Walking with the Taniwha
Wearing shorts, jandals and sporting a #2 buzz-cut, Paul Bennett could’ve come straight from the beach. He looks pretty good for a corpse. In 1998, after 25 years of hard-core drug and alcohol abuse, Paul returned to New Zealand to die. His lungs were shot: doctors could do nothing more for him. But Paul didn’t die.
Instead, he began the journey of recovery revealed in his autobiography Walking with the Taniwha, first published in 2005 and recently re-released with a mental health focus, including knowledge Paul’s accumulated from a further seven years of research and recovery.
Paul doesn’t pull any punches. His prose is blunt and raw with a regular injection of medical and chemical terms in a style Paul calls “hori-clinical.” Drawing on lyrics and poetry and with clinical vocabulary defined in plain English, it’s written for recovering addicts with associated mental illness. “Instinct told me to go for it,” Paul says, “and to write as I had been doing all along – from my heart.”
Paul’s gone by various aliases over the years: Bentguitar, Party-Boy, Shady, Tutu, Paul-bearing-eyes. How does he feel about being called a writer? He shakes his head, seeing himself more as a person with a story to tell, compelled to write because, as he puts it “sometimes you have to do something, you have to stand up and encourage others.”
“With the first edition, I didn’t realise I was writing a book. I kept diaries because I thought I was dying – I was that sick. I did it in an [exercise] book. When I had about two or three of them, I started to see it as a book, but it wasn’t structured. Then one of my mischief friends said, ‘Paul, you should write a book. Not about your illness, about how you got sick.’”
It wasn’t easy. The writing forced Paul to face his personal demons. “When I first began writing, I enjoyed it, but the more I got into it, the more I remembered. I felt as if I was being ripped open.” Sometimes it interfered with his recovery. “I was in writing mania. I was in my zone. Next thing, I look up and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning.”
“Part of rehabilitation, people are told to write it down – that’s how they let things go.” Now, at his workshops on recovery and rehabilitation options, Paul encourages people to keep diaries, to get their feelings down.
More writing projects are in the pipeline, but Paul’s cautious: too much pressure resulted in his relapse shortly after the first release of Walking with the Taniwha. With a history of mental illness and drug addiction, Paul knows there’s always that risk. “It’s like the Eagles said: you can check out any time, but you can never leave.” Paul has plans for a practical handbook about staying clean and managing mental illness. He’s been approached by other people asking him to tell their stories. Paul envisages an anthology.
We talk about reaching kids as young as 10 and 11 years who are getting into substance abuse. Many have limited literacy. I ask about a screenplay. It’s not something Paul’s considered. He pauses, then nods. ‘I know that I could,’ he says, giving the impression that he is tasting the words.