My Sandwich Family & Other Adventures – continued from In Emergency Part 2
The Weeks That Follow
The hallucinations continue, but they are less invasive and only a bit confusing. I don’t know what they want. It’s not always clear to me that they are coming from my mind as they seem to be external to me. I take time to try and work out what they are.
My nurse today, Tori, sits down with me to see how I am. I tell her about the hallucinations.
‘Are you hearing voices?’ she asks.
‘Yes, all the time.’
‘Are the voices in your head or outside your head?’ she begins.
I politely hold up my hand to stop her.
‘Please don’t give me any ideas about what you think my hallucinations should be like,’ I ask her, ‘I’m really suggestible. The voices are the voices of the people around me – you, Winky over there, Tracey here and so on. I either project what they say, or I project the meaning of what they are saying,’ I explain.
I realise that my hallucinations, the voices, and other symptoms are very personal. I explain them to Chris when he comes to visit in the afternoon. I have noticed that I have constructed my experiences to line up with my careers and hobbies – directing, music and teaching.
The hallucinations in Emergency, for example, were like someone was directing them. I viewed them as actors playing scripts they had been given. I critiqued Tom’s acting, but also, the voices commented on my performance too. If what I heard didn’t fit with my life, I wondered about how the actor must have misunderstood the script. I never thought that it didn’t relate to me. In Emergency, everything related to me.
There is also a musical component to the hallucinations, particularly on Acute Ward. The noise of people just going about their business will get louder and louder and cause me to become confused and overwhelmed. Sometimes there is a sudden, tense silence – a musical term called sforzando – which makes me feel like I’ve just made a mistake or have been caught out saying something crazy. This especially happens when friends or nurses are talking to me, and I feel I have said something that is insane. ‘A-Ha!’ the silence says. After a time, the volume of sounds on the ward come back to normal, signalling to me that everything is ok, and I can relax.
Also, I find myself a little tongue-tied, which is more than a little ironic, as I spent the 6 days in hospital with Lachlan listening to the lactation consultant worrying that he had a tongue tie, which might make breastfeeding difficult. I was told not to worry about his tie unless it started causing problems. It is certainly becoming a problem, but for me not my son.
Finally, there are aspects to my symptoms which seem related to my job as an English teacher. I find myself confusing basic language – getting the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ mixed up and prepositions like ‘for’, ‘from’, and ‘to’ confused. I also trip over a sentence I say to someone that includes the words, ‘my husband, my son and my father.’ Admittedly, I’ve never actually said a sentence with these words together before, but I am acutely embarrassed that I find it difficult. Now that I am officially crazy, I feel that every word that comes out of my mouth is being judged for sanity.
I find myself always sitting in the same place on the ward, in a corner with my back to a wall and the kitchen door behind me. That way, no one can sneak up on me. It also means that the familiar noises of the ward, which may or may not escalate into hallucinations, are coming from predictable directions. I am also far away from where the nurses are. They like to lean over the back of the banquette seating at mealtimes and keep and eye on us, and I assume that they will be listening to what we say, too.
Though Chris is at pains to tell me that I am better, I do occasionally see his face freeze, and I hear the room take on that sudden, tense silence. I imagine he is looking over at the nurses as if to say, ‘she’s ok. She’s not making sense, but she’s ok.’ I ask him to tell me what he has observed.
‘You are much calmer than you were, but you are still a bit manic,’ he tells me.
I know it’s true. The problem is that I really like being manic. I’m not feeling disturbed by the hallucinations any more. They are completely benign, and they are only distracting rather than distressing, but I like the feeling of importance and exhilaration that I get from the mania. I have so much energy. And love: I have more love than I know what to do with. So much love I think my heart will just keep growing and growing until it crowds out everything and everyone on Acute Ward. Why would I want that to stop?
Joe is here! He’s brought Lachie. It’s an absolute mission for Joe to get our boy out of the house and to Acute, but he’s here with me. And even then we only have an hour together because I have to have one-on-one supervision. We cuddle up on the foyer lounge next to Lachie’s car capsule. I leap up joyously to take my little one into the bathroom to change him. Tori watches me from outside. I don’t care. I haven’t lost them. They are still mine. My life isn’t over. I can say, haltingly ‘my husband, my son and my father.’ How much things can change in 24 hours.
I start to make a collage on the walls. I email my work friends asking them to bring some colour photocopies. Lara brings them with her when she visits. There is a photo of Joe and I holding Lachlan; a photo of the group that helped us move into the house – called Team Toothless; the photo of me at Alfonso’s holding Lachlan in one hand and a sangria in the other. My favourite photo is of Lachie on the day we were released. He lies curled up on the scales wearing only a nappy. You can even see the weight, 2.17kgs. I write in the bottom corner in texta ‘You are the anchor.’ Lachlan holds my life together at the moment and keeps my mind focussed.
Tracey brings me a present after she returns from her daily walk. I had told her about this shrine to hope that I’m making. I wanted some flowers to represent Yemaya, but her colours are blue and green. I had little hope of finding something appropriate. She knocks on my door; she is carrying a single, very blue flower.
‘You didn’t think that blue flowers existed,’ she says, ‘Singapore orchids are blue.’
I tell her that now that I’m on psych ward, I don’t care that I’m behaving manically, but there’s a problem. Once I am thought of as mad, how do I prove that I’m not? Once I told that lie that landed me in Emergency, how could I prove that I’m speaking the truth? It was what happened with Mama in Rehab. Once I had implied to the staff there that she was unreliable, they were able to use that against her. They would directly contradict her, and bank on us believing them as the professionals. In the end, I didn’t know who to believe.
‘Yes,’ Tracey says, ‘It’s the same with my psychiatrist. If I agree with her about my psychosis, I’m mad; if I say no I’m lying. I went off all my drugs cold turkey, but the staff didn’t believe me. “You’re being sneaky; you’re taking them in secret.”’ But she was, instead, working very hard on herself, not like the others who were ‘filling themselves up with coffee and chocolate.’
