Since I have been experiencing “visual disturbances” lately, I went to a clinic in the city to have a retinal examination today. This involved not wearing make up to work, which made everyone ask if I was alright, then having to hike up a big hill to sit in a waiting room for an hour and a half with a lot of old people who looked like they died some time ago. The lady at the desk made me fill out lots of forms that asked me to estimate how many alcoholic beverages I consume in an average week and other impossible questions, then I waited some more.
A girl called Julia anaesthetised my eyeballs and made my tears yellow, then she poked them to check my eyeball pressure or something. After that, she put the dilating drops in my eyes and led me to a smaller, more crowded waiting room that could have passed for a methadone clinic because everyone there was glassy-eyed and staring at the wall because we could not see properly. An asian surgeon looked at my eyeballs with a magnifying glass, which he accidentally dropped onto my crotch and then went to retrieve and then awkwardly stopped himself. Then a fat lady took photos of my eyeballs and yelled at me for blinking every time the camera flashed. By this stage, I looked like I had taken a lot of pills, except I wasn’t smiling all that much.
The doctor then said I have “very healthy eyes” and dictated a letter to my father using his dictaphone machine, while I looked at myself in a hand mirror. Then he said “if your car won’t start, there’s a problem with its engine. Maybe you just need to take better care of yourself.” And I said, “I do, I love myself.” And he said, “Okay, whatever.” I don’t think he was much of a people-person, because in his office he had 5 pictures of his dogs and 1 picture of his children.
Love is a Class IV substance that was legalised in the 1960′s for treatment of depression and bunions. Often confused with hunger, love is not a matter to be taken lightly.
I once bought a bottle of love, then I woke up in the desert two days later with a criminal record in all four Australian states. I had “GORDON” tattooed around my belly button and a thermos full of dead whores. I was forced to walk back to Sydney using only my cunning and a greyhound bus, and when I got there, I threw out all my love and ordered a mandolin and a chocolate-brown shag rug online.
If you’re worried you might have been exposed to love, you can call the Gay Men’s Health Line on 1800 009 448 and do not listen to John Mayer.
To conclude: people often fall in love and people always die.
I had just turned nineteen when a routine visit to the dentist suddenly took a nasty turn….
“Look at those wizzies!” Fred said, fingering my gums. “We need to take those babies out asap!”
“Are you sure?” I asked, feeling sick.
“Of course I’m sure,” Fred said, offended. “I’ve been a dentist for twenty goddamn years. Don’t worry, they’ll put you under before they get started.”
I relaxed immediately. Several painful things had happened to me under local anesthetic, so I was apprehensive of staying awake during any sort of medical procedure and wanted to be put under for most things, including having my legs waxed. However, up until now, nobody had ever offered me a general anesthetic, so I felt very excited. Furthermore, I would likely be prescribed some sweet pain killers to cope with the post-op agony. My love affair with pharmaceuticals stretched back to infancy, and I had developed quite a strong tolerance for most over-the-counter medications by the time I reached adolescence. An opportunity to legitimately obtain some harder gear was way too good to pass up.
“Will there be panadeine forte or similar involved in this?” I asked Fred, trying to keep my voice casual.
“Hell yes,” he replied. “Do you have any idea how deep your wisdom teeth grow?”
I waved him away and sat back in the chair, already planning how this tooth extraction surgery would pan out. I would get to go to hospital for the first time ever, and the novelty of this would be so intense that it would outweigh any negative aspects of having my teeth wrenched from my head. After the operation, I would stay at my parents’ house, where I would lie on the lounge and watch Dawson’s Creek for a week. Of course, this didn’t differ very much at all from my regular life, except that now I would be doing it while I was fucked up on codeine. Further, I would have my mother and father around to wait on me. It would be like a holiday that didn’t cost any money, just teeth.
The big day arrived and my mother drove me to the hospital in the morning. After I registered with reception, I was taken into a consultation room and instructed to remove all my jewellery and hair accessories.
“I’m having my mouth operated on, not my pony tail,” I told the nurse.
“This is standard procedure,” she replied defensively. “Now, how much do you weigh?”
“That’s a little personal,” I protested.
“We need to know your weight in order to figure out how much anesthetic to give you,” she explained.
“Oh. In that case, put me down for 80kg.”
After I left the consultation room, I was shown into a pre-op area and given a gown to change into. My mother paced around the room, looking anxious.
“Don’t worry, Mum,” I told her, “I’ll be fine!”
“Oh it’s not that,” she said. “I’ve asked your father to tape A Country Practice and I’m worried he won’t remember.”
