Of memories, grief and melancholy: walking into 2015 with W.G. Sebald

Every year, rather than rushing through a book before the clock strikes midnight just to push up the book count of the year that is slipping away (an inclination likely idiosynchratic only to those who of us would rather read than party on New Year’s Eve), I prefer to walk into the coming year in the company of a great writer, allowing the experience to end one year and launch the next. My companion of choice to see out a year marked by loss, the resurgence of mental illness and a recognition of not only my own isolation, but my role in facilitating that condition; was the late German writer W. G. Sebald. More specifically his haunting and heartbreaking novel The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse). As a curious coincidence, the Word of the Day email from Meriam Webster that appeared in my inbox this morning for January 1 is:

emigrate \EM-uh-grayt\
verb  : to leave one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere

sebald2If you have never read Sebald, his work almost defies simple description. It must be experienced. Adjectives from admirers abound: mesmerizing, beautiful, subtle, sublime. Long evocative sentences unfold into even longer reflective paragraphs – at times running for pages – enhanced with the insertion of grainy photographs of people, scenery, pages from notebooks, objects, sketches. The reader is pulled in, guided along through landscapes, recollections, side observations and historical reflections by a narrator who is present, patient and human in the face of the incompleteness afforded by memory and the passage of time.

The Emigrants may well be the most accessible of Sebald’s work that I have read, especially because it forms its structure around the apparent biographies of four men who have emigrated or been exiled from their homelands. Three of the four have a Jewish heritage and World War I and II form a critical backdrop to the four very different accounts. Our narrator encounters each of these men, in person, even if only as a child, but in most cases he pieces together part or all of their life histories through the recollections of others, and the diaries and memoirs that he acquires along the way. In some cases he even attempts to revisit the locations that impacted the lives of his subjects, finding only decay or even complete obliteration in his vain efforts to find traces of a past that cannot be revisited.

There is such a deep and abiding melancholy that runs through these pages, that I don’t think I could have chosen a better literary companion to mark the passing of this difficult year. But it broke my heart and drove me to tears on more than one occasion. The first two chapters end with suicide. In the first we meet the eccentric Dr Henry Selwyn who, by the time the narrator and his wife come to know him, has taken to dwelling in the garden of the house owned by his wife from whom he is long alienated. He confesses to a greater sense of loss over a friend who had disappeared into the crevice of a glacier years before than any regret for the dissolution of his marriage. A Lithuanian Jew who had sought to conceal his heritage after emigrating England, the gentle doctor would eventually put his hitherto unused rifle to final lethal use.

In the second chapter the narrator revisits a beloved childhood teacher, Paul Bereyter, upon hearing of his suicide. Through his own reflections and conversations with a French woman who became Paul’s friend in his later years, an attempt is made to piece together the roots of the melancholy that had been hinted at when Paul was an unconventional but enthusiastic teacher; yet grew with the realization that even being 1/4 Jewish was sufficient to make him an exile in his own country. Meticulous and pragmatic to the end, the former teacher carefully researches his decision to end his own life. But although you know it is coming, the recounting of Paul’s final day is none the less devastating for the reader.

The narrator then traces the history of his own great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth in the third section. I found this portrait at once the most moving and the most devastating. Here the emigrant destination is North America and, for a change we are in settings with which I have some connection. Eccentric and meticulous in presentation and decorum, Ambros rises quickly in the hotel industry of the early 1900s and, once he joins his siblings in the US, secures works with a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. He is given charge for their son Cosmo, a young man driven to reckless excess and, as we will also see, its dark counterpart so recognizable to those of who are bipolar. Ambros and Cosmo embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, marked by gambling, daring aerobatic performances and a certain display of personal affection that raises the eyebrows of the elite that inhabit the rarefied world of wealth and glamour in the years just before the First World War.

With the outset of war though, Cosmo begins to plummet into despair and despite the best remedies that money and contemporary mental health care can buy, he will end his days in a private sanatorium. After staying on and looking after the family, Ambros retires to live in quiet isolation. But he is seemingly haunted by a deep unbearable grief. Suicide would be too messy, one imagines, for a man who dresses and presents himself as a formal gentleman to his dying day. Rather Ambros opts for voluntary commitment to the same sanatorium where Cosmo died, stoically submitting to an extreme regime of ECT as if the only way to truly destroy traumatic memory is through one bone blasting jolt at a time.

