Depression doesn’t run in my family: it crawls on all fours from the bed to the bathroom at 4 a.m.
My father—who spends his life moving between prisons, psychiatric wards and homes for alcoholic men—has been depressed for a very long time. My brother, too. I have depression in common with them, not much else. They are depressed and criminal, and I am sometimes one of these things, but never the other.
I speak to my father once or twice a year, or I speak to the people who look after him: doctors, prison warders and welfare workers. I haven’t spoken to my brother—who is awaiting trial again—for eight years.
ANTIDEPRESSANTS AND BANANAS
My father has been taking the same antidepressant for about fifteen years and on this medication he can’t eat certain foods, including bananas. He says he never liked them much anyway: ‘a horrible fruit’.
I couldn’t take Parnate, since I eat bananas every day. There were days—when my depression was at its worst—when bananas were the only food I could eat at all.
Perhaps it was something about the way bananas can be broken into small and manageable parts, the lack of preparation or chewing involved.
Perhaps it was because my mother and stepfather used to buy bananas in a bunch on Saturday and then lock them in their bedroom and ration them: one banana per day, per child.
I remember seeing my mother with a bunch of green bananas in one hand, the keys to the padlock in the other, and as I stood outside her bedroom door, I wondered if keeping bananas behind lock and key was really a sane thing to do.
During the worst of my depression, I was often unable to move, unable to get out of bed, ‘too sad to live, too curious to die’.
I don’t know who said that. Somebody interviewed by Michael Parkinson once. All I know is that I wrote it down in the diary I kept while I was in Larundel, for one strange night and day in 1994. It was not my first visit there.
THE BIN IN BUNDOORA
I came home from school one summer’s day in 1982 and found my father lying on the kitchen floor next to the fridge. He was wearing his pyjama bottoms and a white singlet.
There was an empty packet of Serepax on the floor next to his arm, like a business card: While you were out, Serepax called by. I stood over him and wondered whether he was dead yet. I made Vegemite on toast. When my mother came home from work she said, ‘I’m going to call an ambulance.’
I wondered whether talking about calling an ambulance rather than just getting on with the job of calling an ambulance meant that she was thinking the same thing: that we should leave him on the floor to die.
‘O Mary mother of God,’ said my mother over and over again, staring down at his still, non-violent body. My hopes were raised.
‘Maybe we should just leave him,’ I said, and I think by saying this I blew it. I turned what was a mutual, unexpressed desire into something criminal and premeditated.
‘Oh no,’ she cried. ‘God forgive you! We can’t just leave him.’ ‘Why not?’
‘Because he’s your father.’
‘Oh,’ said I. ‘I thought he was a fucking hopeless alcoholic.’
The ambulance came, my father was carried away on a stretcher and his stomach was pumped at the Moorabbin Hospital.
‘The specialist asked your Da to stand up,’ said my mother, ‘And when he stood up the specialist punched him in the liver and your Da collasped.’
‘Collapsed,’ I said. ‘Not collasped.’
My mother’s inability to pronounce any word with more than two syllables concerned me more than my father’s suicide attempt.
The specialist sent my father off to Larundel, a psychiatric hospital that has since closed down. Larundel wasn’t the first bin my father had stayed in. He’d spent a while in Greswell and before that he’d spent a few nights in lock-ups in Ireland.
He didn’t want to go, but since he was so sick that he couldn’t eat—even a cup of milky tea went straight through him—he reluctantly packed his little brown suitcase and got into a taxi.
A MANSION WITH COKE MACHINES
By public transport, it took us two hours to travel to Larundel, but we made the journey to visit him every Saturday. I was thirteen years old and used to naught but poverty and chaos. As far as I was concerned, Larundel was a million-dollar mansion set in huge grounds, with Coke machines in the corridors and free food for everybody.
While my mother cried, and pursed her lips, and shook her head, I wandered the wards and loved every bit of what I saw. I would like to live here, I thought. A big, clean, mostly white place, with table-tennis tables.
We sat with my father in the common room, but since he wasn’t in the mood for talking—he only talked when he was drunk, and since he loved to talk, he had spent most of his life drunk—we watched the big television in the corner.
‘So how are you?’ my mother asked my father.
‘I hate this madhouse,’ he said and we looked, as he did, at the packed suitcase by his feet.
An hour or so before dinnertime, a nurse wheeled a trolley into the middle of the room and the inmates, all of them men in this ward, formed a neat queue to receive their medication.
I liked this queue in the same way I liked the queues for communion in church—expectant people with tongues or hands held out for the small wafer to make them feel better—and I liked it that most of the cure was in the queuing for it.
How I wanted to stand in that line of men and how I admired that trolley! It was waist high and had four layers, and each layer housed hundreds of small white plastic cups, with the names of patients written on them. I stood up to take a closer look and my mother told me to sit.
‘Why should I?’ I said.
The trolley and its cargo fascinated me; its super world of organisation; its doll-house perfection; its hotel-room-like compartments; the multicoloured pills in those cups parked in neat rows like new cars in a car park.
