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.

Mental Illness Awareness Week through Saturday


The stereotypical walls are long gone this Mental Illness Awareness Week which finds me bridging between a recent, quietly-endured “brown out” state-of-being in Toronto and my absolute delight as I bask in the love of family members gathering in the splendidly autumnal Town of Perth in eastern Ontario.

I’m thinking of Jamie Hubley‘s loved ones and friends as the first anniversary of his death approaches. And of David Dewees and all who cared so much for him.

In the midst of these tragedies it was an occasion to speak candidly about the despair that can lead to suicide and acknowledge times in my life when I have felt those demoralizing feelings.

Yet there I was, last year like this year, trying to keep my emotional head above water by talking about it, them, vague ideas, trying not to raise alarm – ich!

CBC Radio’s Tapestry began an exploration of “coping” last week and it seems likely that a telephone comment I left may be aired either this week or next.

Producers narrowed me down to what, for me, was the liberating diagnosis of bipolar II several years ago.  I emphasize “narrowed down” because my original email was a long list of things, familiar to my readers, I check off as having coped with:

*-childhood bullying by an elementary school principal/head teacher*
*
*
*-bullying by peers in high school*
*
*
*-alcohol abuse beginning in college*
*
*
*-coming out as a gay man, as fully as possible, in 1981*
*
*
*-contracting HIV no later than 1989*
*
*
*-leaving paid work in 1990, to which I have not returned*
*
*
*-surviving AIDS-related infections (while caring for a few – and mourning
the deaths of – countless peers)*
*
*
*-believing that “if anyone deserves AIDS, I do!”*
*
*
*-being involved in political actions, HIV/AIDS-related and otherwise*
*
*
*-surviving a taxi-pedestrian (me) accident  in 2003, with a broken femur
and right radius, hospitalized for five weeks at the height of SARS in
Toronto*
*
*
*-being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes (despite being alarmingly
under-weight)*
*
*
*-being diagnosed with bipolar II (which may turn out to be the best
thing that ever happened!)*
*
*
*-losing my older brother (a mentor who was also gay, also HIV+) in a
freak fall on the sidewalk in 2007, resulting in traumatic brain injury (he
was on life support for about two weeks)*
*
*
*-personal work and therapy intermittently on all of the above.*

I don’t expect I’ll hear Coping: Part 2 over the air this weekend, which is probably just as well given the family gathering which may find me underneath a giant pile of leaves!  However I never miss the weekly Tapestry podcast.

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.

There are at least a few, if not many, important people with whom I need to have my own conversation about…


…this!

It’s certainly not too early to think about Mental Illness Awareness Week

When I read the Ottawa Citizen article (linked above) I immediately thought, “Mom will have read that yesterday,” and what an opening it would give me to discuss my own mental health history with her.

Not long after sobering up five+ years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar II and, although it might seem strange, the news came as a relief to me. It helped to explain behaviour, over and above (and below) drunkenness and depression, which had dogged me most of my adult life. The eventual absence – thanks to treatment – of depression, which became hypomania, went undiagnosed for so long because I quite enjoyed said absence of depression, despite the danger, stupidity and recklessness which accompanied it.

Of course, as my 1,002 posts here can illustrate – at least in part – there’s been more going on in my life than depression so, absent or otherwise, there have been many other factors contributing to my state of being and my sense of self.

I cannot deny, and quite enjoy reporting, that seeking help – even if it took sinking to “rock bottom” to do so – has me feeling mentally stronger than I have in a long time, the occasional extraneous screw-ups notwithstanding.

For that I am truly thankful.

Finding Émile


I reached another marker this week in my posthumous, intriguing, fan-like relationship with Montréal poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) when Craig’s partner, Claude, drove me to the site of his burial in Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. Even with a map of the cemetery it took us a while to find Marker #588 in Section N. At 350 acres, and with fifty-five kilometres of road, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is Canada’s largest cemetery, dating back to 1854, and fast closing in on a population of one million people’s remains.

He even wrote about the place, the only reference in his works to Montréal:

Notre-dame-des-neiges

Sainte Notre-Dame, en beau manteau d’or,
De sa lande fleurie
Descend chaque soir, quand son Jésus dort,
En sa Ville-Marie.
Sous l’astral flambeau que portent ses anges,
La belle Vierge va
Triomphalement, aux accords étranges
De céleste bîva.

