MONITOR

It’s been pushing upwards for a year or more. Doesn’t rush, but doesn’t fall either. 

Being a chronic over-thinker, I associate the higher figures with increased dis-ease. Hopefully not disease. But you don’t know. That’s why it’s called The Silent Killer. You don’t know the pressure has been building, building. Then something bursts, and unless you’re lucky, that’s it, game over. Or it bursts free and lodges somewhere important and you’re worse than dead. The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Even typing that tightens my chest.

But is it a silent assassin if you can feel the creeping vice of tension and almost hear the rustling tendrils of anxiety? If the danger is not knowing the tension is climbing, and you know you are anxious, does that mean you aren’t in danger?

The doctor suggested a monitor. Twenty-four hours with a sleeve and a box the size of three stacked cassettes, connected by a piece of soft tubing; a synthetic umbilical cord. 

It’s set, the nurse said as she fitted the business end to my upper arm, to take a reading every half hour. Right, OK. And every hour overnight, she added in a voice that invited me to say ‘Phew!’. I didn’t say anything as I was busy noticing the slightly clammy snake of plastic slithering across my back and round to the box at my hip.

Felt odd, having something medical attached. Waiting for the big squeeze. And the device itself, a lump under my untucked shirt. If I’d brought headphones I could have pulled off the Walkman thing, easily. Just relax, were the nurse’s parting words. If you move your arm or tense, it’ll beep to say the reading has failed.

I was on the ring-road when the contractions started. I tried to relax my arm, dropping it into my lap like a prosthesis. Compression builds until the thump of blood is quite loud. It’s not painful, just a bit unpleasant. With eight hours on night-shift and sixteen at two per hour, there’ll be another forty or so of these. 

Beep. 

Shit. Must’ve moved my arm. The little box thinks for a moment and tries again. My free hand grips the steering wheel tighter.

Already I’m focussed on the moment where the release begins. The sleeve relaxes in beats. I notice I’ve been holding my breath. Take a couple of deep ones; probably worth staying aerated.

digital-blood-pressure-monitor-class-2_1400x

It’s put me into an odd space, this innocent little recording device. Forced me to adopt its cycle. When is the next one? What will the data show?

I should ignore it, but I can’t. I’m tense. I’m waiting. It’s going to happen, but when?

Probably shouldn’t drink, but what-the-hell. Couple of glasses of evening red. By half-past ten I’m wrung out. Tense and wary. How will it be to sleep with this thing grabbing my arm every hour? Quite a lot to do tomorrow, errands galore. Need some sleep. Half a sleeping pill just to help me get off. I feel sheepish but promise myself I’ll own up to the doctor when I see her next week.

The night isn’t so bad. In fact, I resent coming to consciousness in the morning as the anxiety jags straight back up.

Late morning there is a space for reflection. I realise that the feeling of waiting, of marking time until the next event, is deeply familiar. It’s a frozen place; not necessarily cold but immobile. It’s a waiting place, but not with particular expectations. There’s a level of dread, but it is diffuse and difficult to pin down. Something’s coming; cortisol says ‘tense’. There is only the now; a kind of rigid stillness that is alert and ready to be alarmed. 

I notice how every time the gentle vibration signals another squeeze, I jump. It’s such an old response there are no words. The reptilian brain, the ancient brain, the reactive brain, whose early programming sneers at thinking and defies overwriting.

So I wait, for twenty-four hours. Can’t think about anything, can’t write. Fold washing, load the dishwasher; music plays but I’m not hearing. The periodic lub-dub pulsing in my upper arm is the metronome of this day. Not until much later, does it occur to me that I was incapable of imagining an end to the process. Marking time, standing on the spot; it’s not a choice, but a state. Like a rest on a music stave, it signifies an absence, not relaxation.

The power of the metaphor rocks me a little. It’s a truth that can be felt. I see from a different angle why I’ve always been useless at planning. Can’t look ahead, don’t set goals, reticent to take initiatives, risk averse. But really good at monitoring, at waiting. At enduring. Stillness on the outside, tight inside with a dull throbbing undercurrent of fear. 

