Posted on | October 31, 2012 | No Comments
Most of you who knew me during my teenage years and early twenties remember the book I wrote a couple hundred times through ups and downs, pot highs and life lows. Some thought I wasn’t writing but was in fact watching porn. My friend Phillip Miner spent 13 months with me helping me craft these words. He taught me how to be a writer. I figured it was time for it all to see the light of day. Every day I will post a chapter on my blog until it’s all out in the ether. To all the people who helped make this possible I thank you. This is for Phil, my father and everyone who’s ever loved me even if they no longer do. This is how I learned to write. I hope you like it.
The Most Important Thing
“It’s all my fault.”
The boy will not stop screaming. His fingernails scratch at the six inches of water, trying to tear the eyes out of his reflection.
In a dark cave, away from the devastation, I am torturing the boy who was supposed to save the world.
“You’re going to have to stop crying for a moment,” I say. “It’s not your fault. You were trying to do the right thing. And if it helps, remember you put a smile on my face.”
I grasp the boy’s hand in my own, smile again within the darkness and snap both of his wrists.
He screams and howls thinking he understands what pain actually is.
“I am going to tell you a story. If you can tell me what the story means I will let you live.”
He jerks when he feels my needle pierce the back of his neck, twists as the plunger pushes the fluid into his bloodstream,goes slack as the drug begins to have its effect.
“My story begins with a beautiful girl smiling. How it ends is entirely up to you.”
A beautiful girl smiles in Auschwitz.
No one bothers her.
No one has bothered her since the day she emerged from the showers wearing this same joyful smile. It seems that nothing can affect her happiness.
There is nothing more contemptible than falling in love.
Over the gates of hell, I wrote: “Love Made Me.” Over the gates of Auschwitz, someone wrote: “Arbeit macht frei” In English this reads: “Work will make you free.”
No one who walks through the killing factories of Auschwitz will be free of the work done. Someone thought these factories would make the world a better place.
Locomotives arrive at the station every few hours. Then the factory comes to life and cogs begin to turn. Second hands tick, checks are added to the list and a few thousand more workers disappear. Next to the trains is a boardwalk, where a welcoming committee waits for the new arrivals. The welcoming committee is in a good mood today. The unwashed children were actually given rations.
The women and little girls in their soot-covered clothing wait with their fingers on their instruments, ready to play for the third time that day.
The signal goes down the line and the orchestra begins a particularly hopeful melody on their dusty, half-broken violins and cellos. The Smiling Girl walks past them and they pretend not to see her. The children know what happens when the strangers get off the trains. They cannot forgive somebody who has the same knowledge and somehow manages to smile. A few have spit on her. To this, like all else, she responds with a smile.
An old man in a perfectly pressed suit and midnight black bowler cap approaches the Smiling Girl. Deep circles under his eyes indicate his lack of sleep. She is his dream and following her has deprived him of sleep entirely. In his hands, he holds a decanter of port and two glasses. He has followed her for centuries and has rarely left her side. “We don’t have to stay here,” he says. “We can go somewhere else. I promise we can be happy there.”
The Old Man does not know where there will be. He has yet to take her somewhere that she did not cause problems. The Old Man knows that the girl will be dangerous if she becomes emotional. He watches her. As always, her gaze finds the most broken human and draws him in.
Today, her eye is drawn to a brown-haired man, in a gray uniform, his arms branded with numbers, a yellow star decorating his chest.
The brown-haired man had agreed to work with the Nazis in a special unit called the Sonderkommando.
The Sonderkommando are volunteers, prisoners who assisted the Nazis in getting the newcomers off the trains, conveying them to the showers, and in cleaning up afterwards, which also meant ripping out gold teeth, collecting clothing and disposing of the mess. Sometimes, the Sonderkommando are Jews. In this case, the man was born a Jew but never believed in god. This man sends families to die in the hopes that he will one day be reunited with his own.
Today his wish has come true.
The Smiling Girl walks past him as he makes his way through the door into the darkness of the chamber. He could not understand why she was smiling or how she was still alive and could walk past him. He rarely notices her anymore.
He can remember the first day she walked out of the showers completely unharmed, a shimmering miracle in a world of nightmares. He has ceased wondering why she makes the trip every day. He has his own daily adventures to concern himself with.
This Sonderkommando had been ordered to clean the showers after the occupants were gassed. Having done it so many times before he knew to hold his breath. It was dark inside. He told himself not to be scared. He wondered if he would end up here someday.
He stumbled over a stray arm dangling out from the pile. He shone his flashlight and his breath caught in his throat. The hand was wearing a rusted silver ring he remembered giving to his daughter for her seventh birthday. He recognized the long thin scar on her palm from when she fell and broke her mirror. Step by step his mind assembled each and every feature of his daughter. Suddenly it occurred to him that any creature that has all the parts of his daughter’s body must be his daughter. This nightmare was too much. He had to get out.
He pulled at the hand and the little body was dragged from the pile. Another body was attached to it because they were holding hands. The bodies belonged to his thirteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, and eight-year-old son, Ari. He stepped back and his feet landed on a baby’s head.
The beam of his flashlight went down and he saw his littlest boy Nathaniel.
He had a habit of waving to the prisoners as they moved toward the showers to make them feel hopeful. He wondered if his family saw him waving, if they thought they were going to see him soon.
He wandered out of the dark chamber into a blaze of sunlight holding little Ari in his arms. He walked all the way to the train station until he stopped directly in front of the Smiling Girl.
Now meeting her eyes, he begins to cry at the sight of true happiness.
The guards notice him holding his little package. The orchestra stops playing. Another train is coming soon. He thinks he might wave at the newcomers; he does not think he will put down his child to do so.
The Nazi guards demand to know why work has stopped. No one is supposed to be on break. This disruption is absolutely unacceptable. Unprofessional. Intolerable.
The Sonderkommando lets his child fall out of his hand, holding only the empty blanket, it was as empty of his son as the corpse lying at his feet.
The supervisor of his unit desperately tries to explain away the man’s actions to the guards as if he had simply been late for work.
The man’s fingers rip at the Star of David imprinted on his chest. This Jew wanted to be killed as a member of the Sonderkommando, to die for what he did rather than for the crime of being born Jewish. But the damned thing would not come off.
The Smiling Girl steps in front of the Sonderkommando. The guards do not know what to do. The soldiers are trained to kill, but there are some things a person cannot do and they understand that killing the Smiling Girl will be one of these things.
“Get out of the way,” barks a young guard. The guard hadn’t realized his summer job was going to involve executing people. He can’t pull the trigger.
“Move out of the way, miss.” This time his voice cracks with tension. His moustache trembles between his teeth, sweat pouring down his forehead, hands shaking.
“Please!” the Sonderkommando begs the Smiling Girl. She turns and smiles at the young guard and he feels as though his heart will stop. As if she was the angel of death and he caught her eye.
To his surprise she steps out of the way.
The Sonderkommando finally succeeds in ripping off the yellow star; the guards fire their guns at him in congratulation.
The Sonderkommando pinwheels as the bullets hit him. Then he falls, which does not quite recall what happened to his living body as the life was stolen from it.
The boys who shot him look at the corpse, expecting him to wake up.
The Old Man in the Midnight Black Bowler Cap takes off his coat and uses it to cover the body of the slain man. The Smiling Girl drops gingerly to her knees on the boardwalk next to him.
