Sundog snippets: Two things I’ve figured out about myself

This is just a quickie to let you know I remain smoke free, and that so far, I’ve not suffered too much in the withdrawal department.  Spending the week out of town did help significantly.

Phil is not doing so well, but he smoked for 34 years.  And, his motivation is monetary.  Mine is too, but I’ve only been smoking, off and on, for about 20 years, with stretches of intermittent quittage mixed in.

In the process I’ve discovered something.  I’ve started dreaming again.  This may only be a withdrawal issue and therefore transitory, but I’ve been dreaming like crazy this week.  Wild, creative dreams that seem to last all night, so I’m not sleeping well, but I’ll take the dreams over sleep any day.

My dreams are where a lot of my story ideas come from.

The dreams of Saint John Bosco

The dreams of Saint John Bosco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought I’d just stopped dreaming as much because I was getting older.  This gives me hope that my brain is just as messed up as it ever was 😀

It’s also another motivation for me to stay off the devil weed (as one friend calls it).

The other thing I figured out earlier in the summer, but I didn’t want to write about it so soon on the heels of my “Life Sentence with Mortal Punctuation” series.  It just seemed too serious.

I’m fortunate.  Phil cooks for us.  I don’t like to cook and my efforts in that area have dwindled to nothing in the last few years.

I now have a good idea why: my ideation.  Even though I know how to address and subdue the beast, it doesn’t mean I want to think about cutting myself, or anyone else, every time I pick up a knife.  So I’m really very grateful that Phil cooks.

I’m also grateful for take-out, ‘cause every man has his limits.

Have you learned anything interesting about yourself lately?

How my life sentence with mortal punctuation has informed my writing

A.K.A. The period at the end of this series 🙂

I’ll preface this bit by saying that I don’t think I’m unique among writers in this respect.  In fact, I think every writer works, at core, with and through the same issues.  This past week, I read (and shared) a great interview with Chuck Wendig in which he talks about (among much other awesome) the themes that crop up in his work.  Surprise, surprise, death and family rank prominently.

In this morning’s The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, one of the Canadian greats (with whom I was privileged to work, even though he didn’t like my genre/subject matter) Alistair MacLeod, mentioned the same influences and themes.

Think of just about any author you’re reading or have enjoyed, and I think you’ll find death and family cropping up: Rowling’s Potter books were all about death and the search for family despite its omnipresence; Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice is about a number of families and he keeps on killing off prominent members 😉 (note here: in this context, what is politics, but family drama writ large on the world stage?); Collins’s Hunger Games = Death/Family; Gabaldon’s novels are a series of time travelling family sagas and death plays a prominent role.

I could go on, but I won’t.  Search your own shelves/ereaders to find your own examples.

What’s unique about me is my story, my life, and I hope that translates to my characters so that even though the theme may be familar, the way that it is expressed through my characters and stories is something just a little different.

Death

Death finds its way into a lot of my stories in different ways:

In my first published short story, “Chlorophyll and Corruption” (which is probably the prologue to a YA sci-fi), my protagonist first saves his brother from being pushed out of their atmospheric containment bubble, then must flee an impending supernova. “For a Change” (which I have subsequently rewritten as “The Gabriel” and may yet become a sci-fi novel) my protagonist’s reaction to a world of sterile Transmat immortals is to attempt suicide, repeatedly.

In “Fox Fur,” my protagonist is trying to deal with the death of her parents by means of various encounters with foxes.  “Dead Issue,” is about a young woman who makes a personal discovery at a family funeral.

“Tonsillitis Blues” from my 1999 MA Thesis, Whispers in the Dark, is an interpretation of my adult exploration of the near-death experience prompted by my tonsillectomy trauma.  The protagonist of “Fool’s Journey” (subsequently rewritten as “A Terrible Thing” and likely a YA paranormal novel), another story from the same collection, attempts suicide because she can’t deal with the visions of danger and death she’s been gifted with.

Even my poetry is liberally sprinkled with death.

Ferathainn, the protagonist of Initiate of Stone, experiences the deaths of her best friend,

English: Colored version of the ancient Mesopo...

English: Colored version of the ancient Mesopotamian eight-pointed star symbol of the goddess Ishtar (Inana/Inanna), representing the planet Venus as morning or evening star. (Version not enclosed within a surrounding circle) Polski: Kolorowa wersja symbolu ze starożytnej Mezopotamii, ośmioramiennej gwiazdy Bogini Isztar (Inany/Inanny), reprezentujacej planetę Wenus jako poranną lub zachodnią gwiazdę. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

fiancé, and father, and subsequently dies herself attempting to exact revenge.  She undergoes an Inanna-inspired journey into the underworld to reclaim herself and her will to live.  Eoghan witnesses the execution of his brother for heresy and when the goddess Auraya calls him to become her champion, or Kas’Hadden (hammer of light), he experiences an assassination of personality at her hands.  Dairragh, deeply affected by the death of his mother years earlier, inadvertently triggers the destruction of his home and the death of his father.  He succumbs to his wounds and is resurrected and set on a shamanic path by the mysterious anogeni.

I won’t get into the protagonists of my other unpublished works, but death and its impact are recurring themes.

Death is the period of every life sentence and so it is a universal.  Few readers will fail to be engaged by various explorations of death and its impact on those left behind.  Thrillers and mysteries are built around it and are two of the most popular genres in publishing today.

Family

Likewise, everyone has a family.  Even the only child who has chosen not to have children of her own (like me) has parents and understands the pull of the complicated legacy handed down to them.

In my, admittedly small, family, women proved to be the peace-makers, sacrificial lambs, care-takers, bread-winners, and all around protagonists of the story.

My maternal grandfather was an alcoholic and a womanizer.  He and my grandmother were unable to have children and adopted my mother and aunt.  My grandmother worked in a textile mill during the depression and worked for most of her life until her first major heart-attack forced her into early retirement.

On my father’s side, my grandfather died at a relatively young age because of heart failure and my grandmother was an entrepreneur.  I still meet people in Sudbury who hear my name and ask if it was my grandmother who owned Marttila Sewing Centre.  Yup.  That was her.  She remained fiercely independent until stroke and cancer eventually took her life.

My father was always an ill man and though he was the bread winner for most of his life, it was my mother who held the family together, getting her high school diploma and driver’s licence in her forty’s and starting a new career as a ward clerk in the hospital when my father had his breakdown.  My mother was the one who cared for her parents and my father until their respective deaths.  Though she doesn’t have to, she still takes care of me.

It’s no wonder then, that my work focuses primarily on strong female characters.

Incidentally, here are a couple of posts I came across this week from Marcy Kennedy on strong and likeable female characters.

I had trouble for many years writing strong and likeable men because that was an archetype largely absent from my experience.  I found my way to that eventually, though, because of Phil, and because I learned to recognize the good qualities in the men in my life and expand those into heroic proportions.

Everyone is a mix.  My paternal grandmother may have been a business woman, but she was a poor fiscal manager, and tried too hard to curry favour with the well-to-do women of Sudbury (read sycophantic).  She first promised my mom inheritance of her business, then rescinded the offer and sold the business to a third party.  I think this was because she was too embarrassed to let my mom see what a shambles she’d made of things.

Though family dynamics run through all of my stories and novels, I’ll just present one example, from IoS, because it’s going to take a while to break down for you 😉

Ferathainn’s family in IoS is complex.  Her parents, Selene and Devlin, can’t have children and adopted Fer when she was abandoned by a bedraggled, but clearly noble, woman who refused to speak and ran away before she could be made to explain anything.

Devlin, feeling the need of a child of his blood, fathered Fer’s half-sister Aislinn, with Willow, a family friend and eleph (read elf).  Willow is misanthropic and makes her living as a brew-master and owner of the local public house.  She readily gave Aislinn into Selene and Devlin’s care.

Aislinn is obviously a half-breed, and largely reviled by the Tellurin (human) villagers of Hartsgrove as a freak. She is destined to become a bridge between the eleph and Tellurin peoples, however, by virtue of her heritage.

When Selene and Devlin adopted Fer, the resident eleph, Willow and her brothers Oak and Leaf, invited the new family and Aeldred, the local mage, to a Shir’Authe.  The Shir’Authe foretells the destiny of the child in eleph culture.  At the ceremony, none of the eleph can see anything about Fer’s future, but Leaf sees his spirit-lights, or astara, in the baby’s eyes (if you’re an Elf Quester, this is recognition, if you’re a Meyers fan, it’s imprinting).  This is bizarre enough, because only eleph are supposed to bond with one another in this way.

Selene, understandably, freaks out, but Leaf promises never to act on this deep spiritual attraction unless Fer somehow miraculously sees her astara in his eyes, or otherwise returns his feelings once she is gown.

Aeldred senses a wild and powerful magickal talent in the infant.  He fears that he will not be able to control the child and that she will become a rogue mage.  She has the potential to wreak havoc on their world and her talents will be much sought after, by moral and immoral authorities, both magickal and political.

