Excerpt from Madness: A Memoir

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Kate Richards

Excerpt taken from Madness: a Memoir. Kate Richards. Penguin-Random House Australia, 2014.

It’s autumn. The plane trees outside my window at work are losing their leaves. The air has an edge to it, a raciness, the dark descends quickly. The exotic dark. It’s mania weather. I talk and walk fast, I write fast. I’m reading five books at once; I sing in my head while carrying on a conversation, I compliment people.

‘You’re looking sexy today,’ I say to my manager. He stops and half-smiles. After work I walk all the way home. There is magic and colour in the air and I may burst from my skin; inhabit something larger in both space and time. Nights like these the boundaries of everything shift around me. Walls, floors, sound – especially sound. Music saturates the room, clings to my skin, flows like fine wine. I am a risk-taker, a Russian-roulette-player. As soon leap off a mountain as walk down the street. I like Nine Inch Nails really loud, and The Tea Party, Jane’s Addiction, Rancid, punk-anything, acid and flame. Each note is a colour, there is colour everywhere, tonight I am DIVINE.

Arthur Boyd created a series of paintings about Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, exiler, despot. In one he is painted from above, all deepest yellow, his arms outstretched and his fingers grasping the gold air. He is dying. I fall in love with it and ring the South Australian Art Gallery: can they make me a reproduction? I need it. It is essential. All meaning is to be found in this painting.

I try to explain it to Winsome – my psychologist – sitting on the very edge of the chair, my lap piled with books, earphones around my neck still playing.

‘Everything is very beautiful,’ I say. ‘Look at the way light is stuttering through your glass ornament – it’s all about the blue and then it’s white and then it’s gone! I can’t keep up with the pace of light, I think it’s extraordinary that we can see light at all; I wish I’d studied special relativity but my brain simply refuses to hold onto the facts. There’s definitely something wrong with some of my neurones, though I’d secretly prefer to visit an art gallery because art is where light gets to show herself off, don’t you think? And so I wonder― ‘

‘Kate,’ says Winsome. ‘You’re keeping me entertained, but I don’t think you are well. Have you got an appointment with your doctor?’

I sigh and stand and pace along the wall by the window. ‘Tomorrow.’

‘Good. What are you doing tonight?’

‘Painting my fence blue. Blue is such a universal colour. It’s honest, but its depths are full of mystery. Isn’t it amazing that it can be both at the same time?’

‘Yes. How did you get here?’

‘Tram, which is excellent―’

‘Kate,’ says Winsome again. I stop pacing. ‘Come and sit down.’

‘I can’t, I really can’t, look!’ I stand on my tiptoes and throw my arms out wide; I’m silhouetted like a star against the window for all the people in the street to see.

The next day I put on a lot of make up and go to work an hour early. I drink ten cups of coffee. I do jumping jacks in the toilet with my headphones on. I wonder if the BDSM house will take me on as a Mistress.

In the evening I visit my doctor, Aaron. ‘How are you?’ he asks, as usual. I stand in front of him with my hands on my hips, sticking my pelvis out and then I start giggling and I can’t stop, I keep giggling and now tears are seeping out from the sides of my eyes and smudging the mascara I put on this morning for the first time in years. I’m rocking back and forth on my feet, laughing and crying in equal measure. Aaron doesn’t say anything; he reaches over to the phone on his desk and rings the Mental Health Team at the local hospital.

‘Are you taking your medication?’ he asks, mid-conversation.

‘Of course,’ I say. I have no idea where the bottle of tablets is – somewhere in my bedroom, probably under the bed where the cats sometimes pee.

He hangs up the phone. ‘Are you sleeping?’

‘Thorough waste of time.’ I sit down. ‘I do miss dreaming though. You know Freud thought that dream-life was just as important as waking-life for the illumination of the psyche. I think I agree with him, well I do at this particular moment, God, your taste in art is awful, Aaron.’

‘Kate,’ says Aaron. ‘I would like you to take one of these – now.’ He pulls a blister pack of tablets out of his top desk drawer. His desk is old, made of some wood with lines and whorls and stained dark chestnut.

‘What’s this?’ I ask.

‘It’s an anti-psychotic. Also good for hypomania.’ He stands and says, ‘Just stay there a minute.’ I sway from side to side on the chair. Aaron gives me a glass of water and a round, white tablet.

‘How much?’ I ask.

‘200 milligrams,’ he says.

