“What is your favourite?” lists start conversations in almost any situation; new work colleagues, first dates, 4am conversations with your friends, eating midnight noms while you plummet towards soberness and hangover but before you feel too poisoned to laugh about it. Lists of public toilets may not be the best conversation on a first date but neither are jokes about genocide.
Perhaps there is a little bitter irony in the fact that my most favoured bathroom is also in the building where my agoraphobia began. I haven’t decided if it is actually ironic or if it is just coincidental, like the Alanis Morissette definition of irony. The too many spoons no knife retard kind of ironic. Looking at it like a shrink might, it makes sense that the place where I first needed to find safety in public, is the place where I found the most secure public toilet of my life.
In a Freudian, old-school therapy way I guess you could say I see the toilet as a representation of a mothers womb, safe and secure from the (perceived) judgemental gaze of society. I had just left the pseudo-womb of my parents house and the security of their caring, humorous, accepting gaze when I began studying at Building One. I was 17 and had left home to live in a Victorian mental hospital recycled into an art school for students who didn’t fancy being Elam high-art wank.
On my first visit I fell in love with the building and that was why I applied, nothing really to do with the course. The qualification was all very academic to me as it was my interest in the building that lead me to apply and maintained my attention for the full 5 years I studied there.
The building and I were meant to be together, like in a love story but creepy. Like those documentaries about people who fall in love with objects, the Eiffel Tower, a bridge or amusement ride. I’m serious, look it up, the videos are hilarious. I’m not really in love with the building, I have been known to walk down the halls and run my hand along the rough plaster and brick wall but I draw the line at thrusting away at the cold concrete and making out with the open brick work. Not really what gets me off to tell you the truth.
My first day at Unitec was also my first agoraphobic panic attack. It was different to the anxiety attacks I had experienced before though I supposed the tizzy I used to get myself in when I tried to stay at a friend’s house as a child counts as agoraphobia, now I think about it. I would cry until I was collected by my mother, often well after midnight. It was euphemised as homesickness and something I would grow out of, well I guess I showed them!
On my first day there was a powhiri, 120 odd new students being welcomed in front of the main building. I remember being struck by panic and dizziness and a cramp in my stomach that made me think I would either shit or spew, I didn’t know what.
All I knew was that I had to get away and the best place was a bathroom as I thought I was probably sick with a bug or something food badness inside me. It felt like every single pair of eyes on the grassy verge turned to watch me when I stood up during the speeches and walked as quickly as I could around the outside of the building. I had no clue where I was going, all I knew was that I had to get away from all these people and be alone.
It would be almost poetic if the bathroom I found that day was the one which is now my favourite but life isn’t that romantic and neither is a panic attack.
Over the coming months and years my panic would rear up every time I had a lecture. I sat in the front row and left more often than I stayed. I would walk in and out and feel judged every time. After lectures I would sit with my friends on the lawn and shake and hurt and feel like the life was rattled inside my head until nothing made sense any more. But I never avoided lectures, I suffered through them, a pattern I would continue through the rest of my mental health existence. I don’t know why I just never thought it was an option. The only exception was in second year when I stopped going to school almost completely and thus failed and had to repeat, but that is a totally different story.
The memories I have from this time are not bad, in spite of my struggle.
I can’t say when I found my favourite toilet or when it became my favourite, I don’t recall. What I can recall is how it made me feel when I was scared and twitching and filled with doubt. A room where I didn’t have to be seen, no one knew who was on the other side of that door and no one had the right or the inclination to call out and speak to me while that Engaged sign was in the locked position.
What makes it special? It is one of hundreds of available loos in the main building. There are other toilets which are renovated, new and pristine, some toilets still have their original tile work and the fascinating remnants of the buildings uncomfortable past.
My favourite sits under a set of stairs next to an elevator hardly anyone ever uses. It should feel conspicuous, sat there so close to the main foyer, the library and galleries but it doesn’t. It is a bunker hidden in a wall, a tiny safe cupboard out of the line of foot traffic with windows which look out over the hidden edge of a grassy area should you choose to open them.
It feels hidden, like something that hasn’t been used for years, which made the budding archivist in me happy. It’s tiny, no bigger than a closet with windows on both sides of the toilet. The roof is high by stoops in a comforting fashion at the door. The features are still that of the late 19th century building it once was, with a few extra layers of paint hastily thrown over the top to make it appear tidy.
The window to the right has louvers which look out over the quiet end of a grassy courtyard, you can open or close them at will. The window on the left leads to no where. It is a window in name only as the elevator, added sometime in the 1970s I presume, has closed off the window to the outside. This room like much of Building One has a fabulous feeling of process, like you are living in the middle of change and movement. The drawings on the wall change constantly but some stay the same (there has been an eye drawn on one of the windows for about 10 years) pieces of art come and go and their remnants float about the place and leave the slight wiff of the students of the past. To me it always feels like a work in progress. Different but comfortingly the same.
The bathroom is set apart with no other bathrooms beside it, not a cubicle but a private box away from the watchful eyes of 300 odd teenagers and young adults going about the business of being creative and alternative in their everyday lives. The cubicle is the lesser of toilet choices, the stand alone is an agoraphobic’s dream, no one can see you or hear you or even relate to the person on the other side of the door as a human being. I am an enigma when I am in a solo bathroom, nothing to no one and I love it.
Even now when I go back to that building, the bathroom feels like a haven, a safe place where no one will come knocking. I felt safe to compose myself, to build up my calm before I had to walk back out into the world again to be surrounded by my own thoughts, fears and awkwardness.
As I mentioned earlier the beauty of building one is that it changes and grow like a living creature. When I go back now 13 years after I began there, the building is the same, some walls are different, most of the rooms have been re purposed what was a studio is now lecture room, what was a computer lab is now a bright green bathroom, what was a workshop is now an exhibition space. The business of the day is the same and in some ways the art is the same, the students will always be the same but the building breaths and modifies while still offering the same haven of artistic experience to hundreds of kids.
When my episodes of agoraphobia started this is the building which held me, I found solace in its hidden spaces, like a womb from the public transport, relationships, parties and car rides which filled my life with anxiety but taught me how to cope. The building is still there for me and that toilet still represents for me my own willingness to open the door and get the fuck back out there and do things until I worked out how to stop them hurting and if they didn’t stop I would always have a place to come back to and hide and cry until I felt some relief.