Poetry

Intensifier

It’s strange that a dog barking at the beach becomes a cause for concern. Those nearby look around for who owns the baying in the shallows, occasionally swimming a few feet out, then circling back to rescue driftwood from its returning master. It distracts from the fact I have been talking out loud to myself this entire stretch, barking in my own fashion. Old sayings, new moon. This association with madness is not medieval; it is as ever present as the wet stick protruding from my dog’s teeth.

My new psychologist has encouraged me to view the mind as a stick that can bend and break. I think of this as my dog recovers endless sticks from the waves only to rush away up into the dunes and deposit them beyond the reach of others; when I pick one up to scrape my dog’s shit into a small green bag, warm in my hand as a heart; and when a rotten thought falls and is not immediately at one with the ground. I am an expert at breaking the sticks in my head. I have not mastered bending the branches, I often go too far out on a limb. My new psychologist suggests I be mindful and choose a mantra in order to untie myself from the past. I whisper adrift repeatedly until it turns into an anchor.

[I look up synonyms for stick. Stick becomes my new mantra. It sticks for a few days. Then I go with I don’t have a thinking problem unless I have a think.]

If you swim in clear water, you can give yourself the illusion of being in control. Recently there have been several shark sightings not far from me. One of the northern beaches has been closed a couple of times. An aerial news shot showed a lot of people in the water. Fear sells well from above. A mega great white was spotted among scores feeding off a whale carcass. The second time was triggered by capitalism, all that fresh Christmas flesh clustered tight in the shallows. Statistically you are more likely to die if a cow collapses on you in a field or by an errant champagne cork. Far more people have died at the hands of psychiatrists than have been killed by a catastrophic shark bite. Rarely do surfers call for a cull or a royal commission after someone is taken at the break – in the wake of such events, there is evident respect for the choice to inhabit a predator’s habitat and an awareness of the inherent risks. Whereas psychiatry tends to bury fatal side effects in fine print and the line bait of coercive dependence mixed with maximum profit. Sharks don’t like to eat people. Institutions like to eat people. Big pharma is an apex predator more than a megalodon. One shared trait is that the parts of the brain related to feelings aren’t developed enough in either to produce
a smile.

Ways sharks are not like psychiatrists:

– numbers have been in heavy decline since the ’70s

– their existence is scientifically meaningful

– they are precise and do not seek repeat business

– humanity is not on the menu

Shark and human teeth are apparently quite similar. It’s just that ours are softer, more prone to erosion. At my dental check-up they show me close-ups of rivers of saliva and a multiplicity of fissures caused by grinding in my sleep in pursuit of sleep. My jaw is a victim of day residue. Pre-ground teeth are yet to be stocked at Aldi. They inform me I’m right-handed as I clearly brush more effectively on the left side. They seem pleased with the accuracy of their forensic evidence, not to mention the mounting adhesive restorations bill. ‘We’ll take the full journey with your teeth’ are their parting words. We are now committed, their super care as reassuring as a stapled four-figure A4 receipt.

Dentistry v Psychiatry. Being in people’s mouths v being in people’s heads. Psychiatrists = no expensive equipment or supplies. Still get to drill holes in people. Dentists = based on science and a love of soft drink. Still get to have an intimate relationship with someone in a chair. Psychiatry is mainly a solo mind pursuit; dentistry is a team contact sport. Root canal v pharmaceutical possession. Dentists talk as much as psychiatrists, but dentists make sure the patient can’t talk back. Both focus on cosmetics and jaw tension. Their love child is an oral dream therapist.

[#NotAllPsychiatrists #NotAllDentists #NotAllSharks]

There is an older walker who comes to this beach with her rag-tag pack and calls my dog ‘The Barker’, a title anointed with pride and a deep appreciation of my rescue’s right to make noise on her own terms, talking without censor or the need to appease the invisible regulations some people bring with them to sand. It’s post-storm down here today, the beach having vomited back up on itself, as if to signify that the end of the calendar year has no significance here. There are the usual mystery slicks from factory streams, random water testers who avoid non-ratepayers’ stares, ashen surfaces that meet burnt feet as you breach concrete steps passing surfers’ bruised thighs. Surf dynamics seem largely unaffected by rainfall, the prolonged wet weather validating wetsuits as active lifewear in any context.

