Postnatal Psychosis – My Story

In time for World Mental Health Day 2019, I thought I would include some of my story (part of a longer memoir I’m still writing). In April 2018, my first son was born. I loved and bonded with him instantly. Three weeks later, I was in Emergency, afraid to touch him. I had Postnatal Psychosis.

Postnatal Psychosis is classed as ‘rare’ on most of the mental health sites I’ve read, but a stat of 1 or 2 in 1000 doesn’t seem that rare to me. I find the differing descriptions online confusing, but the best I’ve seen is here.

World Mental Health Day 2019 is focussed on suicide prevention. Postnatal Psychosis, if left undiagnosed too long can lead to suicide and infanticide, so I feel it’s appropriate to discuss it at this time.

I have been horrified to read some case histories of women who suffered from this illness for months. It is hard for the woman herself to notice that there is a problem, and their partners seem either to be in denial, or believe that women go a bit crazy after giving birth.

I have no experience of mental illness, but I do have a family history of bipolar (my maternal grandmother), which is one of the risk factors. It could be a one off; I could experience it again if I have other children; it could be the first manifestation of bipolar for me.

I was weaned off one of the drugs – Risperidone (an anti-psychotic) after about 6 months, and off the other, Lithium (a mood stabiliser), only a month ago. I have had no relapses, but nothing is certain.

I would like to share my story of a frightening six weeks of an acute and potentially life-threatening mental illness. This is not a case study written well after the fact. I started writing one week after my son Lachie was born, while the psychosis was ramping up (I destroyed some of this writing when I threw the book in the bin in the Emergency department as some sort of lay-down misere move), and was writing both the day of my admittance to Emergency as well as the day after (much of which is included here). I hope the immediacy of my experience can add something useful to the pool of knowledge about this mental illness.


Continue to In Emergency Part 1

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In Emergency Part 1

My Sandwich Family & Other Adventures

In Emergency Part 1

Thursday May 10, 2018 

‘I’m going to be in so much trouble!’

I am standing in the Emergency department of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. I don’t know how I got here. I mean, I know that Joe drove me here from our home, but I don’t have any real understanding about how I ended up standing in a dress I normally wear as a nightie, with no bra on, and a sarong around my neck as a scarf. I am cold. I have come dressed for bed not an emergency.

I see Joe’s stricken face. His eyes are dilated and a painful blue. He has been crying. While I can’t raise a tear despite all this. It is painful to look at him. Painful to be the cause of his suffering. But I am suffering too because he will never look at me the same way again when he knows what I have done.

Joe is my husband of a year and a half or two years, depending on which wedding you are counting – our Sydney or Cuba one. More importantly, he is the best human I have ever known. He is bewildered; he is crying, just like me.

I am under attack – literally, physically, psychically, mentally and emotionally. These people here are attacking me. I don’t know why. Why can’t they just let me go? I don’t want any trouble, but I know that if they make me stay, if Joe makes me stay, it will be a disaster.

‘You aren’t in trouble,’ the doctor assures me. I don’t know why I’m standing while she’s sitting. Maybe she wants me to sit, too. I don’t really want to sit on the bed, however. I feel I would be at a disadvantage if I were on that bed. Someone could easily come in and inject me with drugs or drag me away to an insane asylum. There’s no way I’m sitting anywhere. If I’m mobile, I have hope.

I don’t belong here. They’ll charge me for wasting their time, right? In the same way that they charge you for calling out an ambulance unnecessarily, they’ll charge me for being in the Emergency Department under false pretences.

‘I just want this to stop,’ I say for the millionth time since we slammed into Emergency, ‘I’m ready to tell the truth.’

‘That’s why we’re here,’ she says in a gentle voice that I want to smack out of her throat. But I remind myself not to say or do anything violent, or they’ll take Lachie away from me.

‘Oh, cry me a river!’ whines a woman on the other side of the curtain. We’re in the busy emergency department, but we’ve been cordoned off in a space that’s too large given there’s only the doctor and Joe with me on this side of the hospital curtain. She and Joe stare at me, and then at each other in what seems to me to be a conspiracy. They aren’t telling me what’s going on. It’s some kind of horrible guessing game. They are as confused as I am, I’m sure of it, and I’m utterly bewildered by the disaster around me. Sharing the space with us are a shitload of machines large and small that go ‘beep’. And then there is the full cast of players beyond the curtain.

‘She thinks she’s writing a book,’ says a man from behind the curtain to my left. He’s speaking to God-knows-who; they both snicker. I see a pair of blue sneaker-shod feet. Are they dancing? The feet circle each other bizarrely.

‘Gem, you keep saying that you’re in trouble,’ says Joe. He’s now standing very close to me and his red-rimmed eyes hold mine. Is he holding me as well? I can’t tell.

‘You aren’t in trouble, Gem. We’ll get through this together.’ He’s too good for me. I’m not right for him. I’ve done the wrong thing and he’ll soon find out.

‘You’ll never speak to me again!’

I see Joe’s eyes flick towards the doctor. I snap my head to see her, but her face is blank. I look back and Joe nods and walks out through the gap in the curtain. He disappears, and all I can see are the uniformed bodies of two large paramedics wheeling an elderly man into view. I am alone with the doctor.

‘What do you do, Gemma?’ she asks, using my name in that patronising way medical professionals do when they are dealing with ‘clients.’

‘I’m a teacher and a writer.’

‘My cousin’s a writer,’ the doctor says gently, leaning forward. ‘Would I know anything you’ve written?’


The doctor opens her mouth but is cut off by the PA system which blasts,  ‘Attention! Attention! Patient is an amateur!’  How do they know all this about me?

Suddenly, I work it out. Joe has told them. Somehow, when I was occupied with all these different doctors asking all their identical questions, Joe has told them every awful thing that has ever been said to me or about me, and all of the terrible and shameful things I think about myself. Wow.