Sainte Notre-Dame a là-haut son trône
Sur notre Mont-Royal ;
Et de là, son oeil subjugue le Faune
De l’abîme infernal.
Car elle a dicté: ” Qu’un ange protège
De son arme de feu
Ma ville d’argent au collier de neige “,
La Dame du Ciel bleu !

Sainte Notre-Dame, oh ! tôt nous délivre
De tout joug pour le tien ;
Chasse l’étranger ! Au pays de givre
Sois-nous force et soutien.
Ce placet fleuri de choses dorées,
Puisses-tu de tes yeux,
Bénigne, le lire aux roses vesprées,
Quand tu nous viens des Cieux !

Sainte Notre-Dame a pleuré longtemps
Parmi ses petits anges ;
Tellement, dit-on, qu’en les cieux latents
Se font des bruits étranges.
Et que notre Vierge entraînant l’Eden,
O floraison chérie !
Va tôt refleurir en même jardin
Sa France et sa Ville-Marie…

Below, closer to his home as a teenager on rue Laval (also shown) near Square Saint-Louis, is a bust of the young Nelligan, which enjoys a prominent place in that lovely park.  It remains a somewhat bohemian, albeit pricier, neighbourhood of artists and students among whom, over the objections of his parents, he found companionship among peers.

Born at 602, rue de La Gauchetière (not far from present-day Gare Centrale) on Christmas Eve 1879, and baptized at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Day, he was the first son of Irish immigrant David Nelligan and Emilia Amanda Hudon, a francophone and daughter of the former mayor of the lower St. Lawrence town of Rimouski. Two younger sisters, Beatrice and Gertrude, followed. It cannot be overlooked that Nelligan’s bi-cultural background represented something essential to the understanding of Montréal culture at the time (think of Hugh MacLennan’s later work “Two Solitudes”). At the time of Nelligan’s birth, the percentages of francophones and anglophones in the city-proper was tied (and the English overwhelmingly waved power over the French). It was only after the annexation of outlying “towns”, which have been part of Montréal for generations now, and with increased migration from rural areas to the city, that the proportion of francophones grew to 75% by 1920.

On the outside, his childhood would have appeared to be pretty good, spent between the family home in Montréal and their summer residence in Cacouna, not too far from his mother’s birthplace. However Nelligan skipped school increasingly, devoting more and more time to his love of writing poetry. He left school outright in 1897, over the strong objections of his working-class father.

Childhood, despair, difficult relationships with his individual parents right out of a session with Freud, social awkwardness, love, sin, music and a morbid fascination with what he viewed as the relief of death dominate his work.

The story is told, in the preface to P.F. Widdows’ bilingual edition of “Émile Nelligan – Selected Poems”, of David Nelligan sending his son off to Liverpool, as something of a would-be merchant mariner. Alas he was back home in two months. His father having given up on him, as Widdows writes, “he never again submitted himself to what the world and his father called work”.

Émile’s work, however, his poetry, continued unstopped.

His first published poem appeared in the journal Le Samedi de Montréal on June 13, 1896, which he submitted under the pen-name Émile Kovar. It was Rêve fantasque, an early indication of his fascination with death, even suicide.

Qu’il est doux de mourir quand notre âme s’afflige,
Quand nous pèse le temps tel un cuisant remords,
-Que le désespoir ou qu’un noir penser l’exige -
Qu’il est doux de mourir alors!

My shaky translation:

How sweet to die when our soul is grieved,
When we weigh the time such a bitter remorse,
-Such black despair of thinking that is required
It is sweet to die then!

Nelligan was just sixteen years old.

Between 1896 and 1897 he met, and was taken under the wing of, Roman Catholic père Eugène Seers, better known in Montréal literary circles as Louis Dantin. An encouraging critic of Nelligan’s work, he published some of his religious-themed poems in the newsletter of his Order and was instrumental in preparing his protegé’s collected poems for publication after Nelligan’s mental breakdown.

