Low as linoleum

Originally posted on Shit on my hands, September, 2015. This post was the basis for an article I later published in Kill Your Darlings about how teenage girls use creativity to address symptoms of mental illness or trauma.

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Me on New Years Eve, 1993

In 1993 I was a fifteen-year-old student at an expensive girls’ private school in bayside Melbourne. I had a new nose stud (covered by a tiny cut-up piece of band-aid during the school day which was summarily ripped off on the bus ride home), long blue-black hair courtesy of a Clairol home dye kit, a checked flanny, and an unhealthy obsession with Mike Patton from Faith No More. I had some good friends at school, but I was far more impressed by my best friend Ellie and her gang at the local high school. I believed myself to have strong eye for ‘cool’, and my classmates – with their brown blazers, blonde ponytails embellished with shiny green ribbons, wealthy parents and extensive orthodontics – did not cut it. Ellie’s mates, however, lived with single mothers with secret stashes of pot shoved behind the toilet cistern. Ellie’s friends had behavioural problems – like pyromania or compulsive bicycle kleptomania. And some of Ellie’s friends had failed year eight. As I said, cool.

Between 1992 and 93, Ellie and I sampled the entire cigarette display of the Hawthorn Road milk bar. We’d make our purchase of Gitanes, Winnie Reds, Kents or Camel non-filters, saunter over North Road to the Brighton Cemetery, insolently plonk on a grave, puff away, and practice NWA’s ‘Just don’t bite it’ until we had the misogynistic dick-centric lyrics perfected. We encouraged each other to go too far with boys, stole gold coins from our parents to buy cask wine, and conducted ‘sessions’ in my Dad’s shed. Sometimes the deals scored from an interchanging parade of doofuses in baseball caps and Stüssy pants outside the 7-Eleven or a Bentleigh park contained actual marijuana, but just as often, dried parsley.

One day Ellie and I bought matching pairs of gingham print bikinis at a Glenhuntly Road swimwear shop: hers pink, mine black. From there we went directly by bus to Elwood Beach, where we lay on our towels, and listened to Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ album on my Walkman through shared earplugs. Our new togs, to our dismay, mercilessly wedged our bums the instant we started the short trek from our towels to the shoreline. At some point we shuffled awkwardly to the Mr Whippy van for strawberry soft serves. For a couple of dudes walking past, the sight us girls constantly tugging at our matching bikini bottoms while licking pink ice-cream proved too alluring to ignore. They were Jim and Liam, visiting Elwood from the other side of the world – Reservoir. To us south-east suburban lasses, these guys were as exotic as Brazilian Indigo Macaws.

I had an ultra-brief fling with Liam, and Ellie cheated on her boyfriend with Jim. Then, from the passenger seat of his 1986 Corolla, I watched Jim be given the bad news: Ellie wouldn’t be choosing him over her long-term beau. Jim plodded despondently back to the car, climbed in, turned to me and declared, ‘Let’s get munted.’ I’ve spent the next twenty-two years wishing I’d responded, ‘No thank you, please drop me off home so that I may get a good night’s sleep and continue my reasonably stable adolescence.’ Regrettably, I instead said ‘Hell yeah!’

We crossed the Yarra. Jim had a sister called Ria with a flat in Thornbury. That is where he hid from his parents all his drinking, choofing, and hanging-out-with-goth-lite-girls-from-Brighton. He prepared the cones. As I alluded to earlier, I was more familiar with the parsley-to-weak-leaf end of the marijuana spectrum. What Jim packed into his bong that night was firmly at the superskunk end. I spent the rest of the night flailing nauseously in Ria’s bed, desperate for relief from the feeling of hurtling backwards through a space continuum, and whimpering for my mum. Generally, having a shit time. Meanwhile, Ria consoled Jim over his understandable misery of having been given the flick by the luminescent Ellie. Somehow I eventually slept.

The next morning I was so relieved to have survived that I celebrated with a bowl of chicken flavoured two-minute noodles in front of ‘Recovery’, said my goodbyes to Ria and desolate Jim, and hopped on a train at Croxton station. Ten minutes later the previous night’s nausea and terror re-struck. I was trapped on a train with no way out, certain I was about to explosively hurl green-hued two-minute noodles over myself. I made it to Clifton Hill, staggered through the sliding doors, collapsed on a bench and took a bunch of deep spew-repelling breaths. By the time the next train came I felt better and gingerly climbed aboard. But all the way to Flinders Street and onwards to Gardenvale station, I was shattered – not just by the sickness, but the panic I had felt that I so nearly disgustingly humiliated myself in front of a carriage full of Saturday morning train commuters.