I tell her of my struggles to tell real from unreal and that one of the signs I’ve noticed is coincidence. If what I am hearing relates too closely to me, I suspect it is not real. For example, I overhear someone talking about Cuba, where we got married. Is it a coincidence? I think I hear an ad for a particular brand of formula, not only the one I use for Lachie, but I was involved in the commercial for that particular brand. Is it a coincidence? This is when I start to doubt.
‘Coincidence,’ says Tracey, ‘is God’s way of remaining anonymous.’
I wonder what that means for me – an atheist. Is a god I don’t believe in trying to make me mad in order to claim me for his own? Is he punishing me for not believing? I accept that what I’m experiencing might be happening for a reason, though right now I’m struggling to work out what that could be.
‘Gemma!’ I hear someone calling me. I look around but there is no one there that I know. Maybe I’m hearing things on top of everything else, but it doesn’t feel like a hallucination.
I’m sitting with Tracey and Faith and another woman called Cathy. I’m talking to them about writing for some reason. I feel like a teacher – no, a guru full of knowledge. Scott comes by our table where I am, frankly, holding forth. He seems to be a man who has always struggled with mental illness and has a very defeated air. I don’t think he’s used to people listening to him. He is older than us, greying, and has drool in the corner of his mouth. He mumbles something, and I put my ESL teacher’s hat on and work it out.
‘You have really great handwriting. What is it, music?’ I explain to him that the writing is a few different things. I showed him my verbatim dialogue, my song lyrics, my attempt to write exactly what I’m thinking, mistakes and all, and mind maps.
‘Can you read this?’ he asks as he scribbles something on my notepad. I confess that I can’t read it. It is Scott’s full name.
‘How can I learn to write better?’ he asks and it seems to be an extremely important question. He is an intense presence, though I don’t think he’s violent or anything. I think he just wants something he can achieve. I suggest to him that he write larger and perhaps in all capitals until he is more confident.
‘How come you write so well?’ asks Scott. I start explaining that my life involves different types of writing; from short and medium-length essays with my ESL students, to plays for my music theatre students, to song lyrics I’ve been asked to perform or want to learn. I hear an alarm go off. It gets louder. Am I explaining my life? Or justifying it? I’m confused. This is clearly a sign – a musical and volume one this time. I realise that I’ve been trying to write down the conversation we’re having while having it. I put down my pen, close my book and just listen. The alarm stops.
Joe is finally able to come to my room. Tom and my sister-in-law Mel have come and they are looking after Lachie in the foyer. He lies on the white bed with slippery covers. I go behind the bed and pick up the guitar, which Joe brought me. Now, I’m not supposed to have restricted items in my room; it’s the rules. But the nurses feel that it’s better if I play it in my room, and I’m very happy with that. It’s been in my room for three days; I’m not concerned that it’ll get stolen. I bring the guitar round to the stool. I sit with the guitar ready.
‘Nice,’ says Joe, his hands behind his head.
I sing and play my little medley: Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang’ and The Coasters’ ‘Down in Mexico.’
‘Your voice has changed,’ he tells me, ‘It has more character.’
Has it changed because of my suffering?
We squeeze onto the bed together, and in a moment, he is asleep. My poor husband, who is trying to hold everything together. I hold the space for him and let him sleep.
The hallucinations wake me at 6. I might have been grappling with them for hours, but I can’t now bring to mind anything about them, except that I had to stop them seeing into my mind at all costs. One of the sheets is on the floor. I’ve managed to tie myself up with the other two pretty comprehensively.
I go over to the wall, where I’ve put up the photos with blutac stolen from the common room. I stroke the photo of Lachie lying on the scales.
‘You are the anchor,’ I tell him. He’s one of two people holding me together. I pick up my book and go to the table outside the nurse’s station, where the only light is. I start to writing, trying to work out what the hallucinations are. What do they want? It seems they are fear: my fearful brain. I spend the nights trying to stop the hallucinations from seeing me, but if it is inside me, in my brain, then how can I keep them out? Even so, I feel better when I believe I have successfully shut them out. Maybe soon I’ll be able to sleep.
I’m intrigued by David, who comes to the nurse’s station a few minutes after me and gets their attention – I notice there’s no buzzer. He is calm and quiet and asks for his crochet hook.
‘It’s too early,’ the nurse tells him, ‘maybe 7.30.’
David asks what time it is. There is no clock within view.
‘It’s a bit after 6,’ I tell him.
The nurse goes back in and David sighs, ‘that’s a long time. I can’t sleep anymore.’
‘Same,’ I say, ‘And my back can’t take that bed anymore. You can only lie around for so long.’
I ask if his is a British accent.
‘No, but I’ve had that like 3 times since I’ve been in here.’
I wonder if David is manifesting what is projected on him, because despite his protestation, he definitely has an accent.
‘I get that too,’ I say apologetically, ‘people ask if I’m British.’
David settles down to drawing. It’s too early for his crochet hook. A nurse comes in and offers tea. We say thanks.
‘But no cups, so you’ll have to use –‘
‘- your hand,’ says David as simultaneously the nurse finishes her sentence, ‘glasses.’
We both snicker, and I think ‘fucking institutionalisation.’ I go into my room and take my cup and grab a Darjeeling tea bag. I go back and offer it to David.
‘I only have one.’
‘What about you?’ he asks. ‘Don’t you want one?’
‘I don’t drink tea.’
‘What about coffee?’
‘International Roast isn’t coffee.’
I hear my name being called again. I look around again and no-one is looking for me. Oh no, has this whole conversation been a hallucination?
Sunday May 13, 2018
I wake at about 3am, with the waking nightmare.
‘Shit,’ I say to myself.’ ‘You can’t sleep with Lachie in the bed! You can’t do that; babies can get smothered in the sheets. You can roll on them in your sleep. Shit!’
I pat myself down. Where is he? Are my eyes open or closed?
‘Where’s Lachie.’ I can’t find him. I pull the covers down and then up. I’m sitting up now, afraid to move any further in case I hurt him.
Lachie isn’t there. He isn’t even on the Acute Ward. He is with Joe at home. I realise this before I have even opened my eyes. It’s the same as the hallucinations I was having before I even came into hospital. But they take on a different hue, now that I know where I am. They feed on my fear.
‘If I keep my eyes closed,’ I remind myself, ‘The Fear can’t see me. That means that I can buy some time to work out The Answer.’