The final chapter, one which Sebald admitted was based on the amalgam of a landlord he once had and a well known artist; finds our narrator in Manchester, England. The city centre is in rapid decline. Here he meets Max Feber, an artist who, having emigrated from Germany, has for decades been single-minded in his efforts to find refuge through art. He devotes himself to this task seven days a week, drawing and erasing his work repeatedly, beyond the patience of his models. The narrator is curiously drawn to this anti-social, unusual character and they form an odd friendship but it is not until he revisits Max 25 years later that he realizes that there is here another story of loss to be fleshed out. But the lasting impression of the emigrant experience is as one in which both the realities from which emigrant has come and those to which he arrived (in this case in Germany and in Manchester) are both subject to decay, dissolution and the vagaries of memory and time.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011

I have never been one for family history. My mother’s family emigrated from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in the mid 1800s, my father’s mother’s family would have arrived in Toronto from England probably around the turn of the 20th century whereas his father’s family were United Empire Loyalists, making him a 7th generation Canadian. My parents met in New York City in the late 1950s, an era to which my father repeatedly tried to return long after it had ceased to exist. My brother and I were born in New Jersey but, after exploring a variety of options, my family pulled up stakes and moved to western Canada away from everyone they knew and settled here when I was only a few years old, soon adding another son.

Apart from that rough sketch, I am not inclined to family trees, I have only two photos of myself as a child and by the time my own children were born I had developed such a strong aversion to having my picture taken that I sometimes worry that I may have failed to take enough photos of my own children when they were growing up. Many years ago I finally understood why the person I saw in pictures or in the mirror was so at odds with the person I knew myself to be and started on a journey to correct the discord. Having reached my intended destination I no longer know how I fit into my family tree. In a very fundamental way I am an emigrant who has become exiled in his own life, still seeking to define what that means for me.

As the richly imagined portraits in The Emigrants illustrate there is a melancholy, anxiety and despair that can haunt the emigrant experience. I found myself wondering about origin, that is, how much of the melancholy was carried into the experience and how much owed its origin to dislocation and loss? As a person with bipolar disorder recovering a from a serious breakdown, questions of cause and effect always simmer. In the end it is impossible to distinguish loss leading to despair from despair that enhances a sense of loss. Having experienced both this past year I enter 2015 with a cautious mix of anxiety and anticipation.

As the year draws to a close…

At the beginning of 2014 my world was rapidly spinning out of control. There were clear indications that the extreme stress and toxic work environment I was living under was taking its toll. I was clearly struggling to hold myself together but like any good manic depressive I could not step aside and recognize the crisis that was unfolding. No one else in my life had the understanding to step in either and, in all fairness, I am not sure how I would have responded.

Now, at the end of the year, I have been out of the office for six months. My future is unclear. I had loved my work with brain injured adults and their families. It was challenging, rewarding and I was well respected. At least until I went crazy.

As soon as I walked away from my job I realized the price I had paid to build a career from community field worker to manager in less than a dozen years. I had intentionally alienated myself from people. I have always been a person inclined to isolation, shy in a curiously outgoing way. Public speaking does not phase me at all. I could speak to a crowd of 300, riffing on a theme if necessary, but face to face small talk is uncomfortable. The thought of baring my soul to another person in real time, over a coffee perhaps, is almost unbearable. In my life I have made few friends and had only two significant love affairs. And somehow I had managed to convince myself over the past decade or so that in addition to the challenges of raising children on my own, the social interaction provided by my work with hundreds of clients and professional colleagues would suffice. Close friendships and romantic relationships were not required.

I was wrong. But what now? I am in my 50s. I have repressed the very uniqueness of my history, that which had always set me apart. The very queerness of my being in the world. The ostensible and hard won success of fighting to be true to myself in the world was turned to dust in an instant. The road ahead suddenly looked lonely and long…

Slowly I am recovering. Much slower than I expected perhaps, but this unplanned respite has forced me to explore, re-evaluate and reach out. My therapist (thanks Jane) has been an important sounding board. Blogging and making contact with both bipolar and bookish fellow travelers has been vital. It has allowed a space for cathartic dumping. A medium for strengthening my ability to clearly articulate my thoughts and reflections. It has given me confidence to move out into the world closer to home.

Thanks to the fact that I have not been working I was able to volunteer at our writer’s festival and meet writers I admired from around the world, all of whom are in my age range. Financial constraints encouraged me to cancel my TV since I was generally using it as a mindless distraction. Consequently, reading and music have regained the attention they deserve. And when it is not -20C, like it is at the moment, I make a point to get out every day, frequently just to read and write at a local coffee shop.

So here is a song and a haunting video to carry you into the new year. It goes out especially to my brilliant friend of Blahpolar Diaries fame (infamy?) whose typically colourful ode to the therapeutic value music inspired this post.

Solstice to solstice: Reflections on madness, identity and writing

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.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

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.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

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.

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.