. Putting them on for the first time, they were always stiff and scratchy. Sometimes, I’d put them over my pyjama-pants and bounce around like I was doing aerobics – just to loosen them until they were comfortable. Then I’d remove my pyjama-pants and put my jeans back on. I still hated the initial feel of them. It was like pulling sandpaper over my legs.

I liked getting ready to go out.

I liked the thought of going out.

But being out terrified me.

I projected confidence, but had none. When I was out, my heart thumped, there was flightiness in my stomach, and I was fidgety. Everybody was a threat. I wasn’t paranoid. That wasn’t it. But there was a potential for danger everywhere. The scale heightened whenever it involved people who looked … well, scarier than your normal person.

This is the teenage world. There’s always somebody wanting to fight or beat somebody’s head in. My parents were always reciting News where people got attacked. They used it as validation: go out and you might get beaten up. You might have an accident. Something horrible might happen.

Danger everywhere.

I also couldn’t relate to anybody. That had been the case at high school, but now it was worse. Whenever I talked to people, I was shy and awkward. I never knew what to say, never knew how to respond, and kept feeling I would blurt something totally inappropriate – well, not just inappropriate (I’m sure every teenager worries about), but something heinous, something unpardonable. If somebody told me there’d been a tragic accident in their family, I had the impulse to shout, Good! Great! You deserve it! Or maybe drop my head and butt them between the eyes and shatter the bridge of their nose. These weren’t things I wanted to do, but just what popped in my head. I had to warn myself over and over to make sure I didn’t do any of these things.

Because of this difficulty relating, my circle of friends didn’t expand and I never had a real long-term girlfriend, because I couldn’t connect with anybody and stay connected with them. It was bad enough being the author of the NEXT GREAT FANTASY EPIC – being an aspiring writer, and particularly of fantasy, wasn’t a selling-point amongst teenagers – but if I told girls what was going on inside my head, they’d think I was crazy.

The way I handled all this was to drink. Drinking and being a teenager are synonymous, but I did it to cope. It was the only way I could feel at ease, the only way I could relax. If I didn’t drink, then I had to confront the way I was feeling, and the way I was feeling had a cumulative effect – it just got worse and worse.

This was probably the reason my best friend, Stan, and I got along so well – because we were so alike. My issues weren’t as specific as his, but we both felt like social misfits. When we went out we both drank to cope, relax, and enjoy ourselves. But whereas I remained meek Stan was invincible. One time, some try-hard pulled a knife on Stan and Stan reached out and closed the knife on the try-hard’s hand. Another time, a car pulled over by us in the middle of the night, and its two occupants – a pair of freak shows – gave us a hard time; Stan walked over and stared at them, just glowered at them, until they shut up and drove off.

I could never do that. I wasn’t sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line I became meek. As a kid, I’d stand up to bullies, be the first one off the high diving board, jump ramps on my bike, climb the framework of houses under construction and do lots of crazy stuff. I lost that fearlessness as I got older.

Stan and I went out regularly, despite our mutual social awkwardness and my underlying fear of everything. When we heard about parties, we’d travel as far as it would take to get there, catching lifts, taking trains, or even walking; at the end of the night, we’d walk home – regardless of the distance – or even hitch.

Other times, we went to clubs. There was a makeshift club, called Kasey’s, that operated out of a nearby reception hall every other month. Stan’s older brother worked as the bartender on some nights, so Stan and I always got free drinks – order a couple of beers, hand over a ten dollar note, get ten dollars (and sometimes more) back in change. If it wasn’t Kasey’s, we went to clubs in the city – we both looked old for our age, and were never carded.

When I was eighteen, I was at Kasey’s one night and got in a wrestle with a guy I knew – it was one of those playful things that grew semi-serious. I fell, and he kneed me in the bridge of my nose, breaking it. Afterward, he apologised, and everything was fine. The break was small and a specialist manipulated it back into place.

No problems.

 

iv.

When I was fifteen, I got a casual job during the holidays working for Kmart, working from 5–9 Mondays and Tuesdays. I kept working when school restarted, going to school from 9–3, then rushing home so I could get changed, catch a lift to the station, and catch a train to work. When daylight savings ended, so did the Monday and Tuesday shifts, and with it my job. Kmart kept me on record and called me the following Summer school holidays, but by then I had my broken arm. That was it for my working life.

