Meanderings of a mental health client in good company

Would it be much of a surprise, even to the casual reader, that I am a mental health client? I have been since soon after my conclusive HIV diagnosis in 1990, although I wish now that I had sought such accompaniment long before then.

It started out with a window-shopping spree of psychiatrist seeking. Word-of-mouth recommendations, even from friends, do not necessarily mean compatibility.

I was diagnosed as depressed or, at first, “severely depressed”. Treatment for this boosted the deep lows, to be sure, but – in hindsight – did nothing for periodic highs which, precisely because they were not low, did not bother me so much. Now, with that 20/20 perspective, some of the highs were pretty destructive, and had been for a long time before I was HIV-positive. Could it be that they even led to my being infected? Such is the speculation of one who can spend too much time thinking.

Recently those more noticeable highs, when taken into consideration with the familiar lows, were diagnosed as bipolar II. I learned that bipolar is actually not as black-and-white as its manic-depressive origins would have us believe. It is a spectrum which, in my case, because I am not showing the extreme behaviours of the highest and lowest points, puts me at a bp II, perhaps III. I am beginning the appropriate medication changes.

Sometimes I get the feeling, from reactions as I reveal my story to people, that it is a wonder I have even chosen to try to survive. I claim no heroics. The events of my life, like the diagnoses, have come in increments.

I am very fortunate, in a twisted way, that so critical a health issue as HIV was visited upon me in my late twenties and within a time-frame that – while killing off a circle of supportive peers – allowed me to grasp emerging opportunities for treatment. This familiarized me with our health-care system when subsequent, more-than-physical problems, struggled to take precedence.

All of which leads me to confess, perhaps not surprisingly, to a longstanding fascination with remarkable people of history deemed “mad”. The one I am reading up on currently is a Québec poet, Émile Nelligan, who in 1899, just shy of his twentieth birthday, was institutionalized for what we would likely call schizophrenia nowadays.

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(pictures of Nelligan’s home on Laval St., facing St. Louis Square in Montreal, site of the bust.)

It was through the music and work of Québec pianist and composer André Gagnon that I first became aware of the romantic symbolist poet. Gagnon had written a short musical tribute to Nelligan (below) and, more recently, collaborated with Québec playwright Michel Tremblay in creating what has been called both an opera and a musical. (There’s a live CBC recording of “Nelligan”, from Montréal’s Place des Arts, recorded in 2005.)

Nelligan was one of those child prodigies whose life and early, tragic death have become the things of legend and speculation. Various biographies refer to him as “delicate”, “sensitive”, and “fragile”.

While a great deal of his work is now in the public domain, in its original French, I am now also reading a bilingual book of selected poems translated by P.F. Widdows and published by Guernica.

The long, sad end to his life – in an insane asylum – adds to the lore surrounding this man.

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