Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 3)

‘Have you ever eaten dog?’ asks George, a student in Business English, a class of mixed-level speakers.

‘Umm, no, I don’t think so. I’ve never ordered it in a restaurant.’ How has he deviated from writing letters of introduction to dog meat?

‘Do you eat dog in Australia?’ he continues.

‘What about cats?’ comes a call from the back.

‘No. We don’t eat cats or dogs in Australia.’

My normally reserved class unfurls a string of questions and comments: Do you catch pigeons or birds in the park, to eat? What about snake? Why don’t you like dog? It tastes good. Dog is good to eat now in the wintertime; it’s very warming.

‘Sonja, why don’t you eat dog in Australia?’ It’s George again.

‘Well, because we keep dogs and cats as pets.’

Consternation wrinkles their faces.

‘Pets are special to us. We love them like members of the family. Ming bai ma?’

A discussion, in Chinese, ping-pongs around the classroom. George concentrates as he speaks, ‘So, it’s your Western sense of connection to these animals as… surrogate children… that makes the concept of eating them… abhorrent.’

Dui la.’ That’s right.

‘Ahh,’ is the group response.

‘Any more questions? Yes, Jenny?’

‘I don’t understand the exercise on page fifty-two.’

***

Everyone stare, stare, stares at my ‘yellow’ hair. Strangers on the street photograph me, the waiguoren, with their mobile phones. I’m in a clothing store, browsing, when a woman shoves her phone in my face and takes my picture. As I complain to Ash, she turns around and says, ‘Yes, I took your picture!’ In English. I loathe this imposed celebrity-status. I long to be inconspicuous, invisible.

***

I can now tell the time, buy shoes and clothes, book a massage and say ‘I am not an American’ in Mandarin. Ash has started speaking Chinese in his sleep.

***

Walking home after work one day, I look up, stop and stare. Orange and pink fairy floss clouds are teased across a deep blue sky. It’s the first sunset I’ve seen in over a year.

***

There’s no pollution in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. At the Pagoda of the East Temple, groups of elderly people play heated games of mahjong while outside the Yuantong Temple, the 1200 year-old Buddhist complex, a sea of beggars is sprawled and prostrated on the footpath, and at the street market there are chickens dyed green, red and yellow, buckets seething with beetles, and a man makes edible art out of caramelised sugar.

The next day Ash and I explore the matriarchal town of Dali, where the women dress in long dark blue trousers topped by a royal blue long-sleeved tunic. I buy some bright, hand-dyed and painted wall hangings and we eat yak cheese pizza and yak meat stew.

The bus north, to Lijiang, climbs steadily higher through to a landscape of deep oranges, ochres and browns to tiered, terraced farms and green fields dotted with cattle and yaks. A maze of hutongs and cobbled streets, Lijiang old-town sprawls out, over and down a rambling hill. In the distance snow-covered mountains add a romantic touch.

We take a taxi to Shuhe, an ancient town now turned tourist theme park, which sits on the old tea trading route that ran from the south of Yunnan all the way to Lhasa, in nearby Tibet. Once a prosperous town, Shuhe is now known as the place where the beer is kept cold in baskets submerged in the gurgling canals, which crisscross the village.

Zhongdian, renamed Shangri-La in 2001 after James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, is just another concrete block box-style town with a road running down the middle. The taxi to Ganden Sumtseling, a 300-year-old Tibetan Monastery, bounces along a dirt track past farmhouses, woolly cows, fat black pigs and a shaggy white yak. A flat plain, the colour of honey and dark chocolate, rolls off into the distance. The monastery rooms are decorated with prayer flags, silk scarves, tapestries and intricate murals depicting Buddha’s journey to enlightenment; monks in burgundy robes, which flap and flutter in the wind, pad softly past on leather sandals.

***

Our second year at Lingdong over, Ash and I decide that it’s time to move on. We accept a position at Ben’niu Senior High School, where we will teach with two other Western teachers. A small town three hours west of Shanghai, Ben’niu has only one very long main street, which is lined with cheap restaurants, hairdressers, several supermarkets, and stores selling pipes, paint and other industrial products. Everything is covered in a thick layer of black grime. Unlike Foshan, there are no parks and no trees lining the streets. Buses crammed with people and trucks overloaded with aluminium products or coal roar down the main street, horns blaring.

***

I push the last desk into position. Instead of neat, precise rows there are now five groups of desks spaced around the edges of the room leaving the centre free for activities. The bell rings and a group of teenage girls knock and ask if they may enter. I smile and wave them in. More students trickle in through the door. A whispering huddle forms in the centre of the room.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Where do we sit, teacher?’ one girl asks shyly.