The only additional learning – if you could call it that – I did outside of high school was a modelling course when I was eighteen, and a drama course when I was nineteen. The modelling I got into through a relative, who thought I’d be good at it. I did okay throughout the course, but didn’t have the gumption afterward to pursue it. Same with the drama. Same with life.

This haphazard existence made family life tense, because being unemployed with no real prospects is going to do that. My three brothers had all finished high school, and were working. I had lots of cousins around my age, and they were either working, going onto tertiary schooling, or completing secondary schooling. I was doing none of that. I was doing nothing.

My parents saw me writing and on some cosmetic level they respected the endeavour I put in. From breakfast to evening I typed away – sometimes these uninterrupted twelve hour sessions. It was quite an effort, and you have to appreciate effort, even if it is the effort of a madman.

They also saw the stacks of typewritten paper I produced. Unfortunately, they couldn’t read it themselves – my mum has basic English reading skills, but not good enough to follow the plot of a book that was going to be the NEXT GREAT FANTASY EPIC; my dad could barely read English at all, (although he reads tons of books in Greek).

Moreover, they had less understanding about the business side of writing than I did. They thought I’d write something, advertise it, and sell it – the way you’d advertise and sell a car. It was a foregone conclusion to them, but when it didn’t happen they must’ve wondered what the hell I was doing, and whether I’d ever build a life for myself, or sponge off them forever.

Having the broken arm with the nerve damage gave me leeway, but the further I got away from that, and the more I wrote without going anywhere, the higher tensions escalated. My brothers might’ve even resented me and the free ride I was getting. I wouldn’t have blamed them. I would’ve resented me, too.

Gradually, my general unease evolved into a general malaise of edginess which only exacerbated everything else – the swinging moods, the social dysfunction, the occasional obsessiveness, and the constant fear about one thing or another.

Surely this wasn’t how everybody else felt?

For a little while, like a month or so, I cut myself. I’d do it in the bathroom with a razor (not a razor-blade, but a cheap disposable razor), slashing my already scarred right arm. I was never sure why. If I wanted to do real damage, I could’ve found a razor-blade, but the razor itself let me abrasion myself pretty good. That’s what I was: a self-abrasioner.

The one thing about the cutting was that it made me feel dark. It seemed such a logical thing to do. And it made me the centre of attention – not for my family, from whom I hid the results. But from friends. Like in my modelling class. One time I showed up and the other students saw my right arm was covered in abrasions and I told them that I’d put my arm through a glass window, because I couldn’t tell them what I’d really done.

They looked at me like I was mad. That was good. I wanted them to think I was mad, because that’s the way I felt in my head. You people: Normal. Me: Mad. This was the only way I could articulate that to others. Maybe there were no words, just actions. I guess that’s the way suicide works – when words are no longer enough.

When I was eighteen, I got a tattoo – a smiley face on my right shoulder. Again, it was another of those things where the idea just popped into my head. I knew it had to be something meaningful – that was why I chose the smiley-face. My philosophy was I always needed to carry a smile with me. During an argument with John, he asked if I was on drugs (no) and said that I used to be such a happy kid. I couldn’t remember that. I could never remember being happy.

If nothing else, my writing continued. Writing was the only time I was at peace. I would sit at my typewriter and immerse myself in my fantasy world – where I controlled everything – until I was lost to everything else. One time while I wrote, I casually butted out a cigarette in an ashtray overflowing with butts, emptied the ashtray into the metal wastepaper basket that sat at the foot of my desk (well, my table – it was a converted kitchen table), and kept writing. Several minutes later, smoke rose from the bin – I hadn’t butted out my last cigarette properly, and it had set alight the paper in the bin. I hadn’t noticed. That’s how much I got into writing.

After a session of writing, I’d be spent. It was like I’d exercised for hours. Sometimes, afterward, I’d be jittery, like I’d invested myself too deeply and I couldn’t shake loose, or hadn’t left enough reserves for myself. Then I’d watch some TV, or play a computer game, and try to unwind. The next day, I was back at it.

I finished Book One of my fantasy series a couple of months short of my nineteenth birthday, feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Finishing a book – regardless of whether it’s good or bad – is an effort. Here I was, with a four-hundred-page novel.

Surely, it had to lead to better things?

And that was it, my teenage years, which were pretty normal.

Normal as hell.