Joining, quitting, then re-joining, l’École littéraire de Montréal which met at the Château Ramezay (pictured below in Old Montréal) Nelligan’s brief public reading stint came to a dramatic end during the presentation of three of his poems to members, one of them his most well-known La Romance du vin. Following a rapturous reception from his audience a nearly-ecstatic Émile Nelligan was carried away on the shoulders of his friends during – or after – which he suffered a psychotic breakdown.

That was May 26, 1899.  He was diagnosed with irreversible psychoses, before schizophrenia had been named.

At the insistence of his parents, Nelligan was confined to la Retraite Saint-Benoît, a Catholic brothers’ retreat centre at the eastern end of the Island of Montréal. He was moved to what was then the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum in 1925, where he remained until his death on November 18, 1941.

In 1979, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp which paid tribute to one of his most widely-read poems Le Vaisseau d’Or:

“Le Vaisseau d’Or”

C’était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif: 
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues; 
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues, 
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif. 

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil 
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène, 
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène 
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil. 

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes 
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes, 
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés. 

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève? 
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté? 
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve! 

“The Ship of Gold”

It was a great ship carved from solid gold:
Its masts touched to the skies on uncharted seas;
Venus, goddess of love, her hair streaming, her flesh bare,
Flaunted herself on the prow beneath a blazing sun.

But one night it struck the great reef
In that treacherous ocean where the Siren sang,
And the horrible shipwreck tilted its keel
Into the depths of the abyss, ineluctable coffin.

It was a ship of gold whose diaphanous sides
Revealed treasures which the profane mariners,
Loathing, Hatred, and Neurosis, disputed among themselves.

What remains of it in the brief tempest?
What has become of my heart, a deserted ship?
Alas! It has foundered in the depths of the dream!

Source: Wikipedia, translator unknown

My very first introduction to Nelligan was through the music of pianist and composer André Gagnon .  On an early album was a tune entitled “Nelligan”.

Then, around 1990, Gagnon collaborated with playwright Michel Tremblay and mounted an opera/musical “Nelligan”.

One of Nelligan’s poems Soir d’hiver was put to music by the recently-deceased Claude Léveillée

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
Ô la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai!   Oh the pain I have, that I have!

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,   All ponds lie frozen,
Mon âme est noire: Où vis-je? où vais-je?   My soul is black: Where am I living? Where am I going?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés:    All his hopes lie frozen:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège   I am the new Norway
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.  Hence the fair skies are gone.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,  The thrill of sinister things,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,   Weep my tears, cry my roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.  On branches of juniper.

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
A tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai!…   For all the trouble I have, that I have! …

A lovely boutique hotel in Vieux-Montréal, complete with the renowned Verses restaurant, bears his name and celebrates his legacy. Hôtel Nelligan opens onto the cobble-stoned Rue Saint-Paul

Having learned about Nelligan’s impressive body of work (to say nothing of a promising career) dashed by mental illness that was treated with the crude methods of the day, I felt some identification with him – if only in the sense of having felt private despair.  I almost never fail to walk past Nelligan’s bust in Square St-Louis when I’m in Montréal.  I am so pleased to be connecting my love of André Gagnon’s music, the poetry of Émile Nelligan, my fascination with Nelligan landmarks downtown, and now his grave-site on the beautiful slopes of Mont-Royal.

Hope as verb, noun and/or feeling


Everything I am feeling in this moment is in the context of having watched, via television and Twitter, the roller-coaster of events in Egypt these past 18 days, of having just listened to the Feb. 6 (2011) edition of Tapestry from CBC Radio with Mary Hines, and of having made the seemingly Herculean effort to order refills of my HIV, diabetes and “head” meds.

And already I have forgotten why I could only describe myself as despondent when I opened up this page.

Towards the end of the week, say about twelve hours before the start of Friday Prayers in Cairo, I was in discussion with some peers about the now-tired links I make between the distinct hells of elementary school and my adolescence, then of my instant activism after the 1981 bath house raids in Toronto (just add water, or steam, and stir!)  Oh, and then I added that leap fart of logic that permeated me for so long “…if anyone deserves AIDS I do.”  Even though I quickly pointed out that I have dismissed this asinine proposition, intellectually, I allowed that it may still hide in the nodes of my psyche as traces of seemingly “undetectable” HIV viral load might hide from the best available tests – though I did not use that analogy.  Frankly HIV could probably hide better, regardless of whether it is or not.