‘Anywhere you like.’

Squealing with delight, they race for various tables.

When I ask what they are interested in, what they want to learn about, eager hands fly up, arms straight, fingertips wiggling. When I turn on music and play a game of ‘hot potato’ as an icebreaker, they cheer each other on.

All week the students bound like excitable puppies into my classroom.

I’m going to like it here.

 

 

IslBG

View from Ganden Sumtseling, the 300-year-old Tibetan Monastery

 

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 2)

Foshan is a city of contrasts. Crumbling brick hutongs hide behind pollution-stained high-rise buildings; teashops on every street offer free tastings—there’s jasmine, pu’er, gunpowder, oolong, white tea, tight little dried rosebuds for infusions and more; fresh produce markets bursting with vibrant colour and pungent aromas are crammed into tight spaces throughout the CBD; motorcycle butchers speed down the streets with pigs—sliced in half from snout to curly tail—slung over the back racks; and on street corners mobile fruit vendors display their produce on the backs of adult-sized tricycles. They sell sweet sweet peaches, lychees, rambutans, watermelons and dragon fruit in the summer and barbecue pork buns, steamed corn and roasted chestnuts and yams in the winter.

***

In the autumn I am allocated new conversational English classes—Children’s Beginners aged 6-8. I must maintain their attention for two hours and so abandon the traditional-teacher mode in exchange for a dramatic persona and English-focused games. The goal is for the students to speak eighty per cent of the time and limit teacher talk time to twenty per cent. I have a teaching bag full of flashcards, coloured magnets, two balls, music CDs, balloons, hand puppets, a ‘sticky ball’ that when thrown sticks to the white board, and numerous whiteboard markers. In class I mime, act, play the clown, sing and dance my way through the teaching materials—it’s playschool on steroids. The kids love it. They race up to greet me and I walk the last few metres to class with children clinging to my legs, arms and hands. An excited rabble, they rush me into the room.

***

At the supermarket an old woman rummages through the contents of my basket, inspecting my baguette, noodles, soymilk and other purchases. I stare open-mouthed at her, too shocked to say anything.

***

Ash and I are learning Putonghua (Mandarin), the official language of China, even though we live in Guangdong, the old Canton, where many people speak only Cantonese. I can count to one hundred, buy bus and train tickets, order dumplings and noodles in a restaurant and introduce myself.

***

The pollution cuts the horizon in half, pushes down and envelopes the city. At the end of the street Bia Hua TV Tower is reduced to a shadow of its former self. The sun and blue skies are a distant memory.

***

One day Sinny, my teaching assistant, invites me out for lunch. We go to a noodle house that I’ve nicknamed the Three Kuai Place, because that’s how much most dishes cost. Sinny orders chicken and it arrives chopped into bite-sized chunks. Bones included. I still can’t eat chicken on the bone using just chopsticks. Sinny deftly pops a piece into her mouth, swishes her cheeks as though rinsing with mouthwash, then extracts a clean piece of bone and places it on the table. Behind her a man in a suit is doing the same, only he spits his bones directly onto the table.

‘How do you do it?’ I ask.

‘Just use your tongue to help suck the meat off the bone,’ she replies.

I try but can’t get my tongue to wiggle the meat loose and, on reflex, chew, mashing meat and bone together. My face flames red as I spit the mess into a tissue.

Ai ya, I wish there was chicken without bones,’ I complain.

‘Westerners have lazy mouths, that’s all,’ Sinny shoots back with a grin.

***

December arrives and with it hints of Christmas emerge as stores put up festive decorations, tinsel streamers and Christmas trees. Christmas carols, sung in Chinese, are piped through supermarket speakers.

Helen calls a staff meeting. Lingdong will host a school Christmas party, she announces. There will even be a turkey. Adult students will be encouraged to buy tickets to the party, the selling point being to experience a true Western Christmas. We, the teachers, must provide some form of entertainment for the paying guests.

‘You’ve gotta be kidding, Helen! I’m a teacher not a performing monkey,’ bellows Kinga.

The room is a rumble of discontent.

Helen asks us to define entertainment at a Western Christmas party. ‘Basically, it comes down to three things: food, alcohol—lots of alcohol—and music,’ explains Kinga.

‘That’s it?’ she asks.

‘Yes!’ the ten of us chorus.