The hallucinations go into full swing. I lie there and spend what feels like hours but could be only minutes, trying to decide what The Answer is. The minute I think, ‘that’s it!’, I start to rehearse it to ward off the hallucinations, but in seconds I forget what it is. It endlessly escapes my sleepy grasp. The sheets are a tangle of sweat and confusion. Meanwhile, my eyes are tightly shut.
Eventually, I decide and rehearse what The Answer is and I fall into a heavy sleep and wake at 5am. By this time I have no idea what The Answer is, but I am completely calm. I go out into the common room and get a glass of water.
One of the inmates passes my room, and she calls out, ‘Happy Mothers Day’ through my open door. I burst into tears. Is this the shittiest place ever to be today?
I can’t see Mama, who will have to spend yet another endlessly boring day alone, virtually without stimulation, whether crumpled in her bed or in a chair. It’s much of a muchness for her. Given that I’m not in my right mind at the moment, I start to wonder how her mind might be day in and day out.
As usual I won’t have more than an hour with Joe and Lachie today. They need to make sure I don’t hurt my son. For me it’s an incredible, farcical fear that they have, but it’s their protocol and I can’t do anything about it. On this special day, I can’t buy a Joe or Lachie a present, I can’t go anywhere with them, nor can I eat a nice meal with Joe. We can’t just spend some alone time together. Nothing. It’s another sterilised meeting in this soulless place.
What can I do to make the day bearable? I can play a song – maybe even learn a new song on the guitar? This is a great idea. Joe loves to hear me sing, and Lachie knows my voice intimately. Now, what can I learn or play by the time Joe comes? The list of the songs I like to sing weren’t great in terms of their sentiment:
Rehab – lyrics: especially bad in the circumstances
Will you still love me tomorrow? – lyrics: too desperate
You know I’m no good – lyrics: a bad idea right now
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – lyrics: not the message I wish to convey
Lagrimas negras (trans: black tears)…arrrghhh!!!
I call Joe from the ward phone, and he tells me that he won’t be able to make it until about 2pm. We talk about Lachie, and one of the new inmates, I think her name is Mara, walks past. She must have seen that I was crying and heard my questions about Lachie because she returns a moment later, and pauses near me. She holds up a card that says ‘Best Mother in the World.’ She points to the card and then to me and then to her heart. I cry some more.
Finally, it’s just after 2.30 and my nurse Merry tells me that Joe is here. He can’t come onto the ward because he is with Lachie, so I have to go out to the foyer. I run to the door, and I have to wait for someone to open for me. I tell you now – having servants isn’t all that great, especially if you have to wait an eternity for them to come and do something so basic as opening a fucking door. We stand on opposite sides, both of us mock-pawing at the glass like dogs waiting for their owner to open the goddamn door!
When the door opens, I throw myself into his arms, which with our height difference means I nearly bowl him over. He holds me and strokes my hair – mostly in affection, but also to get it out of his face! Lachlan greets me with an adorable grizzle that says, ‘Change me NOW!!!’ I take him to change him in the multi-purpose bathroom, followed by Merry even for the time it takes to change a nappy. I tell Joe to come and stand at the door to keep me company, and he tells to Merry that I’m upset because we have so little time together and no privacy on this special day.
She starts to explain their damn protocols. This is a conversation I don’t want to be having at the moment, and I can’t even bear to hear it. So I try to shut down and shut out as much as possible. I lean in to Lachie and lock eyes with him. I still can’t tell if those eyes are deep blue or deep brown, but they are enough to block out a lot of the surrounding noise that tells me something bad might happen. Beautiful though Lachie’s eyes are, there isn’t much that little Lachie can do to block out the sterility and institutionalised vibe of this place. So I start to hum and then sing, very close to his face.
Sing me a song of a lad that has gone
Say could that lad be I
Merry of soul he sailed on that day
Over the sea to Skye
Loud the winds howl
Loud the waves roar
Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes stand on the shore
Follow they will not dare.
Mama used to sing this to me. It is a song about our ancestor – Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of Catholic James II and known as the Young Pretender. His tilt at the throne ended in a catastrophic defeat at Culloden.
Syke Boat Song was always one of Mama’s favourites; it was one of many Scottish ballads she used to sing to me in my childhood. She would often ask me to sing it to her, when I was a teenager and a young woman because she loved my voice. One day in the nursing home, when she was alone in there because her roommate Rose was out in the dining room, I sang it to her. I like to think that I saw a flash of recognition in her eyes and that she squeezed my hand just a little.
I walk out of the bathroom past Joe and Merry’s conversation and walk, pacing in rhythm to Skye Boat Song. I walk as far away as I can while still being visible to satisfy hospital rules. Singing and keeping away from them blocks out the content of their conversation. I soon feel calmer.
When they have finished talking, I sit next to Joe on the sofa. He puts his arm around my shoulder and smiles at me holding our son. He looks so tired. With my free hand, I pat my lap and Joe wastes no time. He lies down, with his head on my thigh, his calves up over the far end of the sofa. When I look down, I can see my son, and beyond him my exhausted husband’s face. I start whispering to Lachie, who is stirring a little.
I say, as a mantra of safety, ‘Mama’s here. Daddy’s here. You are the anchor.’ Joe grunts approval, half asleep. So I continue, ‘You are our anchor, darling. You ground us. You hold everything together.’ Is Joe asleep? It doesn’t matter; the mantra is for him as much as Lachie. I continue the song, quietly now, singing for both of my darlings.
Speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing
Onward, the sailors cry
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye
Though the waves leap soft shall ye sleep
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.
Flora, Yemaya and I keep vigil over my family.
Life on Acute Ward is generally characterised by politeness. Those of us who are not in the grip of mania or a psychotic episode speak very gently and with great encouragement to one another. My new friend Tracey is particularly collegiate in her manner with me and with others. She talks to me at length about her faith, which she thinks has been held against her. A simple Christian, she finds that when she tells people that she’s had a vision or spoken to one of the saints, they think her mad.
To be honest, once I would have agreed with them. But is faith in something like visions madness? I speak to Oshun and Yemaya after all. I get the strength to carry on in the real world and make some of the big decisions that pregnant women and mothers have to make. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and what does it matter how much store I put into it? It is the same as calling on the wisdom of all the mothers before me. How is this a problem worth hospitalising someone for?
