Leaners

I had another premonition the night before my pension review. I was in one of those houses made up from many memories, filled with so much déjà vu I felt nauseous. It was half lit by flickering candles, a thin wall of warmth barely staving cold panic. I argued with my brother, I can’t remember what it was about. I grew rapidly more angry, started swearing and barking. My vision blurred.

My heart pounded. I lost control of my arms and they fell heavy to my sides. I stumbled, collapsed. I couldn’t move on the floor but my eyes were open. Something moved in the shadows under the couch. I tried to say “Get me a mirtazapine.” but I couldn’t speak, could barely breath. My vision faded out.

The review lasted fifteen minutes. There were a lot of questions. I didn’t know the answers to most of them.

*

My employment consultant seemed angry with me in my first appointment. She said she was jetlagged, but I knew it was because on paper I was another deadshit who had been sitting on my ass for five years, smoking weed and living off the government.

One of her colleagues looked at my file. He was very friendly.

“I see what they’ve done here.” he said. He even seemed nice when he was angry. “They get someone in for fifteen minutes and think they’ve got the whole story.”

He turned to me.

“Look I’m sorry to break this to you, but you’re going to lose the pension. You need to get organised and start making a case for your appeal.”

I went quiet, nodded a lot. My provider told me she was an empath and that she only got sent the “special cases”. She said she would look after me.

I gave my resume to the Empath to hand out to potential employers. There was nothing in the qualifications section. I’d dropped out of a creative writing course at uni and had been freelancing ever since. Writing whatever I felt like and taking jobs where I could.

The Empath set me up with a course for a Certificate III in hospitality at a nearby RTO.

“If you don’t get a call within 5 minutes walk up around the corner and ask about it.” She said.

I was panicking and sweating as I left, smoked two cigarettes as I walked up Brunswick Street. I walked into two other RTO’s before I found the right one.

They handed me a form to fill out. I sat down, wrote my name. The words on the page swam. I didn’t have any of the numbers I needed. I asked someone for help and a polite blonde lady filled the form out for me.

I asked how long it went for and she told me it was Monday to Wednesday for the next 12 weeks. I thought about losing the pension and how much rent was and the Japan tickets I had bought in a fit of enthusiasm. I thought about the novel I had been writing every day for the past few weeks and all the plans that seemed to be slipping through my fingers. I threw up on the walk home.

*

I walked in the next morning late and panicking. The trainer was an elderly, kind-hearted barkeep. He told me to sit down and not to stress.

There were seven in the class. Smiling mum who liked Tony Abbot, girl who laughed too loudly at every joke, homeless kiwi twenty-year-old, girl who was never there, meek metal dude and Ipswich girl with very blue eyes. I was already two days behind but I finished the week’s module in twenty minutes.

I slept past my alarm on the first Monday. I had gone to bed at 3am the night before. I texted kind-hearted barkeep and said I wouldn’t make it in. Kind-hearted barkeep sent two texts back.

“Try to come in if you can.”

“Sometimes we need to push ourselves.”

I had a panic attack at midday, took my meds and knocked myself out until the sun went down.

*

That Wednesday we went on an excursion to the casino. We met out the front; I was the first one there. Meek metal dude arrived a short while after and lifted his sunglasses.

“Are my eyes red?” he asked.

I grinned.

Kind-hearted barkeep didn’t realise we couldn’t bring bags into the casino so he holed up in the library and sent us over in groups to take notes. Ipswich girl and I were paired together. We grabbed drinks and bee-lined straight for the smoking area.

We smoked, drank and talked, mainly about our partners. She told me she was having trouble with her boyfriend. He had been going out all night drinking and not letting her know. I told her she needed to get that guy under the thumb. We bullshitted all of the answers and walked back ten minutes late. I didn’t know what kind-hearted barkeep expected.

*

The second Monday I slept through my alarm again. I didn’t text kind-hearted barkeep, let his call ring out. He texted me.

“You obviously aren’t coming in but will you be in tomorrow to do the assessment?”

I walked in about 11:30 and completed the week’s module in twenty minutes.

I spent most lunch-breaks with meek metal dude. I smoked and he puffed constantly on an e-cigarette. Every lunch break he would turn to me and ask “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” and I would say yes and we would walk down the street to the pub. We would drink a jug of cheap beer and talk about medication and weed and booze. We came back ten minutes late every day.