In an attempt to minimize Fer’s potentially negative impact, he merely tells the others that she has talent and that he will remain in Hartgrove to become her teacher.  He further tells them that Fer’s parents are powerful, but immoral, people and that they must protect the child in the event that either one, or both blood parents, come seeking her.

He gets everyone to agree to a magickal binding.  None of them will be able to speak of the circumstances of Fer’s birth or of her coming to Hartsgrove until the girl comes of age.  By then, Aeldred hopes that he will have thoroughly indoctrinated Fer in the disciplines of the Agrothe magicks and that he will therefore be able to control her chaotic potential and prevent her from doing harm.

In truth, Fer’s parents are Aline of Gryphonskeep and Halthyon, an eleph mage, or kaidin. Aline is descended from the de Corvus family and magick flows through the bloodline.  The original Kas’Hadden was a de Corvus, so the power of the gods has been passed down to Fer.  Aline is married to Killian of Gryphonskeep and mother to Dairragh (dun, dun, dun!).

Halthyon is one of those rogue magi that Aeldred worries about.  He has extended his lifespan far beyond the already lengthy eleph standard.  His goal is to accumulate magickal power (by draining it from others as he kills them) and to ascend to godhood (in the process of which he intends to kill the existing gods of Tellurin).

Halthyon is unable to extract the child’s location from Aline and subsequently kills her in the attempt.  He wants to find his child because he considers her the only person worthy of ascending with him.  In order to do that, Fer must become a god-killer as well.

Okaaaaaay.  So there, in a convoluted nutshell is the familial basis of the plot of not only

English: St. Etheldreda's Churchyard - Family ...

English: St. Etheldreda’s Churchyard – Family Plot with Snowdrops (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

IoS, but the ensuing novels in the series, which I have called Ascension.  You can see why I identify the book in the epic fantasy genre 😀

Family is an endlessly intriguing Gordian knot to unravel and I think you can see where I have mined my tapestry to create Fer’s.

It’s all variations on two essential themes.

How have your life experiences contributed to your creative work?  Do death and family inform your stories?  Do you have a family-plot?

I’d love to hear from you!

Here ends the series that was A life sentence with mortal punctuation.  I hope you have enjoyed it, and found it to be useful in your creative pursuits.

Coming soon: I’ll have a book review for Laura Howard’s The Forgotten Ones, and hopefully a couple of author interviews to throw your way.  I’ll definitely share my experience in Margie Lawson’s  A deep editing guide to making your openings pop course, and in Marcy Kennedy’s Crafting your logline and pitch workshop next weekend.  There might even be some Pupdates and Next Chapters in there.

The post in which I write about happiness: A life sentence with mortal punctuation, part 10

I’d wanted to wrap things up this week, but the happiness post seems to have a mind of its own 😉  So next week will be my finale for this series in which I will talk about how my life and experiences have influenced my writing.

For now, though:

What I’ve learned about happiness

supreme happiness

supreme happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, it’s an amorphous thing.  It’s hard to pin down.  Sometimes you only realize in retrospect that you were happy because of its sudden absence.  Sometimes you know that you’re happy because your friends and family clearly aren’t and by comparison, you’re feeling pretty good.  Sometimes, you just need to find a still moment and let the happy come.

Here is the Dictionary.com definition (linked for your convenience):

hap·pi·ness [hap-ee-nis] noun

1. the quality or state of being happy.

2. good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.

Origin: 1520–30; happy + -ness

Related forms o·ver·hap·pi·ness, noun

Synonyms:
1, 2. pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction. Happiness, bliss, contentment, felicity imply an active or passive state of pleasure or pleasurable satisfaction. Happiness results from the possession or attainment of what one considers good: the happiness of visiting one’s family. Bliss is unalloyed happiness or supreme delight: the bliss of perfect companionship. Contentment is a peaceful kind of happiness in which one rests without desires, even though every wish may not have been gratified: contentment in one’s surroundings. Felicity is a formal word for happiness of an especially fortunate or intense kind: to wish a young couple felicity in life.

You can look at as many definitions as you like, but you won’t find one that actually conveys what happiness feels like.  It’s all just wordage, and one time when post-modernist or semiotic analysis might tell you more about what happiness actually means than reading a bunch of words on a page or website.

Last year, I finally got around to reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.  It came highly recommended by a colleague from work and a few online friends, but I have to say that I was less than impressed.

I appreciate Gretchin’s candid style and some of the insights she gains in her year-long happiness project (which has subsequently been renewed in ensuing years), but I couldn’t relate to a lot of what she wrote about.

She was honest about it, indicating that her life was pretty darned happy already.  She didn’t have many crises or tragedies to make her personal search for happiness compelling, and she admitted that this might make her happiness project ring hollow to some readers.

I didn’t really find this, but what I saw was someone who really didn’t have to dig deep to find the happy in her life.

I did agree to a certain extent with her philosophy of “act the way you want to feel,” but I found it to be disingenuous.  I’m not a gloomy Gus, generally speaking.  I smile and say hello.  I chat with people, but I don’t go out of my way to pretend that things are peachy when they are so definitely not (for me).

Still, I have to admit: I’m happy most of the time.  The key is to recognize your happiness and observe it.  Happiness is kind of a sacred moment that has to be respected and cherished.

Happiness

Happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Retrospective happiness, A.K.A. Big Yellow Taxi happiness
The first kind of happiness I noticed in my life was retrospective happiness.  This is the kind of happiness you realize after the fact because you’ve suddenly been faced with a sad or difficult situation and the change in your mood helps you to understand that you were, in fact, happy, before the situation arose.
It’s important to take some time, even a few moments, to think about that happiness.  What did it feel like?  How relatively easy was it to be productive, proactive, and socialized with friends and family?  This way, you can more readily recognize happiness the next time it enters your life.
Happiness is like a child.  It likes attention and will hang around if you show it that you appreciate it 🙂
I characterize this happiness with the lyrics to the song Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?”

Comparative happiness, relatively speaking
I often noticed when I was happy because Phil was not.  Often it seemed that when he was having a rough go of it at work, things were going swimmingly for me.  I like it when things turn out well and this makes me happy.  Currently, we’re both having a bit of a bad time at work, but interestingly, we’re both fairly happy at home.
Again, notice how this kind of happiness feels.  Is it based on accomplishment, recognition, or something else?  Is there a way that you can foster these happy-making elements in your life?  Happiness is an opportunity.  Learn how to invite it to come knocking 🙂

Happiness-in-the-moment, A.K.A. Zen happiness
Sometimes, you just have to take a moment to realize, regardless how you think you feel, or should feel, that you are happy.  It’s a weird phenomenon, owing in no small part to the inexact and un-pin-down-able nature of happiness.
Also, in the Buddhist tradition, there’s this idea of non-attachment.  In order to experience something, you have to stop wanting it, let it go, become disinterested in it.  Happiness can sneak up on you at the strangest times.  If you’ve been careful in your observation of your happiness in the past, you might be “surprised by joy” at an unexpected moment.
I also think of this as serendipity, or, as I like to say, surrend-ipity.  It’s only when you surrender to the moment that you can find your greatest happiness.

So that’s it.  Three ways to find happiness.

happiness

happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you have other techniques you use to find the happy moments in your life?  I’d love to hear about them.

Tonight’s TV line-up: Once Upon a Time, Game of Thrones, and Vikings.

Have a great evening!

The one where I post about Dad: A life sentence with mortal punctuation, part 9

You may have noticed that I didn’t post in my series last week.  Truth is, I needed a break from the angsty.  While I feel that this series is important to write, and that I have come to a point in my life that it is necessary to purge certain things, all this exposure of my tender bits is difficult for an introvert like myself.

In the last instalment, I wrote about some of my encounters with death I had during the sixteen years in which I sorted my depressive condition.

About Dad

I love my dad and that’s in the present tense because even though he’s gone in the physical sense, he’s still here with me every day.

In order to tell the tale of his last two years of life, I have to give it context and that begins with his birth.

Dad was the youngest of three brothers and in those days, they lived out at long lake.  Doctors still made house calls for deliveries and that day he was running late.  The woman attending my grandmother, I’m not sure whether she was an actual midwife, or just a family friend, but she told my grandmother to keep the baby in until the doctor got there.

In the story I was told, she said, “cross your legs.”

When the doctor eventually arrived and my father was delivered, he had a brain bleed (subdural haematoma) and almost died right there.  He was given a poor prognosis, but he survived.

Dad was subsequently diagnosed with epilepsy as a child and was on medication from a very young age.

When I was very young, I was his darling.  We’d watch wrestling on the weekends and he’d let me wrestle him on the couch.  Good times 🙂

Then, he fell off the car-port roof, and was hospitalized for a while as a result.

In the years that I was catching all the typical childhood diseases: chicken pox, measles, and mumps (that was terrible, I had them one side at a time so it lasted twice as long as normal 😦 ), by dad was hospitalized for various other reasons.

He had his gall bladder removed.  He developed a hiatus hernia, which was initially mistaken for a heart attack.  He had surgery for that too.  A haematoma developed after that surgery as well.