‘The people here just dose themselves up – on coffee and biscuits – and refuse to work on themselves,’ Tracey says a few times. She is certainly interested in working on herself. It’s not clear to me how being in this place is helpful, but I admire her guts volunteering to be here.
Another young woman arrives while we are talking. She is distressed; she arrived at midnight and she hasn’t eaten for some time. Tracey invites her to sit and join us. They start a conversation about what medications they are on. They are pros – they know the names of the long list of drugs they are on, and speak about the advantages and disadvantages of each like they were the doctors themselves. I don’t know the name of what I’m on, but it’s an anti-psychotic. I am motivated to know more. I ask for information about the medication I’m on. The nurse starts to explain it.
‘Can you print something out for me?’ I ask. I don’t want to know right now. I don’t want any information at all about what I have and what I’m taking. I want to work out my own symptoms and what they mean to me on a personal level. I don’t want to know what I’m supposed to be experiencing. I feel myself to be a pristine subject learning about her own madness. And I’m enjoying it enormously despite this awful place. Though the hallucinations have gone, though the mania remains and I still feel that what happens to me is greatly significant. I tell Merry the nurse, ‘I have no information about post-natal psychosis; I have worked it out myself and kept myself a pristine subject. Do you think that someone would want to study that?’
‘No,’ she replies politely. I’m not sure she understands the importance of what I’m saying. She also isn’t interested in my idea of a ‘one-armed’ cookbook – cooking so that you can eat with the baby in one arm. Ah well, I think, maybe she doesn’t cook.
I’m painfully aware that I’m manic. That I’m speaking too fast, that my mind is racing and that I think everything relates to me, but on the upside, I feel so energised and full of life and love.
I want to help people. I am sitting next to David, who is very quietly colouring in, and he is taking it very seriously. An alarm goes off. He looks around, scared. I point my nose up into the air and confirm what I know he’s wondering, ‘Yes, that’s an alarm.’
‘Thank you,’ he says, ‘I thought it was just me.’
‘We need to help each other,’ I say.
We need to be anchors for one another. I realise that it’s important to have someone we can trust, who can anchor us and help us navigate these hallucinations. Mine, I have discovered, are mostly auditory and only visual in extreme circumstances. I’ve seen nothing out of the ordinary since the emergency department.
Having someone who can say, ‘that’s real’ or ‘that’s your imagination,’ is certainly vital for my understanding of what is going on. If I can decide that something is real or a hallucination, it reassures me. Perhaps I can soon regain my mental health.
When I don’t have anyone to help me – say, at 3am – then I need to decide, as much as I am able, if the hallucination is possible or not. If I believe that something is not possible, there’s an easy answer. If I saw red elephants, or heard an orchestra playing next door, I would understand that it is a hallucination.
If the hallucination is possible, and I have no one to help me, then I have to decide, does it matter? Because hallucinations are often incredibly trivial.
I have one hallucination that is not trivial, however. During one extended hallucination, I have a conversation with a lactation consultant. I ask for advice about whether I still have a worthwhile milk supply because the medication I’m on interacts badly with the medication I’ve been given to promote milk supply. I recognise the consultant from my time in the post-natal ward. I am immediately on alert. Is this a coincidence? It’s possible that a woman who works at RPA post- natal could come over to RPA’s Acute ward, so I’m just not sure. But she seems to almost fall over herself to get away from me, which seems weird, and it makes me suspicious.
I must get one of the nurses to check this for me. I would hate to essentially abandon breastfeeding because I was hallucinating. Luckily, I quickly get confirmation that I understood correctly. This only confirms for me how important having an anchor is.
Looking on the roster board, I see that Abigail is my nurse today. She has a shock of pink hair and a sweet open nature. I see the answer to my recent confusion. There is a nurse called Jenna. That must be the name I’ve heard. I’m not mad, hooray!
The food is pretty ordinary, and for the first time in my life, I’m not much interested in eating. I invite Cathy over to eat with me, because she has just arrived.
‘Is it ok?’ she asks. She looks quite lost. Unlike me, she is very interested in food; she thinks it’s because of the medication and because she hasn’t eaten for many hours while she was being processed. She has been schizophrenic for 10 years. Ecuadorian, she is a Muslim convert, presumably because of her Lebanese husband.
‘If I relapse, will my husband stick by me or will he think I’m not worth it?’ I don’t know what to say and in any case, I think the question is rhetorical. She looks deeply unhappy, haunted.
Annie, the nurse from my first night, stops by our table.
‘I was listening very carefully to what you said. I’ve never heard it described like that, the way you did. I’ve always suspected that hallucinations are personal.’
It really helps to know from a professional with many years of experience agrees with me. It makes me think that I’m likely to be on the right track. The hallucinations feel, more than anything, like the subtext that actors learn to work with. You say one thing and mean another. That’s what makes me paranoid. I don’t think people are saying bad things about me; I think they mean bad things about me. In a British program called ‘Misfits’, one of the characters acquires an unfortunate superpower. She can read people’s minds, but they’re often thinking bad things about her and her self-esteem takes a huge hit.
Cathy has been transferred here from Concord hospital. I don’t know how it works, is it better here?
‘This is a five-star hotel,’ she says.
I struggle to imagine what the facility at Concord is like. I guess this place isn’t so bad. It’s in relatively good condition and the staff seems to be competent. I just wish I could go outside. Because I’m an involuntary patient, I’m not allowed to go on the daily group walks.
I hear my name again and this time I’m not falling for it. It will be for Jenna, of course. He calls again and one of the other inmates points to me.
‘My name’s Gemma, not Jenna,’ I say.
‘That’s what I said,’ he says indignant with a slight slur, ‘you need a blood test.’ Oh God, he has a speech impediment.
I ask the nurse to bring out the ward phone, and I call my brother-in-law Tom to thank him for helping me in Emergency.
‘No worries, mate. How are you?”
We talk for a bit and I learn something new about the hallucinations.
‘I’m sorry that I was mean to you.’
‘You weren’t. But I was told before I went in not to expect you to be as yu were.’
