Bird Brain


One thing I have come to know, from my experiences on Ward 12, is a bit about the way the brain works. When we think a thought, a kind of chemical soup gets sloshed and shunted around the various parts of our brains, picking up whichever associations are available to it –be they visual images, aural imprints, tactile thrills, motor memories- and pumps this distillation into our cognitive centre, where we put the picture all together, assess, decide. Our brains then release electro-chemical, hormonal, enzymal signals through our nervous systems, our veins and organs and our muscles, causing us to ‘feel’ physically, in response to our thoughts. 

If we think the same thought often enough, if the sloshing of our brain-soup becomes repetitive, habitual, then channels can be worn, ruts dug inside our brains. After too much repetition, almost any thought –any tangential triggering of synapses- in travelling through the brain, must eventually encounter one of these ruts, change its course and travel along it, all the way to its (often self-destructive) conclusion. This process will, of course, have reinforced the self-destructive thought-rut once again.   The way we treat these dysfunctions, with drugs and therapy, is first to patch the ruts –with the spakfilla of Prozac, or the heavy tarmac of electro-convulsive therapy- and then we proceed to dig new, more positive channels, with the keen stylus of improved self-esteem, based on self-analysis and self-expression. It works. It worked often in Ward 12. I saw it working there.  

There was a mixed bunch, always, in our Group sessions, usually held outside in the sun. There were the failed suicides, the depressed and traumatised accident victims, the self-harmers, the pill-junkies. They all had their secrets and their stories, though some were more keen than others to share.   Albert had been a marksman in the Army, yet when he shot himself in the head, he missed his brain. Veronica, withdrawing from a valium addiction, had tried the hosepipe in the exhaust trick, but ran out of fuel at the crucial time. Peter tried to cut his throat, but hit a nerve that paralysed his knife-arm when he was only half way through. Wendy, in bandages from waist to ankle, had fallen into a fire. Chris was getting used to not having any legs, since stumbling into the path of a speeding train. 

Chris was Group chairperson on the day that Pauline began to open up. We had been discussing self-control, as distinct from being –or feeling- out of control, or controlled by others. Teresa said she felt at her most self-determined, self-possessed, when she was slicing her forearms with a razorblade, or burning her breasts with cigarettes. At least then, she said, her pain was on the outside, and self-inflicted; she was at no-one’s mercy but her own.  

Pauline seemed, quite suddenly, to relate to something in this. She raised her head. This was the first time in three weeks she had taken notice of anything outsid herself. She had had aspirations, since her early teens, to be a ballet dancer, but had starved herself now to the point where she would never have the strength. To move had been her life, and now she could not dance, she wanted only death. She had spent each Group session in silence, staring at Chris’ stumps. Who knows what ruts her brain was digging in itself for all that time? 

  And when Teresa talked about her extremes of self-control –her slash and burn technique, we labelled it- Pauline twigged that her anorexia was another form of self-mutilation. She realised why she had hurt herself: to stop her parents and the world hurting her, and to hurt everybody back.  

Everyone looked at her when she spoke, but she didn’t seem daunted by it. It was the first time most of us had heard her talking, so we listened. 

  “When they all told me I looked sick, it only reinforced my will to go further and look sicker,” she said, and shook her head. “All I ever wanted was for someone to tell me: You’re doing OK.”   

 There was a general nodding and murmurs of agreement. It seemed Pauline had hit the mark and crystallised some commonly-held intuition about the bases of all their various conditions.   I saw Steven nodding harder than everyone. He looked at Pauline with a clenched jawed kind of smile. He was another non-communicator, a shy, depressive man, who lacked confidence with women, was too self-conscious even to try, and hated himself for it. 

  But Steven loved Tweetie-Pie, the Ward 12 budgerigar, who hopped about his cage and flapped and chattered to his little mirror for hours every day. There was a Patients Duty Roster on a whiteboard in the dayroom, on which people’s names were written, to ensure that someone made the morning and afternoon teas, and someone fed and watered Tweetie-Pie. Steven wrote his name in the cage-maintenance column for every day of the week.

