Just keep typing! A night of madness.

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“Awful as these memories may be, I feel blessed that I am still here today, some thirteen years later, to re-read the words. For every time during those years that I wanted to die, there have been a thousand times since that I am grateful to be alive.”

Content warning. This article talks in detail about suicide and self-harm and it may be distressing or triggering for some people to read.

I know that many people struggle to understand madness, suicidality and what it’s like to be treated by psychiatric services. In much of my writing I attempt to explain what these experiences are like, but retrospective reflections can only go so far.

This week I thought I would share an extended extract from what I call my ‘mad journals’: the many computer files and notebooks that I filled with words and scribbles and drawings and sometimes literally with blood during my years of being in and out of psychiatric hospital.

For years I kept these journals locked away; it is only in the past two years that I have felt able to dig them out and begin to look through their confused and anguished pages again.

This extract includes two journal entries. The first entry was written during an evening of suicidal despair that ended in the emergency room of a hospital. It is hard to read, not least because of its lack of punctuation. Sometimes when I was distressed I would write without full stops or commas. It let me write faster. And I often thought that punctuation was just another form of control that I didn’t want or need.

The second entry was written the next day as I reflected on the night before and tried to make sense of it.

Journal entry: 5 May 2002

Note: Dr Grey was my psychologist at the time. This is a pseudonym.

ok just keep typing until dr grey calls back don’t think about the snot running down the face or the tears or the bloody breast or wanting to die again wanting another noose wanting that restriction around the throat could i see it through this time could i see the momentary pain through until the blackness or is baudrillard right and in this age of reproduction i cant even actually die because they can just make me again i don’t exist and i exist in multiplicity for all time simultaneously as nick cave said there is no knowledge and i know it o god why does this keep happening im happy then i want to die then im happy then i want to die then im happy then i want to die then im happy then i want to die and mum gets so mad at me and now chelsie wont let me have the kids stay over because i might be dangerous what kind of a monster am i a fat fucking foul hideous scum this is so selfish so self indulgent so pathetic there is no knowledge and i know it thats all there is to it except that infinity exists of course and so does contradiction so you cant really know although thats an absolute too so maybe you can just know a bit but never enough no cant use the word never i can feel that restriction around my throat again feel the throat closing off i wish i had pills to overdose id do it right this time i wouldnt tell anyone i wouldnt id just swallow those suckers go to sleep and never ever wake up except were back to baudrillard spoke to the cat team spoke to dr grey twice its all about putting me somewhere safe until i don’t want to kill myself and then we go round again. ive made the noose i think it would make a hangman shake his head with professional shame but im not good at knots i think it will hold though will i do it will i end it for once and for all or will i keep playing their game this stupid game heres a thought maybe those people who dont want to die are the mentally ill ones those automatons who mindlessly follow the same path as billions have before them live suffer enjoy fleeting surface happiness then rot decay lose everyone you love lose all control over your body get treated like nothing and then die have few other automatons shed a few tears but know theyre really just crying for themselves but they cant admit it then get burnt up or buried and gradually disappear only to have billions more tread the same path and nothing ever really changes the basic pattern has never really changed so what am i waiting for some divine inspiration that billions of others have never heard why should i hear anything they dont why subject myself to this why bother why wait why wait why wait why wait why wait why wait why wait why wait im scared scared of the pain scared of it not working and ending up a vegetable guilty for the agony my mum and sister will feel the guilt my friends will feel god i wish i had noone who cared about me for me to think of and a painless method a failsafe method what to do i cant think any more it hurts too much

Journal entry: 6 May 2002

Fucking hell. It’s the next morning, and I’m fine. Tired, embarrassed, but fine. This is so fucking strange.

I don’t think I ever realised how extreme mood swings can be until now. Yesterday afternoon I was happily twiddling around the flat, choosing a new selection of paintings to hang on the wall, clearing out a lot of my clutter (good Feng Shui, not that I really believe it, but I’ll try anything these days) to give to Prahran Mission, feeling calm. Then out of the blue I just imploded.

I was watching TV, not really listening, just sitting, you know, vegging out a little, and I had the thought, ‘Why bother? Why live? Why clear out clutter only to collect more of it? Why think about the best way to rearrange my lounge room when I’ll just do it again in a year or so? is there anything at all that is worth doing? Any reason at all to keep living?’

I couldn’t come up with one.

