A Cloud Floating in a Piece of Paper
An excerpt from Admission, a memoir
by HOA PHAM
Narrativeis a form of hindsight. A way of drawing patterns from random experiences, making sense of life with crises and turning points, as if life can be granted closure.
Even in the most obscure ways.
It has been an exploration for me, unearthing the bones of events from my childhood and beyond to assemble a coherent story.
I remember moments, disjointed over time, to make up memoir.
If you are a poet you can see a cloud floating in a piece of paper. You need clouds and rain to water the trees that make paper. Therefore the cloud and paper inter-are.
This is one of my favourite Thich Nhat Hanh sayings, demonstrating the inter connectedness of all things. In this memoir I explore the connectedness between many people and events that inter-are with me. Their stories make up parts of mine.
My stories overlap with others, my grandmother’s stories, my mother’s stories, my family’s stories.
They are part of my being and who I am.
After psychosis, my mind played at pick-up sticks. Somehow, I had to piece it together and make the structure stable. Somehow, sort out the lived experiences from the hallucinations. All of my perceptions were suspect. What was most vivid to me could not be depended on to be the most true.
My memories are in fragments, so I tell the tale in fragments. Together, I try to reassemble a coherent whole.
The first clue was that I could not sleep. The world seemed fever bright. Outlined in haloed lights. I knew something was wrong but I could not say what it was.
I had just turned 31.
In the green psychiatric hospital I get jolts of half memory, recognise the nurses who brought me food that I ordered in secret, hiding from the mirror that was a window into my world. The patients look like people I know: a man I knew who worked for Echelon, an ex-boyfriend who glowers and intimidates women. But up-close confirms the lie. The ward nurse tells me that she is not who I think she is.
One of the patients, my next-door neighbour, who carries around a soft toy lobster and wears bandages on her wrists, tells me she is not supposed to speak to me.
Occasionally, there are people here that I do know. One of them, a former colleague, knocks on my door by accident.
‘Hello Hoa,’ he says and I greet him with his name.
‘I didn’t see you here,’ he says and goes to the next door.
Another patient comes from Odyssey House. Her caseworker knows me too.
‘Is she here as a patient or as a worker?’ she asks the substance user.
‘I think she’s a patient. She’s all right.’
I’m embarrassed being on the wrong side of the counter. In the real world I’m a psychologist. But now I am prone to mental illness, like everybody else. No one is immune.
It’s different being on the inside of the intake system, watching others talk about me. I think the nurses treat me like a human being, most of the time. They check on patients at night with torches and I cannot lock the door. Just like being in a hotel, except for the checking on you part.
I’m not allowed to walk around the hospital by myself. It means I stay in my room, sleeping most of the time, until my visitors arrive. My room overlooks the garden between the hospital and the clinic offices. There’s grass, and occasionally I see people walking around, usually not by themselves.
The room has a single bed made with starch-clean white sheets and corners folded so tight you could cut your wrists on them. The mattress is hard, utilitarian. The window is a narrow slit that lets in a little daylight.
I do not want to see my parents. To discipline me and my brother, they used to lock us in a cupboard. My father would make my mother lock us in, then he would let us out.
I think this was a hallucination.
I’ve been sorting through my memories. Trying to order them out from the hallucinations. I can do this now that I’m not so tired. Before, I was asleep most of the time. Now I’m not and I walk that line between being fully conscious and just drifting, drifting away.
Ba, my paternal grandmother, saw cats meowing at the back door, lots of them.
I would hear her muttering to herself in Vietnamese about the cats. They were scratching at the windows and the doors, waking her up.
She only had one cat.
Ba was put on medication and calmed down a bit.
She showed me her rashes and told me about the cats.
What little Vietnamese I knew helped me decipher that she was talking about cats that weren’t there. Cats of three colours, like she used to have in Vietnam, that yowled for rice every day.
My grandmother would scratch herself bloody and make her rashes worse.
Grandma had survived the chaos and the Vietnam/American War. She didn’t have flashbacks to the war. She flashbacked to the cats. She talked to Grandpa, too. Grandpa who was deceased.
My younger brother and I decided that talking to Grandpa was all right. They had nine sons together and had been by each other’s side every day for decades.
When Grandma talked about Grandpa, she was fine. It was the cats that bothered her, the cats, the cats. She would get agitated and scratch again, like the cats scratching at the door.
My mother was from Saigon, so she said. The truth was her family was on the run. Her father was a teacher and a political activist. The family had to change their name and move south from North Vietnam to Saigon.