Four bullets have left the man’s face, neck and chest a shredded mess. Tenderly, she touches his destroyed features. She opens the man’s hand and takes his yellow star and presses it to her chest. When she removes her hand, the bloody outline of the star remains behind on her chest.
Another train arrives on schedule. The remaining Sonderkommando assemble. Someone brings out a wheelbarrow to load the corpses and take them away. The musicians begin to play again.
The people getting off the trains try not to notice the beautiful smiling girl with the bloody hands.
“Close your eyes,” The Old Man in the Midnight Black Bowler Cap begs her.
The Smiling Girl closes her eyes, forgetting the scene, walking past the new arrivals, towards the next fool with whom she falls in love.
On January 27th, 1945, seven thousand survivors— too tired to leave Auschwitz—greet the arriving Red Army.
One of them, a Red Army Captain named Igor Wolsky does not know he is about to change the world.
He had been lucky at Auschwitz so far. His backpack weighed down with newly minted gold bars. His unit given a short break from duty. Unfortunately this place is not the most ideal for a vacation. He almost feels at home; the war in the East had been filled with places where healthy bodies were mutilated for what someone considered a perfectly good reason. However the longer he stays here, the less likely he feels that he will be able to leave. To keep himself sane he tries to help the poor refugees left behind. Like most fools he finds himself drawn to the Smiling Girl.
He follows her during her daily journey around the broken compound, as she smiles at empty spaces, smiling at people who cannot smile back.
In this war, smiles are few and far between. He likes to think that she looks like his daughter and that’s the reason he wants to keep her safe. He is about twenty feet behind her and tries to be that close at most times. His comrades have not had a woman in quite some time and the war has deprived them of his sentimentality.
Everyone in the camp has a different theory on the Smiling Girl. Most suppose she is in shock and that her smile is a sign of tremendous grief. Some suspect she is an orphan. Others think she is a young mother who lost her children in the showers. Wolsky cannot imagine her holding a baby and crooning it to sleep. In his experience, women can have beautiful smiles or they can have dead children, but they can never have both.
A few say that she went into the showers and emerged unscathed from the other side. He cannot find any evidence of that in her soft skin.
He thinks The Smiling Girl is pretty, though not beautiful. The Smiling Girl’s brown eyes were once soft and might have had some intelligence in them. Now they are bricks in the structure of her face and her smile is a steel door. A lot of faces here have become closed doors. She has a yellow star on her breast. He wonders why she does not have bruises like other Jews he has seen. The Germans probably used her.
Fucking Germans. Fucking slut for fucking the Germans.
Not that his men were any different. Russian soldiers were allowed to confiscate up to a hundred and fifty kilos of German property for themselves. Most women weighed less than 150 kilos.
“Is there anything I can do for you, miss?” Wolsky asks her. He speaks in Russian, knowing the girl is unlikely to understand. More than her answers he wants his men to see that he cares about her. The longer they stay in this place the less likely she is to remain safe.
“What is your name?” asks Wolsky. This time he asks the question in Polish. Still the girl does not reply. He asks the question in German. He glances to see if any of his men are close by. Then he asks her name in Yiddish. She continues to give him a blank stare. “Is there anything I can do for you, miss?”
Suddenly, she grasps his hand and leads him past the gray concrete buildings. The touch of her warm skin makes Wolsky feel awkward. He is having bad thoughts. He wonders where she is leading him. Is he just like the Germans? He is twenty-two and has a daughter back in Russia.
This girl is someone’s daughter too.
He stops looking at her and sees she has brought him to a mountain of bodies, bones and decaying flesh, none of which look remotely human but resemble the remnants of an ancient civilization.
As a child, Wolsky had gone to the museum in Saint Petersburg and became obsessed with the dinosaur exhibit. He asked his father what the dinosaurs had been like. Now looking at this pile of bones, this species, he asks himself the same question.
Out of the pile flies a long limbed black crow, its beak and the short feathers of its neck stained with stale blood. The bird looks Wolsky in the eyes and begins to gnaw on its own spindly legs. The legs crack. Marrow sprays on its side. The bird eats its second leg, licking its beak, filled with rapacious hunger.
The Smiling Girl’s eyes lose their blank stare and her smile falls away in stages slipping back through rigor mortis into life. Tears trickle down her cheeks.
The Smiling Girl’s first conscious thought is of the crow still in the process of eating itself. The beasts feed on the dead; this is natural and, in its own way, beautiful. The bird is a part of Nature, which accepts itself completely, leaving nothing, not even its dead to waste.
But now the bird is mimicking the men who made the pile. Nothing has been gained, no one is eating.
She takes his hand, her grip tightening. He tries to rip his hand free but cannot; her grip is too tight. Her soft as silk fingers break all the bones in his hand.
The bird finishes and begins to lick its lips.
She is screaming now, and recognizes its sound as that made by the Sonderkommando as he came out of the chambers with his baby.
Wolsky is more concerned for her state of mind than the state of his hand. The look of terror in her eyes is beyond imagining, no one should be so fearful.
Looking into Wolsky’s eyes she recognizes he is returning her stare. Her pain is becoming his. His eyes become wider as her screaming gains more attention and his men gather to see what all the fuss is about. Guns are raised at the woman screaming like a banshee. Fingers are tightening on triggers, desperate to hear the end of that sound. All eyes are turned to them, as her smile falls like the last shadow on this dark place.
But how well she remembers when there was nothing but darkness. How well she remembers the moment when she created this universe.
Out of her smile had come the plants and the trees, and the animals in all their naked savagery. It had been magnificent. Memory is beginning to form like a concrete tumor in her skull.
Memory to the Smiling Girl is more shocking than sudden sight to the blind. She has lived like Nature, completely invisible to herself, as all animals that lack memory are. Now she can see the consequences of her actions.
Slowly her smile becomes a grimace. She remembers the fire that consumed the world before time began and the first smile when she saw the apple tree on the black and white plain of ash white Paradise. She remembers smiling as Visigoths raped Roman women, smiling as men ran through Vimy Ridge into an endless storm of metal in order to claim a few meters of mud… smiling her way through the horrors of history, inextricably attracted to the worst scenes.
The world’s history slowly unspools like a reel projector, each picture a fraction of a second in the massive marathon of history, slowly moving through her head until the pictures end and she is left to face herself. The torture of this process is beyond words. The moment she has been waiting for is about to occur.
Wolsky had long since given up trying to get her to release his hand and instead holds her against his chest, trying to calm her down.
For now she screams, and her head slams into his chest, his heartbeat providing a clock to countdown toward the end of the world. Guns are raised and cocked. This is a serious breach of decorum. Prisoners are gathering in gangs, shouting for the Russians to leave her alone, watching in horror as Auschwitz claims its last victim.
You can see the thought in their eyes.
“She used to be so pretty.”
Wolsky prays to a god he does not believe in for her to be quiet, for the guns to be lowered and her life to be spared.
She places her finger on his face. She is looking for his smile and, like much else, it can be found if you think to look.
Wolsky’s men have noticed him talking to the Smiling Girl and, misunderstanding, want to get in on the action too. He waves them away.
A comrade in arms reaches out and grabs at her dress from behind. Her dress tears into pieces revealing her naked chest. More men gather. Their smiles remind her of sharks circling before a kill.