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3. Falling

i.

I was falling.

But there was no sense of motion, no fear, nothing. I didn’t even know there was anything to be falling from. When I hit the ground, I was jarred right out of my body.

I sat up, jolted awake from a fitful sleep. It was early morning and my thoughts ricocheted through my head, my heart thumped, and my skin crawled with a cold that seeped right through my flesh and into my bones.

My brother slept in the adjacent bed, his breathing deep and regular. I considered waking him, or my parents. That’s what you do when you’re in trouble. But I was eighteen. It was stupid to wake any of them because I was scared, like I was a child. Nor did we have that sort of relationship. That’s just not the way things were.

I was reminded of my broken arm a couple of years earlier, the way it dangled a quarter of the way up the forearm, the way I’d thought, They’re not going to be able to fix that. That’s what I felt now – something unfixable had broken inside me.

My ears rang – a single uninterrupted frequency. That had always been with me, although sometimes worse than others. My sight was pixelated, something else that always been with me, although now it was like peering through a spray of colour. Nervous energy seethed through my body.

I got out of bed, went to the lounge room and turned on the light. The gas heater had broken down and all we had was a little fan job – hardly bigger than a toaster – as substitute while the gas heater was getting fixed.

I turned it to HI, sat in front of it, and cradled my knees to my chest, thinking if I could get warm, things might be okay.

The book I’d been reading rested on the coffee table – a detective mystery. Reading would be good. Reading would distract me. I grabbed the book, flipped it open. The words meant nothing. Sentences unfolded meaninglessly.

This was how I’d felt when I woke up worried about the Arabs, and the wallpapering – only I was wide awake now, and there was no fear of anything irrational. Just the terror, everywhere – in my head, pulsing through my body, and forming like a bubble around me. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to not be scared. Those other times, I’d been able to get back to sleep and wake up in the morning feeling fine.

It was a hope to hold onto.

I put my book on the coffee table, turned off the heater, and went back to bed.

I had to sleep.

There was escape in sleep.

There had to be.

 

ii.

I woke in the morning, not sure I’d ever gotten back to sleep, my head pulsing but raw, the way a bad cut feels after it’s been tended. Underneath it, a flightiness, like whatever had filled me last night was a breath from returning. Everything around me was too stark – noises, voices, arguments.

I didn’t tell anybody how I was feeling. I’d never gone to my family with problems. When I broke up with my first girlfriend, when I got bullied in high school, when anything happened, I never told anybody. We weren’t close like that. That was a soap reality, something you’d see on TV. In our house, it just wasn’t done.

I tried to work out what had happened. Perhaps a new hair gel I’d been using was a cause – maybe I’d had an allergic reaction to it. At a party not long after, I met a girl who was studying psychology. We talked, I told her about the gel, she said it was possible. So I showered. And showered. And showered. But still felt the same.

I checked the Yellow Pages for psychologists and psychiatrists. I guessed they’d charge a fortune, but hadn’t anticipated how remote they were. I didn’t drive – never had an interest in getting my license as soon as I turned eighteen – so didn’t know how I’d be able to get to them, if I could afford them. Which I couldn’t.

Maybe whatever this was had a lifespan, like a flu. Maybe I just had to bear through it. Maybe maybe maybe. I trundled through the next several days. The rawness, the panic, the hypersensitivity remained. I lived in terror of it exploding. During the day, I could try distract myself. At night, I dreaded going to bed. The quiet of the night amplified everything I felt. I’d lie there, telling myself over and over, until I recited it in my sleep, Relax. Relax. Relax.

But I also longed for the night, for that moment I drifted off, because that’s the only time I knew peace, as well as the hope that come the morning, all this would be gone, like a headache I could just sleep off.

It remained, though.

I had to see a doctor, albeit not my family GP, Dr Persakis. Despite doctor-patient confidentiality, I feared the connection he had to my family, and I didn’t want anybody knowing what was happening. Whatever was going on was my problem to deal with. To admit it was an acknowledgement that I was broken, and I refused to believe that.

In fact, I couldn’t even go to the same clinic – I couldn’t risk discovery. Instead, I went to one a couple of miles away, which I walked to, trying to burn the nervous energy overloading within me. I took also the gel, still thinking it might be cause of everything.

