Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You've got to be on drugs

May 2009— Where does one start?

Does one start where the darkness bleeds into the day? When the clouds
pour over one’s soul?

Well that’s quite the downer.
But it is an expression of a disease that takes hold of many people — leaving them depressed, seemingly forever locked in what the poets of old called the melancholia.

Severe depression should not be a death sentence; it can be, though, if

Enter yours truly.

I have put off writing this for some time — notably because of my fear of
being stigmatized: characterized as, from henceforth, being devoid of his
marbles, a witless wonder.

When people learn you are taking anti-psychotics for major depressive
disorder, the changed perception of you flushes over their faces. You become a changeling — a thing pretending to be the ‘you’ we always knew.

I hope ‘outing’ myself as a victim of depression will help reduce the tension that inevitably arises, even among good friends.

Each of the two medications I take daily works to affect the transfer and-or
uptake of neurotransmitters across a gap between brain cells. Celexa affects serotonin uptake, while Seroquel inhibits communication between nerves of the brain. (See <MedicineNet.com>.)

I was initially averse to the whole idea of taking these medications. (I had stigmatized myself!)

But they are effective; that is the only test for me. I am less restless and anxious.
I don’t stew as much about things I have no control over. And I’m generally upbeat, when before I was inclined to take the downside in most situations.

In some sense, depression became a ‘learned behaviour’. It was refuge for
my roiling psyche. I was assailed by many stresses that squeezed at me from all directions. Instead of addressing the issues that gave moment to my stress, I dragged myself through each day of mounting ennui and melancholy.

I had not come to terms with the deaths of my mother and brother, deaths
that came within five months of one another. Nor even the death of my father 21 years ago.

The chemical habit of my brain turned my perceptions, crowding out what
might be called a normal way of thinking.

I recall a boyhood friend of mine. He was always getting in trouble — cursing his parents, getting in fights, being up and happy one moment and down and bitter the next. His first wife would leave him, fed up with his harangues and mood swings.

When I last heard from him, he was upbeat; had met another woman; and
was actually making well-thought plans about his future. The keystone to his turnaround was that he was finally diagnosed manic-depressive or bipolar. This is a disease that is easily treated with drugs, lithium notably. One might say — incorrectly — that he became a changed man after the therapy. Instead, he became the man he should have always been, but for the disease that robbed him of the early years of his life.

One does not lose one’s critical thinking skills because she is taking pills for a brain disorder. But there remains a concern that we are losing something of ourselves.

I recall a book by B.F. Skinner, the scientist who established a theory known as behaviourism. Behaviourism is, usefully, able to predict some behaviours, as outcomes of rewards and punishments.

The famous pigeon pecking for pellets or Pavlov’s dog come to mind. In
both cases, we see animals ‘conditioned’ to in the pigeon’s case peck interminably for food, and in the case of the dog salivate when a bell rings (the dog having learned to associate the bell or buzzer sound with food).
In his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner took the fruits of behaviourism to a new high (low). He posited that behavourial techniques could be used to make us all feel content in our lives, irrespective of the pressures we face. One could, theoretically, produce medications that would make all of us docile and compliant — without being aware of the effect.

In effect, Skinner was suggesting that whole populations could be duped into feeling they are happy. It’s a theory tinged with the trappings of George Orwell’s 1984, a work in which the famed British essayist frames a brave new world in which everyone must speak the same language and pay homage to Big Brother.

So that is the qualified fear I have taking my anti-depressants: That I’m acquiescing because I am taking the medication; that I would ‘think’ differently if I was not taking the medication.

It’s an open question whether I think differently because of the medication. I think, actually, that I have changed my way of thinking many times in my life.

The brain is resourceful but sometimes, because of injury, trauma or prolonged personal stress, its capacity to respond is diminished — diminished to such an extent that harm may be caused if left untreated. That’s where therapy and drugs can be the best course.

UPDATE: After one year of taking the drugs prescribed, I quit cold turkey. Probably not a good idea, but I was broke, couldn’t afford the meds and thought a year was enough.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Alzheimer’s is an unforgiving scourge

Herb was in a bit of a bind. At 75, he was slowly but conspicuously losing the wit and
incisiveness that had been keystones of his stunning personality.

Short and lean, Herb managed a presence, particularly during my family’s occasional
festive gatherings. A few years before Alzheimer’s crept into his life, Herb had
demonstrated his command of oratory and memory when he recited the “Cremation of
Sam McGee”, that deliciously multi-syllabic rendering written by Robert W. Service.

Herb rocked back and forth, his hands clasped in front of him as he effortlessly brought
the magical poem to life. His head listed dramatically as he spoke, as his eyes seemed
to drift off into a different place — where words danced in a dervish of whirling colours.

