I’m Thinking, “This is Going to Hurt!”: On ‘How Not to Deal with Grief’


From my friend Betty Ann on her Facebook page:

“This article deeply moved me…as I suspect it will for any of you who have been impacted by the kind of grief associated with multiple loss, deaths due to overdose and or HIV/AIDS. Rather than just clicking on “like”, can you write a few sentences in a comment? Maybe just something about how this article landed with you? Guess I’m lookin for a little peer support here…”

I know there are many stories related to this piece which could be written. Don’t be afraid to jog my memory or ask a question.

I URGE you to click on the following link and read:

Guest Post – How Not to Deal with Grief

Remember those days when we couldn’t decide how to go to a funeral and make sure a dying friend was okay?  Open casket versus closed? Cremation versus traditional burial?  Would it be okay to go a little over the top in church?  Someone else is sick?  I thought he’d killed himself.

“…those days…come screaming back out of nowhere. I don’t live with it; it lives in me. It is a part of me and makes me what I am. That does not mean I want it. I am not alone in this. And I am not alone in finding that loss accumulates and is sticky and hangs together like lumps of tar and sticks and sand on the beach after a storm.”

“…these thoughts, the ones of dead friends and loved ones, are in the heap in the back corner. They lurk behind the door with a skull and crossbones saying; “Fuck Off, Asshole,” in 72 pica. Then in smaller type: “You know who and what’s in here, so why don’t you just walk the fuck away?” And every so often I walk through that door for whatever reason and it takes days to recover.”

“People died around you. Repeatedly. Let me emphasize: Repeatedly. There were no protease inhibitors. No Truveda. Just blind hope, determination, anger, solidarity, organizing, guesswork and gambling on whether to take a drug or wait for the big one that will work — and die waiting. This was not a time of long-term sustainability.”

“I am not perfect. But I have found some happiness in my life, not by achieving resolution, but by acquiring wounds, then healing some and developing scar tissue that will always be there, and by just keeping going.”

My laptop feels too small for what I want to write. I need a full-sized keyboard to spread out my fingers as on the keyboard of a grand pipe organ. I know the feeling of not wanting to go through personal items and photographs of friends lost. But I also know it’s an irresistible tug sometimes. I more often than not know what it means just to still be here when I could have, should have been dead, with only analogies of Vegas or God’s perverse selection process as explanation. I reject both.

I know that “just keeping going” has taken a lot of courage for many people, so why not me, too? I accept that there have been times when it seemed much simpler to die than to just keep going. I’ve even wished I would have died long before now. But there are new things to work on, new struggles to wage, even while bearing all the scars of having nearly shit myself to death.

Meet Sujata, Russian Blue beauty


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Sujata, the name given to her by the previous human in her life, Kevin, is Sanskrit meaning “from a good family origin”; “Su” means “good”, “Jatakas” means “of good origins” or “well born”. The breed was also known as “archangel” in its early generations.

Sujata has been hiding whenever I’ve given her the opportunity this evening. I’m really looking forward to getting to know this beauty!

Tapestry, coping and shame


Last Sunday afternoon, Thanksgiving weekend, I was out for a walk in Perth taking some of the photographs I collected over my five days there.  I was also slipping away from the family in order to listen to a radio program which included brief comments I had made by phone as invited by the producers.

CBC Radio’s Tapestry was airing the second part of a series called Coping and at about 15:49 into the program I am heard introducing myself, then speaking of how my bipolar II diagnosis was an “A ha!” moment for me in the context of living as a survivor of childhood trauma, addiction recovery, and living with HIV/AIDS since 1989.

I also said that the bipolar II diagnosis has allowed me “to have a little more compassion for myself” and, in turn, with others with mental health issues with whom I can more easily and comfortably empathize and suppress my self-criticism.

“I live on,” I said, “and live on in curiosity”.

