Apple = Love

I wrote the skeleton of this story a couple of days before I had to euthanize my therapy dog Ani.

The question I awoke with that morning was: If you could never eat an apple again would you wish to experience it in all other forms or would you choose to have the apple disappear from all your senses?

Memory can be “madness” and awareness is sometimes the suffering. Life is basically memory and imagination if in fact there is a difference.

It seems obvious that anyone would choose to see apple trees or notice the smell of baked apple pie but the alternative might be less painful. If one is unaware do they suffer less?

The experience of missing out involves a knowledge of or expectation of something different. Being five minutes late for the bus is being fifteen minutes early for the person next to you. Both kick at the cold but the same event is grief on either side of expectation and ultimately acceptance.

Having three brothers I was accustomed to missing out on apple pie but when I was incarcerated and hospitalized I seldom experienced the depth of specific disappointment. A slight awareness and imagination was tortuous but to have been fully aware of the actual taste of my Mom’s apple pie or the feel of warm sand and rhythmic waves would have exacerbated my ‘madness.’

Reading these thoughts in light of the unexpected passing of my pet leaves me not with an answer but another question: Would you choose the experience knowing the pain that is inevitable or is Love itself an upfront acceptance of and or investment in loss?

Sanity

Most of us know triumph but everyone knows sorrow. As I type this my dog Ani is growing cold in the back of my car. She was euthanized today and I am doing my best to procure similarities with 5.5% alcohol. Ani had bone cancer and one of her bones was fractured and disintegrating. Now I am.

If you’ve owned a dog you have or will have to say goodbye. To say I was fighting back tears at the veterinarian’s view of things is laughable but I tried.

Ani wasn’t an average dog that I crated up and cursed the cold with twice a day. She was my therapy and only friend. We spent the last 10 years in each other’s company 24/7.

I did not train her but if I swore she nuzzled up to me. She knew I was having a hard time if I cursed. I guess I will have to come to terms with the fact that now no-one will love me when I am unlovable.

The veterinarian said it would only cost me 30 bucks for paw prints and a measly $400 for some assholes who didn’t love my dog to guarantee that the ashes in the urn were in fact only Ani. Screw you and your mourning marketing. Poverty is impervious.

If you’re local you’ll wonder how this asshole expects to bury a dog in March. I half built a granite garden within view of Ani’s bed in the house. That is where Ani will rest. About all I have to do is thaw 15 bags of topsoil from whichever garden centre is open and stocked.

I don’t know what most people say to their dog as they slip away but I said “thank you.” I said “thank you” and I massaged the inside of Ani’s ears like I always did.

When I first got Ani I named her sANIty. I was dissuaded by the premise that she sounded like a boat but in hindsight calling her from a distance would have been problematic. “Sanity,” “Sanity Come.” If it were that easy to summon sanity you wouldn’t be reading my blog. Part of me will always call Ani from a distance but our closeness can never be argued.

I dedicate this story to all therapy and service dogs. Very few wear a vest.

I was screaming about “21 feet” so they weren’t justified in shooting anything, but they were already 10 feet away. They finally got my dog away from me and I turned around and stripped naked without prompting. “On the floor.” And they pinned me to the floor with their Plexiglas shields and handcuffed me. The paramedics gave me a needle in the ass and I was placed on the gurney I had kicked over when they parked it at my front door.

I like to think I’m somewhere near the bottom edge of normal. Some days I imagine other people with extraordinary lives. I pretty much plant myself in the same few spots of a fifty foot by 100′ acreage. Every car I see is imaginable as extraordinary. My life has been like being on a sightseeing tour except the brochure and map are for another location and the guide doubles as a guard.

I spent a few months hiding which is leaps and bounds beyond only moving around the house in the dark. I know every noise depending on how I shift my weight. Most days I’m suicidal but I keep my pills in weekly containers to make it all seem onerous.

I used to have more kick and fight but I’m still feeling beaten down by my latest healthcare apprehensions. In March I left the house on an ambulance gurney. I had four seizures which seems reasonable after a year of two to three hours of sleep and a drinking and fasting regime. I was screaming at my mattress because I didn’t want to go in an ambulance let alone a hospital. I was unwell, and the ambulance ride was a blackout, but I recall recalling some of my story as far as justice and innocence in the emergency department. It’s important to be heard even in a CT scan. It was a bunch of psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, but I felt like I got hit by a truck. I slept for three days and only walked to the washroom.