‘I called you a terrible actor.’
‘I thought they were trying to take Lachie away from me, so I was suspicious of anyone holding him. I think I projected you saying “No crying at all.” I was afraid.
‘I probably did say that,’ says Tom. ‘I have an uncanny knack for making babies cry the instant I pick them up.’
‘So you said it, but meant Lachie, not me?’
‘It’s a talent I have.’
My paranoid, frightened brain didn’t necessarily project words, it might just create subtext.
‘It was a bit noisy in Emergency, wasn’t it?’ he continues. ‘There was this poor woman screaming, “Get it out! Get it out!” Do you remember that?’
‘I do! Was that real?’ I’m surprised. I had thought that it was a hallucination. That it was someone taking the piss out of my distress back when I was in labour and demanded the pessary be taken out during the 12-hour induction.
‘Yes, she had a knife stuck in her belly.’
Dear God. Poor woman. I hadn’t projected the words, as I had thought, just the subtext. Thank you Tom. Maybe that’s how the hallucinations work. I’ll have to think about how that might change things.
When I ring off, I see Cathy, with a plate still in front of her, though it’s long after lunch. She is leaning back, head back, almost passed out. Her eyes are glazed over; she’s almost drugged on food. I see how much she is struggling with the medication that she’s on. She’s finally calm, though. She might even be happy. I walk on by her.
I am made a voluntary patient. They are looking to move me, and this will allow me to go to a mother and baby facility when a place becomes available. It means that I can go outside if I’m accompanied. Joe, Tom and Mel arrive and my brother and sister-in-law mind Lachie so Joe and I can have some time.
Finally, we are outside! And alone!
Joe steers me across Missenden Rd and down the lane between the 7-Eleven and the Labour Ward. We enter one of the newer sections of Sydney University. We find some shelter from the wind outside a swank new café, which is closed at this hour.
Joe takes his backpack off and puts it on one of the outdoor tables. He holds out his arms to me. I walk into his hold, pushing my hair to one side as I always do when we dance. We have no music, so I sing softly in his ear.
Siempre que te pregunto
Que quando como y donde
Tu siempre me respondes
Quizas, quizas, quizas
You won’t admit you love me
And so, how am I ever to know?
You always tell me
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps
We don’t usually bother with the cha cha cha moves, but it is a chance to hold each other close and dance slowly. Twilight comes quickly; suddenly we notice that the lights have come on because the wet grey paving shines in the false moonlight of the streetlights. I am dimly aware of people racing in one direction or the other either towards or away from the main campus. Joe has his back to them all, and in any case, his eyes are closed, listening to my song.
‘I’ve missed this, Gem.’
I thought I had lost him forever. That he would never look at me again. Dancing was something that was us, that was as natural as holding his hand, and I had believed for those hideous 8 hours in Emergency, that this simple joy was gone forever. I had, in blissful ignorance, believed that Joe would never leave me. He was too good a man. But during those hours, that unimagined scenario had stared back at me in bright blue terror. Mutual terror. The terror of losing the person you love more than anything in the world – not a physical death, but an irrevocable loss of a part of a soul – me of mine and he of his.
I haven’t lost him. Even as I was being committed; glued to the wall of the Reception to the Acute Ward so that no one could sneak up behind me, I had finally understood that his tears and terror were for me, not of me, and that he would fight for me. That he was still my Joe.
Joe pulls his head back, grinning. Who knows what the early evening commuters make of our boogie-ing to music only we can hear because I sing for us alone. Joe does his head-banging, wife-embarrassing dance moves and I pretend to be exasperated. We laugh. It is going to be ok. In the growing darkness we can now see ourselves in the glass walls and doors of the café and we watch ourselves delight in each other.
We walk back to Acute in happy silence, holding hands.
I am given my phone and I disappear into my room. I am interviewed by someone at a facility called St John of God. I am asked a question that seems odd to me:
‘Do you ever have thoughts about harming the baby?’
‘No. God no,’ the idea never crossed my mind, but if I’m going to be in care with Lachie, I suppose they have to ask. I feel sad that there are women for whom the answer is ‘yes.’
I speak to Joe and tell him that I could either go tomorrow or that they might have a place early the following week.
‘I can do that if I have to,’ I reassure Joe.
‘I don’t think I can.’ There is a catch in Joe’s voice.
Oh God. He has taken carers leave from work and is looking after Lachie and my Dad alone. He’s also taking care of me as much as he can, and leaving his own health last. In my selfishness of paranoia and hallucinations, I hadn’t imagined for a minute what it was like for Joe, holding everything together. I tell him that we message everyone and have no qualms about asking for help.
‘Tell them I have post-natal psychosis. Tell anyone that you think might be able to help us. I don’t mind. They are our friends; they will want to help.’
I send out a message to our friends who helped us move – called Team Toothless – asking them to help Joe with Lachie and Bob. Joe is inundated with help. Ileana comes and cooks a huge meal. Amelia stays until the wee small hours with Lachie. Some cook, some nurse. All of them take some of the load Joe is carrying. It really does take a village to raise a child; I just didn’t think it would be quite this way.
I also receive copious visitors. Friends of mine who don’t know each other meet in what is possibly Sydney’s friendliest lunch room. I introduce them to Tracey, Faith – who is still waiting to find out how her tribunal went, Cathy, Mara and Winky, the class clown who has an almost permanently red eye because of the air-conditioning, or something like that.
I learn that I have a place at St John of God and that I am going today. Everyone is so happy for me. I do something very out of character – I go to a beading class. I talk to the session convenor like a normal person. It feels good. I want to make Yemaya beads, but bizarrely, the colour blue simply isn’t there. I decide to mix yellow for Oshun and green for Yemaya, well aware that I’m making a bracelet that will go with an Australian sporting uniform. I struggle to get my fingers around the tiny beads. I wonder how David is doing, who is here with his mother. His mother is completely charming and gentle and I really like her. I feel sorry that her sweet son has such troubles. He is managing the fine work perfectly well, though the perfectionist in him isn’t happy. Sarah, a new inmate, seems confident with her beads.
I field phone calls twice during the class and I think by now everyone on the ward knows my name for all the calling out that’s been happening this morning.
