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…


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).

Unpacking (more) personal baggage

Pardon me for the humourless dissecting of my neuroses

Have I mentioned before having used, for many years, the esteem-busting mantra “If anyone deserves AIDS, I do!”  (Looking at it now I feel like each word should be italicized for emphasis, rather than just one or two.)

What a message: If anyone deserves AIDS, I do!

I bring this up in the context of two recent posts: one on forgiveness, the other on the 30th anniversary of the notorious bath-house raids.

If the mantra was esteem-busting, its sentiments probably go back to my elementary school days and my adult bully in the form of my head teacher/principal – a fan of the Boston Bruins, then coached by one Don Cherry.

Just to make things worse I was flunked in his Grade 4 math class (or “held back” as my mother put it) which meant seven years, not six, under his tutelage. Oh well, at least I was with kids closer to my own age for those last three miserable years.

When I was twelve or thirteen, depending whether I was going into Grade 7 or 8, I was sexually abused by stranger(s) in what I would now recognize as a “cruising” area.

None of this – not the teacher/principal terror, not the sexual exploitation – did I talk about with anyone at the time.  It’s only been more recently that I’ve talked with family members about C.G. – the teacher/acting principal – in quite general, yet unfavourable, terms – the closeness of our families’ friendship much less than I had imagined when I didn’t feel that I could turn him in.

He’s now dead, and has been for a number of years.

The bit on forgiveness I had been reading a couple of weeks ago seemed to be worth exploring – even if only letting go of his neck, metaphorically, is all I can manage to accomplish.

If I, as I often say, connect the dots from the bullying school mentor to the pedophile(s) hanging out by the canal it is understandable how I might have been full of self-loathing.  While the only thing, but it’s huge, that I could have changed about the school situation was to have ratted the guy out to my parents the sexual abuse was a classic case of a kid with confusing, homosexual feelings giving in to his curiosity at the hands of a man probably four times his age.  (I just noticed how much easier it was to write about me in the third person.)  The fact remains that, whether I was curious or not, it was the adult’s job not to go through with it.

It seemed as if I had nothing to do, no place to go, with my inner turmoil.  For that I certainly don’t blame my parents.  These were the early seventies, well before “street-proofing” more than don’t-talk-to-strangers and, besides, any mention of my sexual curiosity would reveal more about my sexual orientation than I was yet prepared to share.

I managed to get through high school quite successfully, using my sense of humour and an ability to maintain good grades to disguise any signs of trouble.  It was in college, Niagara College some six hundred kilometers from home, that the inner twelve-year-old drank adult beverages to excess, and the unraveling began.

There was no LGBT peer support on campus, as there is in the area now thank goodness.  I didn’t know enough about drinking to worry about my experiencing blackouts from the get-go.  Then the trips to Toronto began, where the bars and baths seemed like Utopia.  I well remember looking across the lake from St.Catharines and thinking of Toronto as Oz.

Now I live in Toronto and, well, ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’.

If anyone deserves AIDS, I do!

This little ditty has come up in therapy, and more than once, over the years.  It’s not that I believe it, not at its face value.  But knowing, as I sincerely do, that I have ever believed it inside, on some level, still hurts.  So, as someone in a peer group whispered last week, whatever forgiveness – or letting go – I may feel about past perpetrators I just might have a heap more forgiveness of myself to do yet.

I have never bought, in full, the idea that my casual sexual relationships were merely the exercising of the freedom implied in the “sexual revolution” of my early adulthood and well before.  It has seemed to me, with the benefit of hindsight, that my conduct was more of a reflexive response to the trauma I experienced, sexual and otherwise.

Between my drinking and the constant settling for ‘Mr. Right Away’ I was not ready for – indeed I was afraid of – a serious, intimate relationship.  HIV, and then AIDS, added to the complexities.

So I conclude with this attempt to unpack my old mantra.

‘If anyone deserves AIDS…’

It is an absurd notion, this, that anyone would deserve AIDS – that my sex conduct (or someone else’s intravenous drug use, for example), no matter how early in the epidemic, would – and even should – be rewarded with an incurable disease.  The simplicity of this cause-effect formula, simplicity being the preferred way of thinking among the theory’s proponents on the religious right, boggles the mind.  I had just enough experience with them, a couple of years before coming out, to do some psychic damage.

