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Poles Apart

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A coming of age story about being diagnosed with a mental health condition at 17. Also a teen romance, with a theme of friendship.

Romance / Children
5.0 1 review
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Chapter 1

The truth is, I’m scared to start telling this story. I’m frightened that all those things that I push down below the surface every day, those things that rear up at me suddenly when I’m riding an escalator in a department store or standing at a bus stop, those memories will start flooding out and I won’t be able to shove them back in.

But my story needs to be told, so I guess I’d better just harden up and get on with it. Because crazy as the things that happened to me were, I’m not the only one to go through this. There are people out there who need to know they’re not the only ones.

It all started back in February when I met Joshua. I don’t even know how to start describing how beautiful he was – he was tall and tanned, with gorgeous green blue eyes and a wicked smile. My heart literally jumped every time he spoke to me.

And the wonderful thing was – he did speak to me. He was four years older than me but he never made me feel young, like a little kid. He listened when I spoke, and he laughed and smiled a lot.

I don’t need to tell you that most 21-year-olds don’t treat 17-year-old girls like adults. But he really did.

It’s easy to say now that it was just a crush, a teenage obsession. And it kind of was, but it was also more than that. I liked him. I admired him. I fancied him and I wanted to be like him. It was, frankly, overwhelming.

I honestly felt, and I know this sounds juvenile, that we were meant to be together. We had the same goddamn initials, but in a different order. We were the same star sign, and he was four years and four days older than me. Coincidences? Obviously – but at the time it felt like it was written in the stars.

Also, he was really talented and he worked hard at what he studied, which was music. No, not in a band. As a conductor of an orchestra and a violinist. I thought that was equally sexy.

My friend who had perfect pitch, said that maybe he didn’t have the talent to make it all the way in music. I disagreed but I also didn’t care – I admired his dedication and work ethic.

So it was the weekend and we were all heading for orchestra camp at Karitane. My daughter, in the here and now, not the then, says that sounds lame, but I was beyond excited.

We were away Friday night to Sunday morning. The beach was deserted and beautiful and we stayed in an old sanitorium in bunk rooms. It was cold, we were down near Dunedin after all, with not much between us and the South Pole.

On Friday night we all got our instruments out for a first rehearsal. We were playing Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and in the big lamps, moths would fly in and explode in little bursts of flame. Which was funny, but I also read it as a sign.

That night I didn’t sleep that well, my brain was whirring with excitement and plans. And the bunk bed wasn’t that comfy, when you came right down to it.

The next morning we met for breakfast. Somehow Joshua asked me if I knew the Flanders and Swann song about the French horn. I did and I started to sing it.

‘I once had a whim and I had to obey it, I bought a French horn in a second hand shop, I polished it up and I started to play it in spite of the neighbours who begged me to stop’

I flourished in the glow of his attention. I didn’t think I’d ever been that happy. But still, I told myself, he’s an adult. He won’t be interested in me.

At morning tea time I was talking to my friends about how girls tend to hunch their shoulders during puberty. Joshua came up and said ‘What’s with the hunchback, Rachel?’

So I explained and he said ‘Well, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, is what I say.”

He smiled and he looked me in the eye when he said it. My heart skipped a beat. Surely that was a flirtatious thing to say? Or was he just being friendly? I really couldn’t tell.

Did I mention I was a virgin? I really had no idea about men and boys. I had only sisters, no brothers. I went to an all girls’ school.

Later, on the beach, I heard my name being called and I looked around to see Joshua, struggling with a piece of driftwood. “Come and help me move this log!” he bellowed.

He was moving the log so we could play beach cricket. But later my gay friend Jo said to me “He’s always had a crush on you. Remember when he said “Rachel, come and help me with that log.”

I didn’t believe her, exactly, but God I wished it was true.

So the weekend passed in a happy kind of daze and then we were playing our pieces in the George Street School hall to a mixed assortment of parents and siblings. As stand-in first violin in Craig’s absence, I had a tiny solo, which I didn’t stuff up for once, and Joshua conducted it perfectly too.

Could life get any better? Well, yes, but it could (and did) get a lot worse too.

It always helps if you can sleep through the night, doesn’t it? I mean, everyone goes crazy eventually if they don’t sleep.