I explained to the GP, Doctor Cook, what had happened, and then gave him some background – how I’d recently finished my first book, and hadn’t done much since. I asked him if the gel could be responsible. He told me no, and surmised this had happened due to the lack of structure in my days. Once I’d finished my book, I’d lost that. He prescribed me some sleeping pills, Euhypnos, saying that once I felt better rested I’d be able to get on top of things.

I left his office, enthusiastic, if not optimistic. The Euhypnos would take care of the anxiety. I’d take care of the rest.

I had to get back to writing.

I filled the prescription, rushed home, and counted the hours down until I could take a Euhypnos.

It’s amazing what you can get impatient for.

I’d never taken a sleeping pill before. I’d never taken much of anything before. Even after surgery on my broken arm a few years earlier, I’d refused painkillers. The nurses had to demand I take them.

But this is what it had come to: a sleeping pill was my salvation.

Dr Cook had told me to take one – but as many three – Euhypnos half an hour before bed. I took one – if I was going to take medication, I was going to take the least amount possible – and settled back.

Gradually, my body grew heavy. Everything slowed. My mind became quiet, until the anxiety disappeared. I went to bed. There was no worrying about worrying. No telling myself to ‘relax’ over and over. No concern that I couldn’t get to sleep soon.

Nothing but sleep as I slipped away.

 

iii.

When I woke the next morning, the first thing that ran through my head was a self-check.

Anxiety …?

Panic …?

It was gone.

After so long being with me, it felt bizarre to have the inside of my head back to myself, to my own thoughts.

I bounced out of bed, sure this was the start of something new – or at least the resumption of the way things had been – although throughout the morning, I noticed hangover effects from the Euhypnos: my mind still half-asleep, thinking a bit jumbled; movement lethargic, sometimes uncoordinated; there was also the smallest cramp in my chest. But all of it seemed an acceptable trade-off.

That day, I began my second book, only without my usual zeal. There was little there. I was flat. My imagination didn’t motor along at its usual frenzy. Something still wasn’t quite right. There was an unease, like everything hadn’t fallen back into sync – if it ever had been.

 

iv.

My cousin had a sixteenth. The day was hot, and I dressed in jeans and a baseball top that were stifling. When my brother drove me and another cousin up, one of the tyres shredded, and helping replace it was hot work. Throughout, I felt a catch in my breath.

By the time we arrived at my cousin’s, I was short of breath. Every now and again, I took a deep breath to prove that my breathing was fine. When I felt the breath run all the way down into my diaphragm, I felt assured. See? I’d challenge myself. You can breathe. Everything’s fine. But other times, my breath wouldn’t make it.

With each failure I grew panicked until my breath came in gasps and felt like I couldn’t breathe. My aunt rushed me to the closest hospital (PANCH), where I raced through all the worst-case scenarios, like a heart attack. There were no heart problems in my family, but maybe I had a congenital defect. It could happen. Maybe it was the beginning of emphysema from smoking. Who knew the way the body worked?

While waiting, I mulled over things until I detached, and calm swept over me. By the time the doctor saw me, he explained – as if I’d survived a near-death experience – that I’d hyperventilated, and if it happened again to breathe into a paper bag.

I went home, assured. The writing for my second book wasn’t coming, but feedback for my first book was encouraging, bar the typos. Being the age of the typewriter, the only option was to retype the pages (which would introduce more typos, no doubt) or type the corrections on a blank sheet of paper, then cut and paste them over the original. It seemed to take forever, but it kept me busy.

I should’ve looked for a publisher. That was the next logical step. But a solitary fear crippled me: not that I’d be told my book wasn’t good enough (I was sure it’d be accepted) but dealing with an industry professional, talking to them, having to establish a rapport with them.

It was a sensation that struck me often: put me in a familiar environment with familiar people, and I could operate fine, if not thrive, but most other situations were debilitating, unless I was in one of my hyper moods, or had been drinking.

Then another thought wormed into my head, one that obsessed me: that I’d not only get Alzheimer’s, but become delusional – maybe think myself rich, and famous (given my ambitions). I wasn’t forgetting things, had always had a good memory, and nothing extraordinary was occurring to me, but I couldn’t shake the fear, so I started reciting a mantra over and over, repeating my name, age, birthdate, and even who I was, just to prove my thinking was fine. Sometimes, I even wrote it out over and over.