I panicked, decided that maybe if I ate some chocolate I’d feel better. I knew I only had about 45 cents in my wallet. That wouldn’t do it. I ransacked the house, looked in all my drawers, all my pockets, my sewing box, my jewellery boxes, behind the couch, under my desk. I came up with $3.15, mostly in 5 cent pieces. I threw on a beanie to cover my hair that hadn’t been washed in over a week, and went down to the 7-Eleven and bought a dark chocolate Toblerone. That’s real chocolate. Rich. I scoffed half of it on the way home and then couldn’t eat anymore, but the panic was still there.

I’d write, I decided, but couldn’t think of anything. I was really hot, so I took off my top. When I saw my breast, its smooth skin overlaid with years of scars, I had an idea of what might help. I started cutting my breasts but i couldn’t feel any pain. I started cutting deeper, and slashing my arms. Nothing. I’m not real.

I realised I had to kill myself. Then I thought ‘No, there has to be an answer somewhere.’

I grabbed some of my philosophy books, and started skimming through them, looking for reasons to live. It was hard to read, I couldn’t really concentrate, my mind was racing. Luckily I’d underlined some sections in previous reading, which I couldn’t even remember. There was nothing good.

Baudrillard said that the principle of reversibility implies that death does not really happen. Great – no escape is possible then. The system is potentially closed and risks imploding. I was already doing that. Jesus.

Duras looked at what propels women to madness. ‘Life,’ I thought. ‘Just life.’

Kristeva’s view of Duras was that this madness is now the only way of living one’s individuality, so impoverished are public means of representation. ‘OK, I thought. It’s not just me. Everyone is going mad, maybe I’m just getting a head-start. Society is giving me no choice. There is no reality left anymore.

Lyotard. Metanarratives. Lies and more lies. No answers.

Bataille. Eyeballs, testicles, eggs. Horror sex. Horror death. Meaninglessness, pain. Truth, I thought. I wished I had some paint at home. I wanted to paint over one of my pictures of holes, and make it bloodier.

No, there were no answers. I couldn’t read anymore. I was shaking, almost hyperventilating, jumping and jerking and clutching my Stanley knife like it was a beacon that would light the way to peace. Peace. I grabbed the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. Then I threw it down. We all have the right to happiness.

Crap. Happiness is fleeting, unreal. Pain is real. It’s always there, hiding or overpowering, it’s the powerful one, it’s the truth. No choice, have to die,’ whispers inside my head. But I don’t want to.

I panicked and rang the Crisis Assessment Treatment (CAT) team. Maybe they could explain things to me, make them clearer, better. Then I rang Dr Grey. He’d said to call when it got like this. A whole series of phone calls, during which I made myself a noose out of a bed sheet.

Dr Grey told me to leave my front door open, and suddenly the police and ambulance officers were in my lounge room, clustered together and staring at my bloody breasts and talking in some distant way like they were in another room. She has a knife, get it off her. They started yelling things at me that I couldn’t hear but I understood. I dropped it.

I tried to fold myself inside myself. A tinier and tinier square. But there’s only a limited number of times you can fold a piece of paper. I forget how many times. I was a Russian doll. I was invisible. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t speak properly. Words got jumbled, I didn’t want to go to hospital, I didn’t want to go back again.

They let me take my noose with me, I clutched it like a baby.

Stupid blood pressure and heart rate tests like I had a medical problem. Nurses and doctors. I didn’t look at anyone, so it wasn’t real. My head hurt, I punched it, it hurt more. They left me alone, and I bolted, had to get out. Through the fire exit, almost there, three metres from the door and security got me, dragged me back.

I refused to get on the bed. I’m not sick, I mumbled. They offered a chair. I refuse it. Fine then, stand.

I bashed my head into the wall, then let myself fall. I concentrated on the images in the lino floor. I kept seeing flies with big eyes looking at me. Pretty and pale blue, but sinister.

I looked under the hospital bed for anything to hurt myself with. Nothing. I looked up for something to string the noose over, nothing.

I could feel people walking past the door, staring at me. At bloody, saggy breasts on the crazy woman. I could hear them laughing. I crawled to the other side of the bed, and squeezed into the corner. More hidden, safer. I’m not really here, I’m not really here.

O god, Buffy, what if they locked my cat outside? I have to get home, can’t be here. Won’t do any good anyway. Will tell the psych nurse that I just need drugs and can go home.

It works. I get Diazepam and Temazepam. They give me a pajama top to cover the bloody breasts. Is it the blood or the breasts they want me to hide? I have no shoes.Bummer, says the nurse before walking off.

They give me a cab charge voucher, call a taxi. I wait outside. The feel of bitumen under feet is good. Rough. Real. Honest. Connected.

