Cracking the Code of the Golden M
For fourteen years I had managed to stay relatively well and functioning quite adequately. I almost believed I was out of the woods. Like the ancient mariner, I was sailing on a calm sea with fair winds, the albatross flying high as a good omen. Then I changed my medication and the white bird fell from the sky. The weight of its carcass remains with me still.
In December 2004 I became concerned that the medication I had been taking for some years was making me gain too much weight. I didn't like my podgy body. I felt like an elephant lumbering around the hockey field and tennis court. I asked Dr Y about changing my medication and she agreed to try something different.
Soon after taking the new medication, and at the same time reducing the old one, I began to experience chronic insomnia. It was a side-effect of the new medication but I thought it would pass. It didn't. There were other problems - nausea and severe headaches, exacerbated by withdrawal symptoms from the previous medication. For six weeks I experienced a mania, it was like someone had turned on a light show in my brain and I couldn't turn it off. I was loud, racy and agitated when I was with people, talking non-stop. I was very irritable, erupting at one stage into uncharacteristic rage. I had cooked a quiche and taken it to Lynne and Felicity's to share. It was on the back seat of the car and, on arrival at their house Ruby, our dog who I had with me, saw their neighbour's dog in their drive, and leapt onto the back seat and into the middle of the quiche. I was enraged, got out of the car, ranted, raved and cursed the neighbour's dog and made a complete fool of myself. I had never raged like that before. The insomnia got worse and even sleeping tablets were unable to help me. I went for months on only a few hours sleep, when I had been used to a good ten hours every night. Lack of sleep and stress had always been a dangerous combination for me, and I should have been more alert to the signs.
Out of some corner of my mind voices began to whisper, and then to chatter interminably. The voices must have indicated their presence because my friend Lynne asked me if I was hearing them. But they were saying to me: Don't say, don't tell. Don't trust anyone. And I didn't. The louder and more insistent they became, the more secretive I became about them. In early May 2005, the simmering madness erupted into a billowing psychotic fantasia.
I am to do a poetry reading in Daylesford, a little township an hour's drive west of Melbourne. It is cold. The drive along the freeway is pregnant with the gathering forces. A voice says: "Keep driving, bitch." I arrive at Gillie's, a friend of ours, where I am staying the night. I see that Gillie's body is covered in words and letters. I'm trying to decipher their meaning. She mustn't know I can see them. Another voice says: "Hide your face, bitch."I go off to a pub to meet the organisers of the poetry reading and the other performers. We eat. I listen to the conversation. They speak like prophets, but I am the prophet - the prophet of doom...the doomed prophet! A voice whispers: "Just listen, just listen, count the words before they spill." It is unnerving me. I leave to make my way to the venue.
The performance venue feels too intimate, too close and claustrophobic for me. Too many people. I am uncomfortable. I listen to the other performers. A voice tells me, "They are laughing at you." The MC introduces me. I stand behind the microphone. I read my poems but they are alien to me. I have to get out of here. A voice tells me: "If you leave now you will never see the sun. I will crush you, and tell everyone to laugh at you. Leaving will only show them how evil you are." My poems are falling. I am falling. I shudder when the words, "The Madwoman in this poem is me" come from my mouth. The voices laugh. I tell the audience, "I feel so bad tonight." I press on. The voices won't let me leave. One of them says: "Don't leave, bitch, you have to struggle." I finish my reading with the lines, "Am I, Cassandra, the seer, mad again?" A voice demands, "Eat your words, slut." The forces have taken me. I go back to Gillie's, stalk her lounge room, go to bed, sleep fitfully.
It's morning. I get up, read the newspaper and see that Rene Rivkin, the business man who has bipolar mood disorder, has killed himself. His suicide rips me apart. I leave Gillie's to run a poetry workshop at the community centre.
I am running the workshop. A voice distracts me: "They don't know about the universe and scum like you." I am detached like a leaf fluttering in the wind. The workshop finally ends. Another voice says, "I watched while God raped you", and laughs. I escape back to Gillie's and ring Lynne. I tell her, "The volcano is erupting." She asks, "Where are you?" I answer, "At Gillie's." Lynne persists: "Where's Gillie, can I talk to her?" A voice warns me, "Beware of false friends." I lie: "She's working and can't come to the phone." Lynne says, "Ring me later, will you?" I lie again: "I can't talk, my phone is running out of battery." I turn off my phone. A voice praises me: "You did well." The clock says 2:30 p.m. I say goodbye to Gillie, get in the car and hit the road.
