Content warning: deals with suicide and depression.
If you drive down what was once ‘the old coast road’ that winds through the unravelling neo-suburbia of Cockburn, shadowed by McMansions and signs offering community and garage space, then on past the hold-outs of Hamilton Hill’s light-industrial district, and you glide to a stop at the traffic lights beside the old car wash that signals the entry point to South Fremantle, you’d have driven a rough reversal of the route C.Y. O’Connor took on 10 March 1902 when he rode his horse into the Indian Ocean and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
I often make this drive in the summer, when my depression descends on me with the same purple-pink hue of the sunset. I tell myself that C.Y. O’Connor gave himself until March, and I’ll do the same.
I’ve written before about depression being the antithesis of the myths whirring at the core of the Australian identity. It runs counter to the static golden boys and girls who sit empty and sun dried in the national imagination. This travels beyond our own borders. When I was in New York last December, my description of a ‘depressive Australian’ sounded more like a half-aborted lift pitch for a rightly maligned SNL character. To my bundled, polar vortex–surviving Yankee mates, the notion of depression reclining on a deck chair within spitting distance of a pristine Australian beach wasn’t just disturbing, it was downright insulting. (But if our sinks drain in the opposite direction, why not our happiness?)
For me, however, it’s like our toilets flushing in the opposite direction. My Seasonal Affective Disorder—or to put it bluntly my bipolar swings—lands in the summertime like a tennis ball against a wheelie bin in a game of backyard cricket.
And the suicidal spiral arrives on the legspin. The gap between the possibilities of a summer in a place as gently picturesque as Fremantle and the fuzzy realities of nights spent staring blankly at Gumtree listings for missing pet Weiros or walking numbly from your therapist’s office to your ex’s to pick up your laptop charger is a gap made even wider by the distinctly Australian pressure to make summer ‘fun’.
For me that pressure coalesces with kaleidoscopic seasonal flashbacks that meld together with the shifting anxieties of adulthood, chronic illness and day drinking, and sets in motion an urgency that can be as paralysing as it is kinetic. The blast of guilt that follows New Year—the guilt of losing another year to madness, to a shiftless untenable ‘self’—is one that can drag you into a tide of anhedonic despair at a time when you (wrongly or rightly) believe everyone around you to be in a constant state of fun and growth.
My mania tends to emerge as my mind’s way of making up distance in this invisible relay that seems to have no other runners. When I look back at all the worst incidences of madness, self-sabotage and cataclysm in my life, I look back at a slideshow of summers wherein I’m as cocksure as I am gin-brained and wild with sadness. I take on the duel roles of arsonist and undertaker: burning up fresh selves while making way for the new dead. I have tried to reframe that narrative by placing it in its uniquely Australian context, be that in landscape, light or art.
In Fremantle we call the afternoon sea breeze the ‘Freo doctor’ (because it’s a lifesaver on a hot day). In the summer the smoke from various bushfires squats over the horizon like an indecisive storm cloud. The ‘Freo doctor’ rinses the smoke in and out of the town—a smoggy swell of immolated tuarts, gums and wattle. I try to place the devastation of Western Australia’s bushfires in a larger role as a force of renewal and rebirth. The pink sunsets hit the smog and turn the light a distinct mauve that has the quality of a Vaporwave aesthetics filter on a thirst-trap profile picture.
If I can centre my depression within this grander narrative of death and rebirth, I can steer it back into its system of loops and cycles—ones that aren’t great but don’t come to any sudden violent ends.
I search for the intersection of my humid melancholia in art. Said Vaporwave—with its darkly nostalgic simulation of 1980s California and Miami, poolside antipathy, and daytime programming—connects perfectly with Perth’s brutalist architecture, Quaalude pace and leaded blue/pink light. I reread the words of John Fante: ‘Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there’s a God in heaven.’ I think about Martin Prince standing naked in the wreckage of his pool singing ‘The Summer Wind’.
Life, friends, is boring. But sometimes it’s okay to be ‘heavy bored’. The gummy miasma that surrounds us down kids in the nation’s sunnier months is nothing to feel ashamed of. The disconnect between being numb while also sinking tins in thongs at a beachside barbecue isn’t one that should feel incongruous to being Australian. Depression finds your bones in the heat as much as it does in the biting cold—to sweat is only natural.
There is a statue of C.Y. O’Connor in the act of committing suicide at the beach where he did it. It sits a bit out into the surf, lapped at by the waves and unremarked upon by indifferent or ignorant beachgoers. At the time of writing, it has just been defaced: O’Connor sawed off from the torso up, the half of the statue that caught the sun and glinted with wet brown bronze frozen in that instant before an action that can always be put off until next March, or the one after.
Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian based in Fremantle, Western Australia. He tries to turn his manic hyper-focus into publishable guff so he can buy vintage Pokémon caps. See his work at www.patrickmarlborough.com