Stubbornly reading through a breakdown

With sincere apologies to David Mitchell, I have been reading myself through the crest and early weeks of the fall of a mental health crisis with his novel The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Probably not fair to him or me. I am not a speed reader but I can7141642 generally manage 4-5 books a month. I embarked on this voyage with the Guardian Reading Group in early June and finally closed the last page today.

I know that reviews were mixed when this book was published in 2010 but I would not suggest this as a companion for a manic episode. It was not bad or entirely uninteresting (though I confess I preferred the graphic turn of the 18th century medically graphic scenes, shades of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin novels where you have to wonder how anyone survived the surgical interventions, let alone the nautical warfare). Although the era and setting of this historical – and for Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame –  remarkably straighforward tale I think it could have been much more coherent and tightly paced.

I think that I stuck to this book more as a testament to myself that I could pull myself through this period of turmoil which has left me depressed, angry and confused as I sit on sick leave and wonder if my career is in shambles. I was afraid that if I stopped reading, even with the idea that I might return at a later date, I would be giving in to the mass of tangled emotions that my breakdown has left me struggling with. Some level of normalcy has to be maintained and, at this time it has meant reading.

So where now? Something shorter, something magical I should think.

Reining in the manic mind

Manic thinking is big thinking. Massive. As mania progresses it becomes impossible not to become overwhelmed by the hugeness of the circumstances you perceive them. It is not unusual to feel caught up in the frantic spin of galaxies, astronomical or closer to home. Thinking is logical but as speeds ramp up, your judgements and interpretations can slide off the rails. The first time I was seriously ill, back in my 30s, I am sure there were some very grounded personal and even hormonal factors at play but, in the spectacular end I was experiencing definite delusions.

They say you mercifully forget those moments of rambling, crazed phone calls, strange behaviours. The kids crying in their rooms. The morning the ambulance finally arrives. I have not been blessed by such amnesiac elements.

With my recent breakdown, the stressors building to the moment of collapse were situational, profound and prolonged. They built over months, a year maybe. Then the roller coaster crested and the decline came on rapidly. And I was the last to notice. My workplace had been through a period of turmoil but as we tried to move forward I became increasingly obsessed by the massiveness of the work that I felt needed to be done to pull the agency together and make up for years of underfunding and failure to plan for the future.

My anxieties may not have been entirely misplaced. But I could no longer stop and see the good, to measure the necessity to take one step at a time and realize that moving forward is a process, not an emergency. I was so consumed with the forest that I lost sight of the trees.

Rainy day solitudeAs I am beginning to heal I am aware that I am still prone to a significant measure of massive thinking but I am also starting to doubt myself. I find myself wondering if the entire nightmare was of my own making. I have to remember that I was not the only staff member to express serious concerns, and that everyonewas impacted by the stress. One co-worker has battled stomach ulcers, another who is never ill was laid low by the flu for weeks.

I almost lost my sanity.

Terrors, somewhere inside we all have them

I tend to think of myself as someone who treasures solitude, perhaps because my normal work world and home context, offer scant moments when I am ever truly alone. Now I suddenly find myself in a situation where I am recovering from a near breakdown, unable to travel far without being overcome by fatigue and vertigo and, so it seems, my work colleagues are under instruction to refrain from all contact with me.

Now if I was off work due to some tangible medical ailment, oh you know, a physical injury or illness or some other condition necessitating tests, scans and possible surgery, I would be able to expect calls, cards, hospital visits. Instead I am in a virtual isolation chamber. I have a mental illness and suddenly the years of highly productive contributions I have provided to my employers seem to have been rendered null and void. A crushing ball of loneliness to which I am entirely unaccustomed sits in the pit of my stomach. Would anyone even notice if I failed to return save for the mass of paper I left behind on my desk?

One might wonder how the workmates of the unnamed narrator of Seven Terrors made sense of his failure to return to the office when, after the dissolution of his marriage, he took to his bed and refused to emerge from the confines of his bedroom for nine long months. That is exactly where this dark gothic tale by the Bosnian author Selvedin Avdic begins.seventerrorsfrontcover_50acc7efa1d7c_250x800r

Long listed for the brilliant Impac Dublin Award for 2014, I read this book a few months back but I find its haunting mystery and curious endnotes continue to resonate with my present frame of mind. Translated by Coral Petkovich and published by Istros Books in 2012 (re-released in 2018 with an introduction by Nicholas Lezard), it is the sudden visit from the daughter of a former colleague that drags our apparent hero from his self imposed exile. She beseeches him to help her locate her father who has been missing for years and intrigued, perhaps more by the young lady than any curiousity about his friend’s fate, he agrees. Thus he embarks on a most dingy and disorienting detective adventure.

