Welcome to MENTAL

A collection of stories ON mental health experiences

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“Sleep became something of a rarity. I was too scared to let it take me.”

Cuckoo eyes and flights of fancy

 

Flight 1: Dunedin 1971: Age 7

Ice barnacles crept up the windows of the room I shared with my brother. An old kowhai tree leant against the window, its shadows playing theatre upon the night walls. Bare of its foliage, its cold fingers tapped on the glass asking to enter as the dreams crept in.

I imagined being strapped to a bed in a hospital; locked in a jail cell; lost deep in some dark forest; various places I had not been, places my mind wished to take me. Some kids at school said I was cuckoo, which I took to mean mental. Some things I said were a little strange. I assure you, I didn’t consider myself mental or cuckoo; strange I will accept.    

In the later part of the night, just before dawn, I had this sensation that the blankets were getting heavier, as if someone were pulling down the sides, tightening the straps so I couldn’t escape. I felt a breeze underneath me where no breeze should be. My body wasn't touching the mattress anymore. I was flying for the first time. It seemed the only thing stopping me going up to the roof was the weight of the blankets on top of me, heavier than ever before.

I screamed, waking the whole family as I did. My sister, first to appear, looked in from the hallway, rubbing a sleepy eye. My father ran into the room looking for a fire, a burglar, a tiger in the night, but finding only a boy with wet pajama pants looking at his bed. My brother, peering out from under his blankets, gave me a look I would later come to know as cuckoo eyes. My mother, last to the gathering, tried to calm me down and put a blanket around me. I stood shivering, staring at the bed with mistrust. I was all chicken skin, a thousand little bumps appearing out of nowhere . The chitter chatter of my teeth made it hard to get any words out.

‘Mmm, Mmm, Mum, I was in the air, I was, I was flying.'

‘It was just a dream, dear. Just think of something happy and let’s get you tucked in and back to bed.’    

I knew she didn’t believe me. I hardly believed it myself. I waited for the weight of the blankets to bring warmth. Sleep did not come easily, nor would it for many nights that followed. I would lie staring at the roof wondering if it could keep me in, looking at the window, imagining myself flying out. If I got outside would I be able to fly in the cold night? I visualised a bird with frozen wings spinning out of control, plummeting towards the ground. Sleep became something of a rarity. I was too scared to let it take me. By night I would peek out from my blanket refuge, often seeing my brother peeking back, giving me the cuckoo eyes.

Weeks later spring blossom broke out on gnarled branches of fruit trees outside. The kowhai's ladders of new leaves dulled its nightly scratches to the window. The flights continued, night after night, my body trying to escape to somewhere higher, challenging the might of the blankets which would fight back to keep it down. Each time one of my parents would come in, subduing me with their loving comments, their faces contorted, saying something different. I heard them talking down the end of the hall. They spoke in secret whispers, not quite out of hearing, all words made up of S's.

‘Slet's slope he's going to slrow out of it', eees juss sreaming.’

Truth was, my family of snakes didn’t believe me, so I stopped calling out in the night and telling them things they would not believe. I decided not to tell people my innermost thoughts.

We moved to new houses five times in as many years. There were new rooms, new shadows, and new places my mind could venture to in the dark hours. It also meant five different schools. With each new school, I was the fresh-faced boy in class waiting for a beating. By night I would fly away, making it back by morning. By day I would run from local boys who seemed to be getting bigger and angrier with each new school. I talked to no-one. Eventually we stopped moving around the country, settling into a fibrolite state house in Manurewa next to what looked like pretty lakes at first glance. At first smell, it was obvious this was not what they were.

 

First day flight: Manurewa 1976: Age 11

I received a welcome of angry faces, gruff jeers, and shoulder pushes before making it to class, physically unscathed on my first day at Leabank Primary School. When the lunch bell rang I was off my seat and out the door, determined not to be bully fodder. It was a windy September day.

I ran to the end of the playing field where a small mound marked the boundary. The gale blew into my eyes, tears appearing as I jumped off the top. I was caught by the wind’s ferocity, held in its arms for a few seconds, then thrown onto piles of cut grass over its ledge. I had flown, not just hovered, and I was ecstatic. I tumbled and ran back to go jump again, flying, falling, newly cut grass in the air with me and all over me. I arrived back to class late and all thirty-one heads were facing the teacher when I shouted out ‘I can fly.’

Sixty-two cuckoo eyes turned towards me, grass boy, standing at the door.

I ran from the classroom, out of the school, towards the excrement-filled ponds near our house. Through my tears I sniveled and breathed in the smell of shit, wondering why in hell anyone would ever choose to live here.