I race around trying to find gifts for everyone. I give Tracey a facial moisturiser in return for her beautiful blue flower; I give Mara the bunch of flowers someone brought me. She brings me the simplest thing: an events calendar for the City of Sydney. Inmates have to create meaning, just like a hallucinator like me.
She tells me, ‘don’t forget to go out together. You and Joe, without the baby. It’s important that you do things together.’
I give David a pen because I have nothing else, and I ask him to give his mother the bracelet I made. He is touched. I have nothing to give Scott, so I text him about some writing tips. I give Sarah the rest of my tea, and she gives me the bracelet she made in class. I have seen Sarah really struggling over the last couple of hours. I’ve seen her pleading with the nurses and getting very upset, so there is something else I want to give her. I write her a letter.
Hi Sarah, it’s Gemma (the one with post-natal psychosis and my baby is about 1 month old).
This is what works for me (I don’t know if it will help you or not)
- find an anchor – someone you can trust. If you are not sure if something is real or not, ask that person. Trust their answer, even if you don’t know if that is correct.
- If you feel there is something wrong, ask for help. You don’t have to do anything until you are ready, but the information might be useful.
- Ask for what you want. And think about what will help you.
- Ask for what helps you. Tell people, ‘That’s helpful, thanks,’ or ‘I’m sorry, that doesn’t help me right now.’ Teach people how you want them to communicate with you.
I have seen Sarah really struggling to communicate effectively with the nurses. We all have problems being institutionalised. Tracey told me the one about the woman in an institution who started throwing paint all over the walls.
‘Stop! Now, we don’t paint the walls here,’ said a nurse, pulling brushes out of the woman’s hand.
‘But I’m doing a mural,’ protested the woman. ‘I’m an artist.’
‘Yes, dear, we’re all very artistic. But we have paints and paper over there.
‘You don’t understand,’ the woman said. ‘I’ve been contracted to paint a mural! Here’s my pass.’
We’ve all been spoken to as someone a little less, and I’ve seen how much it hurts and frustrates Sarah. I have high hopes that my words will help her, at least a little. It has worked very well for me. She gives me the bracelet that she made in beading class. I hope she finds her peace.
Now that I know I’m going, I can think of Joe. He has been holding everything together by sheer force of his will. I imagine him at home trying to juggle Lachlan and my Dad. He tells me they go out for pizza and that the pizzeria owner knows everything about me. He tells me that he loves it when Lachie falls asleep on him. He tells me that he love me. But his eyes are still red from exhaustion and fear for me, and he has the tendency to crash into sleep in our visits.
I have been able to do one practical thing while I’ve been in here. I’ve had a social worker helping me. Several phone calls and more surprised looks from the other residents, we can get respite care for Dad at the nursing home where Mama is a resident. This means that the three adults of our family will be separated and able to decompress – me in St John of God, Joe at home, and Dad in Opal at Stanmore.
Joe comes for me and I squish him in a hug. He is tired but happy. We take all my stuff, signing for my computer, phone and guitar. I’ve taken all my photos except two on the door, which I put there especially as a message to the others. I have a photo of Joe and I holding Lachie, and a photo of Lachie on our bedspread. I draw a bubble out of my mouth wishing everyone well, and a cute message from Lachie.
It’s lunchtime, so we go to a café that Erika took Joe to while I was in labour a few weeks ago. Apparently the food is delicious; I couldn’t care less. I’m free.
I arrive late to St John of God, and we struggle to find our way through the labyrinth of corridors. The glass doors open when you ring for entry; ah, so we’re locked in after all. I have been told that although I’m now a voluntary patient, if I leave St John of God, I’ll be made involuntary and returned to Acute Ward. I plan to be very good.
The large reception fronts the nurse’s room. There is a nursery, a classroom, a large lounge area with some toys and a TV, a kitchen and dining area and about a dozen private rooms. I’m shown to my room. It’s more than a step up from Acute. In fact, it’s very nice. There is a vestibule where there’s a high change table and room for a pram. The room itself has a queen-sized bed because partners are encouraged to stay, a wardrobe, and nice high-backed chair, a desk and a television. There’s also a large bathroom and shower. I could be very comfortable here.
There’s no-one around at the moment because the residents are in a self-development class. They are learning about managing anxiety: something I don’t believe I need. I wonder if they have something on managing hallucinations? Somehow I doubt it.
What I have is uncommon. While post-natal depression is suffered by about 1 in 3 women, post-natal psychosis affects 1 in 1000. I may be the only one here with it. My symptoms will be quite different. I’ve been manic, paranoid and experiencing hallucinations. I might even freak the others out.
I eventually meet everyone before dinner. The women are very nice, and most of the babies are older than my Lachie. Everyone makes a fuss over him. I start talking to one of the women who has depression and anxiety and who struggles with her baby despite a willing and hands-on father. I wonder out loud how mothers with twins cope. I walk out of the low-swinging kitchen door and I am felled by the sight of a woman on her haunches, intent as she feels bottles simultaneously to her twins.
‘They do it like this,’ she says. I know Belinda’s not impressed with me. I however, am I awe of this woman managing two babies so well, thank you very much. I don’t know what she’s in here for, but ‘twins’ is probably reason enough for entry.
Penny and Doug also have fraternal twins: a boy and girl, like Belinda. Penny doesn’t look like she’s coping quite as well. Doug seems comparatively breezy; it’s not hard to see who the sleep-deprived one is.
‘I pat myself down, trying to find the baby,’ he’s telling a handful of breast- and bottle-feeding mothers, ‘I paw through the sheets trying to find him, but he’s not there. He’s in the bassinet with his sister.’
‘I have the exact same dream!’ I tell him. ‘We have the same fear.’
‘No surprise there.’
‘Everything is new and stressful, isn’t it?’
‘How weird that we have the same dream,’ I say, but I’m thinking that I had taken the dream to be part of my hallucinations. Perhaps instead it’s part of the normal fears new parents have: don’t roll on the baby in your sleep; don’t drop the baby; don’t sleep through its cry.
Lachie is put in a tray trolley, with a white plastic tray underneath for bits and pieces, and the upper tray for Lachie. It is white, clinical and labelled with his name. It also looks like the place is run by people who know what they’re doing.