It stands to reason then, if reason is all I can stand on, that I might feel despair given Dr. Kenn’s self-diagnoses (AIDS-because-I-deserve-it and mental-illness-because-well-life-just-piled-up).

Listening to myself, as the conversation with my peers played over and over during the walk home, I understood – was aware of, made sense of – almost immediately how the 51-year old Kenn brutally judges (ever-present tense) the Kenneth of childhood, the Ken of adolescence and the Kenn of a promising adulthood.  Then, with a deep sigh, I recognized (again) how tiring this is – to me, sure, and I can only begin to imagine how much so to any audience (at least anyone not paid to listen!)

John’s question emerged, from among the group, asking me how I would respond to someone presenting my self-evaluation.  Not a new question, of course, I said I’d tell them it (circumstance=deserving) was absurd and to cut myself some slack.

That’s what I left with Thursday evening, not picking it all up again until listening today to the aforementioned edition of Tapestry (which, in all candour, is this loner-wannabe’s “church”-of-choice more than any other these days).   While the Thursday evening mood personified wanted to dislike what I was hearing, I could not.

The stream of consciousness of the past couple of weeks (and blog posts) went like this: forgiveness (others and myself) does NOT mean condoning anything, the letting go frees me up for other things – happier, productive, more self-fulfilling things.

Now what?  (Interestingly, this is one of the questions being asked repeatedly about Egypt this weekend).

Should I pack up for Haiti?  No, I don’t think so – not today at least.

Do I believe that wishing to do anything is a foolhardy distraction from what I’ve been carrying, and working on, for years?  Would a change of course, however big or small, negate everything?  No!

Having lived for so long like I could not imagine surviving another year, never mind quarter-life (and more than occasionally not wishing to!), what small steps can I take to change my attitude?

“Fake it ’til you make it”?

“Act as if…”?

Well, internalizing those phrases would be a pleasant change from the self-defeating mantras, so – if nothing else – let this be a beginning.

I understand, and have experienced, how ‘getting out of self’ can lighten the load a great deal.  Therefore I could do a lot worse with my time than thinking about ways to do this.

I would rather be cut down in the middle of something, only at the moment of my death, than continuously sharpening my focus on seeing it come from an undetermined distance.

“Now what?”

Better to live unto/into hope than fear (which I must always recognize is inherent in any comfortable certainty of hopelessness).

Txt, telephone or…blog…let’s talk about mental illness!


This is Bell Let’s Talk Day.

Multiple Olympic medallist Clara Hughes, lead spokesperson for the campaign, was on CTV News in Toronto today. From among the calls she fielded came this articulate gem, “To kill the pain too often means to kill oneself.”

However, and this was Clara’s message, help and hope are available to those who reach out.

Citing Bell’s initiative today, St. Paul’s (Toronto) MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett, in a Member’s Statement in the House of Commons, called on the federal government to move forward with an anti-stigma campaign. I won’t hold my breath.

To kill the pain too often means to kill oneself.

Something else important to point out is that mental illness is on a spectrum. Major depression, bipolar or schizophrenia are examples of the most serious forms of mental illness but there are plenty of gray areas, too – usually the first signs of something more serious.

My first meeting with a mental health professional came around the time that I was diagnosed HIV-positive, nearly twenty-two years ago.  I was put on the lowest dose of a common anti-depressant and it was only when I took myself off it a few years later (unsupervised, such as I did it, is never a good idea) that I realized how much it had been helping.

Then, years later, what I identified as a distinct lack of depression led me down a path of behaviour quite out of character.  Only at the bottom of the deep hole of my own digging did I again seek help at which time I was diagnosed, over time, with bipolar-II – a variant of the more extreme bipolar or manic-depressive.

Listening to a description of the condition and its symptoms I recognized myself and felt much relief. It explained much about recent feelings and behaviour but also put historic episodes into better perspective.

A change in medication once or twice, trying to minimize effects on my lipids, has resulted in a recent period of stability.

I cannot take my moods for granted, certainly not the good ones.  Yet I feel that, so long as I take my medications (“head meds” or those for HIV/AIDS), I have hope.

Social contact cannot be over-emphasized either.