At home, he’d return from work absolutely exhausted, collapse into his recliner, and fall asleep before dinner was even ready.  After dinner and the evening news, he rarely stayed up late, or fell asleep in the recliner again.

When I hit puberty, things changed again.  I don’t think Dad really knew how to relate to me after that.  His sarcasm became biting, not only with me, but also with my friends.

By then, the malignant hyperthermia had been detected in my family and he had to get tested for that.

Only a few years afterward, Dad suffered his breakdown and was hospitalized for three months as a result.

The spectre of mental illness

For a while, Dad was doing well.  He was getting regular talk therapy and attending a support group.  He started walking everywhere: down to the corner to pick up groceries, out to his get-togethers with the support group (they had coffee klatches outside group).  It seemed, for all intents and purposes, that he was improving.

Then the therapist he was seeing indicated that their sessions would be coming to an end.  Dad should look at trying to get his life back on track, maybe going back to work.

There was a problem with that though.  His employer had disbanded his work unit and there was not job in Sudbury for him anymore.  He couldn’t imagine trying to start over and I’m sure he had anxiety attacks just thinking about it.

Plus, he’d successfully gotten on a disability pension and was, I think, comfortable not working.

Soon, he stopped attending the support group and he stopped walking.  He gained weight and developed sleep apnea.  He also got prostate cancer and though a combination of hormone therapy and radiation put the cancer into remission, Dad suffered the usual after-effects of prostate issues.

His behaviour became more erratic as he went through his manic and depressive phases.  When he was manic, he’d spend like crazy, buying things from the Shopping Channel and Readers’ Digest.  He’d enter every charity lottery he could and spent hundreds on provincial lotteries.

Toward the end of one of his manic cycles, he’d always get struck with buyers’ remorse and his guilt took an odd turn.  He’d start to accuse my mom of trying to leave him, or of hooking up with one of his friends.

When he was depressed, he slept much of the time and tried to undo his financial miscarriages until the next manic phase hit.

My mom was taking care of him as much as she was taking care of my grandfather.  And she was still working.  I worried about her.

Even after my grandfather passed away, Mom didn’t seem to get much time back for herself.  Dad demanded (without really understanding that he did it) every bit of her spare time.  Mom started to go out with friends more as a respite from his illnesses.

By then, he’s also developed an arrhythmia that required the insertion of a pace-maker and was in the early stages of Congestive Heart Failure (CHF).  He started to fall and though his knees required replacement surgery, he was too overweight and his doctor wouldn’t authorize the surgery.

The beginning of the end

On March 4, 2010, I was part of the training team at work and away training.  I got a call to my hotel room late at night.  Phil had had to take my dad to the hospital.  Nothing life threatening.  I was coming home in another day, in any case, and so it wasn’t a situation where I would have to come home, but he just wanted to let me know what was happening.

When I got home, Dad was already out of the hospital.  He was agitated and focused on financial matters.  He’d taken to bed instead of doing his taxes and Mom was worried.

Things got stranger from there and on March 18, 2010, we had to call the ambulance to come get him because he refused to leave bed and refused to eat or take his medications.  Earlier in the week, he had once again been obsessed with their financial situation.  He kept telling Mom that he’d bankrupted them, and while she assured him that was not the case, he kept insisting that she had no idea what he’d done.

At first, Dad was in what was referred to as “ground psych” at the soon to be closed St. Joseph site of the Sudbury Regional Hospital.  Due to his intransigence, he was catheterized, put on IV, and fed food and medications by syringe.  He had to wear diapers as well, because he wouldn’t get out of bed, even to go to the bathroom.

Mom and I visited daily and tried to get him to eat.  What made my heart hurt the most was how he screwed up his face like a little child and clamped his lips shut, turning his head away from the spoon.  This was definitely not my dad.

He continued to say crazy things, that the police were coming to get him; that they were going to have a news conference and put him up as an example of government fraud.  At the same time, he insisted that he didn’t need to be in the hospital.  He was still convinced that he’d bankrupted himself and Mom (not possible as Mom had separated her finances years before because of his manic spending).  He kept asking if we were living on the streets yet, had the bank not foreclosed on the house?

He thought his “fraud” so widespread that it even affected Phil and me, though we were both working full time by this time and doing well by all accounts.  I even told him that we had enough to support Mom, if she needed it, but it made no difference to Dad.

From ground psych, Dad was transferred to the Laurentian site of the hospital on their psychiatric floor.  It was determined that he had suffered a psychotic break, and though not violent, was living in delusion.

We still visited him daily and though still stubbornly clinging to his delusions, Dad eventually started to eat, got off the IV, and through our insistence started the process of getting the catheter removed and out of his diapers.

The psychiatrists on the floor could get nothing out of Dad after a while.  He decided that he’d just not talk about his delusions anymore if they got everyone into such a fluster.  They transferred him out to the medical floor as they could do nothing more for him, and he didn’t appear to be a danger to anyone.

On the medical floor, Dad succumbed to C-Difficile not once, but twice.  He was very inconsistent with his toileting, and remained in diapers.  He was so weak that he couldn’t get out of bed unassisted anymore.

At that point, we were in the position of having to get Dad into a nursing home.  The hospital couldn’t continue to care for him as a patient.  He’d already been there for five months.  Mom couldn’t care for him at home, as the hospital initially suggested.  There were stairs, and she couldn’t lift Dad on her own.  Home care could be inconsistent, and would only cover so many hours in a day.  What would happen at night should he fall or something else take place?

So, we had a family conference with the attending physician, the social worker, Mom, Phil, and me.  Dad seemed to understand what was going on and didn’t object to it.  Mom would have to do some financial manoeuvring to make the arrangement work.

You see, as soon as Dad was in the queue for a nursing home, he was considered an “alternate level of care” patient.  Even while he was in the hospital, he’d be charged the ACL rate, which was about what a nursing home would have cost.

Mom had to file papers for “involuntary separation” so that she and Dad could file their taxes completely separately, for the first time since they were married.

In ensuing weeks, the social worker guided us through the process of selecting a nursing home, and every time my mom signed a form, we were careful to ask, what does this mean?

Dad was transferred again to the hospital’s ALC facility while he waited to be placed in a home.  It was fall by then, and Dad caught C-Difficile at least twice more.  Mom and I became very adept at gowning and gloving before we went in to visit him.

Nurses redoubled their efforts to get Dad out of his diapers and physiotherapists tried to get him up and out of bed.  Sitting upright for a while was all he could manage.  He never supported his own weight again.

Eventually, Mom received the news that Dad would have a bed at Falconbridge Extendacare.  We went in for the intake meeting and left with a mass of reading material.  The place seemed ideal, though.

If Dad could eventually get mobile, even in a wheelchair, there was a pub (the main floor dining room was taken over by a musical group for the evening and they’d be allowed a beer if they wished), an interdenominational faith service several times a week, and an activity room with everything from the internet to flower arranging courses, and they kept canaries and parakeets for the residents.  There was a garden to putter around in outside if he wanted as well.  If he wanted.

The move took place in December of 2010 and Mom and I were impressed with the care he received there.  She still went out to visit him every day, but back in the summer, I’d cut back my own visits to 2 or 3 times per week.  Because of my training obligations, there were some weeks in which I couldn’t visit at all.

Things again began to look good for my dad.  The care was far more consistent at the nursing home, and they were fitting him for a wheelchair.  Mom and I were trying to figure out what his plan would cover and how much extra she could afford to pay for one when Dad set his heart on having a motorised wheelchair.

On Monday, April 4, 2011, Dad was zooming around the halls on what was to become his loaner chair pending the fitting and financial approval for the one we would purchase.  That night, Mom and I were called out to the nursing home.  Sometime after he’d been put to bed, Dad’s CHF went into overdrive and tried to drown him.

He was labouring to breathe, in-and-out of consciousness, unable to speak.  He’d shake and moan from time to time.  The doctor and the minister both came out to talk to us.

Dad was a DNR, that is, no extraordinary measures were to be taken to preserve his life.  He was declared palliative and all medication but those used to keep him “comfortable” were withdrawn.  Mom and I set up a vigil with one of Mom’s friends.

We stayed with him throughout the week and many friends came to visit him.  After the first couple of days, Dad didn’t regain consciousness.  Though I brought books and my laptop to help pass the time, I often sat and just watched him breathe for stretches, held his hand, changed the cold cloths on his head and behind his neck, swabbed his mouth with a damp sponge.

On April 9th, Mom came to relieve me for the evening shift and I went home to bed.  Just after 11, she called and told me to come back right away.  Dad passed away before I got there.

I was still able to say goodbye, though.  What was more important was that I had spent the time with him that week, bearing witness as he taught me what it was to die.  Really, he was showing me all along, and I treasure every moment I spent with him, even the difficult ones.

In memoriam

This is what I characterize as my season of sorrow: from the beginning of March, when he started to show signs of his psychotic break, through March 14, his birthday, March 18, the day he was admitted to hospital, April 4, the day he took his turn for the worse, April 9, the anniversary of his death, and April 15, the anniversary of his funeral.

In a maudlin mood, I might extend that as far as Father’s Day, but a month and a half is enough time to dwell on death.