I stare at it. The tablet is changing shape in my palm. It’s circular, then oval, then it expels a part of itself and becomes two tablets.

I stare at Aaron. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m trying to stabilise your mood.’

He waits, leaning on his desk with his arms crossed. The creases in his shirt catch the light and shine. I smile.

‘Take the medication, please.’

The tablet is furry round the edges where it has mixed with my sweat. I put it in my mouth and take a swig of water and swallow down its bitterness.


‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘The Mental Health Team are going to visit you later tonight.’

‘Excellent,’ I say and stand up and bow so that my forearms touch the ground. ‘It has been a pleasure doing business with you, Sir.’

Aaron almost smiles.

The Mental Health Team this evening consists of Angela and Gary. Angela is eight months pregnant.

‘Can I use your loo?’ she asks as soon as I open the door. I sit on the floor with a pile of books in my lap, mainly poetry, and I keep reading while they ask questions.

‘Can we have your car keys, Kate?’ asks Angela. ‘We’re worried about you driving too fast. What do you think?’

‘Yeah, yeah. Probably.’

I can hear someone singing, ‘. . . Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes! His floating hair!’

‘Who is singing?’ I ask, looking round the room and into the corners of the ceiling

‘We’d like you to take a week off work.’

‘Ah hah.’

‘Here’s some extra medication for you to take in the morning.’ The tablets, in their silver casing, look like tiny UFOs. I put them in my pocket and follow Angela and Gary down the stairs and out into the street where night holds fast to the sky.

‘Check out the stars!’ I say, whirling around.

‘Go to bed, Kate. We’ll see you tomorrow.’ I wait until their car turns into High Street, and then I drop the tablets in one of the big green rubbish bins out the front of my block of flats. I don’t sleep because sleep is the dreams and me locked together in a cranial cavity fifty-seven centimetres in circumference. The cranial bones are articulated but not fused to allow moulding through the birth canal and later, growth of the brain, but they do not accommodate a way of escape from this violent phantasmagoria.

Is dreaming the closest a sane person can come to the experience of madness? Seventeenth-century physicians hypothesised that dreams and madness shared the same movement of vapours and animal spirits; the notion of waking was ‘all that distinguished a madman from a man asleep.’

Normal sleep is now thought to have an essential role in cognitive and emotional processing. Sleep deprivation decreases the metabolic activity of the brain, particularly in the prefrontal and parietal-associational areas. These are important for judgement, impulse control, attention and visual association. People with chronic sleep deprivation are usually unaware of the extent of their cognitive deficits.

In the morning I go into work as usual. Rather than reading articles on childhood asthma from the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, I spend the day writing poetry. I’m seized with the desirability of words: their ability to sculpt new worlds, fantastical and pure.

The Mental health Team visit in the early evening and give me more medication, which I deposit in the rubbish bin on my way into the city. I’ve got a bottle half full of Coke and half full of vodka. Behind Safeway there is a small park with some children’s play equipment and a fluorescent light on the wall that flickers. Sitting in a circle on the grass are two old men in jeans and two young men in tracksuits.

‘Hiya,’ I say, finding a spot on the grass.

‘Hey,’ says one of the young men. The old ones nod their heads in my direction. They’ve got a couple of joints going between them.

‘Got any money, love?’


‘Get us some smokes?’

‘Sure!’ I’m in Safeway and I stride fast up and down the aisles with their glorious colours and I buy five kinds of nail polish and two cartons of Marlboro Reds and then I go next door for a slab of VB. Back outside the wind has picked up.

The men aren’t keen to share their marijuana, but they take the booze and the smokes as I go around shaking everyone by the hand.

‘Would you like some nail polish?’ I ask one of the old men. He has a hatched beard; he’s wearing an army coat fraying in long lines of cotton at the wrists. I offer the little bottles, Electric Pink and Royal Rajah Ruby and Lacy Not Racy. He laughs and shakes his head at me and lights a cigarette.

I spin off into a club down the street, with its door open, music and light spilling out. The music is hip-hop, loud, with a good bass. I stand next to a couple who look Latino – they’ve got such shiny eyes and hair and such silky skin I could run my hands like honey all over them. I dance with the nearly empty bottle of vodka and coke in one hand. At 2 a.m. they turn the music off though I’m still dancing (the only one still dancing), wet inside my coat and blisters running up my heels.

‘God, that was good,’ I say, as one of the staff ushers me out. I stand on the pavement, feeling the air, stick my hand out for a passing taxi.