The commanding officer begins to yell at her in Russian. He demands that she stop screaming or she will be killed.
She wails louder and louder, like she is about to explode.
“Shoot,” says an officer from behind him.
“Don’t!” Wolsky countermands the order.
Did he just say that?
He reaches behind his back for his rucksack and tears it open. He shows the soldiers the secret golden treasure he had found at Auschwitz. He had been planning to buy his family a house; he had been planning to get out of the army and leave Russia forever. The gold weighs less than a hundred and fifty kilos; he could have taken it.
“All for you,” he tells the soldiers. “Let her go.”
The soldiers slowly lower their guns.
They tear Wolsky’s rucksack out of his hands, and stare in wonder, unable to believe he would give away so much for one woman.
He does not know he is buying The Smiling Girl’s life with the melted-down gold teeth the Sonderkommando had collected.
Wolsky takes the girl’s hand and walks her towards the barbed wire fence with an unfamiliar feeling in his belly. His ploy had worked, his triumph only slightly tinged by the fact he has just given away his future. He helps her over the barbed fence with one hand, letting her rest her weight against his arm. Little flecks of grass grow just outside of the barbed wire, nature still alive despite man’s most terrible degradations.
Lighting a cigarette with his good hand he sits down on a patch of wet grass, beside her. He offers it to her; she shakes her head. His eyes go back to his gun, deciding without reason to save her life from all comers. She tends to have this affect.
She looks at the violence in his eyes and recognizes what he is feeling.
Her anger has not subsided, nor has she determined whether she will let this place stand. The man makes her want to forgive. For now, she continues to cry before a pit of incomprehensible filth.
They walk through the camp holding hands and only stop when they reach the apple trees growing next to the gas chamber known as Little Whitehouse. Officers give him wearied looks as they discuss his conduct. Still he refuses to release her hand.
“I love you,” she says.
She heard someone say that once and it matched with her feelings right now. She was leaking out and he plugged her up. She knew he could die for helping her yet he chose to help her anyway. She buries her head in his chest, hearing his heartbeat calling her home.
A new smile appears on her face, different from the last. It is this smile that Wolsky will remember until he is a very old man.
“If you could have anything, what would it be?” she asks.
Don’t be like the men in your unit. She reminds you of your daughter. Be better than that. “I don’t want anything for myself, just my family.”
The Smiling Girl listens to his heart; its beat relaxes her, slowly easing the tension out of her shoulders. She can read the language of the man’s body; he wants to fuck her. She waits for him to disappoint her and feels his gentle arms around her body, stroking her shoulders, kissing her hair.
“Be okay, little girl. Be okay.”
She takes his hand and slowly massages his broken ligaments, warmth flooding the bones at her touch. He stares at her in shock.
“Anything you want?” she says, staring into his eyes, offering all she has.
Looking into his eyes, the Smiling Girl sees a small echo of her pain. His footsteps and the blood he walked through are a prelude to this kindness. His stubby hands twist an apple off the tree and put the fruit to his face. He sniffs and walks back to her, stepping on his own footprints. He offers her the apple as if it were a prize.
Don’t go under the apple tree with anyone else but me. Anybody else but me.
She takes the proffered fruit and weighs it in her palm. She opens her mouth and pierces into the red skin, a smile forming as her teeth tear the fruit to pieces, juice dripping down her chin.
“So what happens next?” asks Wolsky.
“The end,” says the Smiling Girl. A soft beam of light brushes her skin as she leans in close to Wolsky whispering the date of the end of the world in his ear.
Don’t go under the apple tree with anyone else but me. Anybody else but me.
Posted on | June 16, 2012 | No Comments
I’m sitting in the park near Kensington market enjoying the sunshine and letting my thoughts drift.
As a result I am second-hand smoking a shit ton of weed, watching shirtless prophets and unwashed acoyltes, allowing myself to stop thinking as Frisbees whizz past and adults play like children.
I feel as innocent as an altar boy.
“It is a titty show,” says the scruffy man boy sharing the bench with me.
Then I notice.
A girl with brilliant red hair is not wearing a shirt or bra.
Her breasts are everything breasts can be.
An elderly Chinese woman walks by and shakes her wizened face at the vision that fills my eyes with such rampant joy. Her expression says ‘fucking hippies’.
A handsome black man laughs like a schoolboy as he puffs deeply on a cigarette. The laughter spreads from one person to the next.
It doesn’t make sense.
“Why is she doing that?” says my bench brother.
I don’t respond.
He is missing the point and I’d prefer to ogle than answer.
I’m sure she has a reason and it’s possible that reason can be found at her rather hairy armpits or the look at me flame colored hair. This might be a statement but the way I feel about it has nothing to do with politics.
Like all great art, her tits meaning lies in the response of the audience rather than the artist’s intention.
I try not to stare and enjoy the sun and living art as sometimes the world allows us to.
The purpose of this has nothing to do with its meaning.
Posted on | June 12, 2012 | No Comments
“This girl at Kevin’s party didn’t like my Western shirt,” I say to the French girl.
“Neither did I. It was a stupid shirt.”
It isn’t a stupid shirt, it is blue and has cactus and makes me look like a Jewish cowboy. This isn’t the time to get into this argument. This is her English lesson and it is improper to waste her time.
She takes a long sip of her tea. Somehow the red colored tea goes with her red crystal jewelry. I wonder if this was planned.
“She told me I wouldn’t get laid in France,” I reveal. “And she told me like 20 times, like she wanted me to take off my shirt or something. Then she started talking in French to everyone who walked by. Chemise terriblah and pointing. I told her that I could take off the shirt, but you can’t change your horrible personality.”
She laughs and slaps five with me.
“What a beeeeitch. I think you are funny. A lot of French people wouldn’t like your sense of humour,” she says. “At my office people know me as the French girl. I am not like most French girls.”
“Yeah you are a fucking weirdo,” I reply.
I wish I could describe how endearingly stupid her hat looks. Is my fashion sense refined enough for my opinion to have value? Should I mention how stupid the hat looks?
“I love English! I am a nerd for it! A freak!” she exclaims, spitting out the words, eyes opening wide with each exclamation point in her sentence. “Sometimes I dream in it. I like the jokes. Even the stupid ones you tell.”
“That proves you’re highly intelligent.”
There’s a feather on your hat. In your cap. Fuck it.
“I feel like when I go back to France a part of me will be gone. It’s not just something I do; it’s something I am. Does that make sense?”
I’m drinking coffee, leg doing the Jimmy, temporarily feeling awe as a French girl speaks English in a Parisian accent.
Due to my experience living at Hotel Internationale, where all my roommates are ESL students I have come to love the sound of learning English. With roommates from Spain, France, Germany, Lollipop Land, Rwanda and Japan, I have gone to many parties where I am the only Canadian.
The study of English was particularly soul wrenching for my roommate Mayumi.
It took a while to break her of bad habits taught at her English school where they gave her phrases more suited to someone from the 1950s than a modern Japanese girl.
“You bet, Mike. You bet.”
“You aren’t from Riverdale, Mayumi.”
“Archie. You aren’t from where he is from.”
“Who is Archie?”
Some jokes were lost in translation, other times I got to hear her beautiful care free laugh. During the many times I spoke too quickly for her to understand, there would be a pause in the conversation. I loved these pauses.
