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Review of 'Matters to a Head'

September 29th, 2011
By David Armstrong

I've just finished reading a most remarkable book. It wasn't that the writing was exceptionally polished, or the editing, though both are well above average for a self-published book. It wasn't that the plot had any great unexpected twists and turns, or a cast of notable characters. What made it remarkable to me was its unabashed truth-telling and unapologetic rawness. No euphemisms, no hedging; just telling it as it was.

The book is Matters to a Head, written by Kate K and set partly in Motueka, and published last month. Many locals know Kate, the daughter of a past mayor, who went off the rails in her later teenage life. Some of them may not know that she has been able to turn her life around since then. This book is a straight-up, almost humourous at times, account of the downward slide to the absolute pits and the struggle back up.

Being a relatively recent "immigrant" to Motueka, I didn't know Kate before now, but I had the honour of meeting and talking with her and her mum (whose long-suffering role figures often in the book) recently, a face-to-face which made the subsequent reading so poignant. I'm an exceptionally slow reader but once I got into this book I found it hard to put down.

The plot is simple. Kate became totally addicted to cannabis and alcohol and also developed bipolar depression. (She is not certain of the cause and effect, if any, between the two diagnoses, but is not afraid to consider the possibilities.) As a result, she spent some time in psychiatric institutions.

For the first two-thirds of the book she traces the events and actions which drew her to the absolute rock bottom. The remarkable thing to me is that during the process, over several years, she was sufficiently self-aware of the damage she was doing to herself that she could remember it so clearly to write about it afterwards.

We gain detailed insight into the state of mind of a drug addict, and painful views of what it's like in a loony bin (my words). Like many readers, I imagine, I have no strong addictive traits so find it hard to see why someone can make such poor decisions and knowingly allow their life to be so damaged. As Kate tells you of the next time she got into a stoned existence yet again, just as you thought she was starting to work her way upward, you find yourself being like the kid watching the puppet show, yelling out "The monster is just behind you!!". No Kate, don't go back there!

If this sounds like a gritty drug expose, it's actually very readable because, thankfully, Kate has a playful, wry sense of humour which she lets flow through some of the sad parts of the narrative.

The final one-third documents the seven-year (so far) struggle back to a degree of wellness, thanks largely to Narcotics Anonymous and supportive friends - and her great talent for direct, fearless writing. She talks of her growing awareness of the healing process which has been working for her.

She also writes about her hard-learned opinions about the way mental health services are provided in New Zealand, where it is damaging and why, and where new improvements are being made, in some places thanks to her own recent work as a registered nurse and advocate for peer support structures.

I spoke to her wonderful, long-suffering mum the other day and she said that Kate still had times when she could be vulnerable to depression, but that with support she now has the tools to make sure it didn't happen. After reading of so much carnage and despair, it's heartwarming to know that there can be happier endings.

Matters to a Head is available online at matterstoahead.co.nz




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