‘Helen, our Christmas parties are very simple. We eat, we drink, we dance, we drink some more, talk to people, drink and dance even more, and then keep drinking,’ offers Ash.

‘Chinese people would not enjoy such a party,’ frowns Helen. ‘They need guided entertainment. They need to have an activity to be involved in, to be told what to do next.’

And that’s how we find ourselves poolside, with a stage, Christmas tree and fake snow machine in the middle of winter. The glistening pool stirs up memories of golden beaches and sunshine; I haven’t seen either for five months.

‘Next,’ announces Forest, Helen’s second in command, ‘is the candy relay race. Rules of the game are: the first runner dips a spoon into the bucket of candy, takes just one piece, races back to the team and passes the spoon to the next person. The team with the most candy is the winner.’

I move in closer to watch. I’ve played this game with my younger students and while they love it, they are unable to show restraint; cheating abounds.

Forest blows her whistle, ‘Go!’

In under a minute the adults resort to stealing candy, tripping up competitors, pocketing candy and, yes, trying to steal the candy bucket for their team. Forest screeches into the microphone in an attempt to get everyone to play in an orderly fashion. It’s too late for that. The stilted, stiff Chinese guests are laughing and having fun.

 

lingdongclassroom

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 1)

The job offer in my inbox reads:

Teach English in China! No experience necessary. Must be a native speaker. TESOL/TEFL certificate required. No university degree needed. One-year contract. Teach 24hrs/week maximum. Salary: 6500RMB/month plus end of contract bonus of US$800. Round-trip airfare reimbursed. FREE accommodation, Chinese classes and gym membership. Start ASAP. Contracts are attached.

Ash, my boyfriend, and I accept this job over ten other, similar offers.

 ***

Beads of perspiration line my top lip. I brace my knees to stop them shaking but can’t suppress small tremors rippling through my fingers. My throat refuses to let sound pass. The air conditioner thrums and water trickles from the drainage hose into a red bucket. A dark green stain on the carpet betrays an earlier spillage. The smell of stale sweat infuses the room. Twenty blank-faced students stare at me. They’re all about thirteen and most wear blue and white nylon tracksuits. Parents crowd at the hallway windows, my judge and jury.

Today is my third day in China, my first day of teaching at Lingdong English School, and my first day of teaching. Ever. My gaze flows over faces then freezes. Helen. My boss, pen in hand, sits among the students. She mentioned assessing my teaching style. But my first class? My heart races, the air conditioner whirs. I smear clammy palms across my skirt, take a deep breath and split my lips into a stiff smile. ‘Good morning boys and girls. My name is Sonja.’

Time falls away. The minutes pass with excruciating slowness as I plough through my lesson plan. The students are mostly mute, unless asked to repeat a word in unison; then they become champion choral drillers.

‘If Tom is tall and Bill is taller, then what is John?’ I ask.

No answer.

‘Tom is tall. Bill is taller. John is the… ?

Silence.

‘Can anyone tell me?’

Twenty pairs of brown eyes avoid my blue ones. The air conditioner chugs. Water trickles. Parents glare at their child, and me, through the windows. Later in the semester I cover those windows with drawings done by my students, to give us some privacy, but for now we’re all on display.

‘Anyone?’ I ask again.

Still no volunteers.

It’s death by silence.

***

I’m not sure why I’m here. China was never on my list of ‘must see’ countries. I recoil from the chaos and confusion, the congestion of traffic and people; all of it presses up close. Too close.

 ***

 Plastic tables and chairs from several restaurants crowd the footpath. Ash and I stare up at a picture menu plastered on an external wall. The diners stare at us. So do the staff. Our decision on where to eat is made by a table becoming vacant. We sit, become less conspicuous. People continue to stare. Laowai, they whisper. We are white foreign devils. A waitress rushes up with a pot of green tea and menus in Chinese.

Cheeks flushed, she asks us something.

Ting bu dong,’ I say. I don’t understand.

She speaks again, points to the menu.

Ash flicks through our phrase book. ‘Wo yao ji,’ he reads.

The girl speaks in a rush, her cheeks blush brighter.

‘Yes,’ we nod, not understanding a word.

She whips the menus off the table and disappears into the restaurant.

‘Do you reckon we’ll get chicken?’ asks Ash.

A chicken complete with feet, head and rosy red comb lies on the plate before us. How does one eat a whole chicken with chopsticks? The blameful eye of the chicken watches me as I poke at it. I plunge my chopsticks into the bird’s breast. Stringy chunks of meat come away from the bone. The leg meat is more resistant. The tendons at the knuckle refuse to give way to my jabbing and I resort to using my fingers. A nearby group of diners stops eating and stares.