She would pause for as long as ten seconds to find the perfect word, checking her IPHONE’s dictionary.
As a writer few things are more impressive than someone who cares about the words they pick to the point of choosing awkward silence over saying the wrong thing.
“My life is so much harrrder than yours,” she would taunt me.
This is true.
On Mayumi’s trip to Peru she developed altitude sickness, experienced food poisoning and had her camera stolen by Peruvian toughs. She said she had a great trip, because she learned how much she loved Spanish and made friends.
I think what she meant to say is I am so much tougher than you.
Back to the French girl with the stupid hat.
“When I was a kid I was very stubborn,” says the French Girl.
The French girl remains stubborn. When I recommended she read Twilight she gave me the finger, saying she didn’t want me to take it easy on her. She is currently reading Watchman and will soon enter the world of Hunter S Thompson.
“My mother was bilingual,” she begins. Her face is animated like an actress on a TV show, someone who is taken by their own words, so there is little distance between the passion she feels and the passion she shows. You can almost feel what she feels by looking at her.
“ My mother would only speak to me in English when I was a kid,” she says. “When I turned five, I said to my mom “Why are you not talking to me as everyone does?” I could see her talking to everyone else in French. I really loved the relationship that was extremely close that we had with eachother. I didn’t want her to treat me differenly. I don’t know why, at one point, my mother is speaking French with everyone else. I just wanted to be as everyone else to her. I insisted she speak to me in English. I was stubborn. I could have spoken perfect English for free. Now I have to work at it and pay you.”
“You are lucky. You have the best teacher.”
“Cheapest and best teacher. Same cost as two beers for English. I am stealing from you,” she says. “It’s funny. My mother loves me and wants me to be around her all the time. Like most mothers. Always wants to be in touch. But she is happy I am here, learning English. It’s like when I am speaking English she is right here with me. It’s like after all this time I am willing to accept what she was trying to give me.”
Greeting cards and movie scripts flash through my brain. Somehow every word of English she speaks is saying I love you. A whole language made into a love song to a parent.
“Holy shit,” I say. “I can just picture you in France as an old lady talking to tourists, sneaking English poetry into your newspaper. You are going to be super creepy, a miser obsessed with English.”
“It’s not just the words that are exciting, or the way it sounds. It’s the way of thinking behind the words. I don’t know if I am explaining it right.”
The double espresso kicks in.
I feel honoured to be a part of this journey and high as shit on caffeine. To know that the words I teach her are going to be used in a thousand conversations. That in some small way I get to help her tell the story of her own life. It’s moments like this that make me teach English. Seeing someone love language like this reminds me why I dedicated my life to it. How much brighter the world becomes when I have the words to describe it. How each word brings me closer to the world, let’s me see deeper into it. How conversation can be something holy. How reading can be an answered prayer.
In other words….literacy….fuck yeah! Coffee! Coffee! More coffee!
I idly wonder how many coffees it would take to show me the face of God. I take this rant from my head to her ears.
“Every time you learn something you get to see more of the world,” I say. “It’s like sitting here having coffee, going over your English is like taking a trip. Only it’s not going to a location. It’s decorating your home. It’s changing where you get to live ”
She grins and I can feel the strange beauty of our language and it’s incredible power to give life back to you.
Then I deep throat my foot.
“Did I mention how stupid your hat looks?”
Posted on | May 20, 2012 | 3 Comments
I go to a place called Hadleys because they treat their customers like family. If you knew me from Halifax, I got my hallmark cards from a place called Spartan where a few Greek ladies saved the city with rice pudding and breakfast specials. They showed me that you could live small and have a huge impact. That by loving your work you could make a place that meant something. For 50 years they were Halifax. To me Hadley’s is Toronto. It’s a year old and is the dream of a young couple on their way to making Toronto their bitch. When I am feeling a little lonely I go in to eat ribs and talk to good people.
On Friday, I eat fried chicken and I am talking to a customer that became my friend.
Then she says, “I pulled a Mike Kimber today.”
“How so?” I ask.
Does she mean she was walking and reading, saying offensive things to strangers, or over sharing with the general public?
“I saved a suicidal person from killing themselves.”
“That’s always fun,” I reply. “What happened?”
“This woman on the street car was really out of it,” she says, her voice filled with that strange gallows humor you have when you are talking about something so sad you have to make it into a joke to survive. Like you are waiting for the punch line and know it’s going to knock the wind out of you. “Like banging her head into the window. Pretty clearly having a psychotic break and you could just tell she was in a horrible place. Everyone was sort of looking at her like she was being impolite. Like they wanted to tell her to shut the fuck up. I called the cops. They had to stop the train.”
“We are Canadians. It’s more important to be polite than care.”
“I just can’t stand people checking their watches and whispering to each other as someone loses their mind. So I had to do something. It’s strange to think that someone could lose their life and all they are thinking about is a delay in their travel time. Is the world really going to end if you don’t get your lattee?”
I think about my own time on the subways. I always sit as far away from the tracks as I can. I have no desire to jump, but a fear that I’ll trip or be pushed. That the city will eat me alive.
There is a strange orderly sense of shut the fuck up and pay attention to advertisements that goes with the TTC. The beating robotic heart of the lonely city, where for a moment we are with strangers on the way to see our friends, the TTC is a place where you pretend you are somewhere else until you are.
We have all dealt with subway delays and medical emergencies and checked our watch and twitched with anticipation of elsewhere.
We forget what those words mean.
That every day someone jumps into Toronto’s robotic heart, hoping to leave their pain, as we race to get somewhere, to get away from the loneliness that stalks us in coffee shops, in our bedrooms, that steals our morals and breaks relationships, that lives in our hearts and minds, that loneliness that feeds us into drugs and alcohol just to chill the distance between ourselves and the universe that is mostly filled with empty space and howling static.
My friend picked up the phone and stopped the trains.
And as my friend tried to save a life, the city checked their watches and looked at the floor. An old lady texted her grandchildren to report the crazy lady was speaking in tongues. You know tongues, where all your words become teeth that bite and bloody your lips for the lack of sense they make. The babbling gibberish that makes us look away.
We all fear madness.
We look away fearing we are looking into the panic that lives in each and every one of us. That there is no real way of communicating. That the tower of Babel is our everyday existence. That we unable to deal with a world where everyone speaks a different language and rarely do the words involve a compassionate leap through time and space, sanity and pain, to grasp a stranger and keep them from leaving us all behind. That as the Apocaylpse takes us, we will be reading advertisements and pretending we are elsewhere.
I often talk about the sadness that lies at the heart of mental illness. Of the terrible war we fight and the compassion for others and ourselves that provides our only chance of living in this world.
I rarely talk about the glorious leaps our madness allows us. I rarely talk about the gift of empathy we receive from our struggles.
We have been at war and we have survived to live moments of earth shattering beauty and joy. We have felt the sun on our faces and we have stared into the shrieking abyss and found the courage to smile and laugh. That we know what the air tastes like when you spend what feels like a lifetime drowning.
As the lady spoke in tongues, a man covered in tattoos spoke to her like a child. As he laid his hands on her arms to stop the shaking and screaming, he looked into her eyes and saw himself. He remembered the days he had spent in the institution. He talked to her like a child until she could hear him.
Next to him my friend was on the phone, her heart punching her from the inside. Remembering the days when her legs gave out from lithium poisoning, refusing to do anything other than stand beside a stranger.