This beach is a sheltered low-wave beach. Conditions can be hazardous, unpredictable. The mind is not patrolled by lifeguards here. I often think of drowning but equally of life, drifting across the horizon in search of tear-producing ducts.

[I’m aware how many writers fall back on analogies of the sea. The past two years I have lived in an industrial port town, visiting the same stretch of coastline close to daily. Frequent swimming in a familiar analogy brings me no closer to the workings of nature.]

As a general precaution, swimming should be avoided for up to one day after heavy rainfall. Elevated levels of bacterial indicators are still detected at the beach. Anxiety and depression are also clinically on the rise if you only read the headlines. You can smell the sewerage plant; the sooty oystercatchers have disembarked from the rocks. Council has erected a cluster of three signs randomly above one part of the shoreline. There has been overflow, and water testing may indicate that swimming or slow walking may be a health risk. I swim anyway, becoming visual stormwater, turbid drains entering turbid brain within minutes. The wind renegotiates the health direction, pointing people towards the road and passing joggers who may have shat themselves straining for a personal best. There are several potential sources of faecal contamination on the daily news updates, but politicians can’t be contained between twenty-five metres of temporary signage.

At the shore’s watermark one can find all forms of household items: plastic forks, blister packs, garbage bags, the suck head of a vacuum cleaner. The need to domesticate everything is forensically laid out. I like the beach after a storm, while there is still misty rain at hand and the only dog walkers are locals who weather the change around them. The urban run-off of strangers from school holidays is still present but no French bulldogs, as if gentrification has taken a day off.

 

NO DOGS is painted in white caps on the ground three times in the lead-up to the council sign that states this is a dog beach.

The black steel comes in and gives the sand its daily performance review.

[I ask myself questions my shrinks ask: what state am I in. Google Maps informs me I can’t currently be located, before the cartography of self drops its pin.]

I can’t afford to subscribe to the pandemic of loneliness. I call my utility company for human contact, as they can be less emotionally demanding than the helplines. A pre-recorded voice states ‘I’ll just need to grab some extra contact information from you and I’ll connect you to a human colleague.’ I tell the waiting void the password to mundane desires, how I can’t feel myself in the shower during low tides, the way hungry water responds to absent skin. When the human colleague appears I ask them to cancel my life subscription. I’m only on a month-to-month contract. They are far away and I am close. It’s important to say thank you when they agree to postpone any further lines of enquiry.

I walk past the mood charts of seaweed, washed up on the mood board of sand.

Give the youth anti-depressants before they’re depressed. Fill every pill with salt water. Research the placebo effect of being told you are enough.

Rough seas tend to form within some families.

According to some ‘experts’, bipolar disorder can be inherited, knowingly passed down through the family like a bad debt. Diagnosed based on cluster consensus. I’m dubious about genetic factors but start to seek out the origin case, having spent another summer swinging between seasons. My uncle seems to think it all comes down to one very enterprising woman on my mother’s side who made soft-soled infant shoes in her dining room. The premise is enticing: I think of Hemingway unborn, the fixation and the florid compression of sudden facts. Turns out she became an entrepreneur, was so successful she had to employ extra labour and expand to an old bakery, making it the first building lit with electricity in the suburb. The family seem to think she was fully manic as she was known for her generosity, apparently giving away her fortune to strangers. I look up generosity in the DSM-V and it is yet to be listed as a criterion. When I was at university, I took out a student loan to buy a non-crumpling tan cotton suit and took three different girlfriends to see The Phantom of the Opera. I can’t remember what I spent the rest on, I know I gave a lot of me away. If this wasn’t certifiable, the fact it’s still being indexed annually alongside my loathing of musical theatre should be enough. How do you self-correct rapid currents in your head without the constraint of banks, waiting for impulse control to become less remote and rest in your own hands? I’ve walked on the roofs of parked cars, become Jesus of the Stars. Gone nights wired to a fried hard drive. I’ve stripped naked in public, full of accelerant and thoughts of transcendence. This constant fever. Theft has often been at the heart of it all too – small, sudden, done before consequences or cameras could be considered. It is one of the few times I feel calm, along with immersing myself in the sea.