He took the job seriously, topping up the seed tray, replacing the water and the bottom-sheet. He kept his eye on the cuttlefish supply and cleaned the budgie-spit and coughed-up seed that was crusted on the mirror. And all the time, he talked to Tweetie-Pie. Day after day spent sitting by the cage, craning forward, speaking just above a whisper. The bird knew Steven’s voice and presence well, and felt comfortable. It sometimes chirruped back at Steven, but mostly it was a one-sided conversation, the bird with its head on the side, attentive. 

  I wondered if perhaps Steven felt some identification with the bird, and the bars of its cage. Inside, it was fed and watered, safe from predatory birds and cats. But he could never properly fly.  

Over the next month, Pauline joined in more at Groups, sharing her secrets about the ways she had deceived the doctors into thinking she was gaining weight. She knew a litre of water weighed a kilogram, but contained no calories –so just before her daily weigh-ins, she would force herself to drink the whole jug down. When the staff found out and removed her water jug, Pauline confessed, she drank the flower water from the vases in her room. And when they took away her flowers, she took to pushing bits of metal up inside herself –all to fool the scales and the doctors. All to feel in control. 

  Then came the time when Steven first went home on weekend leave, and Pauline took on the job of dealing with Tweetie-Pie. It was a grudging thing, at first, but Pauline too found some point of identification with the bird –perhaps they shared the same thin-boned frailty. By the Sunday night, she was as keen to sit by the cage as Steven had ever been. Not talking much, just being there.  

And suddenly, Pauline began to laugh. She laughed and smiled and looked at Tweetie-Pie and shook her head, and a flush came to her cheeks. Next day, she ate all her breakfast, and even asked for extra toast. When Steve came back at morning tea time, she went to him and whispered and they took up their positions on either side of the cage, Steve talking sometimes, Pauline always listening. And sometimes they would both listen to the bird, then look at eachother and laugh. 

  They ate their lunch together the next day, then hurried to the cage. They both seemed in high enough spirits, so we left them out of that day’s Group. Over the next week, the pair maintained their vigil by the cage. Steve talked as often now to Pauline as he did to Tweetie-Pie. Pauline put on weight –genuinely, visibly, the shadows of her bones fading as her face and limbs fleshed out. 

  They hugged eachother on the day that Pauline left the ward. She, unafraid to commit her body to his strength; he, confident enough to trust his strength to give a solid, reassuring, friendly squeeze. 

  Steve checked himself out the following day, with almost a swagger in his step as he strode up the corridor. I almost knew for sure he had Pauline’s phone number in his pocket. 

  Somehow, I knew, the bird had helped them both. It wasn’t clear to me exactly how until the day I left Ward 12 myself. I had done the rounds of the dormitories, the activity rooms and the garden, saying my goodbyes, when I entered the dayroom. It was empty, apart from the usual furniture and Tweetie-Pie’s cage, the bird chattering happily to its mirror. And I swear to God, I heard him speak, in a half-whisper, just like Steven would have.  

“You’re doing OK,” said the budgerigar. “You’re doing OK.”

amberdextrous amberdextrous
51-55, M
5 Responses Dec 14, 2009

sounds like love.

Heh, well, I'm glad my comment made you happy. It was the least I could do after reading something so strangely uplifting as that.

Thank You for your comment -and your compliments- FD. Writing is a pleasure for me almost as great as reading such feedback!

This is a very touching story. You've a great style and rhythm to your writing. Easy to read, powerful words. Really enjoyed it. Thanks for writing it.

Thank You for your kind comments, PollyD!<br />
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Perhaps I should have pointed out somewhere that this is fiction, although quite a number of the characters are based on people I met while visiting a loved one at a Melbourne hospital and, like most of my fiction, there are true stories interwoven. The story of the budgie was told to me by a friend, a former mental health nurse.