The cops came and took her away.
Now she is in my favorite restaurant as I eat chicken like a barbarian. Telling me how she pulled a Mike Kimber.
“I feel terrible,” she says. “When you are like that it’s pretty difficult to come back. They will probably keep her for a couple weeks. Sometimes that’s all you need. It hurts seeing someone like that.”
“Part of the art of pulling a Mike Kimber is realizing you can’t save someone. You can keep them safe once or twice but it’s not up to you to save the world. You gave what you could and it was a lot. I’m glad you were there.”
“Everyone was checking their phones. Commented about how they didn’t need this shit. You really see the stigma. How angry everyone was that she was getting in the way.”
I can see that she is feeling that strange heartbreak where mental illness takes away all your shields and you can see inside the torture that people live everyday of their lives. And she cared. More than was sane, more than was normal.
She had been to war and knew what it was like to lose her mind. She knew that sometimes, if you are lucky, you get it back. So she stared into her worst fears and embraced the woman. And for now, saved a life.
For all mental illness takes away, it gives something back. The ability to see the war we all live in. To be a waterbearer in hell and give people a little something to live for. It was my friend and a tattooed man who comforted the woman until the cops came. Both of them had been in and out of the mental health system and learned to live. They could tell her that things get better.
As madness saved it’s own, Toronto checked it’s watch and bitched that it would be late for lattes and martinis and wished it could take a bullet train home to safety and sanity.
The one thing that insanity makes clear is the war that we all fight.
The most beautiful thing it gives us is the courage to run through the shrapnel and subway systems chasing a dream. That we leave no man or woman behind. That we have been alone and been saved by love. That we know the darkness passes, as the world checks their watches and time carries on.
The people with the courage to look madness in the face and find something to love, have stared at the mirror and gone to war. The best mental health workers have lost their mind and found it. The person who will save you needed to be saved themselves.
We can save each other.
And everyday is war.
Posted on | April 27, 2012 | 1 Comment
The first time I really thought about the concept of Me, involved eating a chewy handful of mushrooms in my first year of university.
I was 18 years old, playing the friendliest game of NHL 94 in the history of time with my best friend. I was thirsty but all I had was orange juice and it wouldn’t go with the shit flavor in my mouth.
We refused to check each other and try to score points and frequently passed back in forth between teams. My face was lit with a mushroom smile, where you can feel the muscles in your face, breeding a second smile made of poisonous plant matter. He looked like a gigantic and peaceful gorilla.
“I have been having this thought,” I explained.
“Just one?” my friend replied.
“Yeah I think it’s brilliant in a stupid way.”
I’m sweating so much.
“You just checked me.”
“Instinct. I was thinking about how wonderful this is.”
“Can I check you back?”
“Sure. I was having this thought….”
“Yeah, I have feel like I am at a zoo. Everyone is wonderful and in cages.”
He might have been referring to my friends who decided to mix their shrooms with mescaline and acid and were periodically laughing, crying and kissing each other in the rooms upstairs. Through the open door, you can hear that they have settled on braying laughter for the moment.
“It’s about cages. Sort of about cages. I mean no metal. I mean the cages in our mind.”
High hyenas. Manic monkeys. Purple Pandas.
“I don’t really understand bars. People getting drunk and stupid. They should be playing hockey. Doing sports. Lifting weights. Getting a real job. Paying for dentistry.”
“It’s not really about that. Though I see how you went from cages to bars. Nice wordplay. I am talking more about how wonderful this is. How happy I am right now. How if I had the choice to be like this I wouldn’t. Not all the time. I’d rather be me than be happy. I like happiness but I want more from life than that. I like being me. ”
“You just scored a goal.”
“And I am a dick.”
A friend enters the room. She is little, and her face is delightfully animated. Like an adorable puppy. We beam at her and welcome her into the cave of friendship. We can see the tears in her eyes.
“I think I am an alcoholic.”
“That’s intense,” I reply, feeling like we are having a very important moment.
“I don’t understand bars.” Read more
Posted on | April 18, 2012 | 3 Comments
Since the violent death of Raymond Taavel at the hands of Noel Denny on April 16th, 2012, I have been inundated with emails, asking me to speak out against the mental health system that would allow Andre Noel Denny onto the streets to commit his murder. To extend some sort of olive branch in the form of shared communal rage at a world that would let the good die young and protect the evil embedded in the city streets of my hometown.
I don’t know what I can say that gives back all that has been lost.
Because a life is so much more than the meaning it has to us as a community. It’s the difference he made to his friends, family and lovers. It’s the people he inspired to love as their hearts told them, in a city that remains cold until the fiery rage ignites us from our blissful dream that Nova Scotia is what they sell to tourists, not the lies we grow up with as children. He taught love and he died defending it.
Nothing has been gained from this.
You can’t politicize this death and say we gain something by his absence. Precious people don’t die to teach us lessons. We are left without Raymond Taavel, a man I didn’t know, who’s death has shaken my city down to it’s very foundations.
We only have his dream and we clutch so tightly to it, because all of those possibilities, all the hope he had, which cannot be captured in signs or slogans, gives us something we can live for in his absence. The loss of his flesh doesn’t pay for the life of his dream.
We are left with what small and terribly inadequate gestures. People say nothing will change when Facebook pictures turn to rainbows, when journalists capture vigils and Gottingen remains a place where good people go to hide from our cities history of hatred towards the gay community, to our aboriginals, our blacks and our mentally ill. We could be lost in indignation, finger pointing and rage or we could offer each other the love that Noel Denny couldn’t provide to Raymond Taavel. We must find the imagination to love. The hard work necessary to change Halifax will not come without that imagination. Hatred is the failure of imagination, the burning hand of a certainty born of delusion.
In this case it seems he died as a collection of societal failures, our inability to properly look after our mentally ill and the cross currents of hate that run through our sweet city. I don’t want to talk to about the mental health system and the way it fails people. That’s for tomorrow. For today I urge compassion. Mistakes were made and people make mistakes.
The person who signed that release form might have been thinking about what it’s like to have no freedom. To offer a man a chance to feel the breeze on his face, to see the world he was born into, and for a moment not to feel broken. Whoever signed the release is just a person who couldn’t have known the undercurrents of destruction that would trail in the wake of a decision that would prove monstrously wrong. They need us to love them. To acknowledge they are human and their life has value. That we too have made mistakes in the name of hope.
On Huffington Post, I saw someone say that the person who signed the forms is as responsible as Denny for the murder. I ask for the love you feel for Raymond to extend to this person who didn’t know what they were doing. What we would be losing.. It’s a time to hold hands, where grief is raw and emotions could break us. We must choose to love.
Halifax has hate older than the Citadel. We divide our city on economic and ethnic lines. Homophobia is casual and taught to our children in school grounds. A person with little to no understanding of what he was doing, knew enough to kill someone that our society told him it was okay to hate. Knew enough to take away someone that people love. Halifax comes together to mourn a tragedy. Will we stay together to prevent the next one?
Will we remember all of the African Nova Scotians that die in unsolved murders? The Sex Workers that regularly disappear to never be seen again? The Aboriginals who have been habitually abused. The mentally ill that have been lost in a system that cannot hope to meet their need. We have all lost and must remember that one life means more than a dream. That when someone is beaten to death in our city, it is everyone’s tragedy.