I didn’t sleep at all on Sunday night. I tossed and turned and well, you know, masturbated, and then it was morning again.

I was exhausted but I got up and went to school. I couldn’t stop talking, and most of it was about Joshua.

My friend Kathryn took me aside and said ‘Don’t talk so much about Joshua Levy. It’s been noticed.’ I blushed and grinned. But took note of her point.

A little later my friends were all laughing at me and one of them said ‘Well, it’s all out in the open now isn’t it?’ I guessed it was.

After school I went to the phone. Sadly I didn’t know Joshua’s number. The orchestra printed all our phone numbers in a little booklet but that didn’t include the conductors.

After a moment of contemplation, I reached for the phone book and looked up Mr and Mrs Levy. Sure enough, there they were. I dialled the number.

‘Hello,’ I said. “I’m looking for Joshua, would you be able to give me his number?’

And Mrs Levy said “Yes of course, who is this who’s calling?’

And I said, ‘Rachel, with an e.” Because I knew Joshua had a sister, Rachael, and she spelt her name with an a.

Just like that, I had Joshua’s number!

I hesitated for about five seconds, and then dialled. (Literally dialled - this was 1989 and I was standing in our kitchen.)

Strangely enough, Joshua himself answered and then I had to think of a reason for calling.

‘Hi Joshua, it’s Rachel,’ I said. And he didn’t say “Who?’ he said ‘Hi, Rachel.”

“I just called because I need someone to find a piece for me in the university library,’ I blurted. ‘It’s called…um…Haydn’s something.’

Joshua laughed. He sounded absolutely relaxed.

“Oh, yes,’ he said. “Haydn’s what? You might have to narrow it down a bit for me.”

I panicked. “Haydn’s concerto for strings in…ah…E flat?” I said doubtfully.

And Joshua wrote that down on a piece of paper. I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d got away with it.

We chatted amicably for a few minutes, then Joshua had to go to a lecture. I stood staring at the phone with a stupid smile on my face.

The next day I called again. I didn’t even bother with an excuse this time and we chatted for ages. My mother got a bit cross because she couldn’t tell my dad what to pick up on his way home from work (more coffee beans).

After about a week of this, my friend Pip said to me: “So…does he ever call you? I mean, did he seem surprised to hear from you in the first place?’

I said ‘Um, well, he called once when his flatmate ripped the phone out of the wall mid-chat…does that count?” And she said ‘Um, I’m not really sure.’

So that wasn’t very helpful. I decided not to worry about it. Surely girls waiting to be called was for my mother’s generation, not mine.

Then one day my mother cornered me and said it to me straight. “This boy…he’s not for you,” she began. “He’s too old for you.”

‘You’re five years younger than Daddy,” I pointed out hotly. “And if you’d listened to your mother, none of us would even be here!’

She didn’t know what to say to that, because it was true enough, and I flounced off in a huff.

My mum and I just didn’t seem to see eye to eye any more. We used to be best friends and I would always get mad if she wasn’t there when I got home from school. Didn’t she know I had things to tell her? How dare she have a life of her own?

And it was a bit rich that I’d been talking about Joshua for months before she mentioned anything. I felt like an idiot, but also sure I was right, and she was wrong.

I still wasn’t sleeping, but I’d got used to it by now. I was really tired, but also full of a manic kind of energy. It was exhilarating, and terrifying. I didn’t know what to do.

My homework went from being patchy, to non-existent. I spent every waking moment working out how I could call Joshua without my mother noticing. I went to friends’ houses to use the phone, and once, Moana Pool.

And finally, the wheels really came off. I remember running through the university quad, looking for Joshua. Eventually, I tracked him down to a lecture room. I could see him sitting at a desk, through the old paned glass window. I smiled and waved.

He looked up and his face went white. Then he looked away.

‘Joshua!” I screamed. I was crying, really sobbing. And then I honestly don‘t remember what happened next, except that I woke up in hospital.

From the hospital I called Joshua’s number. He answered, as he usually did.

‘I’m in hospital,’ I said.

‘Rachel, please…don’t call me so much,’ he said. And my heart sank through the floor. It was like riding a roller coaster. ‘Ok,” I said. And I handed the phone to Pip. I couldn’t speak any more.

