The Sunday Examiner’s Jessica Willard caught up with Tasmanian-born comedian and author Justin Heazlewood about his new book Get Up Mum.
JW: Was this is a story you always planned on telling?
JH: My childhood was a big bang of love loneliness and chaos. I always knew I’d have to write about it one day. On ‘things to do’ lists in my twenties I’d have – get milk, ciggies, write childhood memoir. There’s never a good time to have a baby or quit smoking or write your life story, it just happens. You wake up one morning at 4am and you’ve written a whole chapter while softly weeping. It means your waters have broken. Truth baby has arrived. This story needed to come out and I needed to come out that I was a child carer of a parent with schizophrenia. I love my Mum, but her symptoms have left a watermark of woe on my life.
Get Up Mum is like Angela’s Ashes meets The Castle. There are plenty of funny bits, like life. I describe it as a collaboration between grown up Justin and child Justin. As a 12-year-old I recorded cassettes of my family and kept a diary in grade 7. It’s like I left a trail of breadcrumbs behind for someone to find. Now that someone is me. It’s pretty powerful listening back to those tapes. They’re like a time capsule crossed with a time machine. I’ve brought 1993 back to life but this time round I’m the one in control.
JW: You are best known as a comedian, how did you go about addressing the more serious topic of mental illness?
JH: I’ve been dropping hints and planting seeds and raising flags for a while. I wrote columns for Frankie magazine and would sometimes mention mental illness. Anyone who bought The Bedroom Philosopher albums and listened to the whole thing would know I’ve always had heartfelt and melancholic songs in the mix. People focus on the funny side of me and overlook the earnest side – that’s been the story of my life. There is pain that runs under the surface like the rivers of slime beneath the city in Ghostbusters 2. My previous book Funemployed – about being an artist in Australia – included a whole chapter about my childhood. To me that was like a gateway drug – a practice run for revealing the full story. I was crapping myself, but Mum was surprisingly supportive. There’s one line that crosses into Get Up Mum, the description of the sound Mum made when she ground her teeth – a physical tic, common with schizophrenia. It’s like little bird bones, snapping.
For people who have grown up with mental illness, it isn’t some scary, speciality topic you talk about every six months. It’s the most normal thing in the world. It’s every day. It’s life. I’ve battled depression and anxiety for yonks. Most of The Bedroom Philosopher was an exercise in trying to outrun the ghosts of my childhood.
JW: Tell us a bit about growing up in Burnie?
JH: In 1988 the Queen came to Burnie and declared it a city. We thought Queen the band were coming and learned We Will Rock You on recorder. I was a nipper in Burnie Surf Club from 1987 to 1993. It was a time when Tioxide was dumping chemicals in to the ocean and it was a kind of rust colour. That toughens you up, surely.
You can’t say there was nothing to do back then as a kid. In the 1990s Wynyard even had a slot car track. My favourite hangout was the Shorewell video arcade or Burnie Ten Pin Bowling and you’d live for the Burnie Show with the Turbo which I’m lucky to be alive after riding. The book is set in 1993 which is when Burnie first got Macdonalds and I wrote my first comedy sketch about it in speech and drama. It’s historically accurate. Looking back, I like how much I was out in nature. I used to go bushwalking with Nan all the time with the North-West Walking Club and Montello Primary had bushland everywhere. The Burnie Park is gorgeous and Mum and I would go there to scold the emu for biting my finger. Kids are very connected to nature and I think all that natural beauty helped to calm me down. All the swimming and running around I did probably contributed to my emotional survival. I was a high achieving little dude. I have at least sixteen Advocate Achiever certificates.
JW: What are you hoping people will get out of reading this book?
JH: For anyone who’s had an experience of growing up with a mentally ill parent, this will be like a hug and a wake up call and a storm cloud all in one. I’ve already had people coming out of the woodwork on social media saying thanks for going on the radio to talk about this stuff. It’s a lonely business, caring. The thing about mental illness is it effects so many people. It’s extremely common, yet because everyone’s confused and ashamed about it, we’ve become very practised in keeping quiet and pretending things are normal. It’s a bit Tasmanian, isn’t it? Don’t make a fuss, just do your best and hopefully no-one will get hurt. Well, this is me making a massive fuss. I’m a kid letting off fireworks in the middle of night spelling out help in neon green. I want the whole world to know what happened. Mum and I were Burnie’s best kept secret. An only child left alone with a schizophrenic mother five days a week. Lots of people knew what was happening but no-one did anything. I needed help but no-one really asked. It wouldn’t happen like that today. Boys aren’t men. They need protecting.
I hope Get Up Mum is a fun-filled conversation starter. We need to normalise this stuff and the best way is to practice talking about it. We know about cancer and MS, well schizophrenia is exactly the same, just stranger and more personal. One in 100 people have it, so it’s as common as autism.
This following is an edited extract from Get Up Mum by Justin Heazlewood (Affirm Press, $29.99), available now in all good bookstores and online.
