Laying Eggs, Lifting Lumber and Other Painful Moments

I went to visit my mother and step-father today. Being a quadragenarian makes one susceptible to the company of septuagenarians. I don’t know about others but such terms make me feel like something with a pin through its back on a specimen board. Earning my grade 12 diploma in my thirties obliges me to borrow obtuse and pretentious phrases but in my heart I mean forty and seventy.

My mother mentioned she had a couple of errands in town and since I had ingested a meal I felt obliged to assist. Our first stop was a TSC store which is a farm store. I like TSC stores. My roots are rural and I have pleasant memories when I can browse work boots, pellet guns and fencing. Mom wanted to pick up some chicken feed for her several hens. I was there just to check things out but I found myself next to a 50 pound sack of chicken feed. It suddenly became clear why chickens produce more poop than protein. I’m fairly logical and literal and I stood in disbelief at the size of the bag. I was expecting something about the size of an egg carton. If what goes up must come down then it stands to reason that what goes in should come out. Apparently I had failed agricultural arithmetic.

I looked at my mother. I looked at the feed and again looked at my mother. I waited for what seemed like minutes expecting her to grab the bag and get on with it. She didn’t budge. She mentioned that she usually uses one of the carts which were in the vicinity. It was a subtle challenge and I grabbed the bag and awkwardly threw it over my shoulder. It became a bad idea about halfway to the checkout. I struggled with the weight and my legs were wobbling. I bumped into the display of garden seeds and frantically searched for my mother. I have never wanted to pass an object as much since I was running down the football field in high school with fierce athletes on my heels. Like then I was on my own. I suddenly didn’t want to be at TSC. Normally I would be cursing but I kept telling myself there are eggs in butter tarts and biscuits. My mother is an exceptional cook. I wanted to explain she could obtain the same results with store bought eggs but I needed to save what little breath I had.

I made it to the checkout sweating profusely. I wanted to ask the cashier why the damn batteries were near the door but the 50 pound sacks of cat, dog and chicken feed were in the back corner. Fighting back tears of frustration I asked the woman if they guaranteed that my dog would lay eggs if I fed this to her. Not missing a beat she retorted with “not in writing.” It seemed she was trained to deal with difficult customers.

I was spent but we had to make a stop at the local lumber store. I like lumber stores. Trees are one of the few things that smell good when they’re dead. I entered the store without trepidation as I know they have employees who load your larger purchases.

We backed up near the loading bay with our slip of dead tree which is used to inform the yardman that you want more dead tree. I turned the car off and looked at my mother. She didn’t budge. I flung open the door. “Seriously?” “This is ridiculous and repetitive.” I met the yardman with curses on my lips and we nearly ended up with lattice and a bag of cement. I finally sputtered darn board and he clued in and climbed the shelving to fetch some barn board. I couldn’t quite understand why he was making money sliding two boards off a shelf while I had to drag it across the parking lot to the car. I pinched my hand between the boards which sent me off on a tirade. “She probably wants me to cut and nail this crap as well…I’m in hell.”

Joking aside and as lazy as I am there is a degree of defeat in doing favours for my family. I give up on any sense of balance when I look back at all the jail visits and court appearances. I can’t compete with lawyer’s fees, canteen money and a roof over my head. There have been so many meals and forms of love that can’t even be logically listed.

Chickens are like children. We put bags of food into them and usually end up with more crap than accomplishments but love isn’t logical. Like an egg it forms naturally and sustains, fortifies and is often made into something nearly as wonderful as my mother’s butter tarts.

Herstory

I was at a funeral this afternoon. I was there as a personal comforter and had never met the departed. One never knows what to say at a funeral and this opportunity was more so for me. I was sorry for their loss though I didn’t even know what they lost.

I learned the departed’s age, knew what she looked like as a young woman and saw the flower in her hair everyone seemed to be mentioning, in more recent photographs. I learned about her family history and stories from her life.

