©2018 Dr Romesh Senewiratne-Alagaratnam
According to the statistics, at the age of 57 I am getting to the end of my expected life. This is because psychiatric patients in Australia have twenty years less life to expect than the rest of the population that haven’t been branded with the label of “mental illness”.
Before I became a reluctant patient of the Australian psychiatric system, I had graduated and worked as a doctor, specialising in what was called ‘family medicine’, but better known as ‘general practice’. General practice, conducted by General Practitioners (GPs) is contrasted with medical and surgical care provided by specialists, recognised experts in various ‘medical specialties’. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) established its Family Medicine Program (FMP) to establish general practice as a specialty of its own, devoted to family medicine, an important part of which is preventive medicine. It also includes counselling and a great deal of psychiatry, provided as primary care for people of all ages. I entered the Family Medicine Program as a second year resident, and in 1990 I was granted vocational registration by the RACGP. I was not a member of the college, but received vocational registration when it was introduced because I had already been in general practice for more than 5 years.
I entered the University of Queensland to study medicine in 1978, when I was 17 and straight out of high school. I had attended “Churchie”, a boy’s school that has changed its formal name from “The Church of England Grammar School” to the “Anglican Boy’s Grammar School” and slipped down the comparative academic ranking of Brisbane schools. When I entered the university it was with 17 other boys from Churchie, including the two boys who had shared the Tyrwitt Cup with me for the best academic students in Year 12 (1977). I never actually saw the cup I had won and it was taken home by one of the other victors. I wasn’t much interested in it, to tell the truth, but I was proud of my academic success. It reinforced the belief that my mother had instilled in my sister and I that we came from an “intelligent family”. But intelligence and academic success are not the same; many intelligent people do poorly in the academic system, and many people do well academically by repeating, without questioning it, everything they are told by their teachers. Exams favour people with good memories, and “retentive brains”. It favours students who can apply equations and laws but not necessarily understand how the equations and laws they apply were derived.
From a young age I was expected to “study hard” to “come first in every subject” with the notable exception of Singhala, which I was only expected to pass. This pressure to “come first” came from my father and was transmitted to me by my mother. My father rarely spoke to me, even when I was living in his home. I did, however, have long and varied conversations with my mother and my older sister Shireen, in whom I foolishly confided my innermost thoughts and fears. Foolishly, because she used to knowledge to manipulate, dominate and control me, which she delighted in.
Shireen was also expected to come first in class and the pressure on her continued to her years at university, while my father gave up on my doing well, though he insisted that I sit at my desk and “study”, rather than play the guitar. He was outraged when I first started busking to get around the fact that he tried to control me financially. At the time one of his registrars had seen me and asked if he didn’t give me any money. My father came home furious and demanded that I stop busking. But he didn’t expect me to “win a First Class in Medicine”, which he demanded of my sister. Years later she confessed to me, in tears, that she felt huge pressure to avoid his disapproval.
Though she did well in medicine, and got a First Class, my father and sister had a tumultuous relationship when she was at Uni, mainly because he accused her of “fooling around” with her boyfriend Channa. Channa was the son of Basil and Erangani Seneviratne, who were family friends of my parents and had lived in the same block of flats in England before returning to work as doctors in the hill city of Kandy (Mahanuwara) in Sri Lanka’s central mountainous region. Basil was a cardiologist and Erangani, who had gone to school with my mother, Kamalini, was a pathologist. They moved to Brisbane from Christchurch (New Zealand) in 1978 after sending their oldest children ahead of them, first Arjuna (MIkka) who stayed with us in 1977 till his older brother Channa arrived. Both Mikka and Channa were romantically interested in Shireen, and Mikka was disappointed but not surprised by her decision to go out with Channa, whom she eventually married, but later divorced without children.
Basil and Erangani’s third child and older daughter was Dammi (Damayantha) who I had an adolescent crush on, though I found her hard to communicate with. I took her to the school formal, when Shireen was taken by Mikka, in year 12. I hired a flared white suit for the occasion with no insight into how incongruous I looked, and didn’t have a clue how to start a conversation or sustain one. When, the next year, Dammi invited me to the Somerville House formal as her date, again I didn’t know what to say to her. I was a shy guy.
When I was first locked up, supposedly for an elevated mood and increased talkativeness, Dammi was the only member of her family who visited me, the others having been warned that I had “changed” and was no longer nice. She even offered for me to stay in her flat with her sister Amanda when I was discharged from hospital. This was in the Woden Valley Hospital in Canberra, where I was locked up for three days over Easter, 1995, after escaping from the Royal Park Hospital in Melbourne (RPH). I had been locked up at the RPH on 7th April, 1995, in an event that disrupted and changed the course of my life. This is when I was transformed from being a respected doctor to being a stigmatised madman, a maniac, a ‘mental patient’.