Out with the old and in with the…old?

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“People have getting really good results with this one,” says the pharmacist eagerly as she sellotapes up my paper bag of pills.  It’s as if I’m trying out some kind of new skin cream, only I’m not.

It’s a daily medication designed to stop my brain from thinking that the world is a scab-covered pustule of disgustingness, oozing despair and loneliness from every pore.  (Why say antidepressant when you can write a metaphor like that?)

After my Effexor withdrawal hell, I told my doctor yesterday that I couldn’t stay on it.  As good as it had been, I’d lost trust in it.  It’s a bit like having a really good hairdresser, with the only downside being that if you miss an appointment they come and visit you in the night and shave a strip down the middle of your head and write “Bastard” on it with indelible ink.

So, she’s put me on something new.  LoxaLate is the brand name – I can already see a woman with perfect teeth holding it up to the camera while tiny print appears at the bottom of the screen warning you that it may cause liver failure.  The chemical name is escitalopram, which is only two letters short of citalopram, the very first antidepressant drug I ever took.

My doctor tells me that this is new and improved citalopram, but a cursory look online says that only one independent study has been conducted that showed the new drug to be an improvement over the old; and there are doubts over the true independence of this study:

There has only ever been one independent, direct comparative study which suggests that Cipralex [for which escitalopram is the active ingredient] is clinically more effective. The Bureau’s investigation has now established connections between an individual working for Lundbeck, the Danish company that makes both Cipralex and Cipramil [citalopram active ingredient], and Arbacom, a Russian company that sponsored the independent head to head trial.

Why would any of this matter?  If the drug companies try and fail to make a better version of their products, surely the fact that they’re trying matters?

Well, it depends what their motive is.  You see, patents for drugs last only a limited amount of time, after which any company can make their own version.  This makes the price bottom out tremendously, and in the case of citalopram – which has been out of patent since 2002 – sourcing the drug becomes dirt-cheap.

PHARMAC, New Zealand’s own drug-buying agency, operates in precisely this manner.  As soon as a ‘generic’ version of a drug becomes available, they dump the brand name version immediately in order to save the taxpayer money.

My doctor told me this morning that LoxaLate is one of the more expensive drugs funded in New Zealand, so I’ve only been given a thirty-day supply of it so far, just in case it doesn’t work out.

But if it’s virtually no different to its earlier cousin, are we being hoodwinked by the beancounters at Big Pharma?

The process of tweaking a drug slightly so you can renew its patent is known as ‘evergreening’, and Lundbeck have vigorously denied such charges.

It’s a murky old world, and an indication of just what can go wrong when the search for scientific truth, the need for quality healthcare, and commercial greed clash.  Can these goals ever align, or will the third little piggy always be trying to shaft the other two?

When pills run out

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There is somebody in the bedroom. I can see their shape against the wall, and I swallow hard as I reach for the lamp to turn it on. Soft light fills the room, and the shape vanishes.

I lay down and return to sleep, but this is just the start of Monday night’s ordeal. I’ve written previously about severe nightmares, but tonight is the instalment to beat them all. Tonight, my sleeping brain has managed to mine the library for the most potent triggers it can possibly find and weave them into lifelike scenarios.

All involve people I know. There’s death, loneliness, isolation, betrayal, explosive arguments, bullying and taunting. At one point I wake up screaming for Dean and I can’t move. I’m half-paralysed. That’s when I realize I’m not actually awake and I force my eyes – my real eyes – open.

By 4am, the brain zaps I’ve been experiencing for most of the day are unbearably loud. Brain zaps are a medication withdrawal side effect, literally like someone playing space invaders inside your head. Another consumer has described it as “like my brain was going off and on”, and this is another good analogy. As if you’re trying to boot up your computer but the plug isn’t in properly, and it keeps flicking, flashing, flicking, and your head feels like it wants to lift right off your body.

I’ve known since going on Effexor (venlafaxine), an antidepressant, that it has a very severe withdrawal syndrome. I’ve even experienced it before, when I’ve been tardy enough to forget to renew my prescription in time. But never like this.

