I have been in South Africa for just over a week now. It’s been an amazing opportunity to meet people and observe the country on its own terms. The closest I have had to a typical tourist experience has been our day trip to Addo Elephant Park. Nothing quite prepares you, on your first visit, for the sight of these huge majestic beasts looming ahead on the road, appearing out of the bushes. And there is so much more to see than elephants. We were stoked to encounter two young rooikatte along the roadside. These lynx are a rare sight at the best of times and we were able to sit and watch them for 15 minutes.
The value of taking time to relax, soak in the countryside, meet fascinating individuals and spend quality time with my friend has been exactly the medicine I needed. In a few days I will make my way back to Cape Town for the much more urban, cosmopolitan side of my stay which will, in its way, be quiet and introspective. Cities can be good for being alone too.
My endeavour to gather more South African literature to bring home is going well. So far I have collected a stack of second hand books from a little shop in East London here in the Eastern Cape and have another stack waiting for me back in Cape Town. I have been digging through my friend’s bookcase for titles to look for here or back home and last night I was thrilled when my favourite author, Damon Galgut, won the Sunday Times Literary Award for South African fiction for his novel Arctic Summer. So, a fine literary excursion to date.
Otherwise it has been a relief to step back from my normally heavy engagement with news and social media. I did read with dismay about the terrorist attacks in France and Tunisia. I was relieved that my American LGBT brothers and sisters have achieved a long overdue milestone. But I came to South Africa in large part to put as much distance between myself and my life at home as possible for a few weeks and, for now, watching waves crash on the shore or sitting on the stoep and watching the sky burst with colour in the evening or listening to Breyten Breytenbach reciting poetry in Afrikaans is therapy of the best kind.
Over the past year I have embarked on a journey that began, unexpectedly, with the recognition that I had allowed pressures at my job to consume me, to drive me to the very brink of a complete breakdown. It was summer solstice when I removed myself from the office, imagining at the time that I would soon be back and on track. I had no idea how sick I was and no real appreciation of how much I had sacrificed to work and children. Now, with work in tatters and children grown I wondered if I had really lived the full and rewarding life I imagined that I had. Finding myself (again) in mid-life has been difficult, dark and lonely – a task I felt ill prepared to take on.
But it has been the very best thing that could have happened.
From a very low point last December, winter solstice, my life has started to change in very real and important ways. A wonderful therapist and proper medical support have been crucial, while finding a supportive community has helped me start to move out into the world in an honest and authentic way. But, much to my surprise, blogging has opened up the world in a way I had not anticipated. I began with no clear objective, fueled with manic energy, spiraled into a little anxiety driven meandering as my world fell apart and solidified this year into a basically book focused blog.
Along the way I made a friend who has become a ballast for me – a touchstone, someone who understands the experience of navigating the storms of bipolar disorder because she rides them herself. Someone who is also queer. And an avid reader.
However, getting together for coffee required a little planning. I live in western Canada, she lives in South Africa. And so I marked this past solstice, trading summer for winter, in Cape Town. Then I boarded a bus for the Eastern Cape province where I am now. I have long had an interest in South Africa, with the literature and history of this complicated and important place. The dust has not settled here.
My friend has given me a gift I will not soon forget. Our friendship has opened a space for us to explore our own personal journeys and to talk about our respective countries – to compare the differences and the similarities.
And I am also guaranteed to arrive home with books.
Today I received a notification from WordPress congratulating me on my first anniversary. Well happy anniversary to my alter ego roughghosts who was born on this day from a scarp of creative writing I uncovered in one of my endless unfinished notebooks. I never was very clever with user names; most of my aliases amount to little more than my initials and the first 5 letters of my last name.
I have become quite fond of roughghosts. It suits me, more than I might have imagined, or at least been willing to admit on May 31st of last year. To be honest, I created this blog to engage with other WordPress blogs and, I don’t know, maybe reflect a little, and explore some creative writing. At the time, a little voice I the back of mind said this looks like a rather manic move. After all I was under a soul crushing amount of stress at my workplace, had a major fundraiser and annual report due, and had not slept for more than a few hours a night since the previous November. But I shrugged it off, forged ahead only to crash and shatter into a thousand pieces a few weeks later.