I met the departed in the voices of a daughter, a grandson, a granddaughter, a niece, a friend and a minister. Her spirit trembled in their words. She floated from their thoughts and hearts even into me; a stranger. If I could be touched without a real glance at her what might have she been like alive? There was no casket but she moved through the room and down the cheeks of several sitting in front of me.

The person I was accompanying had never been to a funeral and was a little unsure of herself. I didn’t give her any advice on what to say or where to sit. She figured it all out as she sat next to me wiping away tears as well. Tears are always appropriate and a funeral is a good opportunity to feel someone one last time or for the first.

Touch

I sat in on a presentation on sexuality among mental health patients. The whole topic is a little like making love to a Porcupine. There are many points to consider. I wasn’t as fortunate as some patients but there was certainly sexuality among us. I can remember smoking and drinking coffee while people rolled on a blanket in front of me kissing. I enjoyed the coffee more. There were certain stairwells that were considered intimate no matter the weather. We were also blessed with a well treed knoll on the hospital property. We called it “Pecker Hill.” Even when I was not well the naming was evident and amusing. I know of one poor individual who didn’t quite make it to the hill and found ecstasy among the long grass not far away but apparently far enough.

We can laugh or shake a finger but I was without an intimate encounter for 7 years. I don’t know about the 7 year itch but I wallowed in the 7 year rash. Had the opportunity presented itself to me I’m not sure I would have made it to the long grass.

The World Health Organization defines sexual health as a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. Being on a locked ward for me was just that. If my footsteps had boundaries you can imagine the same on my sexuality.

I can remember being on the Forensic Assessment Unit on a vacation from jail. One day I walked by the common area and saw a hairdresser giving a patient a haircut. I was months without a trim and was eager to find out how this all worked. I paced by a few times and finally asked if I needed an appointment or money both of which I was without. I needed neither and when I sat down I was astonished by being touched. Usually you check how much hair is falling on the floor but each time my scalp was touched that’s all I could focus on. All my visits for months were from behind glass and my fellow prisoners were not known for hugging.

If we are placing individuals in situations where touch is unlikely it becomes imperative to introduce a healthy replacement. Some in the psychiatric community are unlikely to encounter touch because of their symptoms and or resulting circumstances.

Part of sexuality is a connection. Consider what it would be like to go for months and years without being touched. Even those of us who have the benefit of touch can recognize its power and importance when we visit a massage therapist. The social, mental and physical benefits can only translate into improved mental health and overall well being.

Segregation; the Hole is deprivation of everything. I was psychotic for most of this deprivation but pulled an important truth from the experience. I had a cheap French/English dictionary in my pillowcase. I wrote a note from the Hole to one of the guards who were bilingual. In choppy French I wrote the following:

“I need love and touch I beg you, more.

I’m not crazy or madness, truly yours

I’m tough and strong angel.

Please mention it nay not what

In any manner that push me by heart and has your friendship; we shake on it.

Please mention it nay not what.”

Ten Cent Shoes

I recognize the fact that many of you have better things to do on Christmas Day, so I will speak out of turn. Experience has made me morose and more but I hope you can find some piece of truth or the heart of the Day in my musings.

Christmas in many jails is like any other day. The timing is impeccable as is the monotony. We tend to not watch the TV specials so it even echoes yesterday. There is nothing to signal what rattles your very soul. There are no funny Christmas presents and if orange is festive you would throw up on Easter.

The most painful part of incarceration for me was to surrender my fatherhood like it was as worthless as my watch and clothes. We are numbers and last names; nothing more.

On more than one occasion the flavour of the season was delivered by the Salvation Army. Bars prevented the hug I longed for but candies and such were a welcome amusement; humble gifts. I was more satiated by their presence. Who wants to go caroling in a jail? I listen to hours of music each day, it is my morning coffee but seared in my mind are the notes coming from the accordion on the other side of the bars. Strangers can help to mend a torn heart. I was a father without the whiff of my children and visions of them tearing into wrapping paper laid waste to my strength. I don’t know about most of you but I have many Christmas memories. Imagine letting them all loose when you’re in shackles that very day. There is only anguish at each passing vision. I was disinfected of any meaning despite what swirled in my mind. It was like being a Goldfish. There was all that stuff beyond but the best you could hope for was a sore nose.