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Galatians 6:7 (KJV)

How’s that for an effective club with which someone (such as me), lacking self-respect, might put in my suicidal arsenal!

(If anyone deserves AIDS)…I do!’

Messages I gave myself, to back up my feeling of deserving, mostly centered around the idea that my sex conduct – regardless of why it might have been the way it was – seemingly left me vulnerable, with eyes wide open one would almost think, to infection.

I blamed myself for everything: from not reporting Mr. G, to giving in to sexual curiosity even though – as I pointed out earlier – the onus for restraint is on the adult in these situations.  I blamed my drinking, at least in part, on these secrets which led to lack of good judgment in my sexual pursuits as a young adult.

How many ways do I need to cut myself some slack?

I recognize this ‘unpacking’ was mostly at the intellectual level.  There’s still some emotional work to do when, I believe, much more self-forgiveness will have the chance to emerge.

Thank you Candy Crowley and “State of the Union”

“I think you might have bipolar disorder,” he (psychiatrist) said.

“Oh, thank God,” I answered.

Surprise registered on his face. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that reaction before.”

“No, I am so relieved,” I said. “Now that we know what it is, we can fix it.”

Andrea Ball (Statesman.com)Jared Loughner and the stigma and the reality of mental illness

Andrea Ball’s reaction to her psychiatrist was nearly identical to mine.  As with her a diagnosis, while a tremendous relief, marked only the beginning of treatment – and fighting stigma.  More about that later.

Last night I wrote:

I eagerly watched three of the Sunday morning news shows: NBC’s “Meet the Press”, ABC’s “This Week” and last, only because I wanted to highlight it, CNN’s “State of the Union” with Candy Crowley (transcript here).

Dr. Fred Frese was on, (click to view the segment) a psychologist for 40 years, and the former president of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Association, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a young adult.

He also plays a role in an amazing PBS program “Minds on the Edge”. (It’s just under an hour long but compelling to watch, I assure you.)

Back to Monday…

Most people I have spoken to, or heard speak, about their mental illness diagnosis – and my interest is nudged, in particular, regarding bipolar or bipolar II affective disorders – often share a history of other diagnoses.  The most common of these is major depression.

I have felt the stigma of depression sometimes when it has been pooh-poohed as irrelevant, were I only to remain abstinent from alcohol and other drugs (which I have for most of the past 25 years).  How could anyone contest, I maintain even now, that the diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in 1989 might realistically set off depression?

That was my entry into the mental health field, a psychiatrist seeing me on the condition that I be a minimum of one year sober.

The late 1980s through the early-to-mid-90s were some of my most difficult years, emotionally, (and not just mine by any stretch) and no wonder as the scythe of AIDS swept through circles of friends “in recovery” who came together as in-home care teams while memorial services were being planned for others and still others were just receiving news of their diagnosis.

I knew my anti-depressant was working as the tears flowed, not inhibiting my emotions one bit.  I found out the hard way what it’s like to guide one’s self off such medications.

Another crisis, years later, the one which led to my bipolar II diagnosis, followed the death of my brother (but which had obviously begun much earlier) when I could not grasp the harmful consequences of spending money I did not have – and on people I could not have!  The absence of depression (but hypomania) was all that mattered.  My relationship wth money has been like that all my life.  Spending it blinds me to the risks of being without.  The proportions to which I took this, at this time however, are more embarrassing than I feel ready to go into here.

Through it all, it must be said, I have been blessed with something so many others with mental illness are too often without – a secure roof over my head.  I have been in this housing co-op, with rent geared to income, since 1992.   That’s something I give thanks for each time I pass someone, probably with mental health problems, who has claimed a piece of sidewalk for themselves.

The magic of (a) meeting

I am by habit, if not by nature, quite a loner. As an example I often recall the extraordinary lengths I went to in learning my way around London ahead of a trip there with a group of fellow high school students. Why? So I could go out on my own unencumbered by group decisions on sightseeing routes. (I cannot imagine a chaperone letting a student do this nowadays nor, however, can I blame this for any of the land-mines I stepped on later in life.)