A few weeks later I got dragged out of the house on another ambulance gurney, but things didn’t go as smoothly. I was funneled through the police before the paramedics would do whatever it is they do; the ambulance ride was another blackout. I sure as shit remember the cops and all the Plexiglas shields as I ranted from the corner of my living room protecting my therapy dog. Things would have turned out differently had I known one of the cops told my wife “we might have to shoot the dog.”

I was screaming about “21 feet” so they weren’t justified in shooting anything, but they were already 10 feet away. They finally got my dog away from me and I turned around and stripped naked without prompting. “On the floor.” And they pinned me to the floor with their Plexiglas shields and handcuffed me. The paramedics gave me a needle in the ass and I was placed on the gurney I had kicked over when they parked it at my front door.

I was only in the ER against my will for a few days. Because of my experiences in solitary confinement and the similarities with LHSC the first hours were in my world days. I lost all sense of time again and was very agitated with anyone who turned on the lights. I was strapped down at least twice but those events are basically blackouts as well. I don’t react normally to such conditions and confinement which is where some of my agitation and anxiety arise. I guess you’d have to spend a year or two with an indefinite sentence on your person to get it.

I left against doctors’ advice in part because the only other option was to remain in “solitary confinement” until they found a psychiatric bed. Maybe if they had a window in the room or something other than a jail toilet in the hallway of correctional officers and cops. I pissed in the drain in the corner most of the time I was there.

A few days later the police came to apologize, I thought, but five of them seemed to want to stuff me in the back of a police car. I had bruises for two weeks from where they squeezed the pressure points on the insides of my arms. The cops left me back in the ER with a “spit hood” on my head and some nurse trying to medicate me. I overheard someone say, “I’ll take anyone but that one.”

After about five weeks they let me wander so I can spend half my time wishing I was dead and the other half wondering if I have a choice.

I know of no other health condition that the police are likely to respond to. I understand that behavior is a symptom, but I don’t see nurses giving out speeding tickets.

Inclusion involves sharing the experience and it involves interaction and communication.

In battling with exclusion and discrimination, I think it is important to recognize the historical nature and scale of exclusion. Much of the language and imagery which intertwines with mental illness has its roots in the idea of demonic possession or evil spirits. Some of this still lingers today in public perceptions and therefore public policy. Various cultures and groups depend on folk beliefs for knowledge of mental illness which is also reflected in core beliefs. If an individual cannot understand mental illness they cannot understand an individual with it. To me inclusion involves sharing the experience and it involves interaction and communication.

Although 1 in 5 may experience a mental illness in their lifetime a large portion of society will never feel or experience mental illness personally. It is overlooked or not imagined that illness is part of the human experience. Even the strong and healthy eventually succumb to the ravages of time. Instead of “that can never be me” it needs to be recognized that “it could be me” and “will be me”. I’m not sure how you enforce empathy but to me it is the basis of inclusion. To recognize difference is easy but to acknowledge similarities takes mindful work and it is a process.

It becomes difficult to include when exclusion is a means of psychological safety. People are prone to disengage and disavow what is a threatening possibility in themselves. Exclusion is a deep rooted and timeless function of individuals and societies. Incarceration and hospitalization can and have been forms of exclusion for those who are different, disturbing or difficult. Individuals with mental health difficulties are often unable or unwilling to conform due to symptoms. Unfortunately, it is the still suffering and or untreated by which those who are identified or self-identify are measured. The gifts and unique attributes individuals with mental illness posses are sometimes lost in the telling of only part of the story. More people are aware that Vincent van Gogh cut his ear off than have browsed his significant contribution to the world of art.

If I mention to someone with no experience outside of myth and movies that I have bi-polar disorder, often I am measured and treated as the imagery that occupies the observers mind. With mental illness a point in time or episode of illness seems to define the individual. Gifts or skills take a back seat in identity and dignity is undermined by the perception that a person is an illness. Mental illness is often viewed as a permanent flaw and shrouded in risk. On a personal level it is easier and safer to discount or devalue these individuals than it is to accept or foster diversity. The consequences then become systemic and societal.

“I simply represented a normal part of diversity in the spectrum of differentness in our community.”  Norman Kunc (The Other Side of Therapy: Disability, Normalcy and the Tyranny of Rehabilitation)

Follow the white rabbit.