I’m going over to Nan and Pop’s house in Wynyard for the weekend. Mum’s not coming until Sunday lunch, which I’m happy about. I load my gear in the boot of their Subaru and settle into the backseat with my electronic tennis game. Soon it’s just the drone of the engine and the cars swishing past outside the window. I have Nan and Pop all to myself. Everything feels cosier the closer we get to Wynyard. It’s prettier than Burnie with more trees and less traffic.
We drive with the sea beside us. Table Cape looms in the distance. It’s lovely when the sun starts setting below the clouds and the sky turns orange. The cape watches over the sea like a guard. It has a lighthouse on its head, which makes me think of Inspector Gadget’s siren inside his hat.
Nan and Pop’s is a mustard weatherboard beside a huge tree. Straight away the garden greets me with colour. Pom poms of red and white and yellow spring from their beds like a cheer squad. Clusters of roses wait in full bloom. My favourite is one called ‘Taboo’ – it has rich dark red velvet petals. They gather in a cluster. I want to bury my face into it like Nan’s powder puff. I take a swig of the fresh perfume.
Nan’s garden amazes me every time. There are chirping birds and wafts of sea breeze and soft grass underfoot. The lawn is keyhole shaped and surrounded by shrubs and daisies and vines and trees bursting out in every direction. There’s a bird bath and canary aviaries and a veggie patch and hot house. Nan and Pop’s is like a little farm. There’s life everywhere – even inside, where the pet budgie Sparky is perched in his cage, prattling away.
‘We’ve GOT to get her back on those tablets.’
Nan and I are parked on the swing seat on the patio. The air circles my bare legs as I massage my feet on the patio tiles. This is where we come to sit and talk before tea. The birds are tweeting. The plants are nodding their heads. Nan’s garden is better than TV. The patio is full of orchids in beer bottles and hanging buoys that Nan collects when they wash up on the beach. They remind me of old diving helmets.
Nan usually does most of the talking during these chats. I like listening. Nan knows a lot about a lot of things and has an opinion on everything. She often ends her views by saying ‘That’s in my book’ and I remind her that she’ll have to actually write the book. Right now we’re talking about Mum. Nan’s upset seeing our house the way it was.
‘The state of that laundry, Justin, was shocking!’
I look down at the cobbled patterns of the bricks. I feel bad.
‘That poor cat having to use such soiled litter, I ask you. And the washing machine water stank to high heaven. Justin how long have those clothes been sitting there?’
I try to keep this stuff from Nan – she gets too worked up. I hope I haven’t let her down. Was I supposed to do those jobs?
‘Mum’s been bad for a while.’
‘Well I wish you’d let me know earlier, we could have been over there and seen to it. But you know what she’s like, she wouldn’t let me do any vacuuming or look inside the fridge.’
Nan does her impression of Mum, vague and high pitched.
‘I’m alright. I’ll do it. I’ve just been having headaches.’
Nan turns to me with her wide eyes and downturned mouth.
‘Justin, I know she’d not left that bed all day!’
She faces forwards again and takes a sip of beer.
My head feels full. I don’t know what to say in these conversations. I don’t have many helpful answers.
‘I emptied the bin and washed out the cats bowls,’ I say.
Nan holds up her heavy hand and slaps it down on my thigh. I think it’s supposed to be tender but it hurts a bit.
‘Good onya man. You’re old enough now, you can get in there and make sure some of those jobs are done. You make sure she’s taking them damn tablets. Do you watch her take them?’
Hmm. I don’t really know. Not every day. I often hear the rattle of the bottle. I figure she takes them.
‘I think so.’
‘But do you see her take them? Do you see that she’s swallowing them?’
My heart is racing, I don’t want to let Nan down.
‘I’ll make sure she does.’
‘You ought to get in there and say “Excuse me Mum, but have you swallowed your tablet.”’
Nan softens her voice for the impression of me.
‘You never know, Justin. I don’t know if she’s hiding them under her tongue. I don’t know if she spits them back out after or what.’
When Blossum needs to take a worm tablet Mum hides the tablet inside a ball of mince. I could make a joke but it’s all too serious. We’ll have to go in soon for tea.
Nan tells me I have to be strong.
‘The strong survive, the weak … they fall.’
Nan says as long as I talk about my problems I’ll be okay – it’s no good bottling things up.
‘Unless it’s home-brew …’ I say quietly, but Nan doesn’t catch the joke.
‘This is part of your mum’s problem, she keeps things to herself. I’m forever trying to get her to open up. “Maureen, if something’s bothering you then please just tell me.” But she won’t. She keeps herself bottled up until she gets to screaming point and by GOD, has she let Dad and I have it over the years.’
A lot of family stories take place when I was either a baby or not born yet. Mum had to stay in the psychiatric hospital when I was a baby. No-one ever talks about this – all I know is that she didn’t have a very good time.
‘Your mum hasn’t liked psychiatrists in the past. They don’t do a bloody thing except dish out tablets. She’s a wonderful woman your mother … when she’s well.’
Nan says things I already know. She gets bogged down as we go round in circles. I’ve heard it over and over. I think of school and Tennille and Nick and surf club. I think of each thing until I think of nothing.
‘She seemed a bit better today,’ I say.
‘Yes, I noticed her eyes were a little brighter. A little.’