The third morning after
I’m at the base of the Brooklyn Hill when my cell phone starts ringing. A private number. Must be the hospital.
Hello, a bright voice emerges. I’m from the mental health team at Wellington Regional Hospital.
The nurse gives me his name. How are you feeling today?
It’s shortly after eleven on the morning of Tuesday the 17th of July 2018, and I feel the gift of an early spring. I have time now, time even to dawdle, to lean on the white-painted railing that borders this street. Beautiful word, dawdle, almost onomatopoeia, like a seesaw going up and down: daw-del, daw-del. A breezy heat zips past my ankles and warms the tips of my ears.
There are extra depths to my senses: the aroma of coffee is as luxurious as its taste, laughter peals like wedding bells, the white duvet bedspread is soft and pliant. The taste of oranges lingers in the mouth and their tartness is as comforting as their sweetness. My wife Helen’s open arms are places of smoothness and want, rather than my life-preservers.
I feel fresh possibility, a power that’s like desperation but rooted in gratitude and hope instead. I want to charge up this hill, seizing the energy that arises from being close to destruction. All things feel conquerable in this season; death itself has fallen.
I’m fine, I tell the nurse. I’m pretty good, I add, sensing I’m not quite doing matters justice.
That’s nice to hear, he replies softly.
From his voice, the nurse is probably around 30, but I picture that he still has the eager eyes of his younger days, his lips and cheeks quick to shape a grin. His calm feels like armour in the face of the hard stories he must listen to, day in and day out. I don’t want to waste his time, this nurse who may or may not be young, though it sounds like he too has a flush of new life, just like everything on this glorious morning.
Silence. Broken only by the whoosh of the occasional car on nearby Aro Street.
Three days ago, I was chronically depressed, trapped inside 116 nights of insomnia. It wasn’t clear whether the insomnia caused the depression, or if the depression caused the insomnia. I’d climb the Brooklyn Hill during my days, trying to shake off the black ink of depression in the bloodstream. Eventually, even my hill climbs weren’t enough to stop me from thinking about ending my problems permanently. Hence the involvement of the Mental Health Team.
Now my depression is gone, lifted away by good sleep. The smallest dose of Olanzapine guides me into a deep night’s sleep, more refreshing than Zopiclone unconsciousness. It took the medical system a few attempts at drugs to find one that worked well for me. But not that many tries, not in the scheme of things.
I’m just calling because it’s routine. To see how you’re going.
Oh, my nurse is worried our silence is annoyance on my part.
Am I annoyed? Yes, but for being reminded of the hard place I’ve come from, when what I most want is to move on.
Ah, but under that desire to move on is a familiar arrogance, sneaking in with the distance from the insomnia. I want to believe that I’m better now. I don’t want to worry about whatever thoughts and behaviours allowed the insomnia to get so firm a grip. Deus ex machina is a phrase I know from my screenwriting days. It means a higher power – a God – saving the day. The answer to the problem doesn’t come from the protagonist, who remains unchanged.
Well, I’ll let you go, the nurse says.
I thank him profusely for his care – once, twice, three times – using him as my stand-in for all the medical system that’s saved me. Then he’s gone.
I put the phone away and stride up the hill. I’ll take it from here.
In the coming days, in the flush of my restored health, I do a lot of things. I buy a new computer. I play a lot of video games. I take on new projects at work. I read up on Greek mythology for a short book I want to write, and then blast out a rough draft.
I sign myself up for a two-day course that Helen wants to go on. It’s on the personal essay. I’m intrigued: how can an essay be personal? Essays at school and university were the opposite of personal; carefully justified arguments that avoided the emotional at all costs.
Lynn Jenner, the course facilitator, asks us to write for 20 minutes on whatever we want. My notebook page is full of questions. I’m uncertain why I’m here and what I want to write about. I’m excited and afraid of writing about certain topics today. Like how bad things got during my insomnia. Like the stability of my new freedom.
After we’re done, Lynn asks us if we’re willing to read out what we’ve written to the group. Red-faced, I read out my section in full. No one recoils. Instead, there’s a quiet embracing of the vulnerability that we are showing each other. Not one of the ten students turns down Lynn’s invitation. That sharing becomes the basis of a trusting and fulfilling class, and the foundation for a writing group where we continue to share our work.
That afternoon, Lynn gives us personal essays to read. When I read an essay by Giovanni Tiso on Wellingtonians and our blasé attitude to earthquakes, I feel recognised. The essay is revealing, it feels honest. There’s a freedom in the author just writing what he wants to, drawing off what he reckons and senses. Tiso doesn’t spare himself either, he knows he is also deluded about how easily the earth can fall away at any time.
I wonder if I could do something similar. Can I write about my life and what has happened to me, about what I love and what I’m still running from? When I walked long and hard enough up the Brooklyn Hill, I’d hit a point where I begged myself to give up. I came to see this moment of greatest resistance was a sign that I’d soon break through to a better state.
Does my inner shame provide the same indication? What I feel most ashamed of may be the important things for me to write about. Perhaps others can relate to my shame. I want to communicate to others; I want to build connection after having been alone in the dark too long. Writing is an act of mutual faith between writer and reader that the gap between us can be bridged. This is what it’s like for me. Is that what it’s like for you too? Even if only for a momentary pause, we are not alone.