Travel Adventures and Reflections on Life in Inpatient Therapy
By Kirsten Phillips
Key Themes: novel, depression, psychiatry, humour
Kate is leaving after close to three years in a private psychiatric hospital in Dunedin, New Zealand. Although hugely difficult, they have been the most incredible years of her life.
Ready to move on, the freedom and escapism of travel appeal to Kate but she quickly discovers that while you can change your surroundings, you can’t escape your past. As Kate travels through Europe she writes about the world around her and about the hospital world of behavioural extremes, sleeplessness, tough love and understanding. Through her writing, Kate is able to work through troubling memories and record some of the stories of the people and places that she never wants to forget.
This is an inspiring novel that will both shock you and make you laugh.
About the Author
Born in 1986, Kirsten Phillips grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. She has lived with a form of depression for as long as she can remember and the experience has been a significant part of her life. Time spent in psychiatric hospitals between the ages of 17 and 20 has given her an ability to empathise with people from all backgrounds and grounded her with a clear perspective of what is truly important in life.
Loire Valley, France
With the pitiful whistle emanating from the rental car air conditioning and the windows up to save our hair, I emerged from the car aware of the viscose dress lining pasted to my bum. It was my parents’ anniversary and lunch had been booked for the front garden of a small chateau set in a sweeping Sauvignon vineyard; a table for nine retreating into a valance of cool willow. An unnecessarily detoured path through the cottage garden reached the house, the restaurant and the tree. I did Jesse a favour and took the seat of youth (the one in the most difficult to reach place with no view) and contorted my legs into fitting between the legs of two tables.
Once everyone had arrived and half full glasses were leaving rings of condensation on the tablecloth, Dad toasted their thirty years of marriage and my mother’s eyes welled up.
“Don’t worry,” I consoled her in confidence, “it’ll get easier”. She reached under her chair, pulled a scrunched tissue from her bag and did a practised sweep for wet mascara.
Lunch began with a miniature cappuccino of cauliflower soup, “compliments of the chef”. Starters was tomato tart, tomato mousse with a tomato coulis and tomato sorbet on a bed of tomato froth. Vegetarian option one of one, it sounded delicious. The tart, all 50c piece of it, truly was, but the hundred other ways of skinning a tomato were to my uncultured pallet somewhat unusual. Berry and lavender sorbet cleanser, then a second selection of duck breast and veal for the rest of the table and vegetable opt out for myself, before finishing on Earl Grey panaccotta, jelly sauce something, and something vaguely apple.
We’d been talking about relationships and the conversation hit a wall. A few nips of floc and bottles of the house wine had been consumed by then though I doubt that had much to do with it. Dad decided that the duck breast would go down perfectly with a conversation detailing his sex life. There’s no way I’d ever want to torture myself with that imagery and Jesse’s and my hands sprung to our ears like he’d set off four mousetraps. I was quite content in the belief that my parents were and had always been celibate. My godmother picked up the silence.
“So what do you look for in a man?” she asked me. Shit. I glanced at my mum, her face also said Shit. Deception is a tool we all use, both actively and passively. I’d told my hairdresser that I was an Egyptologist – it was easier than the truth, and it’s easier for me to let all but a few people assume that I’m straight. I sidestepped. It had taken years of wading in my own deception. Given the circumstances, it didn’t surprise anyone that I didn’t date in high school and I could vaguely explain away the dread that punched every time mum had held out the phone for me and grinned.
The revelation was frightening, disappointing and a huge relief. But on the afternoon of the duck breast, I still held on to the socially shaped belief that being gay wasn’t okay, and I was scared.
A mate once told me that you could tie flies together by a piece of cotton if you first chill them in the fridge. I said that if a guy could make a ‘Marry me’ banner fly between two flies, I would marry him.
I doubt that was the desirable attribute my godmother had expected, but it was enough to deflect the inquisition onto Jesse.
Back at our rented house by the river I wanted to peel off my sweaty viscose. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d washed my hair in a bathtub but the shower would’ve been frustrating; having no water pressure on the 4th floor it took almost twenty minutes to half-fill the bath. The French seem to have a thing for disproportionately tall skinny houses. It doesn’t matter how much land there is, take your average NZ house, quarter it and stack the pieces. Voila; life in a stairwell.
But it was nice to be clean.
I reached for the towel I’d been given, disproportionately square and smeared with someone else’s foundation – it didn’t bother me. My towels used to be done through a national service, they do hospitals, prisons, hostels, the lot. ‘But with industrial washing it all gets sterilized,’ we’d told ourselves. So I’d been able to step out of the shower, open a towel and assure myself; ‘It’s okay – so maybe it’s not mine, but it’s a sterile pube’.
Mum and Jesse had their feet propped on the brick patio wall, toes towards the river, and were reading in the sun again almost as if lunch had never happened. Dad had fallen asleep under the orange tree with his mouth open, glasses skewed and book open like a tent on his neck. Jesse was onto a new book, she was reading up on Spain – at least one of us would know something; I had the 1974 phrasebook full of lines like ‘How pale you are!’, ‘Bring me hot water for shaving’ and ‘We shall be landing in five minutes, please fasten your safety-belts and put out your cigarettes’.
God, I wanted a cigarette.
It was getting closer to dusk and the heat wasn’t as intense so I pulled out a seat at the white wrought iron table, set my book down like a place mat and scraped the chair across the length of a few bricks as I settled myself in.
I don’t read. My concentration’s still not great and I’m a horribly slow reader; it’d be faster for me to just eat the book. Even with a plastic knife and fork.
So I wasn’t going to read – I took a deep breath, opened to the first beautifully clean page and picked up the pen.
This part of my journey starts here.
I’d spent the last three years in a psychiatric hospital in New Zealand and now I was in France. I could see opportunity glistening on a plate, I was out, and I wanted to travel.
Geography had changed but those years were still living in me, the memories weighed me down, and they hurt. ‘Baggage’, people say, ‘emotional baggage’. I imagined one of those enormous hard plastic suitcases with a busted set of wheels, it happened to be blue. The most incredible years of my life were in there; I wanted to keep it. I’ve met so many incredible people and learnt so much about living.
Maybe, I thought, if I opened the blue suitcase and took out those memories, maybe I could pack them into a lighter, smaller bag that’d be easier to carry.
So as I travelled around Europe, I wrote what I could remember.