Tag Archive: courage


shutter

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

gracefully

elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

For most of my life, I’ve had the goal of aging gracefully. Even at my still reasonably youthful age of 31, it hasn’t been easy. To start, my hair started receding when I was in high school. There’s nothing that feels particularly graceful about someone guessing you’re 30 when you’re 18. Especially since people usually guess low.

“It’s just the way you carry yourself. You seem older.”

Sure it is.

There’s also nothing particularly graceful about your future in-laws telling your future wife to check your ID to make sure you’re not some geezer going after a younger woman. Okay, in fairness, I was singing Geoff Stephen’s Winchester Cathedral with my wife’s grandfather at the time, and I did know all the words. And they didn’t actually use the word “geezer.”

In university, I liked to chase caesars with margaritas. Now I just chase them with antacids.

Then a male friend told me the other day — swearing me to secrecy — that he feels like he’s getting wimpier with age. I told him I felt the same. Little things that wouldn’t have caused me to flinch before are now excruciating.

A milestone was reached the other day when I went to the dentist to pick up my new night guard. Not that it has anything to do with age because I’ve evidently had a very slight misalignment of my jaws as long as I’ve had adult teeth, but as I’m sitting there lisping to the hygienist through the apparatus, I couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious. I kept reminding myself that Christian Bale wore a night guard in American Psycho, and he was the very picture of youth. Or, at least, I hope he wore a night guard. Don’t tell me if he didn’t; I don’t want to know.

When you find yourself trying to extract comfort from drawing comparisons between yourself and a fictional psychopath, you know you have problems.

Mark Twain’s witty remark to Edward Dimmit that “the first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity” now haunts me like a warning instead of  joke.

I know that aging gracefully is supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, accepting — even embracing — the changes that come with life, and not resigning ourselves to stagnancy.  I’m trying to follow my own tenet but, heck, maybe I won’t have to resign myself to stagnancy: maybe stagnancy doesn’t give a damn whether I resign myself.  Resistance Is Futile.

One time I got stuck on the dementia floor of a long-term care facility.  I had gotten into the elevator, but the elevator was called to a different floor, and I got out without realizing.  When I turned around to call the elevator again, the buttons were locked behind a Plexiglas cover.  Stairwells were locked behind doors which would trip an alarm if opened.  I started to wander through the halls filled with people with somewhat vacant expressions, searching for a staff person to let me out, my mild amusement at my mistake of getting off on the wrong floor rising rapidly to panic.  My brain goes ludicrous places when I panic.  I started thinking: what if they think I’m a resident here? How am I going to prove I’m not?  What if they never let me leave?

When I eventually found a staff person and told her that I couldn’t get off this floor, she joked without missing a beat, “me neither: I’ve been here since 1994.”  If you spend your days face-to-face with dementia, I suppose it’s healthy to develop a sense of humour about these things.

Then today, while waiting in line at the bank, an elderly woman said to her granddaughter — with genuine fear evident in her voice and in the expression on her face — “I’m just so worried about falling on the ice out there.”  Ice can be treacherous, but it never occurred to me to be terrified of going out when ice is on the ground.  But it makes sense.  A fall that, to me, would result maybe in a pulled muscle or minor strain can mean broken bones that never heal to person whose bones have brittled with age.

My point is: it’s easy to preach the virtues of aging gracefully when you picture yourself aging well, doing all the things you used to be able to do.  It’s easy to say “accept change” when you’re assuming the changes are going to be positive.

Taking care of ourselves is vital, but sometimes we’re a ticking time bomb no matter what we do.  My uncle has taken extremely good care of himself his whole life.  Or, leastways, my aunt has taken extremely good care of him.  An active lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating — all the good stuff.  Several years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.  Bang.  Quality of life diminished.  Resistance Is Futile.  Sure, he manages his health well, but let’s not pretend that everything’s “same as usual.”

On the other hand, there’s my friend Keith.  75 years old.  Drinks whiskey like I drink water.  Smoked since he was 14.  Broken every bone in his body, some more than once.  This is not a man who decided to navigate Life carefully.  But he’s one of the most active people I know.  This man just might outlive us all.

Or Patrick Stewart?  Let’s all stop pretending that man hasn’t tapped into some Elven elixir of life.  Yes, he’s aging but he looks better and better every year.

I think what I’ve learned is that we don’t know what the future holds.  Maybe I’ll live to 100 and still have use of all my faculties.  Maybe I’ll develop early onset dementia (some days, a case could be made that it’s already started).  Maybe I’ll die tomorrow.

