“I used to be a lawyer. I went to Harvard. I can’t remember how I got here.”
She had dirty blond hair. Kind of poofy up front then styled longer in the back. Secretary hair. Maybe on the fast track executive bullet train from the 80s. She had this Melanie Griffith in Working Girl kind of vibe. A little passed her prime but still good looking. I enjoyed talking with her. You could tell she took care of herself. At least, appearance wise.
“I loved cocaine the best. I used to freebase it. Have you tried that?”
I had not.
“It’s when you smoke it. Man it was soooo good. I used to do it all day long at home. Then I’d play with my vibrators.”
She giggled a little at that revelation, and caught my eye, kind of fake embarrassed, as though she had spilled milk or burnt toast. Pulled hard on her cigarette. Exhaled fast. Like she couldn’t wait to take the next drag.
Some people enjoy talking about their local sports team’s performance or maybe about the weather but that wasn’t Leanne. She was fun to hang out with. You never knew what she was going to say next. Her words were precise and clear but always delivered with a sense of careless urgency. Like rapid gunfire in every direction.
“I just got caught having sex with a visitor.”
Who was it?
“Someone I worked with, at the firm. Everything was normal at first. But then I don’t know what happened. I just grabbed him and started kissing him and then we were naked. The nurses in the ICU, once they realized what was happening, they came in running and pulled us apart. I seriously don’t know if I have a job to come back to. When I get out. If I get out.”
Her voice goes on and on but begins to fade out. Reverberates into an echo chamber. I’m still hooked on her second sentence. Everything was normal at first. Normal. A funny word to hear in a place like this.
We’re sitting next to each other in a cafeteria. It’s a typical one, identical to that generic high school or grade school staple. Pale green and beige complimented by terrible smells from a thousand poisoned concoctions by inmates who should have never been shown a kitchen in the first place. Only this one is different. It’s on the psychiatric floor at Montreal General Hospital.
How did I get here? I wonder. This is certainly a strange place. I also feel strange, like I’m not myself, as though watching everything from a worn red velvet seat in a cinema and it’s a movie I hadn’t seen before.
We line up twice a day for a tiny Dixie cup with a customized cocktail. Just like that old Nicholson movie. One assumes the process is to normalize but it does not feel that way. It makes everything even foggier and slow for me. Looking back now, it was not to make us normal, at least not for me specifically. For me, the anti-psychotics I was on were simply designed to help me not kill myself.
My roommate is packing up his stuff. I ask why he was here. I wasn’t sure if it was rude to ask, the same way that if you asked the wrong person why they were in jail, they’d tell you to fuck off because it’s none of your business.
This place really was like prison, by the way. I mean, it was the safest place to be, for many of us, but it was a secure floor. Make no mistake. We were locked up.
Lucky for me, he wasn’t embarrassed about things. It’s hard to be embarrassed in a place like this. Hospital gowns. Hospital beds. Hospital food. It is an equalizer and we are the lowest common denominator. Patients. Prisoners.
“I skipped a couple of my meds. I was crashing at my girlfriends.”
It turns out we went to the same school. Concordia. We were around the same age.
“So I started feeling really good. Like I was gaining frigging superpowers man! I was turning into God or something. So I stopped my meds all together. Then I remember being in class one day and I could tell that everyone could read my thoughts.”
“After that, I remember nothing. I got taken here by the police. Anyhow, it was nice to meet you! Good luck.”
He grinned and shook my hand. Like we had just met at a party or something. He left. I liked that guy. Even though I just met him. There were not many people my age. 19. What the hell was I doing here?
Outside of Leanne, there really weren’t a lot of people to talk to. Most of the other clients at the Inn were talking to themselves. It was a lot of one way convos. And yelling sometimes. Sometimes scary yelling. It was hard to sleep sometimes. Luckily, the contents of the Dixie cup helped.
I learned more about mental illness than I had ever known during that week at Hotel Crazy Town.
Do you want to kill yourself?
I don’t know. I’m not sure.
You’re not sure?
I guess not.
I knew that was the right answer. Like it was a math quiz I had the right answers memorized correctly. I just knew I was ready to check out of this joint. After 5 days of torture and interrogation, I would have said anything.
