You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Thursday, 31 October 2013

on why I wouldn't trust a psychiatrist as far as I could throw it

I've noticed that there's a bit of a theme that, when I encounter when reading blogs, fires my anger right up, and I fire off comments in the heat of the moment. And I figure, if there's all that energy there that is going into other people's comments spaces, I should take that energy and focus it on my own blog.

The theme is around psychiatrists and the mental health system and how they treat their patients.

I don't like it. I don't like it a bit.

When making generalisations, I think it's important to be clear about the nature of generalisations, and that is, of course, that they don't fit every situation or individual. There are always abundant exceptions to a generalisation. And so I would expect, even though as a generalisation, I don't like psychiatrists, that I would meet one along the way who was actually quite unobjectionable, or at least that I would know of someone who could tell me, 'Hey, I know this bloke who's a psychiatrist, but he's actually a decent person.' Only, it actually hasn't happened to me yet. I don't personally know of anyone who has found an experience with a psychiatrist to be helpful. If anyone does know of one, please let me know. It might help to ease my despair.

So, why have I come to form this opinion? From the beginning...

I told the first psychiatrist I saw that I was feeling really overwhelmed and angry at the level of sexual violence and violence against women in our society. She told me that they kill baby girls in China. That's all she said, and then she asked me to make another appointment. That first appointment cost me a week and half worth of my income at the time.

The second psychiatrist I saw made lots of appointments for me that he just didn't bother to turn up to. This was devastating, after all the effort and struggle it took just to get to those appointments. When he did turn up, he wouldn't say much. Then one day he seemed quite excited as he told me about a special computer test that he wanted me to do. He told me I would be 'hooked up to a computer' which would run tests on my brain function and he expected to get great insights about my condition with its use. I was imagining something pretty fancy, the way he was so excited. I made another appointment, and I managed, with huge effort, to get there. I had hope.

I got to my appointment and I was put in front of a regular computer terminal . The screen displayed inanely basic questions about how I felt and I just had to answer them with a click - yes, no, a little, a lot. They were the same questions I 'd answered over and over again in every interview with every doctor or therapist along the way. I couldn't believe this was the 'amazing new computer test' he had raved on about. It was a total waste of time and energy. At my next appointment, he told me that 'the computer indicates that you're depressed.' He held this out like it was great piece of news, and then was so happy with his efforts that he didn't make any more appointments for me. He considered that he had done his job by me. All he'd done was take six weeks to make a diagnosis that my GP had correctly made in one consultation, and he was done with me.

The next psychiatrist I saw told me that my epilepsy was all in my imagination, and that if I just stopped thinking about my epileptic symptoms, they would go away. He also told me that my belief in my religion was proof that I was psychotic. He said it wasn't a real religion. When I explained that my religion is legally recognised in Australia, he said he was 'surprised' and 'interested' to hear that but it seemed like he didn't believe me. I even cited court rulings. He wasn't convinced. I do wonder what on earth Roman Catholics do when they're in this situation. Do you believe in the miracle of transubstantiation? The intercession of saints? If you do, the psychiatrist will say you're psychotic. If you don't, the priest says you're a sinner. Maybe you're even going to hell.

So, despite the very real legal acknowledgement of my religion in this country, and the EEG results that said I have temporal lobe epilepsy, I was given anti-psychotic medication which had the side effect of causing me to gain 24kg in weight. I've still never actually had a psychotic episode.

Next I met a psychiatrist who had an interest in what he called the 'funny epilepsies.' He had a lot of insight into the range of symptoms I was experiencing with complex partial seizures, and I learned a lot. Then at my next appointment I started crying. He lost his bedside manner, and indeed any manners, immediately, and suddenly started speaking to me very rudely as if I were a small child behaving badly. He turned mean, just because I started crying. And then he handed me back to my GP. I never saw him again.

Then there was the one who decided that I should have electric shock therapy. There's always one like that. Fortunately the next day I saw a different doctor who didn't go ahead with it. If the roster at the hospital had been different, I could have been subjected to ECT.

