Archive for January, 2021

I love whales. I love whales almost as much as I love icebergs. Both are things you don’t see often, if you live in Northern Ontario. Two springs ago, when I was in Newfoundland launching my last book of poems, These Wings, I saw icebergs for the first time in my life. It was a VERY. BIG. DEAL. I wept because it was the first time in my life that I felt very, very small, in the face of the beauty of the natural world. The Atlantic Ocean does that to me. If you put me next to the Atlantic Ocean, I’m a different woman. I’m already naturally tempestuous inside, as a poet, but being next to the Atlantic (either in Newfoundland or in Ireland), I’m a sort of walk-between-worlds kind of woman.  

One day after I arrived in St. John’s in May 2018, I went out on the ocean with my friend Monica Kidd, a writer and physician, on a boat tour of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. (That it’s a boat tour company that’s owned by The O’Briens of Irish Descendants fame also put me over the edge that day, but that’s a whole other story. The Irish Canadians who sing and dance at ceilis will understand my excitement. That’s all that matters here.) Mon knows I love puffins, so she knew I’d see them. Before she was a doctor, she was a CBC reporter and a marine biologist, so she knows her puffins. We parked the car in the lot at Bay Bulls, paid the tickets, and went on the boat tour. 

There weren’t any whales in May 2018 for me. The Universe had other plans. I reconnected with my puffins, at Witless Bay and in Elliston, but that trip east was all about icebergs instead. Why? I find them fascinating. I’m no fancy, super smart scientist. I failed science. Well, maybe not failed, but I did blow up a beaker over a Bunsen burner in one class. Mrs. Way once nearly got hit by a rubber stopper from a beaker because I overheated my beaker over a burner flame and the thing shot off and hit the chalkboard right next to her. I was in the first row of lab tables. I’ll never forget her turning around with a look of surprise on her face. She had a poet in the class. Poor woman. 

I love whales, the ones I’ve never seen but still know that exist, because I believe in them, even if I don’t see them. In many cultures, they are sacred. In terms of cosmogenic symbolism, whales are in a number of ancient sacred texts and are embedded in the stories of cultures around the world. Often, the whale-spirit is the one that helps to carry souls from place to place, from here to there, from this life to the next. The whale is also associated with compassion and solitude, having knowledge of both life and death. They are also associated with creativity, with how it sort of bursts out of creative people with the force of water being blown out of a blowhole. Yup. Know that one. Besides all of this, though, whales intrigue me because they’re ‘underneath.’ People who’ve read my work, in all genres, will know I am fascinated by what is projected on the surface of things (often illusion) and the underlying truths of the ‘underneath.’ Perhaps that is why I love the notion of whales. The same can be said of icebergs. Only a very small bit of an iceberg is above the surface. It can be massive, an iceberg, and my laptop’s screen saver is of an iceberg that calved in front of me that day in Witless Bay. The captain of the boat heard a rumble, turned the boat to go towards a nearby berg, and then we watched as—before our eyes—the iceberg calved. You haven’t lived, I don’t think, until you’ve seen an iceberg calve. The result is a new sort of iceberg, one that’s been broken and has a new form, with pieces of itself left on the surface of the sea. After the rumble, after the rush of ice, I kept thinking about what’s left behind after the destruction and reshaping…

How is this blog about mental health, then? If you’ve read this far, you should receive a treat or something. It’s about to get less poetic and a little bit more rough watered. Tempestuous? Maybe, if you don’t like hearing the perspective of someone who nearly killed herself back in 2008. Woah. That’s a sentence that holds its intensity like a bomb, eh? I don’t think I’ve ever written that down so blatantly before, but I’ve calved, like an iceberg, and I’ve changed form. There’s some scientific equation for this, but I don’t remember it…

