Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

The opening pages of music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind detail what is clearly one of the most moving interview experiences of his career. He is in the St Petersburg apartment of Viktor Kozlov, one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that performed the triumphant debut of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942. He describes, with the clarinetist’s assistance,  how that performance was pulled together against all odds. Leningrad, as it was known at the time, was under siege, and Stalin not only wanted an opportunity to galvanize the beleaguered citizens, he wanted to send a message to Hitler who was waiting within earshot to celebrate victory. As an artist within a system that could turn against him in a heartbeat, the burden on Shostakovich to deliver a suitable masterpiece was immense. In the end, it was a rousing success. He managed to speak directly to the people’s emotions, and give them a reason to feel united in a time of war. The invigorated audience responded with an ovation reported to have lasted over an hour.

But here was something else too: that puzzling conundrum I had noted so often when pondering the appeal of Shostakovich’s music, but which now struck me with heightened force. In the Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich had held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed—and in response they had roared their approval, their delight, their gratitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings.

When Kozlov’s account of the event was complete, Johnson asked him a most formulaic question. He wanted to know how that same music made him feel when he heard it today, completely unprepared for the response. Both the elderly musician and his wife burst into tears—it was a question beyond any possible answer.

It is this ineffable power of music to reach into the deep emotional spaces in our lives where words often prove ineffectual, to give voice to that which we ourselves cannot express—especially in times of anxiety and distress—that becomes the very personal focus of this most fascinating book. Part musical biography, part memoir, part psychology and philosophy, this book-length essay draws its greatest strength from Johnson’s passionate affection for and deep connection to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. His association with the composer’s repertoire reaches back to his own difficult adolescence when, ignorant of the world of rock ’n roll, he sought comfort in the Shostakovich’s thundering chords. Blessed with an acute musical memory, he was able to carry fully orchestrated movements in his mind in a manner he compares to a romantic teenage infatuation, during the times when his mercurial and unstable mother’s volatile behaviour made life otherwise unbearable. This uncanny musical aptitude serves him well as a writer. His ability to breathe life into complex orchestrated passages and open up the key elements at play in major works, is likely to inspire readers to download or stream the pieces under discussion, or pull dusty records or CDs from their shelves. It is not necessary to engage an aural experience in the reading, but it does tend to be difficult to resist the inclination to do so.

As one might imagine, given the unusual title, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is an intimate account of the intersection of music with the personal drama, and trauma, of life lived. Johnson draws on literary, philosophical, neurological and psychological resources as he explores the connection between music and the brain, an area of growing interest and investigation, but he anchors his inquiry in the story of Shostakovich’s life and work during some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century—a thoroughly fascinating account in its own right—while tracing out his own particular relationship to this music and the role it played , not only in adolescence, but in his own adult challenges with bipolar disorder.

Shostakovich’s music can be wildly moody, shifting abruptly from lighthearted to savage to slow and achingly sombre. But it is not without structure. In listening carefully, Johnson became attuned, early on, to the thematic connections that he describes as ropes stretched across the composer’s own abyss, a bridge of sorts. It is a fundamentally important discovery for someone with a mood disorder—a condition I also understand too well:

As a bipolar sufferer, I know what it is to experience manic flight. At its worst it has been truly frightening, like a bad, drug-induced trip. Even when I’m not manic, I’m aware of how my conversation can go off on sudden tangents. Some of my friends have found it entertaining; others have found it bewildering, even alarming. It certainly alarmed my mother although she could be as dizzyingly tangential as anyone I’ve ever known. It was another aspect of my behaviour that provoked my father into panic-stricken attempts to close me down. I became seriously concerned about my own ‘intoxicating and leapfrogging’ thought processes—until, that is, I came to know Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. As I found Shostakovich’s connecting ropes and pulled them taut, it was though he personally was reassuring me. The exhilaration I felt was not dangerous; it was controlled, expertly rounded off by this extraordinary music.