Then there was the one who was extraordinarily preoccupied with my entire sexual history and the way my body smelled. If I mentioned male friends or past relationships within earshot of one of the nurses, the nurse would relay this snippet to the doctor, and then he would grill me like he was a cop in a movie as to whether or not I was sleeping with this person. If I happened to take some exercise and return to the ward all sweaty, I would be similarly grilled about my hygiene habits and how I behave when I'm in the shower. For fuck's sake.

There was the time I didn't even get as far as seeing a psychiatrist, because when I turned up at the mental health service offices and asked for help, the intake worker told me that as I was neatly dressed and wearing make-up, I was clearly not unwell enough to qualify for receiving any help. 

Even stranger than that was the time I turned up to visit a friend and found her having a major psychotic episode. I called mental health services. They came out to visit and told me that my friend was clearly psychotic, and that she was too sick for a hospital to take her in, and therefore I would have to look after her. I still can't work out how that makes any sense. They didn't ask if I was willing to care for my friend, they just told me that I shouldn't tell her about any of my own experiences with mental health services, and left us alone. I had meant to visit for a few days, but I had to stay for six weeks and watch her every minute and restrain her when she tried to kill flies by smashing ceramic plates into glass windows, or when she put her hand in the blender to clean it while it was still on.

Then there was the one who objected to me having an epileptic episode in his hospital. I tried to reassure them that it's not a problem, I just need the right medication and a day to sleep it off, but they didn't like it. I was transferred to another hospital without my consent, where I did not receive any mental health care at all.

That was the last straw for me. But there was still the psychiatrist that Mr CJ was given an appointment with through the Pain Clinic. I went with him to the appointment. This is a story that is not mine to tell, so I won't relate the kind of rubbish that this arsehole put onto poor Mr CJ, but I was there, and I know it was nasty. 

This has just been my story. I know that I am very lucky, because plenty of other people I know have been treated much worse by the mental health system and really suffered terribly. I've know so many people whose lives have been destroyed by drugs whose side effects make you much sicker than you ever were in the first place. My best friend from high school died while she was an inpatient in psychiatric hospital, aged 17. I've known one woman who had fallen pregnant when a condom broke, and was denied access to abortion by her psychiatrist. I've known another woman who was forcibly restrained had an abortion performed on her against her will. I've heard these stories of abuse in care over and over again.

But never once in my life have I ever heard anyone say 'I spoke with a psychiatrist, and I found it helpful.' Not once.

And I was thrilled to read just the other day how Lou Reed took the chance to give them some of their own medicine when he had the opportunity. Oh, that was just lovely.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My New Home is in Sugar Cane Country

They grow sugar cane in Queensland. Lots of it. There's even a bit in the Grasshopper song about it.

Oh, they grow sugar cane in Queensland
They grow sugar cane in Queensland
They grow sugar cane 
And they load it on a train
'Til it's syrup in a tin in Queensland.

I loved that song when I was a kid. I've only just discovered right now, as I looked for a link to give to readers who may be unfamiliar with such obscure Australiana, that the version I learnt at primary school had been abridged and altered a little for the benefit of our tender young ears. Turns out, the giant grasshopper wasn't drinking pineapple juice all over Queensland after all. He was spitting tobacco juice. Well, learn something new and all that.

I'm from down south, and I'd never been to Queensland, or seen a sugar cane field, until I was 22 years old. I was on a bus from Darwin to Brisbane - that's three days straight on a bus. On the third day we started driving through fields of some plants that looked distinctly sinister, somehow ominous, and really quite ugly to me. I thought about what these strange beastly things could be, and soon realised, ah, this is sugar cane country now. This must be sugar cane.

Maybe it's something to do with my deeply passionate love-hate relationship with sugar. I've been terribly addicted to sugar all my life, and yes, I know, it's really bad for me. Looking at the plant it comes from, it's easy to believe it's a bad thing. I mean, they look exactly like bloody Triffids, or just like how I imagined them when I read the book. Now just look at them. Don't they look like they're just about to sprout venomous mouths out their tops and go forth and destroy the world? Or is it just me?