Later my friend Juliet came to visit and brought me a single red rose. I woke up in the night and I was convinced Joshua had come and given me the rose. I was happy once more.

My weight was now down to 110 pounds, the lightest I’d been since I was twelve.

The doctors started me on medication and I slept most of the time for three months or so. I put on weight, as you do if you don’t leave the house. I was wretched and I thought my life was over.

Then I first heard the term ‘bipolar affective disorder’. ‘I don’t know what that is,’ I said, and the psychiatrist said, gently: ‘It’s what they used to call manic depression.’

So that confirmed it. My life as I knew it actually was over. I was destined to be a mad wife in the attic, like Mrs Rochester or something. What was there to live for?

When I got out of hospital, my friends came to the house for my 18th birthday. There was a cake and some presents, but I had to go back to the hospital to sleep. That was a low point, but not quite so low that I was suicidal. I wanted to die, but lacked the motivation to do anything about it.

Food made everything a tiny bit better. I gained another 10 pounds or so, but I refused to step on the scales like the psychiatrist wanted me to do. Eventually I screamed at her: ‘It’s my life that’s been ruined!” and my mum said “There! She said something.”

After a month or so, my dad forced me into the car and drove me down to George Street to attend a support group for people newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I wasn’t keen but he didn’t give me a choice so I went.

As we were walking from the car to the clinic, I saw Joshua’s little old car driving towards us. He lifted one hand off the steering wheel and waved and my dad waved back. I felt fat and ashamed in my school uniform which only just fitted these days.

At the support group, nobody looked very normal, to my untrained eye. I looked around for someone my own age but it was pretty clear I was the youngest there. A rather bossy and plump woman, who was running the session, started handing out leaflets about bipolar disorder.

Then she started to talk, and I remember her saying: ‘Bipolar people tend to have a lot of trouble forming relationships. They often get divorced and sometimes commit suicide, more than the rest of the population. Then they have problems with debt, gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse.’

There was a scrape of a chair beside me. I looked over at my dad who was standing up and had his hand on my arm, pulling me with him.

‘That’s profoundly unhelpful!’ he barked. ‘Come on, Rachel, we don’t have to listen to this.’

I’d never loved my father more than at that moment. Outside we both got the giggles, which was a strange and unlikely end to the afternoon. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed out loud.

We weren’t quite sure how we were going to tell my mum, let alone the psychiatrist, that we’d run away from the support group.

The next year, I started university with my friends. I didn’t go away to study journalism like I had planned. I think my parents wanted to keep an eye on me.

University turned out to be a lot of fun. I loved my English lectures and my concentration was now good enough I could follow what was being said and take notes. I was still a little subdued and quiet, but at least I could focus.

And then one day, I saw a boy.

I still felt very sad but there was a flicker of life in my belly. He was really cute. I mean, just so athletic and…good looking. And those brown eyes with the long lashes.

As the boy walked across the quad away from me, my friend Warren shouted out ‘Keith!’ and he turned and smiled over his shoulder. Cute didn’t begin to describe him.

The next day I said to Warren: ‘Now, if we have a party at my place while my parents are in Australia, will you invite your friend Keith?’

And Warren just looked at me. ‘I don’t have any friends called Keith,’ he said.

‘Yes you do,’ I said. ‘Tall, thin, dark brown hair, a bit floppy at the front and short at the back?’

“Oh!” Warren started to laugh. “You mean Heath. His name is Julian. Julian Heath."

And that, Fia and Will, is how I met your father.


The main thing I’ve learnt from renewing my friendship with Joshua is this: if you leave something unresolved in any friendship, try talking it through at the time, or, if that’s too painful, a few months later at most. Don’t waste your energy wondering what the other person might think of you. I spent years convinced and saddened that Joshua must hate me for disrupting his life. Of course he didn’t - who would blame someone for something they clearly couldn’t help?

When I got that very first reply from Joshua on Facebook in the middle of COVID in 2020, I cried all day, but only out of relief. Jules was so nice and kind to me that day - I’ll never forget that. And now Joshua and I were friends again, I could stop worrying about it.

Because for 30 years, there was a small corner of my heart that might as well have been tattooed with Joshua’s name. Now I can put my whole, healthy heart back where it belongs.

In bed with Jules, grounded in Hong Kong 2022, with Fia and Will down the hall.

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