After I got discharged my father drove down to pick me up. We packed up the golden tank of a Volvo with my stuff. The landlord I had for my groovy Sherbrooke digs was this Middle Eastern lady. Husky sexy voice like that actress on 24 that played the mother of a jihadi.
“You have depression?”
I nodded in the affirmative, tentatively. This was my new identity and I was not yet comfortable with it. Like a new jacket that belonged to someone else.
“I have depression too.”
She gave me a knowing sympathetic look. Solidarity. Like we were roommates on the psych floor at Montreal general. A secret club. But not a club that one aspires to belong to.
The lease was terminated and so was my university career.
The Volvo pressed on back to Toronto, in silence. I don’t think either of us spoke about what happened during that car ride or ever since.
There was time to think though.
How did I get to be at this point? It was always there I guess, looking back. That feeling in my stomach and in my head. It turns out there are labels for what I was experiencing. Depression and anxiety.
It wasn’t normal, the way my dad called it when I mentioned it to him when I was twelve. It wasn’t just butterflies.
Once back in the city, I started over. I stayed at a friend’s house. Got hooked up with a welfare program that eventually got me a job in the art world.
I linked up with CAMH (Center for Addiction & Mental Health) on College Street West, on the edge of Chinatown and Little Italy, as though caught up in the middle, between worlds. I’d like to say it was smooth sailing from Montreal, but it wasn’t. I spent a couple nights at Hotel CAMH.
As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
– Anthony Bourdain
Eventually, I got out. More importantly, I found a good doctor.
A psychiatrist that also practiced psychotherapy. Scary terms to the unfamiliar. But it wasn’t scary. It was me sitting in a room talking. About my childhood. About my family. About trying to fit in to the world. Talking through my thoughts and feelings openly for the first time in my life. I got a formal diagnosis and began my journey to fight this bitch as best I could.
I tried out a bunch of medications. Some with horrible side effects. But if you are interested in the not killing yourself department, you give it a shot. And that’s what I did.
I did about ten years of therapy before I felt strong and stable enough to move on with my life. Another thing that helped me in a huge way was something called Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which is another totally weird, scary term but all it really meant was learning to have some level of control over my thought process before it spiralled into anger or depression.
Again, I’d like to say that everything was fine after that, and it was, for a time. I developed a great career as an artist. I learned how to express myself through design, photography and film. I had great friends. Eventually I found the love of my life.
Then one morning in September 2014, she got hit by a car being driven by a young offender as he was being chased by a cop on a motorcycle.
Luckily, she survived, but not without the curse of chronic pain. Another invisible illness, often misunderstood or dismissed.
My stay at Hotel Crazy Town has afforded me the luxury of knowing what the warning signs are for me. I started up therapy again. I’m back on the miniature Dixie cup routine. I re-introduced myself to mindfulness meditation and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
It’s all good. I’m not going to say I don’t have dark moments anymore because I still do. But I’ve learned to listen. I check myself before I wreck myself.
The most frustrating thing through all of this journey isn’t the medication, the side effects or the therapy. It’s that I have friends, colleagues and family who do not believe in mental illness. Or medication. Or CBT. Any of it. And yet they are not hillbillies from the Deep South. They are “progressive”. Some of them have the university degrees that I was never able to complete.
How many suicides will it take before they are convinced that depression is a real illness? Despite the popular notion, I assure you; suicide is not, in fact, an easy way out. Nor is it cowardly. I believe that it actually takes a lot of guts to off yourself.
But even harder than the effort that self-harm can take is the effort to live to fight another day. It takes time and incredible will to fight this potentially fatal illness. Like chemotherapy, it can also be very painful, but it can work. Learning to develop the right tools can save your life. It certainly has done so for me.
When people get cancer or even diabetes they get a parade. A marathon. Chain emails, T shirts, ribbons and donations. Despite recent advertisement campaigns and school programs (all of them a step in the right direction), in some corners, mental illness is still often either ignored or misunderstood. An embarrassment. Something shameful.
It isn’t. Seeking help and talking about your problems is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of courage. Your own survival and ongoing battles should be worn like a badge of honour. Fuck the stigma. You are not alone – go get help today. This life is short. And precious. Oh, and I want a parade. And maybe a T-shirt too.