We sold our chicken coop not long ago. My wife mentioned that the yard looks better without it. I told her it was a painful reminder of my recent mania and psychosis. She said to look at it more positively. “Not many in London have experienced poultry as you have.”

For some reason London doesn’t allow backyard birds. I was certifiably certain the bylaw was about to change when I purchased my birds. In my mania I ended up with five ducks and ten chickens. That’s a slight exaggeration as one of the chickens was actually a rooster. In hindsight I think he was my undoing.

The first month I thought I had lucked out and had a rooster without the ability to crow. It was a delusion. He was however the most beautiful bird I have ever owned. When I picked him up from another Londoner and brought him home I opened the cardboard box and he flew straight to the top of our aluminum shed. My first thought was how to get him down in broad daylight but then, I just watched him.

We had sod in our backyard before all this but with rains my free range flock quickly turned the backyard into a mud-hole. It was too muddy for the chickens and soon they were living on our elevated deck in full view of the neighbourhood. The bylaw enforcement officer seemed quite intrigued with the five that were Jersey Giants but less so than the rooster.

I was warned several times but my seven white rabbits were basically feral at that point. My neighbours don’t speak to me but I cant wait to ask them if they thought they had lost their minds when they kept seeing white rabbits. I found the rabbits a home about 80 bucks too late but I can still hear flapping wings and the knock of a meat cleaver my buddy used to dispatch the ducks. I didn’t see it but I think the effect was about the same.

Now our food scraps go in the garbage and I have no fresh eggs to share but I did not surrender. I now have three Eastern Cottontail rabbits to eat the complaining neighbour’s rosebush. I also own several Canada Geese, at least four Mallard Ducks, a pair of pigeons, about a dozen Morning Doves, some swallows, half a dozen Goldfinches and flocks of Starlings and sparrows. We live in a new subdivision and there are two huge mud puddles right across the street. I walk over there once a week and spread cracked corn. Location, location, location.

 

With fewer options when it comes to interpersonal relationships the individual in recovery is prone to prodding the past in an attempt to reclaim valued social roles.  It is understandable that individuals with mental illness and or addictions attempt to return to some state of Eden; a time of better health or perceived ‘normalcy’.

Social exclusion can be a factor in the reoccurrence of addictive behaviours and or a recurrence of mental health symptoms. Substances provide an escape from feelings of worthlessness and the effects of marginalization. Addictions are at times a form of self-medicating but even when medications hold symptoms at bay, stigma and self-stigma can be obliterated temporarily through substances.

Reclaiming valued social roles is sometimes not an option for those with concurrent disorders. Creating a self-directed positive self-identity then becomes more challenging and precarious. In the recovery process, friendships, acquaintances and communities may need to be abandoned to maintain sobriety and incorporate a healthy lifestyle. This can be problematic in that it initially deepens social isolation. These instances can lead to a further withdrawal from social contact which creates challenges regarding self-image, self-esteem and overall social inclusion. If steps towards ‘social recovery’ lead to a reduction of symptoms, it is imperative for individuals who are susceptible to addiction to find meaningful relationships and supportive friendships.

With fewer options when it comes to interpersonal relationships the individual in recovery is prone to prodding the past in an attempt to reclaim valued social roles.  It is understandable that individuals with mental illness and or addictions attempt to return to some state of Eden; a time of better health or perceived ‘normalcy’. Unfortunately some of the individuals rooted in these times and places offer little more than an outdated and unhealthy identity that precede the more serious or institutional aspects of mental health difficulties. By associating with old ‘friends’ individuals are able to return to memories and unearth altered and destroyed status. Individuals can vicariously reclaim or re-experience a social identity by entering the illusion of  “I’m still that guy” or in being “one of the boys.” Addictions are often hidden within this short term and illusory construct.

For individuals with addictions, interpersonal relationships can be manipulations. Some addicts use not just substances but anyone they can to procure a ‘fix’. Those with mental health challenges or disabilities are susceptible to manipulation and may be eager to form relationships without much insight into the validity or health of those relationships. Relationships that occur through acting out addictions are a substitute or mirage of meaningful relationships. When dealers or other users accept you or you are known to them, it can be an affirmation of self. It can be a community albeit with a crumbling and precarious foundation. Standing outside these relationships we can see it is a temporary solution which exacerbates mental health and overall health but addiction by nature often renders the individual incapable of viewing themselves objectively. 

