My employment consultant seemed angry with me in my first appointment. She said she was jetlagged, but I knew it was because I looked like another deadshit who’d been sitting on my ass for five years, smoking weed, and living off Centrelink.
Her demeanour changed when she looked at my file.
‘I see what they’ve done here,’ she said. ‘They get someone in for fifteen minutes and think they’ve got the whole story.’
She looked up at me.
‘Look, I’m sorry to break this to you, but you’re going to lose the pension. You need to get organised and start making a case for your appeal.’
I went quiet, nodded a lot. My consultant told me she was an empath and she only got sent the ‘special cases’.
‘I’ll look after you,’ she said.
I gave my resume to the Empath to hand out to potential employers. There was nothing in the qualifications section. I’d dropped out of a creative writing course at uni and had been freelancing ever since. Writing whatever I felt like and taking jobs where I could.
The Empath set me up with a course for a Certificate III in hospitality at a nearby RTO.
‘If you don’t get a call within 5 minutes, walk up around the corner and ask about it,’ she said.
I was panicking and sweating as I left, smoked two cigarettes as I walked up Brunswick Street. I walked into two other RTO’s before I found the right one.
They handed me a form to fill out. I sat down, wrote my name. The words on the page swam. I didn’t have any of the numbers I needed. I asked someone for help and a polite blonde lady filled the form out for me.
I asked how long it went for and she told me it was Monday to Wednesday for the next 12 weeks. I thought about losing the pension and how much rent was and the Japan tickets I had bought in a fit of enthusiasm. I thought about the novel I had been writing every day for the past few weeks and all the plans that seemed to be slipping through my fingers. I threw up on the walk home.
I walked into class the next morning late and panicking. The trainer was a middle-aged Ex-publican. He told me to sit down and not to stress.
There were seven in the class. Smiling mum who liked Tony Abbot, Girl who laughed too loudly at every joke, Homeless kiwi twenty-year-old, Girl who was never there, Meek-metal-dude and Ipswich girl with very blue eyes. I was already two days behind but I finished the week’s module in twenty minutes.
I slept past my alarm on the first Monday. I texted Ex-publican and said I wouldn’t make it in. Ex-publican replied.
‘Try to come in if you can.’
‘Sometimes we need to push ourselves.’
I had a panic attack at midday, took my meds and knocked myself out until the sun went down.
That Wednesday we went on an excursion to the casino. I waited out the front; I was the first one there. Meek-metal-dude arrived a short while after and lifted his sunglasses.
‘Are my eyes red?’ he asked.
Ex-publican didn’t realise we couldn’t bring bags into the casino so he holed up in the library and sent us over in groups to take notes. Ipswich girl and I were paired together. We grabbed drinks and bee-lined straight for the smoking area.
We smoked, drank and talked, mainly about our partners. After a couple of drinks we bullshitted all of the answers and walked back ten minutes late. I didn’t know what Ex-publican expected would happen.
The second Monday I slept through my alarm again. I didn’t text Ex-publican, let his call ring out. He texted me.
‘You obviously aren’t coming in but will you be in tomorrow to do the assessment?’
I walked in about 11:30 and completed the week’s module in twenty minutes.
I spent most lunch-breaks smoking with Meek-metal-dude. He’d turn to me and ask ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ and I’d say ‘yes’ and we’d walk down the street to the pub. We’d drink a jug of cheap beer and talk about medication and weed and booze until we stumbled back to class, late and sheepish.
Meek-metal-dude wasn’t doing great that Monday. The cigarette shook in his fingers as we smoked out the front after class. He was stressed about a psych appointment that afternoon. I offered to buy him a beer and we walked down to the pub.
I bought a jug and tried to pour it the way Ex-publican had taught us. The head overflowed onto the table and I inhaled bubbles as I drank. Meek metal dude told me his girlfriend thought he was cheating. He’d been waking and baking lately, drinking every night. I tried to keep him distracted. He seemed alright by the time I staggered home.