The reason I felt I had to head off to my favourite café, rather than invite my family to listen to the program with me, is that they are not all up-to-speed on my bipolar II diagnosis nor, in some cases, the sexual abuse.  In the case of my mother, I have withheld these because I have judged that she has had more than enough to deal with.  Whether it is worth the secrecy may be another matter entirely.

Fast forward to my weekly group therapy yesterday, which I had missed due to travel last week and being ill the week before.  It followed on the heels of my check-in with my psychiatrist in the same hospital during which I confessed that, due to financial problems over the past little while, I had been unable to pay my quarterly prescription co-pay of about $100 and had, therefore tapered myself off my medications – re-starting at the end of September after more than a month when my finances were back in limited order.

He urged me to be in touch with him should I ever run into trouble again (I had even bluffed my way through an appointment with him during the crisis) and to keep in mind that relapses could be very serious.

Off to group therapy I went where I broke down crying as I reviewed the past couple of months and spoke of the shame I felt in being short of money.  It was of my own doing, I judge, because I had sought sexual release time and time again with the click of my TV remote at $9.99 plus tax per viewing.  (More shame.)  The financing – no worries until the bill arrives – was as seductive as any of the pay-per-view characters.  There were equal amounts of shame in having dug myself into a financial hole, putting my health at serious risk, and the mental condition which I dared not speak of with my loved ones – despite all of their support for me in every other area of my life which many other families might not be able to tolerate.

I did manage to tell my family, as we packed down a splendid turkey dinner, that I had lost ten pounds in the past little while.  What went left unsaid was how much less I had been eating and why.

What could I have done differently?

Certainly I could have flagged the financial problem with not only my psychiatrist but also my doctor and pharmacist.  Heaven and earth might have been moved to make sure I had my meds.  Instead I chose, in shame, to deal with it myself – the same faulty self-reliance that got me through the rough years as a kid.

I could have told friends what was going on.  It would not have been too tough to borrow a hundred bucks for my meds.

No doubt I could spend time, honestly, openly and,  more constructively, out of isolation with friends.

Whispering “Help!” from the windmills (or silos) of my mind


Those of you who have followed me, be it through my writing, my tweets, or home from the convenience store will have picked up on the fact that I have a fair amount on my plate.

I’m a very slow eater.

I recently joined a support group for long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS – in my case it’s been no less than 23 years. Even more recently I quit the group when I convinced myself that there was something to the quizzical looks I was getting from existing supportive friends, surprised that I might have anything I couldn’t discuss with them.

Particularly those who were also HIV-positive; also long-term survivors.

It felt good to formally end my relationship, short though it was, with the “support group” and to tell them why.

I don’t want to compartmentalize my life any more than I’m ever convinced I have to – if at all.

I want to safely, sanely integrate the many facets of my life – which too often feel like they’re in individual silos – into something that I can present to anyone I choose.

To recap what loyal readers already know:

I am a survivor of childhood trauma at the hands of an elementary school head teacher/principal.

I was bullied – by him and by peers both in early grades and in high school. I survived.

In my adolescence I was sexually abused by strangers, i.e. more than once, in a part of my home-town that I would only, as an adult, recognize as a “cruising area” for men seeking casual sex with other men (or, since I was there, with boys).

I buried that sexual trauma until I described the first incident in the third person at a HIV/AIDS-related workshop in 1990, some eighteen years after it started.

Then I buried it again, for the most part, but it kept reappearing particularly in the context of dealing with alcohol and other addiction.

I sought support for the addiction but only occasionally mentioned the trauma(s), believing that help was not available as one-stop shopping. (It was also too much to deal with in the context of my HIV progression to AIDS-related illness, the support and care of friends who have long since succumbed, and my inability to stay sober for more than five to seven years at a time maximum.)

When my brother Craig died tragically in 2007, and I was drinking at the time even if not in the presence – not even the same town – of my grieving family I came to a critical point of despair. Thoughts of suicide both tormented and comforted me.

Earlier that spring I had considered running for political office. Me! On long-term disability insurance! I had also wasted the bulk of an insurance settlement from a 2003 accident as if I wasn’t going to live long enough to enjoy it.