I have to do a number of questionnaires, and I’m surprised by how biased they are. They are geared towards women with post-natal depression, not psychosis. The Edinburgh depression scale is confusing for me because I feel that I can’t answer it honestly on some questions and this disturbs me. For example, one question says “I have looked forward to enjoyment to things.” I can choose, “as much as I ever have,” but that’s not true. There’s no option for “more than ever,” only for more negative options. There is no scope in the questionnaire for feeling better than ever, and that’s how I’ve been feeling, apart from the hours in the emergency department.
I am shown how they like formula to be made, and someone helps me prepare a bottle immediately for Lachie. I have an appointment with a psychiatrist almost immediately. We talk for some time about my experiences, and she decides to continue the medication I’m on. I’m excused from group therapy for a couple of days, as it’s thought it might trigger me.
Very soon I am frustrated and bored. I’m not allowed to go on the group walk, which is only 30 minutes, because I haven’t been deemed safe to do so yet. I’m allowed to go outside with someone who will vouch for me, like Joe, but he’s back at work. A visitor could do this, but I haven’t had any visitors. I can’t even go out to get a cup of coffee at the café that is 10 metres away. Doug and Julie both offer to go out with me, but that’s not allowed.
I have cabin fever. I pick Lachie up and dance up and down the corridor singing to him. They must think I’m demented. I want him to know and be calmed by my voice. I know I’m going overboard. Belinda sticks her head out and asks me to keep it down because she’s just got the twins to sleep. I stop and check Lachie’s nappy for the umpteenth time. Somehow, whenever I check him unnecessarily, Julie seems to be walking by. We make remarks to that effect.
I start to have more visitors. The loveliest is my sister-in-law Paula, her daughter Carly, and Carly’s one and a half year old daughter Lilah. Lilah is fascinated by Lachie and Lachie seems pretty interested in her, too. She gives him a knitted lion from Zimbabwe, who is only just smaller than Lachie. I love it.
My father visits, and is one of the only ones to show Lachie little attention. He is here to make a deal with me. We have been granted emergency respite to take care of him.
‘What do we need it for, I’m fine,’ Dad wants to know.
‘It’s for Joe. We need to let Joe decompress.’
‘And how long will I be there for?’
‘A couple of weeks, but if you don’t like it after one week, you can leave.’
I wasn’t to know that this was a lie. That he couldn’t stay for only one week. That he would be in three different homes for nearly two months.
‘I’ll do it for Joe. He’s not looking too good.’
‘You can come and go as you please and it’s within walking distance of Mama.’
We sit for a while longer in the sun, Dad repeating some of the details he remembers and asking the same questions over again. It’s part of the disease and I’ve got plenty of patience today. When he leaves, he walks over to Burwood Station. It’s the last journey he ever takes on his own.
We run into a problem immediately. Opal Stanmore have changed their mind and won’t take Dad. Because he has been there as a visitor for nearly two years, he knows their security code. I wonder why they can’t just change it, but there it is.
Our plan B, the jauntily-named Lewisham Hostel is a washout almost immediately. Dad quickly becomes disoriented at night. They tell us that he wanders into other people’s rooms and rifles through their stuff. He is not always wearing clothes. He is hoarse from yelling back at people demanding he get out. I don’t recognise any of this behaviour, and certainly not a man who yells. They are no longer willing to have him. They move him to their closed facility, specifically for dementia patients. He can no longer come and go. He and the other inmates wander the corridors like ghosts all night, and nobody’s possessions are their own. Dad is soon wearing a fleece and shoes that are not his. A big man, neither article fits him. Joe is horrified when he visits. Dad has deteriorated in the space of just a few days. He is still bright as ever when he sees Joe and loves the daily photos of Lachie that I send.
‘We’ve got to get him out of there,’ says Joe.
‘Shall I try Opal again?’
Opal decides they will take him after all, changing the code. He will be infinitely better off there. The staff know him and I’m never heard even a harsh word spoken there amongst the staff. It will be great to have him under the same roof as Mama, for a couple of weeks.
After my three weeks here, they are recommending that we have a couple of weeks just as a family of three. Initially, Joe will be home with me, and they recommend that we wait until I’ve been home alone for at least a week before bringing Dad home. That makes at least 5 weeks of respite.
I lose it sometimes. I am manic, so going out and being able to run around is really necessary. I do capoeira and yoga out on the back porch and I don’t care who’s watching. But when I go up to the gym for the one-hour slot they have on a Wednesday I break. I’m wearing walk sandals that have literally climbed mountains. They are deemed inappropriate for the treadmills. The gym only has treadmills. I slam back into my room, crying my eyes out. Someone has seen me and one of the nurses appears. This unnerves me. I didn’t walk past anyone in tears. Someone has overheard me and, if you will, dobbed on me. Lachie is crying now, and I’m trying to calm myself so that I don’t pass on my distress to him.
The nurse sits next to me.
‘What’s happening for you?’
‘I can’t get myself calm. Everything in this place prevents me,’ I tell her. I am feeding Lachie, smiling a false smile through tears and the hiccups of crying.
‘And how does that make you feel?’
‘Frustrated. And I can’t show Lachie a smiling face if I’m so unhappy.’
I hate this place. Nice as it is, I’d prefer to be back at Acute ward, where at least I knew what was going on, and where I felt useful to others. I felt I was getting better. Here the only way to calm myself down is with a shower. I’m about to grow webbing between my fingers and toes.
Joe comes most days. He loves the bed and crashes into it straight after dinner. He’s still exhausted. He visits my Dad every day after work, and watches his surprisingly rapid decline. He is about to be transferred to Opal, but not yet.
‘The only consolation is the piano in the foyer. I spend five minutes playing it before I leave.’
‘Anyone hear you?’
‘Got a compliment from an ambulance driver.’
The nurses take the babies at 10pm, giving us a chance to rest. The first week, they do this every night. The next week they alternate between them taking the babies and us. In the last week, the mothers have the babies overnight, readying them for the world.