The first Christmas I spent in jail was in the Stratford Gaol. It was built in the 1800’s with nothing much more than stone. The season was colder than I was accustomed to. We hooded ourselves with blankets as the stone shone cold on our bodies. Our frigid defence was rendered useless as we were ordered to leave blankets in our cells as they were a security issue. Fire with Fire.

I soon decided Christmas was going to be delivered even if compassion was held up with customs. I had a weakness for sweets while incarcerated. When I was in hospital I would waken in the night and eat a black licorice. I would waken in the morning with a piece or two on my pillow and lost half a tooth soon after but it was comfort. My family has a taste for black licorice and I must have found a connection when I was without them. Sweets were also a connection to the outside while in jail. A “snickers” tastes better than a “snickers” on the outside…trust me.

I always had a couple of chocolate bars either near me or in me. I would ration them. To eat a whole chocolate bar was like throwing away several moments of ecstasy. I ordered enough chocolate bars using the system used to procure street food and product on canteen. On Christmas Eve my cellmate turned into an Elf and ran diversion as we were being locked up. As he pretended to use the toilet I filled my pockets with chocolate bars and scurried from cell to cell and gave each man a chocolate bar. I shook hands with my own pain and glanced into the same infinitely sad eyes but there was a sparkle. It was Santa in an orange jumpsuit wearing ten cent shoes.

P.S. Thanks Mom for the canteen money.

The Spank of Equality

Now that many Canadians are aware of the inability of the Correctional Service of Canada to administer mental health care to inmates, I wonder what concern is in the minds of citizens. Many news stories pass quickly from our minds if they seem to enter at all. It is my assumption that few are talking about it around water coolers if indeed the prime minister has one.

They are criminals and mentally ill at that; they don’t show up on polls. Maybe if mental illness did show up on a poll, government could recognize its importance.

As individuals, we try to build ourselves up as something. Unfortunately, in this endeavor it is easier to be something if someone else is nothing. If we stand tall because others are below us, it is really just an illusion. Concern, care and compassion can be eroded by judgements.

Can we really say we have compassion and respect for others if these individuals are excluded?

What exactly are the miraculous changes that occur in a person to make them this or that? We dance about becoming, forgetting about the being…human being. We are all human despite clothes, location or position. We do not all get the same birthing spank of equality. The arithmetic can be simple when we look at another’s misfortune: ‘if they were as smart as me or worked as hard they wouldn’t be where they are’. When another’s difficulties are simple, we can absolve ourselves of involvement and have little need to stand back in awe of our complex good fortune.

It will take political will and money that many would rather see in a road but if a car is empty of understanding and compassion, it might as well stay parked.

I guess like any news story, it is only one if we make it so.

Jell-O

I had the pleasure of taking part in a community meal here in London. Those with little are a community within a community out of necessity and survival.

I cut loaves into bread for the meal and to place in bags to be brought home. I also divvied up Jell-O for 180 people. There were four of us serving desserts so I ended up outside talking with some of the guests. I noticed one young woman coming in late. After I went back inside I was witness to three plates of food in her hands. I did not stare but she stood out because there were few others remaining while she ate. I assumed she didn’t like the whole experience and through repetition knew, seconds were only served late. It can be hard to comprehend when a person’s stomach and situation have such an agenda.

I’m not much of a police officer but people were walking out with three buns when they were only given one. Someone had the nerve to ask for a bag for their taking. Someone else was cheeky enough to place a loaf of bread in a backpack while walking away with another in hand. And in a church!