My last dose was on Saturday morning. I thought calmly that I’d get in touch with my GP’s office on Monday morning, get a repeat, and I’d be without it for two days max. Based on previous experience, it might be a little uncomfortable, but I’d be ok.

I felt like I was working in a parallel universe for most of Monday. Spacey is the word that comes to mind. The brain zaps started by about 9pm that evening, and I was definitely ready for bed. When I turned the light out, the above-described descent into hell began.

At dawn I went to the kitchen and reached for a stash of leftover quetiapine I’ve had for a while and took two. I know that its juggernaut sedative effect will be enough to knock me past the dreaming phase of sleep and out.

The next thing I remember with any clarity is being woken at 4pm – twelve hours later – by my husband saying that the pharmacy hasn’t got my repeat prescription. I ring my doctor’s, only to be told that they didn’t put it through because I need to go in and make an appointment (thanks for ringing, guys). I haven’t seen my GP for six months, and apparently by law they have to see me.

(Tell that to the ludicrously expensive Ponsonby psychiatrist who happily wrote me repeats of quetiapine for well over a year without so much as a phone call to see how I was.)

There are no appointments available until 10am the following day. The brain zaps are so loud in my head now that I literally want to either smash everything in the house or get into the car and drive it into the nearest wall. You’ve seen those old films with the clichéd asylum and people going batshit crazy? That’s how I felt. I had a swarm of bees inside my head and the only way of getting them out was to dash my brains against a blunt object.

I explained as calmly as I could to the nurse on the phone about the brain zaps and would it be possible to get an emergency prescription for a couple of doses until tomorrow? She said I should go to the pharmacy (my regular) and see if they’d do it for me, as they know my history.

So there I was, ten minutes later, in dirty, stinking clothes, begging at the pharmacy counter like a homeless junkie asking if I could please have two doses of Effexor to tide me over till the next day.

This blog will doubtless be a huge help for those who think that all psychiatric medication is evil, and I’m fully aware that it may be used out of context, so I’ll state here again that I am a big advocate for medication as treatment for bipolar disorder.

Thing is, they don’t all work the same. Effexor has been great for me in that it’s helped stave off the worst of my lows with a minimum amount of side effects, particularly weight gain and things of a sexual nature such as retarded ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, low libido etc. I’ve had none of those things on Effexor, but I have experienced them on other drugs.

The downside is the withdrawal syndrome, which I have now experienced the worst of. Imagine if I’d been in France filming a few weeks ago and my luggage had been lost or stolen? Such a severe reaction to stopping a medication simply isn’t acceptable or, in my opinion, safe.

Looking around on various other web forums, I see that I’m not alone. This from Dr Phil Long, who describes phasing one of his patients off Effexor as “a medical disaster”:

“I have never seen this patient as severely depressed and suicidal as she was this weekend. In addition, she had these very unusual neurological withdrawal symptoms. Yesterday, we restarted her venlafaxine (quickly back to 75 mg twice a day). Within 4 hours of restarting venlafaxine, she was dramatically improved. Today, she was free of the severe suicidal ideation that was so intense yesterday. She was smiling and dramatically less depressed (all in less than 24 hours after restarting venlafaxine).”

This is precisely my experience after getting my emergency dose. I slept for an hour, and upon waking, the brain zaps had subsided and all the violently destructive feelings I’d had were gone.

From what I’ve been able to ascertain, I’ve been on a relatively low dose (one x 75mg capsule + one x 37.5mg capsule). Over at the Crazy Meds website, there’s a page on Effexor, including a whole section on how to stop taking it. They recommend slowly tapering down to one 37.5mg capsule a day, and then:

If you still can’t stop taking it at a low dosage, you and your doctor may want to try Prozac (fluoxetine) prescription or samples. Generic fluoxetine will even do. 10mg a day is all you should need. Even with the proper discontinuation stopping the last 37.5mg can be hellish. Taking two weeks worth of Prozac (fluoxetine) will make the discontinuation a lot easier. So when you’re off of Effexor and you cannot function, get on the Prozac for a week or two, then stop taking the Prozac. By that time you should find you’ll have either no discontinuation syndrome, or it won’t be nearly as bad.