After I undressed, I was put on a bed and wheeled to the operating theatre. Once there, a man inserted an IV into my arm, smiled, and told me to count backwards from ten. “Ten…” I said, and promptly passed out.
When I came to, I was in a room with several other girls lying in beds. I panicked straight away. Was this an abortion clinic? Had I just gotten breast implants? Been hit by a bus? Donated an organ? I flagged a nurse and grabbed her arm when she came to my bed. She patted my hand reassuringly and adjusted my gown, which had slipped down to my belly button. I hadn’t even noticed, I was so out of it.
I woke up again about half an hour later. This time, my mother was sitting next to me. “Are you ready yet?” she asked. “I’ve been here all freaking day, let’s hit the road.”
When we got home, I strapped a pack of ice around my jaw. Then I took four panadeine forte and got into bed. I woke up at 3pm the next day and prepared to move to the lounge. But here, my holiday began to divert from the original plan. Codeine made me simple-minded and unable to follow the swift, verbose dialogue of Dawson’s Creek. I kept falling asleep during each episode and waking up confused. And despite using the ice pack, after 24 hours, my jaw had swelled incredibly and my head resembled a peanut. My plans to recover glamorously, lying on the couch and entertaining visitors while my parents fetched me ice cream, had been thwarted by the fact that I was too embarrassed to let anybody see me. My brother came home from work and sat on the coffee table, studying me. “You kind of look like you have Down’s syndrome,” he said. “Except uglier.”
“Fuck you,” I replied, too drugged up to think of any other response.
“I’m going to get my camera!” he said and went to his room.
I took two more panadeine forte and sank into the couch cushions, mentally willing my jaw to shrink.
The swelling did go down eventually, but it took exactly one week. One horribly long week of avoiding mirrors and keeping the blinds closed. Even after the pain in my jaw subsided, I couldn’t leave the house because I now had a deformed head. My brother invited his friends over to show them how ugly I had become. The ironing man looked at me sympathetically, the way one looks at a failed suicide who has inflicted hideous scars on themself but somehow scraped together the will to live, even with a face like a dropped pie. However, I was nowhere near that stoic. I wrapped big scarves around my face, even when I was home alone. And I flat-out refused to move back to my share house until my head had regained its normal shape. I realised that my face was the most important thing in the world to me, and I made a lifelong commitment to protect it. I would wear helmets and mouth guards and goggles and hats and sunscreen forever, because I knew I would never have the strength of character required to live with a crooked nose or a third degree facial burn. Oh I was born with blemishes like everyone else, but I was blessed with imperfections that I could mostly hide with clothing, make up, and lies. The Week of Ugly made me realise how lucky I was. Sure, I might have been dealt short-sightedness, scoliosis and terrible migraines, but at least I didn’t have a head shaped like a fucking peanut.
I have always felt nervous when people make notes about me. What was so heinous that they could write on a permanent file, but couldn’t say to my face? When I was a child, I wanted the doctor and the dentist to make their notes on sheets of butcher’s paper spread out on the floor, using coloured textas. Maybe we could draw a Venn diagram or do some brain storming together. Then we could stick it on the fridge and I wouldn’t have to spend every night during the third grade sitting up in bed, fretting over what all these people were writing about me.
I didn’t feel that way with Dr Riley though. He was so smart and highly regarded in psychiatry that he didn’t have to cut his hair for work. He kept ugly artworks in his office and wore light pink pants and nobody gave a damn. He took the tough cases too – people who punched walls during sessions and went home to slit their wrists, then came back to the surgery covered in blood and babbling apologies. I had to wait 4 months just to get an appointment.
When Dr Riley made notes about me, I felt special. It was like being interviewed by a famous journalist. I wore distressed jeans and big sunglasses to my sessions. I put my feet on the lounge and made jokes about his other patients.
“I don’t think you’re taking your time here very seriously,” he said at my second appointment.
“I guess I’m just not a very serious kind of girl,” I replied, winking.
Dr Riley rolled his eyes and made some notes. Presumably something along the lines of, Well dressed, biting wit, fascinating and charismatic. I tossed my hair and turned my head so that the better side of my profile was facing him, in case he wanted to make a quick sketch of my features.
By my third appointment, however, Dr Riley was making so many notes that I began to feel nervous again. When I tried to look at his notepad, he gave me a stern look and tilted it away. “These notes are just for me,” he said, and resumed writing. I scanned the room anxiously, looking for something personal. Dr Riley knew so much about me, and I knew practically nothing of him. I needed to restore the balance. I had to get some reciprocal dirt to even things out. I spotted a bicycle in the corner of the room, leaning against one wall, helmet sitting on the seat. Aha! I thought, He’s a cyclist. Interested in fitness. Probably worried about his weight. Finding it harder to keep the pounds off as he gets older. Definitely projecting that onto his patients. Was probably sexually abused as a child. Is no doubt a latent homosexual. May be inclined to violent episodes. I should leave now, this guy’s more nuts than I am.
