I am 41 years old these days. I have 41 years of memory, experience and personal history which have propelled me to where I am now. The funny thing about my life is that the majority of it was really unpleasant to live through but the last fifteen or so years have been much more enjoyable. This means I often get a painful twinge from a sad moment when listening to music or reading a book. This happened today.
Those who know me well will know that I spent the years from 1994 to 1999 as a prisoner (on and off). This was a loaded, awful time. I was not in such circumstances due to any evil intent. Strange as it may seem I was largely a vulnerable person who was probably more of a victim than a perpetrator, But as can happen in life, I was very troubled and unwell, my behaviour was appalling and there was nowhere suitable for me to go other than prison. While my behaviour was poor and aggressive I did not want it to be. I couldn’t articulate what was going on in my mind even to myself and I had a negative focus which meant I sought out poor outcomes and negative experiences. I could not access help because it didn’t occur to me that it would be something I wanted. Instead I did stupid things and accepted punishment as the only appropriate result. I didn’t try to make my life better and I didn’t think I deserved a better life. I expected to die in prison and I was in such a state that the thought didn’t worry me too much at all.
I suppose I was a classic case of system failure. I needed support and got blame, I needed approrpiate treatment and got the chemical straightjacket of overmedication. I needed self confidence and got abuse and violence.
My mental health issues were well documented and at one point, some person beyond my knowledge decided I should be sent to the forensic psychiatric hospital instead of prison. I had been told by others who had been there that it was much nicer than prison. The men and women mixed together and they had nurses rather than correctional officers and you were given an incredibly generous $60 per week to buy cigarettes and other important goods. In fact the woman I was sharing a cell with – an older woman with thousands of health complaints who claimed she was about to die every time I spoke with her – convinced me that when you arrived at the hospital they gave you a bunch of things and due to this I should give her all my cigarettes. (I was pretty gullible as a young person and prisoner so parted with all my things only to find out she had tricked me.)
When I got there, the hospital it was like another world. It was the last remaining mental hearth institution in Melbourne and all the other wards were closed, so we were in a little oasis of activity in a disused, crumbling asylum. It was true that the men and women patients cohabited, like in a regular psychiatric hospital. I made friends with some of the guys – the women all seemed a bit needy. One guy, Bob, had featured in a book by gangster turned author Chopper Read. Bob was an older fellow and had been on a high dose of the anti-psychotic drug Largactyl for so long that it had turned his skin a sort of bluish-grey. Bob had killed people in his distant past but he knew he was onto a good thing at the hospital so was compliant and well-behaved. I was always a bit wary of the murderers though – if they did it once surely they could do it again. There was another man there whose name i forget now, some twenty years later. This man was so obviously pretending to be psychotic so he could be in the more pleasant hospital environment that it amazed me that the apparently well-trained staff couldn’t see it. This man evidently had a little but of an interest in me sexually. I was never sure if I would be safe.
One night the youngest and nicest male nurse brought along his guitar and a songbook. We sang songs until late in the evening. It was magical. I left the hospital, the prison, the desolate life I had gained for myself and was transported into a better world which had music. Music was a great joy and while I had listened to plenty of recoded music, I had not been a part of making noises – joyful or otherwise – for a long time. One of the songs we sang was the blues standard and frequent avourite of prisoners, The Midnight Special. We sang it a few times. I was taken to a place beyond where I was, beyond who I was. I saw a life I had forgotten existed – a place of creativity and transcendence. The experience stayed with me for a long time and gave me hope. I didn’t stay at the hospital for much longer though. I was self-destructive and aggressive and before too long me and the man pretending to be unwell were on the hard metal van back to our respective penitentiaries.
A couple of years later I did get the assistance I needed and started to change my life. The years of prison and desperation faded into a memory and were almost forgotten. I became somebody who exudes respectability and success. I wrote books, gained degrees, spoke at all manner of conferences, got an amazing professional job and bought a home. People now seek my advice on how they can assist their children and relatives who experience the things I did as a twenty something. My criminal past is confined to another time. If I think of it, I am remembering events and thoughts, not the depth of feelings.
Today I was writing an article and I put on a singer songwriter playlist. Right at the end I heard the familiar start of that song from all those years ago in a different place, The Midnight Special. I stopped writing and listened intently with everything I had. As I had been transported to a better world when I sang the song, I was transported back in time this afternoon. There I was, suspended over history looking at my younger self who I have spent so long banishing and replacing with the more successful, respectable me of now. Today I could have reached out my hand to hers. I imagined myself telling her that it would be OK, things would change, there would be work and friends and cats. Her life would not always be filled with self-defeating behaviour, invalidation and violence, The world gets better.
I listened to the song three times. I felt so grateful to get to meet that past me. And yes, the reason I spend thousands of hours each year on supporting other people, listening, providing advice, writing books and speaking at conferences. The reason I am available to those who need me when it may be against my interests to do so, the high value I place on of community service and kindness all comes from those days where I did nothing useful for anyone. Where in fact I was aggressive, dependent, demanding and difficult. Those days have made me who I am. I suppose I am thankful to my previous self but I am glad I can hold her and tell her it will actually be OK.