If Shostakovich reached one troubled and alienated youth, it is not this particular music alone that holds the key. Johnson muses if he had been exposed to rock music he might well have found similar comforts and a peer group to share it with as well. But it matters not. The magic, if you like, lies in a link between music and listener, through a mechanism folded into the evolutionary structure of our brains. One that has the power to ease isolation, to unify, and to move both the individual and the crowd from “the ‘I’ to the ‘we’” as witnessed on that August night in Leningrad in 1942.

Moving deftly between the artistic, the scientific, and the autobiographical, this extended essay, never gets bogged down or off track. It makes no effort to be exhaustive, after all, at the core of the book is the relationship between the music of one very enigmatic Russian composer and the author whose life has been influenced, possibly even saved by it. Johnson’s own story unfolds like a well-crafted symphony itself, building through layers, in and out of the various streams of his narrative, to reach the point at which he was caught at the opposite end of the bipolar dance—in such an agonizing state of despair that suicide seemed the only way out. Again, he captures well the reaction of others to this side of the manic-depressive experience. In his darkened, unreliable state of mind, he came to believe that ending his life would not only ease what had somehow become an unbearable emotional pain, but would free up his wife Kate to get on with her life without the burden he felt he was invariably placing on her:

Depressives can be immensely frustrating for those who live with them. They tend to go around in the same anxious, obsessive circles endlessly; to the worried onlooker, it can seem that they actually don’t want to be helped; and they can be horribly irritable. For my part, I had still to learn that exasperation is more often a sign of love than its absence.

It was, ultimately, a fortuitous sequence of events that led him to his therapist’s office when he had intended to cancel; a lucky mistake that enabled an emotional breakthrough—or breakdown—that would turn the tide. However, Johnson can’t help but wonder if Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet had played even a small role on his road to recovery.

A year earlier, he had been given an assignment to prepare liner notes for a new recording of the popular Quartet, a task that had necessitated close engagement with a work composed when Shostakovich himself had been suicidal. He wonders if the writing and playing of the piece in which the composer famously places himself—or notes corresponding to his initials—as the central motif, had made him change his mind about killing himself, or whether it was simply the fact that a friend had intervened and removed the vial of sleeping pills he’d had on hand. And there’s the challenge: Music can do many things in times of emotional distress—reaching us in our darkened state with an image that is more accurate than the bleak self-portrait we cling to. However:

it cannot, in the broader sense, ‘see’ us. It can prepare us for the moment when we are seen; it can function as a life-raft in the most terrifying seas—for years, if necessary. But the moment of salvage needs a real living other, to see us and to know us, to signal to us that we are still worthy of rescue. Music could not do that for me, not quite—but it brought me very close.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is a rich account of the life and work of one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, a wide ranging discussion of the ability of music to provide expression and meaning in times of joy and sorrow, and, most importantly, a personal memoir of how music can serve as a means to navigate madness, especially in those times when, from inside, all one knows is that something is not right. This is a book for a wide audience, but for myself, as someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it has given me a lot to think about and reflect on looking back at my own relationship to music—and this illness—over the years.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson is published by Nottinghill Editions in the UK and distributed by NYRB in North America. Shostakovich: A Journey Into the Light, the 2011 BBC radio documentary that sets the groundwork for this book can be found online here.

 

We all have a cruel month, mine is June

June lengthens, rising toward the longest day of the year. This is my most painful, impossible month and this year my awareness of the layering of repeated circles around the sun is taking on a new intensity.

Like a film flickering at the edge of my field of view, Junes of the past keep rolling in and out of focus. This week. Convergence.

Twenty-two years ago today, I was released from a period of involuntary hospitalization. The psychiatric ward was a strange place, with strange characters from the requisite Jesus dispensing wisdom in the dining room, to the young orthopaedic surgeon on suicide watch. I recall my time on the unit as the first opportunity I’d had in years to worry about no one but myself—and plenty of medication to ensure that I didn’t do too much of that either.

I was a manic patient in the process of coming back down to earth.

