02 August 2009
Barry Dickins, the storyteller, playwright, raconteur and poet of the people, endured nine rounds of shock treatment over six months last year, leaving him “violated and remorseful and numb and nauseous”.
But today the 59-year-old is facing a different foe: a painful slipped disk in his back from trying to return serve on the tennis court to his 14-year-old son, Louis.
His wife, teacher and radio producer Sarah Mogridge, from whom he is separated, has been ferrying the scrappily bearded and dishevelled Dickins to the community doctor and to the x-ray clinic, and has just dropped him back to his humble white one-bedroom rented terrace in Carlton in Melbourne’s inner-north.
Louis, their fair-haired, quiet and polite boy, has just cycled away, having earlier been asked to wait at the house to greet this interviewer and explain his dad’s absence.
On the nights Louis stays over here, he sleeps in the bunk bed above his writer father. The house is a mess but it’s a cut above Dickins’s last lodgings in a nearby motel, where Louis would visit and make sure his dad took his medication for anxiety and depression between writing thousands of words daily for his memoir,
, about what it’s like to undergo electroconvulsive therapy.
Dickins gradually stopped taking the medication, finishing the anti-depressants last October. Bizarrely, the cocktail included seroquel, chiefly used for schizophrenia, clearly misprescribed because he never had that condition.
But today packets of prescribed oxycodone, a semi-synthetic pain-killing derivative of opium, are opened because Dickins is determined to get through this interview, painful back or not.
“I don’t think it’s a gloomy book,” he says after washing the pills down. “It’s a frightening book – I was suitably frightened when I wrote it, and also amused.”
His columns in Melbourne newspapers over four decades have always been more like vignettes told by a taxi driver crossed with the poets e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas, less journalism than storytelling with – Dickins often reminds us to cover an occasional purple patch, albeit in finely shaped prose – “exaggeration for effect”.
He writes, for instance, of a trip to Sydney that caused ructions with Sarah: “I didn’t want to sleep out in seedy Kings Cross. Cats raped dogs there. We had a shower and bought botulism burgers.”
Yet his work is liberally salted with truisms, such as unspoken love. Consider the scene at the end of part one, when Dickins is in the clinic Sarah and his brother Chris have authorised to perform ECT on the writer, when his 88-year-old father visits.
A spartan man and former army drill sergeant, Dickins’s dad is dressed in his best leather jacket and best tartan shirt.
His son writes: “He just stared into my drugged blue eyes without love or indifference or judgement or forgiveness but understanding; he understood me because he understood death and I was dead before he gave me life and came in the dead room where they kept me dead without dead hope. The old love of he who gave me existence reared up.”
“I could smell his soap on a rope,” recalls Dickins now of that visit. “He always looks the gent. Unlike me, I don’t care how I look, and that did my marriage a lot of harm.
“My wife has been hurt by that – it’s a decision not to care. Unless I’m teaching, I don’t put a suit and tie on.”
Dickins covers the bills as a casual poetry teacher to private school students. “I’m always covered in chalk, anyway.” Which doesn’t quite explain the tea stain on his shirt that he covers for the photographer with his brown corduroy jacket.
He and Sarah must still be mates if she’s driving him around to doctors? “Look, I kissed her today,” says Dickins, his voice poignant in its low-key croakiness. “And that hasn’t happened in over a year.
“I really wanted to thank her. And she didn’t pull away. I’ve never hated her, and I don’t say I hate her in the book. She’s the one who instigated [the split] but if you read the book, as you’ve done, you see why she couldn’t stand it. I was just too much trouble.”
In the book, Dickins attributes the marriage breakdown – which seems irrevocable – in part to the financial pressures an “erratic poet” with low income created, as well as his drinking “because I realised she didn’t love me”, although he readily admits to a lifetime of alcoholism. “I grew up in a drinking culture,” Dickins writes. “You drank or you were considered a bore if you did not imbibe.”
He also writes of the death of their sex life. Has Sarah read the book? “No, but I’m keen for her to read it. I never blame her for a moment.” Is such intimate detail wise? “Well, you can’t skirt around that. I think she’ll like the book … [but] you can’t sit down at the keyboard and lie to it.”
Dickins writes with sensitivity about the women in his life, including his mother, Edna, 85, who still lives with 89-year-old Len in the house Dickins grew up in Reservoir, the world’s “ugliest suburb”.
“They’ve never loved each other more, and they sort of bill and coo together,” he says, though Edna is “in bad shape; she’s all bowed over and confused. But every once in a while she bursts into Swanee River”.
While Dickins ranges widely over the potential origins of his severe depression, which came to a head with a bout of insomnia early last year, he never quite nails the respective roles nature and nurture played – was it chronic money issues mostly, or the inevitable result of bipolar genes – or precisely when his troubles began.
He documents Edna taking “palm fulls of Serapax” over the years, and his grandmothers on both sides being “bipolar grumpies”. There is also the early trauma of a female housemate who was murdered when Dickins was a young man.
“I’d say it’s a lineage thing,” he says eventually when pressed, though he’s much more concerned with the fact drugs are dispensed and gobbled so readily. Dickins stops short of declaring anti-depressants a universally bad thing – the medication “screwed him up” but might help others, he says.
How does he feel about the use of ECT in modern medicine? Dickins doesn’t believe it helped him, but “some people respond well to it, other people don’t,” he says. “You come out of the recovery room and you should be told you’re going to be nauseous, you’re going to have a bad night … you’re just taken back into your room and thrown in the bed.”
Whither his son, who has had such a grown-up role thrust upon his young shoulders overseeing medication and encouraging his dad to keep living? Louis, the sensitive boy so sharply drawn in
who “ennobles me, lifts my flagging hide” is yet to read the book in its entirety. “He will; whether he likes it or not I don’t know, but he’s had a sneak preview,” says his father. “He laughed at a couple of the sentences.”
Dickins reckons Louis is so quick-witted he could be a stand-up comic. “He’s terribly funny. In the fourteen-and-a-half years of his life we’ve never had an argument. I adore him.
“I’ve wanted my own father to look me in the eyes and say: I love you. I’ve wanted to hear that all of my life. I know he does, but he doesn’t say it. It’s very different hearing it. I’ve got no doubt that Louis knows I love him.”