Sydney: Fighting myself

Lockdown, quarantine, social distancing: these pandemic days are reinventing isolation and loneliness, twisting biological rhythms and emotional ties, and many are suffering in silence. In this difficult short story (which contains references to attempted suicide) Karen Lethlean empathises...


In my head, there is no lead up, or warning signs, maybe being centre of this whirlpool; dealing with social distance, no job, not being able to see my family, meant I couldn’t see eddies nor feel how my world went further eschew. Looking back, I wonder if I was a different person, who fell into a hole, unable to crawl back out. Or perhaps I simply couldn’t keep up with how life was changing.


Did I fear abandonment? Aloneness? A microbe severing links with my fellow man? Who can analyse human behaviour? Don’t know why, only know I did this.


Never done anything so dramatic before. Did Michael know this was coming? From his perspective the poor guy must have struggled being a helpless victim, unable to control or anticipate whims of his girlfriend, fiancé, and later wife. So many times, I proved myself stubborn, wilful, and useless. No wonder my father was so angry all the time, lashing out at my teenage inadequacies. No wonder my boss told me, ‘I can’t keep finding work for you.’ Or was I resisting where things with Michael appeared to be headed? Surely, he would support an unemployed partner? Perhaps elements of our relationship I’d perceived as emotional distance were in fact him relaxing into our shared future? Everyone is saying, ‘we’re all in this together…’ so why did I feel so alone.


Memories of my dog attack were now faded. Fear of something smaller, microscopic, much more intense. Yet I remained ever careful not to reach over a dog and block their line of sight. Now aware of how canine teeth can rip flesh. Even recall of what it felt like to tumble end over end in a tiny car, became pushed deeper into my memories. Indeed, experiences of similar torments wrapped softly amongst childhood recollections. How to protect myself from something no one can see?


I doubt my actions were prompted by previous traumas. Instead I applied a well-established strategy; ignore it, and troubles will go away.


"I am encountering dreams again. Haunting images of empty letterboxes. Non-functional electronic devices. Empty face-time screens. Being forced to run or swim carrying chunks of bee-hive honey comb in my hands. Melting, slowly becoming reshaped."

I am encountering dreams again. Haunting images of empty letterboxes. Non-functional electronic devices. Empty face-time screens. Being forced to run or swim carrying chunks of bee-hive honey comb in my hands. Melting, slowly becoming reshaped. Attractive to other bees, African native bees, capable of stinging someone to death, like this virus I cannot name. To counter these, I carried out long conversations with random lovers, favourite horse stories and other lives in my head, whispering myself to sleep even when Michael laid next to me. Furious arguments in the dark, about his actions or inadequacies, accompanied by snoring from the other bedside.


Before midnight I unknotted sheets from my body. Can’t sleep, but don’t want my being unsettled to wake Michael. I get up go to the bathroom. Close doors to cry. Never having experienced a mother’s nurturing, (she was too busy protecting herself from my father) I had no idea how to self-sooth. Tears stream down my cheeks, snot drips from my nose. Quietly blubbering, I looked around at this tiny room. A block of soap still with a crust of lather. No liquid soap or hand sanitizer. Catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror. Mouth pulled down in frown. Bags under my eyes. An image slightly blurred, disjoined by streaks and finger prints on glass surfaces. I reached out a finger to touch my reflection, I only sensed a coldness. Am I really this unrecognizable girl? Noticed a smell, sweaty body odour, stronger behind me; saw strains of mould in a dirty shower recess.


I don’t need the toilet. But looked at a slight scar around the bowl. I am unsettled; about to get my period? I’d long ago convinced myself I didn’t suffer from PMT – perhaps wrongly. Those contraceptive pills marked placements of my cycles, I knew when the bleeding would start according to how any pills remained in packets. My head aches, a tight throat scratched. Am I another positive case? What will I do. Who have I been with, any elderly, any children?

I opened the cupboard and see a cylinder-shaped container of painkillers. Focused on Veganin, white and grey, branded in red, maybe couple of hundred in this container. Suddenly I had the answer. I would take all those pills. Incredible as it sounds, there was no intention of killing myself… but I shoved handfuls down my throat.


Convinced myself I am using drugs for harm, rather than therapy. Why? Was I experiencing a depressive episode? Was the world outside, riddled with infections, too much to deal with? No one answered those questions. If these headache pills were capable of culling pains in everyday life, would they make my anxious memories go away? Perhaps I could cope with a virus torn world if pains vanished. Nope nightmares were still there, in fact they now gripped my wakefulness.