*

Eighteen years ago this week I had my first shot of testosterone. My partner of twenty-one years moved out the next morning. I cried for fifteen minutes, dusted myself off and moved on into a new reality. A single parent. A shape-shifter, slowly masculinizing.

Out of madness and into manhood. Or something.

Five years ago this week—summer solstice, 2014—I summited the heights of mania, once more, after a long steady climb over the crumbling rocks of my own sanity. I can only imagine the spectacle I’d become over the final months at the office. I remember trying to hold together an agency that seemed to be coming apart at the seams, everyone looking to me to fix things and ultimately taking the fall when I lost my grip. Nobody intervenes with a madman if that madman is doing a job no one else wants.

Nobody catches him when he falls or helps pick up the pieces. No one sends flowers.

The undignified end of my career forever unresolved. June 20, 2014, a day I can barely remember. A day I will never forget.

Exactly one year later I sought my own closure. Booked a trip to South Africa—the first and sadly only chance I would ever have to spend time with a close friend, queer and bipolar like me, but down a much deeper darker road, one with no escape, as it would turn out.

I timed my arrival so I would be in Cape Town on June 20, 2015. Imagining that I would invert my fortunes by marking winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. That I would stand and face the sun going down and bring to a close a difficult twelve months. Put it all behind me and move forward into a renewed life.

Reinvent myself again.

But of course, closure is a myth and life writes its own lessons. I would have to come to terms with death first. Very nearly my own within a month of returning home. Then my mother’s, my father’s, my friend’s.

I was torn open. Again. I’m still pulling myself together.

*

This June, for all the added hours of daylight, it’s darkness I am fighting. The malaise, the murky waters of the bipolar cycle were never my habitat until these past few years. To feel my spirit and energy ebb as the seasonal shift ushers colour into this dead brown world is difficult to bear. With the added rainbow intensity of Pride Month, ever reminding me of everything I cannot find within my own queered reality, I keep falling further into the dark corners of my own imagination.

All month I’ve been pushing against this current of discontent.

I can’t stop thinking ahead. This October brings my 59th birthday. Next year I turn 60. I don’t even know how I got here. No other milestone has pressed down on me like this one. I have a number of friends who are over 60, but not one of them is facing their seventh decade alone.

Alone. That is what I didn’t expect at this age. Or if I suspected it, I didn’t think it would hurt like hell. Alone is not a lack of people in your life. It is a lack of something you know is missing, that you cannot even fully define so it’s hard to know how to fill it. A close friend? A lover? Something to give your life meaning?

For me feeling alone is something pervasive. Embodied. Written into the physical and gendered trajectory of my existence. Here. In June. Once again.

*

June lengthens, rising toward the longest day of the year.

Passing rain. An image that stirs, the shifting light, sun, darkening skies and sun again, on a wet and glittering world. This is summer. Not quite but almost.

I simply have to hold fast.

A constant procession of ghosts: A reflection

August has passed, it seems, with little to show for itself. Smoky skies and an air quality rivalling that of some of the most polluted cities of the world curtailed much outdoor activity here. Further to the west, where the smoke originated and forests burned, it was worse. Now, as skies clear, temperatures are dropping and summer’s fading fast. Leaves are turning yellow. Autumn nears.

Two years ago today, September 1st 2016, a dear friend took her life. A second attempt after years of trying to fight off crushing bipolar depression. Unable to work and living on savings, treatment often meant driving to a public hospital, an hour each way. She lived in a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. We only met once. I spent a week with her in 2015, but from the moment we first met online, it was as if we had known each other forever. We could joke and riff off each other, falling into a regular routine as a dysfunctional divorced couple that often fooled others. In truth, we were bound by queerness, books, and bipolar disorder. Soul mates shipwrecked in our own lives.

But, of course, I couldn’t save her.

In the months before Ulla died I held a certain distance. I was reeling from the recent death of my mother, followed closely by that of my father. Knowing that she was fragile, and, after three years, still grieving her own mother, I was unable to reach out to her to seek or offer support. We were both drowning, but her sea was darker and more deadly. It had been for a long time.

