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.

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.

Five Years Since a Critical Day One


It was an early night to bed on Tuesday, June 19, 2007.  I had absolutely no more drinking to do and decided that the last day of this particular spring was a bitterly appropriate day to reach out again for sobriety.  Ruminations of suicide the past few days signalled to me that it was nearly past time to get help.

Fortunately I had been down this road before, so I knew where to turn, but I had never been trying to also recover from as tragic a circumstance as the traumatic brain injury death of my brother Craig.

I was certain that I should have been the one to die, as if it was as simple as trading places.  Such was my state of self-worth.  I was sick of hearing anything – anything at all – about “God’s will” even if all that was meant was that, had he survived, Craig surely wouldn’t have had much of a life.

I was inconsolable, yet with a familiar reserve of  just enough life energy not to give up.

I had survived HIV, even a serious AIDS-related illness, since at least 1989.  Burying so many friends and acquaintances I had good reason to believe that I wouldn’t be far behind.  Yet I took every possible medication, right from the start, and as the more promising combination therapies came along I responded well.

In 2003 I had been struck by a cab, fracturing a femur and a wrist, and been hospitalized for five weeks during what became known as Phase Two of SARS in Toronto.

Then I developed signs of Type-2 diabetes, quickly becoming insulin-dependent.

In 2005, though, I took a rail and bus tour of Canada’s Maritimes provinces.  I count it among my trips of a life-time, completing my journey across Canada from the west coast to the east.

I had been clean and sober since 1998 but, in recent years, had not sought the support I needed to maintain my sobriety. I politely declined the offer of champagne as the Halifax-bound train departed Montréal.  A couple of days later in Halifax, however, following up on a wish to tour the historic Alexander Keith’s brewery, I made a conscious decision to accept samples of various beers and ales being offered at a most enjoyable céilidh.  I quickly became that single guy on the bus tour whose exploits provided morning entertainment for fellow travellers.  I could see the progression within days and will never forget the story of how I got lost in Charlottetown.  You know you’re loaded when…

2005 rolled into 2006.  I carried my bottles in a gym bag, lest any of my former acquaintances see me.

When I received news of Craig’s fall on April 24, 2007 (his partner Claude’s birthday), I sobered myself up and left Toronto.  The family was not going to see how I had fallen in my own way.  After staying with my mother for a couple of weeks following Craig’s death, I changed my train ticket to First Class (free booze) and headed back for Toronto.

That was May 24, 2007 – the beginning of the end of a month of hell until June 19 (my last drink) and June 20 (my first day of sobriety).

The first years were in the shadow of grief and loss.  Other than psychiatric help, which has shown good results, little else stands out for me aside from a lot of inner work.  Things have improved, certainly, to the point where I am looking forward to whatever I can make of life, having said goodbye to the worst ideations of death.

I begin a new day, a new year, with hope and gratitude.

No sentence could undo the harms caused by Graham James


I join the outcry today over the sentencing of convicted serial pedophile Graham James to two years in prison for the sexual abuse of Theo Fleury and Todd Holt. Counter-intuitively (because I knew it would just get me stirred up) I watched the news coverage of the lawyers’ statements and victims’ reactions.

Graham arrived at court wearing his best perp ensemble:

Following sentencing, which The Globe I think rightly criticized for its lack of nuance, Todd Holt spoke on behalf of cousin and fellow victim Theo Fleury.

“I stand here today, on behalf of not only myself and my cousin Theoren Fleury, but as a voice for every man.

For all the young boys, the old men and the ones that got stuck somewhere in between because of the most devastating type of abuse; sexual abuse inflicted on us by someone in a position of trust and authority. Theo and I were two of those who got stuck in that middle place between boy and man; we made some terrible choices and watched the life we were meant to lead spiral down the drain.

No longer.”

It was, for me, a powerful and meaningful beginning to an expression of feelings – I even heard myself in his words – which later criticized the justice system.

This was where I switched to thinking, “Hmmm…”, and I’m sure it will take me some time to sort out why.

As my headline reads, and as legions of all types of crime victims can attest, the length of Graham James’ sentence, while still shocking (considering that two years probably won’t last two years), is secondary to the horrors, and their after-effects, that James inflicted on Theo Fleury, Todd Holt, Sheldon Kennedy and who-knows-how-many-other young hockey players I would otherwise not know, let alone relate to.

They are still recovering, having taken the familiar route of spiralling downward before they were fortunate enough to make it back without ending their lives.  Theirs, as mine, is a life-long journey.  Every time I/we think we have reached another air-pocket of resolution, something takes it away – or at least I let it be taken away.

There’s a tough-on-this-kind-of-crime demon whispering inside me thinking Graham James and his ilk should be chemically castrated, if not as a barbaric punishment then at least as a preventive measure.  Or is that just the wolf of murder by lethal injection in sheep’s clothing? And would that alone take away his predatory impulses?

My self-image, a work in progress, was moulded in part by a monster or two in my childhood.  I continue to try to make sense of so much, even the crap in my own past that makes no sense at all.  But I persist, with your help.

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).