A bit of a warning here. This is probably more personal than my average post. I’m not sure how relevant it is to those who come here looking for business or strategy. But at this time of year, my thoughts turn to the more personal side of life. So in the spirit of “changing the game” – I’m talking about and sharing some intensely personal moments.
I’m not trying to be anyone’s inspiration. I leave that to others. Here’s one.
The hardest part baby is smilin’ when your plans don’t work out, and count yourself – a lucky one…
Willie P. Bennett wrote those words in the 1980′s for his album of the same name. He called it “The Lucky Ones”. From the moment the words came through the speaker of my car stereo, on an early mix lent by a friend, they spoke to my heart. They inspired me then as they do now. At that time in my life, I was myself experiencing a slow awakening.
Could it be true? We couldn’t change what life did to us. Things didn’t work out. Could we still smile? Could we be “the lucky ones.”
I knew the answer – intellectually. As a child of the 1960′s I had immersed myself in philosophy, from the absurdist work of Albert Camus to the mystical universe of Carlos Castaneda. I dove in, headfirst, plunging into the cool waters of new thought. I would sit for hours rapt in thought, engaged in these fantastical ideas which were so far and yet so close to the world that I had grown up in.
Philosophy was my second refuge. In the same way that, as a child, fantasy was my escape and my life line.
As I look back, after all the years, the feelings have softened, the edges are gone. But I know that, for the little kid that I once was, life was difficult. I would later read and resonate with a description that the writer Thoreau would use. I lived a life of “quiet desperation”.
That early life is a collage of pictures and short vignettes. The YouTube of my life is a hodge podge of clips that play randomly in unguarded moments.
Selling the furniture while my mother lay in the bedroom in an alcoholic haze. Knowing I was cheated by the man who had smiled and befriended me – and to whom I sold so much for too little. Watching others pick through our lives and offer a pittance. I think I was 10. It had happened before. Each time we’d get on our feet, the bottom would fall out. We’d sell. And we’d move.
Trying to chase away the bootlegger who brought the expensive beer, feeding my mother’s sickness and spending what little we had left.
I see me as a kid on my walk home. I feel a mixture of fear and adrenalin pumping. Senses heightened. On alert. Sometimes almost hopeful. Would I escape a beating today?
I remember that I’d walk home by long, circuitous routes hoping to avoid the sneering, the pushing and punching – or worse, getting the “boots” from the pointed shoes in style at the time. “A shit kicking” was what they would call it as they’d tell me what I deserved it. I was two years younger than most in my class. I was also bright. In the hard neighbourhoods we lived in, those were sins that you needed to suffer for.
Some days were even full of hope. But hope would be smashed. Just when I’d let my guard down, when I’d be happily swinging from a bar, or walking through a park, they’d appear. The jackals that haunted my days where we lived on the “wrong side of the tracks”. As they taunted, pushed, shoved and sometimes punched and kicked I honestly to this day can’t say I know if it was pain or humiliation that I feared most.
I remember getting the new pants at Christmas and wearing them outside. I slipped and fell on the ice and ripped the knee. My mother cried. They had cost so much. Now they were ruined.
I hid from this all in fantasy. I read. Books of all kinds. Comic books. Whatever. It was my escape and more.
In fantasy was there was also hope. It sounds silly now, but Archie comics made me believe that if I could just get to high school life would be better. In Archie’s world, nobody really fought. Jousting was intellectual. Even the bully, Moose would only attack if provoked. He didn’t isolate, seek out and humiliate. He didn’t target and pursue some littler kid like the bullies in my real world.
Sadly, in high school, those hopes were dashed. There were new challenges. At first it took the form of “hazing” of the grade nines, but long after the initiation rites had come and gone, I remained a target. Did the two years difference in age matter. Was it the hand me down clothes. Was it the last name. Was it my own social ineptitude? Whatever. Maybe I had a permanent “kick me” sign on my back. Who knew? Who cared?
One thing had changed. I wasn’t as easy a target. I was still smaller and not much of a match for the bigger and tougher kids. But I stood up. Sometimes that was a disaster. I lost one fight and had my head kicked into a curb. High school bullies were more serious and much more dangerous.
It was also harder to escape. As a “troubled youth” I often spent time with other “troubled youth” – some of whom took cruelty to new heights. Let’s just leave it there.
There was no going back. A final break occurred when a failed attempt by my alcoholic mother to set fire to my door in a three floor wooden walkup left me homeless. I became first what is now called a “street kid” and later a “ward of the state”. But the options for “troubled youth” scared the hell out of me.
Such was my childhood.