‘Why do you think you’re in trouble, Gemma?’

I ignore her question. I’m trying to make sense of this dawning realisation of how hard Joe has been working. There’s no other possible explanation: Joe must have told them – but when? I don’t remember being apart for more than 10 minutes since this waking nightmare began. And that was… last night? I don’t remember sleeping, but I remember that he has been very busy on his phone.

My phone! I dive into my bag, which is next to the baby car capsule. I know I mustn’t touch Lachie; I know they don’t trust me with him. I wouldn’t trust me with him right now either. How do I get out of this? Maybe I should pretend to be ill. That’s it! I turn to Joe.

‘Could I have…?’ I search for the word. I want to say the extreme tired thing, but can’t bring it to the front of my mind and give it a name. So I ask about the other one, ‘Do I have post-natal depression? Is it possible?’ This might be my get-out-of-hospital-free card. What are the symptoms? I try to use my phone. My fingers are almost useless on the keys.

I open Google and type in ‘symptoms of post-natal depression.’ The first is anxiety; ok, I can do that. The second is sleep deprivation – that was the term I needed a minute ago! All good; I haven’t slept in two weeks. Then I look at the third – Aggressiveness. Nope. Not that. I’ll have to work with those first two symptoms. If they think I’m aggressive, they’ll take Lachie away. It’s not about him. It was never about him.

‘You said you were in trouble, Gemma?’ Hasn’t she asked me that already?

‘He’ll never forgive me,’ I tell her.

What were those symptoms again? God, how am I going to get myself out of this?

I text my workmate, Chris. I don’t know if he’s at work, but he probably is. He’s a workaholic. I don’t know what to say, but I need him to know that it’s serious:

‘Shit. Help! Not joking! Tell Joe.’

Chris takes a few moments but replies, ‘What? You OK?’

‘Call now. Help, please!  I’ll put you on speaker phone. Lachlan!’

Chris obviously can’t come, he’s at work, but he is apparently trying to call me: ‘I tried to call. It says disconnected.’ Well, they really are throwing everything at me, aren’t they?

‘Didn’t expect that,’ I reply.

‘I’m on my way!’ Chris can’t possibly come.

‘Don’t come! I’ve fucked up so badly! No one believes me. Lachie!’

‘I am coming!’ Chris replies immediately, ‘I’m you friend!’

I send a photo of Lachie that I took at a party when Lachie was 15 days old – only a few days ago. The photo shows me smiling because I’m holding my new baby in one hand and a glass of sangria in the other. Lachie looks like he is holding his bottle of formula by himself, though it’s actually being held by the rigid teat on the bottle.

‘I’m just around the corner,’ texts Chris.

Liar, I think. That’s not possible. He’s a teacher; it’s not like he can just walk out on a class.

‘I’m ready to tell the truth,’ I write.

‘OK. You can tell me. I’m your friend, Gemma.’

‘Face to face. I know. I don’t know any other way. Tell them how I helped you.’

I hope Chris understands. I hope he understands that in order to help me I want him to tell them about the hideous breakup of his marriage, because it ‘proves’ that I’m a good person. That I helped him through those dark weeks and months. That I was there for him when he was desperate. Now I need Chris to help me. I know he will do it because he is loyal and generous, but will he understand? Will he forgive me for dragging him through those awful times again for my own benefit? I don’t know. All I know is how much I need someone to vouch for me. Or do I need him to provide the answer I am seeking? I just don’t know anymore.

Continue with The Weeks Before

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The Weeks Before

My Sandwich Family & Other Adventures – continued from In Emergency Part 1

Three weeks earlier…

My son is very sweet. He has a head covered in dark hair. He has what I think is a birthmark down his forehead, like a blaze on a horse. It extends over his right eye. I think, ‘Oh well, it’ll be easier that he’s not a girl.’ Is it wrong for me to observe that there tends to be less focus from outsiders on looks when it comes to boys? One of the midwives tells me it’s just a stork mark.

We receive quite a few visitors, the most surprising of which is my father-in-law who has come despite his hatred of hospitals from his bitter experience with mouth cancer. Dozens of texts and Facebook wishes come through. Everyone is asking if he has a name yet. We have a shortlist, but we want to test them out first. He’ll remain with our nickname of Toothless (the dragon from How to Train Your Dragon) for now.

Today’s midwife, Jocelyn, is lovely, older, competent. She helps me try to get Toothless breastfeeding. He attaches and sucks, but apparently that’s not ‘right.’ She brings me some formula, and I am given the feeding routine, which needs to happen every three hours. First, we do skin to skin contact to see if he finds the breast. If not, I’m to try breastfeeding for a maximum of 10 mins. Then I’ll feed him any colostrum I have been able to express and then top up with formula. Then I express colostrum for the next feed. Rinse and repeat.

I ask why I can only breastfeed him for 10 minutes.

‘Because he’s so small, the energy it would cost him to breastfeed would be more than the energy he receives from your colostrum or milk at the moment.’ Fair enough.

Jocelyn brings me a breast pump and shows me how to use it and I express 10ml of colostrum, which takes me 20 minutes.

I find it difficult to feed him because he is very sleepy, and it’s worse overnight. I lay him naked onto my chest and cover him with two blankets so he doesn’t get cold. He doesn’t do the ‘head bang’ thing down to my breast, but he does eventually attach. He sucks a bit. It’s super-cute, but nothing much happens. We move to the bottle: he takes the colostrum quite well. I have to ring the bell and ask for the formula. It takes 20 minutes to come and meanwhile, he has fallen asleep again. I wake him and put the bottle to his lips. He purses them to prevent me from putting the bottle in. I keep trying for 20 minutes. It’s 2am and I’m in tears.

‘Please, darling!’

I press the call button. No one comes.