At his funeral, I read the following poem.  Afterward, I created the picture and we had copies made for the family.

ArtofFloating

The picture is one of my dad tubing at my uncle’s cottage. Sadly, we have no pictures of him floating.

 

Dad had a nigh on miraculous ability to float.  He could lie on his back in the water, put his hands behind his head, and just float, head, belly, and toes all poking above the surface.  He was unsinkable.  My cousin swears that he caught Dad sleeping that way.  I like to think of my Dad floating away in the afterlife, still unsinkable.

I chose The Water is Wide by Connie Dover as a song for the funeral recessional as well.  Though it’s more of a love song, the water theme prevailed.  While Dad’s gone before her, I like to think that he’ll be back for Mom with the boat when the time comes.

Sadly, I couldn’t find a version of the song to share with you, but I encourage you to give it a listen.  Connie Dover has one of the world’s most beautiful voices.

Next week, the final episode of a life sentence with mortal punctuation: Thoughts on Happiness.  That’s where I’ll tell you a bit about what my experiences with death have taught me about living.

Have a great evening, everyone.

A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 8

How did what was supposed to be a mere two-part guest post get to be this huge?  I think it’s what project managers call “scope creep.” 🙂  Essentially, the story demanded something more, and as with many of the things I write, it told me the shape it wanted to be in.

Thanks to everyone who’s stuck with me through this very personal tale.  If it touches you in any way, I encourage you to like, share, comment, or subscribe as your conscience dictates.

I’ll take the opportunity here to remind everyone that while this story is based on my life, that it is filtered through my frame, and is, no more and no less than anything else I write, a story.

Last week: I discussed some of the things that I do to keep the wolf of my depression from the door, or perhaps invite it in, let it curl up by the hearth, and make itself at home.

This week I’m going to pick up the original thread of the tale where I left it.

Those sixteen years

The years during which I was “growing up,” getting a job, and learning how to deal with my depression were largely fallow ones for me creatively.  I got off to a good start in my undergrad years, both at Guelph and at Laurentian, but faltered during my struggle to achieve my master’s degree.

Though my primary poetic publications, NeoVerse and Battle Chant, emerged around the time that I finally received my graduate degree, I found it difficult to continue writing.  A handful of scattered publications in poetry and a short-lived foray into publishing weren’t enough to validate my still-fragile writer’s ego.

I’ve never had a thick skin.

As I slowly worked through my issues, however, I started to realize that writing wasn’t something I did or didn’t do.  It’s something I am.  My inability to commit to the writing life on a regular basis made me question my calling.  If I couldn’t write, how could I call myself a writer?  Maybe it was time to throw in the towel and commit to a life without magic.

The sheer impossibility of that thought told me that writing was what I was meant to do.  I just had to find my way to it without a map or any orienteering skill whatsoever.

Upon my triumphant return from Windsor and contract jobs interspersed with unemployment, Phil and I decided to get a puppy.  We already had two cats, one a three-legged refugee from my days at the Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Mississauga, the other a sweet-natured black cat that Phil got me for my birthday one year.

Our dependent quadrupeds helped me immensely.  I believe that pets have a lot to teach us about unconditional love and being good people.  My pets are some of the best people I’ve known 😉

I got my full time job with my current employer.  Phil and I got a house and a car.  I made use of my new benefits to get some serious work done on both my body and my mind.  I figured out that medication was not the way to address my feral disease.

My mother was still working, part-time at the local hospital, at home, taking care of my father, who had graduated to a disability pension and therapy, and at the seniors’ residence where my grandfather now lived.

I went out with her to see my grandfather about once a week, and helped her to transport him to his various appointments.  My father began to have issues with his heart, eventually diagnosed as arrhythmia and congestive heart failure.  He got a pace-maker, and a new suite of medications.

Shortly after retiring from the hospital, my mom developed diabetes.  Dad started to fall.  If it happened at home, either Phil or I, or both of us would have to help Mom, because Dad couldn’t get up under his own power and she couldn’t lift him.  If it happened outside home, it generally involved a hospital stay.  Dad was on Cumadin by this time and as a result, even the smallest injury could become serious due to the complications of the medication.

Then my dog died

ZoeIt wasn’t something sudden.  Zoe developed hemangiosarcoma and though we caught it early, the vet wasn’t able to catch it all with surgery and internal lavage.

The issue with this particular type of canine cancer is that it likes vascular areas, that is, places in the body where blood vessels tend to gather, like the spleen and the liver.  Once it takes hold, it disseminates quickly and almost always results in death.

The biopsy taken in the surgery came back malignant.  It would only be a matter of time.  As it turned out, we only bought Zoe a couple of weeks.

At first, it seemed like she was recovering.  Phil and I had taken to sleeping on the futon in the living room so we could be close to her if problems arose.

The morning she woke me at 5 am looking for comfort was her last.

I won’t describe that morning other than to say that I called in sick.  I was devastated.  For the first time, I cried legitimately over the loss of a loved one.

Papa

My maternal grandfather was the only one of my grandparents left alive.  He’d been a hard-core smoker, and alcoholic for most of his life.  When my grandmother passed away, he reacted poorly and within a few months, a fall resulting from TIA, landed him in the hospital.

From there, arrangements were made to move him into a seniors’ residence and for many more years, he lived happily, adjusting to the fact that he couldn’t drive anymore, that he had to go outside the residence to smoke, and that he had to depend on my mother to ration him a few beer on special occasions.

Some irregularities regarding his heart landed him in the hospital and when I got the call at work that I should come to the hospital, I had a bad feeling.  In the time it would take me to get the car, drive to the hospital, find parking, and get to his room, I could walk, so I sped along as quickly as I could, hoping that he would hold on long enough for me to get there.

Turns out he’d already passed away when I got the call.

Papa’s passing wasn’t all that traumatic for me.  He’d lived 94 years despite his addictions and was, so far as I know, happy.  I also felt confident that I had been there for him as much as I could.

I helped Mom settle his estate.  Being able to help her out in that way made another big difference for me.

I received a small inheritance, just enough to invest in my first laptop computer.  That year, I started to get back to my writing and the novel I’d conceived of all those years ago in university.

In another year, Phil and I felt that we could bear the love of another pup.  That was when we got the Nuala-beast.

The butt-in-chair breakthrough

Though I was writing more, I wasn’t writing daily yet.  It wasn’t until Nino Ricci came to town to do a workshop with the Sudbury Writers’ Guild that my head got turned around the right way on that.

It was his sharing of his own guardian tale that helped so much.  Every writer has at least one, that big name, well-established Author who tells you that your work is crap.

The breakthrough was that I could choose not to let the well-meant, but unfortunate words of my guardian keep me from entering the inner sanctum and gaining my prize.

Productive or not, I’ve been writing every day since, and that, as the poet said, has made all the difference.

The diabetic cat

Our little black cat, Thufir (named after the Mentat Thufir Hawat due to his fondness for Thufir Hawat the Mentat Catflashing lights) developed feline diabetes.  Phil and I were surprised because he wasn’t obese or showing any of the other signs, but his blood glucose level didn’t lie.

He was on Metformin for a year and graduated to insulin after that.  I became very adept at taking his blood sugar levels and injecting him daily.  He came to tolerate, if not anticipate his injections, like he knew that they made him feel better.

Once again, however, it was a matter of time.  Eventually, organ failure took out little guy.

I wasn’t sad this loss either.  I’d been the best kitteh-mama I could have been and I knew that I’d done well by him.  I’d kind of made my peace with death by this time.

I’m going to leave things here for now.  The next big event for me was the death of my father, and that’s going to need a post unto itself.

After that, I’m going to delve into my insights into happiness as a result of all I’ve learned and that will be the culmination of the series.

Tomorrow I’m going to be writing the Wordsmith Studio Anniversary post 🙂  What’s that, you ask?  Read and find out, my friends.

Coming soon: I have a few wonderful authors who have agreed to do interviews for little ole me.  Look out in the next few weeks for six questions with fantasy author J. L. Madore, poet Barbara Morrison, and D. J. McIntosh, author of The Witch of Babylon, and the soon-to-be-released The Book of Stolen Tales.

I’m finding all sorts of writerly goodness to share 🙂

A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 7

Last week: It takes sixteen years, but finally, I see the light.

Sorry this is a bit late.  I was actually WRITING today and I lost track of time.  It’s been a very good day 🙂

So that’s what it’s called

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie...

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learned a new term last week: Ideation.  I didn’t know that those pesky and persistent thoughts of self-harm and violence had an actual name attached to them.  Specifically, it’s called suicidal ideation.

Thanks to a friend for that.

How I deal with my depression

This week, I just wanted to go over a few of my symptoms and the strategies I’ve developed to deal with them.  Some issues I still don’t have under control, but I’ll share how I’m working through them and my progress to date.

What I don’t do

I have chosen not to go through extensive therapy and after the Paxil, I chose not to take any other kinds of medication.  I know people who struggled for years to find the right medication or combination of them to address their symptoms and in some cases, they still become accustomed to a particular dosage or formulation/combination and have to search for and acclimate to new medications.

