So Much to Tell You* (Hi from the psych hospital. No really.)

First up: if this post raises any concerns for you please, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or if you’re a young adult you can visit www.headspace.org.au

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Hey people. It’s been a really long time. It’s been a long time since I met any readers, visited a high school or did a festival. I have three books sitting on a desk in my hospital room. I wrote them all. My name is on the cover. I have them here to remind me what my mind is capable of because  none of the author stuff – the festivals, the workshops, even the actual writing – feels real anymore. But I must have done it, because there those books are, on my desk as well as on shelves in people’s homes and bookshops. (Forgive me if my sentences are a little clunky, there are a lot of meds doing a lot of funny things in my brain right now.)  The Protected  even won The Prime Minister’s literary award, the CBCA Book of the Year, the Victorian Premier’s Award and the WA Premier’s Book Prize! That’s a lot. And it’s a bloody great height to fall from, but here we are. Or here I am.

Early one Friday morning in July I was in the car on the way to do a school visit when I got a sudden sharp achy pain in my chest and found I couldn’t breathe properly. This was accompanied by a strange liquidy hot swooshing sensation that flooded my chest, limbs and brain.  At first I thought I must have drunk my coffee too quickly. It had been such a long time since I’d had any issues with anxiety that it took me a while to realise it was a rather acute panic attack. I started to cry, consumed with the most potent terror imaginable. I pulled over. I breathed slowly and deeply. I waited for it to pass, drove to the school, did three talks on auto-pilot and a (hopefully) convincing impression of someone who is completely mentally sound. (I’ve had a lot of practice at that. I don’t know if that’s the right spelling of the word ‘practice’ in this context. I don’t care.)

I came home, had pizza and watched TV. I looked forward to the next day. But the next morning, and the morning after that, the panic was back: a great snarling black monster squirming through my body squeezing my chest and turning all the lights out in my mind.

Initially my doctor chalked it up to exhaustion. That didn’t really make sense to me because in the weeks leading up to this point I had felt better than I think I ever have in my whole life. I was super motivated, I was writing lots, drawing and painting lots, and had become very, very enthusiastic about house plants. I really wanted to believe it was exhaustion. That meant I just needed to rest and I would be sweet.

I rested. I rested really hardcore. But it didn’t make any difference. I’d have a week or so of classic anxiety, panic attacks, then sobbing and hideous depression; only for it to lift as suddenly as it had started and I’d go back feeling totally fine. This went on, up and down through July , August and September like the most hideous, poorly designed and possibly deadly rollercoaster you can imagine. (My simile game is weak at the moment, forgive me.)  Every time I thought I had come good and the glitch in my system had passed, it would bowl me over again.

I had to pull out of Byron Bay Writer’s festival. I had to cancel school visits and all my bookings for Book Week. That was the worst. I hate letting people down. I hate pulling out of commitments. I got an email from a devastated reader who had been looking forward to seeing me in Byron. I cried while I read it. I’ve been composing something in reply over and over in my head ever since, but I can’t get the words right. I like to get the words right. It’s kind of my job.

We thought maybe it was a series of viruses. We thought maybe it was something to do with meds. (Which I have taken diligently for years and up until now have served me very well.) My doc ran tests. Maybe it was my thyroid. Maybe it was diabetes. Maybe it was a brain tumour!

The MRI showed no tumour, which was good. But I longed for an answer.

(My GP, I should add, is amazing. But it’s hard to diagnose the bizarre array of symptoms I was experiencing. I was also in complete denial that it was anything wrong with my mental health, it was far more appealing for me to believe (and insist) that this was something that had gone physically wrong in my body.)

I did make it to Melbourne Writers’ Festival where I did my sessions in a daze, signed books on auto-pilot then went back to the hotel, curled in a ball and wailed. Like really ugly snotty crying, not at all dignified or glamorous; even though it was the Sofitel, which is a really, really fancy place.

I went on a European holiday with my husband and sons. We used a bit of the prize money from The Protected to go to Amsterdam, Berlin and Italy. We had some really fun times. I also had some of the absolute worst times I’d ever experienced – it’s a very special thing to have a prolonged panic/anxiety attack in the Van Gough museum while looking at the paintings poor bloody Vincent did when he was losing his own mind.

About ten days ago the rollercoaster threw me off and I was left crumpled on the floor. I couldn’t battle it anymore. I couldn’t do anything except cry and think horrible, catastrophic thoughts. All the lights went out.

So here I am in a psychiatric hospital. God has been very gracious and kind to me. If I hadn’t won those prizes I wouldn’t have been able to afford it and trust me, anyone who has ever been in a public psych ward knows you need years of therapy to get over the experience of being in a public psych ward. This hospital is a really nice one, it has good food, a gym and wifi. It is staffed with kind people who are skilled in caring for those of us who have had a run in with a rollercoaster. (That metaphor really is all I got right now, apologies.)

I’m okay. The word ‘bipolar’ is being used and that’s scary, but it’s an answer to the truly baffling experience that has been my life since July. Also, Stephen Fry has bipolar and he seems to be managing, right? I mean, the constant reruns of QI are excruciating, but I would like to have him to a dinner party. (Him and Jesus. And Truman Capote. And Rob Brydon. And Felicty Ward.)

The main reason I am writing this post (which is the only thing I have written since July) is because it’s really super important to break the stigma about mental illness. It’s very easy when you’re really down or anxious to think that everyone else in the world has it together and you are the only one not coping and therefore there is no way out for you. Do I need to list the awards again? (I don’t mind, really.) This shit can happen to anyone. Talk about it. If you are feeling like you’ve been thrown off the rollercoaster (Oh yeah, I’m still flogging that one.) tell someone. If they don’t take you seriously, tell someone else. Tell your parents, a sibling, a teacher, a friend, your doctor, or that weird aunt with a lot of house plants. Speak up. They won’t think you’re a drama queen, a freak, a nut job, or weak. They will think you are human.

Claire x

*Title is a homage to one of the writers who made me want to be a writer, John Marsden. I tried ‘Looking for Claire Zorn’ in honour of Melina Marchetta but it didn’t have the same ring to it.