With my parents’ sudden and tightly timed deaths, I had imagined the possibility of an exercise of writing immediate grief—echoing Barthes and Handke—but the burdens of being an executor distorted and distended the mourning experience and, for the most part, these losses remain unwritten. Then again, my parents were in their eighties with long lives, well-lived, behind them. My friend’s death, at forty-six, was more complex. I knew it had to be addressed, not simply for myself but for a community of followers who responded to her actions intently and personally. It took three months to salvage words and craft a 300-word piece which was published, with my own photographs, in late November of 2016. Each time I come back to this eulogy I realize how much of my immediate grief is contained there, perfected and concise.

Who, and what, in the end, do we write grief for? If we are looking for catharsis, a way to move beyond grief, we may be disappointed. Perhaps grief simply moves with us, evolving and softening over time.

If Ulla’s death sits especially heavily at this time of year, at the moment there is an extra weight. Earlier this month, my son’s best friend lost a difficult battle with opioid addiction. He had been at our house quite a bit in the last weeks, and although clean at the time, he was really struggling. My son is devastated. He’s been seeking refuge in alcohol and routinely breaks down in a flood of tears and despair. His sister and I feel a loss too; Dylan was a common presence in our lives over the past twelve years, but to be honest, in recent times I wasn’t always happy to see him on the doorstep. He and Thomas have both, at twenty-eight, been fighting their own mental health and addiction issues for a long time. And they were not always good for each other. They could be up all night arguing—usually about politics, but sometimes about really “important” matters like the difference between a canon and fugue. Things could get violent. One morning Thomas broke his hand on Dylan’s head (and glasses). But music was their real bond. They wrote and recorded songs together and spent hours busking on street corners over the years. They believed in each other when neither could believe in himself.

As a parent it is agonizing to watch my child in pain and know that his is a mourning song I cannot write.

*

As September begins, I am aware more than ever that we are surrounded by a constant procession of ghosts. I’ve bought a two-bed flat and, at the moment, I’m deeply engaged in the process of emptying out closets, cupboards and rooms of accumulated stuff so that, by October 1st, my house will be empty and I will be settling into a much smaller space. The sheer volume of junk that needs to be dumped, donated, or moved is overwhelming. And with it, reminders of the losses of the last few decades keep resurfacing when I least expect it.

Out in my unfinished garage where I have amassed a mound of old, damaged furniture and broken objects waiting for pick up, I found a windshield propped against the wall. I have no idea what it was for or why it is there, but I know it was something my father must have picked up and forgotten. I’m surprised how much of him I couldn’t part with after his death—his Russian literature, a bust of Beethoven, a grandfather clock—all tangible reminders of a man who was so elusive, so hard to know.

Of my mother, there are few objects I wanted to bring home but her presence permeates so much of my life. Especially the one I tried to live in her image. As a girl and woman. Packing up children’s clothing for donation I find the beautiful outfits she crafted for her precious granddaughter—lined coats, fancy dresses—her attentions to Ginny’s wardrobe becoming ever more feminine as I, her only daughter, transitioned to male. I also unearth all the outfits I myself made for both my children in their early years when I was still determined to play the part birth had granted me. A part that, ultimately, has nothing to do with gender at all. I truly enjoyed creating beautiful things for my children. It just didn’t alter the sense that I wasn’t female.

And so, this house is also haunted by ghosts of myself, the selves I wanted to be, the self I became while living here. The self I still don’t know what to do with. I haven’t even uncovered the boxes filled with all my childhood photographs or angst-ridden adolescent writing. But documents with my old names, once-treasured possessions, and even a wedding dress have been revealed. Some will be retained, others hastily stuffed in bags and carted off to Goodwill.

Then last night, another more recent, unresolved ghost emerged. In a closet I found a manual from a leadership workshop I took a number of years back. At that time I was confident, more secure in my sense of self than I would ever be. My transition, in my mind, was complete and a success. But within a few years, my brief, yet promising, career in not-for-profit management would be destroyed by circumstance and my own mental illness. A loss I still have not come to terms with and yet it seems like something that belonged to another person. As if my life has just been a series of reincarnations that seem to leave me no wiser or further ahead.