Ipswich girl showed up three hours late the next day. She had been missing two days out of three. Ex-publican looked stressed. Attendance had been poor and he was worried that the course would get cancelled again. It’d happened earlier, only going ahead this time because I made up the numbers at the last minute. He said he didn’t get paid if no one showed up.
Meek-metal-dude, Ipswich Girl and I smoked out the front at lunch. Ipswich girl was silent. I asked if she was okay. She said she was in the hospital the day before. She’d collapsed in the shower. They gave her a cat scan because they thought she had a tumour, but she knew it was because she’d been too nervous to eat.
She was going to text Ex-publican but she was afraid.
‘I thought he would be on my back about it, like every time. Because I’m not, well, you. He treats you different.’
I thought about all the people who had been so helpful to me, even though I was flaky and didn’t keep in contact. I thought about all the special treatment I get that seems to be a given, that I don’t have to work for.
‘You have to be open about it,’ I said. ‘Tell him what’s going on. He understands, he’s suffered anxiety and depression before.’
I slept through my alarm again the next Monday. Woke up ten minutes before class, considered texting Ex-publican. I came in half an hour late. Ex-publican congratulated me.
He spoke to us about his wife. It was the anniversary of her death. He’d had a rough night.
He told us how he’d started getting anxiety after his wife died, had a heart attack, gotten depressed. He’d started drinking, knocking back a six-pack and a bottle of wine every night. He necked an imaginary drink to demonstrate.
He said that he’d decided to kill himself one night. There was a tree in the backyard, a branch at the perfect height to tie a rope around. He got blotto, walked outside with the rope, thought about his kids and went back inside.
He tried to do it again three years later but the tree had grown and the branch was out of reach.
‘You’re not like my other classes,’ he said. ‘You all need a lot of T-L-C. Once you put yourselves out there you’ll gain confidence. Remember, work on technique and the speed will come.’
The Empath drove me over to a tea shop about a 45-minute walk from my house to set up work experience. She was sick with the Brisbane flu, but made it in specifically to drive me because she liked me. The boss seemed friendly enough; she was an elderly lady with white hair, pale skin and thick glasses. An Irish guy with a curly moustache would be training me.
I was panicking on the drive back. I’d almost gotten into several fights with Irish guys because I couldn’t understand the accent. My hair wouldn’t stay tied back and I’d been too nervous to speak throughout the whole interview.
‘I really want this to work for you,’ the Empath said. ‘You’re different than the other cases I get. I think you’re lovely.’
I was quiet for a second, had trouble making words.
‘I’m alright,’ I said. ‘I could be taller.’
She laughed and bought me donuts.
I woke up late the next day, didn’t have time for a coffee or a cigarette before work experience. My girlfriend accidentally ironed a hole into my shirt and my hair still wouldn’t stay back.
The pace was already frantic at the shop when I got in. There were four high teas planned for the first two hours of my shift. Irish guy rushed through a tour of the store. I struggled to make out what he was saying.
He set me on folding boxes. I couldn’t complete one. He asked me to grab some quiches out of the oven. The cooks out the back loomed silent as I fumbled the quiches onto the floor. Coffee cups rattled in my hands as I brought them out to customers.
The boss set me on dishes so I would stop getting in the way. The trays started stacking up across the sink. I kept drying dishes with a tea towel and the boss kept telling me to let them air dry. I got angry, snapped back at her. She gave me a lecture about health and safety.
I looked at the huge pile of dishes, felt tears sting my eyes. I thought about how I was going to lose $400 a fortnight from my pension, how I wasn’t going to make rent, about Japan slipping through my fingers. All I ever wanted to do was sit down and write every day. I tried to breathe and gasped.
I put down the tea towel and walked up to the boss. I couldn’t look her in the eye. I said I couldn’t make it through the shift without having a fucking panic attack. I left.
I bought a pack of prison tobacco with the last of my cash, shook as I rolled a cigarette, cursed myself for being a fucking adult and not being able to get through three hours of dishes without fucking crying.
