Wednesday, July 12, 2006

This is Javd, it stands for Jill & Vanessa's Dog. He lives here at my Brisbane residence.

Today for work I went to Rivergreen, a day program for people with mental illnesses, to explain what we do at my workplace.

Rivergreen is in a beautiful old blue Queenslander on the south side of Brisbane. It's on a steep hill, so you have to go up a flight of stairs to go in the front door, but by the time you walk through the house to the back door, you are back at ground level.

We sit out on the back porch, Jonathon (my boss) and Jane (a colleague) and me, and about twenty or thirty interested Rivergreen folk. At least half the group is smoking, and tobacco smoke curls up from the group as if someone has decided to set the scene with moody dry ice. Beneath that, the ingrained smell of stale tobacco. A young Indian man, in his early twenties, stares intently at the ground and taps his legs ceaselessly, while a tall skinny man behind him paces back and forth, back and forth, striding out the length of the suburban backyard a thousand times during my visit. A pimply redheaded nursing student ostentatiously wearing her student badge ("I am not one of these people") looks bored. I'm sitting next to an older man who looks like a broken down bureaucrat in his crumpled suit, towed in to get his carburettor overhauled or his head gasket replaced in a last ditch attempt to keep this superseded model on the road. He later confides, in a drug-slurred voice, that he's a social worker, and gives me a comprehensive analysis of problems with public housing in Queensland, all in the same mumbled slurring monotone. A fat old woman overflows on her cheap plastic chair, snoring quietly, while another woman, with bottle blonde hair, a battle scarred face and a stained op shop windcheater telling me she (or whoever donated it) has been to Falls Creek, asks me incisive questions about what I'm doing to get the government to increase funding to Rivergreen. Jim, a weathered old bikie with home-made tattoos up and down his arms, sings to me, and I find out he runs a songwriting group here. Clive stands up and makes a speech to thank us for coming. It's a great, heartfelt speech about the wonders of Riverglen, delivered in the eerie robotic drawl of the heavily medicated. A bunch of people want to add to Clive's speech. They love this place - 'I feel understood here,' 'These people are my family,' 'I thought I would be nothing but now I know I can be anything.' They give me a gift: a book of their experiences that they have had published. The business of the meeting is over and the afternoon dribbles into stories of getting one over the psychiatrists and hospitals - "The day we smoked dope on the helipad on top of the hospital..." "The night we broke out of the ward and went to a nightclub..." "Silly things my psychiatrist said to me..." I imagine every oppressed group has this storytelling tradition, ridiculing the oppressors: those dumb white folks, those superstitious Christians.

I leave feeling like I've been given a privileged insider glimpse of life on a different planet, but very glad I don't have to live there.

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