I have a problem with Bell Let’s Talk Day. I avoid social media. I might post something, but I won’t look around. I’ve learned that looking around on social media just triggers me. I want to yell out “No! You can’t know!” to the people at the big institutions (like companies, like politicians and city halls, like universities and colleges, like hospitals, like churches, like school boards) and famous people and Instagram Influencers and those who Tweet out their “Reach out and chat with us. Here’s the EAP phone number! Here’s the Student Support Line! Here’s the person in HR who will save you and keep you working, even if you’re barely holding yourself together at work!” I want to shout out at the hypocrisy of it all, even knowing that on this particular day, my voice won’t be heard, and may be ignored or cast off. I know that my voice, that of a mental health survivor, won’t matter as much as the social and political optics that make OTHER people feel better. It doesn’t make this survivor feel better. I won’t say that I speak for all mental health survivors, because I know I don’t. To be that self-centred would make me throw up in my own mouth. What bothers me is the scope of how corporate branding and marketing has swept through mental health awareness in Canada over the last decade. Yes, it’s raised awareness, but I honestly believe it’s also done damage to those who have suffered and survived, and to those who now suffer and struggle desperately to survive. 

When I was at my sickest, in December 2008, I had been caring for my mother for about eight months. She was bed ridden in our home, with a transmetatarsal amputation of her right foot. I cooked for her, emptied her commode, bathed her (badly, I’m sure she thought) in the walk-in tub that my father had installed after she had her amputation, and changed her bed when she was sick. I lived with them, and she was completely dependent upon me for all care. My father had health issues, so he was not physically well enough to lift her, from bed to commode and back. I did that. I shouldn’t have, but I did. The nurse would visit twice a day to debride her foot, and my dad would sit and hold her hand during those very dark days before she was admitted to hospital in mid-December. As the two people who lived with her as she went through the last year of her life, we did our best, and my sister helped from the outside in, advocating for her when I was too weak to manage in April of that year. Stacy was the one who gave the doctors at Memorial shit one morning when we were there with Mum for her debriding. Her ankle didn’t have a pulse. (Did you know that doctors check your pulse there, when you have gangrene? I didn’t. I learned a lot about gangrene and debriding that year. Ask me. I know a lot about gangrene and amputation. I still do.) When the doctor tipped up Mum’s foot, you could see the blood rush one way, and then her leg whitened to a colour I’ll never forget. The blood wasn’t circulating properly. Thing is, with gangrene, there’s a place where it starts to climb up your leg, like a tide mark, and then the end is near. There’s an actual fucking line that you can watch climb the leg of someone you love. It’s something I won’t forget until the day I die, I don’t think. That was the morning that they decided to amputate part of her foot, in April of 2008. At the time, I was in the thick of major depressive disorder, one that my psychiatrist referred to as ‘situational depression.’ 

At the end of a long day of cleaning, cooking, and being off work from teaching with depression from January 2008 onwards, I would take the dogs out for walks. It was the only time I could get out. I usually timed it with the evening nurse’s visit. You wouldn’t think that a walk with dogs would be suicidal. It was. It nearly was. We lived in Minnow Lake, and Bancroft Drive is a fast road. It’s a fast road. The cars speed through at breakneck speed. They don’t care. They never have. They likely still don’t. In the 1970s, when I was growing up, we’d cross that road to go to the Crossan house, where Frances and Sheena lived. The four of us were explorers. Even then, the road was too fast. It wasn’t a suburb. It was a thoroughfare. So, at least once a day, I would walk the dogs. I would cross Bancroft and walk Gull and Sable for an hour. Down to Minnow Lake, past the weird fountain, past the little red brick church where—in Grade 3 or 4—I thought Jesus was actually going to come and talk to me in the confession booth during First Confession and tell me that I was a BIG sinner. (At that point, I thought it would either be Jesus, or God in a robe, or maybe Jesus-in-the-shape-of-a-lamb because I had a big imagination as a little girl). 