I don't actually live in Queensland, but close enough that the climate and agricultural conditions don't notice the difference. This land is in sugar cane country. A lot of the view on the way to town looks something like this.


We drive past a sugar refinery on the highway, and some days, the smell of burning molasses hangs so thick in the air it seems to stick to your clothes. Now, when I open a jar of raw sugar, I recognise that smell.

And, of course, where you have sugar cane, you sure as hell have cane toads.

I'd never seen a cane toad in real life until a couple of years ago, when I was visiting up around this area. Yes, we have cane toads round here. Wander round in the evening and you're very likely to come across a couple. They seemed to go away over the brief winter, and now they're back with the spring. I'm always surprised by how skinny and scrawny they are, the ones I've seen. I'd seen dozens of pictures of cane toads in my life, of course, and they all looked nice and round and plump, like this one pictured above. The ones I see around here manage to look more pathetic and less impressive than I imagined they would be. They also seem to me to be strangely apathetic toward human presence for a wild creature. Every other creature around here, the birds, the lizards, the bush turkeys, wallabies, goannas, everything, will move away quickly when they sense humans approaching. The bloody cane toads just waddle along as if they couldn't even be bothered to get out of the way of your footsteps. I sometimes think I should be a responsible citizen and kill as many of them as I can, but then I'd be left with cane toad blood and guts all over my walkway paths. You'd think there couldn't be anything uglier than a cane toad, but I reckon that the inside of a cane toad just might qualify.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

of New Ink, and its Practical Function

I got a new tattoo a little while ago, inside my left forearm. It was pretty damn exciting. It's been fifteen years since I last got a new tattoo.

This tattoo is a little different to most, in that it has a very practical function. It's a medical alert tattoo.

People have been telling me for years that I really should get one of those medical ID bracelets, but I was not at all attracted to the idea. I don't like to wear much jewellery at all except for dress-ups. I find it so annoying and fiddly to have bits of metal or whatever dangling off my person. And they only end up broken or lost and have to be replaced. No, I couldn't put up with it. But then I happened to hear about the relatively recent phenomenon of medical alert tattoos. And I do love tattoos. 

So I looked into it. When I started to come across more and more anecdotal evidence that suggested that the people most likely to get a medical alert tattoo are paramedics and ER workers, I was convinced. I have a lot of respect for those people. If they think it's a good idea, then I'm sure it is. 

I found a lot of images online - most of them really kind of ugly. Or just completely ugly. I was feeling discouraged when I found that a lady named Amy had come up with this design and I was inspired anew. She didn't say on her post where she had found the image or who designed it, so I don't know. I took the picture to Nimbin Tattoo Studio where a lovely, smart lady named Beki copied the design and worked out the font I wanted and the spacing and so on. I had already 'seen' the typewriter font for this tattoo before I had a chance to think about it. I would have liked a pretty font, but it was like my brain had already made the decision - that was just how I saw it, and how it had to be.

I absolutely love it and I'm so thrilled that I can have this and that it is also beautiful. The caduceus of Hermes is a powerful and wonderful spiritual symbol and tool in its own right, and I'm so glad that the medical profession has such a beautiful symbol.

And, if I ever find myself in a bad way and not able to communicate, the paramedics will know that I'm having a seizure, and not just on some bad drugs. Plenty of people have made that assumption before, believe me.

Friday, 4 October 2013

My New Home is Tiny

I'll measure it for you.

Just one room, 3.7m by 4.9m, and 3.9m by 2.4m of verandah space, for the two of us. And miles and miles of bushland outside and beyond.

It's a considerable downsize from my previous home, a two-storey, two-bedroom townhouse. It's been a long journey to my new tiny home, which began, rather bizarrely, with getting hooked on an American reality TV program.

It was Hoarders, and it was really horrible television, on a really ugly subject, but I was fascinated with this tragic side effect of our culture of consumption - a disorder caused by affluence. I was a bit surprised with myself for getting into a reality TV show, but even more surprised to realise, as I watched more episodes, just how closely I identified with these people on the show, these people who had a hoarding disorder. How much I understood exactly what they were talking about. How very closely they were describing the way I felt about possessions. How very easily I could become one of these people, if I had the space and didn't have to pack it all up and move pretty damn regularly, as I have most of my life. Say, if I owned my own house, like the people on the TV show did. That was the only difference between them and me, it sometimes seemed. I looked around my home and saw the warning signs.