‘Please, please come! Please help me!’ I don’t want to cry. It might increase his distress. If he is distressed, he’ll cry and use up all that energy. I have to keep calm. Where the fuck is the midwife? RN? Anyone?

By the time she comes, I have managed to put it in his mouth. All she sees is that I’m still crying.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘It takes such a long time to feed.’

‘It will. He’s very small.’

I have 30ml of formula to feed him. After half an hour, he’s had 15ml. He starts to cry. I apologise to him. I cuddle him and sing to him. I sing one of the songs Mama used to sing to me: ‘Coming through the rye.’ It is too upbeat – these things are important to me, a singer! – but it’s the only one I can think of and remember the words to at this moment.

Eventually, he finishes most of it. I put him down. I get the pump. By the end of the regimen, it has taken 2 hours. I have 1 hour to rest and do it all again. I don’t think I sleep.


I look at the sign on the back of the bathroom door for the umpteenth time, which shows bathing demonstrations. I don’t know how long we’re going to be here. They normally try to get rid of you from post-natal after 3 days, and Erika, our doula, has advised me to push for staying 4 or 5 days. So if I look at this schedule, today is the only day I can be sure that I will be able to have a demonstration.

I walk barefoot out to the nurse’s station and ask to book in.

‘Oh, we don’t really do it that way,’ a young nurse tells me, ‘I can do a demo now, if you like.’

‘Oh, ok.’

‘When was he born?’

‘3.30 yesterday afternoon,’ I say.

‘It’s 2pm now. That’s close enough.

I go and get him. She shows me how to bathe him. It’s completely adorable, but I regret it instantly because now that he’s dressed he’s completely asleep and it’s time to feed him.

About an hour later, Jocelyn learns that I’ve had a demonstration.

‘Tell me you didn’t bathe him.’

‘Yes – well, the nurse did it.’

‘No! You can’t bathe a premmie for at least 4 days!’ she said. ‘They can’t regulate their body temperature! It’s dangerous! I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. It’s not professional for me to say that,’ she says in a stream of consciousness rant. Fuck professional. Is he going to get sick or die?

I will be alone in hospital tonight because we agreed that Joe would stay at home and look after Dad. I flatten the hospital bed and pull the cot next to me so I can see him. I stay awake all night watching him to make sure he is still breathing. That is, when I’m not waking him, feeding him, cuddling him and expressing for him.

At nothing o’clock in the morning, I look through the pamphlets lying around that various nurses, midwives and other professionals have brought me. There are descriptions of what to expect of a ‘well term baby.’ But I realise that my baby is considered premmie. Does that mean he’s not well? Shit.

Signs that my baby is not well

  • Sleeping a lot, lethargic and not waking for feeds
  • Baby has fewer wet and dirty nappies
  • Baby may appear dry (mouth and skin)
  • Baby gaining little or no weight

Shit. A phrase pops into my head from God knows where: ‘Failure to thrive.’ Will I lose him? Oh God. I lie in the hospital bed all night and watch him. At times I put my hand on his chest because I can’t be certain that he’s breathing.

What seems like moments later, the sun is up and he’s still alive. The new midwife arrives, takes one look at him, and announces that Toothless has jaundice.


I don’t know why we’re still here. It’s been four days and they’ve given me no indication of when I can go. I go to a breastfeeding class, but can’t participate with Toothless attached to a bili matt, which is treating the jaundice. I get the lactation consultant helping me get Toothless attached properly for feeding. And I spend hours waiting for the nurses and midwives to bring me the formula that I need. In desperation, I send Joe out to buy some formula so that I don’t have to wait and have Toothless fall asleep on me.

This morning at four, Toothless has fallen asleep again after taking his colostrum and a little milk as well because my milk has finally come in. I call very early for formula, hoping to game the system, but to no avail. A nurse comes in and asks ‘Why are you crying?’ In fact, I am regularly crying in frustration and perhaps a little hopelessness. She listens to me patiently as I blub out my incoherent problems.

‘Do you have enough change for a coffee?’ she asks.

‘Yes,’ I stammer, somewhat taken aback.

‘We’ll look after him, why don’t you go and have one?’

Not only is it the best idea I’ve heard in some time, but I also realise that I have confined myself completely to this room for the four days since Toothless was born. I get dressed and find my wallet. I go out to the nurse’s station, and one of the women is already holding my boy.

It’s quiet in the hospital because it’s only 7.15am. I go to the cafeteria and order a coffee. I also get a muffin because I don’t have to jab myself to check my glucose levels. It’s pretty bland, but I eat it defiantly. Take that endocrinologist! I sit in the middle of the empty cafeteria and cry.

‘Why am I still here?’ I ask myself.

I soon find out. Later in the afternoon the lactation consultant comes in to see how my milk is. I’m expressing about 30mls after each feed. She mentions in passing that I can go when Toothless puts on weight. So that’s it. He’ll be weighed in the morning, so I start saying my little mantra to him.

‘Think heavy thoughts.’

At 2am on Anzac Day, I am woken by a piercing cry. Oh my god, is he hurt? He seems to be ok, but he is hungry. We wait, as usual for the formula, his cry getting more and more insistent. My ears ring. My heart pounds. What is this new crisis?

After he is fed, I express and fall into a fitful sleep. At 5am I hear a cry from another baby somewhere on the ward. That sets off another, and another, and then Toothless chimes in. A dawn chorus.  Then it dawns on me. This is what a well baby does – demand food rather than fight it. There’s a chance we can go home.

            In the morning, a new lactation consultant comes to check on us. A nurse weighs Toothless and I hold my breath. He was born at 2.3kg. He needs to be heavier, right? He is 2.18kg. I am crushed and burst into tears.

‘What’s the matter?’ asks the nurse, ‘that’s good!’

‘But not enough to be released.’

‘Yes it is. They lose 10% of their weight at birth, so now, he’s putting on weight nicely.’