Meek metal dude wasn’t doing great that day. The e-cigarette shook in his hands and he was as quiet as the first day I’d met him. We smoked out the front after class. He said he was stressed about a psych appointment that afternoon. I offered to buy him a beer and we walked down to the pub.

I bought a jug and tried to pour it the way kind-hearted barkeep had taught us. The head overflowed onto the table and I inhaled bubbles as I drank. Meek metal dude talked a little, about how his girlfriend thought he was cheating. About how he had been waking and baking lately, drinking every night. I tried to keep him distracted. He seemed alright by the time I stumbled home.

*

Ipswich girl with very blue eyes showed up three hours late the next day. She had been missing two days out of three and looked in rough shape. Kind-hearted barkeep looked stressed. Attendance had been poor and he was worried that the course would get cancelled again. It had happened earlier, only going ahead this time because I made up the numbers at the last minute. He said he didn’t get paid if no one showed up.

Meek metal dude, Ipswich Girl and I smoked out the front at lunch. Ipswich girl was silent. I asked if she was okay. She said that she was in hospital the day before. She had collapsed in the shower. They gave her a catscan because they thought she had a tumour, but she knew it was because she was too nervous to eat.

She was going to text kind-hearted barkeep but she was afraid.

“I thought he would be on my back about it, like every time. Because I’m not, well, you. He treats you different.”

I thought about all the people who had been so helpful to me, even though I was flaky and didn’t keep in contact. I thought about all the special treatment I get that seems to be a given, that I don’t have to work for.

“You have to be open about it.” I said. “Tell him what’s going on. He understands, he’s suffered anxiety and depression before.”

Everyone has.

*

I slept through my alarm again the next Monday. Woke up ten minutes before class, considered texting kind-hearted barkeep. I came in half an hour late. Kind-hearted barkeep congratulated me.

He told the class about his wife. It was the first time since the first day that everyone had showed up. He said it was the anniversary of his wife’s death, that the previous night was rough.

He spoke about how he had started getting anxiety after his wife died, had a heart attack, gotten depressed. He said that he started drinking, knocking back a six-pack and a bottle of wine every night. He necked an imaginary drink.

He said that he’d decided to kill himself one night. There was a tree in the backyard, a branch at the perfect height to tie a rope around. He got blotto, walked outside with the rope, thought about his kids and went back inside. He tried to do it again three years later but the tree had grown and the branch was out of reach.

“You’re not like my other classes.” He said. “You all need a lot of T-L-C. Once you put yourselves out there you will gain confidence. Remember, work on technique and the speed will come.”

*

The Empath drove me over to a small teashop about a 45 minute walk from my house to set up work experience. She was sick with the Brisbane flu, but made it in specifically to drive me because she liked me. The boss seemed friendly enough; she was an elderly lady with white hair, pale skin and thick glasses. An Irish guy with a curly moustache would be training me.

I was panicking on the drive back. I had almost gotten in several fights with Irish guys because I couldn’t understand the accent. My hair wouldn’t stay tied back and I had been too nervous to speak throughout the whole interview.

I thanked the Empath for setting up the work experience.

“I really want this to work for you.” She said. “You’re different than the other cases I get. I think you’re lovely.”

I was quiet for a second, had trouble making words.

“Ah, I am alright,” I said. “I could be taller.”

She laughed and bought me donuts.

*

I woke up late the next day, didn’t have time for a coffee or a cigarette before work experience. My girlfriend accidentally ironed a hole into my shirt and my hair still wouldn’t stay back.

The pace was already frantic at the shop when I got in. There were four high teas planned for the first two hours of my shift. Irish guy rushed through a tour of the store. I struggled to make out what he was saying.

He set me on folding boxes. I couldn’t complete one. He asked me to grab some quiches out of the oven. The cooks out the back loomed silent as I fumbled the quiches onto the floor. Coffee cups rattled in my hands as I brought them out to customers. They asked me if it was my first day.

The boss set me on dishes so I would stop getting in the way. I struggled to get everything into the right place. The trays started stacking up across the sink. I kept drying dishes with a tea towel and the boss kept telling me to let them air dry. I got angry, snapped back at her. She gave me a lecture about health and safety. I nodded and practised active listening.

I looked at the huge pile of dishes, felt tears sting my eyes. I thought about how I was going to lose four hundred dollars a fortnight from my pension, thought about how I was going to make rent, thought about Japan slipping through my fingers. I thought about how all I ever wanted to do was sit down and write every day, that it was all I was capable of. I tried to breathe and gasped.