This takes a lot of time that I have decided I can’t afford to take.

Everything that I do, I do on my own, and I know that for some of you, that will make you uncomfortable.  It may mean for others that I think I know more than you do.  I assure you: I do not.  I only know what works for me and share it in the hope that others will be able to benefit from my experience.

Others still may feel that my depression can’t be that bad if I can manage without talk therapy or psychoanalysis, medications, or a combination of all of the above.  You are welcome to your opinion, but please do not abuse me for holding to mine.

How I learned

When my father had his breakdown, I was scared to death.  I’d heard that depression and other mental illnesses had a genetic component.  If nothing else, it might predispose you to developing the disease, or other diseases yourself.

I started to pay attention to my father and to what my mother said about him.  I started to pay attention to my friends who had other kinds of mental illness, and the behaviours they exhibited.  I started to ask questions about how they dealt with their diseases and to think about whether their strategies would work for me or not.

When I got into my self-help phase, one of the exercises in one of the many books on the subject indicated that you needed to examine your life and the past events that may have contributed to your depression.  I did this in detail, repeatedly.  The greater part of at least one journal is filled with it.

As life went on and I continued to experience symptoms and the fall-out resulting from them, I continued to adapt and refine my strategies.

Having a mental illness of any kind can seem like having another person inside of you.  Have you ever heard one partner say of another, ‘That’s not her talking.  It’s the depression.’?  It can be very true.

As you might do with any other person, adult or child, you have to treat your illness with respect.  You have to take the time to get to know and understand it.

As with anything, mindfulness is the key.  Be aware in the moment and hold the lesson of it close in your heart and mind.

Mellie’s deadlies

  1. Ideation
    I’ll start with this because I already mentioned last week a bit about how I handle these unwelcome thoughts and feelings.  First, acknowledge them.  If you try to ignore them, they’ll only come back more persistently.  Then, accept them.  They are a part of you because they are a part of your illness.  They are thoughts.  You don’t have to act on them and you certainly don’t have to fear them.  Fear will give them power.  You don’t want that.  Finally, thank them.  I’m serious.  They’ve made you aware of something important about you and the nature of your disease.  Once they feel this respect, they will go on their merry way of their own accord.
  2. Exhaustion
    I am tired all the time.  Most days, I feel like I could stay in bed all day.  On the occasional bad day, I might.  My depression is only one cause of this.  Insomnia is another.  Hormones are another.  My malignant hyperthermia (MH) may be yet another cause.  Ultimately, they are likely all connected.  MH is a funny condition.  I’ve read of some people who show symptoms of what used to be called chronic fatigue syndrome, and others who are largely bed-ridden because of their symptoms.  One of my relatives suffers from the much-debated fibromyalgia.  I believe that this may be an affect of the MH.  Regardless of the cause, several things have helped.  Regular sleeping habits.  Because of work, I have to get up at a particular time.  I find that I wake up about this time whether I’m working or not, and whether I choose to stay in bed or not.  I’ve tried sleeping pills for the insomnia and didn’t like their side affects.  I’ve always felt nervous using medication to solve a problem.  Naps don’t work for me.  I used to nap all the time, but if I sleep during the day, I’m more likely to have trouble sleeping at night.  I’ve tried herbal remedies, warm milk, keeping the bedroom dark and quiet, but the thing that seems to help the most is going to bed at a set time and waking up at a set time.  Exercise.  I find that if I’ve exercised, even just walking, at any time during the day, then I’m more likely to fall asleep quickly and sleep through the night.  Getting used to it.  This may seem a little harsh, but you can function when you’re tired.  I do it every day.  I’m very aware of my physical state and I can see the signs of when I’m getting too exhausted.  This will be an individual thing, but it’s important to know your limits and the difference between functional tired and dysfunctional tired.  When I fall into the latter situation, it may well be time for a day off.
  3. Rage
    In general, I’m a laid back person, so laid back, in fact, that sometimes I don’t react in the way people expect.  I never express it, but part of my depression is rage.  This is where some people find talk therapy helpful.  They can unload all the unpleasant baggage they’ve been carrying around and have someone tell then that it’s alright, that it’s normal to have these feelings.  I find this to be similar to ideation, but I substitute my journal for a therapist.  Like a therapist, my journal doesn’t judge.  It just accepts.  I don’t need the reassurance of anyone else.  I know that the rage is one of the effects of my depression.  Journaling my rage allows me to unload in a healthy way and unlike talk therapy I have an artefact that I can refer to.  I can return and examine my thoughts and feelings and see if there’s a pattern.  Because I journal about my dreams, creative ideas, and other everyday events, I can often connect trigger events to my written episodes of rage.  There was a period of several years where I had a lot of rage to vent.  Now, not so much.  I think my journaling has helped me immensely in this regard.
  4. Self-doubt
    This is related to number five, but finds its source more in the friend wars and in the negative experiences I’ve had as a creative person.  Since I’m socially awkward, I can get the feeling that nobody likes me, even though I know this isn’t true.  I try to keep a few central truths in mind.  First, the people in your life are there because they are equipped in some way to handle your shit.  This means that they are true friends and accept you even when you act like an idiot or say something strange or unkind.  They love you regardless.  Trust them.  Have faith in them.  The opinions of people who don’t ‘get it’ are not worth your time or energy.  By and large, I try not to care what people think of me, but I find that, when I look at it objectively, I am generally well-thought-of.  Creatively, I keep in mind that I have been published and not just by one source or in one genre.  Many of the rejections I get are encouraging ones.  I have also claimed my identity as a writer.  I’ve been writing since I was a child and I’ll continue to write until I die.  It’s who I am.  Publication is a wonderful validation, but I don’t need it to feel good about what I do, or to keep doing it every chance I get.  Writing is a healthy addiction.
  5. Self-hatred
    This is the biggie for me and strangely, I’ll spend the fewest words on it.  My version of hell is to be confronted with all the things that I’ve said or done that have hurt someone else.  At heart, I feel that I’m a terrible person and I don’t have to look far to find confirmation of this.  I don’t have to look far to find confirmation of the opposite either.  I have few, but intensely loyal friends, a small, but deeply loving family.  It may sound bizarre to some of you, but I’ve had a string of wonderful pets in my life that have all taught me what it is to love unconditionally.  My self-hatred is born of fear.  Striving for self-love is an act of courage.  I try to be brave every day.
  6. Emotional instability
    Though my crying-at-the-drop-of-a-hat days are long over, I can still be a basket-case from time to time.  Some of this I attribute to hormones.  I first noticed when I was younger and on birth control that my emotional instability was at its worst.  In the years since, I have occasionally had need to go on the pill again for various reasons, and though I’ve tried a number of different formulations, without fail, I become weepy.  Even without artificial hormones, I can still take a maudlin turn at certain points in my cycle.  The early years of my relationship to Phil were the worst.  The smallest things would send me into an ‘end-of-the-world’ funk for days, sometimes weeks, and Phil has confessed to me since that there were times when he thought we wouldn’t make it as a result.  Phil was, in part, my salvation though.  His intelligence stimulated and inspired me, his keen and twisted sense of humour, so like my own, has kept me laughing all these years.  He can make me laugh until my cheeks and stomach are sore, until my eyes tear up.  It’s amazing what a good belly-laugh can do for you.  We have several values in common and I trust him implicitly.  We are the best of friends.  We just happen to be married 😉

Above all, writing has been my best therapist, my best medication, and my best spiritual balm.  It was only when I started to write regularly that I really started to get my emotional house in order.  Much of my journey feeds into my writing and I continue to explore the themes of my life in the pages of my stories and novels.

There is something of me in every one of my characters and often pieces of the people I’ve known and loved.

Have you been able to turn an illness to your favour?  Have you mined your life and experiences for your stories?

This is not the end of the story, though it will be the end of this thread of the tapestry.  Next week I will return to my narrative where I had to leave it to discuss my depression in more depth.  This has been a story within a story that had to reach its conclusion before I could continue.

I hope these stories have served some purpose and will continue to do so.

Good night and I hope everyone had a happy Easter.

A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 6

Last week: A tumultuous year sets the gears in motion.

This week: Fumbling toward stability

But first …

A recent experience and how it led, in part, to this series

Last year, a co-worker of mine tried to quit smoking by use of a certain, psycho-active cessation medication.  I’d tried it in the past myself and warned him that while my reaction was atypical, that he should be wary.  Initially, he was undeterred, but a few days later, he said he’d had to stop.

He told me that he was in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, and the thought occurred to him how easy it would be to slice his flesh and he had the unsettling desire to find out what that felt like.  That moment frightened him so much he determined to stop taking the medication immediately.

I stood there, listening, and in retrospect my reaction wasn’t what it should have been.  It didn’t even occur to me that other people might not have these thoughts.

Ever since that fateful year when I was seventeen, I’ve never been on a balcony without thinking how easy it would be to climb over it and jump.  I’ve never been on a subway platform without wondering if I could really jump in front of one of the trains.  I think of car accidents (having them or causing them) all the time while I drive.