And no more certain who I am.

And then there is my own addiction: books. Spread through three rooms, with most shelves double stacked, I shudder to think how many boxes there will be. No mercy for old magazines and outdated textbooks. They are bound for the recycling bin. But every time I scan my bookcases to collect charity sale donations, my decisions about what to hold on to shift. My anthropology and ecology texts are now gone, but my philosophy, classics and ancient Near Eastern history volumes remain. I notice that so many of the books I bought during my years of bookstore employment in the early 80s are still valued, even if I didn’t appreciate some for decades after purchase, whereas the literary bestsellers I devoured in my thirties and forties have been, and are, regularly pruned and sent off to new homes. Some of the obsessive tangents reflected in my collection are held dear, others are an embarrassment.

The books we read, and perhaps even more tellingly, the books we buy with the intention to read them, reveal a lot about who we are, who we want to be, and who we want others to imagine we are. More ghosts in our own lives.

And I suppose moving is one more opportunity to encounter, reshape, and even resolve a few of those ghosts—our own and those of others whom time, distance, or death have taken away.

Maybe even grieve.

A few thoughts about reviewing The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen for The Quarterly Conversation

Over the past six months or so I have pursued few opportunities to write longer critical reviews for publication. In fact, I have been more interested in encouraging others to write reviews for me to publish at 3:AM Magazine. I’ve gotten out of the habit of looking to upcoming releases with an eye to what I might want to write about, especially sight unseen. Rather, I am more likely to find myself reading a book I already own and realize that I want to write about it at a greater depth than my typical blog post. But every now and then a book grabs my attention and I set out to secure an advance reader’s copy and review placement on instinct alone.

Such was the case with The Endless Summer by Danish writer and transgender performance artist, Madame Neilsen, recently released by Open Letter Books in a translation by Gaye Kynoch. I knew nothing about this book when I first saw it in an email newsletter but I confess that I was immediately intrigued by the unusual sounding author.  And although I tend to tread very carefully around transgender themed writing or writers of any sort, I knew I wanted to read this book. And write about it. Endless complications in my efforts to obtain a review copy notwithstanding (it did arrive about two weeks after I submitted my finished review), I was thoroughly captivated by this lovely novel.

The story of a boy “who is perhaps a girl, but does not know it yet,” The Endless Summer is, in simple terms, an evocative requiem to that moment in life when all is possible and the harsh face of reality has not yet been confronted. I attempted to capture some of its strange and wonderful magic in my review which has just been published in the Spring 2018 edition of The Quarterly Conversation. Have a look.

Looking back in anger: A personal reflection on World Bipolar Day

You might as well haul up
This wave’s green peak on wire
To prevent fall, or anchor the fluent air
In quartz, as crack your skull to keep
These two most perishable lovers from the touch
That will kindle angels’ envy, scorch and drop
Their fond hearts charred as any match.

Seek no stony camera-eye to fix
The passing dazzle of each face
In black and white, or put on ice
Mouth’s instant flare for future looks;
Stars shoot their petals, and suns run to seed,
However you may sweat to hold such darling wrecks
Hived like honey in your head.

—from Sylvia Plath, “Epitaph for Flower and Fire”

I have known mania, and the imagery in this poem sparks with an intensity that excites and disturbs. When I encounter the words of one of the many poets known (or thought) to share (or have shared) the same affliction, I often find an undercurrent that causes me to flinch for just a second. Not that it diminishes the beauty or power of their words in any way—it is rather an echo in the dark, a faint recognition flashing by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2012

It is World Bipolar Day, and this is the first time I have stopped to recognize the fact. I have spoken in, and around, my own bipolar diagnosis, but I have never addressed it formally in my writing. Even now I find myself uncomfortable discussing it. On the one hand, I am fortunate. I respond well to medication. I am, to use that distasteful term, “high-functioning.” But I do harbor a deep anger toward this condition that was part of my life many years before I finally careened through a brutal month of manic psychosis and found myself committed, and ultimately diagnosed, at the age of 36. I was, in classic bipolar fashion, the last person to suspect that I had a mental illness. Even though I, and those around me, knew something was terribly wrong, the stigma and lack of understanding around mood disorders—not to mention the radically impaired insight the sufferer has when they are ill—stands as a barrier to timely intervention. And then there is the matter of actually accessing care. One almost has to crash completely—by which time it can be too late.