I was assessed and diagnosed with/as (I’m not sure which) bipolar II, one step on the spectrum from the more notorious bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness, as it used to be called.

Believe it or not it was a relief to get a better understanding of what had begun, to me, simply as an absence of depression – for which I had been treated since around the time I tested HIV-positive – and to make sense of what had clearly become episodes of hypomania and depression.

The cautionary experiences of my peers, plus the general stigma still associated with mental illness, have made it difficult to articulate all that I have been discovering about myself as I review the years but one thing is for sure: I can no longer just be a gay, HIV-positive and (to some a recovering addict) friend or relative to some while hiding the largely successful, but ongoing, treatment of my psychiatric illness. The silos drive me crazy – and anyone with a passing acquaintance of farming will know that silos can spontaneously combust!

I do not know to whom any, or all, of this is news. Please let me know. Maybe this is just a rant I occasionally need to let rip. My emotions are not helped by a temporary physical malady today but, then again, I know that’s what it takes to move me sometimes!

The bottom line is that I want to be able to describe the whole picture, even if I mix oil with pastels, chalk with water. The silos aren’t all filled at the same time, usually, but that’s just the point. I don’t want silos any more. Could you at least help me with a better analogy?  I would be so grateful.

Prom Night and Father’s Day


Skimming my home-town newspapers’ web sites I noticed that this is Prom weekend for some of the high schools in the area. Tomorrow is Father’s Day. I’m not sure if the two occasions shared the same weekend in my time.

Some quick math, all in my head mind you, and I realized that it’s a long thirty-five years since my own Prom. To protect the innocent I will not show my date, T.F.

Mom convinced me that renting a tux was not practical when a good suit would last for a number of years.

High school in Quebec runs from grades seven through eleven, with another one-to-two years of Cégep prior to university.

Of course the very idea of asking ANYone to the prom was going to be a challenge for me, although I don’t recall considering the option of not going.

One of Mom’s piano students was in grade seven, was very good-looking, and our two families were on very good terms. (My brother performed the first marriage of her older sister and her parents got along famously with mine.)

I was fairly certain that she would agree to go, since it’s not too many in grade seven who would be asked. She accepted. Paying the highest of compliments to my parents, and to me by implication, her mother said that she had no reason in the world to worry about her daughter going with me.   (I lacked the self-knowledge enough to know just how right she was!) She knew she would be safe with me, a stand-out son of my parents, and I was virtually certain that I would not be required to defend my honour!

Just to be sure, or perhaps to have a little fun while the kids were at the dance, a small party of our parents was assembled at the home of one of my fellow graduates – just a dip and a curve in the road from the school. So, yes, parental couples rode in the front seat while nervous Prom-goers were in the back.

Perhaps because of my own misgivings about the whole night, I do not recall feeling cramped by any of this close chaperoning.

I remember little about the dance, other than that we left our parents at the house party, and then we drove across the countryside to Valleyfield where we had made a group reservation at a restaurant downtown. I don’t remember how we killed so many hours – a little wine, maybe? – but, at closing time, we set out for the traditional (for recent grads anyway) viewing of the sunrise at Fort, or more accurately, Fortifications Coteau-du-Lac.

Did we then go for breakfast? I can’t recall but we stayed out long enough so as not to return to our respective homes at too ungodly an hour.

Was it Father’s Day? Quite possibly but I’d be lying if I said so for sure.

To think that thirty-five years ago my father was a spry 50 years old (I’m now 52) bursts any self-deception as to my age relative to those now experiencing their prom, their university graduation or, hell, maybe even the purchase of their first home!

There is no hierarchy in grief: Of Norway and Amy Winehouse


Please read this from Scott Dagostino, whose writing makes me admire the way his mind works.

Being someone who might preemptively describe myself as naive (which endears me to world-wise friends and the ne’er do-well-alike), I must say the title of Scott’s post took me in with more than its most obvious sarcasm and led to a deeper, even more evocative message.

