It wasn’t long after I finished my typewritten novel that I started experiencing panic attacks.
The first one woke me in the middle of the night, terrifying me, and leaving me seething with anxiety. I was sure something had broken inside my head.
I thought the anxiety would run it’s course, the way a cold would, but it remained omnipresent. The nights became a horror; I dreaded the quiet, where the anxiety could just spill out into the emptiness. But, conversely, sleep brought the only refuge.
Finally, I decided I needed to see a GP – just not my GP, who knew my parents well. I didn’t want to risk anybody finding out about this. It seemed so shameful. Surely this could be taken care of confidentially, and nobody ever needed to know.
I walked a couple of kilometres to a clinic I’d never visited and explained what had happened to the GP. He suggested the problem was that for years, I’d had this structure about my life: get up, write, go to bed, have something to look forward to. Now that I had finished my book, there was a vacuum. He prescribed me sleeping pills, hoping that if I could reinforce a routine, things would fall back into place.
I had no idea what to do with the novel itself, though. There was no internet to research publishers. The book, The Writers Marketplace, would not come into existence for another eight years. I had no network I could rely upon to inform me. All I had were the Yellow Pages and the White Pages, and they weren’t exactly a viable resource for a specialty such a publishing.
I fumbled around, unsure what to do, other than to give my book around to people to read it. This was also a typewritten draft, so only one copy existed. It went through one of my brothers, my cousins, and then one of my cousins passed it onto a close friend who was a fantasy enthusiast.
But the mental health symptoms escalated. A byproduct of the sleeping pills was that they knocked out the anxiety, which was great for a few days. But then new things kicked in. I developed horrific tension headaches, where it felt like my sanity was a rope stretched taut, ready to snap.
Then there was a sense of losing myself, like I would slip into delusion and think I was something I wasn’t – some famous and wealthy author. It was a fear I couldn’t get out of my head. I had to repeat to myself (inside my head) who I was to reassure myself I was still in touch with reality. It was temporary relief, but then I’d have to do it all over.
One Sunday, panic attack after panic attack hit me, and finally I had to tell my parents. They brought me to Preston and Northcote Community Hospital (aka PANCH) where, eventually, a doctor prescribed me mild sedatives, and made me an appointment to see their psychiatrist a few weeks later.
Of course, this is the public health system: we’ll fix you – eventually.
The appointments with the psychiatrist were periodic check-ins – sometimes I felt okay, other times I struggled with anxiety; then, the something new crept in: depersonalization, where I felt as things around me weren’t real, or as if I wasn’t real. I could look at a wall and wonder if it was actually there.
There’s a scene in my YA novel, This (which is hugely autobiographical, and you should read if you haven’t) where a psychiatrist tells the 16-year-old protagonist that he’s heading for a nervous breakdown. I was worried readers would find that unrealistic. But that’s exactly what this psychiatrist told me.
He asked me whether I heard voices – which isn’t a symptom of neurosis, but psychosis; he said I was losing touch with reality, which was a common issue with writers (well, that’s what he told me). He said I should give up writing for a year and suggested I should get work on a fishing trawler. Then he prescribed me a different sedative (Mellaril, which is prescribed for schizophrenia, or for anxiety resistant to common meds, although I didn’t know any of this).
That night, when I returned from his appointment, I went home, took the map down from my wall, folded it, and put it away, and then packed away my typewriter. It was like Batman packing up the Batcave.
Everything I knew, everything I was, everything I lived for, needed to go.