‘Do you know any other languages?’ I ask the driver, whose name is Alekso.

‘Macedonian,’ he says.

‘Say “I love you” in Macedonian.’

He pauses, looks across at me in the gloom of the taxi with his brown eyes that are catching the dobs of streetlights and reflecting them. ‘Te sakam,’ he says.

‘Te sakam Alekso,’ I say.

At home I write PROMETHEUS in red in one of my notebooks. I gather a pile of paper, bills and letters; some unopened, and kindle it in my courtyard with a match. The flame skirts the edges of the paper like it’s teasing, then it flares as it finds oxygen in the night air. I crouch in close; I can feel heat on my eyes, stands of hair singe round my forehead with a tiny phzz. This is holy fire, the sort that Moses encountered on Mt Horeb. There are faces in the flame, jokers and fire angels, Prometheus himself with his half-eaten liver and Munch’s scream. I don’t blink for so long the fine layer of liquid over my eyes evaporates, leaving them dry as hard-boiled eggs. I try to kiss the flame, touch it, hold it, but it’s slippery, it lights upon a spot in the night, sucks the air, is gone.

Instead of sleeping, I sit in bed, reading. There’s a sort of buzzing in my head like tinnitus, but more tactile; inside the beehive in my skull the bees are edgy. I get up and look at my face in the mirror. My eyes are all pupils, black and cavernous. The whites are shot red..

Someone is singing, ‘Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes! His floating hair!’

On the train to work people are staring at the way I manage to curl air in through my nostrils and blow it out again through my mouth, coloured and alive. I’m creating life from a conglomeration of gases: nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide. Is this what God did when he created the firmament of the heavens and the celestial spheres? Is this what it is to be holy?

At work I write about orchids—

We smouldered; crysalised in the humid earth, mothy, pure. We suckled on sun. Air entered us like semen. Do not think of us as flowers; we pollinate more than stamen and xylem. We luminesce, we distil chlorophyll, we dream in vanilla and lime. We are pubescent and pendulous; nigrescent. We radiate. In the night entwined among ourselves, old sunlight congeals in our veins. Do they excite you, our swollen heads? Today you will salivate over our fibrillose lips, our scalloped throats, and we will finger you, infect the colour around you. Perhaps we have teeth. All of us – bromelades, cattleya, oncidiae – invented the meaning of life before your species was even conceived, dissolved it deep in our nuclei, let it swell there while we copulated with glutinous pollen and bees and lust.

Lithophytic orchids grow on rocks and obtain most of their nutrients from air.

Of the four classical elements in alchemy, air is symbolic of action and purity, it is hot and wet. It follows that all I need to stay alive is air. I hold this revelation, this epiphany, folded to my breast as I would a love letter. Instead of having lunch I buy a leather desk chair for around three months’ salary.

In the evening, Gary and Angela visit and I take the opportunity to wonder about the difference between theology and divinity, and whether divinity of the spirit is inevitably corrupted by the mind, but all Gary and Angela are interested in is Seroquel.

‘You don’t appear to be slowing down,’ Angela says, sitting on the very edge of the lounge chair with knees wide apart to accommodate her belly.

‘I know, it’s fabulous, isn’t it? Maybe I’m immune. Seriously, what if I’ve got special liver enzymes that metabolise Seroquel in the blink of an eye?’ I wink at her and smile.

‘I don’t think so,’ she says, looking at Gary.

‘Okay,’ says Gary. ‘Here’s your evening dose. We’re going to watch you take it. Go and get some water.’

On the way to the kitchen the people in my head and I agree that Seroquel is not a good idea. This space, this time, this realm is an ideal grace. It is pure, as vital as blood, and boundless. I return with a glass of water and Gary slips two white tablets from their silver casing into my palm. I tip my head back and flick the tablets over my back teeth to the inside of my right cheek. I drink the water, letting it slide down the left side of my mouth and throat. I smile at both of them and take the glass back to the kitchen and remove the soggy, bitter-white mush, my head inclined a fragile inch. Mavis, my big black cat, opens her eyes wide, wide.

The remainder of the night passes. I wake up on the floor in the living room with bits of fluff in my mouth and my head on a copy of The Diary of Frida Kahlo. Frida painted in oils mostly, so I stop off on the way to work at an art supply store and buy tubes of Cadmium Red, Vermillion, a bottle of sun-refined linseed oil, two flat hog-hair-bristle brushes and several stretched canvases. By evening, however, it is clear that my real vocation lies with the women of the night in Greeves Street, St Kilda – there is something in the dark sea air, something amorous and slightly racy.

inject connect sex

‘Where or what is your brightest part?’ I ask the woman sitting opposite me on the tram. ‘Would you say it was your soul?’

