My story for World Mental Health Day

The first time I said “I am mentally ill,” I had a good cry in my psychiatrist’s office. I desperately did not want to cope with the stigma of having my brain make me sick. I had a good understanding of physical illness, fractures, etc., and the stuff of the body was acceptable because it was visible and because it wasn’t my fault. It was my body’s fault, an unreliable instrument at the best of times. But mental illness was my fault because my I-ness, my being, was head quartered. Whether it was my genes, biology, or environment, it was all me. I was making myself sick, I was weak.  I was lacking any kind of manly resiliency, losing.

I was first diagnosed when I was 19, in 1974. But I refused treatment because it wasn’t cool, while self-medicating was. So I was eccentric, depressed, had a mood disorder (a term that always smells of adolescence to me), or was disordering my senses because that’s what writers did. I read my Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Genet, Bataille, Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell, and especially John Berryman who pitched himself off a Minneapolis bridge in the winter of 1972. I called my mental illness absolutely anything and everything else, especially if it sounded romantic. Hell, treatment might dampen my creative spirit.

I did finally seek treatment in 1984 after my first son was born, picking Dr. Harinath, psychiatrist, out of the Yellow Pages and referring myself. I got an appointment, and after 15 minutes a prescription which made me psychotic by the weekend. Fortunately with the help of family and friends I got to see Dr. Cebrian-Perez at the Regina Mental Health Centre. He was amazing, and one way or another I have been in treatment ever since.

I missed very little work until I lost my job at the Manitoba Arts Council in 1997. I had cried at a staff meeting before going on sick leave. I was ashamed of my weakness, and the staff and Board were embarrassed. I accepted the stigma, without feeling anything like Jesus. I accepted being fired because I rationalized to myself that I would probably do the same in their shoes.

I went to ground at home in Wolseley, in treatment with Dr. William Fleischer at the St. Boniface Hospital, another amazing psych who saw me through my worst depressive episode, my fourth, and realizing this was now a chronic condition (see the 2009 fall issue of Transition at the CMHA-SK site for all the gory details).  In session I talked about childhood neglect, molestation, being bullied and other trauma in talk therapy while looking for the right combination of pharmaceuticals to do some of the heavy lifting.

Eventually I was referred to Dr. Murray Enns (no relation) who, following intensive surveys and a couple of sessions, came up with a list of four med cocktails we went through in order. The third on the list worked and in 1999 I started Rhubarb magazine with my brother, and in 2000 was back at work in what I sensitively thought was a largely skeptical arts community, many of my peers still of the generation when what happened to me was known as a nervous breakdown, and anyone taking anti-depressants was not fit to lead. Being mad was often considered the normal condition for individual artists and often mythtakenly seen as an aid to creativity, but definitely a distinct handicap for arts managers.

This year, finally, bolstered by the courage of the Provincial Auditor to talk about his own mental illness, I decided not to hide my invisible handicap any longer. I had stigmatized my own illness and my being long enough.  I had the support of Ted Dyck, a mentor and fellow writer and editor (of Transition among other things) in Saskatchewan with whom I reconnected on his return to Saskatchewan.

My third wife was not completely convinced, aware of the danger I could put myself in at work, and concerned other people misunderstand me, because there is still so much education to be done. However, since 2000 I have again been productive and successful, working full-time,  getting remarried, and having two books of poetry published. I’m tempted to put up my “long resume” to help people understand that it is possible for someone with mental illness, such as depression, for example to do a lot of good work, and I have been working hard since I was 17.

I self identified to the HR department at work, and to my boss, and last spring to my colleagues at a staff meeting during Mental Health Week. I cried again, but was no longer ashamed. I still have my job, and the support of my colleagues. I have just filed $300 drug claim for the last month, and glad to have a benefit plan that will get most of that back to me. In addition to the medications (see M in Vicipedia) I take for chronic depression, I’m taking medication for pain caused by osteoarthritis. While my mental and emotional health is getting stronger, my body has reminded me it has a mind of its own. I am having foot reconstruction surgery in January and a hip replacement in May or June. But that’s another story.

Going public on my website isn’t a big step beyond what I’ve already got up here. It’s been prompted by a visit to the new CMHA – Winnipeg Regional office on Portage Avenue in the old CJOB building. I visited this week to understand the differences between the provincial and regional branches and see what potential there might be for volunteering.

I was hoping to get involved in a support group or offering peer counselling to men in white collar jobs (I know diddley about any other kind, though my GWL counsellor, before the company cut my disability payments, suggested I consider long-distance trucking or landscape gardening as alternatives). You see the stigma is really pretty heavily stacked against knowledge workers, because, well, knowledge is in your head and if your head is sick, well wouldn’t you rather plant a garden? With all due respect to Pat Lane, Brian Brett, my father, and my wife — no. I understand the mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity, but until I can actually move again that will have to wait. Pardon the digression, this is already too long, and I’m not finished.

The response of the CMHA was a little guarded, and fair enough. I did volunteer to work on their creative arts magazine Kaleidoscope and look forward to that. The gap I’ve identified and hope to play a part in as a volunteer, not surprisingly, is to provide collegial support to people like me. I have signed up for the “Telling My Story” workshop so I can speak at appropriate occasions on request. I can speak to young people, and others as well, though I think I’ll stay away from churches (see my piece in Transition if you want to know why).

I don’t want to be counsellor, work in an Employee Assistance Program capacity, become a psychologist or any other mental health professional. I would just like to serve as a resource to support male knowledge workers in their workplace and share my experiences in relationships with supervisors, peers, insurance companies, while stressing the importance of trying to stay on the job as long as absolutely possible unless the job itself is making you sick, and when that fails what to do if you need to sue for your disability benefits or how to go about getting back to work as part of your recovery.

I am also very interested in the therapeutic benefits of writing and other art practises, without any collar colour concerns, and there are a number of options out in our community and examples in other provinces, but there does not seem to be much of a support system for men living with mental illness working at office jobs in the downtown for example, where I work. Most are still wearing masks or drinking too much at lunchtime and hiding out in their offices hoping nobody notices they have been crying. Ah yes, but while we may be the hollow men, we are the entitled, the privileged, possibly well-paid, possibly with access to Employee Assistance programs, and comfortable with personal advocacy for benefits of the health system, and we have our masks, our office appropriate clothing we hope will protect us; why do we deserve care and attention when there are so many so much worse off than we are?

I understand triage, and the massive costs of health care, but I am not looking for a staffed program, money of any kind, sympathy or pity. What I want to do is meet other men with personal lived experience of mental illness, and those terrified perhaps after a first diagnosis, those trying hard to keep their jobs without embarrassment or shame, and offer mutual support. I would be happy to hear from men working downtown who just want to talk, or have questions about coping strategies in the office while I look for a way to add this into the mental health support mix in Winnipeg. I can be reached by email only [email protected]. There is room at the end of the post for comments, which, after my approval, can be posted anonymously for anybody wanting to start a conversation.

NOTE: My posts are often much longer than any current wisdom would suggest appropriate for a blog or website. There is new research suggesting that wonderful tag “more” is actually read as “stop” by most web readers. I do not leave a long post up for more than a couple of days before going that route, but when it’s first up, I like to see the whole thing, and hope I can carry you through to the end, and if not that you come back on another day.

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