Between my first manic episode in 1997 and the second in 2014, I experienced more than sixteen years of stability. I transitioned, became a single male parent, built a career out of nothing, and eventually became the Program Manager at an agency dedicated to working with survivors of acquired brain injury. I loved my job. Looking back, I can now see how the last few years of that period were marked by an increasing tendency toward hypomania. With my psychiatrist’s support I cut my medication back. And then things started to fall apart at work—things beyond my control, but it fell to me to try to pull things together. Then I started to fall apart at work, until I spiraled into full blown mania. Not psychotic, but it matters little. The damage was done.

The agency I worked for, dedicated as they are to supporting clients with disabilities including co-morbid mental illnesses, treated me with distrust bordering on contempt. My only contact with them has been conducted through a workplace advocate and my insurance worker. When return to work was discussed they refused to consider any possibility that I could work there again. Almost three years later with long term disability finally at an end, they still have my personal belongings.

Nine years of employment and dedication to that job now stand as a gaping hole in my life—a life already filled with gaping holes. And that is one of the reasons I hesitate to talk about mental illness (although I have never hidden my diagnosis). What can I say? Bipolar is not my identity any more than transgender is. Both fuck up your life. Leave wounds that do not heal. Find you fumbling through mid-life with little to show for your years but a lot of things you can’t talk about. And periods of time you cannot even remember.

So this is why I find it hard to write about my experience with mental illness. There was a time, following my diagnosis, that I devoured everything I could find, just as, a year later I hunted for books on gender identity. Two pieces of a puzzle I had inhabited—the periodic mood swings and the persistent, life-long feeling that I was not the female person everyone else knew me to be—had finally fallen into place. I had two, if you wish to be specific, explanations that come neatly labelled and defined within the covers of the DSM. It was, for a while, a source of relief.

Today I rarely read any literature that deals with mental illness or gender. But I am aware, more than ever, of being doubly stigmatized. And, most painfully, within the spaces where you would expect acceptance—in the human services profession and within the queer community. Thus the anger.

And what is this anger? Grief. The deep griefs I carry, layered now with more recent bereavements. It has become, for me, an existential bitterness that plagues me, an inauthenticity that defines the way I intersect with the world.

The legacy of mental illness is this: after diagnosis I was advised not to dwell on the disease, not to talk to others with bipolar; I was not deemed “sick” enough to warrant outpatient support or psychiatric follow up. I was left, like so many others, to flounder in the dark. It would take seventeen years and a spectacular career-destroying crash before I was able to access proper psychiatric and psychological support. I am still lucky. I am stabilized. And the forced detour into what may become an early semi-retirement has afforded me a space to write.

Now I need to find a way to write my way through this weight of grief. And begin to heal.

I’ll leave the last word to Sylvia Plath, with the final (fifth) stanza of the poem quoted above:

Dawn snuffs out star’s spent wick,
Even as love’s dear fools cry evergreen,
And a languor of wax congeals the vein
No matter how fiercely lit; staunch contracts break
And recoil in the altering light: the radiant limb
Blows ash in each lover’s eye; the ardent look
Blackens flesh to bone and devours them.

—You can find out more about the International Bipolar Foundation here, and a prose poem I wrote to honour a dear friend who lost her desperate and brave battle to bipolar last year can be found here.