I am Thelma and Louise, just like in the film. Every car on the freeway is chasing me! Cars to the left of me, cars to the right of me, cars in front of me and behind me, cars everywhere. I can't escape them. There, in front of me, is a McDonalds restaurant. A voice barks at me: "Break the code of the golden M! It's the Virgin Mary, it's Mary Magdalene. It's the golden M." I pull into the restaurant. A voice commands me: "Eat a cheese burger, go to the toilet and meditate on the golden M." I Eat, piss and meditate, and take to the road. Up ahead is another McDonalds. A voice commands again: "Stop, be faithful to the golden M - the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene - eat a cheese burger and go to the toilet." The road is troubling me, it's too threatening, too many cars chasing me. A comforting voice offers a solution saying: "Drive into Caroline Springs; it's a safe place." The entrance to this satellite suburb is off the freeway to Melbourne. I drive around its neat streets thinking that perhaps God won't expect to find me here. Laughter. Who is laughing at me? At last I am in Melbourne. My car clock says it's 7 p.m. I don't know how many McDonalds there were on the way here, but I have stopped at every one I pass between Daylesford and Lonsdale Street in central Melbourne. I feel sick, full to the brim with cheese burgers. But I couldn't break the code of the golden M. A voice is chastising me: You failed, slut. I am to give a talk with Margie to the Lifeline telephone counsellors. Margie is my bipolar friend and we have given lots of talks together. Crazy women like us have to stick together. I can't let her down. The talk is at Lifeline's rooms at Wesley Church. The W is an inverted M, I think. Two voices are singing to me: "Mary, Mary, quite contrary." I climb the stairs and enter the building clutching a poem in one hand, my car keys in the other. Margie asks, "How are you, Sandy?"
Words are tumbling out of mouth: "I am possessed, the Antichrist is in me, I've got to go to the Bendigo show, have a spew in Kew and go to Footscray. Robbie and Dido are trying to kill me, they have the house booby-trapped, I'm going to the police station to report them. I've been raped by God." Margie looks concerned. She is calm and comforts me: "Who would you like me to ring, Sandy?" I can't answer her because of the noise in my head. Where is that laughter coming from? The voices and laughter pause. I am whispering: "I trust only Felicity." Then a voice commands: "Crawl under the table bitch, prepare to be reborn, bitch, prepare to be aborted, bitch. You are unsafe here. Sluts like you should have been drowned at birth." I am curled up in foetal position under a table with my eyes closed saying: "I need to be re-birthed, I have to be aborted."
I open my eyes and there's Felicity. And Robbie and Dido are behind her. Betrayed! I don't want to go with them but there's no option. We are walking through the hall and past the audience waiting for me; they are still patiently waiting. They watch me leave with suspicion. I am defiant: "I'm not going home, I know it's booby-trapped."
The car is gliding like a cushion. They are taking me to Lynne and Felicity's. The laughter is killing me. I am yelling: "Fuck off!" How can I stop the laughter? Time is in a warp; we are at Lynne and Felicity's already. The house is a cage. I can't sit down. I'm so scared. My sadness is overwhelming me and I am telling them: "When God raped me, it was slow and methodical, slow and methodical. I am being raped over and over and over. I have to go to the toilet and abort the foetus because it's the Antichrist." I warn them: "My vagina reeks of a foul odour, I can smell it!" They are trying to get me to take some tablets. They are stern and insistent. I know they are in league with God. I relent, swallow the pills, go to bed, sleep a short time, get up, go to the lounge room, sit on the couch, pull a blanket over my shoulders and look into the dark. I feel lonely. A voice chimes a mantra for me: "The mind is a clock, tick tock, the mind is a clock, tick-tock", and tells me it's a gift. I am whispering it to myself while in the background the rhythmic tick-tock pulses from the kitchen clock.
It's morning. Everyone gets up. I'm still on the couch whispering the mantra. Robbie is ringing Dr Y. It's a short phone call. Dr Y says to go back onto the old medication and triple the dosage. She doesn't need to see me. Robbie and Dido are taking me home.
Home is not peaceful. I'm ringing the Royal Women's Hospital to get them to send out a midwife to rebirth me and abort me. The answering service is saying: "Press one for this and press two for that." I can't follow it. I hang up. The phone rings. It's my hockey team-mate Kay, she is asking: How are you, Sandy? Maybe she can help me: I plead: "Kay, Kay, call the police, I'm being held hostage by Robbie and Dido! I'm in a prison. Ring the Women's Hospital, find me a midwife, God raped me, I'm desperate!" Kay says, "Hang in there Sandy, take care." The phone is my only way to get the message out. I'll ask whoever rings me for help. You never know, someone might be able to find me a midwife and call the police. A voice murmurs my name then says: "I saw God rape you, slut."
Once the fantasia took hold, it billowed like a wildfire. I was floridly psychotic for the next few weeks. The only reason I didn't go to hospital was because Robbie and Dido and Lynne and Felicity rearranged their work schedules so that someone could stay at home with me. Other friends rang to see how I was and offer support. I was reeling with the effects of the increased medication. My mind was blancmange and my body was torpid. I felt I was writhing in a bowl of spaghetti, trapped and tangled in its messy strands. I had gone from relative stability to the shambles of uncontrolled madness, unloading my delusional thoughts on all my friends. My inner world had tumbled out unfiltered and uncensored, leaving nowhere to hide. My psychotic world was like a horror movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. How does one evoke something so wild and unimaginable? It is incomprehensible to anyone not in it. Perhaps the only comparison is a nightmare from which you cannot wake, with all its odd and surreal characters and out-of-kilter settings and distortions of the real world. It is not possible to make sense of it, or capture the terror and desperation it induces.
