From psychosis to symphony

From psychosis to symphony

From psychosis to symphony

Updated 10 October 2017, 7:35 AEDT

Mason Chamberlin has struggled with psychosis since he was nine.

Mason Chamberlin began his struggle with psychosis when he was nine. Now in his late 30s, he's composed a symphony, Psyche, to tell his story.

Movement I: Dromos

Mason grew up in Deer Park in Melbourne's western suburbs, and started teaching himself guitar at eight years of age.

It was on a summer holiday music camp with the Australian Boys Choir that he had his first visual hallucination.

"There was a big green blob coming out of a wall ... some kind of hand or something.

"I endlessly got teased about that afterwards because I told one of the boys."

After that, he says, he started suffering from anxiety at night.

"The doctors call it the prodromal period where symptoms aren't full-blown psychosis but they are gradually getting worse and worse."

By the time Mason was at high school his mental health was adversely affecting his studies.

"I would get a lot of enjoyment and do really well in a subject for a little while, then I'd have a setback.

"Nobody was picking up that I was struggling with depression at the time, which eventually became psychotic depression, until I was diagnosed at the age of 17 with schizoaffective disorder."

Movement II: Suspicion

Mason says his diagnosis followed "a complete neurological breakdown".

"It was scary because I couldn't control what I was doing ... I was just being completely illogical."

He started hearing the voices of children he knew taunting him with lines from movies such as "life is like a box of chocolates".

"I'd turn around and nobody was there."

He also started hearing music — "one particular tune ... just repeating and repeating".

"It's actually the substance of the second symphony that I've written. I can sing the tune."

This was the start of a long period Mason spent in and out of hospitals and institutions, and put on medication after medication.

"The brain has a magical ability to filter out what's not important to the brain at the time, but I was unable at the time to filter out all of that extra worldly information — which sent me into the breakdown."

His symptoms worsened even as he began receiving treatment.

"I would see people out in the garden area, and open the door to go out to the garden area with them, and then I would see nobody out there.

"It was almost like a feeling of the end of the world.

"Psychosis is a very, very strange thing."

Mason pursued his music and art despite the volatility of his mental health.

In 1998, aged 18, he began studying at the Melba Conservatorium, majoring in voice, where he stayed for two years before having to withdraw due to depression and mood swings.

The following year he was accepted into the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts where he studied drawing.

This time Mason completed his degree, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Art in 2004, and had "a few good years" with several successful exhibitions and performances.

But the good times were not to last.

Movement III: Escape

In his early 30s, soon after starting post-graduate studies at Deakin University in Geelong, a major psychotic episode landed Mason back in hospital.

He was moved to a nearby rehabilitation centre, but Mason says he didn't feel safe there.

After a day-and-a-half he escaped.

He packed a bag with whatever clothes were at hand, grabbed his guitar and laptop computer and caught the train from Geelong into Melbourne.

When he arrived in the city he deliberately left his laptop on the train, fearing the psychiatric hospital could use it to track his whereabouts.

Mason soon found himself inside St Paul's Cathedral near Flinders Street Station arguing with a statue.

"I wasn't happy that I wasn't being answered by this inanimate object ... so I started to fizz out the candles at the side altar."

Mason recalls a man coming up to him and helping him calm down.

"He had me put the candles back and relight them with him, and he said to me 'I've been there before myself'."

After being escorted from the cathedral, Mason sat in the concourse at Southern Cross Station by some telephone booths.

"I couldn't remember my phone number to call home and find a way to get back to a safe place and I was in a very, very distressed state. I couldn't remember my address."

Movement IV: Regaining Clarity

A security guard called an ambulance and Mason was taken to the Royal Melbourne Hospital before being transferred to the Swanston Centre, an acute psychiatric unit in Geelong.

Until this point, Mason says, he had been on so many different medications that he "couldn't count them on both hands", but this latest episode prompted his doctors to try him on clozapine.

An antipsychotic with serious side effects, clozapine is generally prescribed only when other drugs have failed.

Mason says while his recovery was slow, seven years on he can say with confidence the drug has worked.

"I have ... small mood swings, as everybody does, but there's been no real psychotic symptoms.

"If I wasn't on it ... I'd probably be walking around an institution."

He now lives with his mother and brother in the western Victorian town of Stawell.

Like any family, he says, they have "ups and downs" — his father died a few years ago and Mason helps care for his brother who has an intellectual disability — but life is better than it has been in years.

"I'm in a good place at the moment."

And a productive one too — 2017 has seen Mason complete several works including the two symphonies, and he is now looking to have his work performed.

He is actively involved in community theatre and sings with the Ballarat Choral Society (BCS).

On the weekend he returned to St Paul's Cathedral to perform in concert with BCS and the Victoria Chorale.

"Without the music or the art there'd be not very much in my life, and it's dug me out of a lot of holes."

He recalls a walk around the lake near his house during a routine visit from his psych nurse.

"I was sitting on a seat facing the lake ... I was telling him about how anxious I was, and there was a duck flapping its wings in the water.

"He said, 'Wouldn't it be lovely to be as happy as that duck', and I said, 'He's just happy because he's flapping around, playing in the water'.

"He said, 'This is how simple it is, just allow yourself to be playful'.

"Maybe that's what my music does — I can be playful with it, break rules, create new ones, create whole new theories."

The short excerpts from Psyche (Symphony No 1 In C) and Symphony No 2 In G Minor embedded in this story are copyright Mason Albert Chamberlin, used with permission.