From our book, Disabled? Hell No! I’m a Sit-down Comic: my battle with mental health
Throughout my life I repeatedly told myself I could never be depressed. Never. I have so much to be thankful for. I mean, just look at the love and support I had as a kid, when I needed it the most. I had a wonderful family who did everythingfor me. Sure, I have a disability, but so do millions of other people.
I told myself I had nothing to be depressed about.Depression, though, was in my genes. My maternal grandfatherwould sit for months, head down, and not talk to anyone. Itried to fight it as much as I could. There were times—manytimes, in fact—I did feel down. But I always had something—a hockey game, an interview, a date with Joan—to get my mind offthings… until the summer of 2002. I told myself I was tired and needed an entire month off to recover from what I had called a gruelling winter in the Journal newsroom. I asked my editor, Barb Wilkinson, if I could takefour weeks off. There were, after all, five weeks of vacation timeowing. Our family cabin in Meota was empty in May.
Perfect! So Joan loaded the car and off we went. Our cousins from across the street greeted us the evening we pulled in.
“We’re here for a month,” I said as I got out of the car. Meota has over two hundred people. It’s quiet and has deep family roots, as my father was born there. Our family had spentsummers there since 1972 when Mom and Dad bought a lot with a 16×12-foot house built in 1911. There was no indoor plumbingbut the price was right—$1,500. Shortly after, Dad constructed one hell of an outhouse. It wasn’t right on the lake; it was on a cliff, behind a road—but had a beautiful view of the lake. When Dad retired in 1986, construction began on our original lot for a beautiful two-storey house overlooking the lake.
I thought a month off at the lake would be great. And, for the
first week it was—sleep-ins, not shaving, afternoon naps and somuch more great relaxation. Hell, I even got into my wife’s favourite soap opera. The second week was good, too, with quality restand visiting the Tait cousins. But, somewhere in the back of mymind, I was dreading the next two weeks. We had driven everywhere we wanted to go, seen all the people we wanted to. Two words: Now what? I was ready to go back to work, but thought since I had asked for a month off, I’d better use it.
The third week was hell. Pure hell. I woke up every morning,just after four, unable to go back to sleep. The more I tried, theworse it was, creating more anxiety. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was bored. Sure, I had packed my laptop and there was lots I could write. But I was on holiday, right? Sleep was getting to be a bigger issue. One night, I got up five times between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. I tried turning the clock radio off; shutting the bedroomdoor tight, turning on the television—anything, to help me sleep.
I’d led such a busy and full life, starting with patterning, thenschool and then working. I had never taken more than two weeks off at a time. My mind started going places I didn’t even know existed. I began focusing on my finances and how irresponsible Iwas with credit. For the first time in my life, I admitted to myselfthat I was living far beyond my means. I added up the debt in myhead: north of $50,000. Plus a mortgage. I had this sick feelingof sinking in quicksand, with no way out. I didn’t think about bad things when I was busy, but with nothing to do, the moredepressed I got. I tried not to show it. But Joan knew somethingwas not right.
And sleep—the one thing I could use for an escape, wasimpossible. I realized long holidays and me are not a good matchat all. And that’s a good thing. Perhaps I hadn’t taught myself how to relax. I found out, the hard way.
We returned to Edmonton and I knew I had a problem. I wasexhausted, not having slept in five days. Writing three columns week—something I did with ease in the past—became a chore.Every sentence was a struggle. My doctor put me on sleeping pills, and that got my strength back, especially in my voice. Whenovertired, I find it really takes an effort to speak. As a consequence,people have an even tougher time understanding me.And for someone who asks questions for a living, I could not let my speech slip. Yet, there was a deeper issue.
I was depressed.
Through experience, though, I have discovered that somethings—for whatever reason—do not have answers.I caught up on my sleep, but felt terrible mentally. After a weekly staff meeting editor Barb Wilkinson asked me how I was
doing. For the first time in my life I spoke the words: “I think I’m depressed.”
Barb is a wonderful person with a huge heart. “Do yourself afavour,” she said. “Tell your doctor.”
I swallowed hard and felt that cramp in my throat—the one Iget just before I want to cry.
“Okay, I will,” I said.