***

Early morning shoppers slowly cycle past me as I walk to the gym located next to Lingdong School. One woman’s front basket is brimming with leafy greens and a still-flopping fish in a plastic bag while another has a live chicken, legs tied, hanging upside down from the bicycle’s handlebars. Toddlers wearing split pants, their little buttocks on display, teeter down the street grasping their mothers’ hands. (The Chinese don’t use nappies, so when nature calls the child is held up over a shopping mall bin, a garden bed or sometimes just left to squat on the footpath.) At the gym middle-aged women walk backwards on the treadmill and men in suits work out and smoke.

***

English has not yet infiltrated Foshan, a city of five million people. Street signs, product packaging, menus, newspapers and books are all in Chinese. I am illiterate—my communication is limited to miming and the use of a phrase book. I need help opening a bank account, buying bus tickets, organising dry cleaning, connecting the internet, getting water delivered, going to the doctor and buying medicine.

***

I peek into the staffroom to see who’s around. There’s Emma, a brown-eyed Brit with an effervescent personality, her boyfriend Simon, a blond, blue-eyed computer geek who is taking Kung fu lessons and Kinga, a large-in-every-way Aussie.

‘My teenage students won’t speak,’ I announce.

‘Welcome to teaching English in China,’ retorts Kinga.

‘But what do I do?’

‘You just have to suffer through it,’ answers Simon.

‘You’re kidding?’

‘We all have the same problem. It’s almost impossible to get the teenagers to speak,’            sympathises Emma.

‘But why?

‘Saving face,’ says Kinga. ‘You can’t fight it. It’s so ingrained it’s like it is part of their  DNA. Trust me, I know. I’ve been here for five years. They won’t talk because they don’t want to look like an idiot in front of the others. It means they make everyone look like idiots. Something about the group “face” being more important than the individual. That’s why if you ask “Do you understand?” most times they’ll say yes, even if they don’t. For the Chinese it’s better to leave the conversation confused than to “lose face” by saying they don’t understand.’

‘So what can I do?’

‘Nothing,’ says Kinga.

‘Endure the silence as best you can,’ adds Simon.

Emma shrugs.

***

We’ve been here for over a month and, apart from the Lingdong teachers, I haven’t seen another foreigner’s face.

***

foshan-31

Short story series: Uncommon Places – Introduction

sonja-zhongdian

I normally only post book reviews to my blog, but I’m veering into new territory and am
starting a thread featuring short stories that I have written. I studied writing at university and since then my stories have languished on my hard drive, gathering the digital equivalent of dust. So, I thought I’d start the Short Story Series with a creative non-fiction memoir about my time living in China. 

I lived in China for three years, teaching English and travelling between 2005-2008. I have brought my adventures in China to life through a short creative non-fiction memoir which I will post over a series of entries.

For me, living in China was an incredible experience that involved getting to know a new culture, meeting some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, learning from the children, discovering food heaven (and hell), exploring diverse regions of countryside and of course dealing with culture shock and my own western bias.

My aim for this creative narrative is to show what life was like for me, as a foreigner, living in China. As a resident, I was able to access a deeper understanding of the culture, ask questions, become a part of people’s lives yet I still remained on the outside. This was one of the paradoxes of living in China – being allowed in, but only to a certain point. It is impossible to recount the entire three years of events and interactions, and so I have written about the more memorable and striking moments that portray the cultural differences, what life is like living in a Communist country—it’s nowhere near as frightening as people imagine, the nature of the people, the harsh realities of school life in China, and the diversity of the both the food and the countryside.

When I returned to Australia, I discovered that China was a country that was viewed with suspicion, the culture was not widely understood, and at the time it was definitely not a top 10 travel destination. I wrote about my time in China so that others can gain an insight into this wonderful country, away from inflammatory issues that often feature in our western news.

I hope you enjoy reading about my China adventures, told through vignettes to cover the time frame and events.

Cheers,

Sonja

 

 

THE ANTI-COOL GIRL by Rosie Waterland

TheAntiCoolGirl

Intensely touching, deeply emotional, confronting and at times horrifying, Rosie Waterland recounts her troubled childhood, difficult teenage times and early adult years in The Anti-Cool Girl.