“You know what I think the problem is?” Dr Riley said, interrupting my diagnosis.
I liked the way he said “the problem” and not “your problem.” It made me feel like I had no responsibility in the matter. It caused me to visualise an obnoxious self-sustaining problem floating in the room; something we would tackle together. I found this comforting because I am inherently lazy.
“What’s the problem?” I asked, looking closely at my cuticles.
“You only have two conscious emotions or states of being. You’re either shit, or you’re okay. That’s it. That is the full spectrum of your feelings as an adult. Shit or okay, shit or okay. Shit… Okay…”
“Hmmmm.” I considered this for a moment.
“Well?” Dr Riley asked, “How does that make you feel?”
“Okay,” I replied.
“I thought so,” he said, and went back to making notes.
Every 6 months, I go to the dentist. My dentist’s name is Fred. He has an enormous belly and wears a white coat, so he resembles a giant pillow. I rest my head against his soft stomach while he peers into my mouth, pokes around, and says “You have a sensationally healthy mouth.” This takes roughly 45 seconds and $75 and then I am free to go. Every 6 months, the exchange is identical. Well, it was until this week.
On Monday, I went to see Fred for my regular check up. As I nestled my head against his tummy, he peered into my mouth for longer than usual. Then he scraped the side of one of my teeth. A mild, yet definite ache spread throughout my jaw. Fred scraped another tooth and it hurt too. He stood up and loomed over me.
“What the fuck is going on here?” he asked.
“Nothing, I swear, it was one time!”I cried uncertainly.
“Your gums are receding, girl.” Fred said.
Anytime somebody calls me “girl”, I know I am either in trouble or they are hitting on me. This was the former.
“That’s impossible,” I replied, “I’m only twenty-three. I have perfect teeth. I take real good care of them too. Look at them, they’re beautiful.”
“Look again,” Fred answered, and peeled my bottom lip away from my jaw. Sure enough, the gums on either side of my mouth were slowly wearing away, exposing the roots of my teeth, which were beginning to turn a distinct shade of dark yellow.
“What the hell is that?” I asked and Fred replied, “Decay.”
Decay? Decay was what happened to corpses buried inside coffins in the ground. It involved maggots and bad smells and smug relatives. And now it was happening inside my mouth.
“What do I do?” I asked Fred. I didn’t want to ask too many questions, because for some reason I believed that the less I knew, the less serious the entire situation.
“Put this cream on your gums at night,” he said, handing me a small tube labeled $25, “And go see a goddamn specialist.”
After I paid and left the surgery, I sat in my car and cried for twenty minutes. I hadn’t realised how much of my self esteem was tied to my teeth up until then. At that moment, my entire personality seemed to hinge on the quality of my pearly whites. If I lost a single molar, I would lose my sense of humour, or compassion, or balance.
I calmed down eventually, drove home and made banana muffins. I rubbed the cream on my gums every fifteen minutes. I googled “causes of gum recession” and was confused that none of the typical reasons applied to me. As soon as my brother got home from work, I made him look inside my mouth and inspect the decay on my exposed teeth.
“That’s gross,” he observed, “And weird. Your teeth look fine everywhere else.”
“I know!” I agreed, “They’re perfectly nice looking on the outside, but underneath they are rotten and ugly and slowly dying.”
“Kind of like the rest of you,” he replied.
My father treats a lot of old folk in nursing homes around the Hills, and they are all nuts. Based on the anecdotes he shares about these visits, I am definitely going to stuff him and Mum into a home the moment one of them loses their glasses and then finds them on top of their head.
- At a certain Christmas Carols charity concert one year, a mature lady did not feel she was being given enough attention as everyone was looking towards the performers on stage and not at her. In an admirable effort, she stripped down to her birthday suit and strutted up and down the aisle of the nursing home’s dining hall while waving her arms above her head. Obeying instructions from staff to ignore this particularly attention-seeking patient, the other geriatrics simply stared ahead and continued to watch the carols. Undeterred, the naked lady walked to the side of the stage and unplugged all the speakers, then climbed on top of one of them and began singing her own carols.