So, at least once a day, I would stand there at the curb, a dog leash in each hand, and think about stepping in front of a really big truck. I would watch for them. Every. Single. Day. For most of those five months after Mum came home from her amputation surgery. The only thing that stopped me from doing this, every single day, was having the dogs, and the notion that—if I erased myself physically—the dogs would die, and my parents would not have the care they needed. And they wouldn’t have because home care sucks, and it still does now, even thirteen years later. And because our society disregards the elderly as if they are to be cast off. One need only look to the demographics of deaths in this pandemic to see that that is true. Numbers and numbers and numbers…and so many of them in Long Term Care homes. Numbers are actually people, though, so I wonder how many of us remember that when we complain of what we must do now, to think less of ourselves and more of others we won’t even have met. 

I can’t stand to hear people complain about what’s happening with lockdowns when I know how many elderly people have died. We wouldn’t be here, in our cities and towns, without their hard work. Someday soon, too, we will also be in nursing homes, whether we want to believe that or not. This is not an ‘eternally young and sexy’ lifetime, despite the numbers of people who will sculpt their bodies with plastic surgery and excessive exercise. All of that will fade. All of that surface and superficial stuff…is irrelevant. Enjoy the illusion while you have it. It’s a comforting one, maybe…but it’s illusory. 

Other suicidal ideations came, too. I took long drives out to the highways, became fixated on rock cuts and waterways. Figured I could become Ophelia or pancake myself against hard rock. These were the notions. This is what suicidal ideation is about. It is not poetic. It is not fucking pretty. Not in the least bit. 

What bothers me most about corporate branding and marketing—for people and companies—is how fake it all seems. A playwright I follow on Twitter, Rona Altrows, said it best yesterday in a Tweet: “I wish this mental-health-day thing did not seem so commercial rah-rah Bell to me. Celebrity driven and somehow superficial for those of us who have truly suffered.” Yes. That. Let’s talk about that. Instead. Let’s not post rah-rah videos once a year. Let’s not post “Reach out to me if you need help” because most people who suffer will not be able to reach out when they are in the depths of despair. Stigma presses down too heavily.

So. The institutions that so easily speak up on such a day are the very ones that continue to propogate stigma in small, quiet ways. Try, if you’re a survivor of mental health issues, to move forward or ‘up’ in your company after you’ve taken time off on a sick leave. Try. Good luck to you. You can take all of the courses you want. You can have been discharged from care of a psychiatrist. You can have a vibrant and full life, but you will still be black balled. People will say ‘no, no, of course not’ but there will always be a shadow hovering behind you. Too, you will find it in your own group of acquaintances. When you’ve been sick, and when you’ve come out and reshaped yourself as a different person, you’ll lose people. They disappear. It’s from no fault of your own, and it’s from no fault of theirs. People grow. People change. They drift apart…like waves out on Witless Bay…that never come together. 

When I was discharged by my psychiatrist in April 2016, I sat in his tiny office, after eight years of regular visits, and he said to me: “Kim, it will not be easy. You will lose people. You will say ‘no’ when you have always said ‘yes’ and people will say ‘Oh, she’s unwell again…’ but you won’t be…and you must remember this.” He was right. People have disappeared, or drifted, and it’s not that it’s anyone’s fault. Life is full of ebbs and flows. Some people would rather a constant in a friend or lover. I’m not that. I’m a sea inside. That notion of constancy is an illusion, too, because why would you want to be the same person forever? Why would you not want to grow and change as a person, even if it means leaving others to walk a different path in life for a while, or forever? Things aren’t meant to last forever…

My psychiatrist was right. That last day, I remember saying to him, with tears in my eyes: “I don’t know how to do this now.” I remember him nodding. “Remember when you couldn’t look at me? You only looked to the floor? You were very, very ill. You are not now. There will be times, going forward, where you will speak your truth—as your new self—or you will speak about your feelings or emotions—in this new healthier person—and people will think ‘Ah, she is ill, she is fragile, she is unstable’ but you will not be. You will hit your difficult month of December, when everything is darker because of loss, and you will lose people every so often because they will not understand its weight on your heart. That’s okay. You will be well. It will be hard. And, those people who go…maybe they aren’t meant to walk with you for long anyway.” 