In the mornings that followed, I would leave before my brother and sister and walk back around the block, timing it so I could sneak into the house when all my family had left. I spent my days watching soap operas and eating white bread sugar sandwiches. It was the sugar which was my downfall, when my mother noticed the 3lb container empty. This coincided with the night my teacher rang my parents to ask why I had not been to school for the whole of September.

I guess that’s why my parents decided to make the appointment.

 

Ward 12, Princess Mary Children’s Hospital. October 1976: Age 11

I couldn’t understand why I was going to the hospital when I was not sick, but that thought passed when my Pa shoved a bunch of coins into my hand. I tried to estimate how many donuts and sausage rolls I could buy with the mass of coins in my hand, more than I had ever been given before.

‘Treat yourself a nice lunch, KJ,’ Pa said. ‘We will pick you up in the afternoon after your appointment.’

I hid my hands under my legs, swinging my feet back and forth, trying to entertain myself in a waiting room that was cold and pine-smell sterile. Next to me, a boy jammed a finger into his nose and went about turning it around, then put it into his mouth. He never dropped his stare at me, not even to blink.

‘I am Jarrod. My father runs a strip club and drives a MG convertible’. A man next to him, who looked like he might have been his father, frowned. He wore gumboots and a farmer’s checkered red shirt and was swinging a Toyota keyring in his hand.

I looked everywhere except at the boy and the man, then focused in on the door. A small sign said ‘Dr. Angela Nichtmorgan, Clinical Psychologist’. Rumbling noises erupted from my stomach. A whole action movie had started inside it: trains, carriages, horses, and tanks rumbling into town: Cowboys, Indians, Martians, Germans, all in on the attack; a bloody free for all. Superman could not have stopped it. I had never heard such a noise. I looked down the hallway from which I had arrived, devising my escape route, just a little too late.  

‘KJ’, A woman in blue said. I looked away, pretending that was not my name. I looked at the floor, at the roof, back down the escape route and then my eyes misbehaved and looked at her. I stared at her nametag, not even attempting to say her foreign name.

‘You can call me Dr. Nice or just Angela, if that’s easier,’ she said, as if reading my mind.  She had a smile written in crimson lipstick. She didn't look like a doctor. Instead of a white coat she wore a blue suit, all done up tightly, exaggerating her hourglass figure. It was adorned with silver lines of buttons and made her look like an Air Hostess. I pictured her holding a basket of hard lollies saying, ‘suck on one of these, and your ears won't hurt'.

She was talking to me as we walked into her office. All I could hear was my stomach rumbling. There was no couch or desk in the room. Two comfortable chairs faced a window. A small lonely table with books and a jug of water made me instantly thirsty. There was a poster on the wall showing some tropical island where all the people had the biggest smiles and the sun shined all around, making them glow.  We both sat, not quite facing each other, in front of a window that looked out into a park with trees too green. After a few introductory questions, she opened this big book which looked like someone had spilt ink all over it. I watched her lips move as she spoke and realised I liked the Air Hostess. I wished she could fly me away. I could drink from a coconut and swim with the tropical fish. Then she spoke and broke my illusion.

‘Now, KJ. I want you to look at these pictures and tell me what you see.'

She pushed the open black and white book in front of me.

‘I see ink spots', I answered.

‘Yes, very good, but now I want you to consider them and tell me what else you see?'

I looked at her. ‘They are ink spots, that's what I see. I am not stupid, you know.'

‘Yes, they are, and I don't think you are stupid, but can you see anything else?Like birds or caves or anything that comes to mind.'

She is bloody crazy, I thought. She sees things. It's a test, and I will not give in.

I said nothing as she looked at me. I saw a pulsing vein next to her left eye, making her look less pretty. She asked me again, turning the question, trying to get me to say that I saw something that wasn't there. Maybe she was not a doctor. She didn’t look like one. I didn’t want to look at her face so I concentrated on her waist which seemed too thin and made her breasts look like they were jumping out for attention. Maybe she should eat more, I thought; surely a doctor would look after herself better. Her red lips no longer invited me in; they were downturned at the ends. Something on the poster on the wall caught my eye. A dark gray cloud in the bluest sky. How had I missed that before?

‘KJ, are you listening to me?  If you’re not going to answer my questions, can you wait in the waiting room?’

Then the appointment was over. I sat in a chair in the waiting room, counting through the change my father had left me. Looking up, I saw him talking to the doctor at the nurse’s station. He held a plastic bag full of my clothes and was standing under a large Admissions sign.

I remember the last thing he said before leaving. ‘You know we love you KJ.’

I wanted to say, but never did -

‘Then why are you leaving me here?’

 


If the content on this website is distressing or triggering, or, if you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, we have provided in contact details below for you to speak with a professional. If you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call the police immediately on 111.

• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor (available 24/7)
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
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• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757


 

“There is strength in vulnerability.”

“I was crafty with my trouble making.”