Waiting for a safety that never came.

*

 

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HAT

My father’s hat had a plastic bag over it.

He was from the era when men wore fedoras. This one was olive green with a darker ribbon where brim meets dome. Is there a name for that junction? There should be. The place where the veranda joins the roof. The top part warms, protects, hugs the skull. Lots of headwear does that; it’s the brim that makes it a fedora. Shade for the face, shadow for your expression, an edge to tug briefly in greeting, accompanied by a slight nod (but no smile).

A dark green felt hat, a going-to-work hat. With a plastic bag covering the crown to protect it from dirt, drizzle, passing bird droppings. A raincoat for his hat.

As the plastic aged it became discoloured, tinted like nicotine-stained fingers, matching his right hand. The plastic became creased, less flexible. More set in its accustomed pattern, less able to change or move. 

After he died I removed the dead plastic skin. It disintegrated into flakes of dirty snow. The felt was revealed, untouched by three decades (one of wear, two of wardrobe hibernation). The colour was deep, vivid. At the crown, the creases were neat, well-formed. I pictured his face; sagging skin and the asymmetrical gouges of time. A younger face had worn this hat, maybe the age I was now.

I put it on. It bent my ears like a puppy and I felt myself shrinking like Alice nibbling the mushroom. Just a child wearing his Father’s clothes. A slight shudder as I removed it and put it on the mantle, facing outwards, brim curving over the edge. But it had too much presence and kept drawing my eyes back from the endless jumble of clearing and discarding. Too much of my Father’s silent judgement. 

I put it into one of the garbage bags filled with charity shop clothes and then took it out. Shoved in like that it would get crushed. So when the bag was full and tied, it was placed on top like a fallen monarch’s crown, the olive almost matching the green plastic sack. Unfamiliar without it’s plastic protection yet brimful of memories. Off to be bought for a couple of dollars and a new career adorning another head. But this time exposed to the elements, living a less protected life.

green hat

Feature image: Detail from John Brack’s “Collins St, 5 p.m.” [National Gallery of Victoria] See the painting here

CHANGE

It was nerve-wracking, going it alone.

After twenty-odd years working in university counselling services, leaving the education sector felt huge. A glance at the personal timeline would reveal almost the entire length connected with education in some form or another. Kindergarten through school, several stints at uni, first Student Services jobs, Counselling, lecturing… Who was I if I wasn’t attached to an institution of learning?

It was time to find out, though I didn’t exactly go cold turkey.

Resigning from the University Counselling Service was a much-needed wrench—it was several years since I’d been happy there as micromanagement undermined the excellent work we used to do with, like, the actual students. But I kept the teaching gig at another uni for several more years until the absence of any sense of appreciation or satisfaction ground a resignation out of me.

And that was the point at which I realised I was now, despite the pretensions inherent in my professional title, a small business. A very small business.

So I sent out letters of introduction to a score of doctors in the vicinity of my modest consulting room and waited for the referrals to flow.

Which they did not.

In fact the only General Practitioner who invited me to visit was so odd I concluded she invited me in just to talk to another living soul. After a slightly bizarre conversation, during which she continuously fingered a medallion at her throat and made eye contact precisely zero times, I muttered an excuse about an imminent appointment and beat a clammy retreat. Walking back to the office, I wondered what sort of referral would come from such a practitioner. None did, so I needn’t have worried.

Someone said having a website was important, so I knocked up a basic one using the application that came with my computer. Bought a domain name and waited for clients to ring the number. A couple did, but not many. Was my home-made website just too basic? To impersonal?

A second version followed, where I made myself a little more visible. After all, as a humanistic therapist, it seemed reasonable to offer something with a touch of personality. I even knocked up a list of presenting issues I thought might help overcome the natural reticence about seeking help that we all have. It was an A—Z of issues. Should that be issues with a capital Ish? Don’t know, I rather loathe the word. But I do know that starting with topics I was personally familiar with got me three quarters of the way through the alphabet.