Mother never talked extensively about what she experienced growing up in Vietnam. We’d get little anecdotes at odd times; whilst sitting at dinner she would reminisce about how much she enjoyed living on a farm in the south, where she and her siblings did chores and looked after the ducks.
Mother did not like talking about the war. Once, when we were shopping at the market, she told stall people she was Fijian, or from the Philippines, so she wouldn’t have to talk about the war.
She was caught out and was very embarrassed. She could not speak Filipino back.
My mother and some of her sisters are very anxious people to be around. Mother told of a time when as a child her eldest sister would cling to a pot of rice to protect it.
‘It’s mine,’ she would say. ‘All mine.’
She told anecdotes, like how they were so hungry once they ate grass. That they queued for a day to get food in the refugee camp.
Mum and Dad were lucky to be in Australia during the Vietnam/American War, and were naturalised. The family reunion scheme enabled my father to bring most of his family to Australia. My mother’s family divided and fled from the civil unrest and ensuing war to Australia, Germany and the United States.
Mother said that teachers and their families were viewed with suspicion and were spied on. They would be asleep and suddenly wake up to see a head at the window. The spy would duck once spotted. Her father had been imprisoned once already.
So I already come from a paranoid background, at least from Mum’s side.
What is more likely: that my mother was taught how to strip and load machine guns at school—for a show of strength—or that my father works in the public service and spies for ASIO?
I was hit on the back of the head with a hammer.
Why a hammer? Why not a large object?
I was hit on the back of the head with a brick.
How do you know when you were hit from behind?
Because I saw it coming out of the corner of my…
Yes. You see. We can’t have you making wild statements to the police.
Banana, coffee, cherry.
One of the cognition tests wound its way into my memory. I was programmed by a hypnotist counsellor to remember bits at a time. Each bit would be prompted by a change in the objects he asked me to remember.
Banana, orange, cherry.
Merri Creek runs through the backways of a chain of suburbs into the Yarra. It winds past an old convent, an environmental park, a school oval and a concrete structure which is used by kids as a skateboard ramp. Alister and I would walk by Merri Creek, where a series of attacks had occurred.
Banana, orange, cheese.
One of my friends had been harassed and stalked. I couldn’t do much for her except tell her to go to the police. Then I saw a picture of the stalker in the local newspaper. He was a local artist, lauded for his work. It made me sick.
Chocolate, orange, cheese.
I had talked to Alister about this friend while walking along Merri Creek. I cried and he held me in his arms. We fell asleep companionably next to the creek on a sloping bank.
Chocolate, lemon, coffee.
The local artist overheard us around the bend of the creek. He came by and pushed Alister into the river and I couldn’t stop him.
Bread, lettuce, vegemite.
I am getting so confused, even my therapy is rewriting itself.
I keep thinking I see people I know in the hospital.
Every day I take my lilly-pilly pills and the small round tablets that calm me down.
My friends come and visit. One of them tries out the security, shows them her student card, wanting to observe the training tapes of me that they have been doing for students.
She is a psychology student, and she is horrified when they show her an observation tape.
At least that is what I think she says when she visits.
Later, looking into the bathroom mirror, which I thought was a camera, I realise that this would be impossible. They would have needed me to sign a consent form, and I never did.
My mind is like a deck of cards. I keep shuffling and play mental solitaire, trying to fit my memories together, and find all the links, to place them in the right order.
I find this exercise disconcerting. If I wasn’t so sedated I would cry.
Once I had kissed a man who had worked for Echelon, the information data gathering agency in New Zealand. He was in Australia, studying a Masters in computer security. He told stories like how the security wing was obvious because there was a building with six floors and the lift only went to level 5. On level 6 you were asked embarrassing questions about your personal life. One of his referees for the job had told them that he slept with a lot of women, and he said it was true. He was embarrassed that it would be on his security record for the rest of his life.
He did not sleep with me. We only kissed, I went home, and a few days later he indicated he didn’t want much more than that. He was also banned from travelling to some countries, including Vietnam.
In Canberra, the urban myth is that under the steel eagle monument in front of the defence complex is an American bunker.
In Vietnam, all writers and teachers are watched for sedition. Writers that are ‘political’ have their work banned, and are exiled, like Pham Thi Hoai.
In Australia, I think things are different.
But it is not out of the realm of possibility that they aren’t.
Hoa Pham is the author of eight books. Her latest, Empathy and The Other Shore, is due out in Spring 2022 with Penguin UK. She is the founder of Peril magazine. www.hoapham.net