Concerning my heart

Today I’m not at work, but I was out of the house by just after 9am. I had a couple of medical appointments, first stop at the dermatologist to get the stitches removed from my calf. On the way there Donna called, and we spoke on the handsfree as I drove catching up on the news and updating her on the day ahead.

I was at the dermatologist for about 20 minutes. My other appointment was in Camberwell, but I was way early. I sent a message to a friend hoping to catch up for coffee, then began driving in the general direction of my appointment. With no response from my friend, I stopped in Malvern and went to a coffee shop I knew from when I had the shop. The woman who owns it is an acclaimed pastrycook, and we got friendly when she would come to the shop for a massage after a long day of cooking.

By now it was a beautiful winter’s day. It was sunny and the sky a washed blue, the colour of my jeans. It was not warm, but the sunlight took the edge off the cold. It seemed to me a classic Melbourne winter’s day, the very best sort.

I read the newspaper and had a flat white and a chocolate brownie, and then I was off again. I drove down roads I drove down every day when I had the shop, and I remembered it all. I’ve hardly been through that way since. Years on it feels as if that was a pocket of time that was all-consuming then but is now far distant from me. I never quite understand how things can change so much though it makes perfect sense. How is it that something can be all one thing, and then none of it at all? That’s what lives are.

The doctor I’ve been seeing the last couple of years is about a five minute walk from home, bulk bills, and is good to get my prescriptions renewed. He’s a nice guy, but a bit of a duffer. As a doctor he’s tentative, asking me what I think we should do. I’m no dummy, but I don’t have a medical degree, and I go to the doctor wanting them to tell me what we should do next.

As it happens, he’s away from a month on a European holiday, and so I called up to make an appointment with my old doctor. If she were not so far from home, I’d see her still. She’s very capable and conscientious. She doesn’t dither. She’s a lovely woman as well, and the half dozen years in which she was my regular doctor, we became friendly. She’s a good person who also happens to be very attractive.

I told her why I was there, and she told me she was concerned. I had explained to her the little episode the week before last when I woke up in the middle of the night short of breath and with pains in my chest. Next time, she said, call an ambulance.

She organised an ECG while I was there, as well as a blood test, and I had to give a urine sample. She referred me to a specialist to get a stress test on my heart and organised for a monitoring halter. That happens next Monday. In the meantime, the ECG was normal, and in actual fact, I feel fine. I’ve had no recurrences since and my morning heart-rate has slowly come down since, though it’s not entirely back to normal. My blood pressure is the best it’s been in over a year.

These are things I need to do just to be sure. I’d rather be early than late. On the balance of probabilities, I reckon the test next week will come back fine. I’ll be told to take better care of myself, and that’ll be it, though I’ll be considerably lighter in the pocket.



Under pressure

I woke this morning to find a friend from Perth had left me a message in the early hours of the morning. He’d just been to see a new movie, he explained – The Professor, starring Johnny Depp – and something about it had reminded him of me. There was a note of concern in his message I thought, though the words were straight-forward. He asked if I was okay.

Up to this morning, I would have replied that I was well enough, not great but getting by. It was funny timing getting his message because this morning I was awake at six knowing something was wrong.

The first time I woke up, it was at about 3am, and my breathing came hard. Given my nose now blocks most nights and the frequent chest infections I have that’s not unusual in itself, except on this occasion there was another cause. Every twitch, every slight shift, every movement I made set my heart racing and I found almost that I couldn’t breathe fast enough. That lasted for a while, and even after I’d fallen asleep then woken up early, I felt some residue of it, though it had settled.

For the last couple of years, one of the things I do on waking is to check my heart-rate. All throughout it’s been between 70 and 80 bpm. About two weeks ago it jumped and hadn’t come down since. It hasn’t been less than 90 bpm since.

Then I consider my blood pressure. Ever since I can remember, it was always 120/80. Like clockwork. Then, about 7-8 months ago, it jumped to something like 150/95. In all the readings since it hasn’t fallen below 140/80, and it got as high as 170/95 at one stage. I’m now temporarily on medication to control it.