A young man stands on the pavement in front of the National Theatre. He’s very thin, very feminine (and beautiful). I sit down with my back to the dusky-pink bricks and stare at the veins in his forearms, lines of pillowed-blood, perfect under the skin.

‘I could fall into your eyes and die,’ I say.

He looks at me and frowns. ‘You right?’

‘I said, I could fall into your eyes and die.’

‘Look, I don’t even know you, just piss off out of my space.’

‘Jesus! What if we’re buried together? What’re you going to do then?’

He walks away down Carlisle Street in his tall black-heeled boots and I reel in the other direction up Barkly Street and then left into Grey Street. The Sacred Heart Mission is shut for the night; the iron gates are closed and quiet. On the roof of one of the buildings are three thick cream crosses; on the other building there are five. Three crosses for the holy trinity and the three states of matter. Five crosses for the four limbs of the body and the head in the centre. The upper windows of the op shop and the main building have eyes with stained glass irises.

all the colours burst amid echoes raaaaw

‘Roar!’ I yell at the night.

At home I open all the curtains in my flat and light all the candles and put them on windowsills. I light fists of sandalwood incense and arrange them in vases on either side of my newly created shrine to Dylan Thomas. The television is on and the radio is on and the CD player in my room is on because I can absorb sound in all three dimensions and process each independently. There are books covering the floor, lining the walls, strung across the ceiling.

‘You haven’t been taking your Seroquel or your lithium, have you?’ asks Angela, when she and Gary arrive ten minutes later.

‘No, but I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m really not, it’s because I’m at one with all the world: the physical, the mortal, the metaphysical. Think of natural fractals: no matter at which level you look – macro or micro or nano – they’re perfect, and I understand – it’s like when the solo treble hits high C – it’s rapture.’

Gary and Angela confer.

‘We’re going to take you for a review at the hospital,’ Gary says.


‘We don’t want you doing anything silly, anything you might regret.’

‘This is the craziness of the world: there’s never a good answer to the question why.’

Angela goes around blowing out candles while Gary rings ahead on his mobile and then he takes my keys and locks the flat and Angela walks me down the stairs to their sensible, white car and we drive very sensibly (very slowly) to the hospital.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mania was variously described as a frenzy without fever, an insensibility tense with internal vibrations, a secret fire of open and burning flame, an agitation of cerebral fluid. Early physicians theorised that the cause of the illness lay in the ‘continuous and violent movement of heat, the spirits and the humours.’

At the hospital I introduce myself to the night staff and ask one of the nurses whose eyes are bewitching me if I can give her a hug, which she allows, arms straight down by her sides. I’m given a measuring cup of dark red syrup and four white tablets.

‘The blood of Christ, the body of Christ. Amen,’ I say.

Because I am thus far compliant, I’m given a room on the main ward opposite the staff station. It’s very white – walls, bed, linen, floor – but I have Dylan Thomas with me for illumination, all of his honey-coloured words.

In the morning I stride round and round the courtyard listening to The Stone Roses on repeat until I’m called in to see Aaron, who works on the public ward in the mornings and sees his private patients in the afternoons.

‘The Mental Health Team have filled me in,’ he says.

‘Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes! His floating hair!’

I turn around to see who is singing.

‘Who’s singing?’ I ask.

‘We’ll have to give you an injection in the buttocks if you don’t settle down soon,’ Aaron says.

‘How do you expect to unlock a unique mind with the same damn key?’ I ask. ‘Why would the same key fit into every brain, when each houses the central nervous system, the mind with all its idiosyncrasies and even the soul?’ I rock back on my heels. ‘No wonder this medication is crap. No wonder there are so many side effects. Medication should be tailored to individuality. House keys and car keys are – why do you keep shoving stuff that is blunt as hammers down our throats?’

‘There’s always ECT,’ says Aaron dryly.

‘ECT is worse. It’s a fucking jackhammer. No, that’s not right – it’s a sanctioned version of the electric chair.’

‘Have youz got any perfume?’ asks another patient. ‘Do I stink or what? Oh I feel sick, all I can smell is smoke. See how red my shoes are? Hey! Have youz got any perfume or not?’

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘In my room.’

‘Can I have it?’ she asks.


