Sunday, May 8, 2016

Is honesty confession?


Another Mental Health Awareness Week has passed and with it, my ritual of following hashtags and feeling alternately courageous, sad and cynical. It’s voyeuristic, seeing how strangers share, deal and suffer in experiences I hide from my closest friends. This is Twitter, mind you, so I expect a layer of artifice – the self diagnoses and aimless chest-beating. But there’s also honesty, something I’ve been embracing on an unprecedented scale of late. And with honesty comes hope.

I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder in 2004 and put on medication. I was elated, and it wasn’t just Paxil turning furniture over in my brain. A puzzle piece had been uncovered, one that made sense of my avoidance issues and fainting spells. Even unrelated vices felt validated and for a brief, honeymoon phase, I leaned on that. I’ve since had other doctors in other cities, other drugs and other diagnoses. And eventually the cycle has ushered in a new awareness, one I still grapple to understand: that I’ll probably be like this forever.

Living with anxiety is like living with irreversible shame, the sort nobody can guilt you into. It’s innate and fully capable of puppeteering you from the inside, transforming self-doubt into a panic you cannot explain. If shame is, as Wiki states, “comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards”, then anxiety is watching your standards unravel from a detached and horrified perspective. You have no agency to stop the collapse because you’re too busy embodying it. (This makes conversations difficult. Getting past my fight-or-flight warnings in order to understand the intent and meaning of what people are saying to me often takes enormous focus.) 

I’ve written and shelved several essays about anxiety over the years. But it wasn’t until the subject emerged in conversation with my wife – and I opened up about the distressing things I negotiate with everyday – that the scope of my condition became clear. She didn’t know just how easily and often my anxiety is triggered. And as her indifference to common scenarios contrasted my struggle, I realized I didn’t understand the extent of it either.

Questions I had in 2004 began to percolate again: what long-term effects will this bear on my physical and mental health? How will I take on greater responsibilities, like children or a challenging career? And from this moment of clarity, a new question: how long can I persist like this, defiantly drug-free and vulnerable?

Over time, the perceived permanence of a disorder gives way to a conditioned denial – not “I don’t have anxiety” but a subtler “I’ve got it under control if I manage to avoid A, B and maybe C through L”. It’s a common way of dismissing anxiety – essentially absorbing society’s “suck it up” mantra – but also a well-worn path to substance abuse, nervous breakdowns, and suicidal thoughts. This sentence is one long battle to finish but I’ve struggled with the lot.

Alcohol gave me the agency to get through thousands of social engagements but by 2009 had developed into a full-blown dependency. I quit my job without a safely net and gained forty pounds drinking cheap, 1.5 litre bottles of wine, five nights a week, while my girlfriend worked nightshifts. I couldn’t sleep without it. I stopped writing poetry. I excused these changes as unavoidable symptoms of ‘getting older’, that they had nothing to do with drinking. That fall I’d leave the apartment on average of once a day – a five-minute walk to Wine Rack.

The longer you socialize as a drunk, the harder it becomes to do so as an anxious, sober person. I wish I’d known or cared about that. Nothing – not music, literature or the companionship of a true friend – takes the edge off of anxiety like a drink. An abrupt change of scenery, from Toronto to Ottawa, helped me break habit, scale back and find a healthy balance. But that process took another year, and eventually instilled in me a humble if complicated code for determining when I’ll allow myself a drink, when I won’t, and why.

In the absence of using alcohol as a temporary fix, I’ve experienced lows that are honest and raw. I’ve struck myself, exhaustedly wanted to cease living, quit everything. But in my worst spirals of anxiety and depression, I’ve wished myself real harm – not death, but something destructive enough that might preclude me from maintaining the charade any longer. An outward gesture of my inner reality, cutting through the studied normalcy we all fumble to present. I’d still have the same chemical imbalance but be free of the constant tension of pretending I don’t.

Sickened by these occasional thoughts of violence, my shame perpetuates the spiral. After all, who else can I blame when I hurt myself? The perfect storm is only one minor problem away – maybe a social faux pas no one else even noticed – and each worry incites the next. If I’m in public, I shift, sweat and feel like I’m suffocating. If I’m alone, I dwell, panic, give up and, if I’m lucky, cry.

Because I am lucky. Most of the time I at least orbit my standards, which include working a full-time job, being an attentive husband and friend, publishing when the literary gods are in my favour (or, when I actually get around to submitting) and enjoying a handful of passions. I meditate, practice mindfulness and surround myself with people and books that promote my innermost values: non-attachment, compassion, peace.

Yet I don’t tell anyone why I never drive a car, why I’ve passively unloaded a handful of good friends, or why I bail on many opportunities for growth. Because I just can’t handle it. I don’t think anyone who struggles with mental health on a daily basis wants to blame their condition explicitly. And of course that’s stigma.

Why not call a spade a spade? For one thing, everyone’s expertise in run-of-the-mill, situational pressures helps some feel qualified to judge anxiety disorders as, say, little more than an oversensitivity capitalized upon by big-business pharmaceuticals. (Incidentally, many of the same people conclude as much about modern, physical ailments like celiac disease. If I can eat a Pad Thai without problems, everyone can.)