So I decided to clean up my act and my clutter a bit. I googled subjects like 'simplify' and 'de-clutter', I read all the advice and I followed it. I had serious words with myself about my op-shopping obsession, and cut back on my purchases dramatically. More often, I visited the op shop to drop stuff off. Each time I tidied the house, I found stuff that I could de-clutter, and it went in a box by the door. When the box was full, I carried it around to the op shop. I followed the rules. Slowly, slowly, bit by bit, I was becoming more aware of my relationship with my possessions. I cleared out a few corners.

It was during this time that I came upon the 'tiny home' movement that is so popular in many places now. I realised that my full family-sized home was ridiculously oversized. I knew I need to physically limit the amount of stuff I could collect and store. I felt desperately overwhelmed about keeping up with housework among all my clutter, and the idea of an very low-maintenance home was just intoxicating. I googled some more and read some books. I decided. My next home had to be a Tiny Home.

One fine, otherwise ordinary day, I was going through my 'fabric collection', which was the word I used to describe the archival layers of jumbled textiles and fragments and alleged mending jobs that took up a whole ragged corner of the room I would refer to as my 'studio' in a similarly euphemistic fashion. I was choosing pieces that could be given away if they were good enough, or, more likely, torn up for cleaning rags, or, in absolutely drastic cases, just put in the rubbish bin. By now I was looking at the pieces with a new, discerning eye that I had trained to look past the sentimentality and see the reality of the physical object. I was sorting quite ruthlessly, and I was coping really well with it, until I came across a handbag.

I bought this handbag when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. It was my Bag through all my glorious travels when I was young and free and the world was my oyster. It was the best handbag ever, it fit in exactly the right spot on my hips when slung over my shoulder, it was the perfect size and shape, it had the perfect pockets for all the things I needed to carry. I wore it to death. It was dying for a long time, and I kept it together with long hours of patient stitching and reinforcing long after it would have gone gracefully to its grave. I did some of the best damn darning of my life on that bag. And when it finally just didn't hold things any more, I kept it to use as a pattern for making other handbags from. I did use that basic shape and pattern to make a couple of bags, but they were never anywhere near as good as the original.

And even that was years ago now. But still every time I packed up all my stuff and moved house over those years, I packed that bag into my fabric pile and carried it to the next place.

And in that moment, I saw for the first time what that bag had become. It was a piece of old rubbish, and it was useless. This bag was going in the rubbish bin. But I really, really, loved that bag so much. So I did something that I hadn't done before in all my de-cluttering. I took a picture of it, just to remember it, just like the psychologists told the people on the TV show to do when they found it hard to let go of something they loved, even though it was a piece of rubbish. Here it is, here's the old bag that I loved so much that I had to take a  picture of it.

And this is the darning that I did, that I put so much time and effort into, it seemed so terrible to throw it away.

And so, having a digital record securely stored, I took the bag out the back to the rubbish bin. I got all the way to the rubbish bin and even put my hand on its lid to lift it up. And then I couldn't do it and I turned around and went back to the house, the old bag still in my hands. By the time I got back to the house - all of a dozen steps - I knew I had a problem.

And I cried, and I had a cup of tea, and I got on with my de-cluttering. I decided that my handbag could do very well as an organic mulch, and gave it to the apple tree like an offering, where it very successfully kept some rather aggressive weeds down. When I read Confessions of a Hoarder by Corinne Grant, and I came to the bit where she had an eerily similar experience with a handbag from her teenage years, I thought how very superior my cotton handbag was to her nylon one, in that I could still use mine for mulch. It was a solution that left me very aware that I still had a problem.