I sit on the bed. How have I come to be here, useless as a baby, equally reliant, equally incompetent. Equally? Less even?

Mania is initially as seductive as a snort of coke, a first orgasm, a religious epiphany. The world fizzes. And the illness progresses.

One is gripped, vice-like, by irritability and wild risk-taking with money or sex or drugs or alcohol or all four together. One is swallowed up into the guts of a chimera, wherein lie delusions and hallucinations and chaos.

My friend Zoë comes to visit – it’s fantastic to see her and I go round introducing her to everyone.

‘How are you?’ she asks.

‘Who so regardeth dreams is like him that catcheth at a shadow and followeth after the wind. That’s from Ecclesiastes,’ I reply.

‘Right,’ she says. ‘Your cords are on backwards.’

We’re out in the courtyard, smoking. ‘Hah!’ I pull my jeans down and my shirt up and stand for a moment in my underwear, feeling the air move on my breasts and legs.

‘The tax office phoned yesterday,’ I say. ‘They’re developing a kind of new philosophy; it’s to do with how they assess whether people have to pay tax or not, I mean, there’s got to be more to it than just how much you earn, right? Circus performers shouldn’t have to pay tax and I’m going to write the new policy.’

‘Okay,’ says Zoë.

I start pacing, ‘That white cat is invading me.’

‘There’s no cat, Kate.’

‘No? But there are different degrees of light; it’s all about angles and diffraction, so there could be a cat; you just can’t see it.’

Staff walk me inside to Aaron’s consulting room.

‘How are you today?’ he asks.

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘I’m wrinkled with drugs, unplug the firebug or we’ll all go up in flames.’

‘How did you sleep last night?’

‘Queen Mab raped me. Hah! The fairies’ midwife!’

‘Are your thoughts still racing?’

‘I don’t know what they’re doing, ô sales fous ô sales fous ô sales fous ô sales fous—’

Aaron interrupts me, ‘What are you saying?’

‘O filthy lunatics . . . Rimbaud. Yes? No.’

I spend hours in the art room writing columns of words that rise from the page into strange spirit phrases and engulf me—

SPANGLE: A sequined ether, a processional stanza of irises, of the eyes, that part of the eyes that irradiates immortality and hysteria in a single flutter. A BUTTERED FLOWER: all the flare in the udder, the centre, the stanza. As good as a solstice (the tilt of the earth’s axis is . . . ) Effectively a flower dipped in butter, wet-soaking and pure and yellow– my new messiah. The way grace is pure, never fragmentary, sure and always sure of immortality. Purer than white, pure as wine and pasteurised milk. I could take all this now and stuff it into my mercurial mouth and chew it into a myth and then let it ooze into my brain (defying gravity) the way lemon juice flows up into tears and tears flare in the sun and make a prism and all the colours – an eye, a glass (did God know this?) – they belong in the sky.

At least twice a day I burst (literally) into tears like I’ve had a frontal lobotomy, and at least twice a day, for no particular reason, rage rises up through my innards and strangles me about the throat so that I take to stuffing a pillow in my mouth.

This morning words are not to be trusted, their power is omnipresent, they bruise me. Aaron responds by increasing the medication.

A very tall young woman is standing at lunch right in the middle of my personal space.

‘I know you from somewhere,’ she says, staring.

‘Really? Are you a reincarnation?’

‘You’re a spy.’

‘Nope, not today.’

‘You’re a spy!’ she shouts, and suddenly she kicks me, hard, right on the tender-bone of my shin. I never find out her name. By the time my heart slows down, she is marched off by two staff to the High Dependency Unit.

Aaron finds me later, pacing around the courtyard in bare feet.

‘How are you?’ he asks.

if the clock strikes nine times shout the people in my head.

‘If the clock strikes nine times,’ I say.

the head of a swallow shall lie at your feet

‘The head of a swallow shall lie at your feet.’

and your toes will burn slowly

‘And your toes will burn slowly,’

will smoulder black and red

‘Will smoulder black and red,’

the stench of your skin shall never leave you

‘The stench of your skin shall never leave you.’

‘Mmm,’ Aaron says.

‘You can shoot me if you like,’ I say, ‘It won’t matter.’ And then I sit for a moment next to Steve, who has an extraordinary halo of orange hair reaching in spirals into the middle distance. He doesn’t speak to other patients. I watch him put a cigarette between his lips and light it. As he inhales, saliva on his lower lip gets caught by the sun and catches fire.