I had to marvel at the absurdity of trying to cut Jell-O into equal pieces with a balanced dollop of whipped cream. These guests are familiar with inequality. Fair for them is something that comes to town once a year delivering rides and candyfloss. Equal to them is a sugar substitute.

One of the gentlemen I spoke with was once a realtor with properties of his own at one point. Another does roofing after a local factory closure. I think not everyone fits our ideas of poverty. I also think we could be as they are. Many were what we are.

It is unfortunate there is not an App for empathy. We live in fear of not having enough all the while choking on more.

Mental Illness Is Next Semester

It was brought to my attention from a learned friend that the University here in London has run into some publicity. The University of Western Ontario newspaper, the gazette, published a cartoon with words to the effect “Why are you so happy?” “My brother was really depressed, but he finally hung himself.”

My neighbour hung himself as did his sister. I had a relative commit suicide. Two good friends from my hospital years killed themselves. There were more but I was less familiar with them. Therein lays the problem, familiarity.

I can recall coming out of my 30 hour coma and my brother saying quite the opposite.

One of my first thoughts to this was why this was not considered as offensive as the chants condoning non-consensual sex with a minor that we have come to know through other places of higher learning. Are there actually people on talk shows defending this cartoon and its publication?

The defense of or minimization of this cartoon is in fact stigma. We don’t condone sex with minors but we condone making fun of minors who commits suicide and therefore infer those who have similar thoughts are laughable at best.

I read a comment in response to the cartoon from someone claiming to have suffered from depression. They saw humour in it. It can be a blessing to have depression that does not involve suicidal ideation. It is also a blessing to be on the side of mental health that has you on a message board making opinions. We need to consider the student in her room. The one who although beautiful and bright is unable to see her place, success or happiness in this thing called university. To her friends seem to belong to others and her isolation is found in crowded hallways. This young woman needs our help not our laughter. When she sees a publication representing her peers and the university community in general making light of the very thoughts in her head, she can only hang it in shame. She keeps quite, she masks, she isolates and her wounds become infected by our very words.

Crazy, out of it, best let be, she internalizes our attitudes and they become fuel for an ever unfavourable opinion of self. She becomes slang, she becomes a put down, she becomes a joke.

For those who see no error; no foul, it may be constructive to self reflect. It is possible your attitude of indifference or acceptance is stigma itself. To not be offended about this cartoon raises more questions about the self than about any larger argument. A joke is not funny because someone calls it a joke. If it was a race, a sex or even a sexual orientation, students would have signs about the campus. Mental illness is next semester or an elective at best.

You can call me thin skinned but as likely we have grown thick in apathy. It was only a cartoon, there must be larger fights; maybe so but you have to stop the dog from digging before you can fill in the hole.

There was humour in the underage sex chants, no one meant any harm. A nation said no. An institution said no. If we are to combat one of the worst side effects of mental illness we must again say no.

We can be forgiving of all this. We are all learning, students more so. We need to impress on our students that the pages they write on are empty if not saturated by their humanity and the fine things they already know. To make grades is a worthy aim but if respect, love and compassion are left in lockers they are only ink on a page. We all make mistakes but if compassion, love and respect are woven into them, they can never be called failures.

I drive by the University of Western Ontario most days. Hope walks past my car when I wait at the light. The young men and women I see carry the cures, the solutions and they are being carved to make the decisions that will shape a future that I may reside in and surely my blood. We can be disappointed in what is instilled in a generation but the responsibility belongs to us all. How can we expect our children to have the discretion to not make light of the suffering of an illness when we laugh at the same jokes?

I suspect this news will not hit the funny bone of the roughly 4000 Canadian families who are affected by suicide each year. We can only hope they are too busy running fingers over old photographs to see this story.

It is not my place but it seems to me if resignations were in order at universities where chanting was heard, the same might be in order at a broader distribution of offensive utterances. As a solution to the very stigma they spread, those responsible should step aside. Your peers can only have respect at your active acknowledgement that mental health stigma is wrong; unacceptable.