Then I developed intense pains in my chest that lasted weeks. Again, the fear of, Heart problem! I couldn’t assure myself it wasn’t the case when the pain could get so bad it’d drop me to my knees.

I went and saw Dr Persakis. I had no choice. He was an intimidating man, and in the few times my mum had brought me to see him in years gone by, I always got the impression (just my impression, though) that he was concerned I’d become the hypochondriac my mum was, or that I’d develop anxiety and depression as she’d suffered for thirty years, relying on various medications – not that it ever stopped her from doing anything, such as running a household, or working.

Dr Persakis attached a little heart monitor to my chest – or at least that’s what I thought it was – and measured my heart. I mentioned, as an aside, that I even had the occasional fears I was getting Alzheimer’s. He laughed, as if it was the most absurd proposition in the world, an eighteen-year-old having Alzheimer’s. Then the heart machine spat out some paper and Dr Persakis pronounced me fine.

I left the clinic. The pains in my chest were gone. That’s all it took: assurance. My concerns about Alzheimer’s and delusions were gone, too. They were apparently laughable.

Things were going to be okay.

 

v.

One night, I took a Euhypnos at 10.00 pm, went to bed, and was asleep an hour later. At 1.30 I was wide awake and worried the anxiety would creep in. I took another Euhypnos, fell asleep, and that was that.

When I ran out of Euhypnos shortly afterwards, I made an appointment to see Dr Cook. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware he worked at two clinics, and the same phone number serviced both. So I returned to the clinic where I originally saw him only to find that he was at the other.

Another GP, Dr Chan, saw me. I recounted my situation. He wrote me a prescription and asked how the Euhypnos was working, and I told him about my recent episode where I’d taken two. He was horrified, and told me under no circumstances should I take more than one Euhypnos as I might overdose. I told him Dr Cook had informed me differently, a point Dr Chan didn’t even try to address. He must’ve thought I was covering.

I relied on the Euhypnos but developed a tolerance, their effects lessening until taking it became nothing more than a crutch. But I kept taking them until I awoke one morning to a minor headache – a small burning pain in the back of my skull. By afternoon it was worse, feeling like a band around my head that was strained to the point of snapping.

I wasn’t a headache person. I got a cluster of bad ones when I was eight or nine, and between ten and fourteen got the occasional migraine that’d wipe me out, but that was it. They disappeared. These were new.

It felt like as soon I got over some aspect of what I was going through, it’d return in a new form – anxiety, chest cramps, obsession about Alzheimer’s, hyperventilation, headaches. It was the ultimate counter-puncher.

I still didn’t know what it was either. What had caused it? I’d always been a little different. Even my mum, when she was exasperated with me, would exclaim that since the day I was born I was always doing the reverse (of everybody else – in Macedonian, that sounds so much better).

I decided the cause must’ve been having my nose broken, and that I was worried about seeing the guy responsible, even though he’d apologised. I knew I’d see him at the next Kasey’s and counted down the days. The night of Kasey’s, I caught a train with a friend Ron, feeling edgy and short of breath the whole way. Ron said he was worried I was going to pass out.

At Kasey’s, I had a couple of drinks to relax, and looked around for the guy, but I couldn’t see him. What if he wasn’t here? What if I had to wait for the next Kasey’s – in a month – to encounter him? I wouldn’t last.

There was a tap on my shoulder and there he was. He apologised again, asked how I was, and we made small-talk. That was that, and I enjoyed the rest of the night.

The next morning, I was tense, jittery, unable to focus. Other symptoms reappeared. Days became inexorable. Wake up, headache; edginess tinged around me like an aura; breathing constricted like I was wearing a collar too tight, me always trying to force a deep, deep breath down my lungs – even though I knew I shouldn’t – just to prove I could breathe. Trudge into the kitchen to make breakfast: put the kettle on, get a teabag and put it in a cup, get the milk, pour myself a glass of orange juice – just the everyday routine became an incomprehensible puzzle.

Over breakfast, try read the newspaper – my usual morning ritual, but now one with an ulterior motive: externalise. Don’t let my mind turn inward, to dwell on what I was feeling, because when it did, it threatened to swallow me whole.

Then it was down into the back room to try to write. Sometimes, I was able to distract myself, and forget what was happening.

But I couldn’t hide forever.

 

vi.

