Let’s Talk 2013

My #letstalk tweets yesterday got a good reception. Here’s a less ephemeral version.

Slouching in my chair in my cheap red housecoat, tweeting from the netbook. It’s been a week of too-lucid nightmares and being unable to wake up before noon. I got cut off Ontario Works, so I’m paying out of pocket for meds, and Wellbutrin is too expensive. So I’m doing it the smart way and tapering off under my doctor’s supervision. It’s going fine except for the constant drowsiness and brain fog, which is tough when you’re on a deadline.

I shouldn’t have to bare my ugliest wounds to get people to be decent, to get them to take things seriously. I don’t really want to talk about suicide, or the sweaty nightmare of Effexor withdrawal, or the sludgey everyday feel of depression. I don’t want to talk about G-d or the absence thereof.

But today hath been decreed Let’s Talk About Mental Illness Day by Bell, who are going to donate 5¢ for every tweet hashtagged #BellLetsTalk. I don’t see why they can’t just donate a huge whack of money. Or hire a ton of lobbyists to pressure various levels of government to improve our existing mental healthcare system. Individuals speaking out are important, but it’s not complete without organizing for systemic change. Policy. Legislation. Stuff like that.

Let’s talk about the complete lack of mental health infrastructure here aside from the crudest emergency services, eh? They can’t do anything for you unless you’re actively suicidal, with a Plan and everything; you have to wait to get to that point. (I’ve been told this multiple times. I’m not the only one.)

The problems with mental healthcare parallel the problems with Ontario Works: you don’t qualify for help until you’ve lost everything…and you become ineligible again before you’ve gotten back on your feet. It creates a cycle of dependence.

We really don’t have to suffer this much. Why don’t we have pharmacare? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could book a free appointment with a therapist as easily as you can with a GP? Wouldn’t it be nice if no one ever had to quit venlafaxine (Effexor) because they couldn’t afford it any more? (For the n00bs, Effexor is real hard to quit. I did it once, cold turkey, and it was hell. I’m on it again now, for the long haul.)

Why can’t we have more places like the Gerstein Centre in this city? Respectful, dignified places to crash for a few days, to ease the transition between the ER or the institution and everyday life. You can come and go as you please, you just need to be back for dinner, and there are people on staff to talk to, and you can have guests if you want. I stayed there for a few days after one episode, during the G20 coincidentally. I licked my wounds and read Cryptonomicon and The Android’s Dream, left by some fellow traveller passing through. It was—gentle.

Depression has taught me to eschew the “man up”, “if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen” mentality. Toughness doesn’t mean learning to not care or not feel it. In fact the toughest people are the softest, the easily crushed, the sensitive ones. If you leave them (us) out—if you leave us behind—you’ll end up with a crowd full of, well, assholes. That’s the kind of macho culture endemic in a lot of industries, like politics and journalism. It’s terrible and I suspect many people would want something different, if they thought it was possible. But if you want things to change, you—you, personally—must stick your neck out for the “least of your brothers”.

An anecdote: at the end of the second all-night Executive Committee meeting, I think, after a night of deputations, they voted to Fuck the Poor™ anyway and I had a tiny mental breakdown. I felt like I had during my first suicidal crisis, which was brought on largely by poverty—being out of resources with nowhere to turn and no one to help me. Reporters and councillors were having media scrums, and everyone was milling around, and I kind of felt myself disassociating, completely losing touch with it all. To his great and everlasting credit, my city councillor actually listened to me try to explain my state of mind and said empathetic things. He seemed to take me seriously even though I was a complete wreck who had been driven to suicidal ideation by a committee meeting.

People like Cllr. Perks, and former alderman (councillor) David Reville (who I haven’t met yet), have convinced me that there is a place for me in politics. I think it is very important to create a political scene that people with mental health issues can participate in. We have to be decision-makers too, not just objects of policy, even at our messiest and maddest.

