Hard to remember when the world had colour

- Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
– Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Granted midwinter in my part of the world is not the best place to find colour in nature. Branches are bare, grass is bunched and brown, snow is patchy and grey. But when I look back over the past year I can see how difficult it has been for me to register any enthusiasm to take my camera out. I walk a lot but I seem to want to stay in my head, maintain a fast pace, measure the rhythm of my boots against the ground. I circle the neighbourhood, walk with purpose on errands, but avoid the pathways and parks I have documented season after season these past few years.

Photography was a diversion, a relaxation and an isolated activity against a busy life at work and home. I would wander forest trails, across grassland parks or along the edges of rivers and lakes, framing and reframing the view and listening to recorded podcasts – discussions about books, philosophy, current events. It was a meandering, escapist pursuit. If I look back I have to wonder what I was escaping and where I had lost the capacity to dream.

Madness, mental illness if you prefer that term, brings back the capacity to dream because all the parameters are changed. For me it has brought words to the foreground but pushed the pictures to the background. Walking has become a means to expel restless energy, drive out the demons of anxiety and despair that keep reaching in. If I want to drown out the city noises I listen to music, the words in my head are my own.

Without being able to return to work at this time, I do feel a certain loneliness. But when I reflect on the years I devoted to a job that I believed validated and defined me, I realize that I was never more isolated than when I was working. Invisibility and an unwillingness to call attention to myself was not a measure of my successful transition. It was denial. To hide the fact that my past contained realities inconsistent with the man everyone knew, I believed I could not afford to allow anyone to get close. I captured colour in the outside world but painted myself with the blandest palatte possible.

A manic episode and all of the reckless behaviour and poor judgment it entails has left me with a professional legacy that I may never be able to salvage. I don’t even know if I want it back. Reclaiming my identity, being comfortable with my own history of sex and gender is a work in progress but I have to trust that it might lead me to a better more authentic place. It might even bring some colour back into my life.

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.

Thoughts about redemption

Copyright JM Schreiber 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber 2012

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it’s just a part of it:
We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom? –
‘Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs.”

This song by the late Bob Marley has echoed in my mind frequently over the past month or so. Written after the diagnosis of cancer that would ultimately claim his life, it is thought to speak to his personal reflections on mortality. My own longing for redemption relates directly back to my inability to resolve the circumstances which led up to the extraordinarily manic behaviour that marked my final days in the office. And my inability to let it go.

What is redemption?

Disregarding the financial and transaction contexts by which the term is used, redemption is typically understood as:
n.
1. an act of redeeming or the state of being redeemed.
2. deliverance; rescue.
3. deliverance from sin.
4. atonement for guilt.

Looking at the news over the past few weeks, there are some very public examples of behaviour that can not be easily excused. The videotape of NFL star Ray Rice punching and dragging his unconscious fiancee from an elevator, the resignation of a Vancouver CEO caught on video kicking and abusing a puppy, and most recently another NFL player accused of excessively brutal corporal punishment against his own children are just the latest in a litany of public figures behaving badly. Unfortunately, they might have been met  with relatively minor reprimands had there not been videotapes or pictures and an element of public shaming.

How many sports heroes, businessmen, politicians and celebrities have been brought down by grossly inappropriate, violent and even illegal actions only to eventually find redemption in the public eye? Many, have found such redemption more than once.

But what if your only “sin” is to have become ill due to a mental health disorder, where does redemption come from? I don’t even know what I want anymore. I have tried to apologize for my behaviour which I know was highly agitated and unpleasant, but there is no way to explain how trapped I was within that state,how miserable and unable to even know what was happening to me until a lot of interpersonal damage was done. Because no one from work will communicate with me I cannot have that conversation, no one can appreciate the degree to which I am still struggling and I can’t stop beating myself up inside for not recognizing the warning signs months before mania was in full swing.

If this was as straight forward as having lost a job, as much as there is grief and loss, I could at least busy myself with looking for a new job. But I am still technically connected to my employer and the question of return is unspoken but not denied. Meanwhile I am not able to function well enough to look for another option or contemplate a return. I am also increasingly aware that everything I loved about the job I had is exactly what, over time, made me ill.

The fact is, I am in limbo. I still have a lot of healing ahead. So why is the desire for redemption so important? Or is this really more the need to be heard and understood?

Isn’t that what we all seek in the end?

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.

Buying time to recover

Every morning I wake up in the middle of a dream about work. The dreams are surreal and disturbing.

I was at the height of a full manic psychosis at the point of last contact about two months ago. That is not an impression one wants to leave. It has taken a long time to slow down enough to appreciate just how agitated I have been. One can no more pull oneself out of depression than one can throw the breaks on a train running at full manic speed. And my memories of those last few weeks are hazy at best.

Technically I still have the potential of returning to work. I was a senior manager and I worked at this small not for profit agency for nine years without incident until a series of circumstances contrived to create an increasingly dysfunctional, toxic environment. And, well, long story short, the pressures took a devastating toll on my mental health. After a decade and a half of relative stability, I became ill. And as a bipolar person with a strong swing to the manic, I left in a spectacular flourish. So I have no real idea what remains for me there.

In all fairness I was paid out generous sick time and vacation pay and I do have access to a short term disability benefit that should see me through the next few months. The approval process has proceeded with typical government efficiency. But today I finally received confirmation of my application and that is a tremendous relief.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014

I just hope the dreams about work fade for while.