- One blind patient was admitted after she fell and broke a hip while frantically going through her house searching for her missing husband. When the paramedics were called to attend to the blind lady, they discovered her husband hiding in a wardrobe, giggling at his visually-impaired wife’s inability to win Hide and Seek. In an apparent attempt to make amends, the husband would visit his blind wife at the Home for lunch every day. The nurse would place a plate in front of each of them and explain to the blind lady, “Your peas are at twelve o’clock, your potatoes are at three o’clock, your ham is at six o’clock and your carrots are at nine o’clock.” The old man would smile at the nurse, wait for her to leave, and then reach over and spin his wife’s plate forty-five degrees.
- Foolishly, I accompanied my father on a call to a nursing home when I was about eleven. Bored and wandering the halls, I got talking to an old bird who pulled me into her room with the promise of a gift. As I silently assessed my nearest emergency exits, she shuffled around her kitchen opening and closing cupboards and muttering to herself. “Why don’t you let me go and we’ll just call it square?” I suggested, but she had apparently found what she was looking for and pressed an apple and a pear into my hands. ”I got these for you,” she lied as I backed away. Out in the hall, I shoved them into the nearest fruit bowl and then made my father take me home.
- Another lady ate all her blankets, then bitched about being cold at night and having a sore tummy.
My earliest memory is of lying naked next to my brother on the burnt orange carpet of our hallway in Candowie Crescent. I sucked on black jelly beans and cried silently while my parents rubbed a foul-smelling ointment into my skin. Holding my nose, I tried to ignore the revolting cream that was applied to my entire body from the neck down, but these things are hard for a three-year-old. This entire process was repeated for four consecutive nights, and then I was allowed to bathe as normal.
Years later, I realised my parents had been treating us with sulfur. Dad brought lots of things home from work, but scabies was the best – microscopic bugs that burrow under the skin, lay eggs, and create a red rash that resembles an allergic reaction in appearance. As the eggs hatch and the mites crawl around underneath the skin surface, the infected person develops a terrible itch, scratches the shit out of hisself, and often develops a secondary infection. My father had been working as a GP in a local nursing home in 1989 when they experienced an outbreak among the old folks. They treated the residents and doctors but didn’t think about the doctors’ families, even though scabies is extremely contagious and transmitted readily through skin-to-skin contact. For the remainder of my childhood, I would have an intense fear of insects. When I found out about bed bugs, I slept in the bathtub for a week.
My second earliest memory is of my father forcing me to solemnly swear to never practise medicine. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, for years I replied, “Not a doctor.” Teachers and creche workers were fascinated by my inclination to define myself by what I was not, or would not do, rather than the opposite, but that ended up being the professional direction I would take as an adult. It’s as if I have a giant list of every career possible and am slowly crossing them off one by one after each failed attempt to make a living. (Eventually, I assume I will be left with my dream job and a string of bad references.)
Dad only worked one job, but he had a hard life. He spent years building his practice and getting patients, and then the rest of his life trying to get rid of them. Admittedly, our number was never listed in the phone book, but do all other forms of advertising go completely unnoticed? An entire generation of Australian adults simply lived without medical care until they met my father at a dinner party in the eighties. Whenever I was dragged along with my parents, I would watch the other guests’ faces light up as they chatted to Dad. “Oh! You’re a DOCTOR? That’s so interesting, because I have this pain juuust heeere…” and they would reveal the body part that grieved them. Even as a child, I was always amazed at the rudeness of these people. If you met a hairdresser at a party, would you hand them a pair of scissors and request a trim? If you met an accountant, would you ask them to do your tax before dessert? If you met a cleaner, would you ask them to pop into the kitchen and tidy things up a bit? Fuck no. But people thought nothing of pulling my father aside at tupperware parties, trivia nights and bible study groups and making him inspect their genitals. Over the years, almost every family friend, relative and member of my parents’ church has adopted my father as their GP. Dad has dirt on everyone in the Hills.
My next earliest memories are of late-night trips to nursing homes to certify bodies. Mum was out a few evenings during the week and Dad couldn’t leave me at home by myself when one of his patients died, so he took me with him. The first time, I waited patiently in the home’s common area. I sat quietly and pulled leaves off a pot plant, but within minutes I was surrounded by gnarled geriatrics with glossy eyes. They shoved pieces of fruit into my pockets and tugged at my hair. One woman proudly introduced me as her granddaughter, then smacked away the hands of anybody else who tried to touch me. They drooled and moaned and hacked and couldn’t hear a damn word I said, which was probably a good thing as I was pretty feisty for a five-year-old. After that night, I chose to wait for Dad in the same room as the corpse.