Ten weeks to come off an antidepressant? I might as well have been a junkie. At least the dreams would have been better.

Seriously, if you’re looking to switch meds and your doctor is suggesting Effexor, make sure you’re fully aware about this nasty sting in the tail.

The casual schizophrenic

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Last year, during a breakdown, I wrote about the casual use of the word “bipolar” in everyday language and how that contributes to trivializing what is a debilitating, stigmatized and all-round Victorian cesspit of a mental illness.

One could argue that this wider, more “colloquial” (to coin an adjective that we’ll return to later) use of diagnostic labels is part of society’s greater awareness of mental illness, but does awareness necessarily correlate to understanding?

As I’ve also noted before, schizophrenia is one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized of all mental illnesses, and use of the term “schizophrenic” in everyday language is disturbingly commonplace.

When occupational therapist Toni Reid recently heard it used casually in a sports broadcast on TV One, she decided she’d had enough, and made a formal complaint to TVNZ.

TVNZ summarized the incident in responding to Toni’s complaint:

“At Monday 23 January the ONE News sports segment reported on the Australian Tennis Open in Melbourne.

Reporting on the Serena Williams v Ekaterina Makarova match, the reporter described elements of Williams’s form that day. The reporter stated that Williams was almost schizophrenic, she hit double faults in one game, as well as an ace.”

Toni’s complaint:

“During the One News Sports broadcast, the female reporter referred to the downfall of a female tennis star as “schizophrenic.” This is a ridiculous comparison to make, and ensures that the discriminatory and false stereotypes of those suffering mental illness, are upheld. The work of your reporter tonight has only acted to encourage the New Zealand public to hold derogatory thoughts of those people in our country who suffer from highly misunderstood mental illnesses.

It is horrifically offensive to those both those of us who work with the mentally ill, and those who suffer mental illness. I would appreciate it if you would NEVER use mental illness as a ploy to make fun of a sports star. It is unacceptable, and not fair for those affected by it. Just think about your words, and who they may offend or affect.

If your reporters and writers are unaware of mental illness, please get informed and educated. It is negligent and selfish of people to make fun of others as you did tonight.”

Broadcasters are not known for apologizing unless they’ve been caught with the entire news team dressing up as Hitler and talking about techniques for making lampshades, and even then they’d probably try to pass it off as light-hearted humour, as was done during my complaint about Nigel Latta’s “Mad Uncle Jack” shtick last year.

True to form, TVNZ declined to uphold Toni’s complaint, responding:

‘The reference to ‘schizophrenic’ in the ONE News sports segment was not intended to denigrate or discriminate against mentally ill people. The word ‘schizophrenic’ was used in a sporting context – not in a mental health context and was intended to describe contradictory sporting performance. Viewers would have understood that the word was being used to describe the player’s sporting performance that day rather than it being a derogatory comment about the player’s mental health. This comment was a fleeting and was not intended to cause offence.

The word ‘schizophrenic’ can be used colloquially outside of a mental health discussion and be understood by viewers to have the definition provided by dictionary.com as ‘a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.’

The word was not spoken with any invective toward any wider groups in society. The item made no reference to people suffering from schizophrenia.

Accordingly the Committee does not agree that the conversation or fleeting use of the word reached the necessary level of invective to be considered in breach of Standard 7.”

For those not in the know, Standard 7 in the television broadcasting code refers to discrimination.  We can translate the last sentence in TVNZ’s reply as “it didn’t piss enough people off”.

Some of you may think that Toni needs to calm down and let it go, but having spoken to her, she’s not planning to form a mob of politically correct feminist lesbians to storm the Death Star on Hobson St with lighted torches until the powers-that-be repent.

All she’s after, as stated in an email to me, is for “TVNZ to admit their choice of words was a little unjust and if at all possible, at some stage, run a story about people in recovery, living well in the face of stigma and discrimination.”