The monster of psychosis had crept from its cage. Getting it back in is one thing, but securing the lock is another. I recovered from this episode only to fall back into a psychotic state a month later. By mid-August I thought I had regained control of my mind, but the monster was only resting. It slipped from its cage at its whim. I wrestled with it, but it clamped onto my mind, twisting and knotting the strands of thought into mind-forg'd manacles of paranoia and fear. The monster stirred Melancholia too, and she trailed behind me in a dowdy gown. Her gloom encircled me, leaving me despairing. Seven months after the breakdown, I was lucid one week and in a fog of psychosis or depression the next. Suicide entered my thoughts on too many occasions. I never knew what mood lay around the corner.
My therapeutic relationship with Dr Y had stalled. After she had shown little concern for what had happened to me in the preceding months, I decided I needed to find another psychiatrist; someone I could talk to. I was scared of making such a big change in my life but it had to be done. I had become disenchanted with Dr Y over the last ten years and this last relapse reinforced in me my need to find someone else. I had drifted through the latter part of 2005, still struggling with my voices and delusions, adrift from everyone around me and myself. I couldn't make the final decision to change psychiatrists because of my fears and emotional paralysis. After procrastinating for some months, I finally plucked up the courage to find someone else. With the help of a friend who asked her therapist if she could recommend someone, I found Dr K. I began therapy with her in February 2006. She is someone to whom I could talk about my voices, delusions and spiritual bereft-ness. I have slowly regained trust in the therapeutic relationship which I felt I had lost with Dr Y. What I like most about Dr K is that she is able to say: I don't know. She doesn't feel the need to have answers for everything. This is refreshing.
Finding someone during this tumultuous year was crucial as I continued to experience psychotic symptoms. In August 2006 I succumbed again to the simmering madness. Nothing was going to stop its onslaught. The psychosis, which had never really left me, erupted again. My voices were overpowering me: you bitch, you witch, you sluttish moll, cankerous leper. In the mirror was the witch. She looked haggard and unkempt. Her hair was a tangle of electrified wire. Her wrinkled face was angular and pock-marked with an odd-shaped bony chin. Her large botoxed lips were painted bright red, while her teeth were black with decay. Her nose was long and sharp. Her blood-red eyes pierced me like flaming arrows. From the mirror she screamed back at me; sometimes she laughed as though to mock me. Her disquieting presence caused me to develop a morbid fascination with mirrors and I found myself constantly peering into them with a worrying, awful anticipation that she might appear again. And she did, over and over. But who was this witch? Where did she come from? Is she the personification of the evil woman my voices talk about? Whoever she is, she makes my skin crawl and I cringe with self-loathing. Around about this time I read Oscar Wilde's book The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in my madness, I assumed the persona of Dorian Gray looking at his hideous, loathsome portrait which had taken on the evil of his soul. I was the root of all the evil in the world.
Dr K thought I needed to spend some time in hospital. Luckily I had private health insurance which meant I could be admitted to a private clinic. She suggested I go to the Albert Road Clinic where she sent her private patients. She said Albert Road was not at all like Larundel. And it wasn't. I had a private room with a million dollar view of Melbourne. There was no garden to walk in, however, but the comfort of the clinic was asylum enough to let me feel safe and cared for. On arrival at the clinic I asked for the mirrors in my room to be covered to keep the witch at bay. As for the voices, they were mischievous and crass, and at the height of their powers; they totally consumed me. The monster madness was again in full control.
I was four weeks at the clinic. My room was my haven and I spent most of my time in it listening to my MP3 player. As ever, music was my lifeline. Time drifted while I wafted from day to day, unaware of the outside world. My mind was swamped by paranoid delusions and voice-riddled mumbo-jumbo; Melancholia held me tightly in her grasp. The Olanzapine I had been taking no longer held my psychosis. Something had been unleashed in my mind that had a vibrant life of its own and taming it was not going to be easy. Dr K suggested I try Clozapine, a medication used when everything else has failed. It required assiduous monitoring and regular blood testes because of potential fatal side-effects. I agreed, and started the Clozapine with some reservation, not quite knowing what to expect. Almost immediately after starting the medication I became heavily sedated and lethargic. My speech left me and my stammer reappeared. I was physically burdened by a constant feeling of low level nausea. For the last eight months I have battled with this medication which has had a mixed effect. I feel a physical debilitation that drains me of energy.
Two and a half years have passed since my descent into madness and I am still harried by my voices, and unnerved by my mind's deceit to create delusional fantasies. The struggle to retain my sanity is a day by day proposition. It doesn't come easily, nor can I take it for granted. My confidence is shattered. As for my self-esteem, when I wake up in the morning I see a little shredded piece of it lying forlornly on the floor. While it is taking a long, long time for the medication to quell the monster, there is a little ray of hope shining through the gloom. There has been a slight change in my mood and my spirit has lifted. I feel as though I might be navigating my way out of the dark wood. If only I could turn a key that locks the monster away securely.
Cracking the Code of the Golden M is an excerpt from Flying with Paper Wings: Reflections on Living with Madness published by the Vulgar Press.