When it was done I was satisfied enough. A few inquirers mentioned it when they rang and I’ve since seen remarkably similar lists on the (much flashier) websites of other psychotherapists, so perhaps it tapped into something, even though what I was really saying was, “We can talk about anything that’s troubling you.”

Anxiety
Behaviour change, including substance issues and gambling
Communication and relationships; Connection; Creativity
Depression
Effecting Change in your life
Family of origin; Feelings
Grief and loss; death and bereavement
Health: chronic health problems; Ageing
Intimacy, Closeness
Jealousy and trust
Knowing yourself better
Life changes, transitions, crises
Mood swings; lowered mood
Not knowing, confusion, lostness
On-going personal development
Perfectionism; Procrastination; Parenting
Questions of meaning (and loss of meaning)
Relationships; Relaxation
Stress; Sexuality
Transitions and ageing; Trauma and recovery
University: adjustment and success; Study and Motivation
Values and priorities; life choices
Work-Life balance; stress
XYZ. . . anything else that feels important!

The practice did build to a satisfactory size, mainly due to former clients seeking me out and a handful of doctors who seemed to like the way I worked (or were convinced by their patients it was worthwhile). I’ve never updated the website, and it shows. That’s fine, I’m not seeking clients. But if I did review the content, I reckon I could reduce it by about 90% and the ‘issues’ list to only one letter.

Based on almost thirty years of practice, this is what it boils down to.

What do people want?

To feel happier; to be deeply heard.

What do you do?

Try to be with the person opposite me as fully and authentically as I can.

Connection and happiness. Is there anything else?

EYESIGHT TO THE BLIND

I was thrown out of Melbourne’s signature university as a direct consequence of my skill in accumulating ‘F’ grades. That’s not ‘F for Fail’—though it certainly is well below the plimsoll line of the Good Ship Success—but the F at the end of the series A – B – C – D – E – F. It doesn’t go any lower.

Most of those fails were not surprises. One exam I spent the first fifteen minutes (the ‘lock-down’ phase when no-one is allowed out) writing Lou Reed song lyrics in the exam booklet. If the subject had been 20th Century Literature I might have got a few marks but in fact it was a Maths paper and the examiners were evidently not fans. For a later exam I apologetically signed my name at the bottom of a blank page. It was a Monty Python reference, but once again the audience was unmoved.

The real crunch came at the half-way point of the final exam: Ocular Anatomy. Part one of this test was a series of microscopes set up around the benches of the lab. Each instrument had a slide containing a cross-section of some part of the eye. The sixteen students in my Optometry cohort sat around the benches writing about what they saw down the microscope and moving themselves and their exam booklet to the next slide when a bell rang.

Ding! Move to the next microscope. Scribble scribble… Ding!

Next slide… More frantic scribbling. All very Pavlovian.

Now I referred to sixteen students a moment ago and indeed, that was our number. But only fifteen were scribbling. One was moving from station to station with a blank exam script and a slightly worried frown, wondering what all the pink squiggly things were. Even then it did not really dawn on me that I was in trouble. It was more a nagging sensation that all was not well. Breathtaking blindness.

The light-globe moment—and it was a 150 Watt flashlight—occurred during the break, as the Professor explained to us how the second part of the examination would proceed. The oral part of the exam. The exam where you walk, on your own, into a room with three Professors and they ask you questions about Ocular Anatomy. Out loud.

They are going to ask me questions. I will not have any answers… No answers AT ALL.

Crackling sounds of scales falling from eyes.

Houston, we have a problem.

“Exc…” I cleared my throat. It was dry and scratchy. “Excuse me Professor, but I won’t be participating.”

I glanced around the group. Didn’t really make eye contact with anyone, though I noticed that several mouths were slightly ajar. My smile was an unconvincing grimace. “Good luck,” meaning goodbye.

I walked out of the building and into late Spring sunshine. Stared at a well-tended garden bed, slightly dizzy and faintly nauseous. Saw flowers but felt pit-of-stomach blues. Then I walked out of the University of Melbourne and down Swanston Street.

drawing-of-an-eye-with-parts

Feature image: “One” by Alex Grey