Free at last, with little to celebrate MENTAL HEALTH

“JOHN” supposes, rather tiredly, that he should buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate the 14th anniversary of his release from a mental hospital. A man with severe schizophrenia, he was locked up from the ages of 17 until 31 in his home state of Western Australia.

He spent most of those years either being forced to make toys, or sit around aimlessly watching television, watching the world go by. He is now free of the petty cruelties of that institutionalised world, such as the injections from a nurse who liked to blunt needles on a concrete floor before using them.

But he can’t see much reason to celebrate his new life. He spends most of his time sitting in a small, bare housing ministry flat, smoking, his only regular visitor the psychiatric nurse who brings his fortnightly injections.

John is quietly spoken, but looks dishevelled and often scratches himself, a legacy of rashes he caught while sleeping rough. For 11 of his 14 years of “freedom” he wandered homeless on the nation’s highways, sleeping in parks or on roadsides.

His appearance today does not go down well with the locals. “You walk down the street and people call you names,” he says. “You don’t go into places because they say you’re bad for business. One caf owner threatened to put a false charge against me because I used to have a pot of tea, but nothing to eat.”
John does not want his real name used because he fears it could lead to abuse.

He would not want to go back to hospital, but says he is not really happier now than when he was institutionalised. “No, not really,” he says. “They got it all wrong. They just threw everybody out on the streets, and when the community know you have a psychiatric problem, they don’t want to help you at all. Sometimes I think, would I rather be in, or would I rather be out?”

He feels he has too little to show for his 45 years of life. “I should have something of my own, not something I get for free. I used to earn $350 a week as a rouseabout on a sheep station when the wool industry peaked. I could have been a shearer, a wool presser, anything.”

But he sees little hope now of his situation improving. “The medicine makes me very sleepy, low energy. I can’t imagine myself driving a car. I will never be able to understand or know the real me because I’m sedated 12 months of the year.”

Ask him about his symptoms and his manner remains matter-of-fact but he starts telling bizarre stories that, on some level, he recognises as being part of his illness. “I got picked up by a dead person in a ghost truck,” he says. “There’s one between Sydney and Melbourne. I shook his hand and it was freezing, his body was ice cold. He definitely was dead as a doornail.”

Then there are the voices in his head: “They are looking for something,” he says. “They are questioning where we are living, where we should go from here.”

His plans, then? “I don’t know, really. I suppose I should get my act together to buy this bottle of champagne. I don’t know.”

First published in The Age.