On reading and writing and slowly going nowhere

I track the books I read, I have since I was in my early twenties—first in small hardcover journals, now on a spreadsheet. I’m not a spectacularly fast reader but in recent months my completion rate has fallen to a crawl. I have submitted a couple of reviews for publication elsewhere but my blog has seen few fresh posts. I’m probably reading half a dozen books, including several poetry and essay collections, but focus is hard to find and sustain. However, I am not a loss for the company of words. I have a couple of longer essays to edit for the upcoming Scofield, as well as final assignments for a copy editing course I’ve been taking; and I have to say that losing myself in the words of others from a perspective that draws from, and yet differs from, that of a reader or a writer, is proving to be exactly the distraction I needed.

These past few weeks have been difficult.

Thanksgiving was a trigger point; the first day where the magnitude of the recent losses—of my parents and one of my closest friends—hit home and hit hard. That aloneness that goes to the core. Rather than dissipating, the darkness grew, and despite some very positive events and occurrences in my life, it threatened to overwhelm. Within a week I was feeling seriously suicidal for the first time in more than twenty years. The only thing holding me back was the thought of all the work I would put my children and brothers through, something I know especially well as co-executor of my father’s will.

I have sought help. I have reached out.

It does not seem to be depression as much as grief; and it’s a multi-layered, complex grief. So although I still struggle, at times, against the feeling that I don’t want to keep on living; I am not feeling inclined to take matter into my own hands. Of course, none of this is aided by the fact that I have been fighting a vicious cold, hacking cough and all. Makes it very hard to find that spark, but I hope it’s rekindled soon. This is a hell of a way to live, but I’ll keep reading, sketching out ideas, and writing while I wait.

6412706291_3376c44b28_zThroughout all of this there has been goodness: A forthcoming review of a book that has, more than anything I have read for a long while, made me think about a way to approach some writing I have in mind (I will write about it when the review goes live); a long conversation with a Twitter friend who is still far away, but now close enough to call (a real treat because Twitter has been a little uncomfortable for me of late, but that’s another story); and the publication of an essay I wrote for Literary Hub. The essay is called A Reader’s Journey Through Transition, and I don’t know what was more exciting, publication day itself or seeing my name in the week-end review with other authors like Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Rabih Alameddine, and Marilynne Robinson!

 

Personal reflections on identity, for better or worse, on Canada Day

Today, July 1, is Canada Day.

Exactly one year ago I was in Cape Town. I arrived back in the city that day at 5:30 in the morning after seventeen hours on a bus from East London. Dragging my luggage with its maple leaf ID tags I encountered many who would note the flag and say “Ah, Canada, that’s just about the perfect country, isn’t it?” Invariably I was hearing this from black or coloured South Africans and, I have to confess, at that time in my country’s recent political history I was feeling most despondent, embarrassed even, to be Canadian. For the very first time in my life.

What a difference a year makes.

canada-159585_960_720Hard to measure the shifting sands in the glass but while our Federal election last year brought home to the ruling Conservative Party the cost of divisive politics, the limits of denial and disrespect, and the risk of stoking xenophobia to sway sympathies; we now seem more and more like an island in a sea of unrest. And, I don’t pretend that we are immune to hatred, or that we don’t have a legacy of shame four “our” treatment of the First Nations on this land, but this is a huge and vastly underpopulated place so there is greater room to breathe.

At least for now.

As Canadians we also have another advantage: an identity that is relatively amorphous, ambiguous, sometimes even apologetic. A contest held in 1972 on the CBC Radio program, This Country in Morning, famously invited listeners to finish the statement: As Canadian as ________. The winning entry?

As Canadian as possible under the circumstances. And proudly so, I say.

Which leads me to wonder about identity, a question that has been troubling me of late.

There is a series of advertisements running on the television for a company that, for a fee, will analyze your DNA and tell you what your ancestry is, in percentages, no doubt with colourful pie charts to justify the cost. Perhaps you’ve seen them or something similar. You know, there is, for example, a man who always believed he was of German heritage but thanks to a little DNA sleuthing he discovers he is Scottish. He promptly trades his lederhosen for a kilt. And there are other variations but you get the drift.