I said she’s about as likely to get that as a free trip to the international space station for an orgy of gravity-free sex and sherbet.  Or words to that effect.  Let’s just say I said I doubted she’d get what she wanted.

Toni is taking her complaint on to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

What do you think?  How do you feel about the casual, everyday use of the term “schizophrenic”, and how does it contribute to greater understanding and acceptance of those who have been given this clinical label?

Crisis teams: the ugly

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Having chronicled a good crisis team response and a bad one over the past few weeks, I’m going to conclude this snapshot look at the state of our mental health crisis services with a trilogy of horror stories from a blog correspondent of mine (we’ll call her Tania) who helped two friends through emergencies, and then had to face one of her own.

All of these events occurred within the past two years.

Friend number one, whom I’ll call Rachael, was 6 months out from the end of her marriage with three children to look after. One was at school, the other two were at home with her. She was on medication for depression and anxiety, but on their own the pills weren’t helping and her situation had deteriorated. She’d stopped taking the meds, she’d withdrawn from the world, and was rapidly losing weight from not eating.

“I rang her one morning and her 4-year-old son answered the phone,” Tania remembers. “He said mummy won’t get out of bed. I went straight over and the house was upside down. I’d never seen her like this, the house was normally immaculate. She hadn’t showered in days, she was shaking and crying. I tried calling her doctor, and spoke to a nurse there. She was out of pills and hadn’t been in for some time. I then rung the crisis team.”

With the state she found Rachael in, Tania knew she couldn’t provide help on her own. Her call to the crisis team was bad from the start.

“They said they didn’t want to talk to me unless she gave them permission,” she says. “I told them that she won’t even get her head out of the blankets, let alone talk to anyone. There are three kids here and she needs help. They told me she just needs to take her meds, get out of bed and look after her kids. I said it was deeper than that, she’d crashed, she needed help and she needed it now. They told me that unless she feels she needs the help, there isn’t much they would do about it.”

Told to call back in an hour if nothing had changed, Tania set about tidying up the house and organising the kids. An hour passed. Nothing had changed.

On the second call, the team continued to deflect responsibility, asking if friends and family could take over, help and take turns to watch Rachael. Tania didn’t know many of Rachael’s friends, and her family (apart from an elderly disabled mother) were all overseas.

“I said, she needs your help! You guys are the professionals. I finally got her on the phone with them. She was weak, tired, and could hardly string a sentence together, but she told them she was fine. I got back on the phone and was told, ‘she’s tired and needs sleep, we’ll call back in a couple of days to do a follow up but there’s not much we can do right now.’”

Rachael ended up being in the care of mental health services for a year and had intense therapy. She’s on the road to recovery and now wants to train to work in mental health, but Tania will never forget those initial calls to the crisis team where she felt “they really didn’t care and were looking for others to take control so they wouldn’t have to get involved.”

*     *     *     *     *

The initial response when Jenna needed help was better. She and her kids were staying with Tania for the weekend after Jenna’s husband had left her. Her moods became increasingly dark and she began talking about being dead. Tania hid her car keys, but Jenna decided to head off under her own steam, running out of the house.

Tania rang the crisis team, who told her to call the police. The police found Jenna, and deposited her back at Tania’s house, saying that mental health services would call for a visit. “I said no, they were to take her to hospital and mental health services can see her there,” Tania recalls.

Despite the runaround, Tania says the crisis team were “really good” when they saw Jenna, sending her to respite for a few days, giving her a relaxation CD and calling her every day at home on the phone after she was discharged.

The following weekend was a different story.

“I got a message from one of her friends on Facebook saying she was talking about being in a bad place,” Tania remembers. “I talked to her online (she wouldn’t talk on the phone) and she said she’d researched how many pills she’d need to kill her and was counting them as we spoke. She said I wasn’t to call anyone because if I did then I wasn’t a true friend.”