Can a bipolar person truly love? I would argue we can, floridly, anything from a crest to an anchor.

I don’t subscribe to the phrase waves of loneliness. There is no collective experience of being alone, whatever swells within. Capitalism will always capitalise on cheap metaphors, the pathologising pursuit of reframing big social issues as something that is happening to us, solitary in our room. Marine biologists say any fish species can feel isolated in a tank. The ocean is where I feel most connected, immersed in the unrelenting pursuit of staying afloat.

The number of people participating in pharmaceutic re-creation each year is increasing.

Things I don’t want to return as: a nocturnal observer, a non-repeating prescription, a psychedelic melange.

I believe that all psychiatrists are reincarnated as vertical blinds.

I decide to re-patent myself as breakwater.

An old friend drops in. We walk along the beach and she tells me that the ‘dad bod’ is in big time as I swim out pass the bluebottle stings and become as thin as my underpants, buoyant in the thought I have found my place in the landscape of men.

I drive to get supplies. My mechanic has informed me my car is worth less than my mobile phone. My new psychologist is big on balance, I’ll tell them next session. At the shops I experience a fugue state and arrive at the register with a trolley full of things I don’t recognise. The assistant tries to scan me. I’m free to dissociate, I buy a kilo of salmon. All the fishes’ eyes are looking at me, full of sadness and ice.

I am awoken by the sound of a teeth grinder starting up, cutting through enamel at the front of a mouth. Anterior thoughts are the ones everyone sees when you don’t smile, so it’s important to keep them in excellent shape. I call the council of fractured sleep and lodge a complaint, asking them where the line is between suburban construction of the self and becoming a power tool. They inform me that under new regulations head work may now occur at any time, as long as I permit it. Productivity is central to the economy. I report my loudest thoughts to the noise police. The cement mixer has been going all night, turning every fear concrete. They turn down my complaint, reassured that I am alone and not irritating a sleeping partner. Tongue indentations are evidence of me biting off more than I can chew, trying to reconcile the endless shifting night sights.

Concrete thoughts: bathers are brief. Anti-psychotics leave little to the imagination. There is no perfect rhyme for Diazepam. Time is the congress of the universe. Taxidermy is a dying profession.

Witnesses say that overnight, a group of people were standing on rocks near an area known as Hill 60 behind my son’s new school when a large wave hit, knocking them into the surf. A full-scale search of land, air and seas began around 10 pm with the bodies of three men recovered from the water soon after. They were total strangers in the same location, caught off-guard together. The police said ‘[This is] just an absolutely horrible way to start the long weekend.’ Meaning Their fire went into the water, and there it was put out. Choppers continued to circle the next day above the lookout 250 metres above sea level, above the sign that reads NEVER FLY BEHIND TAKE OFF POINT. The whole sky is also the whole sea and both are on pause. I dive in and swim in the bay below the next morning, in this body that held their bodies that now holds mine. This was rated the fifth most deadly fishing location in Australia back in 2009, I’m told by another local. It’s hard to track a rogue wave down and charge it with an offence. A current becomes a wanted criminal, the density of water its willing accomplice.

Flies gather on the eyes of a dead seagull, swept by the storm to sleep.

The requiem sharks prepare a torpedo of song. I sing softly with them.

Out of our depths, even our last breaths, we are never alone. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I listen to the blue and its humming.

Thalassophobia. A fear of deep bodies of water, a fear of that which seems vast, dark, dangerous. A photograph of a lake. Seeing the word ‘sea’. A sinking feeling. Of what lies below the surface, the monsters we make or meet, malevolent seeing creatures. A fear of what is beneath fear is truly primal. No psychiatrists here, no teeth. I hear a mantra ray saying:

If you let the ocean within you run wild, without any control, it will definitely control you.

[This whole time I’ve been trying to find a way to finish this piece. To find some peace. The incomplete trench is eternal.]

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review