‘Shining and burning,’ I whisper to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge me.

Nursing staff arrive with my midday syrup.

‘Barukh atah adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam,’ I say, and swallow.

‘Are you Jewish?’ asks the nurse.

‘No, but when I was twenty-four I wanted to –a– play Méditation on the cello, and –b– understand fire. So you see?’

‘Not really,’ she says, frowning.

‘Nerves are blue, nerves are yellow,’ I say.

if you watch your heartbeat you may survive

Someone is singing.

‘I’m so confused.’ I start twisting my head round with my hands; if I twist hard enough, I may be able to wrench it off my neck. Anna finds me thus, sits down beside me and quietly takes both my hands in hers.

‘My eyes are full of glass,’ I tell her. We sit in silence until Steve starts talking out loud to his voices, who appear to be plaguing him. He paces along the end of the courtyard over the spreading shrubs, hands in fists.

‘No!’ he shouts. ‘No!’ The veins in his neck fill and pulse. Sonia, a dual-diagnosis patient (intellectual disability AND mental illness), walks past in a short floral skirt; her naked lower buttocks hang down like paired cauliflower heads.

My boss rings. He is fairly irritated that I disappeared from work without notice. I attempt an explanation, by the people in my head are interfering with my hearing – I pick up every third word he says, in between they shrill – 

asphyxiate decapitate dilate weeeeeeee

Consequently he doesn’t make any sense.

‘You don’t have any leave left,’ he says.

‘I think I’ll resign,’ I say. ‘Yeah, I want to resign. I’m not wasting any more time with work.’

‘That might be best,’ he says.

The birds are singing; such a vivid sound. I’ve become a surge of red, a soul stretched tight, caught and bound by the shadows in the trees, the trees whose green feeds me over and over, whose light crazes skin into a thousand tributaries, like the visions of one, or millions. I walk into the common room where a woman I haven’t seen before is standing quite alone. I lean against a wall and watch her. She holds herself together with her arms and hands that reach tight under her breasts and keep her from fragmenting. The flatness of her eyes stretches on and on and her breath is lifeless air, and her soul, risen to heaven and spurned, has fallen back into her body and burned.

‘Ashes. Dust,’ I say softly and open my mouth wide and eat into my palms.

Two more weeks pass in which everything – person, sky, air, dream, eye – is the most significant entity, the most vital piece of existence on earth. My parents visit, Zoë visits, Tanya and Chris visit. It’s wonderful to see them.

‘What have you been doing?’ they ask.

‘I’ve no idea,’ I answer. ‘Have I been here long?’ My voice is dry and hoarse.

‘I’ve got laryngitis,’ I tell Aaron.

‘No,’ he says, ‘You’ve merely worn your voice out.’ I give him a squashed version of the finger.

My psychologist rings, calm and velvety, and I explain about the white cat and the tax office, the slow burning of toes and how yesterday the saliva on Steve’s lip caught fire which is remarkable, given that saliva isn’t usually flammable.

‘What’s happening about your job?’ she asks.

‘The job? No idea.’

The ward social worker helps me apply for unemployment benefits. The Department of Family and Community Services calls unemployment benefits, labour–market-assistance-related-income-support, which makes me laugh. My handwriting appears on the page wobbly as a snail trail; my eyes flutter among words but refuse to focus.

The day before I’m discharged, my dear friend Deborah picks me up and we drive to a small bluestone church in Fitzroy. The Anglo-Catholic incense – is it Frankincense? Myrrh? It smells like cloves and cardamom. The choir starts to sing Spem in alium . . I have never put my hope in any other but in you. Spem in alium is a motet written for forty voices (forty individual parts) by Thomas Tallis. The choir sings in the round – spaced out along the walls and the front and back of the church so the music passes from north to south and east to west or sometimes south to east to north and then west. Voices like syrup, like black ice reflecting, like autumn and clouds and the dusky sky – love and sorrow and grace and love. The polyphonic sound touches and lips and falls and runs and rises and my body dissolves; I disappear altogether, all there is and all there will ever be is this – this music. Spem in alium nunquam habui præter in te, Deus Israel.

‘Love this music,’ Deborah says when the choir finishes. ‘Love you.’
‘Love this music,’ I say. ‘Love you.’

There is such a shortage of acute psychiatric beds that patients are almost always discharged mildly unwell. Readmission after another crisis in the community is not uncommon. As my father walks with me across the road to his car, I lunge towards the traffic, heady with the possibility of flight or at least of invincibility in the face of collision. My father circumnavigates my right upper arm with both hands and holds on like a python till we’re on the other side.