Tania immediately dialled 111 and stayed online with Jenna at the same time to keep them apprised. The ambulance arrived as she was about to swallow the pills. At the hospital, Jenna faced a wait of between five and six hours in a corridor with Tania before the crisis team arrived.

“They talked for a bit, then asked me if I would stay at her place with her. I said no, I have my children at home. They asked if she would stay with me, she said no. She was exhausted, she told them all she wanted was to go home to bed.”

The crisis team asked Tania for her opinion. “I said, she’s just tried to kill herself, it would be nuts to send her home on her own. They then said to her that if she wasn’t going to go anywhere or have anyone stay with her then they were stuck. They asked me if I would sign her over under the [Mental Health] Act. I was quite prepared to, but she talked them out of it.”

After a two suicide attempts in two weeks, Jenna was again sent home – with Tania. She was given a single dose of sleeping pills, and Tania was told to take her home, strip the house of pills and leave her alone. “Make sure she uses her relaxation CD more” was the final piece of advice.

The crisis team didn’t call for another three days, and visited Jenna once during the following week. By the third weekend, Tania took another friend and dragged Jenna to the hospital.

“She couldn’t walk or talk, she hadn’t eaten or drank in days. We got her into hospital and she was so dehydrated that they couldn’t get into a vein because they were so shrunken. I spoke to the crisis team on the phone, and they said this was a medical issue not a mental health issue. I said it was a form of self-harm, they didn’t agree and they didn’t come and talk to her.”

Four litres of fluid were put into Jenna overnight. Tania left the hospital at 1am, and Jenna was discharged at 10am the next day.

After more lobbying of the A&E staff by Tania, the crisis team became more actively involved in Jenna’s case and she was given home-based treatment, a medication change, counselling…and told to use her relaxation CD more.

*     *     *     *     *

Tania’s own story centres less around the mishandling of a single crisis and more on how an ongoing patient is handled, buffeted from pillar to post within the mental health system and other related government agencies with few signposts and a wealth of misinformation.

Tania has spent nearly five years under the care of mental health services. She’s had the crisis team called on her many times. She’s had so many different doctors, key workers and social workers that she’s lost count. She’s had several different diagnoses, the most recent of which is bipolar disorder.

Despite asking for therapy multiple times, she says she was never offered it – until fairly recently.

“A few weeks ago, I was offered all the weekly therapy they said I needed. In fact they said I would never be able to get well until I had therapy and counselling,” Tania says. “But first I had to find childcare for my son.”

Tania is on an invalid’s benefit, thankfully not one of the welfare payments being targeted for extinction by the Bennett regime. But it didn’t make finding childcare any easier. She has few friends and no family where she is living, although after chasing a few referrals she managed to find someone. “I was told that all I needed to do was give them the weekly appointment times and they would send someone out.”

Then came the rug-puller. After securing the childcare, Tania was discharged from mental health services and told she could find the therapy on her own in the community.

“I’m gutted,” she says. “I’m left with a diagnosis I know nothing about, I don’t know where to look for therapy because it’s all so expensive, and I feel completely brushed off. I was so close to getting the help I needed and it was ripped out from under me. I feel back at square one.

“It’s like they diagnose, script meds, and discharge while crossing their fingers that you won’t be back. If they keep discharging people that need the help before they have the tools to cope or the resources to know where to go, then people will never be well.”

*     *     *     *     *

Why is our system like this? Disenchanted staff? Underfunding? Lack of communication between services? Poorly organised services? Lack of understanding?

While one can accept that the good work done by crisis teams, like any good work, will often go unsung, the failure stories are so frightening that it raises serious questions about what needs to be done.

We often hear the phrase “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” when referring to mental health emergencies.  From what I’ve been hearing and experiencing, it would seem that a lot of the time, the ambulance simply isn’t there.

Next week, we’ll try and get some answers.

Just the way you aren’t

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Billy Joel’s worldwide hit “Just The Way You Are” was released two months before my birth, in September 1977.  I love it dearly.  It’s a perfectly-produced piece of soft rock, with a lyric that tells us just what we want to hear.

And that’s precisely what’s wrong with it.