One night soon after this I sat at my computer and googled through to a deeper level of information - medical journals, neurology and psychology papers, details of CBT programs specific for hoarding disorder. I ended up staying up all night, crying over the computer screen. I found other people who had words to describe my feelings. I found words that described me and my home more clearly than I would have been able to articulate myself. I saw, so clearly, that if I didn't change things, I could easily find myself on one of those reality TV shows by the time I'm 50.

And I cried some more, and I drank more tea, and I got on with my de-cluttering, more ruthlessly and aggressively than before. I sweated every little decision. I worked hard. I developed a kind of alter-ego who functioned as a substitute for a real psychologist. I programmed her to say all the things that the psychologists and professional organisers on TV would say to the people who were behaving like I was. I knew the scripts off by heart. I had agonising conversations with myself all day. And each evening, I carried another load of stuff around to the op shop.

All in all, it took the greater part of a year to de-clutter myself enough to pack up into a trailer and move to this tiny home. The last week before the move was absolute hell; the last 24 hours, I don't know how I survived. As it was, I wouldn't have managed at all without an angel of mercy appearing in the form of my wonderful next-door neighbour, who took care of the two trailer loads of rubbish and half a room full of stuff that was to go to the op shop that I found myself left with at the end. (She also took my 'mulch' to the tip.)

I am never going to put myself through that again. I am never going to that place again. I am staying in a tiny house forever, where I just can't get myself in that kind of trouble.

I'm not ready to show you pictures of my tiny home set-up yet because honestly it's still not really set up. It's not easy and I'm sometimes discouraged. But I believe in this; I believe it's for the best. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

a detour through Lake Como

Dear lovely readers, I am so sorry I haven't gotten back on the blogging horse. And I don't just mean that I'm sorry out of an obligation to the blog or anyone - I'm really, honestly, just sorry for myself.

Truth is, I've been pretty bloody depressed lately. Yep, it's possible to get depressed even living in a tropical paradise. Various people whom I care about are going through hard things like illness and outrageous family problems, and one died recently. And the bloody federal election didn't help any, let me tell you. Like life is worth living under a Tony Abbott government. Pfft. At least my late friend didn't live quite long enough to see that come to pass.

And I've really been missing the blogs so much, mine and all the beautiful ones I love to follow. But you know how things seem harder to catch up on when you're already depressed. But this morning, as part of my ok-I-really-have-to-pull-myself-together mission, I made a deliberate point of turning on the computer, waiting patiently for the slow connection, and reading through my blog list. I forced myself to keep reading until something happened, some spark, some inspiration, some clue or sign. I knew it would come if I let myself be taken up in the stories.

And it was there. It was Lucy at Lulastic and the Hippyshake who got to me. Oh Lucy, have I told you how much I adore you? She went to Lake Como in her travels, according to this lovely post here. And I remembered, oh, I've been to Lake Como. And I remembered that I have a story. So even though I was planning a 'My New House' series, because this place is at least as lovely as most of the wonders of the world I have seen, we will take a little detour through Italy, just because inspiration has struck.

It was February 2000, I'd been staying in Switzerland and I decided I wanted to go to Greece. My Swiss friend Ms A decided she would come with me, as she had never been to Greece. We had very little money, and our plan was basically to hitch and camp our way through Italy and then get a boat to Greece from the south of Italy. We had a tiny tent, a tiny gas cooker, and two big backpacks. We started at the train station in Luzern (Lucerne). Ms A had been given a gift of railway vouchers, and we took them to the counter and asked how far south the two of us could get for the value of the vouchers. The ticket seller consulted his charts and told us that we could get to Lake Como. And so, several hours later, we got off the train at Lake Como.

We didn't have much time to wander around, but it was so obvious that this was a stunningly beautiful place. I remember an unusual feeling of envy for the owners of the luxurious home on the crystal waterfront. But it passed. I knew my gypsy lifestyle bore stranger, more wonderful fruit, and it certainly would - as we shall see. It was already well into the afternoon and we needed to get out of the city and into the country where we could find a place to camp. We didn't have enough money to pay for accommodation. So we just found our way to the bus terminal, and to a cafe for hot chocolates. Here I got the shock of my life. Nobody had warned me about Italian hot chocolates. Oh My Goddess. I've seen plenty of very pricey, fancy cafes lately in Australia advertising allegedly genuine Italian hot chocolate, but it's not even a shadow on what even a midnight roadside truck stop would come up with in Italy. Real Italian hot chocolate is as dark and thick as mud, a little piece of viscous heaven in a cup. But I digress.