None of these are new observations or thoughts: existentialist musings have been crystalized in history.  But for me, it emphasizes not just the old adages on seizing the day and living life to its fullest, but also the pure blessing of life.

Today, I am thankful for every molecule of breath in my lungs, for every beat in my heart.  If they’re my last, so be it.  If it gets harder to suck in that breath, or pump out that beat, too bad.  Right now, I Live, I Sing, I Dance, I Laugh.  Right now, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me.  I’m golden.

A Christmas Tale

mother reunited with child

Photo Credit: Joshua Adam Nuzzo; Licence: Editorial Use Authorized

In a former life, I was a Child Protection Worker, which is the type of job that earns praise from some, and boos and hisses from others.  It’s an exhausting and nearly always thankless job, though that isn’t the reason I left it. Challenging though the position was, it was the intra-agency and inter-agency politics that ultimately drove me away. The problem with employment that carries with it a great deal of liability is that everyone is eager to “pass the buck.” If you’re the type of person who is in the job because you want to do something good, it can become very frustrating to work in an environment where people want to be competitive instead of cooperative.

That sort of environment also tends to breed a more intrusive way of working with families. My informal statistic from personal experience is that 99% of the parents with whom I had involvement were not bad parents. Sometimes they were victims of bad circumstances, sometimes they just hadn’t had good parenting role models themselves, but all of those 99% wanted to keep their children safe, and maybe just didn’t know how. The other 1% were bad people and — perhaps unfortunately — you can’t licence baby-making. Having not come from the circumstances that the 99% group  had experienced, I didn’t really feel I was in a position to judge. Other workers had a different opinion.

Mind you, this wasn’t my experience in all of the child protection agencies for which I worked, but it was my finding in 2 out of 3, and that’s enough to make me feel there is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed before we as a society can effectively ensure positive outcomes for children.

I don’t want to downplay the incredible work that Child Protection Workers do.  There are a lot of children today whose lives have been improved, and a good number whose lives have been saved, because of a Child Protection Worker.  I just want to illustrate: the job ain’t any picnic.

Several years ago, I was involved with a single dad and his kids, and it eventually became necessary to remove the children from the father’s care.  The man was riddled with addictions and his children were subjected to the most appalling neglect.  The children — a young boy and older girl — didn’t have much hope of being reunited with their father. Although it was always my intention to work with parents such that their children could be returned to their parents’ care, it was clear early on that this father didn’t want to put in the effort.

The children’s mother was absent. Rumours were that she, too, was addicted to crack cocaine and the children had not seen her in two years.  I anticipated that these children would become part of “the system.”

It is required by law to expend a great deal of effort in seeking out parents of any children brought into care, and so I began searching for the mother, not holding out much hope of finding her, or finding her to be a parent who could provide appropriate care to her children.

Then, one day, I managed to locate her.  She’d gotten off the drugs, was receiving treatment for her addictions and mental illness, and was working hard to turn her life around.

I am not going to say that this mother didn’t have a lot of obstacles to overcome before she could adequately parent the kids but, after my initial conversations with her, I arranged a visit between her and the children, and it was clear that she was extremely motivated to care for her children.

There was one question I had to ask, though: why had she abandoned her children?  I understand that addictions take over a person’s life, and pretty soon nothing much matters but where to get the next high.  It’s a condition that deserves pity, not ridicule. But I had to know the answer if I had any chance of convincing a judge that this woman had been sufficiently rehabilitated to be a good caregiver.

She told me a harrowing tale of having left because she was so terrified of the children’s father, who had abused her.

“Didn’t you worry about him caring for the kids?”

“Of course!” she replied.  She then told me that she had even gone back with an intention of taking them from him, but she realized, as she was bringing them outside into the snow, that she couldn’t provide them the care they needed.  So she left, and fell into a two-year depression, laden with drugs and all sorts of self-abuse.  It was a decision she regretted, but she was ready to make amends.

Readers, it took a long time, but those kids were eventually placed in their mother’s care, and it was a happy ending for them.

The mother lived about 400km away and I had to transport the children to her home.  I was buried in work, though, and the only day I could do it was December 23rd.  It’ll be a nice Christmas present, I thought.

That day, a fierce blizzard raged.  Coworkers tried to encourage me not to drive the children that day.  I looked outside and figured I’d driven in a lot worse before.  I wasn’t anxious to do that long drive in such conditions, but then the thought of calling up their mother and saying that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas didn’t appeal to me either.  So, in a decision that hindsight later rebuked, I felt that, if I drove slowly and carefully, I would be able to make it without incident.