The thing is, there’s no apparent reason why these have jumped. I have a few niggles here and there and had a minor case of fatty liver, but otherwise, I’m physically powerful and relatively fit.

As I do, I’ve read up on these things, and there was nothing I could really trace back as being a cause. There was one, stress, which is a leading cause of high blood pressure, but which I dismissed. The narrative goes I’m not a stress carrier, and in my mind, I always pictured people suffering from stress as being harried, overwrought characters barely keeping their head above water. Even in the worst of times – and there have been some shockers – I was never like that.

Regardless, there’s no doubt I’ve endured stressful events – homelessness for one, near bankruptcy, and, even now, work. Stress manifests differently in me. By nature, I’m anything but passive, and so I react robustly. I seek to do things, to change things. I want to get my hands on the wheel and wrench it the other way. I’m clever, and it sometimes comes out in wit that can be pretty corrosive. I can’t let things take their course without looking to intervene, which adds to the problem – because mostly there’s little I can do. And so the frustration builds.

That’s my situation to a T at work. I returned to work on Wednesday, feeling pretty motivated. Within half an hour I’d checked in on work and projects I’m involved in to check how they’d progressed. The answer was that they’d progressed not one whit, because either the person who needed to make a decision hadn’t (no-one makes decisions anymore), or because somebody had derailed the process for their own ends, or simply because everyone was so disorganised and confused or timid that nothing could be done.

If it was just on this occasion I might have rolled my eyes and groaned, but it’s invariably the case, and very quickly my good mood had turned sour. It was worse because there was nothing I could do, because, for reasons I can only conjecture, I’m precluded from doing the things I’m trained for, and best positioned to do. My professional frustration is longstanding and bitter.

This then, I finally realised, was probably a serious cause of my health issues.

As I walked around this morning doing my shopping, I realised there was another part of it I hadn’t considered. I’ve always been existentially restless. In the past, I managed that by travelling. I sought authentic experience and to immerse myself in real things foreign to my own culture. I wanted to look and learn and understand. I sought to feel. It was sufficient to get some of that existential angst out of my system, but now it’s built up again.

This is not something I’ve been able to do for many years because I can’t afford it. Even when times were good, I understood the simple lives we led were constrained. We live in boxes from which we occasionally venture. I’ve been aware for years now how small my life has become, and I’ve endured it on the premise that one day it would be different. I’ve been fortunate that my writing gave me an outlet. If I couldn’t venture physically from my box then here at least intellectually I could for a short distance.

All of this has now come to a head, I feel. With my health suffering, I have to ask what my options are? Obviously, the top priority is a new job, but that’s been a priority for a while without result. I can’t go on where I am, but nor can I go on without something.

I think a better job and more money would make a significant difference. It would relieve the pressure, give another outlet, and cash would give me options not currently available to me – such as travel. I’m positive my health would greatly improve.

The settings in me are different now than they were before I was homeless. Life can seem a game when things are good, but once you’ve experienced the strain of survival, you realise how precarious everything is. In a way it frees you up. I was always the swashbuckling type, but with a wink and a nod. These days it’s more grim. I have no time for petty indulgence. I see in curves and angles, in 3D, but I act in straight lines. I’m still as generous and kind as I ever was, but I’m also more blunt. And deep inside me is this yearning to express myself, in every medium and perspective. I feel bound though, struggling against ties, I could break if I chose to, but afraid of the outcome if I do. I don’t live naturally.

After my friend’s message, I looked up the movie he was referring to. It’s about a professor who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and abruptly changes his ways, living for the moment and opening up. I could understand my friend’s allusion. I had broken free of my shame last year and opened up, and it was a liberating experience. Now it seems a job part done – I need to go further.

For now, I must mind my health. There’s little I can do about work this moment, but I can live more healthily. That seems my only option, and from here on in, until I get better, that’s what I’ll do. And I might look to see my old doctor, the doctor I trust.

Giving my brain a rest

I took the day off yesterday because I couldn’t face up to work. There’s been plenty of times I didn’t fancy work, but yesterday was purely physical.

As has been a common occurrence I got up in the morning, began my regular ablutions, then went back to bed to lay down. Every other time I’ve got up again 20 minutes later and, marginally less weary, have got myself ready and headed off to work – albeit later than usual. Yesterday I went back to bed and didn’t get up until nearly 10 am.

I think I’m pretty close to being run-down, but I’m getting old, too. I’ve worked pretty solidly for the last two years, with only a couple of breaks in that – I have about seven weeks of leave accrued. Lately, even when I have taken days off, I’ve still been doing work in my own time, including after work and on weekends.
I need a really good holiday but I’ve been reluctant to commit to anything because I’ve got no money, because I’ve had no-one to look after Rigby even if I did manage to go away somewhere, and because I wanted to keep the leave up my sleeve just in case I needed to cash it out.

Realistically, even though I feel refreshed after doing nothing yesterday, this is only going to continue and get worse until I get away from it all. I need to freshen up properly.

Part of the problem is that I’m always on. Work is demanding, and then comes the weekend. Fine, except I never have a lazy weekend. I do whatever I need to do and then I sit down and write, Saturday and Sunday, and creative writing – let me tell you – uses a lot of brain wattage.
I’m very disciplined. Sometimes I don’t want to do it but I always do. The only time I don’t do it is when I’m away for some reason, which is fuck-all. And that’s the thing, if I’m tired I reckon most of it is mental tiredness because I so rarely let my mind simply idle.

Shit happens and it’s easily fixed. At the back of my mind, I plan to take a week off maybe at the end of March and go up to a mates place in Mullumbimby. He’s been at me for a while to get up there and has a granny flat in his backyard I can stay in. It’s right next door to Byron Bay and there’s no more chilled place in Oz (and potentially on the globe) than there. I’ll still do my writing, but a change of scene makes a world of difference in my experience, and spending a few hours each day by the pool or cruising around Byron won’t hurt either.

I’m hoping to get a few things sorted before then, but will update on that later.

Yes, minister

So I went to the docs yesterday for the small collection of ailments I have and got relevant referrals to get moving on them, in line with my resolution to get them sorted this year.

For my knee, he gave me a referral to have an x-ray and MRI. I rang to make an appointment later that morning and was told that because I was over 50 the MRI wasn’t covered by Medicare and I would have to pay full whack – $318. If I was under 50 or had been referred by a specialist and not a GP, it would be zero.

I vaguely recalled a discussion about this last year. The issue is that the government believes that GP’s have been making unnecessary referrals for expensive procedures, therefore costing Medicare millions of dollars more. Their solution is to set an arbitrary limit based on age.

I’m guessing the thinking around this is that by the time you’re over 50 wear and tear will have created a lot of extra issues – not that changes anything. If there’s a legitimate issue then age or cause should be irrelevant. And – correct me if I’m wrong – but isn’t this basically discriminatory?

I’m guessing this limit has been imposed because the over-50s have been ‘over’ represented in the referral stats. Well, guess what, maybe that’s because they are sicker more often, which makes complete sense. They’ve created a solution to save money by effectively saying we won’t treat you if you’re crook.

Not surprisingly the Australian Medical Association opposed this change and still does. I have little doubt that some GPs have prescribed unnecessary treatments, but this seems to me a very crude and unscientific way around it. Surely there’s someone in the government who can think of a smarter way to address this?

In my case, I need that MRI to check if I need to see a specialist and, more specifically, what sort of specialist. I can’t afford this expense so now I’m getting an x-ray only and hoping it does the trick. My other option is to get a referral to a specialist of some kind and get him to refer me. But now we’re going in circles – I’ll have to pay the specialist, even if of the wrong ilk, a fee of some dimension, in order to get a free MRI.

In other words, my options are to soldier on without the MRI hoping the x-ray can diagnose the issue. If it doesn’t then I can choose to let it go and hope it doesn’t further degenerate. Or I can go back to the doctor, get another referral to a specialist, visit the specialist, then get the MRI I might have got right at the start of the process – where it belongs.

It’s nonsense the whole thing. Bureaucracy creating more work rather than less, inconveniencing the public, and applying arbitrary, non-medical standards which basically contravene all equal opportunity tenets.

I can’t believe something so poorly considered has become law. Then again, maybe not. This is a totally inept government.

Memories of the occasion

This time last year I was on the wane. I had been buoyant up to this point. There was someone I liked and I was bright with her and flirtatious and there was the sense in both of us of much more to come. Then it changed because I changed. With Christmas encroaching I thought of mum, who always took an infectious delight in this time of year. I felt her absence and mixed with the sorrow at her passing I think there was a sense of self-pity at what I had lost. Twelve months on I think there was also another element – fear.

It’s hard to describe the darkness that descends upon you when you’re in that state of mind. My depression at the occasion is explainable, though I hadn’t experienced anything quite as keen in the years preceding. I don’t know if it was a trigger, but contributing to my despair was fear at what was happening with the girl – when you have something to gain you also have something to lose. I became self-conscious as the critical moment came closer, and it just so happened to coincide with the arrival of Christmas.

It was an awful time that had widespread ramifications – some not so good, but some positive.

It virtually kyboshed my opportunity with the girl. That’s not dead altogether but it’s on life support. I felt regret at that for a long time and took responsibility for stuffing it up for her as well as me. I’ve let that go now.

The positive to come out of it may well be a life changer. I emerged from that dark period thinking that everything must change. I realised there was something fundamentally unhealthy in my behaviour. On the surface of things I had escaped the worst of it – I was no longer homeless and unemployed, I had a modest job, a roof over my head, some income. Yet the effects of that bad time when on just beneath the surface. I carried it still, was restless and sometimes angry, I was ashamed, embarrassed and secretive. It was a toxic mix that impacted directly on my behaviour and general state of mind.

I don’t know if I’d have woken up but for that bout of depression. Probably I would have eventually, but better late than never. Coming out of it I understood I had to be more open and honest. I had to let go of the things that were weighing me down. I had to embrace my vulnerability and show it to the world.

It hasn’t been easy and it’s far from complete, but I know it’s been the right decision. I feel freer generally, and having taken the excruciating step of revealing my shameful secrets have discovered it’s not nearly as hard as I feared it would be. I backslide sometimes, sometimes I revert to old habits, and it seems despite this talk of being open and vulnerable I appear to be as formidable as ever. But I have made progress.

This Christmas I don’t know if I will feel the same brooding sorrow as before. I don’t think so. Christmas day for me will be at home with Rigby with a bottle of bubbles and a feast worthy of the occasion – a butterflied chicken, and all the trimmings. I look forward to it. I’ve had other invitations but on this I’m firm. I can have an authentic celebration just the two of us, and when people ask I tell them. I could never have done that before.

For the rest of it, let’s just see how things pan out into next year. As I say every year, next year will be big.

Seeing in the dark

Had an unexpected wobble earlier this week. I’ve been sailing along quite well after the storms a couple of months ago, then I hit turbulence again. In hindsight, it’s perfectly clear why, but at the time, in the middle of it and trying to stay afloat, it’s not so clear.

I wrote about how a friend here had likened me to a character on TV whose life was all fucked up. Normally I would have shrugged it off. I’ve got skin as thick as a crocodile. Normally I would have seen it for what it was, a light-hearted but ultimately complimentary analogue. This time all I could see were the negative aspects of it, and it hurt.

What made it abnormal was the conjunction of events that had left me more sensitive than usual. Having re-visited some of my bleak past over the weekend I was left a little frail. I was in a condition where it wouldn’t take much to tip me over the edge – and so it proved. What it really triggered in me was my absolute rejection of sympathy.

I did contact my friend that night. I pointed out to her that while there have been tough times my life as a whole has been interesting and rewarding and replete with fantastic moments. It sounds like an exercise in justification, but it’s true. I’ve copped some shit, some hard times, but I’ve had a full and interesting life too. I’ve been a participant, not a spectator. I wish some things were different, but on balance I’ll cop it.

Of course, this missed the point entirely, as our conversation over the next hour or so made clear.

I didn’t blame her or anything like that, but she picked up that she had offended me. After some initial confusion, she discerned the cause of it. She was apologetic but pointed out she was always teasing and jesting and this was in the nature of that. She was right. She made it clear that far from pitying me she had the utmost respect for me. The point she had tried to make was though I’ve suffered hardship I’m always smiling, always positive, always helping others. I had her admiration for that. I was a winner in her books. Plus I was cute.

At some point in this, it dawned on me. You see, I’m getting closer to things. I’m learning all the time.

What I really struggle with is being vulnerable. When someone points out the obvious I feel exposed. The very fact of being frail and struggling is to some extent unmanly in my books – I should be above it. This is why I reject so vociferously any hint of it. I can’t believe that anyone can like or respect that me – frankly, I feel pathetic, and part of that is because I have no control. There’s H in control, which includes my emotions – and there’s H, allegedly, out of control, embarrassed, and subject to prevailing winds. I don’t like myself then and don’t believe anyone else can either.

I think I’ve always known this about me but never wanted to own up to it. It goes to the nub of this issue too, and it’s resolution.

This is the path I’ve set myself on – to be vulnerable, to expose myself, to learn from it and come to accept it as valid and reasonable. It’s bloody hard though and goes against my nature.

I understood that as I spoke to her and apologised. I explained the problem and said I had a tendency to push people away when I suffer from this. This is the very thing I have to stick out though.

In the past I would’ve rebounded from this in my belligerent way, refusing to be frail, refusing to be intimidated. That was my hard shell. That’s what made me survive the tough times, a native combativeness that refused to submit. I’m like a boxer taking a beating but getting up from the canvas each time refusing to accept the other man is a better fighter than me. Somehow I managed to survive the big fight, but after it now I realise there are other ways, better ways, to deal with it.

This is what I’m trying to learn. The easy thing is to get belligerent again, but that solves nothing. The very hard thing is to remain vulnerable, but that’s how I heal and, ultimately, become a better, stronger man.

I have to remember that. I’m standing out in the dark alone. I could turn and return to shelter and to light, but then I’ll never accustom myself to the darkness. This time I must refuse to be tough. I have to submit myself to the darkness until I can see.


Unfortunately, I have to report that yesterday was a real struggle, and I’ve woken up today feeling no better. It’s a surprise to me. I felt as if I had things under control. There were dips, but manageable, and in fact, I caught up with a friend for lunch on Friday and discussed my current situation. It was a healthy conversation. I was pretty candid, but unembarrassed, and it felt as if I was progressing through something that would come to an end at some point.

Why I should wake yesterday and feel much less hopeful I don’t know. Though, to be fair, the sense of hope, or lack of it, is symptom more than cause. I felt sluggish all day, and my few interactions with other people were clumsy and awkward. I think it’s fair to say that you feel despairing.

It’s hard work. I fight it as best I can, but there’s not much left to fight it with. At one stage I went and lay on my bed without energy to read or even listen to music. I was incapable of absorbing it anyway. You just want to get through it and if someone said go to sleep now and you’ll wake all better you’d take it without a second thought.

In the end, I forced myself up. There’s nothing healthy about any of this, and yet I feel as if the worse thing I can do is just give in to it. Everything is dull, stagnant. There is no light or music. Time stretches. And you feel full of fog. It’s a bad way to be and if you let it go you feel as if you might just slide away, so you must make it different. The only way is by doing something.

You do things then and there’s a sense of play-acting but you keep going. Keep going long enough and it begins to feel more normal, though you never lose that sense of hopelessness.

I knew this was going to take a while to get through. I hoped it wouldn’t plumb such depths. I’ve just got to hang in there long enough to get to the other side.

I suspect one of the reasons it’s worse this weekend is that the sense of isolation is heightened. I’m hoping that means being among people back at work it will become easier from tomorrow. Certainly, it highlights one of the things that magnify my issues – the lack of a support network. Basically, I’m alone. No family and even my friends have other priorities.

I can’t leave it on that bleak note. I need to figure out what I must do to get to the place I need to be. I think I’m doing some of those things already, but it needs time. That’s the message though. In time it will be better. I just need to endure until then.