How can your DNA define your cultural and ethnic identity? It might and then again it might not. Peoples migrate, borders shift, cultures evolve. An aboriginal survivor of the 60’s Scoop that literally pulled First Nations youth out of their homes and communities and deposited them in white foster homes may justifiably have a need for healing and reconnection with their heritage, but a DNA test that simply reflects possible ancestral bloodlines going back centuries or longer does not tell you who you are. Cultural and ethnic identity are complex and cannot be understood divorced from lived experience.

As I find myself, midway upon my life’s journey, to paraphrase Dante, I carry two questions of identity that, to some degree, offer an understanding of myself that reaches back into childhood and adolescence. But even if they are grounded in some understanding of a genetic/epigenetic heritage I own, the degree to which they can and do form part of my identity is troublesome. Identity is, as far as I am concerned, a choice. That is not to say it is not grounded in fact and reality at some level, but what does it mean to say “I identify”? And how is that to be differentiated from “I am”?

I have bipolar disorder (I touch on this in some of my earliest blog posts) and I was born with a pervasive sense of a gendered self that was at odds with the sex/gender that I appeared to be (I address this most explicitly here). I did not begin to understand either of these facts until I was in my mid-30’s. But they are inextricable from my experience of myself in the world, they are formative and I have no idea what it would be like to have existed without either although I have learned, with greater or lesser success, to live with each one. Both are treated, neither is cured. I have written about both, but I would be hard pressed to say that I identify as either bipolar or transgender. Would someone identify as a diabetic? Would you say you identify as brown-eyed?

I know people who do hold a mental health diagnosis or a gender identity with pride. Perhaps I did too at one time. Perhaps I still do even though I don’t want to admit it.

Recently my psychiatrist suggested, having reviewed the only records she had from my past—the report of an inpatient stay during acute psychosis almost twenty years ago, the turning point at which I finally began to unravel the fractured and unhappy state against which I had raged for several years—that she did not believe I was bipolar. That cheerful announcement set off weeks of rumination in which I replayed all of the episodes of depression and hypomania I had surfed for so many years, blaming myself for a failure to commit to any single course of study or employment. I began to appreciate how my understanding of the place I find myself at this point is contingent on having an explanation, an illness to blame. Combined with acute gender dysphoria I can assuage the sense of failure that haunts me. Justify all the paths I took or did not take.

Or, as my therapist challenged me yesterday, have I been using bipolar as an excuse to avoid grieving the losses I have experienced?

I don’t even know how to begin to grieve and the thought terrifies me. And, if I find my way through it all, perhaps I will write about it. But I do believe it may be the one path I have not yet dared to take.

Finally, what of gender? That is a topic for many essays I’m afraid. My differently gendered existence is essential to who I am, but again, it is not my identity. If forced, I “identify” as male, but prefer to understand myself simply as a man, and every time I qualify myself by appending trans* I feel reduced, dehumanized. One only has to exist within the LGBTQ community, such as it is, as a man attracted to men, to feel the full force of transphobia from within. And to have transitioned when I did, before it was fashionable and trendy to be trans, other transgender men were often exceptionally homophobic toward anyone who identified as gay. For everyone who claims to defy gender binaries there is a whole cast of characters propping them back up. I’m probably in there myself.

pride-flag-meaningSo, although I tick three out of the five basic boxes in LGBTQ, I have no Pride. But then I have no shame either. And identify? Well, here I stand I can be no other. Even if I don’t feel I belong. June is always tough for me. This month with all the difficult emotions stirred by the Orlando shootings has been especially hard.

I actually do belong to an LGBTQ community and have good friends there. My very closest friends are all queer. And yet I always feel like I am on the outside looking in. An impostor. But in what way? And who decides who belongs and who does not? Even apparently marginalized groups seem to find a way to splinter and divide.

Which brings me full circle to the angry racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic aggression and violence that threatens us all, at a time and in a world in which we should know better.

At least, for now, and on this day, the one thing I can say is: I identify as a proud Canadian.