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.




9781925266115

S.A. Jones

Light and Shade: Myfanwy Jones’ Leap

Grief, like depression, is potentially difficult material for a novelist to handle. To feel real, the reader has to be close enough to feel the raw, howling pain. But the reader needs reprieve too. It’s a balance of light and shade that Myfanwy Jones pulls off in her second novel, Leap. Read more »

the-story-of-the-lost-child

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their August picks

Looking for a book recommendation? After a busy month dominated by the Melbourne Writers Festival’s huge range of events, staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading. Read more »

daniel-handler

Kate Harper

‘I think about terrible things happening’: An interview with Daniel Handler

Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive can be read as tales of wonder. Kate Harper chats to Handler ahead of his upcoming Melbourne appearances. Read more »

One-Direction

Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1

Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »

wolfpack-1024

Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »

f9a2809e-97eb-400d-b491-b4b6a6f09930-2060x1236

Clem Bastow

Telling Stories: Women screenwriters and the obligation to represent

There is something in the recent call to arms for female writers and directors to ‘tell your story’ that leaves me feeling bereft, not vindicated. The idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell. Read more »

actf_rtt2_hero

Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »

golden-age-of-television

Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Edinburgh

Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »

Resized__863

Jane Howard

A Mess of a Brain: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

In some ways it seems like an impossible task to take Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and translate it to any other art form. How to find a life for a book that is so internal, so unrelenting, in anything other than the pure words of its narrator as they appear on the page? Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »