Unholy trinity

At the entrance to the mental health unit, the nurse stood impatiently at the door, insisting she couldn’t let Susan pass. Sebastian had told the staff not to give any information to his mother and, because he was no longer a minor, his wishes had to be respected “for privacy reasons”. She craned her neck in an effort to peer through to the ward and catch sight of the son she hadn’t seen for months.

The nurse sighed heavily. “I will have to ask you to leave.”

She drove home and then drove back to the hospital with her daughter and waited in the car. Half an hour later Ruby returned. Sebastian had been scheduled after being transferred the night before from the city’s emergency department with drug-induced psychosis.

“He looks terrible,” Ruby said. “Like a homeless person. He’s so skinny.”

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t want to talk.”

“But he must have said something!”

“He asked me what I wanted for Christmas.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘For you to still be here.’ ”

Her brother had often threatened suicide and once made a half-hearted attempt by overdosing on Panadol. Ruby no longer had any aspirations for him. She just hoped they could keep him alive.

“I made him promise,” she said.

Susan started the car and they drove in silence. Over the years Sebastian had come to inhabit that silence between them, the unutterable. Then Ruby added: “And he said you can visit tomorrow.”


The next day Sebastian came out into the visiting area unsteady on his feet, barely able to keep his eyes open, like a drunk on the edge of a blackout. He had grown since his mother had seen him last, a great long streak of a young man with a bristly face. And so thin that when she hugged him he was all bones. He flopped onto the grubby visitors’ sofa and started raving. How many drugs he had taken, how he was trying to kill himself but he couldn’t now because of his promise to his sister.

As he spoke he kept lowering his eyelids and drifting off to sleep, the effect of powerful antipsychotic drugs. For the past few days he’d been sleeping in Sydney Park, which was where he met the meth dealer who gave him ice free.

“It was the first time,” he said. But she didn’t believe him.

This was one of the biggest adjustments – becoming a mother who couldn’t believe what her son said.

Then he started boasting. He’d smoked 30 cones. Followed by three bottles of Chivas Regal. Then he reflected for an instant. “I’m just a petty thug.”

“Is that what you think?” Susan asked. “That you’re just a petty thug?”

This is called reflective listening. It was a technique she had learnt from Xavier Amador, author of I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help. When someone with a mental illness talks to you, you simply repeat what they say back to them, sending the message that you’ve heard them. That’s probably the most important thing she had learnt over the years: shut up and listen. The other most important thing was that addiction, psychosis and mental illness are a kind of unholy trinity: three things that are also one.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Is that what you want to be?”

“No,” he said emphatically. “But I’m not good enough to be a real gangster. They’re way up there” – he gestured with his hand to a higher level – “and I’m down here.” He lowered his palm to the ground.

In the tiny area where visitors meet with patients there were two lounges and a vending machine. While waiting for her son to come through from the ward Susan had inserted coins for a chocolate bar. Although Sebastian’s skin had improved since admission, his frame was still skeletal. He ripped open the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and then glanced up at the other patient who was pacing the small room, presumably waiting for his visitor. It was hard to catch his face because he was looking resolutely at the ground. She watched as Sebastian leapt up impulsively to offer the man some of his chocolate. The thick, heavily tattooed neck turned and roughly refused. Like a child in a playground attempting to make friends with the big, tough boy, Sebastian vainly kept insisting. It was a scene she had often witnessed before.

Ever since he was little, Sebastian had demonstrated a strange and often charming fearlessness about approaching strangers. Even at six years old, he boldly walked up to people in trains or restaurants, engaged them in conversation and offered them whatever happened to be in his possession at the time – cake, coloured pencils, a furry toy. As a parent, Susan thought this was a delightful characteristic; he was so social and engaging. But now, at 18, he just looked like the cliché of the weedy boy trying to get the attention of the burly man.

Hierarchy, power, maleness and ideals of masculinity. How much were these things an integral part, or even the cause, of his psychosis? And if his identity crisis was chiefly based on how to become a man, did that mean, as his mother and a woman, there was nothing she could do to help?

Afterwards Susan drove home in a strange state of gratitude. Bless my daughter, she was thinking. Her good child. She had made her brother promise. And bless Sebastian. Because despite everything, he still knew how to keep a promise. 

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Unholy trinity".

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