When even a sibling’s love is not enough – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

The title and binding imagery that fuses the latest novel from Canadian author Miriam Toews comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to his friend, the poet Charles Lamb. Both men had their own struggles with mental illness but Lamb’s beloved sister Mary had an especially prolonged and devastating battle. Coleridge commiserates with his friend’s tireless care for his sister, reflecting that he, Coleridge had had a dear sister upon whom he “pour’d forth all his puny sorrows”. Elfreida (Elf) the suicidally depressed character at the centre of this novel drew her signature theme from this line , but it is her sister Yolandi (Yoli) who brings her to life and devotes herself to trying to keep her alive as she narrates this funny, heartbreaking tale. As such, All My Puny Sorrows is well named.

all my puny sorrowsColeridge was the first poet who caught my adolescent attention, much to the shock of my high school English teacher. However I confess it was the rugged adventure of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” that sparked my enthusiasm. The Romantic poets, so many of whom seem to have suffered from mental illnesses seemed kindred spirits ( although this would have been long before my own diagnosis). They loved passionately, often tragically, and became addicted to opiates. For the teenager falling well short of cool, the appeal is not hard to imagine.

SamuelTaylorColeridgeFor Elf and her sister growing up in the confines of a small Mennonite town, the arts were an acceptable outlet. Elfreida channels her energy into the piano eventually taking to concert stages around the world and winning the love of a man so patient he’s surely destined for sainthood. Yolandi opts for a less glamorous route, including a couple of failed marriages, children, meaningless affairs and a career pumping out rodeo themed YA novels.

I was attracted to this book when I heard Toews on the radio explaining that this novel began from a deeply personal space. Her father, a respected teacher despite a lifelong battle with depression, took his own life in 1998. Almost 12 years to the day later, her only sister followed suit in the same very way and location. Having already memorialized her father in non-fiction, Toews felt that fiction would free her up to address this very real and difficult subject more openly. But that is also where it falls apart for this reader.

She is able to make some very astute observations about the failings of the mental health system and sadly demonstrates that, in the end, there is no way that anyone or any system can ever do more than delay the efforts of someone truly committed to stepping off this mortal coil. However I never felt that Elf was more than a tragic figure in a hospital bed. Yoli’s childhood memories and the accounts of her sister’s glorious career rang hollow. The real strength of this book for me lies in the the indomitable spirit of the characters who survive against all the odds and resist the despair that mounts around them.

And maybe that is the point. It is not for us – friends, family, observers or readers to judge. In a few weeks I will be able to see Miriam Toews take part in a panel exploring the ability – or limitations – in being able to make sense of the darkness in life through literature. I will be interested to hear what she has to say.

Some ghosts have rougher journeys than others

- Copyright JM Schreiber 2012
– Copyright JM Schreiber 2012

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.

Shame, guilt and absolution

Shame: A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright  JM Schreiber 2014

A severe manic episode leaves a residue of shame that no magic formula can resolve or wash away. Your behaviour, actions, words and deeds – no matter how out of character – are remembered by others while you, yourself, have only the foggiest sense of a hellish few days or weeks.

As the weeks pass I find myself unable to shake thoughts of my workplace, the environment in which my manic drama played out. I don’t think about returning to work and I know that at this point I could not even mentally or emotionally entertain that notion even if they would accept me. I realized today that it is the unbearable shame I feel for actions and words I could not control and can never properly apologize for that is eating me up inside.

A post on a blog I follow inadvertently put me in mind of a poem I discovered in the wreckage of my first manic psychosis many years ago. The poem, “Deceptions”, by Philip Larkin was inspired by an account from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of a young girl who was drugged and raped by her master.

The poem is exacting in its depiction of her grief and the poet admits, unapologetically, that there is no consolation he can give her; recognizing that both victim and perpetrator were deceived in the violent act. I think it is this very measured recognition that there is nothing that he can offer to absolve grief and shame in the sufferer whether the event is recent or buried by the sands of time that gives the poem its power. The following lines struck me when I first encountered them and this time around, perhaps because my manic episode was a much more public event, they clearly articulate the feelings with which I am currently trying to come to terms.

… light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding.  All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

This too shall pass, I know, and I will ease the drawer closed and the emotional scars will fade with time.

Absolution is not the issue. Mental illness is not a sin.

