I have schizophrenia of the paranoid variety. I write about it quite a lot, both directly from my experience and not. The title story of my second short story collection was called ‘Walking’. It was about me walking out of the psych ward at The Alfred hospital going to my new accommodation at a boarding house in St Kilda. It was a scary day, given that the CAT team had intervened in my life six weeks earlier to put me in the ward. I didn’t go gently into the good night, but I went. I was in the high-risk ward, doped to the eyeballs for the first three days until I was integrated into the main population of the ward.
When I went in, a CAT team guy either side of me, they ripped my belt off, dropped my jeans down below my arse and shoved a needle in while I was shouting for them to tell me where my brother was. I hadn’t started writing at this point in my life. I was around forty-three or forty-four. Yeah, it’s never too late. I had the stories in my head. Hell, I’d had the stories in my head since the early 1980s when I was in my twenties – I just hadn’t done anything about it. I’m not talking about the voices in my head, just the stories.
My first ever published short story was about a day at the St Kilda Festival where I variously lost my shit and got it back together a few times. Smoking weed didn’t help at the time. The story I wrote was called ‘Spin Out’ and it was the first story in my first short story collection, ‘My Town’. It had also been published in New Zealand literary magazine ‘Bravado’. It was based in truth, as was ‘Walking’. Some things happened; some things didn’t. I embellished – that’s what writers do. I added and I took away. Just because something happened doesn’t make it a great story. Maybe it had a big impact on you, but be careful: it might not have a big impact on others. It might not be a big deal to them. I learnt this from crime writer Garry Disher. It’s in his book ‘Writing Fiction’.
Back before these stories were published I often worked as a night manager in hotels, motels and everything in between and outside of. Places like the YMCA in Darwin. Or a tiny motel on Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, that was right in the thick of the action there. I worked at night because I liked working alone. It was the late 1990s and I had just started to get diagnosed. Doctors and a psychiatrist were still trying to figure what was wrong with me. Mostly it came down to paranoid schizophrenia with some bipolar action going on as well. I took meds. I survived.
Sometimes I get so high and happy on life I have to keep telling myself to calm down, calm down and, you know, it’s topsy turvy all the time. Back then, not so much. It is funny with schizophrenia – I like being on my own, working on my own because I have problems working with others; but I want to be around people too, so, of course, Kings Cross was designed for this. It was full of action from 10pm to dawn and a whole world of stories and characters and tragedy was right outside my motel door. I took notice. I made mental notes but still I wasn’t writing anything back then. The stories were only in my head. I guess what I’m saying is working at night was a drag, the hours were awful and sleeping during the day was difficult and I had issues with my mental health and I was smoking too many cigarettes and joints but it gave me all these stories and characters to work with. Maybe if you’re going through a bad patch you can think about this and write about it straightaway, unlike I did. If you have a severe mental illness then you live in a different world to most people and you should write about it.
I mentioned that after leaving the psych ward at The Alfred I was going to live in a boarding house in St Kilda. It had been arranged by the social worker. This was scary too because most people who live in boarding houses in St Kilda have issues, like I did. I was nervous as hell the first night but it was generally a quiet place and twice the CAT team guys came around to see me. The CAT guys were big, and a little scary-looking, so I’m sure it got me some grace from some of the other tenants. The CAT guys made a point of saying, very loudly, ‘everything alright here, nobody giving you any hassles?’ It made me walk a little taller and sleep a little better.
I’ve been in a psych ward two other times. Both times were not at The Alfred and were initially a little scarier. It somehow was a tougher environment. The staff and the patients were a little harder, a little tougher than the previous time. These wards are not so different from the real world. Like a microcosm of life, if you like. You must work out who you can trust; the staff and the patients. At one stage a nurse told me he was going to tell the doctors and other staff I was taking drugs. He said this to me minutes before there was to be a meeting between myself and the doctors and some nurses to see whether I was ready to be released. He said this to me because we were having an argument about something, and, yeah, I don’t know how serious he was but it scared me. He was abusing his power.
Having said that, nearly every other nurse or doctor I encountered was amazing. Some of the things they put up with were shocking and their patience is severely tested. Once in The Alfred this girl got a jug of boiling water and started screaming that she was going to pour it over her head and it really felt like she was going to do it. A nurse talked her down.
What finally made me start to write about all this stuff and all the other places and things I had been to and seen? I don’t really know, but when I started it was like Niagara Falls – the words came cascading out time and time again. I was working again as a night manager, this time at a real dump of a place in South Yarra. And I just started writing that story about the day at the St Kilda Festival, and it was crazy good fun. I was sort of laughing when I wrote it, like ‘this is so much fun’. I have no idea why I sent it to that small literary magazine in New Zealand. But I’m so glad I did. Writing has saved my life.
About Sean O’Leary
Sean has published two short story collections, ‘My Town’ and ‘Walking’. He has twice been shortlisted for the Booranga Fiction Prize, in 2015 and 2016. His novella ‘Drifting’ was the winner of the Busybird Publishing Great Novella Search 2016 and published in September 2017. His interviews with crime fiction authors appear in UK magazine ‘Crime Time’. His story ‘Fremantle’ was recently shortlisted for the 2018 Daylesford Words in Winter Award.
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