Pop music has always lied to us, but “Just The Way You Are” is caught up in something far more insidious: the art of self-delusion.

To be fair, the signs are all there in the production: the beautiful electric piano that opens the song, drenched in chorus and phase shifts, is the aural equivalent of amniotic fluid.  You could sleep forever in its womb-like substance.

The inherent contradiction in the song lies with the narrator saying he loves you just the way you are, while simultaneously pleading on several occasions to “don’t go changing”.  None of us remains the same throughout our lives, and that’s a fact you have to accept if you’re going to have a successful long-term relationship. 

There’s a difference between shared nostalgia and mourning for a past that you will never recapture.  If, caught up in the flush of first love, you’re hoping that you’ll always be cocooned in that electric piano, you’re in for one hell of a comedown.

The spread of the soft-rock meme of eternal, unchanging love takes flight as Joel first sings the line, “I’ll take you just the way you are”.  At this point, the tenor sax refrain sashays in, as it always does in songs about love, or dance/pop tracks about moving on up and kicking deadbeats to the curb (thank you M People).

On verse 2, a lush wash of breathy synth underpins the depth of the narrator’s desire to keep his lover rooted in the present: “Don’t go trying some new fashion, don’t change the colour of your hair” – there’s most gay men ruled out right there. 

The beauty of the music then covers a multitude of sins in the next line, “You always have my unspoken passion, although I might not seem to care.”

That doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid.  “You know I love you” does not make up for not being there when your partner needs you, ignoring his needs, and putting him last on your list of priorities, because of some unspoken passion.  If it’s unspoken, how is he supposed to know it’s there? 

Communication doesn’t seem high on the priority list here.  The line, “I don’t want clever conversation, I never want to work that hard” is repeated twice in the song.  Relationships are hard work, and conversation skills – clever or otherwise – are something you’re going to need.  Sometimes you’re the diplomat, sometimes you’re the life coach, sometimes you’re an arsehole.  Or all three in succession.

By the time we reach the middle-eight, it sounds as though the lover isn’t convinced.  As the narrator continues to plead for him not to change, the narrator asks, “What will it take till you believe in me, the way that I believe in you?”

Maybe the lover knows that the narrator has fallen in love with an image, a frozen moment in time, rather than a real, evolving person. 

And as is often the case, the narrator expects something without necessarily giving it in return.  While being lulled into a false sense of security over three glorious minutes, including an instrumental break with the ubiquitous sax and a floating string arrangement that sounds like its being piped in via an elevator held up by angels, we get to the final repeat of “I love you just the way you are”, in which Joel jumps to an unexpected and previously unintroduced chord.  It’s ok for him to change, then.

Ironically, Joel reportedly didn’t like the song, which was written about his then wife Elizabeth Weber.  They parted ways in 1982. 

It sits neatly alongside other tracks on one of Joel’s most famous albums, “The Stranger”, the title track of which alludes to the fact that we can perhaps never really know a person, no matter how much we love them, or how long they’re in our lives.

The lesson?  Enjoy the dream that pop music paints, but don’t forget to wake up afterwards.

That day

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The city's icon in better days, now shattered and crumbled.

I don’t know if I would have stayed in Christchurch if I’d had to live through the events of the past eighteen months, in particular the day that changed everything – today.

People died.  History was lost.  Livelihoods dissolved.  And unlike a sudden passing of a loved one, which hurts like hell but at least gives you a definitive start point for grief and moving on, Christchurch instead developed a cruel form of Parkinson’s disease, continuing to shake at random intervals, often after periods of calm when its people had just begun to remember what life was like on stable soil.

In a conversation with my friend Richard at Bear New Zealand last week, he was asked by an Aucklander why he hasn’t moved, and the answers were pretty basic: home and family.  Both those things have very strong foundations, and short of the city sinking under the ocean like a latter-day Atlantis, you’re not going to let them go easily.