We’re free. Hours of paperwork stand between us and release, but I can Joe and tell him he can bring us home. He spends the afternoon running around trying to get a breast pump and a tin of formula. We order in pizza for dinner.

The next day, we watch ‘Chef’ on DVD. We get up and dance to some of Latin songs from the film. He holds me close. We are still in love. The world looks right again.


May 2018

My little one is eating well, and waking only two or three times in the night. I find it hard to call him Toothless to his face, so we start to work through our list of names. We decide that we’ll try each name for 3 days and see which one we like.

We start with Jackson. I like having lots of diminutives to work with. I like calling him Jacky. I also call him bubba, bubba-boo, little one and le petit monsieur. But after three days, I find that I haven’t warmed to it. We switch to our next name, Lachlan. It’s perfect instantly.

‘That’s his name, isn’t it?’ I ask Joe after 3 hours. We name the baby Lachlan.


He wakes at 1.30am and I take him to feed him, having had a really good rest since dinner. The session with him basically takes the rest of the night, but I’m in a good mood, so I don’t mind. My brain is full and so is my heart. Is that why I seem a bit superhuman at the moment?

In the morning, I text a friend, Luce, whose son Carlos shares a birthday with Lachlan. We talk about going back to work and I mention the talent agency I work in. Normally it’s a second job to teaching, and I say stupidly, ‘I’ll have more time for it now.’

‘Never heard a new mother say she has more time,’ she replies.

I feel so stupid. ‘It’s just that it’s the only job I have now. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll hit the wall soon,’ I say, backpedalling furiously.

Which is absolutely true. I’m waiting for the other boot to fall. I don’t know how much longer I can keep up the lack of sleep. Is it the hormones? Is it love? I have so much energy – though sometimes it’s hysterical, half-asleep energy. I feel like I’ve been sleepwalking through life for many years, and now! Well. I’m in love with my son, my husband, and this time. I don’t know how long it can possibly last, but I’m going to enjoy every moment.

I’m holding Lachlan in one hand, trying to make formula with the other – I catch my eye in the mirror of our bathroom.

‘Who are you?’ I ask the woman in the mirror. I smile at myself. ‘I don’t know who you are: but I like you.’ I can’t believe this transformation.

My only real problem is milk. I don’t seem to be making very much. The doctor gives me some Motilium to help increase my supply, and the female pharmacist agrees that it’s safe. She gives me what I think is the best advice ever given to a new mother.

‘When your baby cries, you have time to get a glass of water or a snack: he won’t explode.’


I’m finding living with dad to be more difficult than I imagined. I seem to have become some kind of control freak, and his messy and dirty habits make me very agitated. He is also snarkier than I expected, and I take this very badly indeed.

I have to go upstairs because I made a mistake with Lachlan’s formula.

‘Oh really?’ he says in such a way that he thinks is cutting and terribly witty. With the sleep deprivation I’m experiencing, it’s just insulting.

‘Is that the best you can do?’ I say under my breath, in my usual conflict-avoidance way.

I start taking photos of the places where he leaves half-eaten food. There’s half a piece of tart left on the washing machine; a partial piece of toast in the fruit bowl; quarter of an orange in the cupboard. As I scroll through the photos with Joe, laughing my head off, I have an overwhelming feeling that I am mean. I counter by assuring myself that if this were a function of the dementia and Alzheimers, I wouldn’t make fun of him. He is a slob, and that deserves being laughed at.

Joe and I have taken to calling him ‘The Cat’ because he pulls random items off the shelf – a photo, a card, a pen – and leaves it neatly out. ‘Is it yours?’ It’s like receiving half a lizard from a feline. Poor man; he’s not used to a household where things belong to other people. He spends several days looking forlornly at the shelves in the main room and the unpacked boxes in front of them. He goes through everything multiple times.

‘What are you looking for Dad?’

‘Something I can’t find.’


It’s 2.20pm and I am very late for the hairdresser. And there is a problem – I don’t know exactly how to get there. I have always been a little nervous about driving to new places on my own. I am still on my red Ps.

I have a rough idea of how to go through to the motorway, but I get lost. I don’t have GPS; I have a good sense of direction and I prefer old school maps, but now I don’t know how to get there. Problem. I should be upset and reactive, as I usually am when I’m driving.

Instead, it is the best drive of my life. Don’t get me wrong. I take wrong turns, I pick the wrong way, I can’t find an alternate way through to that bloody motorway. But I am calm, I am confident, I have good vision and I make good decisions.

I think, ‘this is amazing!’

This is followed by the usual doubts and superstitious self-talk – ‘Don’t say it out loud.’ This is my long-term mantra. ‘You’ll jinx it.’

Then, something entirely new comes to my mind.  ‘That habit no longer serves me,’ I tell myself.

And with that, I have cracked it. In my 48thyear, I have found the secret.

‘This is amazing! I feel really good. I am strong!’ I praise myself. I notice precisely what I am doing well and say so: out loud. ‘That habit no longer serves me.’ I like the sound of it.

I once heard that when we are critical of ourselves we are very precise. I hate the mole on my chin. I need to lose 10 kilos. My eyes are too small, and so on.  But when we are asked to say something positive about ourselves, we are very general. I start to be very precise about what I’m doing well.

I’m completely high and happy. The only thing that deteriorates is my language. Someone cuts me off. Normally, I would be upset. ‘Have I done something wrong?’ I would ask myself. Now, I say, ‘Fuck ‘em!’ Quite cheerfully. ‘Fuck ‘em!’ The guy tail-gating me. ‘Fuck ‘em!’ The people racing past me while I’m doing the speed limit.

I have cracked it. The secret is revealed to me.