We found our bearings and consulted maps and timetables. Remember, all this was before smartphones and google maps. We found which road would take us out in the direction we wanted to go, and also that no buses would take us up there this afternoon. We shouldered our packs and hiked up the road. Up being the operative word - it was a distinctly uphill road. We climbed a long way, looking for a good spot to stop on the side of the road to thumb a lift. But there just weren't any. The road was narrow and without shoulders, there was no room for a driver to slow down and pull over. We kept climbing up that hill all afternoon. It was near dark when we found a strip that looked possible, and stood in position with our thumbs out. No one pulled over. Soon it was dark and the streetlights came on. All of them, that is, except the one that would have illuminated us standing on the side of the road. That one was out, apparently. This was clearly Not Working Out. We shouldered our packs and wandered off again, this time away from the road, looking for a spot perhaps under a tree where we could camp. We had come so far out of the centre of town that the buildings were not so close together up here, there was quite a lot of space. And by the glow of the light pollution we found a spot of grassy land, a reasonable distance away from the nearest building. We pitched our camp in the dark, made some tea and something to eat, and went to sleep in our tiny tent.

I woke up at daybreak and went outside to answer the call of nature. The nearby building looked a lot closer in the daylight. It wasn't a home, but a big block of offices or a college or something like that. I could see a small group of young men near the buildings. They were obviously looking at us, our tent. I woke Ms A. "There are men outside!" She sleepily poked her head out the tent flap, and then back in. "They're only young men," she said - and lay down and went back to sleep. I always wondered exactly what she meant by that. It's only now, typing this out, that I realise that she meant that they were too young to be any kind of authority figure, and therefore she wasn't fussed about what they thought. I had a bit more of a nap, too.

A bit later, one of the young men approached our tent. He was using extremely polite, formal, non-threatening body language and intonation as he spoke to us. He was also astoundingly handsome. Not just movie star handsome, but bloody Greek God image of absolute perfection. I was later to come to realise that the Italians are generally more attractive than people elsewhere, but still, this young man was incredibly exquisite. We roused ourselves from our sleeping bags and looked at him in response. He talked on a bit more. Our faces remained blank. Then he seemed to realise something and change tack. "(blah blah) parlo Italiano?" We knew what that meant. We shook our heads. "Ah." It took about four seconds for he and Ms A to establish Spanish as the common language that they could both understand. And the whole spiel was repeated. Ms A then explained to me that we had apparently found ourselves in the backyard of a rehabilitation facility for drug addicts. The young men were the inpatients.

They were thrilled to find themselves with unexpected visitors, and took their roles as hosts very seriously. They snuck us into the kitchen, explaining that they couldn't let the staff see us here, and made fresh espresso coffee and squeezed juice fresh from blood oranges for us. They raided the kitchen and put together a bag of food for us to take on the road, such a big bag that its weight was a serious hindrance until we could eat it up. One of the young men asked us if we would take his boots. He explained, through another who interpreted, that he could not go anywhere because he had to stay here in this facility. He would like to think that his boots could travel, even if he couldn't. We were really sad to say no to his request, but the boots didn't fit us and we couldn't take on that kind of useless weight in our packs. Still, whatever that place was doing for those young men, I was sure it was something good. They all looked extremely healthy. I never would have guessed them for heavy drug addicts. They were obviously all doing very well in there. The handsome one told me in very slow, thoughtful, broken English how he couldn't believe his eyes when he had seen a tent in the yard when he had woken up this morning. He thought he was seeing things. Those dear young men were so incredibly thrilled with the whole adventure of having these exotic, foreign young women turn up in a little tent in the middle of the night. I'll never forget that man's face as he tried to find English words to describe his experience. They hurried us on our way before the main shift of staff arrived for the day, but I daresay there's a good chance those young men will never forget us, either.