Today, I have managed to rebuild myself to a point. There is still a lot more glue, stitching and healing required. Mania has subsided to a simmering depression with doses of anxiety and a pill that I do not like but is presently necessary as a sleep aid. And roughghosts the blog has evolved from a space to moan about the shock of realizing that, yes, I still have a mood disorder and all the fallout that a major breakdown entails, to a book based blog with a strong focus on translated and international literature.
Over the past few months I became involved with a jury shadowing the International Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP), a challenging and highly rewarding experience. It taught me to read faster – still no speed demon, I – and read more deeply with a specific goal to being able to rate and write a constructive review for each book. I have started scribbling in margins and filling notebooks when I read. As a reader and a writer this has been invaluable. The camaraderie of reading and discussing the books together was an added bonus, introducing me to a great group of book bloggers. My subsequent expansion of activity on twitter has further enhanced this community of readers, publishers, authors and translators.
Then, close on the heels of the IFFP came the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) with a challenging and exciting longlist and a selection of small North American independent publishers to discover. Adding to this embarrassment of riches for lovers of translated literature was the conjunction of the biannual International Booker and the writers I want to explore from that list of finalists. And, on top of all this, my longstanding interest in South African literature will be further nourished by a trip to that county in a few weeks with a list of books I hope to obtain.
I am, I hope, reading my way back to wholeness. Preparing to write my way back into the world, or rather document my very real journey into the world in a full and honest way for the first time in more than half a century of living.
This past week’s awarding of the 2015 IFFP and BTBA prizes saw the celebration of female authors and translators. The IFFP honoured Jenny Erpenbeck and Susan Bernofsky for The End of Days, a decision that coincided with our shadow jury’s esteemed choice. This is a most important book with a timeless theme spanning the whole of the 20th century. About an hour later the 2015 BTBA was awarded to The Last Lover by Chinese author Can Xue and translator Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. I encountered this book as a longlisted IFFP title and simply fell in love with the surreal, dream-like tale. Notably, Can Xue was also named that same day with six other women and two men as finalists for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. I’ve been decidedly excited by this celebration of female writers and for those who know me, that is a huge shift in my own approach to literature.
Back in late January I wrote a pot in response to a discussion on the Tips, Links and Suggestions blog of the Guardian which had caused me to reflect on the abysmal ratio of female to male authors in my reading and on my shelves. However, my more explicit focus on literature in translation is slowly beginning to shift that balance. Especially if one considers how many of the works I read, if written by men, were translated by women. And I am taking serious note – not only should I endeavour to read more female writers, I can easily fall under the spell of Can Xue, Anne Garréta, Marlene van Niekerk, Olja Svačević or Valeria Luiselli, just to name some of the authors that have really impressed me of late. And I am pleased to report that an increasing number of the books I am currently reading or planning to read feature female writers and/or translators.
So, on my first anniversary as a blogger, I look back over an ad hoc journal chronicling an ongoing passage from a terribly messed up state, struggling to make sense of a sudden shock to my self esteem, my confidence and my identity to a place where I have a strong real life community, solid mental health support and a creative environment where I am proud of the work that I publish in this space. Moving forward I hope to explore further writing opportunities, continue to recover and, with luck, make my way back into productive employment.
And keep reading a lot of terrific, exciting and challenging literature from around the world.
It is winter solstice, exactly six months since I left my job. At the time, a year and a half of toxic work-related stress had taken its toll. Had been taking its toll for months. But by the time I managed to pull enough awareness together to face the harsh reality that the mental illness I imagined to be long stabilized had resurfaced in full manic glory, irretrievable damage had been done.
I left in shame. A shame that can not be absolved. I have been shut out, I have no idea what my relationship with my employer is, or if I have any income going forward. When I can eventually return to work I wonder where I will go. And so I enter the shortest day of the year reflecting on what I have learned and looking ahead.