My parents-in-law, who have lived in Auckland for decades, chose to move to Christchurch late last year to be closer to family.  Their house was on the market and sold just as the September quake hit.  They moved anyway, and in their seventies have experienced major disruptions at a time in their lives that should be marked by serenity.  They’re sticking it out.

My cousin has experienced panic attacks that have kept her hanging by the phone in case of a quake, lest she need to rush down to the school and bring her children back to safety.  Trips out to the shops have become like a perverted episode of Mission: Impossible, where she runs to grab the things she needs, paying and getting out for fear of being trapped in a collapsing building.

My friend Gabe’s house is three doors away from a red zone, and after swearing he’d stick it out, he finally moved north to Auckland for better work prospects and a sense of stability.

“If you’re under 30, just renting and don’t have any responsibilities then there’s not a lot of incentive to stay, even though there is work available,” he told me in an interview for Express last June. “I’ve thought about leaving for a break, but it’s hard when you’ve got your home, your animals – you can’t throw a couple of cats in the back of the car and drive off to the west coast.”

Ironically, that’s exactly what he ended up doing – the cats are now happily ensconced in a central Auckland suburb, but he still misses his home every day.

My friends Ralph and Rob, despite having a fantastic garden that boasts its own Facebook page, have also had their ups and downs.  Like my parents-in-law, Rob was a recent migrant to the city when the shaking started.

“He’s been incredible to move his whole life here to New Zealand and not run when his adopted city fell to bits around his ears,” Ralph told me.

My best mate from childhood, Tim, has held onto life with two young children and a determined resolve to keep going.  After the first quake, he observed it was “Mother Nature 1, Us 0″, but I think the “Us” team have fared far better since that first shock.

One of the positive things to hear from my colleague Freedom is that people with experience of mental illness were not collapsing under pressure as many people thought we might have, as she noted back in May:

People with experience of mental illness are coping better than others during this time, Freedom believes, because they have learnt how to manage anxiety, know their triggers and realise they don’t have to freak out.

“Some people with experience of mental illness can operate really well under this sort of pressure and it’s fantastic. It’s good for them to see that they can be setting the example – they are the experts on this stuff!”

In Christchurch today, there are at least fifteen riverside sites set up where you can go and do two things: drop a flower into the water and write a message to be pinned on a tree.  The first symbolises letting go, the second looking to the future.  It’s a beautiful idea, and a great way of bringing people together on a day which is bound to be fraught with emotion.

I wrote in April last year that my feelings about the city had changed forever.  The strength of the people, my friends and family, made me see the place in a new light.  I’ll be there again this weekend.  And in all the ways that matter, I don’t expect anything to have changed.

Looking into infinity

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When I was little, my cousins and I used to joke about beaches on the east coast of Auckland.  We deemed them boring, because the only waves were when a boat went past.

If God did create the earth, then he was being very lazy with those beaches, as if he slopped sand out of a cup, chucked in a few shells and instructed the water to lap up on the beach like a wet envelope.

Out west, the beaches are difficult to get to.  The roads wind and wind, sometimes turning to gravel, and cellphone coverage becomes a distant memory.  The landscape is rugged, rough, and perpetually unfinished in an aggressive way.  They actually need lifeguards on these beaches because the ocean can kill you.

In the absence of knowing how to meditate, this is my perfect escape.

My mate John has kindly taken me on a road trip for the day, and I suggested Bethells Beach as one of our destinations as he has never been.  Originally from London, he’s more used to the kind of beaches I described above, only greyer and colder.

We take a right as we reach the lifeguard tower and climb over a sandhill to the satellite beach, O’Neills Bay.  It’s cloaked by a semicircular cocoon of cliffs, and giant fists of rock frame the waves themselves.

As we stand in the surf, I say to John that it’s like looking into infinity.  Your brain knows that if you were to travel far enough towards the horizon you’d eventually reach Australia, but that’s not what you can see.

In 12-step addiction recovery programs, there’s often talk of acknowledging a power higher than oneself, a bugbear for some atheists because it seems like surreptitious evangelism of the vulnerable.