Often when doing routine tasks like cutting vegetables the unwelcome image of plunging the knife into my stomach—or worse, someone else’s—walks through my head.  I tell these thoughts to keep on walking of course, and to let the door hit their narsty asses on the way out, but the fact is, I have these thoughts so often, I actually thought that they were a normal part of everyone’s mental landscape.

Not so, obviously.

I was never so foolish as to think that my battle with depression was over.  It’s something that will be with me for the rest of my life and these thoughts are a reminder of that.  I’ve learned how to turn them down so they’re just background noise.  I acknowledge them and send them on their various ways.  They have no power over me.  Their work here is done.  Mindfulness restored.

I just got so used to them that I forgot not everyone thinks of self-harm every day.

The fumbling part

It took me until I was 33 or so to really address my depression.  That’s sixteen years.  Some struggle longer, others not so long, and every struggle is different.  This, again, is only my story.

When I left for university, I lucked out and got a room mate who really understood.  She suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), something that she didn’t reveal to me until our second semester together.  She did so by asking me to read a short story.  It was a tactful and creative way of introducing the subject.

After that, we started to communicate through books.  It was a very cool and private way to conduct a friendship, like an exclusive book club.

My roomie saw me through a lot.  She helped me discover my parasomnias (I held conversations, got up, and moved around while asleep), helped me start my first journal to capture these experiences, held me when I broke down recounting my tonsillectomy trauma (there are things that I didn’t and wonn’t share with you), and let me talk until I was hoarse while my second serious relationship disintegrated.

She also helped me to rediscover my passion for writing, something that I will forever be grateful for.

We shared a harrowing ditching of my car on our way up to Elora Mills to visit a friend during a winter snowfall, baked and ate a crust pie (we were crust fans), and opened up our lives to one another.

When I moved away, my roomie told me that she’d started cutting.  On a visit up to Sudbury, I inadvertently broke her OCD with our hectic schedule.  I don’t know if I supported her through either of these transitions.

The Dad detour

In the second summer I was at Guelph, I got myself a job with a video film crew.  The business taped horse shows across Canada and into the US, edited the footage, and sold it to the horsey-set as memento, or training tool.

I was away in Southampton, NY for a couple of weeks and while I was down there, my father had a nervous break-down.  It was set off due to the dismantling of his unit at work and his potential relocation to southern Ontario.

Mom came home from work one day to find him sitting with a knife.

She didn’t tell me any of this when it happened, but only that Dad was fine, in the hospital and that she would fill me in when I visited home in a couple of weeks.

Dad was hospitalized for months and eventually diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder.  From there, he went on long-term disability though his employer’s health plan and eventually applied for Canada Pension Disability.

He never returned to work.

Not quite independence

There was nothing I could do for Mom when I went home.  I was just shocked by the news and returned to Toronto, where I moved in with BF number three and tried to survive.

Though I still saw my old roomie, I was without a constant confidant.  I turned to self-help books in a major way.

I wanted to spank my inner moppet and fast.  I was determined not to end up like Dad.  I feared it might be inevitable though.

Just before Christmas that year, my maternal grandmother passed away.  She’d been on borrowed time since I was a baby when she’d had multiple bypass heart surgery (see: Something I don’t remember).  I was about to start a job, but asked my new employer for a delay in my start date to go home for the funeral and Christmas.

It was surreal.  Once again, I didn’t feel connected to the event.  I couldn’t muster emotion at the appropriate times.  I continued to cry at odd ones, usually when I was alone, which, when you think about it, is the exact wrong time.  It’s like an alcoholic drinking alone, a sign of something wrong.

Really, I was worried about Mom.  She had been primary caregiver for my grandparents for a number of years.  Even though the burden should have been less, it wasn’t really.  She now had Dad to take care of too, and my grandfather was an alcoholic, something kept in check by my grandmother’s presence.

Mom was adamant that I couldn’t do anything to help, though, and so back south I went.

A series of jobs and the crash and burn of my third relationship eventually caused me to re-evaluate my life.  My attempts to find another place to live met with disappointment again and again.  I couldn’t survive alone, working a low-paying job in Toronto, and while I toyed with apprenticeship (masonry was kind of looking interesting for a while), journalism, or radio, or returning to university, my eventual move back to Sudbury decided me on two things:

  1. I was going to complete my degree in English and use that experience to become the best writer I could be, and
  2. I wasn’t going to get into another relationship until I’d sorted my shit out.

Growing up

Of course, I broke my second resolution and was dating Phil (now hubbie) before the summer was out.

Margaret was back in Sudbury too, and with her forever partner by then as well.

I was still not fit partner material, and I don’t know why Phil put up with my neurotic self.  I still became sad and cried often.  I fled from conflict, literally, and on several occasions Phil had to run after me.  If he hadn’t, I’d have retreated completely.

Still, he proposed, I accepted, and we were married the July of my second year at Laurentian.

Things changed again.  Margaret moved to Port Elgin when her husband got a job in the area.  Though I’d made some friends in school, I once more felt bereft.  My roomie from Guelph fell out of touch.  I was still searching.

Academically, I excelled.  Creatively, I was on a roll.  Several prize-winning short stories and poems led to my invitation to write a short story for the first issue of a new magazine.

I graduated cum laude with a concentration in rhetoric, but I still didn’t have any self-confidence.  I decided that I needed a master’s degree before I could be considered a ‘real’ writer.  All of my university friends were moving on to master’s degrees, or teacher’s college.  It just seemed like the thing to do.

Phil was in university now as well, and in order to pursue my degree, we’d have to live apart.  And we did.  For years.

I’ve written about my master’s experience elsewhere.  Here, I will only say that by the end of it, though I achieved my goal, I was beaten down creatively.  Despite having my poetry included in two anthologies and a handful of other journals and publications and despite having completed my thesis, a collection of short stories, I doubted that anything I had to write would have meaning or significance to anyone else.

I returned to Sudbury and a life of contract jobs interspersed with unemployment.  Those were rough years for Phil and I, and I still hadn’t sorted out my issues.  I still lived in fear of becoming like my father, of being as much of a burden to Phil as he was to my mom.

Then, Phil’s sister told me about an opening with her employer, which I applied for and was successful in getting.  Though it is the same employer I continue to work for today, the job was in a much different capacity.  I was working in a call centre.

The work was emotionally draining and I quickly reduced my hours to part-time.  Still, the wage was better than most jobs I could have gotten in Sudbury at the time and the benefits were even better.  Within a year, Phil and I had a house and mortgage, a car and car loan.  We were growing up.

I took advantage of the benefits I had, got a surgery I’d been putting off, braces, and therapy.  The talk therapy was limited by what my plan would pay for.  I hadn’t actually tried to kill myself or anything; I was just trying to figure out how to deal.

I also went on Paxil.

I’ve never been a fan of medication.  I tried all sorts of herbal and vitamin supplements to improve my mood, level of energy, and feeling of well-being.  No combination I’ve tried worked.

The Paxil seemed to work.  It gave me a respite from the anxiety and mood swings, but after a few months, I wanted to get off the drug.  I didn’t want to become dependant.

The withdrawal symptoms were easily the worst I ever experienced and I never want to go through that again.

Though it may not seem like much, it was my decision to get off the Paxil and get in control of my emotional life that was my turning point, not the therapy or the drug itself, nor any of the other, external things I had tried to that point.

I found ways to cope.  I’ll talk about a few of those next week.

A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 5

Last week: A second routine surgery turns complicated and results in my second near-death experience.

The hits don’t stop coming

1987 was a massive year for me, not only because of my appendix problems, but also due to several other events, both related and unrelated to that trauma.

I mentioned some of the related bits last week: the implosion of my first serious relationship, academic struggles, and the revelations of the second surgery.

My first serious relationship yielded to my second in a few short months.  By the time of the second surgery, I was firmly entrenched in coupledom again.  At that point, I really didn’t know how to function socially without a partner.  I was still so awkward on my own, still doubted my own value so much that it seemed the only option.

The man in question was attracted to wounded women.  This is not to disparage him in any way, because he was an excellent person, but I still have trouble seeing my virtues and can’t figure out why else he decided to enter into a relationship with me.  This is just a statement of fact, something he revealed to me later himself.

With regard to my academic difficulties, I missed a lot of school and because I tended to fall asleep toward the end of the day, I was doing poorly even in the courses I was there for.  In an attempt to catch up, I wanted to enrol in a correspondence course in history to offset my poor performance in other classes.  My mom and I met with a counsellor to discuss my options.

I was told, point blank, “You’re not smart enough to complete a correspondence course successfully.”  The counsellor in question was clearly looking at my recent marks, not on the A’s and B’s of previous years’ courses.  When I tried to press the issue, she said that I didn’t have the time and dedication to complete a correspondence course.

“You’re recovering from surgery and still pretty sick.  You’re heading for a second one in a few months.  You have enough to worry about without a correspondence course.”  Essentially, she thought I was too lazy to complete the course.  This was not the case, but I couldn’t convince her otherwise, so I left the session empty-handed.

Other events were converging to form a perfect emotional storm.