We stand at a moment where we can make things different. Where we can save lives of people like Raymond. Where we can make our city new and it’s going to take years, because we can hate instantly but it takes time for love to take root.
I want to see Halifax as it lives in a picture by Brian Mullins. Where gay or straight, we stood together and demanded change.Where poets like Tanya Davis capture the fragile nature of Nova Scotia. Where hundreds change their Facebook pictures to a rainbow flag. People say what difference can it make? I say love is never little.
That we must protect the right to love as you want to. To love more than we want to.
It’s all that’s left.
My heart goes out to my city.
It’s time to hold hands. Tomorrow we can point fingers.
Posted on | April 10, 2012 | 2 Comments
I cried in my mother’s arms like a baby in the car with the smell of Dim Sum in the air, as we left the restaurant when it became evident I wasn’t going to stop crying. I often wonder what she was thinking of during that moment. Wondering if this was the beginning of a long slide into insanity. I never wanted her to feel like that again. Today I turn 28. I just talked to my mother and we laughed and those times feel like horrible nightmares in a past that doesn’t exist.
I was very proactive in trying to get better. Taxi drivers, waiters, friends, acquaintance and the Internet were all consulted.
The taxi drivers were not as much help as my therapist.
In Nova Scotia it takes between six months to a year to see a qualified therapist. If you want to jump through the red tape you have to go to an Emergency Room and tell them you are suicidal and that you have a plan to kill yourself. Not being suicidal I instead relied on my family to pay for professional help. This help costs 150 dollars an hour. Sanity isn’t necessarily within everyone’s budget. Sometimes you have to reach out to the wrong person. Because of this blog, I am often that wrong person.
This is a story of helplessness and fearing you are going to say the wrong thing to the wrong person. A story familiar to parents who wake up one day and find their children joyless, terrifyingly sad in a way that can’t be solved by hugs, trips to the movies and the advice they have culled from the internet. This is for people who found themselves desperately needing someone else to keep their children alive. This is for youth care workers who have saved hundreds of lives and find themselves without jobs.
Mostly this is for a brave kid named Tyler who scared the shit out of me.
It’s Saturday night, late February.
I have had a few drinks with my best friends from childhood. I’m enjoying the strange sensation that comes from seeing that someone I know has managed to become a successful adult. High ceilings, comfortable couches, hundreds of LPs and a beautiful balcony stare out at the East End of Toronto. Married life looks pretty when I am looking at my two best friends from childhood who miraculously found the love of their lives in each other.
I’m enjoying that taste of rum and cokes that burns the back of your throat and the warmth that spreads through your belly into your brain. I’m excited for the evening ahead.
What shall I do?
I decide to check my Facebook because it had been about an hour since I had done so. My friend Gareth left me an inbox message asking for my number. He works for CTV and I figured he probably wanted to work out details for some sort of interview. It was February and I had done about a dozen interviews in the past month where I railed against injustice and the inadequacy of the Canadian mental health system. I was superman and I was ever so slightly drunk.
Only I was wrong.
“I’m scared,” he typed. “I need your help with something.”
“Whatever you need my man,” I reply in my most sensitive voice.
I figure we are about to have one of those conversations. I have a lot of those conversations.
“His name is Tyler. He needs your help. I don’t know what to say to him.”
Seems Tyler is a 17 year old kid that had been in an out of Emergency Rooms, traveling an hour back and forth from his house to hospitals to try to prevent himself from acting out the bad thoughts in his head. Each time he went, he was sent home as inadequately suicidal. He decided to call CTV and try to bring attention to the problem. My friend Gareth picked up the phone and he had been talking to the kid for over an hour and had run out of ideas and was scared as shit.
“Can you call him?”
“Sure. Anything you need.”
Comforting suicidal people is something I got good at it due to a lot of unasked for experiences. My best friends tell me not to play Gandhi. They know what happens when I get too involved.
I think I can handle anything.
I’m in their bedroom, dialing the number. Now it’s ringing and my friends are still trying to talk sense to me.
“Don’t fucking do it. You are an idiot. You aren’t a Doctor. You are a drunk”
“Hi, is this Tyler? This is Michael Kimber. Gareth’s friend.”
The powerful realization that I have no idea what I am doing hits me.
“Hi. It’s Tyler. He said you might call. That you do this a lot.”
“Don’t do it,” comes from outside the door.
They were right and it’s rude to hang up now.
“I am not a doctor. Not qualified. Just love Gareth and I have been through some similar things. You not feeling so good?”
“I’m feeling pretty bad actually,” he replies. His voice is shaky, weak and frightened. In gauging sadness you get used to weighing things found in people’s tone. With depression emotion can get smoothed over in to an endless boring circle that grinds you down and makes your life exclusively about your pain and ways to stop it. He sounds like someone hanging from a cliff.
My words matter and I don’t know the right thing to say. Questions, I should ask questions.
“What is it like?”
“I just don’t want to hurt myself. I am sorry. I don’t want to do it. I just don’t know if I can right now. I just feel so bad.”
“Reaching out like this means you don’t want to do it,” I say, simplifying his problems into an afterschool special. Say something motivational. “You’re fighting back and you’re doing good.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I have been there.” I haven’t exactly been there. I was suicidal for 30 minutes. Not important for this conversation. Bonding through common experience. Keep it going. “I remember what it’s like when you forget all the good things. When you wish you weren’t born. I know what it’s like to wake up one day and be alive again. You should see it. It’s pretty good.”
“I don’t people to have to go through this,” he says. “The cops say they can’t believe this shit. When he took me to the Emergency Room. He says it is a fucking shame that our system fails children. It’s failing me.” There’s rage in his voice and there’s life in that anger. Something to fight for.
“Yes it is,” I reply. “I once had to take my little brother there. Not blood brother. Adopted by choice sort of thing. He was feeling real shitty and we spent the whole day trying to get him care. But he wasn’t convincing enough. You know that you need to have a plan. You tell them you have a plan?”
“You need to have a detailed plan on how you are going to do it. I mean it’s stupid but it’s not even a bad idea to write a note you can give to your mother that she can give to the people in the Emergency Room. You know so they take you seriously,” I say, wondering about the legal consequences of giving such advice, and not really giving a shit about it, because this is a kid who’s life needs saving and laws should be based around saving kid’s lives.
“I tried to kill myself before,” he says. “When I was 15.”
“I climbed over my balcony. The cops were there. Ambulances. My mom and grandparents were crying.”
“Climbed back over the balcony?”
“Couldn’t do it.”
“I was getting better. Now I am not.”
He explains that he was in 4 South a short while earlier (the IWK’s Youth Mental Inpatient Service) and the nurses helped him feel good about himself. He tells me that he was learning to draw, and had written a few things. He realized he could do things he never expected he could do.
“There was this Nurse who really helped me. She understood what I was going through. She made it make sense. She’d been through it before. Like you. The people who helped me most are people who have been there. You know?” he says. “They got me sharing things I don’t talk about. I just want to be OK. I just want to go back. I don’t want to kill myself. Sometimes the feeling is so strong.”
“Things is you are helping a lot of people,” I tell him. “You are speaking for them. Bringing attention to this issue by seeking out Gareth. It takes some sort of guts to help others when you can’t help yourself.”
“Thanks man,” he says.