Saturday night, I went out with my friend Stan, drank more than I should’ve, and was able to forget everything for the time being. It was nice to be me again, if only for a little bit. Sunday morning I woke, dreading a hangover, but feeling okay – there was no anxiety, no headaches, nothing of any kind, other than for some tiredness from the night before.

In the afternoon, my cousin Chris came over. He was my number one reader of anything I wrote, and I was going to show him what little I had of Book Two – an entire chapter. I usually wrote quickly and freely, but that’s all the last several months had amounted to.

As he settled down to read, I sat on the couch and prepared to await his verdict.

And I sank, like my consciousness plummeted out of my body.

I shook my head, hoping to shake off the sensation, and tried to refocus on what I could see and hear and smell, because all those things placed me in the here and now. I was in my back room. Seated on my couch. Waiting for Chris.

And I sank again.

I clutched at the couch to brace myself, tried to distract myself, but that only drew attention to something being wrong.

I excused myself from Chris – who had no idea this was happening – and went into the bedroom to use the phone. I called my GP’s clinic, knowing it was going to be closed on a Sunday afternoon, but calling anyway, hoping somebody might be there. No luck. I rang PANCH and asked them if they dealt with acute anxiety. The receptionist told me I’d be better trying the Austin Hospital. The Austin? Where the hell was that? I’d never heard of it!

I hung up, returned to the back room, and sat there, watching Chris read, thinking that maybe if I could survive until he was finished, we could talk and that would kill time, until night, until bedtime, where I could hopefully find relief in sleep.

But again, I sank.

I went into the house and told my mum that I was sick because I didn’t know how else to put it. I said I wanted to go to the doctor, my mum telling my dad to get the car. I returned to the back room and told Chris I really had to go to the doctor as I had a bad headache. He looked at me quizzically, not sure what to make of me, which was on par with how I felt, because I didn’t know what to make of me.

My parents drove me to PANCH, me in the backseat, cradling my head in my hands like it was going to explode. Resignation crept over me. I was going to hospital and they could take care it. Let the worst happen now.

At PANCH, I lay on the bench, with my head in my mum’s lap, and as I waited the same thing happened to me the night I hyperventilated: my thoughts drifted of their own accord, to detach, and combined with my resignation I relaxed.

The doctor who finally saw me, Dr Kerring, escorted me into a small examination room and had me describe what was going on. He then asked what I thought might be possible causes, and I went through what I’d originally told Dr Cook. Dr Kerring continued to prod, like he didn’t believe a lack of structure could be a problem, so I told him I’d had my nose broken recently. That satisfied him, and he concluded I might be experiencing post-traumatic shock.

I didn’t bother going into my history of odd moods, obsessive behaviour and stuff like that. I hadn’t connected all the dots myself. He made an appointment for me to see one of PANCH’s psychiatrists, and got me a box of Ducene, a mild sedative.

Both actions were assuring, though: firstly, a psychiatrist – somebody to help me get on stop of this stuff, to help me deal with it and unravel it all. The only problem was that due to the nature of PANCH (and public hospitals in general), I wouldn’t be able to see him for several weeks.

Well, at least now I’d have the Ducene.

 

vii.

The Ducene dulled the anxiety, so I felt back in control – at least for a little while. When they ran out, I went to see Dr Persakis, told him what had happened, showed him the box, and asked him to prescribe me more of the same.

Dr Persakis wasn’t impressed, like a nineteen-year-old living at home with no real problems or responsibilities had anything to be anxious about. Or maybe I just imagined that, just as maybe I imagined Dr Persakis begrudgingly filled the prescription.

When I got my Ducene, they came in a different box, this one with lime trimming. They were two milligrams. The box – the one I threw away – had been plain white, and I had it in my head (but wasn’t sure) they’d been five milligrams. Was the packaging different because they’d come from different places (one the hospital pharmacy, the other the local pharmacy), or because they were different dosages? Had Dr Persakis taken it upon himself to lessen my dosage? Maybe he thought I was making something out of nothing and didn’t need sedatives, that if I went down that route I might end up relying on them, like my mum.

Of course, I didn’t know for sure that Dr Persakis had changed the prescription – it was just an uneasy feeling, although under the new prescription the anxiety started to peek out. Was that because I was getting used to the medication (as I’d done with the Euhypnos) or because the medication wasn’t as strong? I didn’t know. And it didn’t really matter.

The truth was I was just biding my time until I could see the psychiatrist.

 

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