I loved my job. I managed a small agency supporting survivors of acquired brain injury. I worked with a wide range of remarkable people and their families, walking beside them as they struggled to recover and rebuild their lives, to regain independence, to battle their own challenges and demons. It gave me refuge from the demands of single parenthood, provided human and social contact against my tendency to isolate, and confirmed my value as a man. But the price I paid was huge. I believed it was enough in itself and had not imagined it would end.
Suddenly I was tragically alone in the world. My closest friends were far away. In a city of over a million, there was no one I could call. No one to have coffee with, no place to go, no arms to lie in.
How had I managed that? Well temperament in part. But much more critically I began a transition from an externally female existence, to a more true, coherent identity as male at 40. I built my career in social services after that process began.
In transition I did not move from my neighbourhood, I remained actively engaged in ensuring that the schools my children attended were open and diverse, and experienced no rejection from my family. However to create a whole and consistent space in which I could live where no one knew my past, I guarded my history closely at the workplace. Over time I constructed walls, mastered the ambiguous answer whenever asked about my life, and even managed to successfully neuter and closet myself years after originally coming out.
Somehow this practice bled into my engagement with the community. Fourteen years on it came to colour my identity in the world.
This extended time of reflection from solstice to solstice, aided by a wonderful therapist, has been a time of learning to open and reclaim my identity. To understand how trans, gay and queer relate to me. To put it out in the world. To own it and to write it into being.
As the days grow longer I face an uncertain future financially. Yet slowly I feel the fire of anxiety and agitation that have marked this recovery from my breakdown losing some of its intensity. I have been filling notebooks with writing hoping that maybe some gems might emerge, for the sake of catharsis if nothing else.
So more than New Year’s Day, solstice holds the resonance of new beginnings for me this year. Happy solstice – winter to those of us in the the north, summer to my friends in South Africa and Australia.
Wordfest, our annual literary festival is underway. After several months struggling with the fall out from a serious mental health episode this week is my first serious self test, my chance to explore my level of stamina and commitment. It is also an opportunity to spend time with people who love books and listen to great writers talk about their work.
I started with two volunteer shifts and some selected presentations I wanted to see and, as you might suspect, the volunteer commitment portion quickly expanded.
Am I exhausted yet? A little. I will likely sleep for a day when it’s all over but I have so desperately needed to get out in the world. Admittedly I am buffered with medication but the creeping anxiety stays in the car when I get into the venues.
Now if I can find a way for the medical system to prescribe a literary solution I might just be able to live with this bipolar beast. I just have to be able to afford to eat too!
Today has lifted my spirits more than I can remember in months. I had one single volunteer shift as a bookseller at one of the smaller venues, but I was nervous simply because I was expecting a panel discussion featuring one of my favourite authors. When I arrived to discover that the other writer had been forced to cancel at the last minute, the presentation had been redesigned as an hour long one-to-one interview with South African novelist Damon Galgut.
The host was scrambling but I could not have been happier.
I have always been apprehensive about meeting my heroes, for fear of disillusion. Nonetheless I had come prepared to have my books signed and hopeful for even a few words with a writer whose works I admire so much. Although we did have books to sell I noticed that I was not the only person who had arrived with their own copies of his latest work, Arctic Summer, already in tow. This novel is an imagined biographical account of the complex personal and emotional factors that led E M Forester through the extended writer’s block that ultimately produced his greatest work, A Passage to India. As an historical novel it is a departure for Galgut (and one he admitted he would be in no rush to repeat) but rich with a deep affection for India and the driving forces of unrequited desire.
I confess I abandoned my post presentation bookselling duties early to make sure I didn’t miss out on the opportunity to have my copies of In a Strange Room and Arctic Summer signed. To be honest I have yet to see an unpleasant author at any of the events I’ve helped with, but it meant more than I can measure for Damon to take the time to, ask me about myself and encourage me that it is never too late to start writing. I am grateful for his kind words.