“Seriously, you are a smart motherfucker. We need people like you, who won’t go out quietly.” Should I have said go out quietly? Is that somehow encouraging him to do something horrible? Am I trying to make him into an activist? Am I politicizing a suicidal kid. “You are brave. Brave for being alive when it isn’t easy. You are going to be okay. You are going to get through this and you are going to help people.”
“Ok,” his voice is quavering. “I want to help people.”
Someday you can be in over your head just like me.
“Will you call me tomorrow?”
I feel myself in deep and I can’t really offer him anything. We live in different cities. I don’t want to be someone he calls when he feels like he can’t live, I have enough strangers sending me notes at three in the morning. I’m not the person to help him. I’m just another wanderer on the same dark roads.
Tyler was on CTV two nights later. His appeal reached thousands of people and created enough of a clamor to get Tyler the help he needs. The thing I remember is his mother talking about what it was like not to be able leave her son’s side, scared of what might happen. I am thinking a lot about mothers and fathers as I write this. A father got in touch with me and told me that his daughter’s day program at the IWK took him months to get her into was experiencing cuts and the loss of youth workers. That he was worried her recovery would be affected.
I can’t imagine loving someone that much, raising them, knowing the answers or something approaching them and then living in the conversation I had with Tyler. I have been in love before and it was bigger than anything I have ever imagined. I have been told your life for your child is that times 20. I can’t imagine that sort of terror.
Due to budget cuts, the IWK laid off 22 youth care workers. People who are there to help people like Tyler. Parents are taking to the streets to protest.
The NDP government wasn’t quite as NDP as we could hope, making a three percent budget cut in healthcare. In the media we have heard a lot about how the IWK miraculously cut wait times by sending out letters to thousands of families, asking if they still needed care and taking everyone off that didn’t respond. This is the sort of solution we have to wait times when we can’t provide adequate care within the allotted budget. When it can take years to get your children the help they need.
Right now the Adolescent Centre for Treatment(ACT), aimed at young people with behavioral issues and difficulties in school, Compass, a similar program for younger children; and the CHOICES program for teens dealing with mental illness and substance abuse problems are all being reassessed. These three programs include residential components, which will be moving from 24/7 to 24/5 to help reduce costs and better allocate resources. The question of what can be done for these children if they are feeling suicidal on the weekends was raised by concerned parents.
These kids formed relationships with the youth care workers who are being let go. I know the bonds I formed over months of therapy with my own therapist. I couldn’t imagine losing contact with him when I was still in crisis. I’m sure the IWK is trying to do their best for the people in their care. These are good people forced to make do with the resources they have. I’m saying we need to support them by addressing the NDP government who is responsible for not taking a stand for these kids, who cut the health care budget and put us in this situation. We don’t need apologies when children slip through the cracks. We need real answers, not stopgap solutions. Why does it take so long to help a child in need?
I’m terrified that Emergency Rooms fail kids like Tyler. I’m terrified that he needed me. I’m terrified that he needed two CTV broadcasts to get his needs addressed. Most people dangling on cliffs don’t try to save the world in order to save themselves. Most people aren’t Tyler, and parents lose kids. There is a word for when kids lose parents, for when you lose your spouse. There is no word for parents losing their children as if language was horrified by such a possibility and didn’t want to give a concrete reality to something so horrible.
We have had enough parents like Fran Morrison with the loss of children whose lives could have been saved if we had an adequate mental health system in Nova Scotia. Parents aren’t equipped to deal with this by themselves. There is no manual. There are, however, experienced people who have saved thousands of lives who aren’t able to do their work anymore. And there is the possibility that one day it will be your kids who need their help.
Get in touch with your local MPs, your city council and make your voice heard.
When our children look for help, they should be able to find it.
It’s up to you.
Posted on | March 26, 2012 | No Comments
I love my job working on the documentary. The difficulty with contract work is that eventually contracts end. Usually directly before my birthday.
As such I’m contemplating alternatives.
“You can’t teach ESL,” says my long time friend, I unsuccessfully lived with a year prior.
“Yes I can.”
We are at party, three drinks deep and I’m at that phase of the evening where I have become somewhat hard of hearing and speak with less than proper volume control.
“You are too scatterbrained,” he says. “You need to have a license. They have licensed teachers.”
“I’d be a great teacher.”
“You’d be horrible. They won’t let you teach them.”
I am being lambasted. Now I get a little more passionate.
“They? They? Who the fuck are they?” I reply. “The ESL Mafia. I’m talking the underground, the black market, unconventional methods. Who knows ESL people better than I do? All my roommates are about to be deported!”
The reason my roommates all have English as their second language involves a flood and fire in the home of my former roommate, who is presently deriding my teaching skills and giving the impression he is less than a supportive friend. I believe his doubt in regards to my virtues to be well founded. Being scatterbrained is a nice way of describing my idiocy while in his domicile. Following the fire and flood it became sensible that I move out as soon as possible, Craig’s List offered me an unconventional answer to my problem. Thus roommates who speak English as a second language and will soon face deportation.
“I believe in unconventional approaches,” says the tall clean-faced man sitting next to me on the couch. “They could use a black market for language specialists.”
“He’s with me. He’s motherfucking with me,” I shout at my old roommate. I realize I haven’t introduced myself to my lanky new companion. How rude. “I’m Michael Gray Kimber.”
“Mouthful,” he replies.
“Everyone’s name is Michael. Figured people would remember my name if I provide the whole thing. Everyone’s name is Michael,” I say, and momentarily contemplate discussing my idea for union, where all Michaels work together to a greater purpose, and a memorial service for the great Michael we lost this year. Realizing that I haven’t gotten his name, I stop my rant before going to the point of no return. “Your name is?”
“Botswana,” he replies.
Posted on | February 10, 2012 | No Comments
Posted on | February 2, 2012 | 2 Comments
Sometimes I think tequila is a good idea.
I once got so drunk on tequila in University, that I came up to my residence room, determined to get back to the party when the world stopped spinning, that I turned up Wu Tang Clan’s Ain’t Nothing To Fuck With, so loudly that it shook the walls, simply so that I wouldn’t pass out. I woke up at 5 in the morning, to realize that campus security wasn’t to be fucked with.
Last Friday, I got so drunk I could barely see.
I was trying to forget a Facebook message I received earlier in the evening from someone I knew as a child. She is one of those girls who looked made for giving you a hug on a rainy day. She told me that she tried to kill herself last weekend, by taking a bottle of clonazepam and a bottle of wine. Then she took a steak knife to her arm.
She wants to tell her story so that she could help other people when she can barely help herself.
She is strong because she’s alive and I’m drunk because I can’t stand the idea of someone who smiles like that feeling this way.
So I am doing tequila shots, trying to get warm because it’s hard to feel anything other than the cold in Toronto in February. And I am talking to a girl with curly eyelashes and red pants, telling her about the letter, wanting to have a stranger comfort me and she tells me she understands.
I ask her if she has received a similar letter.
She says she understands the girl. That she plans on killing herself in a few weeks. Drunk Mike tries to save her. Drunk Mike didn’t ask for her name, he asked for tequila shots.
My hangover was the type where you can’t drink water when you feel thirsty.
I’m here today and I’m not speaking for the Mental Health Commission. I’m speaking for the people who aren’t ready to speak for themselves.
