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On Writing

The beginnings of a professional lunatic

by Sandy Jeffs , December 17, 20121 Comment

I went mad in 1976. It changed my life beyond recognition. Doors closed. I lost my identity. I was so invisible in the world I walked in the shadows of others and cast none of my own. My friends around me got on with their lives and careers but I went nowhere. Life came to a crashing halt.

 

Parkville Psychiatric Unit 13/12/1976

…she reported auditory hallucinations, usually of her parents arguing about her in the third person and she described experiences of derealisation and depersonalisation as well as fluctuating levels of anxiety. After two weeks it was considered she was suffering from an acute schizophrenic illness and treatment was started with Trifluroperazine increasing the dose to 45mg/day.

 

A diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1976 was tantamount to a death sentence. The prognosis was poor and it was thought that with each psychotic episode a person would go further into unreachable madness from which there was no recovery. It was a small step from diagnosis to an invalid pension and onto the scrap heap of society. And so began my career as a professional lunatic. My schizophrenia was rampant and with each relapse into madness and subsequent hospitalisations to Larundel Psychiatric Hospital — the madhouse on the edge of town — I thought I’d never achieve anything worthwhile in a life which was certain to be cut short by suicide.

Before Parkville Psychiatric Unit I was admitted to the Queen Victoria Hospital psych ward. I was sitting on my bed waiting to attend a morning ward meeting when I wrote a poem. Poetry wasn’t foreign to me. I’d had a passion for it from the moment I was introduced to T. S. Eliot at school. He held me in his thrall and I had wanted to write poems of great intellect and style just like his. I must have had a sixth sense about myself being a poet because I recall how I had chosen POET as my preferred vocation out of a list of occupations given to me by a psychologist during a vocational guidance assessment in my last year of school. I had only attempted to write a few poems at this stage, it was more wishful thinking. By the time I got to university, by courtesy of a miracle, but that’s another story, poetry became more important to me. I would sit in lectures and let myself drift into a poetic reverie writing poems instead of taking lecture notes. My attempts at poetry were embarrassingly feeble but I was passionate.

So I wrote this poem in the midst of madness on 17th November 1976. It was the first poem I ever wrote about my madness.

 

Here I Sit

Here,
surrounded by the swirling nothingness of chaos,
with the indignant idiocy of haze and alienation,
I sit
where perception becomes a burden
and where the burden becomes the loss of perception.
What is this world,
this world of contradictions,
this torturous maze of distress
where confusion reigns and
clarity remains submerged?

Here,
surrounded by the sterile relics of sanity,
lost in a labyrinth of refracted thought,
I sit
where life becomes a burden
and where the burden becomes the loss of life.
What is this confusion,
this confusion of the spheres,
this unyielding perplexity
that determinedly withers my countenance
and renders me helpless?

 

‘Here I Sit’ opened a show called MAD performed at the 2012 Brisbane Festival. It was directed and choreographed by Meryl Tankard and Elena Kats-Chernin composed the songs. Sung by Mara Kiek, whose voice, while powerfully resonant, teeters on the edge of cracking and splintering, the poem suddenly had a breathtaking fragility. MAD was based on my poetry and life and explored the harrowing experiences of my madness and the equally compelling force of my black humour. To see how Elena transformed ‘Here I Sit’ and other poems into melodic, elegiac songs was profoundly moving. And as Meryl’s framework of dance and performance evolved before me I thought I was in someone else’s dream. Each song had its own poignancy, with the music eerily capturing the essence of each poem.

‘Here I Sit’ was my first competent poem and it later became the opening poem of my first book Poems from the Madhouse (Spinifex Press 1993). Thirty-six years later it has begun a new journey as a song in a show called MAD. It is defining poem, one which opened doors I thought would never open. If I had said to the clinical staff in the psych ward that I was going to become a poet and my poems would inspire Elena Kats-Chernin and choreographer Meryl Tankard to create a show called MAD, I’m sure they would have thought I was having delusions of grandeur and given me more medication. They didn’t hold much hope for me back then. I was destined to a life with no future prospects because I was, after all, suffering from an acute schizophrenic illness and no one recovers from something so catastrophic. This was the opinion of one of my treating doctors at Parkville:

 

Personality Profile. Walking contradiction, capable of many things, but of nothing. Enjoys reading, creative things like writing and sketching. Would like to be an artist – maybe presumptuous. Tends to be arrogant, tries not to be, likes to use words with precision.

 

We can never predict the future and I may well have been a walking contradiction, capable of many things, but of nothing but thankfully I have managed to achieve a few things more than the nothing the doctor predicted. My presumptuousness has so far produced 5 books of poetry and a memoir. It took 36 years for ‘Here I Sit’ to find its new life and I am now wondering when my medication is going to kick in and my delusion that this has happened will pass. But miracles do happen but such a validation of my poetry is something I never expected.

 

Sandy Jeffs was born in Ballarat and has a BA from La Trobe University. She has lived with schizophrenia and all its moods for over thirty years. She is a community educator who speaks to schools, universities and community groups about what it’s like to live with a mental illness. She has been published widely and is a prize-winning poet whose writing has been concerned with madness, domestic violence and the humorous antics of women who play midweek ladies’ tennis. Sandy lives with her friends and animals on the outskirts of Melbourne.




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