I’d stolen and swallowed fistfuls of my mother’s Valium several times before and knew all about the oblivion promised by these pills. I wanted some.
The nurse called my father’s name and he waved her away. I wanted to jump forward and offer to take the pills for him. I wanted to say, ‘Let me stay here and send him home. He doesn’t deserve to be here.’
As well as cleanliness and order, Larundel represented hope and community, and above all else it signified being looked after, being cared for by doctors and nurses, people who knew what they were doing and how to do it. So I paid no attention to the fact that its inmates were mostly miserable and psychotic men with no homes, or homes that no longer welcomed them.
I liked Larundel for its friendly staff, its vending machines, its smell of disinfectant, its closed doors without signs, its chapel, and its thousands of white beds made as tight as tablets, but I couldn’t have known that about ten years later I’d be back.
NOT LISTENING TO PROZAC
I was studying law at Melbourne University and for most of the decade since my first visit to Larundel I had found ways to manage, or mask, my ever-worsening depression: alcohol, sedatives, dope, and ever other kind of unhelpful self-medication.
My biggest and most obvious symptom was insomnia. I also suffered from panic attacks—a kind name for a set of symptoms that make sufferers feel like they are dying of a massive coronary. And although I thought I wanted to die, I didn’t want to do it by panic attack. And so I sought the help of antidepressants.
A few months later, I was in a taxi on my way to Larundel.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the drugs I had been prescribed—Prozac and Efexor. I know many people who have been saved by them. But they were absolutely the wrong drugs for me. Instead of alleviating my symptoms (hyper-vigilance, sleeplessness, dysphoria and panic) they exacerbated every one.
I sat up through the night, every night, sweating profusely, convinced that I would die. I couldn’t eat and couldn’t think straight. After one particularly nasty episode of panic I took a fistful of sleeping pills, and when I could feel the approach of ‘the anaesthesia from which none come round’ I called myself a taxi.
The doctor at St Vincent’s called Larundel and booked me a room.
THE CUPBOARD OF CLOTHES
I felt happier as soon as I walked through the doors of my ward. It was 2 a.m.
Being admitted took about an hour. Two doctors and a nurse interviewed me, and then I was shown to my room. It was small and rectangular, neat and clean, and the bed was made like a hospital bed should be.
I had nothing to wear to bed so one of the staff, a friendly fat woman with long red hair, showed me to the clothes cupboard.
‘Take anything you’d like out of here,’ she said, as she put her hand on my arm. How happy this made me. I loved free things and I especially loved other people’s clothes. When somebody lent me a jumper or a pair of gloves on a cold night, I found it nearly impossible to return them. Other people’s things were always infinitely better than mine.
I saw a pair of pyjamas I liked the look of, and a pink bra. I took them out and held them up.
‘Can I have these?’ I asked.
She smiled. ‘If you like.’
I was, of course, still heavily sedated and slept very well in my narrow hospital bed.
THE BOY WHO STARED AT THE WALL
The next morning seemed to me one of the brightest and gentlest I had seen in a long time. All of what I had loved about Larundel the first time seemed present: its order and size, its vast grounds, free food and white rooms.
After breakfast, and after queuing up for the morning meds trolley, I took my first sober look around.
There was a beautiful boy, dark-haired and long-limbed. He was seventeen at most, perhaps as young as fifteen.
He sat in the big common room in a chair that faced the wall at the end of the room closest to the door. He was the first person I saw when I walked through, on my way outside to the courtyard. I smiled at him as I went by, and felt sure that he would smile back. But he stared at the wall and seemed not to notice me.
I went outside and had my cigarettes. I talked to some of the other patients who stood in a group around enormous ashtrays filled with sand. Most of them were schizophrenics who talked the way I imagine Munchausen’s syndrome sufferers might: incessantly, and with relish, about the state of their illness, their medications, and medical procedures.
And they laughed and helped each other out.
I could see the boy who stared at the wall through the glass and I felt awful for him. I went back inside and smiled at him some more. He stared. I quit smiling and sat down by him.
‘Hello,’ I said.
He stared at the wall.
I felt not sorry for him then, rather, impressed by his capacity to sit so still. I was in awe of his ability to stare so long, so unblinking, so sure of his pain, so utterly unwell, so completely miserable, so out of the world, so totally sore, so far gone.
He was the real thing. He was out of this.
I stood up. ‘Good luck,’ I said, dumbly. I was an amateur; just passing through. I went to the desk and checked myself out. It was beginning to get dark outside.
My depression is under control now, and I’ve been seeing the same, wonderful psychiatrist for seven years. I take an antidepressant, one that treats insomnia particularly well, and I am more up than down, more happy than sad, more good than bad.
I often wonder what happened to the people who lived in Larundel.
Where do they go now when they need a community of people a bit like them and some looking after? What happened to the trolleys that delivered their pills and the clothes in that cupboard?
So many babies, so little bathwater.