Finally at home, the tension is thick between Dad and Joe. Dad is being grouchy and complaining about the trains and the buses and the hills around our home. The suburb and the houses boring. They are all the same. This is a common theme. I cook dinner and am breezy and cheerful. I don’t care if Dad is pleasant with us or not. I genuinely don’t care. I don’t need it. ‘Fuck him!’

Joe sees that I’m happy and joyous. He has no idea what to make of it.


Continue with The Day Before

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The Day Before Emergency

My Sandwich Family & Other Adventures – continued from The Weeks Before

The Day Before Emergency

When Joe leaves in the morning, Lachlan grizzles and so I pick him up and sit opposite Dad to feed him. The conversation rambles as always, and it soon turns to Barry. Barry was a childhood friend who had polio, and he had a huge impact on my father. Dad starts telling me about him; I’ve heard it a million times. Then, he heads in a different direction and starts to tell me new things about him and I think, ‘Damn, I really want to remember this,’ but I have a baby in my arms. I pray that I can keep it all in my mind. Then I get a good idea.

‘Hey, why don’t I interview you? I can use the camera phone?’

Dad likes the idea, but he wants to ‘make some notes first.’

By the time he has given me his excuses for not doing it today, I have started my voice recorder. I start asking questions, and soon I have a 30-minute interview that is gold to me. This is how I want to remember my father; it is also how most of my friends see him. No sign of dementia; just a smart man who has led a very interesting life. It makes me happy to let him reminisce, and Lachlan will be able to learn about his Grandpa from his own lips.


Joe comes home and I have sausages for dinner, but they won’t all fit into the pan at once. I ask the men how many sausages they’d like.

‘There are six,’ I say.

‘I’ll have three,’ says Dad.

He’s usually better at maths than that. I cook four. Dad gets two; Joe and I have one each. Joe looks confused but says nothing.

While Joe is out at his piano lesson a couple of hours later, I have a problem with the teat on the baby’s formula bottle. It’s blocked and I don’t know what to do. In full panic I call the Newborn care line that RPA administers. One of the midwives Jill helps me out, and I calm down again.

But when Joe comes back, it’s terrible. He is angry with me. He is angry that I called strangers when I had a problem instead of him. It doesn’t seem to matter that it helped; that I’m fine, that Lachie is fine. He goes away sulking. I don’t understand. What has happened to my Joe?

Come bedtime, Joe does his ritual re-washing of the dishes. He does this every night because Dad insists on doing it but he does such a terrible job of it. Joe finds an empty bottle in the rubbish bin.

‘What the…?’

I assume he is annoyed because the bottle should be in the recycling.

‘He’s finished it,’ says Joe.

Dad has drunk ¾ of a bottle of Limoncello. I hope not all in one hit.

‘It was a gift,’ says Joe.

‘He didn’t know,’ I tell him. It isn’t his fault. That’s the dementia; that’s not Dad. Joe can’t tell the difference, but of course I can. Joe will say of a particular behaviour, ‘that’s the dementia,’ and I might say, ‘No, he’s always been like that.’ This is not Dad. Please Joe, don’t undo all the good things that happened today!

‘That’s disappointing,’ says Joe.

Finally, he goes to bed.

How do I make Joe understand? I’ve changed irrevocably. I’ve solved the puzzle of my father. I just want to be kind to him. Not sarcastic; not talking about him behind his back. Because that habit no longer serves me. But Joe’s not there yet. I need to convince Joe, but how? I tell him in bed how I’ve changed and how I want to help him to make the same change.

‘I want us to do things differently. Like I’m doing with Dad.’

He agrees, but I won’t let Joe sleep. I keep trying to explain myself, and he tells me that he understands what I’m saying. But he doesn’t say the right words to show he really understands. I think he’s only humouring me, using his sarcasm on me. So I persist until he snaps.

‘Are you going to keep me awake all night? Do I have to call in sick at work tomorrow?’

He’s bluffing. He’s trying to avoid the issue – trying to avoid getting real. He’s got his phone out and he goes out into the hallway. Who is he calling at this hour? I sit on the bed, waiting. I look behind me to check that there is no one hiding there. It’s all clear.

At 7am Joe wants me to go to the doctor. Fine. I can do that; he’s not going to sway me from my course. He hasn’t shown me that he knows what I’m talking about, so let’s go! I walk straight outside, while Joe puts Lachlan in the pram and struggles with it up the steps. I stand with my back to the fence, so that no one can grab me.

Now, I don’t think for a moment that we’re really going to the doctor. I mean, it’s too early in the day for starters. And it’s a ruse anyway. He’s testing me. I lag behind when we get close, to give him an opportunity to pull out, and I definitely see him hesitate, but to my surprise, we arrive at the medical centre and they’re open for business.

We go in to see the doctor and he’s an idiot. He’s obviously part of the test. When he asks how he can help, I handball the question in Joe’s direction without saying a word. After all, it’s Joe’s party.

‘Well, Gemma here recently gave birth and she’s been feeling a bit confused,’ begins Joe.

‘I see,’ says the doctor, not looking at me.

‘And she hasn’t been sleeping, that’s right isn’t it, Gem?’ Joe continues.

The doctor still does not look at me and starts tapping on the computer and asks more questions about the birth: where and when. Joe answers for me, and the doctor lets him. I’ve had enough. I get up and walk out.

Joe and Lachlan catch up with me, and the doctor calls out that we can see another doctor if we prefer, but we’re out the door.

‘He was completely useless, wasn’t he?’ says Joe, trying to make me feel like he’s on my side. We start walking home.

Just around the corner is the thing I’ve dreaded without realising it. There’s a Star Track courier vehicle. It’s what the men will jump out of to drag me away. I was expecting an ambulance.

‘Of course, the courier van.’ I say. The van follows us for a block, but they leave me alone for some reason. They let me walk home with Joe.

Within the hour, Joe has made a call and we are on our way to Emergency. Ha! Another bluff. He won’t follow through.