Yet as I look back – there were good times. My sister and I standing by the tree. Shortbread cookies baked by my mother in a sober, happier time. Meeting my other sister at the library where she worked and getting thirty five cents for the movie and popcorn. A visit to BC to see my sister. My first kiss from a girl in grade nine. A radio play on the CBC late at night on a cheap plastic radio. A visit to a friend’s cottage. The early days, in the early grades, we were poor, but I didn’t really know it. Walking alone on a cold night and watching the stars blazing in the sky. Playing in fields behind the house. And of course – books and comic books.
The best memories are the early ones. That was a time when we were together, when the family was sliding to its inevitable tragedy – but I was too young to know. It was a time before the sadness would drift and smother each happy occasion. That was for later.
But over the years, the joys were fewer and unmercifully short. I learned the hard lesson in those days that happiness would end in sadness. Hope would end in fear. Laughter was only a prelude to anger and tears. An escape to a friend’s house on a Friday evening made it all the harder to come home. The only thing you could count on was the sadness. It would seep in like a fog, it would come slowly. It would weigh you down like a rock on your chest.
Later I would come to know that it had a name. Depression.
I have no idea if this depression – the ghost that would stalk me in later years – was caused by life’s experience or just accompanied it. I only knew that it was there. It waited for me. It was a black spectre hanging outside the door, waiting to slowly envelope me once again. It was a shadow that would reach out and take my heart in it’s icy cold hand.
I also learned that the happier you were, the worse it felt to fall. So whenever I’d feel joy, I’d wait for the inevitable. It would end badly. Eventually I learned a strategy to deal with this. I learned to sabotage the good. I’d end it myself. Or just not engage.
I ruined good foster homes. The behaviour seems tame now but was well beyond what the good folks who tried to help me out would tolerate. When I couldn’t alienate, I just ran.
It would end anyway. Better that it ended sooner.
Until the the Casey’s. They wouldn’t see themselves as salvation or saints. They were real people with real limits to their patience. I know. I tested it often enough. But while I found the limits to the their patience, I never found the limits to their love.
Mr. Casey was my theatre arts teacher at a new school. I’d run away yet again and as a result started a new school in a new town. I got myself thrown out of another home. The sin today was laughable. My own kids have done a million times worse. But I wasn’t their kid. So I had to go. I could cope with home failure. I was getting good at it. But I knew there was one failure I couldn’t endure. I had to finish high school.
I was a troubled kid, but I was sharp enough to know that I’d never survive the dark side of what laughingly passed as the “child welfare” system of my day. I had to stay under the radar and pursue my one ticket out. If I could finish high school in a couple of years, I’d be free and on my own.
I’m not sure how workable my current plan was. I was delivering flyers for spending money. I was sleeping on the couch of one of the teachers, albeit temporarily. But he had his own demons. He was no more capable of taking care of a teenager than I was of staying. But I had a singular focus – going to school. Not just any school. This one. The one with the theatre arts teacher and so many others. By accident, and for the first time, I was in a middle class and what might now be called an “artsy” school. Everyone was university bound. I had to compete for the first time for high marks. The teachers were encouraging. I’d failed a year earlier when I ran away. That had brought me closer in age to the rest of my classmates. The sixties were in full swing so however you dressed was irrelevant. I needed one pair of jeans a couple of t-shirts and some beat up sneakers.
Best of all, I’d discovered or been discovered by the drama club. I was in the musicals. I even won awards in drama festivals. Our school had no winning football team. The drama club leaders were heroes. I couldn’t let this go.
I’d sleep on a bench if I had to. I’d deliver flyers at 6 in the morning and go to school afterwards. I didn’t care.
Then the Caseys invited me to dinner. It was incredible. So much food. Apparently I ate a lot. I don’t remember that but it became a family joke. All I remember was how normal everything seemed. It felt like – like a home.
At the end of the meal, the other kids left to practice music and do homework in the living room with the fireplace. I and the two adults stayed at the table. That’s when they said, matter of factly, “we think you should stay here.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. On one hand, I wanted it so badly. This family. This place.On the other hand, I also knew I’d screw it up. I was only 15, but I had a history by that point. I knew how this movie ended – it always ended badly. I loved Frank’s class - theatre arts and the school plays- these were my lifeline. I couldn’t bear to lose that.
But not for the first time over many years, the Caseys would not take no for an answer.
They were patient. They were also human. As I found out, they could be angered, even enraged. But they never gave up on me. Never. To the end of my days, I know my life changed when I tried to leave. That’s when a 98 pound woman stood in front of the door and said, “You can walk over top of me if you want to, but I’m not moving from this door. You can go to your room and if you still want to leave in the morning, we can talk about it.” Sheepishly, I went to my room. Like a normal kid.