I’m here because while I was writing this I received another letter from girl who lost finance’ to suicide and doesn’t know if she can live with the guilt and pain. I’m here because in her Facebook photo she is hugging her deceased finance and they look so incredibly young and sweet that I want to force them to live inside that picture, to have pictures of their children, pictures of the dreams they could have lived together. He was 22.
I’m here because these strangers keep breaking my heart and my head feels like it is going to explode.
We need to talk about mental illness and someone more important than me needs to listen.
I miss being a student.
I learned a lot about love at university. I can remember during my Frosh week when the attractive Frosh leader showed me how to fit a condom on a banana and I thought she was trying to seduce me. I remember nine years ago leaning over the railing of my residence building’s second floor, having my first panic attack, heart beating like a machinegun as MSN announced in the other room that another girl considered me as a brother, aka we were never, ever, going to have sex.
I was 18. It was seven years before I got treatment for my anxiety disorder. It was a week before I tried shrooms for the first time and played NHL 94 in the most polite manner. Laughing and passing the puck back and forth unable to score on each other because we were high enough to think we’d found enlightenment and NHL 94 was our Boddhi tree. Downstairs a friend of mine had thrown some mescaline on top of the shrooms and was hallucinating about putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. That night he started falling and it took him eight years to find the ground.
Mick Ford’s been lived with depression since he was 14. He didn’t kill himself, but he did try every drug in the world in an attempt to run away from his mental illness. One day he stopped running and he remains sober with the help of methadone.
I remember sitting in the chapel, when my friend Jason died.
Weeping with my friends not like babies, but like grown men who didn’t know that such a horrible thing would make them adults. Jason’s funeral was on the same campus where we had an April Fool’s Day water fight and he was the general. Where we surrounded the rest of the school and blasted them with balloons Simpson’s style.
I learned about mental illness by watching my friends die and become addicted to drugs.
I didn’t understand until I was at my first love’s birthday party, holding a heart shaped balloon, posing for a picture, wondering how in a week my life could fall apart. Staring at the camera, thinking, I’m sorry but I love you more than anything and I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t know to stop hurting myself. When she took that picture she didn’t know what was coming. It was just a bad week. She didn’t realize that our dream would become her sleeping next to an insomniac. She told me no matter what happened we would get through it together. And we did.
People say that mental illness is like a cancer you can’t see. There is a difference. Your love can’t affect cancer cells, but it can help save the people you love.
At 25, I suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by intense anxiety.
I was sent to a self-help group where I was the only person in attendance, where help was a human pamphlet reading a power point presentation without paraphrasing a single sentence. Imagine looking for help and not being able to find it. Realize that 2/3 out of people who suffer from mental illness don’t get treatment.
I didn’t recover because I was stronger than my friends. I recovered because I was luckier. My family was able to pay the 150 dollars an hour that my therapist charged so I had the privilege of getting better.
Everyone tells us to talk about mental illness but we rarely get a clear picture of what life is actually like for people living with mental illness. In the media we almost exclusively tell the success stories of celebrities who accomplish their miracles despite the obstacles in their way. Or we talk about murderous psychopaths who society failed to help or homeless men and women who can’t help themselves. We are either inspiring, terrifying or objects of pity. We are whatever sells newspapers that week.
We need to talk to people who don’t have stories that sell papers. Who get up, take medication, exercise and go to work every day no matter how they feel.
These diseases are more common than most of us realize. So is recovery. Every day we get out of bed, we take on step back to life. It isn’t a miracle that we get better. It’s an everyday occurrence too boring for most of you to write about. If I had a dream, it’s that we would start speaking about how life is, rather than how it’s supposed to be. Every time you try to make life fit a story, you are just selling advertisements. That there is some easy answer, that everyone who doesn’t find it is a failure. Some people can’t recover and it’s not their fault.
It’s not because they are weak, or stupid or don’t try enough. It’s because this is life, not a movie. You chose to be a journalist; you gave up money, reasonable work hours and a stable job market. Don’t give up your integrity. People buy what you are selling.
Every time we try to build mental health awareness in the media it follows a rare occasion when someone with mental illness hurts someone other than themselves. There is a problem with violence and the mentally ill and it gets worse every time we ignore it. Journalists feel comfortable talking about murder, we can’t talk about suicide. Right now suicide is the leading cause of violent death, not homicide. 4,000 people die of suicide every year in Canada, 32,000 in the United States. Silence comes both before and after suicide and it’s the silence before that we need to deal with most.
We can’t keep our children in the dark for fear they will never be able to emerge from it.
I’m asking you to begin the conversation with our youth to break the shame that is the foundation of so many of these afflictions. To eradicate this phantom idea of normalcy that makes so many of us feel hollow and broken.
I want you to make the politicians to talk about mental illness in Parliament, in cities halls and in cabinet meetings.
And I want their words to mean something.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speech on MP David’s Batters funeral is some of the most beautiful writing on the stigma surrounding mental illness I have ever read:
“We need to know that mental illness like Dave’s is shockingly common in our society. It affects the great and the small alike despite the stigma that still too often surrounds it. “
The problem is that the same quality of treatment is not offered to the great and small alike.
Our rich can afford the quality therapy our medical system doesn’t offer the economically disadvantaged. Harper plans to build prisons for our drug addicts, who self medicate, rather than treatment centers, to jail the homeless and mentally ill rather than offer them the healthcare services they need. The Correctional Service of Canada reports that 13 per cent of male offenders in federal custody presented mental health problems when they were admitted in 2008. That’s up 86 per cent from 1997. For women, the figure reaches 24 per cent, and 85 per cent increase over the same time. There are offered to little no treatment. Yesterday Tory Senator Pierre Hughes Boisvenu said.
‘Basically I think that every murderer should have a rope in his cell and he can decide on his own life He advocated that criminals should commit suicide to save the taxpayers the high cost of keeping them in prison. He says to give them the rope.
It takes 6 months to a year to see a state sponsored therapist.
To get immediate treatment you have to be suicidal and have a plan and we clearly don’t have a plan for dealing with suicide when each year more people kill themselves.
Isn’t there more productive use for a rope? We scaled Everest with a length of rope and our belief we can do the impossible. Instead of hanging ourselves couldn’t we use the same rope to build a safety net to catch these angels before they hit the ground? What are our demons but angels that have lived too far from heaven for too long?
Who is to live in this better world Harper is creating, when we build the fences so high, that mortal men and women live their whole lives on the other side.
With ropes and pulleys we built the Wonder of the World.
Why would we use the same rope to protect to ourselves from the people we love?
Couldn’t we build a world they could live in, where they could experience that wonder? Couldn’t the 19 billion dollar that Harper intends to spend on prisons, be spent on building a dream rather than building a wall to protect us from our worst fears? Especially when the people we love are left on the other side.
You are our voice. You brought down the Berlin Wall, you were with Martin Luther King when a million men marched, you were there with Harvey Milk and Matthew Shepherd when they fought for the right to love as they wanted to, and you are here with me right now, ready to declare that we can be loved for who we are. That the one thing, great and small alike deserve is access to the help they need to live.
You are our voice.
Today we are talking about mental illness.
I want you to make the conversation mean something. I went to King’s College and grew up and watched friends become adults and die as children. No one ever told me about mental illness.
It’s up to you to tell everybody.« go back — keep looking »