The pallbearers of history seem frozen in their places these days, BREAKING NEWS interruptions startling and incomprehensible. Are we to be judged, as facts settle, for an uncomfortable lack of surprise?

As Scott points out feelings surrounding more than one tragic event at a time are not only possible but healthy. I don’t give the blame-stream media much credit for this, one moment sanctimoniously screeching, “What’s with Amy?” and the next re-tracing the steps of her train-wreck. Musicians,fans, and salaried pop-culture followers – many of whom know the industry of which they speak – are a welcome exception.

Those of us who identify with even a fraction of Amy Winehouse’s experience, who perhaps hope that our lives will be remembered not for the hurdles we’ve overcome but for the overcoming itself, would do well to think more than “But for…grace…there go I”. Powerful though that contracted quote may be – for reasons I have felt for a long time – very few would suggest that this doesn’t require willingness to work. Sometimes, and my knowledge of Amy Winehouses’s story begins and ends with her music, an obvious need for help (or defiant cry against it), is not enough when our perception of the problem is her solution (as it has been for me/us in the past). This was not about reasoning with her. We are left to mourn and to miss Amy Winehouse.

Back to Norway and referring again to Scott, he gives examples of evidence that the varieties of scale notwithstanding, it goes without saying that deranged people and their despicable acts are not unfamiliar. This guy – be he right-wing fundamentalist Christian, xenophobe and/or I’m wondering if maybe homosexual-minus-the-gay (wouldn’t that be a clever escape for the Right?) – kept himself alive for probably only the most sadistic reasons, his freedom to speak at today’s court appearance thankfully thwarted.

Nothing will hold back our shock, grief and anger. However a healthy brain is complex and, therefore, resilient enough to process all matters of information and emotions. Maybe even laugh along the way. With a name like “gallows humour”, you know that expressions didn’t come from the “Y” generation, and I’ve been known to enjoy such humour in AIDS circles. A now-defunct letter (newsletter would not suit its editors nor those claiming more legitimacy) called Diseased Pariah made the rounds at the height (let’s hope) of the AIDS scythe’s attempted purge of my community. DP was irreverent, offensive to many, even hard to stomach for some in the HIV-infected camp – of course what wasn’t hard to stomach back then? It found a niche but didn’t last as long as some of us might have liked and brought laughter to the grimmest of times for many.

Whether in formal or informal support groups I have been fortunate to have at my disposal the listening ears, hugs and shared laughs of countless fellow travelers. Many of the best models for care, of self and others, were exercised and developed when hope seemed so fleeting. Those tools are still operational.

Laughing then, as now, was a relief valve of stress, sorrow and feelings of certain death. It has a time and place with receptors eager to work, in the same minds as the distraught, whenever we are ready.

There is an important difference between humour and satire, or other genuine comforts, and some of the crassness or just unwitting ignorance which sells itself as information (news even!)

How long before we hear about “closure”?

I had been meaning to post this sooner but “computer says ‘No!'”

June 18 proclaimed as Pride Day in the Town of Perth, Ontario!


Imagine my delight, and yes pride, to learn that LGBT Lanark County had won its bid for a Pride Day proclamation in Perth for June 18. (This was also the first I’d heard of LGBT Lanark County. Their web site is pretty impressive!)

The Perth Courier, and an advertiser-householder known locally as the EMC, both had news during my recent visit of the April 19 town council meeting where, just as proceedings began, Mayor John Fenik made the proclamation (among others, including Parkinson’s Awareness and International Building Safety). The Pride proclamation was greeted by applause from members and friends of LGBT Lanark County.

The proclamation will be celebrated with a dance at the Civitan Hall on June 18, featuring both a live band and d.j. Tickets are $15 in advance (available at Shadowfax) or $20 at the door.

Congratulations to LGBT Lanark County. Community events in small towns are an amazing affirmation of the founding spirit of Pride!