Not only North-West Sydney’s preferred medical health professional, my father was also the go-to guy for household injuries and neighbourhood emergencies. I probably set the precedent when, one night in the early nineties, I jumped out of the bathtub and ran naked through the house. Still wet, I slipped and cracked my forehead open on the cement step in our kitchen. Instructing my brother to clean the pools of blood off the floor, Dad made me lie on a beach towel in the back room and calmly stitched my face back together. Years later, getting up to pee during the night, I would see the exact same scene happening in the kitchen after one of my brother’s friends fell off his motorbike. People regularly arrived at our door with sprains, burns, grazes, cuts, dog bites, stuffed backs and split lips. Friends seemed to bring to Dad what they were embarrassed to take to the medical centre. He once dug a small bug out of a girl’s eye with a Q-tip, flushed a bead out of a boy’s nostril after he intentionally inhaled it, and sedated a friend’s son after he had tried to scrape their mashed kitten off the road outside their house. Dad was brilliant during emergencies and could treat his own children without batting an eyelid, but when it came to general illness or ailment, my brother and I always went to our mother. Mum had cool hands and stroked your hair; she made you honey tea and prepared hot packs or cold packs or steamy rooms; she rubbed Vicks on your chest and dabbed calamine lotion on your mossie bites. My father, on the other hand, only ever had one piece of medicinal advice for us: “Take two panadol and lie down for half an hour.” Nevermind the fact that I couldn’t swallow tablets until I was ten – lying down for half an hour is practically impossible when you’re a kid. No matter what symptoms we had, Dad’s advice was always the same. It was as if he couldn’t take us seriously unless we were bleeding or bruised or broken. I spent seven years complaining of headaches before Dad sent me to a specialist. Mum received even more useless advice than me – whenever she complained about an ache or pain, Dad simply said, “Aww that’s no good.” One day, Mum snapped. “Eight years of medical school and that’s what they teach you? THAT’S NO FUCKING GOOD?” After that, Mum started seeing a female GP at one of the surgeries Dad owned.
Through eavesdropping on my father’s phone conversations over the past twenty-two years, I like to think I’ve gleaned quite a bit of medical expertise. (Although I once overheard him tell a patient to “take two panadol and get a divorce.”) Dad was always stupidly giving patients his home number, and they’d ring every night the minute we sat down to dinner. I listened attentively as Dad rattled off medications, dosages, statistics and warnings. I also disgusted myself thoroughly by reading his medical journals and learning far more than a child should about the body. At school, I showed off my drug-company pens and notepads (Zoloft was way cooler than Mambo!) and surveyed the playground carefully at lunch time. Whenever a student fell or injured themselves on the monkey bars, I dashed over. “Don’t worry,” I would reassure the growing crowd of spectators, “My father is a doctor.” And they would make room for me accordingly. Then I would inspect my classmate, poke them in various places and ask if each one hurt, nod gravely, and escort them up to sick bay. There I briefed the school nurse on the incident and offered my diagnosis before she rolled her eyes and kicked me out.
The problem with my Dad is that he’s too nice. He treats all our friends and family for free, even though he would never dream of using their accounting, consulting, plumbing or basket-weaving services without paying them. Even when he does things through the books, Dad accepts “alternative forms of payment.” One of his patients, a greengrocer, gives us boxes of fruit after each appointment. An elderly Philippine lady with no medical insurance pays Dad in bizarre desserts (green things with jelly and spaghetti and mousse.) Most of the time, he just bulk bills everybody, even the “struggling” retired couples who request vaccinations before their overseas holidays and then drive away in their sports cars. Dad genuinely cares about his patients though, and he always puts their safety and wellbeing before his own. One day his most annoying patient, a recovering alcoholic, showed up to an appointment blind drunk and twirling his car keys. Rather than letting him put other road-users in danger, my father drove the patient home, stopping on the way to buy him KFC because the lush hadn’t eaten in days. After dropping him home, locking up his car and tucking him into bed, my father then walked the 6 kilometers back to the surgery. In January.
As a side project to general practitioning, my father regularly taught sexual education at a local highschool. This meant that while he usually sidestepped awkward father-daughter chats by cutting a relevant article out of the newspaper and leaving it on my desk, he thought nothing of sitting me at the kitchen table and placing a condom and a carrot in front of me. “Practice makes perfect!” he declared, while I looked up at my mother pleadingly. I was thirteen.
Despite the scabies, career limitations, dead bodies, phallic objects and constant interruptions to daily life, having a father who is a GP has its perks. I can get scripts for anything, we have enough medication in the house to kill a rhino, there’s some great gear on hand whenever I have an emergency fancy-dress occasion, and people assume I’m rich. Unfortunately, I also have an unusually high tolerance to panadol…