Further reflections on the void left by suicide: deeper appreciation for Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists. She has drawn heavily on her Mennonite heritage filtered through the ability to explore the messiness of ordinary life with a wonderful sense of humour. Recently I reviewed her Giller nominated All My Puny Sorrows, a novel which is deeply inspired her sister’s suicide. The novel itself, while wicked funny in places, left me wanting more of a connection to Elf, the deeply depressed character. Her “healthy” sister, the narrator, never really seemed to understand but rather struggled with her own reactions – the practical and the reckless.

Tonight I had the good fortune to attend a panel called “Darkness Visible” in which Miriam participated. The theme explored by the three somewhat diverse novelists was focused on looking at whether dark themes, personal or political, can be fully examined in literature. The consensus I suppose was that despite the challenges and limitations, the ambition is valid and important.

swing lowBecause I already own a digital copy of All My Puny Sorrows I purchased a copy of Swing Low: A Life for this event. Written in memory of her father, a well loved teacher and pillar of the community who took his own life about a decade before his daughter followed suit, this slim volume deals more explicitly with manic depression and suicide. I only recently became aware of it. Given my own recovery process I am thinking this is more the story I was looking for with All My Puny Sorrows. Coincidentally, an audience member at the event had grown up in the same Manitoba community as Toews. Her father had been his teacher and he began to cry as he shared his shock when he had learned how much pain and sadness the family was going through. Miriam had to dry her eyes as well.

That is the true impact of suicide and it spreads beyond families.

When I had the pleasure to speak to Miriam after the event I confessed my experience with All My Puny Sorrows, explaining that I was reading it in the aftermath of my own breakdown and, sadly, in the light of Robin William’s suicide. I told her I suspect that the book I was hoping for probably lies in part in this earlier, more serious volume. But then we both admitted that unless we are ourselves are burdened with the desperate desire to let go of this life, we can only ever observe from the outside. We also shared our mutual fears for our children inheriting the same genetic disorder.

I am deeply impressed with Miriam Toews’ desire to speak about mental illness and with her wide appeal in this country, hopefully her message will reach an audience that needs to hear it. I am looking forward to finding out how she explores the bipolar disorder in her family through her father’s story, unaware at the time of course, that the same event would strike her family again.

She told the audience that if writing her most recent book taught her one thing it is to hold tight to the joy in life.

A worthy goal for us all.

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.

As we know, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye

We have all heard this expression, probably said it ourselves if we are parents. Somehow, today, as we continue to simmer in the aftermath of the news of Robin William’s tragic suicide on Monday, this is the thought that keeps coming back to my mind. For those of us who live with the very harsh reality of a mood disorder his death holds a special poignancy. So does the inevitable, endless discussion that only unexpected celebrity death seems to be able to generate.

I am presently on sick leave after a severe manic episode and although I feel the worst of my own suicidal ideation has passed, the extreme mixed state I passed into as medical resources were amassed to put the brakes on my mania was the worst I have known to date. I relied heavily on the local Distress Centre at all hours of the day and night and as much as practical on my elderly mother and young adult children. Otherwise I was intentionally and completely ostracized by my employer and they have yet to follow up on my well being. Still I feel fortunate. Robin Williams and countless others are not so lucky.

In the wake of his death, everyone seems to be turning in to look at the darkness haunting so many seemingly outgoing, humorous, entertaining and outgoing individuals. It seems to me like the attention is so keenly focused on depression and addiction. But when he was working all out, brimming with manic energy the danger signals were just as evident. But we were too busy laughing, crying, and being entertained to be concerned. It’s all fun and games…

Another public media post mortem comment that disturbs me is the observation some people have made that he seemed to hide behind his characters, whether in his improvised comedy or the countless powerful and engaging individuals he portrayed on screen. From this they extrapolate  that it is as if he was hollow inside. As if only an individual so empty and devoid of being could ever be driven to take his or her own life! I am no expert on Robin Williams, I never met him, but I would not be surprised to learn that he was a deep and intensely private man. Probably shy and insecure too.

For many people who grow up with an inclination to conditions on the mood/anxiety disorder spectrum, there is often a lot of social isolation. I know from my own experience and that of my son, social interaction does not come naturally to some of us. The need to compensate can drive such people to the creative arts – drama, music, literature for example. Likewise such individuals can be drawn to academic pursuits where energy and intellectual drive can lead to striking success. After all, there can be long periods of essentially “normal” function, especially if one avoids the trap of alcohol or drugs as a means to cope.

From my own recent experience, it seems to me that our western society, rewards the mildly manic. Over the past nine years I worked at a small agency where I routinely held the largest and most complex caseloads and took on any extra assignments placed on my desk. I developed programs, trained staff. I was rarely sick and frequently had to struggle to squeeze my allotted vacation time in before year end. I loved my job.

At home I was a single parent with two teenagers, each with their own special needs. There was whole full time round of responsibilities that fell into play outside the office. Then about a year ago things at work got crazy. The Director was exhibiting signs of significant cognitive decline and it was left to myself and a junior staff to monitor and report on the increasingly toxic state at the office while the Board of Directors tried to decide what to do.

As senior management I took the brunt of the responsibility, workload and, ultimately, abuse. I became irritable, overwhelmed and distressed – big time manic. Although I had always been open about my bipolar diagnosis no one recognized the warning signs until a chance comment about how fast I was talking hit me like a ton of bricks. I immediately pulled myself out but by then it was too late. And it is all still seen as entirely my fault, my failure to control my behaviour.

I wasn’t funny, no one was laughing and I am the only one who lost an eye, figuratively speaking of course.

In the early weeks of my sick leave I remember thinking that if I took my life, maybe my employers would realize how truly sick I had become. Of course it would have only reinforced my madness and saved them the complication that as a disabled person I have human rights protection.

Loveable madness is remembered fondly. Margot Kidder digging garbage out of an alley is not. On a more horrific level, the nice ordinary person who seems to suddenly snap and takes the lives of family or strangers is not. However mental illness is a critical subject that we cannot afford to ignore.

After all, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses a life.

R.I.P Robin Williams
R.I.P Robin Williams