We are, it is said, social creatures – no matter how often I have begged to differ or change that – and so it should not surprise me when I feel better, in what might be called a spiritual experience, just for having been with friends with a collective feeling of goodwill for one another.

Between the days of wandering London and my wish to recover from myself these many years later, I see myself standing (or hopefully sitting, perhaps leaning against a wall) in a crowded and, in those days, smoke-filled bar full of people. Feeling completely alone, save for the contents of the glass in my hand, I was soothing the savage beast of my self-consciousness -or so I thought – and yet repeatedly measuring my success on whether I remembered going home, or elsewhere, alone or with whomever else. More often than not it did not matter if I went home alone, either under my own steam or in the back seat of a cab hailed on my behalf by a bar-keep who had turned up the lights twenty minutes before.

Hardly social, or sociable, nor comfortably alone.

In my support circles we occasionally read that “we are people who would not normally mix”. For many years I saw that as a class divide – that highly-educated doctors (of whatever discipline), lawyers and the like would, so I thought, normally be unable to relate to people with different life experience. The common need for support tears down walls. While that may be true, it took on a new and profound meaning in the painful, isolating weeks preceding my return to the aforementioned circles in June of 2007. It wasn’t subsets of society which would not normally mix, it was me – I – who had become loath to mix with anyone, one-on-one or in small groups, more than at any time that I could remember.  The stark choice – I hope this doesn’t seem too melodramatic – was to “mix” (again) or die, the pointlessness of that notwithstanding.

Recently I have observed myself feeling isolated, even while showing up for commitments. Rejecting (if not ignoring) the “shoulds” more often than not, I followed through with my desire this evening to be among friends and it paid off. Without saying too much, save for individual conversations before and after the meeting, I came home feeling like I had experienced something great.

Lesson learned and written into the record.  There are some things an “agree” or a “retweet” cannot replace and the term social networking, for me, needs to more explicitly imply a f2f follow-through!

“Changing My Mind” could change yours – about mental illness and Margaret Trudeau


This is an autobiography, her third, of someone whose slow-motion train wreck – no, a series of fast-moving train wrecks – was seen, at least in part, by political watchers and gossip magazine readers the world over.

We suspect the ending is happy, and we know to expect several of the deeply sad climaxes, but above all else this is a message to those of us who have struggled with mental illness, including substance abuse, to seek the help we need, follow the instructions we are given and have at least one person checking in with us to make sure we are still on the rails.  Plenty of examples are offered of what happens when this is not done.

This book is something else, coming from someone of such noteriety – it is a stigma-buster. Margaret Trudeau joins the ranks of Olympic athletes and many others recently in saying, “I have a mental illness and, with a lot of help, I am better. You can be, too.”

Perhaps my most difficult topic yet (for Tyler Clementi)

Let’s talk about suicide!

The single-most read entry of this blogever – is seeing an up-tick in hits as the one year anniversary of this local tragedy looms large.

Today, with the recovery of his body, social media are decrying the suicide, and circumstances behind it, of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, a gifted eighteen-year old violinist who was humiliated, and outed, more than he could bear when his room-mate posted a video to the internet showing Tyler and another man having sex kissing!

Three days later he leapt from the George Washington Bridge.  His was the fourth young gay suicide (widely reported across the United States) this month.  One shudders to think how many others there might have been that didn’t make such a public statement.

Now do I really think that, on top of all their despair, these young people decided to die with such an exclamation point?  Probably not, but who’s to say there might not have been a bit of “I’ll show you!” to underline just how hopeless they felt.

It’s difficult to know.  It has never come up on the gay agenda.  That’s right the “gay agenda” which intolerant people seem to believe is our quest to take over the world and yet who bristle at the idea that we would just settle for full equality.  Intolerant people, beginning with adults, feed intolerance to others.  They can’t eat and spew it all themselves.  Kids like Tyler Clementi’s room-mate are enslaved by the need for conformity.  Anything different is to be avoided – they even call it “gay”.  Intolerance responds well to peers.  Gangs are not required when more innocuous cliques or clicks (of the mouse) can puff up your social network and whatever views you wish to share.  I’m the first to admit that this works equally well for the intolerant and the intolerant of the intolerant.