The floor of my little flat appears to be alive. Piles of books, piles of photographs and magazines look like squat bodies, their heads made of CDs stacked without their cases. There are Chinese incense sticks, pages of writing, notebooks, three atlases – all open, drawings and paintbrushes and cigarettes and empty vodka bottles and spilt red wine. A body made of five astronomy textbooks is next to one of four dictionaries and a King James Bible. The largest of the piles is unopened mail. There are clumps of black words cut out from newspapers and words stuck all over the walls, crookedly. Beneath them is a poster of the Hebrew aleph-bet. There are puddles of candle wax in murky green and pink on the window ledges and splotches of candle wax on the carpet that look like burst fireworks. A silver menorah I have never seen before is balanced on ee cummings’ 73 poems and a copy of the Qur’an. Everything is covered in a fine rain of ash.

The pages of some books are stuck together with nail polish and are thrown out, but the nail polish on the covers of others has advanced in the way of Joan Miró, and must therefore be classed as art. The phone is off and the gas and electricity are off and my father arranges for re-connection and pays the mound of bills.

It takes another five weeks to find my right mind. Initially the Mental Health Team visit every evening to monitor medication and mood. Time re-asserts itself into seconds and minutes and hours, trees are no longer animate in the way of animals,, my speech resumes a normal rate and flow. Most importantly, the manic chaos of thought is filtered by my frontal lobe – flight of ideas and inappropriateness is recognised somewhere in my brain as flight of ideas and inappropriateness. The shine over everything is muted into simple sunlight or shade and the colour of a post box ceases to set my heart racing.

I take the tram to Port Melbourne and walk east along the beach. In places the tide is right up to the stone wall and I splash through early winter water and my shoes leave a momentary impression in the sand. Ah, impermanence. Seagulls call out. The wind is vigorous, there’s sand now in my mouth and hair and sand stuck to the wet ends of my jeans. I keep my mouth shut and breathe and smile at the rawness of it – sea and sky. The light is changing from sharp white to a pensive ivory and though the sea and wind are endlessly shifting, there’s a certain kind of stillness in the repeat of the waves.

Leonardo da Vinci said, ‘Painting declines when aloof from nature.’ I wonder if wellbeing and spirit do too, and so to find some space and time in which to think, I pack the tent and sleeping bag and food for a week and take some leave from work and drive to the Mt Buffalo National Park. Mt Buffalo is alpine country: pink granite, montane forests, woodland, grassy plains and sphagnum moss in bogs. Bushfires roared through last year and skeletonised most of the snow gums; their once beautiful branches are white and cold. Though everything above ground died, the tree roots survived, and new leaves are feathering up the trunks and lower branches – leaves with blue veins and burnt umber seedpods hanging pendulous as breasts, their tiny black seeds shine like patent leather in the sun.

Out on Wild Dog Plain tors and garlands of granite worn by ice and snow and rain open out into meadows of purple and white flowers. The wind breathes through the tall alpine grass shh shh and as it passes my ears, it sounds a little like arterial blood.

Sex is abundant here. Down low in the undergrowth are paired crickets, beetles and ants, sleek lizards and even the abandoned exoskeletons of cicadas, translucent in the sun. Caterpillars are piled one upon another, devouring leaves. I walk with my mouth slightly open, grinning, and swallow a fly, eeee in the back of my throat. Full-bodied dragonflies flit-start-hover over Dickson’s Creek, whose water is here weighed down with algae, further on clear as air. Under the shade of a regenerating snow gum I crouch to the level of everlasting daisies, some great white puffballs of seeds – white parachutes.

My last day on earth may be cloudy. Or the sun may blaze. At the moment of my last breath someone will be born. Someone will discover the poetry of W.H. Auden. Someone will see a bird in the sky for the very first time. Someone will forget milk for the morning coffee.

Nietzsche writes, ‘Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us.’


He continues, ‘Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea—all these speak completely to the heart but once, if in fact they ever do get a chance to speak completely.’

Oh no. No. Every time I go to a live concert and the lights dim there’s that moment of blackness and silence in which I forget to breathe until the first note of the first piece when my heart rushes right out of my chest and gives itself, all of its red beating self, to the musicians and their music. One soul (the composer’s) communing with another (the player’s) communing with another (the listener’s) – alighting together at the same place and point in the universe, an exact moment, thrilling and pure: some might call it divine.