Many of the women are here because they aren’t bonding with their babies. This is either because of post-natal depression and anxiety, or because their babies have silent reflux. This latter is really awful for both mother and baby. The babies scream constantly and can’t settle. The poor mothers are completely frazzled and alienated from their babies. It isn’t easy to bond with a perpetually screaming baby. There are three mothers in this situation. The others have post-natal depression and anxiety. There is one young mother who has post-natal psychosis, for the second time with her second baby. Unfortunately, there is no opportunity to speak to her before she goes. And what would I say?
In the afternoons, the babies are looked after for us so that we can attend the group sessions. They cover many of what I would guess are psychological topics; anger management, managing expectations, identifying signs of relapse. They are fairly perfunctory because of the two-hour format, and it seems to me that too much time is spent listening to the women’s specific problems – useful though that may be. I feign overwhelm in my first session; I walk quickly out of the room and stand hyperventilating outside. I am excused for the next few days until I am more stable. This stuff is good, but just not for me, I tell myself. I sit instead in my room and write or play guitar. I feel quite smug.
I can’t seem to get an entrée into this world. The women are nice, but I can’t relate to them. They all have quite serious problems with their babies: feeding or bonding or both. I feel like this is a world I don’t really belong in.
It’s wonderful to have Lachie. Everyone makes a huge fuss over him, because he is pretty and because he’s the smallest baby here. I hold and carry and kiss him all day. But I admit that I like handing him over at 10pm. I start to get a little crazy and angry from about 9pm. I need rest; why do I have to wait until 10? I feel myself become a little unhinged and the staff don’t seem terribly happy with my lack of chops keeping him until that time. Most nights I’m virtually asleep by 10 and very grumpy. I’m also alone. All the other mothers have gone to bed, with their babies in the nursery and their monitors at the read. I eat some cheese and watch some television while I wait. I hover outside the nurses’ station until they take him. I’m a bad mother, I think. I can’t wait to be rid of him. I go to bed and sleep heavily.
I try to learn a new song – ‘I can see clearly now’ for Penny, who is very tired and in a rut of feeding her twins and then trying to sleep: both of which she finds very hard. I mostly sit in my room. There are some tricky chords, so I soon abandon it and play songs I know better. Occasionally, someone sticks their head in to say how nice that is.
I keep myself to myself and have no real need for company. It would probably help me a lot to talk through the challenges of being a mother with others, but I’m not in the right headspace. I need to keep busy: to write, to play guitar; to sing to Lachie; to do capoeira out on the porch. Sitting and talking isn’t yet good for my mania.
I do meet one woman I relate to. Julie is suffering from post-natal depression and anxiety. She has a big energy and a family full of the usual types of personality clashes. She gets my attention one morning when she is asked by the convenor of the morning group how she is.
‘I’m a weak tea version of myself. Hopefully I’ll infuse more.’
We all laugh in recognition of our current state. Not exactly black and white, certainly not colour, more like a washed out sepia. It’s the product of being stuck indoors all day.
Julie had a high-powered job and she is itching to get back to something like it. I would love to have someone like her on my team; she knows this is one of her great skills – getting things done. I wonder if she might not wear me out after a couple of days in her company.
As it turns out, no. She’s fun and funny and wants the best for her son, Rueben, like anyone. She and her partner Rob are entertaining and passionate. She gets upset though when in my mania, I start banging on about the evils of the Cascade of Intervention, and crowing about how I avoided it.
‘I was induced and had a caesarean, was that unnecessary?’
‘Not necessarily,’ I realise that I need to backpedal, ‘there are lots of reasons why you might have needed a caesarean.’
‘Maybe it was all totally avoidable. I’m going to speak to my doctor.’
Oh God. Why can’t I keep my mouth shut?
‘Remember Rubes was breach, Julie,’ say Rob.
‘Oh, well then that’s totally different,’ I say. ‘I’m not talking about genuine emergency situations. You’re fine.’
‘Yes, it’s all good,’ says Rob.
I feel a pang of sadness and jealousy when the women breastfeed. I know that I couldn’t have helped it and that I might never have produced enough milk anyway, but I wish I could be like them. Am I missing out on bonding, I wonder? Perhaps I overcompensate, staring deep into his eyes as he feeds. Are his eyes deep brown or deep blue? I can’t tell and it delights me that I can’t decide; it’s a mystery to solve. I could fall into them either way; they are so intense.
I stare at his ‘blaze’, the stork mark that extends down to his nose, and which they tell me will disappear within the year. I love it. In Emergency, I used it to check that Lachie hadn’t been swapped for another baby; now, it’s a mark of distinction. I hope it will eventually go away, but for now, it delights me.
All my solitariness has backfired on me. I seem to be excluded from the group. Not in a mean way, it’s just that I haven’t bonded with the others, and I struggle to get into conversations with them. Even as my mania subsides, I struggle to communicate.
Dad doesn’t respond to Opal as well as we would have expected. Given that Mama is there and that he knows the place and the staff quite well, it goes surprisingly badly. He is still very disoriented, and is again entering other peoples’ rooms, though at least not at night or naked. He doesn’t know which room is his. The staff ask us to bring things that he will recognise as his. Joe takes a box of photos. The black and white ones are faded and warped from poor storage. The one from my childhood are in reasonable shape, and there are printed out colour photos from my work days. Dad loves showing off my mother when she was younger. There are lots of modelling photos and ones Dad took at that time.
Over the two years Mama’s been in care, Dad has been showing these photos to the staff. He believes that if the staff care about her, and see her as the lovely young woman she was, they will take better care of her.
Now, he’s struggling to find what room she’s in.
‘They keep moving her for operational reasons,’ he laments, though she’s still in Room 8, as always.
Meanwhile, I’m avoiding the main lounge area because I don’t want to watch Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Instead of the comfy sofas and the company, I’m in the far corner of the large room near the patio door and blocking the way to the food warmer. I feed Lachie his formula with his head on my hand on my knee and his little legs thrown over my other thigh. I try to remember not to crane or strain my body; it’ll be a while til I can get to a masseuse.
I’m finally allowed out by myself or with a friend. This coincides with a receding of my mania; I am sorry to see it go. I feel normal, which is a consolation, but I no longer feel amazing.
This is the final instalment of My Sandwich Family & Other Adventures presented here.