Later, I’d realize how difficult I’d made it at times for them. I’d learn from Frank that I’d hurt him deeply at one point – with a foolish and thoughtless act. I didn’t know that they had their own struggles. I was so into my own world that that I didn’t see the challenges with other children. Our family grew and I never knew how they afforded it. Each time I’d screw up, they’d be there. I just knew that they never gave up on me.I was trouble. Not really bad. But I was trouble. I stressed them emotionally and financially probably when they could least afford it.
Then the time I had dreamed of finally happened. I finished high school and moved into my adult world, my own world. I left the magic of high school behind and moved with my then girlfriend to Toronto.
I got into a great theatre school. But it was a different world. I was no longer the star. I was just another of a hard working and talented group of students. Finances were tough – I hadn’t saved anything. But in the early thrill of being in Toronto and the magical life of a student – I coasted for almost the first year.
Then came the return of my lifelong and unwelcome companion. I don’t know what the trigger was or why it hit, only later would I come to recognize the early signs. So before I knew it, I was seized with a deep and dark depression. I quit theatre school and went to work as an actor/performer.
I did find escape from dark depression that would continue to fall over me in the adrenalin of performing. Thankfully, I was able to find some early success.
I knew I had a problem. I thought it was just my childhood. I thought if I could find the key I could leave it behind. One thing was certain – I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I wasn’t a wimp. I wasn’t a looney. I wasn’t going to be my mother. I could tough it out.
I couldn’t always be performing. And while the adrenalin kept me occupied, it was also eating at me. The intensity of the performance was a “high” but coming down was awful. I lived for performance – for accolades. When it went well, I soared. When it went badly, I was crushed. One night, when I had blown a performance I sat against a stone wall and cried.
I looked for other ways to escape the waves of depression that would envelope me in my private time. In the clearer times, I’d dive into books again. Camus to Castaneda. Spiritual to secular. In the tougher times, any rush would do – drugs, alcohol, sex or rock and roll. Thinking back, it gave me real pleasure – it just numbed the feelings.
My blessing was that even in the moments of absolute darkness, there was a tiny light that burned in me.
I had success. I found moments of happiness. Yet it always returned.
I think I was getting a reputation as “high maintenance” but I somehow survived. Maybe I had talent. Maybe, as I would discover, because I was not the only one who struggled. I saw others – often the most brilliant – who were equally mercurial and also suffered in their own way. I don’t mean to say for a moment that all entertainers are troubled. Some are as normal as people get in their private lives. There were enough damaged souls that I wasn’t unique.
My career as a performer had some moderate success. I achieved what is the gold standard of Canadian arts accomplishments – I made enough from my craft to earn a living. I continued to lose myself in performing. The rehearsal, the discipline of learning lines and moves and the concentrated experience of performance – these were my escape. Performing is like working without a net. If you stop to look down, you freeze. So you don’t. It didn’t matter if it was a stage, in a radio studio – or even on the street busking. It could be an audience of one or one thousand. It didn’t matter.
Professionally, things were at least working. Socially, I’m not so sure. I had friends – some I’ve kept to this day. But I never fit in socially in the performing arts community. I always felt like an outsider. Parties and the social aspects were never really part of the escape. I was always alone – even in a crowded room. I spent more and more time by myself sinking into bouts of depression.
The one day something snapped. Trapped in the funk of depression, self-medicating or just running away. Living in in that potent cocktail – the wash of fear, adrenalin and a velvet sadness had taken a toll. I lost the desire to perform. Truly, I had nothing. At the advanced age of 24, I had hit rock bottom.
One night, I lay awake on someone’s couch. I called a suicide prevention line. To this day I don’t know if I would have committed suicide. I think the answer is no. Not intentionally. Not by my own hand. Too cowardly? Too stubborn to admit defeat?
Yet I took myself to the edge where circumstances might do the deed for me. There was a night time climb on a cliff. All the way to a knife fight that I know I didn’t provoke. I was just in the wrong, wrong place, at the wrong, wrong time and in the wrong, wrong condition. For years I’d practiced the silent myob that had kept me from harm in any number of bars. I’d learned a steely calm that had allowed me to talk myself out of tough situations. Tonight, in a deep depression and too many drinks, the “kick me”sign returned. Two guys – truth be told – off duty cops met a kid who’d been a victim too many times. I have no idea what I did to offend them. I just found myself in the alley with my head being smashed against a brick wall.