The highest point of the National Park is called The Horn and from here I can see across to the Bogong High Plains and Mt Beauty. I walk down from the summit, off the track, in between the snow gums and unwittingly fall asleep on a soft mound which turns out to be an ants’ nest and when I wake some hours later I’m covered in shiny red ants and the sun is cradled between two branches, one above one below, both in shadow, paying homage.

Day-smell is different from dusk-smell is different from night-smell. Day-smell is warmed eucalyptus oil and mountain tea-tree, candle heath and aromatic alpine baekea. Dusk-smell is thick with native grasses and boronia. Night-smell is the deep cool water of Lake Catani, where the other-side sun is reflecting onto the moon and the moon dribbles light over the still water of the lake and I open my body to it, skin white as the moon.

Flesh, air. A breathing silence.

Meaning. Illness. This thing called life.

Currawongs are the first sound of the morning, followed by flies around the entrance to my tent and the deeper sound of bees. I crawl outside to find a flame robin in a near-by eucalypt. He takes flight. I walk down to the lake for a swim, for the water like silk and the bottom-silt like silk. In front of me, as I glide along, are two wood ducks and the occasional plop! and ripple of a fish. Bright-eyed butterflies, brown and orange like a checkerboard, flicker together just above the surface. On the other side of the lake I look for frogs and cicadas in the alpine bog, but they grow faint and vow silence whenever I come close. So I sit and wait.

By my wet feet is a grass trigger plant with magenta flowers on a long single stalk that turn to slender blood-red seeds at the very top. Then a sudden, low flrrrr –birds’ wings – quite close, I swing around . . . the wind is whispering the leaves and weathered silver branches of the mountain gums.

Back at my tent I eat some fruit and take the lithium and Seroquel and venlafaxine with water and then I write for a while – playing around with words till they start to sing. I pack my backpack and walk – out towards the west edge of the plateau, walk till my calves and thighs are stretched and quietly sore. In the early evening I ease down into the grass and heath, disturbing some grasshoppers, rather ripe-looking and violent green.

In the sky are long streaks of cloud.

Why do I look at a group of yellowgold daisies and lose my breath? Is it that they remind me of the sun? Why do I know they are perfect? I’m not a bee or a bird; I can’t pollinate them. Perhaps it’s the symmetry or perhaps it’s evolutionary. Perhaps it has something to do with Jung’s collective unconscious or is it merely their contrast with the pale alpine grass? The daisies have soft yellow centres with an orange rim. Then the yellowgold petals – six of them, darkest gold at the base, brightest yellow nearest the floret. They couldn’t possibly be more alive. When I sit up, my abdomen is mired with wombat shit. I wonder if wombats ever go mad or if insanity is peculiarly human.

I take off my boots and thick socks and feel the native grass under my feet. It is surprisingly soft. I take off my glasses and listen to the dusk. To my right a kookaburra, rrrlaaah hah hahhah haw, to my left tiny yellow-faced honeyeaters are settling in for the night. They are no bigger than my thumb. They zip from tree to tree, hee ee ee. Crimson rosellas call to one another across the valley. How quickly I’m surrounded by the zing of fat march flies. Why do they bother with me? Is it the warmth of my body? Perhaps as I lie amongst the alpine grass and snow gums they are waiting for the softness of dead flesh in which to lay their larvae. Their wings flutter over my eyelids. I’m waiting for wombats to come up out of their holes into the dusk. I listen and wait. Ah, the moon behind a strand of eucalypts. Moths, dark and flittering against the paler sky.

Once the sun has dipped below the mountain range the march flies leave and the mosquitoes come and the moon rises behind a stand of eucalypts. The smell of dusk air. The moon is each minute brighter. The birds are all quiet now – just the sound of frogs and cicadas and forest bats overhead and the wind shhh through the tops of the trees. Then the kookaburra again rrlaah hah hah haw. Now the stars. First one, then another then another. Blinking, as they do. Then the frogs and cicadas stop, then no wind.

So quiet. Still. A million stars.

Madness is a real world for the many thousands of people who are right now living within it and dying within it. It never apologises. Sometimes it is a shadow, ever present, without regard for the sun. Sometimes it is a well of dark water with no bottom, or a levitation device to the stars. It takes away the rational minds of ordinary people. It takes our hearts, knowing death so well. This world was once my pair of horns, my pair of wings. Now we regard each other with caution and, yes, healthy respect. Both bruised—but very much alive.