Coughing started straight away – semi regurgitating. Swallowed this back, wanting to hurt myself. Some comes out, semi dissolved. Mouth tasted of burnt toffee. I gulped tap water in attempt to wash away this caustic taste.


I stumbled out of the door, backwards. Squatted besides the bed. Listening to his light rattling snore. I heard once it’s possible to discover how you feel about someone watching them sleep. Things can be seen, kept invisible at other times. Inelegance of an open mouth, an absence of anxiety, vulnerability evident in each breath. How many times has Michael watched me sleep? What did he see? Wanted to reach out and touch his skin. Lately an absence of contact when we sleep, an eyes closed world where I pushed against non-existence. How I longed for empty spaces, now stony, to become warm and conversational.


"How I longed for empty spaces, now stony, to become warm and conversational."

A desire to be embraced overwhelmed. I don’t know how to do this without being misconstrued as sexual – wanting just a cuddle. Still eddies, things floating on aircurrents outside, get rid of dangers. I stifled dry retching, don’t want to wake him. Can’t anyone hear what I really want? How separate I feel? How badly I wanted to talk, vent my spleen, but I can’t even begin to form words.


If this was a cry for attention, how come nobody focused on me?


Would he, could he, have done anything to prevent this. Stopped me. But he has to know, so I woke him by saying, ‘I’ve taken your painkillers.’


I expected him to say, don’t be ridiculous.


‘How many!’


‘Don’t know, lots.’


‘Why?’


‘Don’t know.’


I wanted you to care for me, love me, keep me safe and notice I was here!


Stumble downstairs, he’d shoving me into the car. Legs and limbs don’t want to co-operate. I encounter limited recall of this flight. Perhaps I am drifting in and out. Or simply don’t remember. But I knew Michael drove me to medical help, rather than call an ambulance. Probably faster. No doubt to show he’d acted, couldn’t stand around and watch my torment.


Picture by Marcus Marchese


Responses of hospital staff were abrupt, almost dismissive. They had little time for someone guilty of self-inflicted wounds. We’d gone to Preston and Northcote Community Hospital – PANCH. Enormous, sprawling complex of multiple departments, treatment regions, facilities. Another major Victorian hospital I’ve experienced, and certainly the least compassionate. Got the feeling emergency spaces were for real sufferers, coughing up lungs, unable to breathe.


Michael targeted entrances lit by red Emergency signs. Hospitals remind me of airports, shiny places with fluorescent lighting filled with people waiting. I’d stumbled, been half carried through automatic doors. As if a passenger, struggling with too large luggage, late for an important flight. Uniformed staff behind desks say they’re doing what can be done. Once through triage, in the hands of medical professionals, questions were pinned into my brain, information extracted about, how many tablets, what type, how long ago…These uniformed creatures quickly switched off.


I am shaking. My head doesn’t belong to the rest of my body. I wonder how much longer


Michael will pick up pieces when I fall apart.


‘Did you want to kill yourself?’ One nurse asks. While another explains a tube will be pushed down my throat.


I am vomiting black charcoal. Is there another colour? Rear of a hospital gown gapes, I tried to tuck edges closer together.


‘Why did you do this?’


Staff are angry, I am taking up valuable time and bed space. Conclusive proof of my stupidity, uselessness. Modern girls are supposed to be made of sterner stuff. Staff throw me a series of leaflets, there is no follow up, no after care. I am being sent home to a sleep-in Sunday sunrise, with no support, nor recommendations.


Still I can’t help as if in being sent away I have escaped clutches of hospital henchmen who set themselves up in judgement of my every action, same as, my father and probably Michael.


We don’t talk about my breakdown, we tell no one. If you ask, I will probably say, ‘this self-harm didn’t happen.’


No hints, no revelations – unless I go find someone to talk with, but who? No one knows, no one cares. There is a long-standing joke, when things get tough, when people can’t cope, I’ll give you 20 cents to ring someone who cares. Usually a padre. I avoided blubbering to men of the cloth, a habit learnt as a teenager. Never helped in the past. Seen those vans emblazoned with a logo – People Who Care. Well not for a few months, because they’re probably working from home. Better to fix yourself. Solve your own problems, keep family safe, maintain appropriate social distances.


You simply get over it. Hospital staff saved my life, made sure I didn’t die but didn’t really prevent the same thing from happening again. Not even begun to help.


What will happen to me now? How will I get my head right?



If you are suffering, know that there are people who want to help you. Just follow the link and pick up the phone.



Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher and keen ocean swimmer in Sydney, who still keeps fit riding her mountain bike. Her previous story of labyrinthine lockdown logistics can be read here.


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