English: Tropical Depression One upon being de...

English: Tropical Depression One upon being declared (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the winter, my paternal grandmother had a stroke while driving home from visiting my aunt and uncle down south.  Her car shot through an intersection just after entering Sudbury and ended up on an embankment.  Fortunately, no one else was injured, but the car was totalled.  She was admitted to hospital, but as the days and weeks progressed, she did not wake up.

At first, they thought the stroke had caused more damage than they originally determined.  Further scans revealed that this was not the case.  As time went on and her coma continued, they needed to insert a feeding tube to keep her alive.  She could not continue to survive on intravenous alone.

They couldn’t insert the feeding tube.  Something was in the way.  A quick exploratory revealed that her abdomen was full of cancer.

We couldn’t imagine the kind of pain she must have been in during her long months of silence leading up to the stroke.  My grandmother was an intensely private and fiercely independent woman.

Due to my own health issues, I was not encouraged to visit my grandmother much.  Then, when my state of infection became clear, I was discouraged from seeing her at all.  Finally, I was brought up to say my goodbyes.  Without the intervention of a feeding tube, my grandmother would slowly starve, if the growing cancer didn’t get to her first.

The decision was made to remove all supportive measures and let nature take its course.

Family came up to visit and either stayed or returned for the funeral.  It was about that time that I started to cry for no reason.  I couldn’t cry when it seemed appropriate: when saying my goodbyes and at the funeral, but at odd times, I’d just sob uncontrollably or stare off into nothing.

I had no idea what depression was then and even though my boyfriend tried to tell me, I was closed to the message.

My friendship with Margaret suffered as well.  My first boyfriend was very jealous of my time and rarely let me do anything on my own.  He was everywhere and became sulky when I wanted a “girl’s night” or to do anything with Margaret that didn’t involve him.

My quick turnaround into my second relationship didn’t help matters.  This time I was the needy one and relied on my boyfriend, the picture of the strong, silent archetype, almost exclusively.  Margaret found a relationship of her own to fill the gap.  She needed someone she could rely on too.

Margaret’s mother was getting remarried and would be moving to Mississauga at the beginning of the summer.  Margaret was allowed to stay on with me for the summer, in my grandmother’s house until she joined her mother in Mississauga and I went away to the University of Guelph in the fall.

My parents had settled my grandmother’s estate in the spring and my father had to buy out his brothers of their shares.  My grandmother hadn’t left a proper will and a lawyer was hired to sort through the mess.  They would be moving into my grandmother’s house in September after I relocated to Guelph and renting out their house to pay off the second mortgage they had to take out to make the proper financial arrangements.

My grandmother’s house, though large, only had one bedroom.  My move down south would be a permanent one.  There was no place for me at home anymore.

Throughout this time, I didn’t write, or even think about writing.  There wasn’t any room for it in my life and I was too busy trying to fast-track through highschool and try to maintain some form of a healthy relationship with anyone to spare any time for my creativity.

In a relatively short period of time, I had a serious infection bookended by two surgeries, ended my first major relationship and entered my second, lost my grandmother, my home, and my best friend.  This was the beginning of a situational depression that it would take me years to recognize and sort through.

Next week: Fumbling toward stability.

A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 4

Last week: Friend wars.  Can a girl get post-traumatic stress disorder from those?

And now:

The appendicitis odyssey

I’m going to skip forward a few years.  They were largely unremarkable, trust me.  I wasn’t anything special in high school.

At fifteen, I entered my first serious relationship.  This pulled Margaret and I further apart, but in the summer I was sixteen, she invited me to go with her to a star party.

Margaret was and continues to be an amateur astronomer.  My interest lay mostly in continuing to spend time with her, though I did enjoy learning about the constellations and how to recognize them in the night sky.

Margaret and a group from the local astronomy club headed down to Star Fest that August with me in tow.  The weekend went well.  We stayed up late to look through various telescopes to see planets, nebulae, and galaxies far, far away.

The day we left, though, I wasn’t feeling so hot.  I had a stabbing pain in my gut.  That was the first attack.

Others followed and though I went to my doctor, my pain didn’t present as typical appendicitis.  It wasn’t in the right place.  So I had tests.  And more tests.  All with varied but negative results.

As the school year wore on, I started to fall asleep in science class, which had to that point been one of my favourites (organic chemistry-yay!).  I was still serving as acolyte at my parents’ church, looking more like Quasimodo as I walked, hunched over, to light and snuff the candles.  The pain got worse, and after a particularly terrible day, my parents took me to the hospital.

Typical presentation or not, emergency exploratory surgery was ordered.

Once again, I don’t remember the surgery, but I woke up feeling rotten with a drain poking out through my stomach.

For those of you who may not have had this particular medical procedure, let me describe it.  First, a six by six gel patch was placed over the incision site to stabilize the soft flesh.  Then a four inch incision was made.  There was a lot of infection inside of me (I’ll get to that in a bit) and so a length of surgical tubing was inserted to let it drain out, the wound packed, and I sent to recovery.

The doctor explained that I had not only an inflamed appendix, so inflamed that the complications were the same as if it had ruptured, but that I also had a grapefruit-sized (he described it to my parents as a softball) abscess on the appendix.  The reason it didn’t present as typical appendicitis was that my bowel was inverted (upside-down) and the reason ultrasounds had found nothing was that the massive, puss-filled abscess had obscured the appendix and unorthodox arrangement of my innards.

The appendix had not been removed.  The infection was so wide-spread that the surgeon would have had to remove most of my bowel along with it and leave me with a colostomy.  He had a daughter about my age and decided that he couldn’t do that to me (bless you, Dr. Keeley!) but this would mean a second surgery in a few months and intensive antibiotics in the meantime.

I was in the hospital for over a week.  They couldn’t get me back on solid food and I was so weakened by months of infection that my veins kept collapsing.  I had holes all over my hands, wrists, and arms by the end of it.  I wept when they had to change the intravenous site for the sixth time.

Other than the obvious, though, I had no clue that anything was amiss.  Friends and family all came in to visit, smiling, making small chat, all except my then boyfriend.  He came in and sat, silent and moping the whole time.  Eventually, I demanded to know what was wrong.  Why come to visit me if he wasn’t even going to bother talking to me?

“I almost lost you!” he blurted.  And that’s how I learned that I had nearly died.  Again.

He was certainly entitled to his feelings, but his selfishness astounded me.  In short order, as ill as I still felt, I returned his gifts to me and told him to hit the road.

The next three months were a trial.  Lots of antibiotics, and though the drain was removed before I left the hospital, the incision remained open and had to be packed, the dressings changed twice a day.

It stank.  Pus seeped through the dressings and my clothes on a regular basis.  The scar remains a puckered mess to this day.  My body is fond of forming cheloids.

The second surgery, the actual appendectomy, was coordinated with a test for malignant hyperthermia.  The condition had been detected in my family some years before and the test required the removal of a six inch strip of muscle.  Three were for the actual test and the other three for research.

Malignant hyperthermia is passed on genetically and is a condition which requires me to avoid both stimulants and standard anaesthetics.  Certain substances accumulate in my muscles and in situations of high stress, temperatures, or with exposure to certain anaesthetics, my body will go into a hyperthermic reaction.  My temperature rises until my muscles, including my heart and the intercostals, which facilitate breathing, shut down.  Cardiac arrest.

Fortunately, I’ve never had a full reaction, though I have always “run hot” and my muscles will twitch from time to time, often after exercise.

The surgeon for the second procedure was a clinician, and though excellent, was somewhat lacking in bedside manner.

Following that surgery, I was informed that Dr. Keeley should have removed the appendix and all the infected tissue the first time and that not to do so verged on malpractice.  A colostomy would have been better for me than the subsequent risks from the continuing infection.

She could not use the same incision site because, even after three months, I was still full of infection.  I had hoped that she would have been able to use the same location, if for no other reason than to remove the existing, twisted wound and create a more or less “normal” looking scar.

I was then informed that I had the highest level of the disease (there are eight) and that I could no longer have anything containing caffeine (coffee, tea, pop, or chocolate), alcohol, antihistamines, or any pain relievers that included muscle relaxants.  When I began to tear up (remember, I was only seventeen at the time, and I kind of enjoyed a lot of those things that she said I couldn’t have anymore) she looked at me, somewhat incredulously, and said, “I don’t know why you’re crying.  This is a good thing.  You’ll have a much longer, healthier life.”

At the time, researchers did not know everything about malignant hyperthermia and outlawed a lot of substances on the chance that they might predispose me to have a reaction.   Since then, I’ve learned that moderation is the key.

I missed a lot of school and barely made it through some of my courses.  It was my final year of high school too and though it was a little tense, I was actually accepted to my choice of universities for the following fall.  Other things happened that year too, but I’ll leave that for my next post in the series.

So that was my second brush with death.

Next week: Trauma mounts and depression rears its ugly head in earnest.

Has a routine surgery changed your life?  How so?  What came of your adventures under the knife?

A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 3

Last week: A near-death experience thanks to a narsty case of tonsillitis and some ripped stitches.