Even compassionate people have trouble addressing the issue. The first time I tried having an honest conversation about my anxiety with people I trust, the subject was literally laughed out of the room. I was told “it runs in the family” and not to worry about it. Did I mention the cold-sweat-and-pounding-heart combo that had me fearing for my sanity and sometimes passing out? I don’t think there was time. My family had rushed to reassure me, which was sweet. But the act itself was drenched in stigma.

In spite of public misperceptions, I’d reckon the more harrowing judgement comes from within. For my part, I’d rather wield self-deprecating humour than confess to real limitations that – intangible as they are – end up sounding like excuses. And that might be the most isolating effect of our cultural response to mental health issues: that sufferers are so lonesome in their struggle, even they suspect they’re making excuses. Many of these people already feel worthless; living in a society that shrugs off their chronic mental health issues only pushes them further toward the abyss.

This essay may represent my rebuke of that social malaise, as well as a growing acceptance toward myself, but it has been a challenge to write. I want to call attention but not the wrong kind of attention. I want to share and restrict some of the same details. I worry I’ll be seen as weak and self-interested, or that I’ll ruin someone’s good vibes. 

I’m also wary of being wooed into a deeper relationship with my condition. On social media, anxiety and depression can resemble exotic accessories for one’s individuality when, in truth, they are two of the most common illnesses in North America. How do we validate these mood disorders if we cannot discuss them outside of semi-annual initiatives? And how can we move forward with our lives without wearing these conditions as badges or credentials?

I guess we start with ourselves. We read Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell. We consult with the likes of the Buddha, Jesus, Baha’u’llah and Moses. We take up yoga, meditation, therapy and exercise. We become salts of the earth. And we convince ourselves that honesty isn’t, by its nature, a confession – that good people (or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, our “karass”) will accept us.

But first, we get fed up with playing the victim. I’ve spent too many of the past twelve years blaming myself for conditions that I would’ve loved to overcome. And it wasn’t laziness or self-absorption that kept me in stasis, but rather dishonesty with myself – about my dubious coping strategies and being too proud to accept help. Looking back now, I’ve spent most of my life totally unaware that I was breathing.

Everyone is going through something, whether personally or by proxy. If I considered this story mine alone, I wouldn’t have published it. But I’m confident that each of us knows at least five people who have strikingly similar journeys, from self-medicating and self-harm to denial and isolation. Most of the people I encounter tomorrow won’t read this little essay, but my writing it still feels like a way of opening myself to the greater world. I’m happy to be here.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Some news until there is news (+ #NPM16!!)

View to an abyss
I didn’t plan to go silent on this blog for three months; it was more like an agreement that firmed up over time. Shortly after the new year, I was invited to work on something new and decided to commit myself to it. No writing on the side, no reviewing. January and February became a blur of cafes and blinking cursors. 

Once March crested and the project (which I’ll detail soon enough) needed less of me, I realized I wasn’t through with this whole non-doing thing. So instead of wincing at a to-do list of my own making, I’ve continued basking in one thing at a time – oftentimes undermining our collective assumption of what being productive means. Being still is productive, and perhaps a healthier activity than scouring Twitter feeds. Less distraction = less mental clutter?

If this equation holds true, it should benefit a new project in time for National Poetry Month: a practice of writing minimal poems, one for each day in April. Unlike last year’s erasure series, The sulk crow cull, I won’t be posting these online but instead compiling drafts with the month as a disciplinary metric. After all, I don't want to confuse non-doing with actually doing nothing.

So while I'm pretty much minding my own business this NPM, friends and colleagues are having all kinds of fun via the following links: 

Amanda Earl's Angel House Press is once again curating NationalPoetryMonth.ca. We've already been treated to work by Gary Barwin and Jason Christie, and the next twenty-eight days promises material from poets representing no fewer than twelve different countries. 

The League of Canadian Poets and the Academy of American Poets have assembled to celebrate Poem In Your Pocket Day. Besides featuring poems by Canadian and American writers, the initiative encourages people to select a poem, carry and share it throughout the day of April 21. Follow the link for lots of ways to get involved.

Although not formally connected to #NPM16, rob mclennan has unearthed and compiled a massive backlist spanning twenty years of above/ground press poetry. Lots of nearly unavailable chapbooks to collect; get your fill via the link.

Finally, there's nowhere better to celebrate poetry than at Hamilton, Ontario's very own gritLIT 2016. Lots of workshops, lectures and readings to behold, beginning today (Sunday, April 3) with Lit Live Reading Series, featuring Jon Chan Simpson, Lydia Perovic, Janet Turpin Myers, Daniel Scott Tysdal, Duana Taha and Brent van Staalduinen. Not to be missed!

I'm sure there are countless other festivities happening at #NPM16 and beyond.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Favourite Poetry of 2015

Gore Park, 6am. #hamont

Here are the ten best books I read this year, selected from 2014-2015 releases and organized alphabetically by author. For each book or chapbook I’ve included either a micro-review, a blurb or, in rare cases, an excuse about why I did not write more. Read on!

You’ll notice several of these selections hail from Ottawa, and all of them are Canadian. (The roots of my literary gaze on full display.) A big thank you to the authors and publishers responsible. 

All the best in 2016!