Continue with In Emergency Part 2

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In Emergency Part 2

My Sandwich Family & Other Adventures – continued from The Day Before

Thursday May 10, 2018

In Emergency – Part 2

We have been in Emergency for what, hours? I know that something is terribly wrong, but what? Not long ago I was feeling so amazing, so on top of life.

Now, I know that Joe is an amazing man. I know that he will stand by me in any crisis. But he will never look at me the same way when he discovers we are here under false pretences. We’ll never be the same again. I’ve trashed our lives.

I start grasping around for something to save me from being discovered as… as what? A fraud? An unfit mother? – Stay away from Lachie, I tell myself. Don’t forget. Keeping a distance from my baby is something I instinctively understand is important. I don’t want anyone to think for a second that I could harm him. I don’t know where this idea comes from, but I do it anyway. I stand in the middle of the room, away from everyone.

Outside the curtain that they have pulled around us, it is very busy. I see feet under the curtain, and people and gurneys moving past the 1-metre gap on the right, where the curtain opens. Behind that screen, it seems that the hospital has the actors mustered. It seems bizarre, but maybe they are on staff and used regularly in situations like this. This is logical enough. The actors have been well briefed; I assume Joe has told them all about me, because he is the only person who could give them all of this information. It’s as if a bunch of New Idea reporters have crawled all over my life, my memories and my experiences and come up with all of this awful stuff. They now know all of the shameful things Joe knows about me. And the pettiness of the detail is astonishing.

I think perhaps some of the actors have misunderstood the information, or perhaps they have become carried away with their roles, because I don’t always understand their jibes. They sometimes only tangentially hit on a sore point.

A couple of women talk about a guy I supposedly fancy, but the trouble is that I don’t know anyone called Kyle. My niece-in-law’s boyfriend is called Kyle, but I’ve never met him, so that isn’t a great way to hurt me. Maybe Joe wasn’t able to give them a name, and I’m relieved about that. There’s been no one but Joe for years now, so that could explain it. But they go on about how hot Kyle is and what one of the women would like to do to him. What I’dlike to do to him is the clear message here. They don’t know that I’m not like that.

Something else that is upsetting me is that this is the hospital where my mother was poked and prodded for hours before they realised the bleeding obvious – that she’d had a stroke. This is also the hospital where my father is currently being seen for his Alzheimer’s and dementia. I have come here with him several times. Finally, this is the hospital where less than three weeks ago, I gave birth to Lachlan in stressful circumstances. I’m just not happy being here.

My Lachlan sits on the floor, folded almost in half in the car capsule. There is a soft toy tiger in there with him, but it’s the wrong tiger – it’s not the one I remember. It’s not the tiger that Joe always packs in his bag and brings with us on holidays as a sweet gesture. This is a different tiger. Is it a sign? Oh God – does that mean they’ve switched Lachlan for another baby, too? I squint and strain my eyes to try to see if the baby in the capsule is still my own. I’m afraid they might take him from me. I know they are testing me. Do I recognise his cry? Do I recognise him? Will I let them take him away? My eyesight isn’t very good, but I see the red stork mark on his forehead. He’s still with me. Good.

I have to get myself out of here. Somehow, I have to do something to persuade them to let me, Joe and Lachlan go home. It seems impossible; things are spiralling out of control. They are going to drag me away, inject me full of drugs, and life as I know it will be over. Maybe Joe will be able to give me the safe word. But not now. It’s not the right moment; it’s not the last roll of the dice yet. It’s important to reveal it at the right time. I write a note to myself on my phone: Today I decided to change. Oh fuck. This got out of control. I’ll ask you the safe word.

I desperately need someone to give me a sign. A sign they know and believe me. When they give me that word, it will be over and the hospital will let me go. In what state, however, I just don’t know.


My brother-in-law Tom is here. When did he arrive? He’s holding Lachie, and Lachie’s not happy about it. He’s grizzly and wriggly in his skinny arms.

‘He’s kvetching,’ says Joe, using one of the Yiddish words I often use.

‘Hmm. Ka-vet-ching,’ says Tom, deadpan, trying out the unfamiliar word, ‘but no tears at all.’ I snap my head to look at him. Why is he here and why is he holding Lachie? Maybe he’s here to be involved in the baby switch. I’ll have to watch him and Lachie closely. The three of us stand staring at one another.

In any case, I hate Tom for holding Lachie. From his comment he also seems to have noticed that I can’t cry even though I’m acutely distressed. And that’s bad for me. It means these people might not believe me.

‘Tom, you’re a terrible actor,’ I tell him. He has this flat voice, which shows no emotion, which just doesn’t work if you want your acting to be realistic. Doesn’t he know that? He simply stares back at me. Can’t he take direction? The curtain twitches as one of the actors sets himself up, presumably for the next assault on me. I turn and look at the huge clock that is on the back wall. It’s 2.15. Is it am or pm? It doesn’t say and I can’t see outside to work it out.

Damn Tom. My boy is asleep. Is he moving? He’s peaceful. Not grizzling at all. I look very hard at him, to make sure it’s still him. I wish Tom would put Lachie back in his capsule. It’s harder to take the whole capsule than to pass a baby from one person to another.

My brain hurts. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to make it stop. I’ve sent so many text messages to myself. I’ve written so much shit in that bloody book that I’ve confused myself. Still waiting for that sign. Still don’t know what sign I’m waiting for or how I know I’ll recognise it when I hear it.

That’s it!