And now …

Friend wars

I had some friends before school, through Sunday School and swimming lessons, but they lived farther away from me than my mom would let me walk on my own, so I never got to see them outside certain structured activities.

There were also the children of my parents’ friends, but they moved away before I could develop much of an attachment, or hold any memories of them.  For a brief time, the family across the street had children my age, but they too, soon moved away.  Kindergarten was a bit of a blur, but I do remember some of the children I met there: Ronnie-Moe, whose Dad was a fireman, Mytie (I think that was how she spelled it), Paul, and a few others, but these were classmates, not friends per se.

For the most part, I was a happy child.  I was socially inept though.  Not really good at making friends or keeping them.  I compensated for this by being a little different.  I lived in my head a lot.  My teachers called it daydreaming and distraction.

I was also a giggle-puss.  I laughed at the drop of a hat, not only when I found something funny, but also when anything embarrassed me, frightened me, or made me angry.  Laughter was my catch-all reaction, because if other kids thought I was making some kind of joke, usually at my own expense and not theirs, they wouldn’t hate me outright.  They all thought I was weird though, and that didn’t earn me any friends.

My worst childhood crime was being a story-teller (read liar).  For show and tell, I’d make things up.  There was one particularly embarrassing stretch where I was really into cats and desperately wished I could have one.  I couldn’t though, so I made up stray cats that I’d take in and care of for a few days before they ran away.

Often, I wish this inclination had been harnessed earlier, that some kind teacher would have recognized in me the storyteller (not the story-teller, teller of tales, or liar) and helped me turn it in a different direction, but that didn’t happen until grade three.

Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson (Photo credit: eschipul)

I was just a creative kid with insufficient outlet within class to exercise my (even then) considerable abilities.  Last year, I discovered Sir Ken Robinson’s incredible TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”  It validated much of what I’d already figured out on my own.

So I was happy.  But lonely.

Then a young mother with twins (fraternal-brother and sister) my age moved into the apartment up the road from me.  When she saw that I walked to school, she asked my mom if we could all walk to school together.  So the girl, let’s call her Diana, became my first “friend.”

Soon, another young pedestrian joined our little gaggle.  She lived a few blocks further on, but we were all heading in the same direction, so I figured it was fine for her to join us.  Let’s call her Mary.  Diana got territorial, though.  I was her friend first.

Mary was small and thin.  I’m not sure why, but nobody much liked her in grade one.  I was her friend though, and when Diana started acting up, it became problematic.  Diana got physical and she had a temper.  She’d scream and push and punch.

Her behaviour toward Mary bothered me, and at one recess, as Diana was wailing away at me, rather ineffectually, after having pushed Mary down, I had enough.  I grabbed her arms and pinned her against the wall of the school so she couldn’t punch anymore.

I like to think I said something clever like “You don’t own me,” or “I don’t belong to you,” but I probably squeaked out a lame “I’m not your friend,” or just “stop it.”

Diana was in tears, frustrated that she couldn’t bully her way out of the situation.  I wasn’t small, or weak.  I think a teacher intervened, but the outcome was that Diana wasn’t my friend anymore.  She stopped walking to school with me, but Mary was now my BFF.  I’d defended her.  We became inseparable.

Mary was pretty much my only friend through grades one and two.  We’d walk to and from school every day.  Mary came over to play and we went to each other’s birthday parties.

I defended her again one winter from the attentions of a boy.  Of course, I had no clue that his shoving her around and making her cry meant that he liked her.  I just saw him as another bully, so I got into my first fist fight.  He clocked me good on the jaw, but I got my own licks in.  He didn’t bother Mary in front of me again, though.

Mary continued to be a small, thin child, and so to exert her power, she got devious.  She’d argue with me over nothing, routinely “breaking up” with me and then making up the next day as a means of keeping “drama” in our friendship.  When she came over to play at marbles, she decided to make things interesting, no longer content with claiming pretty marbles, by having each of us put up toys as a wager.  She liked to bend the rules in her favour too.  I was content to let her win when the stakes weren’t high but that stopped once I started losing toys.

First, I stopped playing marbles with her, then eventually, I stopped having her over to play altogether.  Mary’s friendship was exhausting.

In grade three, another single mother moved into the apartment up the street.  She had a daughter named Margaret.  No pseudonyms here.  Margaret’s still my BFF though she lives several hours away and most of our conversations are held over FB chat or by email.

While Margaret lived up the street, there was another girl who was interested in putting on talent shows and the like.  There were implications of bullying there too, but nothing that I witnessed.  Also, the other girl was much larger than I and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it, but things blew over before long.

Margaret’s Mom moved into a duplex, but it was still within walking distance.  Margaret was fun and funny.  We went to movies together, at first with parents in tow.  She had budgies and a hamster.  Margaret was also a big reader, something I hadn’t latched onto yet.

Mary got a little jealous at that point, but because I was already in the process of separating myself from her, the drama wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

In grade three, my parents got me my first pet, a dog I named Friskey because of her behaviour.  The dog book said to name your puppy according to what it did.  I did what the book said 🙂  I was so excited about my new pet, that I wrote a one-page report about her.  It wasn’t required for class, but when my teacher learned that I’d done it, she encouraged me to read it aloud.

That was the year I started reading and writing.

It was also the first year that cliques developed in the class.  Margaret was popular.  Me, not so much.  I was a tag-along at best.

Grade four was worse.  Years later, when I saw the movie “Heathers,” I could so relate.

Cover of "Heathers - 20th High School Reu...

Cover via Amazon

The Heathers of our school had other names, but they were no less manipulative or cruel, even though they were in elementary school.  I got into trouble a lot that year because of the drama between the cliques.  I think that was the summer I was grounded from seeing Margaret.

I also wrote a play for the Christmas pageant that year.  That didn’t help my popularity either.

Being alone wasn’t a problem for me.  I enjoyed being alone.  Envy was an issue, though.  Without thinking about why, I wanted to be in a clique.  I wanted to be popular.  Failing that, I wanted Margaret to be my friend to the exclusion of others.  When my desires were thwarted, I started to take my frustration out on Margaret, as Diana had on me.  Though it was to a much lesser degree (not that it excuses anything), I’d become the bully I’d previously defended others against.

In grade five, I was the first girl to hit puberty, or at least that’s the way it felt.  My growing breasts became a topic of discussion and ridicule in the change room as were my hairy legs.

The traits I exhibited in grade one had developed and changed over the years.  I now cultivated an air of “weirdo.”  To combat the change room taunting, I tried to claim my glorious boobage, a difficult thing to do when I felt that it was one of the things that made me a freak in the eyes of others.  It only served to cement my strange reputation.

Since grade three, I’d been writing little stories and I kept them in exercise books.  I had wild dreams and shared them with Margaret at recess.  I was a terrible storyteller, though, all rambling and out of order.  I know there were days when Margaret just wanted me to shut up or to get to the point, but I only realized the relative quality of my verbal diarrhoea after the fact.  Sorry Margaret.

When grade six arrived, the friend wars had settled down to a large extent, but there were still a few hard feelings that had to be resolved.

Mary, who’d still been in my life, but to a much lesser extent, made overtures to “bury the hatchet” between us.  She behaved like a real friend for the first time in years and when, after a short while, she asked to see my notebook of stories, I lent it to her.

She used most of a bottle of White-Out on it to obliterate my words.

After that, with the exception of Margaret, I was almost happy to be otherwise friendless.  New cliques formed, included Margaret, and I was again a hanger-on, just so I could remain in Margaret’s circle.  We were still BFFs, but we were also growing up, and apart.

The other members of the clique didn’t like me, and no wonder.  My laugh had become a hyena’s, and I routinely introduced myself in the following manner: Hi, I’m Mel.  I’m weird.  Just to get that out of the way.

I didn’t want any more friends.  Except for Margaret, I’d learned that friends just wanted to prove that they were better than you, to hurt you, and take you down in some way.  It wasn’t a problem with Margaret because she was always the better person in our friendship.  At least I stopped hitting her.  Sorry again, my friend.

Though I stopped sharing my stories even with Margaret, my creativity continued to be an albatross.  This might have been the skewed way I saw things in those days, but it felt true.

Following the friend wars, my self-confidence was shot.  Even in grade three, an off-hand comment could reduce me to tears.  I fled from conflict.  What happened to the girl who held Diana flailing arms and told her to stop?  I couldn’t stand up for anyone anymore, least of all myself.

These were the seeds sown that in later years would take root as depression.

If you haven’t yet, watch Shane Koyczan’s excellent “To this Day.”

Visit The Bully Project.  Watch the movie.

And last week, I saw an awesome documentary on Global’s Currents.  It’s from 2007, but it’s still relevant.  Erin Thomson’s The Bully’s Mark.

Did you have friend wars in the past?  Were you in a clique, or a hanger-on?  Were you a victim of bullying, or a bully?  Both?  How did it shape the person you would become?  How did it affect your creative development?  What lessons did you take away from the experience?  This is an important issue.  Please share if you feel you can.

Next week: Tummy troubles: Appendicitis and my second brush with death.