A fractured link to his most distant past and the quagmire of depression pulled him in all directions, yet NIGEL McNAY was able to find a way to forge ahead. Here he tells his own story of identity.
I’m all dead weight, anchored to the couch on this lumbering, bastard of a late summer’s day that’s sullen and unfathomably dark.
Maybe it’s late evening and I’ve forgotten to open the blinds, as a grim sun finally burns out and sinks behind mongrel gums no longer heat-haze dancing in the middle-distance. Matters of time and other constructs of normality are lost in my self-absorbed stupor.
Fool’s logic tells me it’s got nothing to do with the earth or the sun, or the moon and the stars and the grand-scale bent of Mother Nature.
In this state of mind it had might as well be the looming apocalypse, a foul mood of insipid light dragging at the heels of time. For all I cared, it could have been yet another take on HG Wells’ War of the Worlds writ large over scrubby hills hunched low behind the fringe bush blocks of West Albury.
I can’t fathom just how I’m enveloped in everything low and dank.
Mum arrives early that afternoon, roughly a two-hour drive from her home, from the town where I was raised. It’s a bad idea to drive to her place with the kids for the weekend, foolish as I’m not well, so I let her know plans have changed. And now she’s here (this was 17 months ago) staying for the night.
Dad and Grandma talk softly and sporadically, so my kind-hearted souls settle in their bedrooms, one reading a book, watching videos on his mobile, the other busying away in her make-believe, stories and drawing.
“Now Nige, you’ve got to tell me,” Mum says, pulling forward, her already red-rimmed eyes glistening and a one-off worried, brittle voice, sitting on a couch at right-angles to mine.
“Is it because of your adoption?”
She’s probing the catalyst for a diagnosis 10 days or so before.
Of clinical depression.
It had left me, more so in the preceding six months, feeling isolated and at times, incapacitated. Left constantly taunted by a mind that never stopped moving, never stopped understanding everything around me while not allowing me to find voice other than mangled emotion.
Like it was that day on the couch. It resembled not being able to put a plug in a socket to power-up again, so I could say “help me” or “I care” or “I’m still here, I haven’t changed, I want to come home”.
But right now I was exhausted, from the impact on my health and the overwhelming hit on my personal life. My GP had talked me through what I was suffering, carefully and methodically but also to the point.
It was time to start a course of antidepressants, for as he explained, pointing to the top then middle of the side of his head: “While the level of serotonin in my brain is up here, yours is down here.”
Sessions with a psychologist could also provide greater clarity and insight. But it would take five or six weeks for the medication to stabilise and in the first few days, as a brochure that came with the prescription outlined, I could very well suffer a deep low that needed to be closely watched.
I was sceptical, but two days past, on the Thursday, my mind plunged. It showed me the dreadful reality many battle daily. For all the points of suffocating hopelessness, I never stopped craving life, a steadfast belief in hanging on. This episode though was as nauseating as it was frightening.
Hours later an ambulance was called as I woke in a panic attack, something I had never before or since experienced.
Paramedics came in to my room, stood by my bed, stabilised my breathing, checked my medication. I had been petrified it was an overdose as I was assailed by this peculiar, claustrophobic event, likely brought on by that week’s stress yet not about to be dismissed as an overreaction.
Because, as one of the paramedics asked knowingly, “did it feel like you had an overwhelming sense of impending death?”.
ALL I could say to Mum was “no”. This wasn’t about being adopted because that’s not how I saw myself. And the illness did not define me.
Mum’s question allowed something to happen that I had long thought impossible, her wanting to talk about these strangers. A few minutes later she returned to this thing that was niggling at her, perhaps sensing the importance of it to me.
And so she took a sip of her weaker-than-weak green tea, the bag having finished its ceremonial grand final day flyover, like a Roulettes jet dangling from the string, and threw over another question.
“Do you have any photos of her? On your phone?”