The most effective mental health treatment is supposed to be tripartite: medication, exercise, therapy. I would add a fourth: community organizing and political self-advocacy. Exercising your right to visibility and agency is not just personally empowering; it also makes things better for people who will come after you. It’s extraordinary if you think about it! We can’t change the physiological nature of mental illness. Meds can only do so much. But by changing our wider communities we can make mental illness easier to bear. I know this because the work of people like Pat Capponi, David Reville, and Reva Gerstein has improved my life in concrete ways. They didn’t just talk; they did. So can we.

Journal: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012

1 p. m., downtown Tim Hortons

Drizzly with a high in the teens(!). Picked this day to take the bike, without a jacket or umbrella of course…I will be absolutely soaked. Ah well…

Nervous because I went back for a follow-up dentist appointment and they think the tooth has a fracture and that’s what’s irritating the bone and the (periodont?). So sending me to Grad Endo to see what can be done. I really can’t afford a root canal. Will probably end up having the damn thing extracted. Then getting a night guard!

[

] Think de Beauvoir and Sartre. Probably why I will end up as a lone cat lady!

Budget process, too. Fills me with despair, a kind of visceral fear that I’m not sure my fellow wonks “get”. I suppose they rely on fewer public services. Transit mostly.

Also because, I think, of the extra $[    ] last month, they say my OW is temporarily cut off. (For how long? How do I get on Trillium? How much do my drugs cost out of pocket? Too many unanswered questions.) To finally get a chunk of change that could substantially improve my life — and then to have to spend it on dental work — it’s right out of a Yiddish curse. No wonder I grind my teeth.

A sombre What I’m Reading

Pat Capponi, Upstairs in the Crazy House (1992)

A memoir of the author’s post-institutionalized life in one of Parkdale’s infamous boarding houses, with flashbacks to her abusive childhood and the roots of her depression. She chronicles poverty, fleas, abandonment, addiction, and the determination to assert one’s humanity in the face of a system bent on denying it.

Capponi has since become a prominent mental health and housing advocate here in Toronto, making the city a little more humane. Once, after a spell of suicidality, I was able to stay in the Gerstein Centre which she had a hand in establishing. It helped restore the dignity that the P. E. S. U. strips away from you; I’ll always be grateful.

Stevie Cameron, On the Farm (2010)

The book on the Pickton case. Seriously, there’s nothing I’ve read about in the news from the ongoing inquiry that isn’t in On the Farm.

Cameron focuses on the lives and personalities of the missing women throughout, an emphatic unspoken assertion that they were not “disposable”, they were not worthless, they were talented and vivacious and loving and loved women—their relatives fought for years to get the Vancouver police to take the disappearances seriously. In some cases the VPD flat-out lied to the families to get them to go away; and upper brass refused to let top profiler Kim Rossmo help investigate. To the VPD, women who were poor and addicted and prostitutes and (it’s impossible to deny this had an influence) Native weren’t worth finding.

(Slutwalk is happening right now; stayed in and wrote this up instead. Is SW relevant to impoverished mentally ill women? To addicted Native women in sex work? I suspect not but I’d love to be proven wrong.)

What I’m Reading, #32: Frederik Pohl, Gateway (1977)

“You are living with it, Bob.”

“Do you call this living?” I sneer, sitting up and wiping my nose with another of his million tissues.

“[…] Let me strike home for once, Bob. Let this sink in: you are living.”

“…Well, I suppose I am.” It is true enough: it is just not very rewarding.

Yesterday [July 13] was a rough day, but at least it was productive and I can rest for a bit instead of excoriating myself for being lazy. I have always had a very hard time getting myself to make phone calls. It’s even worse now because, living in a basement apartment, I get poor reception and often have to go outside to ensure the person on the other end of the line can hear me and I don’t get cut off. And sometimes I have trouble getting to the point where I can leave the house, which is probably hard to understand for anyone who has no experience with clinical depression. It takes a long time to wake up and get dressed and feed myself, and sometimes the mere thought of being around other people—even just fellow tenants or passersby on the street—is just too intimidating.