I suppose it’s my choice to be connected with people who report such things as gay youth suicides.  Suicide has been a fact of gay life since I came out nearly thirty years ago.  What makes these four recent deaths so vexing is that they were each preceded by bullying.  It’s bad enough that the conditions are still not right to prevent some kids from feeling like they need  to commit suicide, but it’s worse – and criminal – to describe the situation as having been driven to do so.

Sometimes I think, and perhaps project, that when I’m telling my story there’s a sinking feeling inside my audience (one or one hundred) such as, “I don’t know how (and/or why) you’ve avoided suicide.”  My story, however, betrays any idea that I have not and, for the purposes of my definition, I’d suggest there is both active and passive suicide.

How many times have I been warned that I was killing myself?  Whether or not the concern seemed reasonable to me at the time an autopsy of  my spirit would most likely have confirmed it.  This goes beyond not looking after myself, too, as if that were not insane enough.  The end-game in my young adulthood was not to end up unable to work for physical and mental reasons.  However I was so intent on running away from myself and my secrets and my shame and – it must be said – everything good about me it seemed the formula to do that  was the easily available poisons, legal and illegal, mostly consisting of (or certainly starting with) alcohol.

One of my favourite descriptions of where this led, and the search deep beneath it, was described in a letter from psychiatrist Carl Jung to one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson:

You see, ‘alcohol’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

One of the peaks of my early coming out process was when I was able to cut loose from the fundamentalist Christian tradition I had taken on in college where, at the time, there was no positive reinforcement of any kind for LGBT students.  (That’s something that is a must, and a barometer for tolerance, on any campus!)

I didn’t give my beliefs as a teen much thought when my family attended church each week so, coupled with the angst of my being gay,  I was ripe for the picking by the Bible-literalist church I went to in college.

However I led a double life which became unbearable and I eventually came to see coming out as freedom, not something to be feared.

Had I ever attempted suicide?  Yes, at a surprisingly young age with a blessedly inept plan.  I tried to shut my bedroom door on my neck repeatedly.  Just not too forcefully, besides which the faux wood of the door would not have hurt me too much even at full strength.

Such was my most serious attempt but, just thinking about it, what kind of despondency was I feeling?  Well I was still in elementary school so the worst feelings always had something to do with my school bully/head teacher/principal wannabe.

The freedom I believed myself to be experiencing with alcohol as a young adult, self-abuse, was my suicide plan – no it was more passive than a plan.  It was like, “Give me death, unless something better comes along.”

I did not realize, though, that thinking about suicide (and I assure you that I have checked “yes” to that on forms over the years without knowing the consequences), might put a little red star on your file.  I understand that now.  I know that if I’m capable of thinking about it, there’s always the risk of following through.  Suicide ideation, as it’s called, is of course a much larger statistic than actual suicides.

All of which leads me back to Tyler and, locally, David whose circumstances while different led to them being driven, and quickly, to tragic ends.  There are some instances where it’s not enough to just cluck “What a shame!”.  Stock-taking of youth education, peer support, zero-tolerance of bullying (gay or straight as kids can be nasty to anyone), anti-homophobia measures – they must continue so long as the horror of being found out as gay, or nastily revealing evidence which would leave no doubt, is the most terrifying feeling a kid could, in their mind, possibly experience.

Trying to articulate, however inadequately, my spirituality

Anyone from “the rooms” who’s heard me talk about 2, 3, 11 and others, especially since my comeback following Craig’s death, knows that I’m having trouble – at best – articulating my beliefs regarding spiritual matters and – at worst – am profoundly confused.

The way from my heart to my head, or vice versa, sometimes seems impassable.  If I’m going to believe something, or in something, my head wants to know what I’m signing up for – and I’m pretty quick to toss out anything familiar which I think maybe has not worked in the past.  Sometimes the baby has gone out with the bath water.  Not any particular baby, mind you, although the mystical (formerly literal) Christmas story was a foundational part of my upbringing and remains of sentimental and, as I noted, mystical importance.