Set in 2005, the war in Bosnia a decade earlier is a constant presence throughout the book. Although few events are recounted directly; the memories, mythologies and  human losses linger in the bitter winter wind, seep through cracks in the plaster and creep across the floorboards. With a clear nod to Borges, Kafka and others this dark tale is an entirely contemporary fantasy. Yet as the investigations turn to the missing journalist’s interest in coal miners, Bosnian mythology begins to play a strange role and our narrator’s sanity (already questionable one might argue from his bedsit starting point) becomes increasingly  ungrounded; even as he tries to make sense of himself and the truth behind the dissolution of his marriage.

It is strange how magic, reality, fantasy and fact can mingle in literature – and for this purpose I am excluding fiction that fits explicitly into fantasy and horror genres where such mutability is a given – but capital “L” Literature, which being a bit of a bookish geek is my typical but not exclusive, terrain. Yet in real life, that life we are forced to venture into outside the covers of a book, there seems to be some caveat on TRUTH as if that was even an objective possibility. And what is crazy anyway? When I work with a survivor of brain injury I can sense the difference between psychosis and confabulation and the inability to lay down new episodic memories. But if, under exceptional professional stress, I became agitated, overworked and frustrated is my sanity at stake? I heard no voices, had no visions but I sure was moody and irritated.

I should think that my fictional Bosnian friend burying himself in his bedsheets for nine months was in worse shape than I but as a character he is a fascinating narrator to spend time with. Or so I thought. And obviously enough people agreed to nominate Seven Terrors for the Impac Dublin Award which draws its nominations from the selections of a wide range of international libraries.

As I agonize over my eventual return to the workplace following this recent breakdown I find myself returning to the most fascinating series of footnotes and endnotes that make this Bosnian novelist’s slim volume so extraordinary. Among those notes is an actual list of seven terrors and, for those of us who are inclined to anxiety, blank pages so that you can helpfully add some more of your own. I will leave you with his seventh:

7. Fear of loneliness and darkness
Better to write and describe it like this – fear of                                                           loneliness or darkness. It’s all the same, they both devour.

Turn on the light and read this book.

What lies ahead?

Along the forest trailI took this photo almost a month ago. This trail near my home runs up and down along a steep embankment above a major river running through the large modern city I call home. It exists as an oasis of mountain magic lingering east of the Rocky Mountains. Today I could not possibly negotiate my way over the ubiquitous tangles of roots that emerge without warning on such forested trails. Although my health improves every day, I am stunned by how devastating the process of recovering from the brink of a full manic break has been on my ability maintain any degree of physical equilibrium. At the worst I was toppling over at a moment’s notice and hobbling along after my 24 year-old son as if I was in my 80s or 90s. This morning I actually managed a 10 block walk to Starbucks on my own. I no longer lose my balance when I turn my head and could even stoop to photograph a few renegade alley flowers along the way. Maybe I will even make serious headway in the novel I was reading before I crashed a few weeks ago.

But the question then begins to take on a more critical long turn.

What lies ahead?

And is this a path I am prepared to commit to knowing that the dysfunctional elements that ultimately contributed to my break down are deeply embedded into the structure of the work environment that I am, at this time, expected to return?

If I hated my job, the answer would be simple. But for nine years I loved my work, looked forward to the challenge, cared deeply for the cause, the clients, my co-workers and community colleagues. However, sometimes hard work and achievements mean little if the last impression you leave is of someone who is over tired, over worked and processing at lightening speed. You are assumed to be crazy, not ill. And labels once granted still await even once you cross the bridge to recovery.

Roughed up ghost

I started this blog with the idea that it would be a medium for some idle musings, some reflections on some of the random topics that attract my attention. Maybe the odd book review when something really grabbed me and deserved a little verbal leg up.

Then, not even a month after my modest entry into the wold of blogging, life has inserted its own stubborn editorial prerogative. I have crashed, head on, into a brick wall.

JMS 2012

The wall you see here is a memorial remnant to mark the location where a major hospital that was deemed redundant was collapsed in a most spectacular implosion. The government orchestrated the event in a zest to balance the books with total disregard for the awkward fact that that people do get sick. I took this photograph two years ago simply as an artistic statement. Then last week I allowed an illness I have long lived with to bring me to the brink of hospitalization.