The capacity to create healthier relationships or return to mainstream existence is undermined by the ‘bliss’ experienced in altered states. Remedies and interventions often are weak alternatives to the experience of being ‘high’. It is a costly and temporary ‘bliss’ but it can be obtained with no skills, little effort and with proven or expected outcomes. What can be purchased ‘on a street corner’ is convenient, immediate and it does not require an appointment, an agency or a therapist. Substances provide temporary relief and comfort without real community. 

In Canadian culture to drink is an indoctrination into adulthood which lessens feelings of being treated as a child in healthcare. It can also be an expression of masculinity and a symbol of or celebration of hard work. For someone with a concurrent disorder it can be like jumping into a family photograph without being a relation. Essentially the individual can be more and feel less.

“having no social capital or economic power relegates valuable and dynamic individuals to situations and communities where…”

For those living with serious and persistent mental illness, interpersonal relationships can be fragile at best. The reoccurrence of symptoms can undermine if not destroy what is already precarious. Occupation, relationships, healthy activities and even housing can be disrupted. The energy expended in rebuilding the basic elements of existence leaves little in the way of motivation or resources to devote to self-directed social inclusion and patients can become dependent on formal interventions and services which can highlight and perpetuate powerlessness and the perception of such. 

Feelings of worthlessness and exclusion are in a way simply a mirror of how society inadvertently and outwardly segregates mental illness and addictions. Having more than one alternative available for social inclusion becomes difficult when finances and housing are barriers themselves. Safe and affordable housing is one key to ensure that individuals with mental health difficulties are able to invest in communities outside of the ‘psychiatric community’. New hospitals are designed to be healthy and beautiful spaces but community housing here in Canada often falls far short. If community planners could incorporate housing that is integrated, affordable, safe and healthy, patients would have more opportunities to develop relationships within social mainstream and the effects of stigma and stigma itself would be lessened. Supportive housing can become or simply is ‘stigmatized housing’.

Mental health patients form relationships among themselves because of common experiences but economic similarities are also predominant in determining social mobility. This can be an effect of stigma but it also perpetuates stigma as individuals with serious and persistent mental health difficulties are inadvertently quarantined from spaces and situations where the general population could witness their humanity and gifts. 

Economic factors often impede recovery, social inclusion and the formation of a positive identity. The financial limitations that a disability income imposes leaves fewer options and opportunities for experimenting with interests or forming friendships outside of the ‘psychiatric community’. Individuals are often relegated to housing and facilities in areas which are substandard and exacerbate mental health difficulties. Individuals are at times forced to navigate neighbourhoods where addiction, crime and violence are more prevalent. Gentrification often disposes and quarantines this vulnerable segment of the population. 

A disability income can become a barrier. It can be a safety net when illness is predominant but in times of equilibrium and remission it can undermine self-determination and it accentuates weaknesses. A disability income tethers a persons identity to that disability. In a culture where identity is synonymous with what employs a person, to answer with ‘I have a disability’ is a mantra of defect, defeat and disgrace. In social situations where a person might find connection, having no social capital or economic power relegates valuable and dynamic individuals to situations and communities where this is not a concern or it is accepted if not expected. Economics can be exclusionary and gaining independence is complicated by being a dependent.

Workplace exclusion is basically societal exclusion. Without gainful employment the ability to contribute financially to self-care and opportunities of community, social inclusion or interpersonal relationships is undermined. This form of societal exclusion also undermines an individuals ability to contribute financially to society and fractures a sense of belonging or contributing. Financial restrictions lead to a dependence on traditional healthcare services and furthers a dependence on these social supports and the community offered there. Limited employment opportunities and or dependence on social services limits an individuals exposure to healthcare workers outside of psychiatry; for example a massage therapist or a yoga teacher. Being able to contribute financially enhances self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-determination and social status which in turn enhance wellbeing and leads to the confidence required for social activity.

Disability support can become a ‘sentence’ as much as a service. Opportunities for self-improvement, social integration, social mobility and even relationship status become limited and can lead to a further withdrawal from activities and excursions into mainstream culture. ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ but by confining individuals with mental health difficulties and or addictions to the poverty line; self-determination, social status, self-efficacy and self-esteem stagnate. The seriousness of these factors is that they perpetuate and exacerbate underlying difficulties which is costly socially and economically for all citizens.