This experience, simple and important for me, has lifted my spirits in a way that feels healthier than the meds alone. It feels good to be human again. I have commitments with Wordfest right through until Sunday evening, but for now I am enjoying this warm feeling.
Typically I love autumn – the crisper weather, the bright blue skies, the excuse to pull out sweaters. Normally this is the busiest time of the year as new programs and courses start and activities halted for the summer resume. More than New Year’s, this can be the season for resolutions, goal setting and looking forward.
Unless you are depressed.
Without the structure of work I feel lost. And unlike regular unemployment I am in a holding pattern, uncertain what type of work I may be able to return to when I do recover, if I recover, should I even recognize recovered if I meet it in myself.
I feel tired and agitated. Irritable and unfocused. I try to push myself out every day and have an exciting literary festival to look forward to in just over a week. Yet I am terrified that I have taken on more than I will be able to manage and I find myself fighting off regular amorphous panic attacks.
I feel like a wrung out dish towel. I miss having energy and enthusiasm but I have to guard against a reckless flood of these sensations lest they indicate trouble at the opposite end of the bipolar pendulum arc…
For now I am looking toward the brilliant yellows of the moment. Apparently yellow is the colour of the mind and the intellect, it lifts the spirit, stimulates creativity but can also heighten anxiety and emotional instability.
O! WHY was I born with a different face? Why was I not born like the rest of my race? When I look, each one starts; when I speak, I offend; Then I’m silent and passive, and lose every friend.
Then my verse I dishonour, my pictures despised, My person degrade, and my temper chastise; And the pen is my terror, the pencil my shame; All my talents I bury, and dead is my fame.
I am either too low, or too highly priz’d; When elate I’m envied; when meek I’m despis’d. -William Blake, from a letter to his patron Thomas Butts, 1803
I first encountered these words in the months following my first manic breakdown in the late 1990s. With a diagnosis at hand I needed to understand its meaning so I read the standard popular memoirs of the time. But I found myself drawn into the work of William Blake. Although many readers reject the notion that madness may have fueled his tireless creative energies, his hours conversing with angels and his periods of darkness – I found comfort in his artistic conviction even if he was destined to die without ever receiving the recognition of understanding he deserved.
For every person who successfully rises above the challenges of mental illness and negotiates the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, there are those who spend their lives living rough. And others who lose the battle altogether. But Blake drew inspiration from his angels and demons with his loving wife by his side until the end.
Today is my birthday, and having found myself back trying to figure out what I am supposed to learn from this second mania and unexpected fall from grace, Blake’s lament has a special resonance once again.
But this time I am reflecting on a very different face than that which I confronted 17 years ago. From the time I was very young I could not make sense of the face with which I was born. The eyes that looked out from within that visage threatened to give me away. The body I struggled to feel at home in never felt like mine. The girls I befriended seemed like aliens and, with no other explanation for my discomfort I assumed that I had never learned the tricks, never tried hard enough.
The idea that gender or identity could be misaligned never occurred to me when I was growing up. At least not in the context I needed to hear. And when It did start to seep into my awareness I was already well into marriage and motherhood. It was a complicated comfort to realize that there was an explanation for my feelings. It was even more terrifying to know what to do with this information.
I know well that my mood disorder runs back through my family, that it has a genetic basis somewhere. I have no idea what course it might have followed without this added sense of being out of step with rest of humanity. But my hospital psychiatrists were certain that my apparent gender dysphoria was simply a psychotic symptom that would resolve itself with the right dose of lithium.
They were wrong of course. Now, 17 years later, the average looking middle aged man who confronts me from the mirror is not special, but he is one I feel at home with. For many years I thought that was enough, as if I had found the magic bullet, the key to moving forward on all fronts. My family have been supportive, I recreated my identity and built a new career.
But I still found that the manic-depressive monster has followed me all along. Making sense of recovery this time around, I find myself doubly invisible. Behind a face that accurately reflects my sense of self identity, is a whole life I cannot fully share. Talking about being bipolar has been the easy part.
But moving forward from this birthday, I want to find a way to be whole.