I think it simply belies a lack of imagination.  When I stand in the water of a west coast beach and watch those waves crashing toward me and over me, feel the powerful undercurrent as it dissolves the sand beneath my feet, I acknowledge unequivocally that I am in the presence of something more powerful than me.

It’s not sentient, and it doesn’t give a toss about what happens to me.  It’s dangerous, but not malevolent.  And its raw power is invigorating, just like the sheer size of the cliffs behind us.  Your mind shrinks them when you first look, like a badly made cotton shirt in the wash, but then you see the ant-sized people walking in their shadow and you realise how small you are.

Some people might find that depressing, but I don’t.  The cliffs have no more awareness of the creatures beneath it than the surf does.  They just are.

So when I’m looking for a sense of wonder in the universe, I don’t need to turn to storybooks with stories of powerful gods or bearded men that can turn water into wine.  I can stand right here, in a tangible place, and feel engaged by it with all of my five senses.  And glad to be alive.

Bear Drag II: The Disgusted Tourist

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Arthur Milne is flipping me the bird as I film him getting made up to look like a lady.  It’s just projection because he’s agreed to dress up as one and lipsync to Robyn, as best as a 6-foot-plus hirsute giant can.

Yes, it’s bear drag time again in Auckland.  You may remember I took part myself last year, but this time around I’m just documenting the action, including the behind-the-scenes make-up drama.

Actually, there wasn’t much drama at all – just one disgruntled Australian tourist who turned up outside Urge Bar wanting a drink only to be told that it was closed.  He took one look at the three large hairy men in lipstick, bras and panties drinking and swaying on heels before he stalked off, muttering to himself.

“Hmph!  Bloody New Zealand… that’s the last time… bears doing drag!  Jesus Christ…”

His indignation, kinda like a male version of “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”, only made the whole thing funnier.  Arthur, who took a trip to the US last year with his partner, says that drag events would be very frowned upon at bear shindigs over there too.

I imagined our chagrined Australian tourist going home and dining out on his failed night at Urge for the next decade, telling every gay man he comes across that the bears in New Zealand are all a bunch of mincing cross-dressers and woebetide anyone who puts their arse on a Qantas flight to Auckland.

I pictured him as a curmudgeonly defender of butchness, disgusted that a bunch of men would want to sully the label “bear” by squeezing themselves into a series of slutty frocks (which nearly all of the contestants made themselves, I should add, a detail that would have sent Uncle Grumpy over the top).

Yet when I shared the story the next day with some friends online, fellow blogger Preston said that if he was in New Zealand, he would have avoided the bear drag as well:

“I’ve rejected Mardis Gras [in Sydney] since I’ve been aware of myself being gay for the simple fact that for all the 80s, 90s and even into the early 2000s, every time the media wanted to do a story about anything remotely to do with gay people, what did they show? Men in pink speedos and men in drag dancing away at Mardi Gras.

“*That’s* what being gay was about, according to the media. Drag epitomises a need by some to play an effeminate role – either seriously, or for shits and giggles, but regardless, if you’ve grown up in say, a small country town where gays are stigmatised because apparently all gays are drag queens, then that colours your perspective.

“These days, I really don’t care if someone else does drag, but I still retain my disinterest in it – I’d be just as likely to go to a heterosexual strip club with female pole dancers as I would a drag show.

While he’d be happy to see his friends enjoying the show, he says for him “the best way of describing it is that for me any form of drag now is like straight sex – I acknowledge that it’s out there, I acknowledge that people have fun doing it, but I don’t want to do it myself and I don’t want to watch others doing it.”

I can’t really compare Arthur’s performance to having sex with a woman, seeing as I have no point of reference, unless the key emotion when having sex with a woman is ‘surprise’.

Arthur is hardly a monosyllabic knuckle-dragging grunter, but when I first met him last year, I probably wouldn’t have believed that he’d pull off something like this, including a confident strut straight out of the restaurant and into the middle of K Rd where he started dancing like a hooker as buses flew past.

I suppose I could have stayed home and read the rest of my Patricia Cornwell novel, but this was much more fun.