I have bipolar disorder. It’s not a secret and I rarely give it a second thought. Diagnosed after a most spectacular manic break in my mid-30s I responded well to medication and never looked back. To appreciate the genesis of this recent setback one has to look back a good year and a half. For nine years I have worked with small not-for-profit agency serving adults with brain injuries. I have loved my job. We help people accessing benefits, advocate for services, and adjust to the sudden impact that severe injury brings to the survivor and their families and friends.

But lately there had been something out of sorts. The Executive Director began forgetting to issue invoices and pay bills. His behaviour became increasingly erratic and unpredictable. As the senior management staff member my workload multiplied as I sought to cover his shortcomings and meanwhile, on behalf of the staff, I had to try to encourage the Board of Directors to issue at least some kind of thorough review. Instead they paid him out, congratulated themselves on a job well done and left it to myself and another key staff to fill in the gaps. With such an increasingly unmanageable forest of papers and emails threatening to bury me alive I brought work home and worked through the evenings and weekends. Sleep all but evaporated and soon I was, well, running on high octane. And not in a good way.

The realization that I was on the doorstop of mania was a shock when I discovered my empty pill case. I had been stable for 18 years. Under medical advice I have requested stress leave but it has become clear that the mental health stigma is alive and well. Of course it doesn’t help that as my mood escalated my behaviour began to appear increasingly bizarre. I can’t take that back, but such is the illness. Consequently I have been referred to as unstable, unreliable, incompetent. It is unlikely that a return will be feasible.

As the longest serving staff member, my heart and soul were bound to the vision of this agency. At this moment, my ghost is not only roughed up, but fractured. And I am not even a strong believer in a soul but there is some soul-shaped hole in my heart right now.

Will mental illness ever be understood as an illness of the body like any other?

 

Uncovering a treasure in translation – Ondjaki

“Is that what tales from before were like a long time ago?”
“Yes, son.”
“So before is a time Granma?”
“Before is place.”
“A place really far away?”
“A place really deep inside.”
-Ondjaki

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the young Angolan author Ondjaki. This exuberant, magical tale re-imagines a dramatic event set in the community of Bishop’s Beach in the city of Luanda in the early years of Angolan Independence. The country’s first President, Agostinho Neto, has died and a curious, threatening project is rising on the beach. The Soviets are constructing a Mausoleum to the deceased President and, it is rumoured, the surrounding neighbourhood is scheduled to be demolished.

indexOur unnamed narrator is a young boy who lives with his grandmother in a community where a cluster of eccentric granmas are important and valued elders. Together with his friends Pi (known as 3.14) and Charlita, he embarks on a mission to save the day drawing on a worldview informed by spy movies, Spaghetti Westerns and Portuguese language soap operas. A colourful cast of supporting adults round out their adventure including Comrade Gas Jockey who mans a station with no fuel, crazy Sea Foam who is rumoured to have a pet alligator, the Cuban doctor Rafael KnockKnock and a Soviet official christened Gudafterov by the children as a result of his awkward use of the local language.

I learned of this book through the CBC radio program Ideas. In this extended interview, recorded live at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal this spring, Ondjaki spoke of his childhood from which so much of this fantastic tale is derived. He insisted that in his early years, the socialist presence was simply a fact of life – they had a lack of electricity and running water – but it was normal and his childhood was happy. He talked with infectious enthusiasm about his family, his very early introduction to literature and fondness for Marquez, and the deeply ingrained understanding of the magical in the reality of everyday life in cultural mindset of his homeland. Within the week I had obtained and read the book. The tale was every bit as engaging and entertaining as I had expected.

But the greatest find for me personally is the small Canadian publishing house Biblioasis behind Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. This book belongs to their small and select series of books in translation. Although he is recognized as one of the rising stars of African literature, Ondjaki’s work is not widely available in English to date. Biblioasis has published two of his novels, both translated by Stephen Henighan. I am very impressed by the results. A work like this depends so heavily on playing with language. Puns and intentional misrepresentations that work in Portuguese have to be re-imagined to work well in English and fortunately the translator was able to work closely with the author to bring the work to life with all its magical energy intact. As a Canadian I am embarrassed that I am only just discovering Biblioasis. I definitely intend to explore more of their offerings, both in their international series and in their English language Canadian titles.

The Accidental Blogger

Okay, quite simply, I wanted manage some WordPress blogs I have been following, which all happen to be of a literary nature. Apparently I needed to create an account. Now I could have gone just created an account sans blog, but then what would the challenge be in that? Maybe I have some thoughts worth sharing. At the very least I can always talk about books. And if I am at a loss for words I can always throw in one of my photographs…

Image

Like this.