I grab my bag and fish out the book. Joe makes an exasperated sound. I guess he’s sick to death of me scribbling in this fucking book. He doesn’t know what I know; that getting rid of it is not the last card I have to play, because I have already typed 10,000 words, tap-tapping on my computer in the wee small hours between feeds when I couldn’t and wouldn’t sleep. When I had two hands I typed; when I had one hand, I wrote longhand in the book, and when I’ve had no hands while feeding Lachie I made voice recordings. Most importantly, I’ve kept every detail of what happened and what we said in my head, stretching my mind to it’s greatest extreme. I’ve stayed awake, either writing or recording every detail. Or if I am holding something in my head and something more interesting happens, I can push that less exciting information out of my skull and into oblivion. It’s exhausting, but it’s all there in my head, on a page, or in a recording. Word for word. I can put my hand on my heart and swear that every word of what I’m writing is true. That every conversation is verbatim. Who can swear to that?

If I lose the book, I lose a lot, but it’s not my last card. Maybe it can give me what I need. Maybe it can provide the sign.

I open the book to the last entry on page 85. I started writing in this book only a few days ago and I have filled it with every thought that seemed interesting, useful or bizarre. Thoughts, recipes, lists, book ideas are all crammed in. I write on this final page in large letters:

Burn the Book.

Burn this Book.

Tom is standing in the way of the bin. I take a small step to the left of Tom, lean across and throw the book into the bin under the sink in the corner near the break in the curtain, and then move back into my space in the centre of the room. He looks puzzled. I don’t care. I keep myself a safe distance from Tom, who is still holding Lachie. I look around to make sure no one has come in to the back of the room through the other side of the curtain to sneak up behind me. It would be a disaster to be surprised. If they want to try and grab me, I must make sure I’m close enough that I can grab Joe. I’ll be safe with Joe. They can take us both. Joe will sort it out, be my champion. He won’t let them just take me away, no matter what I’ve done.

Will I ever see Lachie again? What happens if they take him away from me? What happens to Joe? Does he get taken away from me too? I have to be careful. If they decide I’m a danger to Lachie, it’s all over. I can grab Joe for protection, but I mustn’t grab Lachie.

‘If she’s acting, that’s not a good sign,’ says a woman on the other side of the curtain. Oh God; they know I’m faking it. Though I can’t remember what illness it is that I’m pretending to have. They know I’m a fraud.

I take out my phone again and write a note. Is it better for Gemma to be insane or for Gemma to think that she’s insane?

‘Could this be…?’ I ask Joe, Tom and the room generally. I struggle for the words again, the name of the sickness I’m supposed to be faking. I look at Joe and his bewildered and exhausted face doesn’t help me to think clearly, but eventually I wrestle the name from somewhere in my overloaded and sleep-deprived brain.

‘I could have Post-Natal Depression, right?’

‘Yes,’ says Joe sadly, ‘yes, that’s possible.’

‘Ok.’ I say. ‘Maybe that’s it.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a young woman empty the bin. Well, at least that’s done. Now they’ll go through The Book and use whatever they find there against me. I can’t remember what’s in it any more. It’s a relief to let The Book go. But I don’t remember what the answer is – the sign. Is it in The Book? Is it The Book itself? I forgot what I just wrote. My brain won’t take any more in. I’m exhausted and at the end of my resources.

‘I just want this to stop,’ I say again to Joe.

‘I’m fighting for you, Gem. Do you believe that?’

I look into Joe’s eyes. I find a moment of quiet there. It is so restful in comparison to the chaos in my brain. I know what I see. I see that all this pain that these actors are inflicting on me is because of him. Joe believes that it is important. That these doctors told him that he had to do it for me. That’s the only reason he would do something so horrible. He is doing it for me. This, at the very least, is a sign.

‘I know that all this is because you love me very much.’

My friend Chris appears at the curtain-door. I smile and frown at him simultaneously. How did he escape work? He comes in and says hello to me, Joe and Tom, who both shake Chris’ hand. I’m hopeful. Maybe Chris can give me a sign, or maybe I texted him the key to this disaster earlier. He looks at me meaningfully, but it’s not clear that he’s giving me a sign. I need Chris to give it to me so all this can end, but he’s just standing there, helpless.

‘Gemma,’ says a new woman. Is it a doctor? A social worker? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a police officer come to take me away. I don’t even remember how this started anymore.

‘I’m just going to feed your son,’ says the well-dressed woman, who takes him from Tom. Who the hell is she? She wears a grin almost as big at her chunky necklace. As she disappears with Lachie in her arms, she gives me an enormous stage wink. Is that a sign? Why is she giving me a sign?

It is not until she disappears that I realise – I’ve failed. She’s taken Lachie from me, and I just grinned politely and let her. He’s gone. He’s not coming back. I’m lost.


They want to do some tests.

‘What will that do?’ I want to know.

‘It will test your thyroid and your blood pressure…and so on,’ says the nurse, or whoever she is.

‘That’s ridiculous!’ I complain.

A woman duly comes in with a blood pressure machine, but when she starts applying the pressure, I see her just wander away from the machine. It’s too tight and tightening more! She’s trying to test me to see if I’m so far gone that I don’t notice. I tear the Velcro strap off my arm.

Another nurse comes in to take my blood. This is not on. This is what I’ve feared. They’re going to inject me with drugs and take Lachie away. Where’s Lachie? I look over and miraculously he’s there, comfy back in the car capsule and presumably fed, the strange tiger toy on his lap.

I tell them I don’t want to do a blood test, but Joe comes very close to me and holds me with both hands and his red-rimmed eyes.

‘Gem, it’s very important that they do this test.’

I trust him. I let them do it. She has a canula, and I don’t understand why that’s necessary. It suddenly occurs to me: it’s not real. They are going to pretend to take blood in order to test me. She pretends to insert the needle into the back of my hand, and pretend blood comes out. But then I see her push the plunger on the tube instead of pulling it out. Here we go! I pull away from the needle and dislodge it from my hand before she can inject me. She doesn’t protest, she just puts a little round Band-Aid on my pretend needle entry wound.


And now they want to take me to the Acute Ward. Bizarrely, they want to take me there in an ambulance.