Only my instinct for survival saved me. When the duty sergeant found me holding one of them at knife point – 135 pounds of nothing keeping two burly cops at bay with a Swiss Army knife and a lot of chutzpah – he actually laughed at them. And let me go. Thank god they were off duty. Thank god it wasn’t Toronto today. I don’t know whether I would have walked away. I might have been shot. Once again – I was “a lucky one”.
For a long while, I was “scared straight”. I had a job. I worked in an office. It was also the start of my IT career. Challenging work, it was all new and I had no experience, but compared to memorizing a play, compared with the twelve hour days of the final stages of rehearsal – it wasn’t that hard. It paid the rent. I went out occasionally. I played guitar. I wrote. I read.
Then one day, I was at my desk and found that I was crying. And I had no idea why.
Thankfully, for every dark moment of my life there has been simple salvation. The Casey’s rescued me from the street. A seasoned cop with a sense of humour saved my life. This time another guardian angel appeared. I won’t mention her by name. She knows who she is even if she doesn’t fully know how important she was in my life.
I don’t know why she saw what was happening. I don’t know how she knew. I don’t really remember much except the silence and the sadness. Just to set the record straight. There was no romance. We weren’t even close. We didn’t talk. She didn’t ask. She was just a friend when I needed a friend. She didn’t think I should be alone and she stayed near me. All I remember was that through that fog of depression was that she let me follow her around and hang out for a few days. A simple gift. And with every day, I slowly put my life back together enough to function.
I didn’t realize that I suffered from an illness – depression. I thought of it as a personal failing. I’d love to say my doctor helped me. He didn’t. He’s a great physician, but was not – at least for me – compassionate. He told me that my behaviour was “really mature”. A friend who was a psychiatrist turned up to be more screwed than me — maybe more.
I was on my own. And I did it. Day by day. Bit by bit. A long story. A lot of lucky breaks. People who cared about me more than I ever knew and people who wouldn’t give up on me.
I was and am – one of “the lucky ones”.
And for years, I told no-one. No-one except my wife. Who also never gave up on me.
So today when I hear the stories of some of the soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and hear how the they are treated, I think we’ve made no progress at all. When I watch my friend who lost his wife and I struggle to get him support, I think we’ve made no progress at all. When I hear about kids on the street, I think about how lucky I have been.
There’s little in the way of hope. A few shelters for homeless kids. Or recently when I hear of some of the soldiers who are reaching out and helping returning soldiers, I have stirrings of cautious optimism.
And then I heard Romeo Dallaire. And I realized, that if you go there and you have the luck to come back, you have a responsibility to share what you know.
So here’s what I know. Help is there only after you acknowledge that you need it. Progress comes only after you realize this is not a personal failing. Whatever anyone thinks, this is not a weakness. In fact, I think the act of survival for those who experience the real depths of depression proves quite the opposite – for some, the sheer courage to get up each day, feed yourself and put foot in front of the other is a tribute to the inner strength of so many. But even for those who succumb – it’s not a measure of the person. This is a condition – the cause is irrelevant. What is relevant, is that its a condition many have to manage each and every day.
Leonard Cohen said “there ain’t no cure for love.” He could have easily been speaking about depression. There isn’t a cure. But I’ve learned as so many others have, that you can manage it.
And there are many of us. Over ten percent (10%) of the population suffers from depression at any given time. I’m not talking about feeling down. I’m not talking about being a bit melancholy. I’m talking about depression. If you know ten people, you know one who is there.
I was shocked when I heard this number. How can this be? Why don’t we see it? But if you have it, you know. It’s not something you talk about. We don’t survey for it every few weeks like we do for political polls. We rarely if ever acknowledge it. Those who suffer, often do so alone. They go to work and they go home. Curiously, many are excellent at what they do. While some are paralyzed, others are at the top of their form.
Then, every once in a while you find yourself sitting at a desk with tears flowing from your eyes – and there’s no reason.
We do see some. But we don’t see depression. We see losers. We might not say that to ourselves. We might even pity them. But we don’t think that it could be us. They aren’t perfect. Some aren’t even likeable. Many self-medicate. Some engage in behaviours and activities which mask the velvet blackness of depression. Others have learned that nothing ends well – they try to sabotage attempts to help them. Some are proud. Some have given up hope. Some live in the only world they know.
In other words, it’s entire spectrum of the human race.
Being depressed is not special. It’s not restricted to any socio-economic class. It’s part of the human condition. It affects us regardless of who we are, of what we do – heart surgeon or street person. It is part of the miracle of life. As Joni Mitchell put it, “we are stardust, we are golden” but we are all looking to “get back to the garden”.