I drove into the storm, so it got a lot worse as the trip wore on.  I also had to drive through a stretch of Ontario that had no gas stations for a couple hundred kilometers, no lights, and no cell phone signal.  There were steep hills and, a couple times, as I inched my way down one, I prayed that the person behind me would be just as cautious.  I began to realize what I wished I had realized earlier: I can be careful all I want; it’s the other drivers who might kill us!  One wrong move, and the mother’s Christmas present might be her precious children at the bottom of a frozen lake.

I’ll alleviate your anxiety now by saying that we made it safely to their new home — albeit about 4 hours later than I had planned.  An incandescent Christmas scene awaited them, with sparkling tree, shiny wrapped gifts, and warm beds.

Today, I am thankful for the capacity of people to change.  No matter the profound depths to which each of us might descend, no matter what bad decisions we might make, no matter what abuse we subject ourselves to, there is always a chance that we might turn it around and make a life worthy of awe.  That is what these children’s mother did, and the beautiful difference she made in her children’s lives cannot be measured.

My professional relationship with the family now long severed, I can’t tell you how everything turned out for those kids in the end.  Work with the family was transferred to another agency shortly after the children were placed in their mother’s care.  I checked in about a year later, though, and am pleased to report that they were still doing well.  Of course, like any family, they had their bumps in the road, and I’ll even acknowledge that their bumps were maybe a little bigger than the bumps most other families experience.  But despite the obstacles they faced, there was a lot of love in that family, and I can confirm something I have learned from experience: with enough love, pretty much everything works out alright in the end.

remember

remembrance march

Photo Credit: big-tom-84; Licence: Public Domain

We visited a cemetery today to pay respects.  Although we had no family members buried there, we located a soldier’s grave and placed on it poppy wreaths the boys had made.  The man buried beneath the headstone had been 20 when he died.  In a quiet moment with my eldest, I recited In Flanders Fields… and explained what it meant.  He’s 9 and I suppose he understands it all about as well as I did at that age, when the overwhelming beauty of a person sacrificing their lives for the values we as a country hold sacred is still a pretty abstruse concept.  But this is why we remember on Remembrance Day.  It’s not that we shouldn’t remember every single day we draw breath, but having one day devoted to remembrance helps instill our children — and re-instill us — with an understanding and appreciation.  Maybe they don’t “get it” at first, but eventually they will.  This is how we pass “the torch” and “hold it high.”

Every day, thousands of men and women risk their lives to protect us, keep us safe, and guard our freedom, and there are hundreds of thousands before them who have risked — and, far too often, lost — their lives in service of our country with the same noble objectives.  Some of those who have died have been almost children, the incandescent glow of youth still visible on their skin.  Those who have fought have been separated from their families, subjected to grueling conditions.  They have witnessed horrors most of us could never imagine.

Today, I am thankful for them.  Today, I remember.

alive

baby

Photo Credit: Carin Araujo; Used with Permission

Shortly after I turned 1, my mother was holding me in her arms while I burned through a fever.  Suddenly, my eyes rolled back, and my body began moving rhythmically. I was having a seizure. While my father held me, my mother ran frantically to the house of a neighbour, who was a registered nurse.  My father has told me that, while he held me, I stopped breathing.  My mother returned with the neighbour, Vedra, who took control of the situation and, before long, I began breathing again and recovered.

A few months later, I had another seizure.  It was my brother’s birthday, and my family was planning to go out for dinner, but I had a fever and my mother suggested that my father and brother go out without us.  I began having the seizure and, again, Vedra came to the house and I recovered.

It was the last seizure I had.  I do not have epilepsy and the seizures were febrile, meaning that they were caused by a high fever.  It’s not an uncommon thing to happen to young children, who sometimes lag in developing the nervous system mechanisms to effectively control body temperature.

When my son was born, I was a worried that the problem might be genetic.  Every time he had a fever, I was terrified that it would happen to him.  What would I do?  During my first seizure, I stopped breathing.  Without a combination of several factors, I very likely would not have started breathing again, and what if my son wasn’t so lucky?

Today, I am thankful for a lot of things.  First, I am thankful for timing.  I had the seizures while I was being held by a parent and both my parents were present. My second seizure happened just as my father was about to leave the house. A few minutes later and my mom might have been alone, and I might not have fared so well, because it would be hard for one person both to respond to my needs in the moment and also seek help.  When my son had his fevers, I kept thinking: what if he has a seizure while he’s in bed?  He could stop breathing and I would never even know.