Here’s what I don’t like, as a survivor: I don’t like people who call me ‘fragile’ or ‘unstable’ or ‘weak.’ I’m the exact opposite. I’m strong. I’m a survivor. I’m still here. Here’s what I don’t like: I don’t like people who have never almost killed themselves creating a message that is made corporate and all Instagram-branded bullshit. Here’s what I don’t like: I don’t like large institutions saying they support mental health because they have an EAP number posted up in a staff lunchroom or bathroom. I don’t like celebrity testimonials, on the Internet, or on posters around a workplace. Because, you see, when you’re in the thick of it, people disappear…because they don’t understand the intensity of it all, and then you might think you are ‘less than’ because you can’t reach out. For those who struggle now, still, that’s a damning thing. It’s like a struggling swimmer seeing people leaning out of boats, their hands extended, offering trite words like “Reach out. Speak to me. I’m here” when they really aren’t…when the chips are down. It just isn’t that easy, you see. It just isn’t.    

I likely ought not to post this today, but I will because I have to. If you don’t agree, that’s fine. I’d rather not argue. Until you’ve been inside a body where you can’t handle being inside that body because of what storms inside your mind, at your sickest, then you likely won’t understand…and to be honest, I’m glad for you if that’s the case. I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy. You can have someone you love–a mother, brother, sister, father, aunt, lover–be struggling with mental health, and you can know that they suffer, and that it will and likely does affect you in a ripple effect kind of way, but if you think about that pain that you know, as a bystander, as a witness, you need to consider tripling that for the person who is walking through it.

Let’s Talk Day does work for raising awareness. I’ll give it that. But…I have so many worries about its overall glossy look. It really isn’t that glossy when you’re in the pit of despair. I worry for those who have suffered deeply, because it can be triggering to see it all on this day once a year, and maybe you won’t understand this if you haven’t suffered, and that’s okay too. It might make other people feel better, but I’m guessing there are more people like me out there…the ones who dread it every year because it seems to offer a ‘fix all’ solution…when it really can’t. I may be in a minority, but I don’t think so. I think a lot of us don’t speak up, for fear of the stigma, and for fear of using our voices when our history with mental illness has taught us that safety lies in silence. I don’t know. It will be different for each person.

My friend Robyn Scott lives in Yellowknife. I met her when I was a featured author at the Northwords Literary Festival in May 2018. She’s a teacher and a writer and an artist. She’s a triple threat. She’s also just a really amazing person. She’s begun a series of ‘balloon animals’ and I bought one that arrived in the mail last week. It’s the image that accompanies this blog entry. It’s a whale, lifted up by a balloon. That’s how I feel. What’s within and what I carry can be heavy, my past history with major depressive disorder, but it’s also everything that makes me a healthier me now: it’s a rough past with mental health issues, and it’s a deep reserve and well of creativity and wonder, and a deep passion for living spontaneously and with intense curiosity. And it’s a gathering of life experiences–at 50 now!–that make me a dynamic and interesting woman. I’m cool with all of this. I’m proud of all of this. It’s why I do public work on advocating for art, writing, and mental health.

I’m a whale, and I’m an iceberg. And I’m a poem and a painting. That’s what makes me interesting as a human, I think.

I’m still here. And that’s a miracle…and a celebration…and a lesson in living for me. Each day is a gift, no matter who is walking with me, and no matter who has disappeared…because I’m still here. And I’m not fragile, so don’t ever say that word around me.

And I’m not going anywhere anytime soon…and that’s a promise…or a threat… 🙂

peace, friends.


p.s. if you like Robyn’s whale, you can order prints of various balloon animals on her website and look under ‘Whimsy.’ There are links there to her social media feeds. You should follow her on Instagram, too. 🙂


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