Equally unique – those who find their way out, do so in their own individual way. For me its taken years. My awakening started slowly when I realized that I had hit rock bottom. It’s been over 30 years since that wonderful person hung out with me while I found my feet again.
I don’t know about others. I cannot judge. I’ve been so lucky and so blessed. I’ve learned that depression for me is physical. I can see the early signs. When it comes knocking at the door, I have learned to keep rested, keep well nourished. I’ve been blessed with a life companion who has always been there. I’ve also known that I had to work to keep that relationship alive.
In later years, I discovered meditation and for me its brought a real clarity and understanding. This is no quick conversion. It’s not the candle that burns too brightly. This is years of seeking, a silent spiritual practice that has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with focusing on compassion for all – starting with me.
Am I perfect? Not on your life. There are limits to my patience. No so, I hope, to my compassion. To use the trite phrase, it’s a journey, not a destination. Or as I prefer to call it – my practice. Some claim that we can “rewire” our brains. I don’t know that this is true. I just know that today, I’m stronger than ever.
It’s not that tragedy or sadness doesn’t come knocking – especially at this time of year. I feel the same emotions. I get caught in the same patterns as everyone else. Work stress, family challenges. They are all there and all very real. And Christmas is a time when all these emotions run so high. I’ve felt the sadness of Christmas more that once over the years. Christmas tears are familiar memories.
But like the bullies of old, like the mistakes we’ve made, I’ve found compassion for myself and others. I’ve accepted that depression is potentially a life long companion – like it or not. It’s not here now but I don’t define myself by its absence. And I don’t fear its return. I do not know what tomorrow brings. I do know that yesterday was joyful. I accept what is joyous. I acknowledged the sadness of those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t share the joy. I felt compassion for myself and the world.
And I’ve come “out of the closet”. I must say, I do so with some trepidation. First, I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. As I said in a song I wrote, “For all of the troubles, the sadness, the sorrows, I’d do it all over again.” And I would. My life is a blessing. I would not be here, I would not be who I am without the composite of all the things that have brought me to this point.
I am one of the “lucky ones”.
Yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t worry about what people might think of me professionally. The record is clear. I been out sick for less than two weeks in total in the past thirty years – most of that for a single operation. I can, as my wife pointed out, deal with a crisis more easily than most folks can decide what to have for dinner. In fact, except for the one person who caught me once in tears at my desk, I don’t think if I hadn’t anything that anyone professionally would have even realized that I, like so many others, have suffered from depression.
No, professionally, I’m at the top of my game – corporately and artistically. But I’m clearly out. If someone reads this and doesn’t want to work with me – their loss.
Why? And why now? I do it because I have been blessed – I’m one of the Lucky Ones. Fifty odd years of experience have taught me how to manage my demons. But I couldn’t manage until I realized what I was managing. I wasn’t going to “cheer up” – I was going to manage depression. If I can encourage only one more person in the world to come to this realization, to understand they need to get any help they can – then it’s worth it.
This isn’t a usual post for me. I think I’ve had one or two others that I would regard as intensely personal. But I’m so aware that this time of year finds so many so vulnerable. I visited a friend who lost his wife this year. I had lunch with another who had also lost his life’s companion. Somehow these losses, always tragic, are felt more acutely at this time of year. And it’s a time of year where we want relationships to work and they don’t. I had a troubling message from someone I love dearly who I tried to reach out to to reconcile a lost relationship. I was soundly rebuffed with anger and hurt which I don’t understand. Returning anger would be easy. But I learned a lesson from the woman I would come to call mom. I won’t give in and I won’t give up on anyone. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. I know I’m not alone on this one – I’ve heard too many stories from too many people. Of course, the big trigger was hearing about suicides from those in the military.
This is time of intense joy – and intense sadness as well.
I have reached a point where I truly rejoice in my life. I’ve reached a point where I know that tragedy might find me, where sadness will come. Yet I live largely free of the depression that enveloped my youth and threatened to destroy my early adult life. I share this story neither to impress, nor to get sympathy. Sympathy would be wasted. My life is joyful.
I share it so those who have had bad luck might know that it is possible – someone made it out. I share it so that someone who suffers depression might know that at least one person has managed if not beaten it. I share this so that if there’s someone who can reach out and be that friend – not to feel sorry, not to change or save someone – but just to be there with a strong compassion – I share this so that you might know how much good a simple action can do.
I don’t believe that I’m special. There are lots of others like me. All I really know is this. I believe in my version of the old Zen proverb. You can’t try to win. You can’t try not to lose. You can only change the game and as Willie P Bennett said, “count yourself a lucky one”.
Blessings this Christmas.