Second, I am thankful that my parents had the sense to run for help.  I think my mother rebukes herself for not really knowing what to do (I always say that perpetual guilt about one’s children is a sign of a good parent) but, really, which of us thinks straight when we perceive our children are in danger?  Once, while camping with Gregory (my eldest) and my friend Sarah, I asked Gregory several times not to walk along the seat of the picnic table, because I had the Coleman stove running, boiling water, and I was worried he might fall and either knock the pot of boiling water on himself, or set himself on fire.  Moments later, while he started walking along the bench again, he fell, with his arm hitting the stove.  That was when I made a complete departure from sense, which is a nice way of saying I went nuts.  I started alternating between screaming at him about needing to listen, and hugging him and asking him if he was alright.  He was perfectly fine, but in my mind, I had already decided he had burned himself, and I was panicking.  In the case of my seizures, I think that having the good sense to run to a neighbour who could handle the situation was the best anyone could expect.

Third, I am thankful that a registered nurse lived nearby, and that Vedra was able to help.  She is one of those every day heroes I like to talk about in this blog.

Without all of these things, I don’t know that I would be alive today, and that is certainly cause for gratitude.

ordinary heroes

building collapse

Photo Credit: Tannoy; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Many months ago, I stumbled upon the Carnegie Hero Fund, a fund started by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wanted to honour civilian heroes.

The fund was founded in 1904, and the stories of the numerous awardees of the Carnegie Medal are truly inspirational.  Spend a day reading or listening to them and your heart will be full.  Don’t forget to stock up on tissues.  They are the stories of people who have risked their own lives to save others, many times people they did not even know.

Out of all the selfishness in the world, it’s moving to see so many people who become heroes when their circumstances call them to action.

I can’t share all the stories, so I will share two:

On 17 August 1953, Theodore Henderson (aged 39) was fixing a flat at the side of a highway in Florida, when a 19-year-old woman drove by, lost control of her vehicle, slid off the road, and landed upside-down in a 12 ft. deep murky canal.  Henderson arrived to see the tires of the vehicle slip below the surface of the water. Avoiding an 8 ft. long alligator near by, he swam into the canal and managed to open a door, but the car shifted and the door closed on two of his fingers. He yanked free, tearing a tip off one and breaking the other.  He swam back to the bank, grabbed a tire iron, then swam back down to the vehicle and smashed the rear window.  After swimming to the top to take a breath, he swam back down, dragged her out, and swam to the bank, where she recovered.

On 17 November 1960, Joseph Granahan was relaxing in a bar when he saw clouds of dust.  A building had been recently demolished, but the foundation of the adjacent tenement building had not been adequately protected and the building was collapsing.  When Granahan arrived, all the tenants had managed to escape, except one elderly woman named Helen Giles, who was screaming for help from the fourth floor.  Granahan did not know the woman, but he kicked out the glass panel of the front door and climbed the stairs.  When he reached the fourth floor, the power went out and the building shook.  He managed to find his way to the apartment and carried Giles down the four flights of stairs, with the staircase pulling away from the wall as he descended the last flight.  Moments after he had exited the building with Giles, the entire building collapsed into rubble.

Today, I am thankful for heroes.  We live in a world of survival.  Everyone is committed to his or her own interests.  And yet, when circumstances call for it, sometimes ordinary people become heroes. It’s the type of thing that restores my faith in humanity.

freedom

freedom

Photo Credit: David Niblack; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Today was a difficult day.  Sometimes, working in mental health, you have to do things that feel wrong.  You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s right.  Sometimes, you’re even successful in convincing yourself of that.

Today, after having gone before a Justice of the Peace to argue that a person needs to be taken to the hospital to be assessed, I had to show up at that person’s home with police.  I had to help demonstrate at the hospital that she is ill enough to be involuntarily admitted for psychiatric assessment.  I had to stand by while she hurled a barrage of verbal assault at me for doing this to her, all of which was valid, even if what I was doing to her was necessary.  I had to wait with her in a cold, unfriendly hospital room for 7 hours while the hospital system tried to get its act together.  I had to ask her if there was anyone I could call for her, knowing as I asked what the answer would be: there is no one.

And through all of that, all I could think is how awful this entire experience was for her.  Here is this poor, lonely woman.  Her illness prevents her from understanding what is happening or why it is necessary.  All she knows is that she is surrounded by people she believes intend to harm her.  She is helpless.