And I can spend some time reading and reflecting about where I go from here.

Reflections on a most intriguing Booker nominee – The Wake

6898212431_742cf14ae7_zSo the Booker Prize Longlist for 2014 was announced this week and, as much as I like to think that this is a list that does not hold quite the same seal of approval and impact that it once had for me I must confess that I am a sucker for these lists all the same. Generally, over time, I do manage to read more more than a few of the long and or short listed titles, and in doing so, I am invariably exposed to authors I might not have otherwise read. I am not likely to radically alter my looming to be read list just to have a go at a few of these titles in advance, but I did want to take a moment to look back on the most unlikely contender and, as it happens, the only one of these books that I have already read. The Guardian review that brought this title to my attention was so deeply intriguing I just had to read it as soon as possible. I have only just learned that it was a crowd sourced project, a factor that makes its appearance on the Booker Longlist that much more, shall we say, against the norm.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is an historical novel set in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings from the perspective of the very ordinary and simple farm and townspeople who were watching the world they knew turned upside down by a foreign invader. The magic of this amazing tale comes through a very creative and effective use of language. It is written entirely in a shadow tongue designed to evoke the feel and mindset of Old English while retaining accessibility for those of us who are not OE scholars. It may sound like a gimmick but the approach actually affords a unique immersive experience.

WakeKingsnorth relies on much authentic vocabulary without being unnecessarily rigid, while recreating the syntax and common spellings of Old English (using only the letters in use at the time). As a reader it takes a while to develop a feel for the language. At the beginning I found myself translating the directly in my head, the way I do with my rudimentary French, but soon that process fell away. It helped when I discovered that there was a most illuminating author’s note on the reasons for his approach to creating this language and I would suggest that a reader review this early on. I read the book on a Kindle as that was the only edition readily available in Canada at the time so I did not realize the supplementary sections, glossary and extensive bibliography existed until I was well into the book!

What takes this small novel beyond a purely literary or historical exercise is the skill with which Kingsnorth brings his chosen narrator to life. Buccmaster of Holland, is a proud socman or freeman landholder, who leads a small band of self-styled greenmen in guerilla warfare against the Norman invaders. They make for a rather motley crew and our leader is no Hollywood inspired superhero. As the tale unfolds we become increasingly aware that this coarse, paranoid, prejudiced man is clinging to a deeply superstitious tradition that was on its way to being replaced by Christianity long before the French arrived. We find ourselves bound to an increasingly delusional man with dark secrets of his own. Kingsnorth himself describes this novel (his first) as a post-apocalyptic tale set 1000 years in the past. Of course it also has strong echoes in the vast number of occupations and conflicts, large and small, that continue to haunt communities and cultures throughout the world today.

I first read this novel three months ago and loved it. However I look back on it with some measure of discomfort as I now continue to come to terms with the fall out of from a serious manic episode. In the leadership role I held at my workplace I became increasingly stressed under mounting pressure and, although I can’t remember, I must have seemed erratic, irritable and well, unstable. The truth of madness, is that you cannot see it from inside. For a long time you may sense that something is wrong but in the end you lose all insight and judgement. The narrator who guides us though The Wake, is a complex troubled character, but given his challenges and his panic at seeing his world – on the fundamentally economic and spiritual level – slipping out of his grasp, his sanity is at stake. I cannot imagine I would have fared any better.

Negotiating tangled emotions

The aftermath of madness leaves its own measure of grief.  Because the manic end of the bipolar experience is by nature expansive, the episode is rarely one that occurs in isolation. At the very least, strange, anxious and pressured calls are made. Sometimes to strangers. Sometimes to those you know. Friends and families may observe the cracks as they start to spread. The first tremors may be intermittent. They can look like occasional or periodic moments of stress – the bad days anyone can have. When things start to spiral out of control I suspect it is already too late. For the person inside the experience, the pressure, the racing thoughts, the inability to sleep or find relief from the escalating crisis becomes a space in which all perspective is lost.

And generally there is damage.

At the most severe there can be serious physical harm, violence toward the self or others. More typically major manic episodes impact relationships, bank accounts or jobs, sometimes beyond repair. Yet in the middle of it all is a person who is very ill, who will need time to recover physically and emotionally for whom there is frequently very little understanding or sympathy. Especially when they are isolated.

14629062611_de5f459467_zAs I struggle to cope with the rotating cycles of sadness, embarrassment, anger and fear following my recent breakdown I am aware that because no one from my workplace has contacted me, no one has any idea how severely ill I have been. They just remember the last days of fractured functioning before I was finally able to get away from the office. Four weeks later I am exhausted, still unable to regulate my sleep and uncomfortable driving beyond my immediate neighbourhood. When I am deemed well enough to return to work my employers will be able to imagine this “illness” was all a convenient ruse and I have reason to believe it will be held against me. The nine years I worked there and the senior management position I held under increasingly toxic work conditions will mean nothing because it was always an environment in which your work was never acknowledged or appreciated. My mistake was to care enough to stay because I believed in the work we were doing.

The emotional roller coaster is the worst. It is interfering with the comfort and enjoyment I have always found in reading and photography. It finds me moaning and wallowing in self pity when I’m not trying to push grief and anger behind me. And my young adult kids and 80 year-old mother deserve a break from having to listen to it all.

And I would much rather be blogging about books and ideas, not the black heartache of depression.