Just these few years later, Herb found himself in a labyrinth of dead-ends and

“I’ve been putting notes everywhere,” he explains. But he need notes to tell him where
his notes are. ‘See note on fridge.’ ‘Call Linda.’ ‘Take out garbage.’ ‘Master list beside

The sad dissolution came rapidly for Herb. His plaintive protestations proved incapable
of slowing the decline. His memory and all that goes with it was on a downhill slide and,
like the proverbial snowball, gaining a full head of steam as it tumbled.

Herb’s loss became slowly evident then accelerated after his wife Wilma’s death
Christmas day 1987. He was inconsolable after Wilma died. He lost interest, even his
famous interest in current events, particularly the machinations of global politics.

Herb was a shoe salesman by trade. By night, he devoured literature. He and Wilma
lived in a small apartment just off Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. He built a summer home
in Winnipeg Beach, a resort town an hour north of Manitoba’s capital. The summer
home was his love, sewn by his hand. Even though its angles were off by a country mile, it was Herb’s handiwork.

As Herb entered his final year, his daughter surreptitiously obtained power of attorney to
govern his financial affairs. Herb had been using his credit cards to buy and re-buy tools
he already owned, nails he didn’t need, compost for the garden that had already
received its full annual complement of the soil enricher.

He had been trying to recapture his independence but his financial indulgence would
have bankrupted him had his daughter not acted. Even so, it seemed callous to take
away his right to decide how he would spend his money.

Herb was ragged with rage for a time. That passed as he forgot the incident entirely. He
would forget that he smoked and drank, both of which were pastimes he had pursued with

The inevitable came as he drifted into the moment — no recollection of the past, no
future ahead in anticipation. Locked in moments that emerged out of nothing.
Herb died in a hospital, likely confused or indifferent. Those who cared for him in his
dying weeks likely knew nothing of his character, his life. That is sad enough.

The greater sadness is that Herb, in the end, didn’t know who he was either.

Chance meetings imbued with meaning

Bicycle Bill sternly but quietly pedals his trusted 10-speed bike toward the hospital entrance. 

The gears of the 10-speed are bust, so he can’t go fast, he says with a smile. The left-hand mirror of the second-hand bike is bent awkwardly; giving more an image of himself than that of the road behind him, one supposes. Or maybe he moved the mirror when he placed the bag on the left side of the handle-bar. It is semi-transparent — the bag. The Crest toothpaste box stands out. 

I’m standing outside the hospital entrance, puffing my third cigarette as Bill pulls up. I’ve seen him mornings at the hospital cafeteria. Good price, good food, he figures.

Bicycle Bill is ruddy of face; missing his lower teeth. He has a ready smile — a smile part pain, part inner glow. He talks frankly and evenly; unprepossessing, unimpressed by the theatrics of life, it seems. 

He’s wearing a baseball cap under the hood of his vinyl jacket. It’s been a drizzly day. 

Bicycle Bill has lived in the Oldie for years. He says he left the old hotel tonight. It was time, he says. “I’ve got a place for tomorrow,” he says confidently, simply. 

“So you’re out under the stars tonight?”

He smiles. “All you’ve got is your health,” he says, adding he hopes to live until he’s 105. “I know some of what I say is dreaming. But my job in life is to be healthy.” 

He tells me he once walked 100 kilometres in a round-trip from his hometown to another town he felt like visiting. It was his way of answering the call to sobriety. “I used to drink 24 beers a day. And I smoked lots, too,” he says plainly. 

Bicycle Bill says he’s worked a few jobs in his time. In his twenties, he worked potash mines in Saskatchewan. “I want to start my own business,” he says wistfully. “I’m an electrician.” 

He says he was stressed out somewhere along the skein of his life — he doesn’t say when. He says he accepts full responsibility.

“And I never realized I wasn’t one for marriage,” he says without further explanation. 

“Good to talk to you,” I say, having decided a fourth smoke is out of the question. 

“Take care,” he says, as he pushes off on his bike, gliding into the gathering night. 

Bicycle Bill is one of those ephemeral characters who drifts into your life occasionally. Normally, you wouldn’t give him the time of day. But, at those moments when you are down or troubled, people like Bill arrive with their irony and simple wisdom. 

Usually, there’s no one within earshot. They idle up, unheard, as you contemplate the desperations of your life. Self-centered and self-involved, you’re morosely pondering your afflictions and pains, as Bills and Janes silently motor from the periphery and into your sight — full-blown and esoteric. 