Occasionally I feel like I need to shield people from potentially offensive, dogmatic-sounding language.  That “need to shield” is my problem, or gift, and does not necessarily mean that anyone asks for such protection.  The best example which comes to mind is changing references to “God” (whatever that means to me at the time) from “He”, “His” and “Him” (male) gender assignments.

In the bigger picture, this problem I have of my head needing to know so much about things which may be more intuitive or “unknowable” (forgive the old Donald Rumsfeldism) can, and does, sometimes get in the way of experiencing the moment.  I’ve likened it to seeing something through my camera viewfinder alone, blocking myself (however unintentionally) from a fuller, broader experience of the moment or subject being photographed.

I feel a spiritual longing in the sense that I want to eliminate the sometimes cynical flotsam and jetsam of my thoughts.  I have experienced this during meditations which begin with simple focusing on my breathing.  There’s something powerful, to me, at what I would describe as the bottom of each breath.  Note to self: revive my practice of mindfulness meditation.  Then, rather than demanding to know “who” or what I’m communicating with (it may well be me), I need to try to be open to what I can name as my longings, my yearning, and sometimes – yes – my inquiring. 

Sometimes I get so tired of my head always needing an explanation of everything so, while avoiding the outright dismissive arguments of Hitchens, Hawking et.al., I attribute what I do not know – or have not learned – to the Mystery.  What I do not, or cannot, know has power greater than me.

Maybe, just as the three great monotheistic religions believe in one God (triune hoops of Christianity notwithstanding), and the followers of each such faith pray to the same Deity, just maybe that’s what I’m doing as I contemplate, inquire of, or long for the Mystery. 

Many groups and individuals have shared with me their ideas and experiences of spirituality over the years.  I think of the former healing circle which used to meet in the old AIDS Committee of Toronto offices on Yonge Street each Sunday night; of various First Nations groups and individuals who so generously showed me their practices; of meditation groups.  There are many more examples.

In addition to the visual wonder I experience through photography, I am so appreciative of my love of music imparted to me by my mother and grandmother.  I cannot listen to recordings of the world’s great pipe organs without thinking of the devotion of Mom, Sunday after Sunday, splendidly playing the two-console Casavant organ in Valleyfield and thank her for the forty or so years of piano lessons she gave to kids in Perth, in Valleyfield, and back in Perth again – myself included (though you’d hardly know it now).

There is a power greater than myself in photography and music – in anything creative.

“God” can be short-hand for many wonderful and meaningful ideas, although the baggage the word carries seems to go flying off in all directions sometimes.




1480669138058663828 Toronto

Frame edits 613

Peggy’s Cove


  Grant’s Creek (Tay River)

To: Bipolar Beat

Re: Which Came First – Substance Abuse or Bipolar Disorder?

I’m so happy to have come across this site, particularly this article, as I checked out different areas of my news reader.

I’ve been in and out of recovery (from alcohol abuse mostly) for about 20 years, now just two-and-a-quarter years sober again. Not too long before I got back to recovery in 2007 I was diagnosed with bipolar II. The description fit me perfectly, particularly as I went over a long list of incidents and periods of uncharacteristic behaviour during hypomanic periods. In fact the diagnosis of bipolar II was an ‘A-ha!’ moment for me and made so much sense of the preceding years and years when, at best, I was treated for episodes of depression only – leaving me to conclude that hypomanic periods were merely un-depressed.

Having seen others in recovery roll their eyes when they’ve heard about members speak of being bipolar I have been careful about choosing who I talk to about it, other than my psychiatrist.

I cannot deny that my symptoms have improved since getting sober again, but they have not been completely eliminated despite faithfully taking my prescribed medications. (This does not surprise my p.doc. who assures me that substance abuse, and recovery from it, and bipolar disorder(s) can and do occur at the same time.)

So my doc is more than okay with me being both in recovery and bipolar. So am I. It’s mainly, it seems to me, some untrained minds who are prejudiced about psychiatric care and diagnoses of different kinds over and above substance abuse.