The following Monday I felt too much residual biliousness to go to the school. And the next day, and the next day, and the next week, and the next month. I felt so crook I couldn’t get out of bed. The very thought of putting on my brown tights and t-bars, getting on the bus, walking through the wrought iron school gates, made my heart race and my stomach lurch. The family GP ruled out pregnancy and referred me to a stomach specialist. Neither apparently considered that I was experiencing the symptoms of anxiety. Nor did my parents. Mum and Dad were frustrated by my sudden school-refusal, by my inability to get out of bed or do anything other than watch the daily episodes of Phil Donohue, Sally Jessie Raphael and Oprah. They also each had their own serious shit to go through – having just divorced and all.

After about six weeks I finally propelled myself back to school. But I was miserable. I fled assemblies and maths classes, certain I was about to vomit. I was in such a constant state of panic, I couldn’t concentrate on what I was being taught. I couldn’t focus on homework, or what the other girls were saying to me and each other. I didn’t want to go out anywhere on the weekends, and certainly not if it meant travelling by train – especially after I had another episode at Flinders Street station and poor Ellie had to fork out the meagre earnings of her video shop job for a taxi home after I bolted from the train, convinced I was about to die from my mysterious undiagnosed gastric affliction.

At some stage during this period, I managed to land my own poorly paid job at a newly opened pancake restaurant. I lacked just about every one of the attributes required of a half-decent waitress, but with a freshly minted mental illness on board, my focus and general equilibrium was completely kaput. One of the restaurant owners had a daughter who attended the same school as me. This woman bailed me up in the staff change room and demanded I explain rumours (reported to her by her charming daughter, of course) that I was a drug addict. I righteously defended myself, but was sacked the next week anyway.

These things are huge when you’re fifteen. I felt terrified of situations and places outside my comfort zone; I couldn’t compel myself to school; my school community had (completely inaccurately) written me off as a junkie, and I was incapable of working a basic job. I couldn’t explain to my family and friends what was happening – that it felt like the sky was crushing my head into shoulders and suffocating me, that my self-esteem was as low as linoleum. With each month that my disorder remained undiagnosed and untreated, it became more and more entrenched. I ferretted out a box of Valium from the ice-cream tub we used to store medicines. This, I think, had been prescribed to my Dad following his heroic whisky detox two years earlier. I didn’t take any, but kept it on my bedside table as an overdose option.

We give our adolescent selves such a hard time. I shudder when I recall the clothes I wore, stupid things I said, the dreadful skin I was afflicted with, and selfish behaviours I indulged in. But I try to give my poor fifteen-year-old self a break, especially when I remember the phenomenal effort I made to drag myself out of a life-wrecking condition that I couldn’t understand or define. I enrolled myself in a new arts-focussed high school where I didn’t know anyone and my ill-deserved reputation as a junkie moll hadn’t reached. There I increasingly threw myself into drama, literature, dance – working some of that dread out through creativity. I was still riddled with anxiety (or, as I still thought, a stomach condition), but I could work. I achieved high enough year 12 results to be offered a place in Arts at Melbourne Uni.

Finally, in my first year at uni, a counsellor explained what had been going on for three years – a vicious circle of agoraphobia, anxiety and the physical fallout of that anxiety: upset stomach. Basically, I was so fearful of humiliating myself in public situations that my body and mind activated the flight-or-fight response, which in turn made me feel terribly sick and then fearful of humiliating myself in public situations, and round and round and round I went. So entrenched was my anxiety that I could almost feel the channels in my brain where my dread-filled thoughts coursed every time I left the house (or even anticipated leaving it).

I recently read an article by Helen Razer in ‘Frankie’ magazine in which she lamented the ubiquity of ‘awareness’ campaigns, particularly in relation to mental health. While I agree with her that ‘awareness’ shouldn’t trump actual funding of proper services, I do so wish that there had been more social ‘awareness’ about anxiety back in 1993, that my behaviour had been properly recognized for what it was – and not considered the actions of a delinquent, druggie malingerer. To me, there can never be too much ‘awareness’ of adolescent mental health issues, particularly if there’s an opportunity to intervene positively and halt – or at least ameliorate – the potentially lifelong symptoms of a mental illness.

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