‘But it’s just across the road,’ I protest, ‘Why can’t we walk there?’

Maybe I can run. I can run onto the university campus – I know it from my time studying at Sydney Uni. They won’t easily be able to track me down. I don’t know what I’ll tell Joe. I can meet him at home later. I hope he’ll let me in the house.

But they make us wait. More hours. More voices taking the piss out of me, making me feel ashamed of my feelings, mocking my life. It’s hard to take. Almost as hard as seeing the pain that is only increasing in Joe’s eyes. The fear in my eyes isn’t going anywhere either. I have forgotten how I got here, but I’m desperate to get out.

The ambulance is outside. I think about running, but Joe has climbed in. ‘I’m going where he’s going’ I think. I climb inside. No one gets in with us. There’s a driver and another person in the front. Joe holds my hand. I hold onto it like a lifeline.

In the few moments we are in the ambulance, they even manage to broadcast something on the radio that mocks my belief in the Cuban santeriagoddess Yemaya. Why would they do that? Can’t they leave me alone? They’ve won – must I be harassed too?

Chris and Tom are in the foyer of the new building the ambulance has brought us to. It is night-time now. I’ve been fighting this all day. A woman comes to tell me that I’m being committed and could I sign some paperwork? The paperwork is confusing, the pronouns seem to shift from ‘I’ to ‘you’. I appeal to Chris, a fellow English teacher, and he confirms that it’s a bit oddly worded.

I write my name and then cross it out. I don’t understand the form and I don’t want to sign away my rights. Joe tells me that it’s very important that I make him a designated carer, so that he can talk to the staff about my care. I don’t write my name, but I write Joe’s name and our address.

I write, ‘I don’t understand. I need advice from a professional.’ They accept the paperwork as it is.

The woman offers to let me see the papers committing me, but tells me that I can’t read them. She tells me that I could be committed for up to three months. The three men – Joe, Tom and Chris – crowd around her, telling her that it isn’t right that I can’t read the document and that she shouldn’t say those things to me. I have flattened myself against the back wall, standing as far away from this disaster as possible. Maybe this is my chance. Maybe Joe will take me home because this paperwork is wrong.

The worst happens. I am committed. My fear has become real – Joe leaves, and who knows if he will come back? I don’t even know where Lachie is. Numb and confused, I follow a nurse into Acute Ward. Chris comes with me, but Joe and Tom are gone. He didn’t even kiss me goodbye.


Inside the ward, it’s dark and there is no one around. The nurse, Annie, is going to take me to my room. I follow her and am yelled at by a burly man for being in a restricted area. I flatten myself against the wall until Annie is ready. In the room there is a trundle bed, a chair a cupboard and a table. There is a bathroom as well. Chris and I sit on the bed and watch Annie show us how the door locks and unlocks. The lock looks complicated and as she fumbles with it. I realise wearily that it will probably not allow me to leave. The door will lock when she leaves, and I’ll be stuck in this room for as long as they want.

I need the bathroom, but I’m not sure that it will unlock for me when I want to leave either. I go to the toilet hastily and get up before I’ve entirely finished, afraid of being bust in on. I’m extremely relieved when I am able to get out of the bathroom. I wasn’t locked in, and no one burst in on me. I had been worried about both possibilities.

Chris and I go out and sit in the empty common room. We are able to make a cup of tea in polystyrene cups. Have I eaten today? I don’t think so. A woman passes us. She is stocky with greying hair pulled back into a short ponytail. She is muttering to herself, but she doesn’t seem to be talking about me.

A man passes us. I flinch as he passes; I’m horrified that there are men here as well. What if he hits me? But he doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything either.

Chris leaves. I think I hug him. I think he is close to tears. I feel nothing. The worst thing, the one thing I had feared, has happened: I’ve been dragged away from my husband and son. There is no point in crying. As Tom said, ‘No tears at all.’

Annie brings a pump for me to express milk. I don’t have a lot at the best of times and I haven’t expressed for a couple of days. Perhaps this is a test. I’m tired of being tested. She leaves me to it, but I can’t make it work; there’s no suction at all. Have I failed even this bloody test? Can’t they stop? Annie comes back, and she can’t make it work either. She brings me another pump; maybe she isn’t testing me. She’s a bit grumpy, but it seems she isn’t trying to trick me. Annie and another young nurse wrestle with the pump to no avail. She takes it away, and I’m finally left alone to sleep.

I sleep a long time. It’s the first time since before Lachie was born that I’ve properly slept. I don’t cry. I don’t dream. At 3am I realise I’m no longer hallucinating. I can also, finally, cry. I do so – copiously.

At 4am, I go out into the common room and make a cup of tea. I meet an indigenous girl called Faith and a woman called Tracey. They tell me their stories. They have been in places like this before. They have already been in Acute Ward for many days each. Faith needs to attend a tribunal later today in order to be released. Tracey is a voluntary patient, but she is having a tough time getting what she needs from the staff.

At 6am I’m able to beg a pad and a pen and I begin to write. To try to make sense of what is happening to me.

At 10.30am I see the doctor. She asks me a lot of questions. I finally ask her one: ‘What is wrong with me?’

‘You have post-natal psychosis.’

At least I’ve heard of that. Since I became pregnant, I read about a woman in the UK who died of it, though I’m sketchy on the circumstances. I also heard an interview with a woman who had it with two or her three children. It sounded terrifying. I sign the paperwork properly this time.


Continue with The Weeks That Follow (final)

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The Weeks That Follow

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.’

‘Did you?’

‘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.






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The Right to Tell a Story

The recent social media stoush over American author Lionel Shriver’s (We Need to Talk About Kevin) speech at Brisbane’s Writer’s Festival raised interesting responses for and abou…

Source: The Right to Tell a Story

Posted in History and Justice, Opinion | Leave a comment