Hence it had been weeks and I still hadn’t called to schedule a doctor’s appointment or get in touch with my social worker. I finally decided that it was easier to go to the hospital (where my family doctor is) and make an appointment in person than to phone (and it was, despite being about a gazillion degrees out), and on the way back I stopped in the park to read Gateway and work up my nerve to call the social worker.

Gateway is a Big Dumb Object novel, set in a future where Earth and the colonies on Mars and Venus have become desperately overcrowded and resource-poor. Gateway is an asteroid-turned-spaceport long since abandoned by the (apparently) vanished alien race known as the Heechee. It’s filled with small ships programmed to go on round-trips to specific destinations. The problem is, there’s no way to figure out where they’re going to go and what’s at the other end. Enterprising prospectors might bring back priceless Heechee technology—or end up burned to a crisp or dead of radiation sickness or simply travelling so long they run out of rations and starve.

Our hero, Robinette Broadhead (“in spite of which I am male”), heads to Gateway hoping to strike it rich and escape the mines of Wyoming forever. The story switches between his time in Gateway and when he has returned to Earth, fabulously wealthy but spending a lot of time with his robot psychotherapist, alternately denying he has a problem and shying away from a place of acute emotional pain. Something awful happened during his trips out, and nearly all the book is spent hinting at and building up to that revelation.

I was expecting sensawunda along the lines of Chiang or Watts, but Gateway is primarily an exploration of the human mind. Well, one very fucked-up human mind, at least. When Broadhead gets to Gateway he loses his nerve and spends most of his time in a state of boredom and terror, distracting himself with other prospectors’ going-away or coming-home parties, or sex—with a woman who, despite her previous experience, has also become too scared to ship out. Of course, eventually he does go—and most of the trip is also stultifyingly boring, spent crammed in a can uncomfortably close to his fellow explorers.

(Some novels are said to have a good “sense of place”; Gateway has sense of time. The way anxiety drags out time, or compresses it.)

The therapy scenes (lying in the grass, sweating through my shirt even in the shade of a tree) really got to me, a lot more than I thought they would. I hate talking to doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers and such, I generally don’t like telling them about that kind of thing, and I’ve had to do it for years. So even the scenes in Gateway, with Broadhead snarkily parroting Freudian jargon to Sigfrid, rattled me.

I think what I hate is the feeling of exposure. Self-loathing, maybe; I feel like I’m an ugly, mediocre mess beneath a fragile veneer of normalcy. So having to open myself up to examination, whether it’s a psychiatrist asking about my depression or a social worker inspecting my bank statements, is just the most terrifying thing. Perhaps because of so much therapy in my childhood, or not getting a lot of privacy growing up in general, I have an urgent need for privacy now.

(I couldn’t explain any of this to my social worker, though. I could only say, yes, I know I should have phoned you weeks ago. No, I can’t explain why I didn’t. No explanation is coming. I just want to be let alone.)

You just sort of have to keep going, and let yourself feel things as they happen. Looking back on things, I think I prefer the fear and anxiety and self-recrimination and all that. It’s better than numbness, because it feels like you’re actually losing time—like time is going by and you haven’t spent it doing anything. I hate drifting. It’s just hard to pull yourself out some of the time.

“It is exactly what I call living. And, in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much.”

What I’m Reading, #8

Milorad Pavi?, Dictionary of the Khazars (1984, transl. 1988)

Yeah. I read it. Liked it well enough, and have absolutely nothing to say about it. Possibly because the return of my long-running sleep problems (unable to get to sleep till quite late, then sleeping for twelve hours) has made it unable to sustain intelligent thought, focus on work, or muster up any genuine enthusiasm. I think I am faking it decently, though; it terrifies me how little people would think of me if they knew how stupid I really was.

The Khazars, by the way, are very interesting…