Well take her once, take her twice / She can leave you cold as ice
Oh my, she is so nice, my lithium lady.
– from Lithium Lady, Eddie Ink
I SORT OF figured something was wrong or I was different right at an early age when no one seemed to want to play with me, but I also didn't seem to want to play with other people either.
I suffered abuse as a child, which pushed me into a bit of isolation, often escaping into my bedroom. My mother bought me a thirty shilling secondhand guitar. I just concentrated on that, me, the six strings and this guitar. I found that after a while it was shutting out all the things, all the other problems in my life. It was something that I could actually enjoy, I could get into a world of my own and play guitar and just be happy.
I used to lug this thing to school. I'd have to walk four miles to school and I walked carrying the guitar in a case and walked home again, so it was eight miles a day. So I really was just attached to this bit of wood with strings on it. The action on it was higher than the West Gate Bridge. To play it was ridiculous but I thought if I could play this thing I could play anything. That's how it worked out.
I didn't cope very well with school. I suppose I had attention deficit or whatever it's called these days, they had no names for these things back in the '30s and '40s, so I ended up leaving school at the age of fourteen.
By then I could play quite a few chords on a guitar and I wanted to join a band. But I still had this problem, I couldn't get on with people. I still find it difficult to get on with people. I've been an actor on stage in front of twelve hundred people, not a problem. But now, in a room with just a couple of people I'm terrified.
I found that what I did to help me, I sort of became another person. One of the reasons for becoming an actor was I had the chance to be other people on stage and be paid for it. I think it was a form of escapism, to escape from I don't know what, but it was something in the head that just wasn't right. I found if I became someone else I could deal with it. Although the danger of that is deep inside I'm still the little four-year-old kid who had the abuse and all that other stuff but it's locked away, tightened up in a little ball, inside my head somewhere. But I don't visit that anymore, I don't go there.
I just really concentrate on just music, and what I found helps me is writing about this. Whether you write poetry or whether you write stories, or songs or whether you paint, if you are creative it can change that aspect of your head and it doesn't matter.
And I found that by being creative I was suddenly attracting, not exactly friends, but people were becoming more interested because I was creative. And I found eventually at the age of sixty-six that if I just mixed solely with creative people I'd find a lot more mental illness amongst those people as well because it seems to go hand in hand, this mental illness and creativity, I don't know why, for me it does and for a lot of people I've met.
I'VE HAD TWO marriages, two children, a successful career as a writer and director in television and a move to Australia, but I couldn't live with it. I ended up an alcoholic living in a tin shed in St Kilda. I lived like that for about seven years and I'm still living in the same rooming house sixteen years later, but not in the tin shed anymore. I'm in the actual rooming house.
During those years that I was an alcoholic, life was predictably chaotic and disconnected. However, a kind of self-preservation instinct meant I was looking for stability, somehow to regain my balance in my addiction to alcohol, my mental illness, my relationships and just life.
I've always written, writing plays and so on since I was a teenager. I even wrote four episodes of The Bill in England, and yet here I was, an alcoholic in a tin shed in St Kilda.
I got involved with a group called Roomers. They run creative writing workshops with guest writers and so on. The writing classes were like a lifeline to me that got me off the shipwreck and back onto dry land. I got to read my poetry and do stand-up comedy at local events. This hooked me back into my writing. However, it didn't connect me with the music and guitar that had been the cornerstone of my life since I was kid.
It was then that I discovered Wild@heART and its music programs. They ran a songwriting and music workshop program at the Sol Green community centre in South Melbourne for people who experience mental illness and other issues that put them at the edge of society. The group has been going for years, offering a steady, friendly place for people to engage with music creativity, learn skills and work with each other to write and perform.
I went along to my first workshop feeling extremely nervous. I didn't know what to make of it, I couldn't really play the guitar much after years of absence and I certainly didn't know how to sing.
After the initial trepidation I found that the group was really community minded and looked out for each other. While people didn't sit around talking about the difficulties everyone obviously experienced in life, it was just understood that we accepted each other for who we were.
Living in a rooming house meant that I never got to meet people much. The weekly music workshops got me out once each week and I got to meet, work with and make friends with a bunch of like-minded people.
The workshops lifted my self esteem, which I've never had much of in any case. I started to get my confidence back. The workshops gave me a plateau on which I could stand. When I was an alcoholic I was unstable, not just physically, but emotionally, economically and creatively. The Sol Green sessions provide a weekly group that is well run, has excellent facilitators, it has form and structure and a focus on skills and creativity, and a really good bunch of people coming along. Everyone is in the same boat – it's like a family thing but you don't have to put up with being related to everyone!
Wild@heART provided not just this first 'plateau', but a whole series of stepping stones that I could traverse. The songwriting workshops led to live performances at their Strumarama songwriters' gigs, run four times a year at the iconic music venue the Prince of Wales. I then got involved in a Wild@heART project called MI Culture which explored stories around mental health and creativity and produced mini-documentary films. Last year I joined Wild@heART's artist mentoring program where I'm setting goals, working with my peers and with industry mentors to take my music to a higher level, doing recordings and video clips, learning about computers and the online world and getting myself gigs around Melbourne.
IN THE SHORT couple of years I've been coming to Wild@heART I've built up my confidence, self esteem, skills and performance. I now feel like I could write four episodes of The Bill again. I feel like I've got back to where I was thirty years ago.
I think I'm a success story in that at the age of sixty-six I've become the person I started out as when I was four years old. I've gone through sixty-two years of hell in all various shapes and sizes, held on to my music to take me all the way through that. I've arrived at the other end and I'm now probably more happy than I've ever been in my life. I have done I think what you call 'made it'.
I'm still living in a rooming house. I don't have a car or any possessions, except about four guitars and that's all I need. The only thing I remember in my entire life all the time is the guitar, having a guitar, having it with me and playing it. I play it every day, I'm sixty-six and I play it everyday and it's the only thing that keeps me sane really.
Thanks to Wild@heART for offering me a community, stability, access to my own creativity again and a pathway ahead that makes my next thirty years the best years of my life!
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
Sidon Street, South Bank 4101 Australia
South Bank Campus, Griffith University
PO Box 3370, South Brisbane 4101, Australia
Phone: +61 7 3735 3071
Fax: +61 7 3735 327