I made another appointment with my doctor, Fraser Armstrong. We’d met in the mid-’70s. I felt comfortable in his west end office, not even a minute’s drive from the house I grew up in. Fraser took his time with me and he had a great understanding of cerebral palsy. I sat in one of the examining roomswhen he asked the dreaded question. “Are you depressed?”
“Yes,” I said.
He pulled out a pad and wrote out a prescription.
“This should help, but we need to keep in touch,” Fraser said.
The drug helped ease things, but only a little. I was almost afraid to go out the door in the morning, thinking the worst could happen. I couldn’t laugh anymore. I could hear the disappointment in Joan’s voice.
“One of the reasons I married you was because you made me laugh,” she said. “Where has it gone?”
I had no answer. It seemed I had done everything I set out to do. I was married to a wonderful gal. We’d just learned that Darren and AnnaMai were going to make us grandparents. I had a job I absolutely adored, three columns a week about people helping people. It was a workload I thought I handled quite well.
I had a home on a ravine, something I had always wanted. At thetime, my parents were healthy and happy. I had it all. Made in the shade, man. Yet, there were several days when Joan would leavefor a few hours and I would wheel up to the kitchen table and cry uncontrollably.
I went through the motions at the Journal but I knew my heartwasn’t in it. My creativity was gone.In the daytime, when Joan wasn’t home, I would take an extra sleeping pill to escape. It became a secret habit that grew to a terrible situation in 2007, the same year my dad died. Joan had picked up a part-time job at Ronald McDonald House working weekends, twelve hours a day. When she left the condo for hershift one morning just before nine and I knew she wouldn’t behome until late that evening, I felt terribly alone. I knew I should visit Mom. I got up and, right before I had breakfast, I wheeledinto the den where my little blue sleeping pills were and took fourof them, three more than prescribed. It was 10:30 a.m.
I can honestly say I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I felt trapped and wanted to get in a vehicle—even a motorcycle—and just…go somewhere. After breakfast I had my regular morning showerand climbed back into bed. I slept until 6:00 p.m., got up, had abite to eat and waited for Joan to get home. I felt fine—just a little groggy. A few hours later I took another sleeping pill and had a good night’s sleep. No problem, right?
I thought no one would ever know about the amount of pills I had taken. And for the first three days I was fine. But by Thursday, I was in bad shape, shaking so badly I couldn’t even steady myhead to take a sip from the straw in my morning cup of coffee sitting on the kitchen table. I was anxious and agitated. But theworst was when Joan and I made the hour drive from Edmonton to Camrose for the opening of a new arena. I was so shaky I could barely wheel myself backwards in my chair. In fact, Joan had to push me to get off the elevator, a task I normally could do withease.
The next day I came clean with Joan and admitted how many sleeping pills I took. She had every reason to be angry and let me have it pretty good. I deserved it. When I saw the hurt andconcern in my wife’s eyes, I felt even worse, especially knowing I brought the entire situation upon myself. A few days after I admitted I took extra pills, Darren wheeled me into the den athome. He knelt down, tears suddenly streaming down his face.
“You are my hero,” he said, and then started to sob. “How can you do this to your health?”
Now we were both crying. After my lecture, Joan told me I needed to get to my doctor for help. I went back to Dr. Armstrong, and told him what I had done.
“Are you disappointed in me?” I asked.
“Disappointed? No,” Fraser said. “But very concerned.” He prescribed a dose of sleeping pills so I could wean myself off them.
I had to do some real soul searching and frankly ask myselfwhy I was so unhappy. Maybe unhappy is the wrong word. Mylife had changed. I wasn’t doing a very good job of accepting thechange. I wasn’t being fair to my wife, the one person who waskeeping me afloat. She stood beside me throughout my dark journey and was firm when I screwed up, but more loving than Ican ever express.
Turning the corner took me years and I was surprised athow slow the process was before I started feeling good again. In2010, I stopped taking medication. The first thing I noticed was an increase in my creativity when I was writing. Slowly, I foundmyself wanting to do more. I regained confidence in myself.
I would not have made the progress I did without thewonderful support of my wife and son. I can never tell Joan how much she did for me. And to thank her I vow to keep myself asbusy as I possibly can. Joan and Darren, you saved me.