Leaving the Atocha Station – The neurotic American poet in Spain

I recently read Ben Lerner’s acclaimed first novel Leaving the Atocha Station. I bought the book in 2012 but had put it aside, uncertain I wanted to spend time with a narrator I expected to be a misanthropic American slacker poet slouching his way through the streets of Madrid. When I happened to catch the replay of a CBC radio interview with the author my interest was rekindled, especially in light of my recent breakdown and the therapeutic comfort I have been finding in poetry.

indexSure enough our narrator Adam Gordon is an ambivalent and emotionally insecure young poet who has chosen to spend a fellowship year in Madrid. Ostensibly his aim is to explore, in verse, the impact of the Civil War on Spanish society although he seems to have precious little direction or inclination of how to begin his project beyond attempting to improve his comfort with the Spanish language. He seems to have a cultured skepticism in the value of art and the validity of the artistic experience which in turn causes him a healthy dose of self loathing. He passes his days smoking hash and cigarettes, while relying on the security of tranquilizers and mood stabilizers. He reads Tolstoy, Cervantes, and John Ashbery. Beyond that he parties and awkwardly attempts to conduct love affairs with two Spanish women.

The resulting novel is a surprisingly humourous and engaging exploration of the struggling artist who refuses to struggle. Adam spends much time trying to make sense of what his new Spanish friends are saying and attempting to compose the facial expressions that he assumes will be appropriate for the circumstances. If in doubt he hides behind the prop of a cigarette. Yet it is not only the dislocation of being in a foreign country that accounts for Adam’s feeling of always being one step out of sync. He also believes himself to have bipolar disorder although it is never entirely clear that this is a confirmed diagnosis or a justification for the little yellow and white pills that he relies on. I’m not certain if Lerner, himself an established poet, is playing with the idea that neurosis is an essential element of the artistic process. Nonetheless Adam embraces it fully, manipulating his medication to ramp up the production of poems for a Spanish translation without any real sense if he is producing anything of worth.

Ultimately he crowns this phase of intense creative production with a grand manic splurge, thanks to his parents’ credit card, to impress one of the women he imagines himself in love with. An insanely expensive dinner and a night at the Ritz Carlton coincides with a tragic early morning blast at the busy Atocha Train Station, the 2004 attack by Islamic militants that killed 191 commuters. The street protests and the involvement of Adam’s wealthy young Spanish friends in the demonstrations and elections that follow this terrorist attack serve to force him to ground himself, even just a little.

The most engaging aspect of this book for me was the continual sense of self consciousness that pervadesAdam’s thoughts, plays with his confidence and keeps him from ever feeling that he is at home in any setting. His anxiety causes him to sabotage his potential relationships (or at least believe he is sabotaging them). He is alternately cocky and absolutely certain everyone else is humouring him. He spends time composing his face, adopting poses and pulling himself together in public settings. If you have never lived with a mood or anxiety disorder such obsessing might seem like poetic license. I found it uncomfortably familiar.

And those little pills Adam keeps reaching for… I have had to rely a lot on those myself lately.

For the love of gravy

Today I am thinking about gravy.

There is a dish which has become ubiquitous in Canada – fries smothered with gravy and cheese curds – the French Canadian artery clogging delight called poutine. Many years ago when I lived in Ottawa it was a treat to cross into Québec, follow some back road instructions to a truck, seemingly parked in the middle of nowhere and order the authentic dish complete with cardboard container and plastic fork. Personally my tastes have changed in 30 years, so while some version resembling poutine can be found at most of your favourite fast food haunts, but I will leave you to it. My kids, on the other hand, love gravy – with or without the cheese curds.

poutineToday my wish for my son is gravy. At 24 he has been struggling with an addiction to alcohol for several years. He is aware that underlying the addiction is the mood disorder that knits so much of our family together. Yet his experiences in anything resembling conventional mental health care have been quite horrific for an intelligent, gifted child. As far as he is concerned, alcohol is preferable to medication or therapy. I can appreciate where he is coming from but I chose to take my risks with the prescribed meds and I have been spared the temptation to turn to alcohol that has marked many other family members over the years. Not that it has prevented me from falling ill again but life has no guarantees.

Living with mental illness is not easy. Addiction adds to the burden. But I love my son unconditionally and understand that, in the end, his life is his own and he is the only one who can really come to terms with his own blessings and curses.

Lately we have been fooling ourselves with the idea that he can maintain a minimal alcohol intake and get by. However, this morning after a night of heavier drinking and the inevitable conflict such situations evoke, he finally admitted that he cannot live without alcohol and that it is interfering with everything he wants in life. He poured out every remaining drop and gathered all the empty cans and bottles to return.

Will it hold? It is a critical start, as close to bottom as I have seen him reach to date. So I want to offer him gravy. Poets, artists, musicians and writers who nursed their muse with alcohol or drugs are well known and a tragic number paid a steep price. But I want to offer my son Gravy, a poem composed by the incomparable Raymond Carver after a diagnosis of cancer. Although illness took him early it was not for alcohol – that was a battle he won and was rewarded with the time to create a body of poems and short stories that have inspired and moved so many. And that is a victory he celebrated as, of all things, gravy:

No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it…

Excerpt from Gravy by Raymond Carver,                                                                         All of Us: The Collected Poems, edited  by Tess Gallagher, Vintage (1996)