I roll a cigarette. No lighter. Fuck. Ask a group of teenage boys for a light. They look scared. Am I scary? Why are people scared of me? Do they think I’ll hurt them, or are they embarrassed for me, shaking with mussed up hair, barefoot in pyjamas and all bloody, clutching a shoebox? Or do they see the truth in me, how vulnerable they really are? Don’t know. They gave me a light, but the boy stepped back and stretched out his arm. Don’t want to get contaminated now. Go away, loony. Why don’t they lock these people up and hide them?

Went home. Taxi driver was worried. I told him everything was fine. If the hospital let me out, I must be fine. Then laughed to myself. Wondered if the psych nurse would get sacked if I went home and hung myself. Funny. She was mean to me. I think she thinks it’s an appropriate way to treat people like me. Self-indulgent dickheads. Went home, found Buffy, hugged her. She licked me. Good darling. I asked her why we live, why does she live? Just stares, no answer. I ate the rest of the chocolate, had three cigarettes, took the pills and crashed.

And now it’s morning, and I feel just fine. Tired, embarrassed, but fine. I rang Dr Grey and the CAT Team as I had been asked to do. Thanked them for last night, said I was fine.

Decided to write an explanation for last night’s rambling. Need to remember these things. Maybe I can publish them all one day and some brilliant genius will read the book, and phone me with an answer, and everything will be ok. Nice.

Anyway, have to shower. Haven’t done it for over a week again. Smelly. I have to take better care of myself. I have to force myself. I’ll go to Prahran Mission and do my woodworking class. Go and cash that cheque so I have some money. Try not to blow it. Clean up from last night’s tirade. Wear long sleeves so no-one sees the fresh cuts.

When I see the doctor tomorrow, I am going to insist on being given some sleepers so I can knock myself out the next time this happens. I can’t keep going through this over and over.

It makes me sad to read these words again, even so many years later.

It takes me back to that night of aching, desperate panic, the clinical coldness of the hospital, the fear and disgust I saw in the eyes of others, and being left, for the hundredth time, without any real way to change any of it.

This night this was some time after I had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. This is significant because once I got this label I was treated in a markedly different way at the hospital; the message that I was wasting people’s time was always there.

I find it strange that when I was seen as mainly psychotic that I was given far more treatment and time than I wanted or needed. And when I was seen as borderline I was given far less treatment and time. Yet I was the same person with the same distress. This is a common experience that I have heard over and over from other survivors.

I am shocked at basic aspects of duty of care, dignity and respect that were not extended to me, and I feel angry because I know that thousands of others have similar experiences every day. At the same time I am grateful that some assistance was offered. I smile wistfully thinking of how hard I tried to find the answer in philosophy and the arts. I feel sad for how little any of it made sense to me in this time before I had looked into my past, and at how few basic emotional or coping skills I had. I smile as I think of how important animals have always been to my mental health, even in the darkest hours, and even now, today. At the end of that night of horror, it was my love and concern for my cat, Buffy, that saved me.

There were many nights like this. I can’t even count how many. They went around and around and around for a long time. Crisis, self-harm, despair, some kind of medical intervention. None of it changed until I began to find meaning and control. It started with learning to cope with distress. Then I found a support worker in a community service who helped me learn to dream and create my own meaning, rather than look for it in books. And eventually I was to learn about the effects of trauma from my peers, and begin to unpack the fundamental reasons why I went so mad to begin with. But this was to take many years.

Awful as these memories may be, I feel blessed that I am still here today, some thirteen years later, to re-read the words. For every time during those years that I wanted to die, there have been a thousand times since that I am grateful to be alive.

If you are a mental health worker, I hope that this article helps you to get a sense of what it is like for some of us when we experience despair. I hope you can see the spaces in this experience where different kinds of interventions and words might have been far more helpful. There are obvious things, like taking away the noose that I kept from the beginning to the end when I went home again. And offering me some clothing to cover myself up and preserve some dignity would have been humane. But I ask you to think more deeply than this. To think of what you would have wanted if it had been you, or someone you love, instead of me.

If you find yourself living with this kind of despair, I hope you can take some kind of light from my story.

No matter how impossible change may feel, it can happen.

No matter how unworthy you may think you are, your life has value.

When you think you have tried everything, there is always something else, somewhere else, or someone else to try.

Please don’t ever give up. The fact that you are still here means you are already a survivor.

First published on 22 June 2015. Re-published with minor edits on 25 April 2019.

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