My head was aching. I got home and took two ibuprofen from my brother’s room, sat down and smoked with my housemates. I felt more relaxed talking to them, then started feeling very tired. I lay back on the couch.
I tried to lift my arms but they were dead weight. I sat up and then hunched over. My housemates went silent. I went to lie down in my room, swayed a bit as I stood. I stumbled and leaned against the door. My heart was pounding.
My housemates got up and put my arms over their shoulders. I went limp but my mind was racing. I breathed rapidly. They lifted me to the couch. I fell onto my face, unable to keep my eyes open. My vision turned into a tunnel, at the end was an image I could barely see. A horrible face or pattern. My heart thumped in my ears.
My housemates argued about what they should do. One housemate said to just let me lie for a second. I tried to speak.
I breathed in and out.
‘Get me a Mirtazapine.’
My brother rushed into my room, came back with my medication. I couldn’t sit up, so he lifted me. I slumped slightly forward. I asked him to get me water, then to put it in my hand. I sighed in frustration and asked him to lift it to my mouth. I swallowed.
They went to go outside. I knew if I was left alone I would start getting really horrible hallucinations. The face flashed in and out of my vision.
‘Can you…’ I opened my eyes. My housemate was sitting across from me. He looked scared. ‘Just sit with me for a minute?’
The room was lit with a dull orange glow. I couldn’t figure out where the light was coming from. I frowned.
‘This is a lot like Seroquel,’ I said. ‘Fuck.’
I asked my housemate to check the pills in my brother’s room.
I had taken 400mg of Seroquel, twice my brother’s already heavy dose of bipolar medication. I stopped panicking, felt a rush of calm. I was still hallucinating, but I laughed with my housemate. I lay back down, realised I was stuck like that. I couldn’t see if anyone was still in the room.
‘What a life,’ I said. I wasn’t sure if anyone heard.
At my next appointment I asked the Empath to call the cake shop and tell them I was sorry. The Empath seemed tired. We were both quiet. I fidgeted as she typed into the computer.
‘I called Centrelink,’ I said. ‘I’m too late to appeal the disability pension.’
The Empath looked concerned.
‘I know you’re angry, but they’re just doing their job,’ she said.
‘I’m not angry,’ I said. ‘I understand they’re trying to help, trying to get me out there. I’m not angry with Centrelink. I’m frustrated. Someone in my position is bound to be frustrated.’
I rubbed my forehead and slumped.
‘I’m sick of being a burden,’ I said.
‘You’re not a burden.’
‘Yes I am,’ I said. Now I was angry. ‘I’m lumped from one person to the next and they’re all in charge of fixing me. I’m frustrated because I know what I’m meant to be doing. It’s all I ever wanted since I knew it was an option. And I was doing it, I was writing hard every day and now that’s just getting further away.’
She was silent. I was near tears. She said she’d leave the next appointment for a couple of weeks. As I was walking out she told me she liked to sing really loud by herself when she was angry. I said I like to do sword training because there is nothing like pretending to hit someone 200 times with a broadsword when you’re pissed off. She laughed.
I made it in on time the next Monday. Ex-publican congratulated me, I was the first one there.
He’d set up some work experience for me at the quiet café downstairs, the one that only used comic sans font and sold savoury muffins wrapped in cling wrap. The friendly bogan lady that ran it was excited to have me.
As I waited for the others a thought crossed my mind; I don’t think it’s a bad thing to need help. The help we give and receive makes a web, a scaffold. We build something when we support, and are supported. Leaning is just part of the structure, and the only time it collapses is if we hold it all alone.
When the others arrived Ex-publican sent us on another excursion, an unsupervised pub-crawl. I don’t think he expected anything less.
Samuel Maguire is a Brisbane author and professional bipolar-haver. His debut novel No Point in Stopping was published in 2018, and he has had work published in Stilts Journal, Scum Magazine and currently works as an editor for Tiny Owl Publishing. You can find more of his fiction, poetry and brain-wrongs on his blog.