Raw, honest, brutal, her narration is conveyed with a sense of humour and self-awareness that prevents the story from becoming overwhelming. Without these touches of humour, the story would be too traumatic to read. Basically, Rosie’s life sucked; she has experienced the most shocking childhood that I’ve ever read about, and this is no novel – this is real life, so there’s no switching off to those actions, to the pain that she suffered, the harrowing events that she endured, along with her sisters. But, it’s not all pain and agony, there are moments of joy, and her humour in retelling of some events shows her strength and courage in the face of such difficult circumstances.

There are some really great lines and insights into Australian culture and dating that made me laugh, such as:

“The wedding was a stunning piece of Aussie lower-class perfection… The reception was in a brightly lit hall on the side of a busy main road, so the ambience was obviously just gorgeous…”

There’s this gem describing a bad kissing experience:

“It was like a fat slug rolled around in mucous and was now trying to mate with my tongue… I had no idea that a tongue could be soft like an oyster and hard like a tampon at the same time… This guy needed help, and if I didn’t offer it to him, he might subject some poor other girl to his oyster tampon.”

Rosie and her sisters were often shuffled from family member to friend and back again due to her parents being addicts and her mother constantly searching for love, finding it briefly with a new man and then chaos would erupt destroying the relationship. The girls never had a stable home.

“We stayed with an uncle for a while. We stayed with our birth grandma for a while… But nobody seemed to want to keep us. Whatever test you needed to pass to be a kid that adults wanted around, we were just not passing it. We were told that all three of us might be split up – that three girls together was too much of a commitment for most carers.”

At one point Rosie and her sisters are put into foster care and are molested repeatedly by their very wealthy foster father, over the course of a year. The man in question sexually molested several foster children, after Rosie left, and despite complaints being made he has never been formally charged. There are obviously serious flaws in the screening process and the system if sexual predators can be awarded foster parent status, especially if their wealth somehow plays a part in them being perceived as better than others or more charitable. Rosie’s story highlights that flaws in the public health system and the foster system make already vulnerable people even more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Something that really stood out for me was how the public health system and the foster system failed Rosie and her sisters, and most certainly other families like them. Her mother is bipolar but never received treatment; her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia but never received treatment. The lack of understanding of mental illness and the stigma attached to mental illness meant that Rosie’s parents lived traumatised lives themselves, and by never being treated they inadvertently went on to severely damage the lives of their children. Her parents were also addicts, which complicated and amplified their behaviour issues.

Deeply intense and dark in sections, The Anti-Cool Girl is also about hope, about having dreams, and about finding yourself and believing in yourself despite having been to the darkest of places. Rosie always wanted to make people laugh, and even as a child she would write winning Oscar speeches. Those desires, that dream stayed with her, and she found her way to a second-rate drama school, and then went on to complete a degree in creative writing, and from there, combined with her love of watching TV, she accidentally stumbled into a writing role for an online women’s website. Through all of that she not only achieved her goal of making people laugh, but also of being one of the ‘cool’ people, only to realise that she didn’t want to be cool; she wanted to just be herself.

It is Rosie’s realisations and self-reflections that make this book such a powerful autobiography. She exposes herself completely, and it takes courage, bucket loads of courage, to talk so frankly and openly about your own life like that. She could have edited sections, kept some of the darker, unpleasant bits to herself, but she didn’t – she is upfront and totally honest, and that’s admirable and makes for potent reading. She tells all about her eating disorder, her nude acting role attempt, her enjoyment at sitting at home in her underpants drinking wine and watching TV, and her weird Tinder date with the guy who wanted her to get to know his ‘little me’ more intimately.

She talks intimately about her battle with obesity:

“Gaining ninety kilos was the experience that taught me to love myself. To really love my myself.”

And about what’s most important in life:

“I realised that as soon as you stop listening to what everyone else wants from you, and start listening to what you want from you, your life will get easier.”

Ultimately, hers is a story of courage, of facing her pain so that she could then begin to heal. Profoundly touching, The Anti-Cool Girl certainly puts life into sharp perspective.

Rating:   5/5

 

The Anti-Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland (Fourth Estate 2015)

ebook ISBN: 9781460705223

Want to know more about Rosie Waterland? Then check out Rosie’s FB page.

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AN UNQUIET MIND by Kay Redfield Jamison

AnUnquietMindAn Unquiet Mind provides a unique and no-holds barred insight into the euphoria that can escalate to terror, combined with the deep, dark depths of despair that bipolar sufferers experience on a regular basis.