I put down the tea towel and walked up to the boss. I couldn’t look her in the eye. I said I couldn’t make it through the shift without having a fucking panic attack. I didn’t want to get in the way any more than I had. I left.

I bought a pack of cigarettes with the last of my cash, shook as I rolled one, cursed myself for being a fucking adult and not being able to get through three hours of doing dishes without fucking crying.

My head was aching from tying my hair back. I got home and took two ibuprofen from a packet on top of my brother’s chest of drawers, sat down and smoked cigarettes with my housemates. I felt more relaxed talking to them, then started feeling very tired. I lay back on the couch.

“I think I am adjusting to not having a headache?” I said. My eyes were closed.

I tried to lift my arms but they felt very heavy. I frowned, sat up and then hunched over. My housemates went silent. I said that I was going to lie down. I stood, swayed a bit. My arms fell to my sides. I got to the door, stumbled and leaned against it. My heart was beating hard.

“I don’t know what’s going on.”

My housemates got up and put my arms over their shoulders. I went limp but my mind was racing. I breathed rapidly. They supported me and lifted me to the couch. I fell onto my face. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My vision turned into a tunnel, at the end was an image I could barely see. A horrible face or pattern. My heart thumped in my ears.

My brother started arguing with my friend about what they needed to do. I tried to breathe slowly. My other housemate said to just let me lie for a second. I tried to speak.

“Get me…”

I breathed in and out.

“Get me a mirtazapine.”

My brother rushed into my room, came back with the little pink pill. I tried to sit up, asked him to help me. He lifted me and I slumped slightly forward. I asked him to get me water, then to put it in my hand. I sighed in frustration and asked him to help me lift it to my mouth. I swallowed.

They went to go outside. I had felt paralysed like this before and I knew if I was left alone I would start getting really horrible hallucinations. The face flashed in and out of my vision.

“Can you…” I managed to open my eyes. My housemate was sitting across from me. He looked scared. “Just sit with me for a minute?”

The room was lit with a dull orange glow. I couldn’t turn my head to figure out where the light was coming from. I frowned.

“This is a lot like seroquel.” I said. “Fuck.”

I asked my housemate to check my brother’s chest of drawers.

I had taken 400mg of seroquel, twice my brother’s already heavy dose of bipolar medication. I stopped panicking, felt a rush of calm. I was still hallucinating, but I laughed with my housemate. I lay back down, realised I was stuck like that. I couldn’t see if anyone was still in the room with me.

“What a life.” I said. I wasn’t sure if anyone heard.

*

At my next appointment I asked the Empath to call the boss of the cake shop and tell her I was sorry. The Empath seemed very tired. We were both quiet. I sat slumped as she typed into the computer.

“I called up Centrelink.” I said. “I’m too late to appeal the disability pension.”

The Empath looked concerned.

“I know you’re angry, but they are just doing their job.” She said.

“I’m not angry.” I said. “I understand they are trying to help, trying to get me out there. I’m not angry with Centrelink, with the bureaucracy. I’m frustrated. Someone in my position is bound to be frustrated.”

“I’m sick of being a burden.” I said.

“You’re not a burden.”

“Yes I am.” I said. Now I was angry. “I’m lumped from one person to the next and they are all in charge of fixing me.”

“I’m frustrated because I know what I’m meant to be doing. It’s all I ever wanted since I knew it was a thing I could do. And I was doing it, I was writing hard every day and now that is just getting further away.”

She was silent. I was near tears. She said she would leave the next appointment for a couple of weeks. As I was walking out she told me she liked to sing really loud by herself when she was angry. I said I like to do sword training because there is nothing like pretending to hit someone 200 times with a broadsword when you’re angry. She laughed.

*

I slept through my alarm again the next Monday. I thought about texting kind-hearted barkeep. Thought about how I had only missed one day so far, about how I was acing every assessment. I actually liked the course, despite never wanting to work in hospitality, despite me being useless in the craft and it serving no purpose but to make someone else think I was doing something when I could be doing something far more important.

I walked in and made it on time. Kind-hearted barkeep greeted me smiling. I was the first one there. He’d set me up with work experience at the cafe downstairs, the one that only used comic sans font and sold savoury muffins wrapped in glad wrap. The boss was a nice lady who already knew my coffee by heart. She was very excited that I was starting there.

I finished the week’s module in twenty minutes. The excursion that week was an unsupervised pub-crawl.

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