I did, so slightly shaking inside, worried whether she truly wanted to do this, wondering whether it would only cause upset, I picked out one and showed it to Mum, then another of her two kids (my other, younger brother and sister to go with the older-than-me pair I treasure), then one of my new brother’s baby girl. Helen’s only grandchild.
“Well you know,” Mum said, cooing at the gorgeous little imp, this former mothercraft nurse who did her training at a babies’ home in Melbourne in the late 1950s, “your kids are her grandchildren too.”
Why it was such a shock came from realising early that talking about even the possibility of there being this “other family” was too hard for Mum to handle. I’d had snippets of Mum feeling uncomfortable, almost defensive, with the fair reasoning of her kids being just that.
It was bearable because I always saw her for nothing other than what she was and what couldn’t be taken away. It meant that for the past 10 years, as I painstakingly turned an initially unsuccessful contact – one that was very upsetting for my birth mum – into something more substantial, I largely kept it all to myself.
It meant I gradually went more and more into myself, always hoping the next letter would arrive soon, that I would meet her any day now, that it would resolve itself and I could move on with that all in hand.
But a first meeting took years and it did take a toll on my mental health. It was as if I had to hold my breath and shut down my life until my naively informed prophecy was delivered.
It wasn’t the defining cause though, rather part of a kaleidoscope of things that created a perfect storm for my slide.
On the last September-October school holidays, the kids and I caught-up with the other lot for a day at Taronga Zoo. A few months ago, Shepparton mum (the first one) and Sydney mum (No.2) became friends on Facebook , commenting on my posts as a chat to each rather than necessarily on the scintillating scrap of Nige-news itself.
A few days ago Joy sent me a text. She texts all the time, sometimes now with a photo included. It took years of travelling the world and seeing what was really out there (Antarctica, hiking through mountainous jungle with two reconstructed knees to see the real gorillas in the mist, plus two more African trips, then Myanmar, Russia, New York and Canada, among the list of more recent times) to dump the old Nokia brick.
“Nige, do you have Helen’s phone number?” I didn’t so I sent her a phone app message, got it and passed it on. Don’t let it lag Mum, she gave you the number because she knew you wanted to get in touch, I told her.
That afternoon, Joy messaged again: “I texted and I haven’t heard from her, I hope I haven’t upset her, haven’t ruined things for you.”
All good Mum, I replied, she’ll text back, give her time. And she did.
AS a small boy I would hide behind Mum’s legs and ogle these tamely decadent people at the parties in our little fibro house.
My extroverted father could charm all with his ways, though the poor fellow – my boy carries the middle name of John for Dad, a benevolent, hard-working man who died so young at 45 – was a bit of a one-pot, sometimes two-pot screamer or far more apt, sleeper.
Any more grog and there was a chance he’d block the door to the loo as he snoozed on the throne, the Fosters long-necks he forgot to take out of the deep freezer threatening to explode behind the bluestone wall in front of the vege’ patch, next to his in-ground swimming pool (dug a hole, stuck in a Clark-Maples number) and the Taj Mahal of chook sheds.
Our integrity, a sense of decency is what my brother and sister and I share, as vastly different as we are in many ways.
From the new line comes a common thread; my art teacher sister a talented artist in her own right and an IT worker brother who hankers to write.
It’s in my own differences that my identity becomes clear.
A watcher, a thinker, that small boy who still hasn’t banished his shyness (recalling a later-than-late first kiss, so soft and sweet and gentle, her whispered “you’re shaking!”), my loyalty to close friends, impromptu talks with random people in the street, shared smiles, walking tall.
Dad dancing in the kitchen, like a delirious dill, with his giggling, gap-toothed girl; his grinning boy feigning embarrassment with an exaggerated “ah, come on!” eye roll.
And knowing the self-esteem was there all along. It just had to be given a chance.
For this easy breathing. Belated wisdom. Sucking up the joy.
- If you or someone you know is struggling, Lifeline on 13 11 14 and beyondblue on 1300 224 636 are available 24 hours a day.
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