Years back, I met Jane the Angel. I was waiting for a fare, reading a calculus textbook on a warm summer’s day. I noticed a tall woman standing beside my cab. I rolled down the window. 

“You can’t see them,” she says plainly, pointing skyward. “But they are coming.” 

The clouds billow large in the sun-filled sky. I look at her face; her expression is angelic. I stare up at the sky, clouds roiling. 

“Who’s coming?” I ask. 

She smiles oddly, perhaps bothered by my lack of insight. Her eyes are a deep, strangely unsettling blue. They shine with an inner serenity. Her affect is decidedly out of place. 

I look down at her feet. Sandalled, her toes are bloodied. 

“Can I help you?” I ask pointedly. She winces contemplatively. I cajole her to take a drive with me. 

“Just a short drive around the corner,” I assure her. 

When we pull into the lot beside the hospital psychiatric wing, she seems restless. I ask her to stay in the cab as I go into the low-slung building beside the hospital. A woman at the front desk shakes her head when I tell her about my passenger. “We’ve been looking for Angel for hours,” the receptionist says laconically. She and an intern join me in the walk outside. 

Angel is unperturbed as she is assisted out of the cab. I watch as the three walk up the path. As it had been with Bill, I wonder at the lesson I should have learned. 

Each came unannounced, unadorned, fleetingly into my life. Each left an impression I cannot fully explain. We meet people, now and then, who make an impression. We usually meet them in structured situations — the office, a public meeting, church. We have a ‘meeting’ of the minds. We feel we’ve learned something, shared something. 

Then we go on with our lives, leaving unexamined that night we met that person we’ve not seen again. 

The chance meetings with the Bills and Janes of life are somehow different in kind and impact. They seem to arrive with purpose, then leave without any sense of completion. 

One thing is clear, if not fully examined. Such chance meetings have a deep, personal meaning.

Climbing aboard peace train

As midnight neared on New Year’s, the CD player changed its tune. It churned and sputtered, then the Cat Stevens tune began. 
It was at the stroke of midnight that “Peace Train” played out into the room.
One by one, voices chimed in with the lyrics. 
Thirty people, friends, were soon singing in unison. Soon with gusto, not frenzy. Soon with all the heart and commitment the song evokes.
Four minutes of transformation. 
The year 2010 began at my home near the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. Thirty people — a motley crew, shaped of writers, singer-songwriters, construction workers, sad bureaucrats and wannabe politicians. Origins and inclinations withered as Stevens’s memorable lyrics filled the living room. 
You can’t embellish “Peace Train”. But 30 voices can bring its spirit to life. 
It was very much like a new beginning. It underlined the hope that a new year brings. 
On the tips of our minds, one can only guess, would have been the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, unspoken though that was. 
The amplification those voices gave to the spirit of peace will never leave me. 
It was magical. 
Later, people remarked about what a great party it had been. I had served turkey and all the fixings. Guests brought quiche and other goodies. Many talked about the food and the conviviality. 
Few said a word about the song. But we all knew that — that singing, the invocation that went with it — there had been a moment when we all melded.
Usually, I avoid New Year’s eve parties. They always bring to mind the night I was caught at such a party in a strange suburb I rarely visited. I knew only the fellow who’d invited me. As midnight neared, I cast about for a hiding spot. I didn’t want to be pecked by any of the older women who were hunting for love and a night’s companionship. 
The New Year’s eve of 2010 changed that. 
I learned to appreciate my friends. 
We laughed, we sang. And we hoped, perhaps prayed, for peace. 
For a few minutes, peace seemed achievable. 
On Remembrance Day, my Dad, a junior high school teacher, often read (did not sing it, thankfully) a song written by Ed McCurdy and made popular by Burl Ives. I heard a tape recording of Dad’s rendering which he gave over the school’s PA system. His voice quavered now and then. 
Dad had fought on the Burma Road, as they called it, during the Second World War. He was a bombardier. I expect he killed many people he never saw. 
He developed a passion for peace. It was not surprising that he dreamed that all the world leaders who had gathered in that great hall agreed to never fight again. 
“Last night I had the strangest dream, I’d never dreamed before. I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” 
My father closed: “Let that be our hope and dream as well.”

Explanatory note

I have attempted, without success, to have an agency pick up a column series I developed. I've named it "Maybe I'm Amazed".
The posts in this blog are developed from that original material.

My hope is that people will find the columns thought-provoking and insightful. Maybe inspirational.

As the editor of a community newspaper, I am somewhat constrained in what I write. I usually write editorials about highly local issues. That's my job. But in "Maybe I'm Amazed" I've freed myself to take another tack, and expand my writing.

Please feel free to share a link to this blog.