This brilliant autobiography, written by Kay Redfield Jamison, delves into the dark and oft misunderstood world of bipolar disorder, once know as manic-depression*. Jamison is a Professor of Psychiatry, has worked extensively in clinical practice with people who suffer from mood disorders, and was for many years a director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic, which was a large teaching and research facility. She also suffers from severe bipolar episodes. All of these elements put her in the unique position of being able to write about bipolar disorder from both a clinical perspective and personal experience.

Jamison describes bipolar disorder as:

“an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it; an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide.” (p.6)

Jamison recounts her early experiences with bipolar as a teenager, and then moves on to her college years where the illness progresses to much stronger episodes with more increasingly dire consequences. As she frantically attempts to keep up with her university course load studying medicine, and then post-graduate studies, her life is torn apart by manic episodes followed by soul-destroying bouts of depression that last months and even years.

Jamison writes with candour and brutal honesty about her manic-depressive episodes, her denial to admit that the mood disorder is destructive and dangerous not only to herself but others around her, and her long, slow path to healing and sanity. After many years of denial, and one particularly psychotic manic episode, she finally agrees to take medication: lithium. The use of lithium was still in its infancy, had only been approved for clinical use four years earlier, and as such she is reluctant to take the medication, concerned about side effects, and long term use. She points out that treating mood disorders requires not just medications but also psychiatric treatment, which focuses on “developmental issues, personality structure, conflict and emotional and unconscious thought”.

Bipolar disorder is a deceptive illness in that the manic highs bring about periods of intense activity and creativity; there is a wondrous and intoxicating rush of elated emotions, and the seductive nature of having gifted insights to problems. It is these elements that people with bipolar are reluctant to part with, as the rush is ecstatic. However, the shift from ecstasy to psychotic is dangerous and uncontrollable, after which sufferers are often plunged into black, despairing depression. It is an illness that kills thousands of creative and imaginative people each year.

Jamieson writes with clarity about the highs and lows, the confusion and despair, and madness that she experienced:

“When you’re high, it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find brighter ones… Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced is irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow… now… you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of your mind. You never knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness creates its own reality… It goes on and on, and finally others’ recollections of your behavior – your bizarre, frenetic, aimless behaviors… All those incredible feelings to sort through… Which of my feelings are real? Which of the me’s is me? The wild, impulsive, chaotic, energetic, and crazy one? Or the shy, withdrawn, desperate, suicidal, doomed, and tired one?” (p.64-67)

She discusses her own struggles and the great lengths to which she would go to avoid dealing with her illness, often injecting humour into a serious subject. One example of this is when she realises in graduate school that she has a serious problem and needs either psychiatric help or needs to buy a horse. She explains her decision this way:

“Since almost everyone I knew was seeing a psychiatrist, and since I had an absolute belief that I should be able to handle my own problems, I naturally bought a horse. Not just any horse, but an unrelentingly stubborn and blindingly neurotic one, a sort of equine Woody Allen, but without the entertainment value.” (p.54)

She had created romantic notions of being best friends with this horse, of the horse running happily up to her in search of a carrot or sugar cube. The reality proved somewhat different:

“What I got instead was a wildly anxious, frequently lame, and not terribly bright creature who was terrified of snakes, people, lizards, dogs, and other horses – in short terrified of anything he might reasonable be expected to encounter in life – thus causing him to rear up on his hind legs and bolt madly about in completely random directions.” (p.55)

An Unquiet Mind is filled with reflections, chaotic events, the negative impacts of not being willing to accept that she needed medication, and even when she did take medication the resulting the episodes of despair and destruction that ensued every time she went off her meds, seeking the thrill and rush of the inspiring ‘high’ episodes. The book also combines scientific and clinical analysis of mood disorders. These medical approaches add balance and credibility to Jamison’s story and highlight the conflicts that she faced when trying to act in a medical capacity, how the mania and depression severely impacted upon her study, her work and personal life, and yet those same things informed her work, gave her insights into bipolar disorder, and inspired her to dedicate her life to understanding mood disorders and help others who also suffer from the illness.

The frankness of the writing, and Jamieson’s ability to include humour, and story telling techniques, made this an incredibly fascinating book to read. Her obvious pain and confusion, her distress and frustration are palpable. A singularly compelling read, and by the end of it I had a renewed sense of respect for people who suffer from bipolar disorder and the minefield of problems that they need to navigate every day.

 

* Jamison preferred the term manic-depression as she felt that it more adequately described the illness a she experienced it.

 

An Unquiet Mind: A memoir of Moods and Madness (Picador 2011) – eBook.      ISBN 9781447204040 EPUB                                                                                          First published in 1995 as a Borzoi Book by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. in New York.