Today, I am thankful for my freedom.  I am thankful that I am not plagued by a mental illness which necessitates involuntary confinement.  I am thankful that, in my home, I feel safe from the possibility of police showing up and taking me to a strange place when I haven’t done anything wrong.  I am thankful that I live in a place where I can express what I think, feel, and believe, knowing that, although I might be persecuted, I’m unlikely to be prosecuted.  I am thankful that I am not targeted because of my race, ethnicity, religion, or sex, and that I feel safe to walk through my city, day or night, without any significant fear that I will be attacked.  I am thankful that I live in a democracy. I am thankful for my freedom in so many ways. Most importantly, I am thankful that, if any of these things ever happen to me, I am not alone.

What does freedom mean to you?  Tell me about it in the Comments.

legs

In July, I saw a woman walking her dog.  It’s an important part of the story to note that, at the particular moment I saw the dog, it was defecating on a patch of grass on city property.  It was a little white dog — a poodle, I think.  When I say I saw a woman walking her dog, I should clarify that the dog was walking, but the woman wasn’t: her legs did not extend beyond the upper third of her thigh.  And the reason I am mentioning that the dog was making a deposit on the lawn is because, when it was finished, the woman went to great effort to align her wheelchair with the poop, lean over, and stretch her arm to collect the dog’s “gift.”

Man fishing in wheelchair

Photo Credit: Steve Hillebrand; Licence: Public Domain

In my job, I see a lot of people who get pets for companionship, but who are either ill-equipped to care for them or end up treating the animal like it’s some sort of toy: cute and fun when it’s a novelty but, after a month or two, completely forgotten.

I once called an animal shelter to inquire whether they had any space to accept a cat.  I had finally managed to get a woman with whom I was working to acknowledge that she couldn’t care for the cat, and I wanted to find a home for it before she changed her mind.  The woman at the shelter was quite friendly, but sadly reported they had no room.  I explained the circumstances, not in any attempt to pressure her, but simply to determine if she had any alternatives I might pursue.  Unsure, the woman asked her supervisor.

To put it plainly, the supervisor was jerk.  He cut her off and wouldn’t listen to what she was asking, and kept telling her, “it’s not our problem.”  The woman tried to tell him that I understood it wasn’t their problem, and that I was simply seeking their expertise on another solution, but he wouldn’t listen to any of it.

I was rather put off by the supervisor’s treatment of the employee (who probably wasn’t even an employee, but a volunteer), but later I granted him a little bit of grace.  I still think his boorish behaviour was inexcusable, but I tried to place myself in the shoes of a person who works in a “dump zone” for animals. I could understand why he might be a tad cantankerous.  Not that it was an excuse to treat the woman so poorly, but at least it was a bit understandable.  So many people get puppies and kittens when they’re cute and adorable; then, when they realize that some work is involved, the animal is dumped off at the local animal shelter.  It’s sickening.

This post really has nothing to do with pets.  This whole convoluted story was to lead up to noting that one of my biggest pet peeves (pun fully intended) is when pet owners do not clean up after their dogs.  I am frustrated by people who, to save themselves a few seconds of effort, or who feel they are too “grossed out” by poop to pick it up, decide that it’s entirely fine for the rest of us to have to step in it.

But despite that, and despite my sheer annoyance with people who get pets when they can’t take care of them, I think I might just have let the woman in the wheelchair “get away with it” had she not collected the dog’s waste.  I thought: this woman is up against enough barriers in life; how humiliating and degrading would it be for her if she were to tip the wheelchair over trying to pick up dog excrement, and then be stuck there until someone came to help her?  Surely, we can spare this one woman that indignity!

The fact that she didn’t shirk her responsibility was a bit inspiring. It made me realize how lucky I am to have full use of my legs.

Some day, I’d like to get my hands on a wheelchair and spend an entire day in it.  I want to get a first-hand idea of the pure struggle it must be to get aroutnd in a world filled with stairs.

Right now, if I want to buy a widget, I look up “widget” on Google and I go to the closest store that sells widgets. But if I’m using a wheelchair, I have to determine whether I’ll be able to enter the store once I get there and, if I can, whether I’ll be able to move down the aisles of the store and, if I can, how I am going to get to the store in the first place and, if I can do all of that, am I going to have to ask for help to get the widget off the shelf, etc. Because, even though I have every right to ask for help, I still feel as if I’m inconveniencing everyone by doing so.

I feel exhausted just writing that sentence.  Imagine what it must be like to live it?  And that’s not the half of it.  I also need to find a place to live that has a ramp to allow me to get in the door, and enough wheel-around room for me to be able to move my wheelchair around, and which is set up to allow me to bathe on my own, and get in and out of bed on my own, and get dressed on my own, and whose countertops are not so high that I can’t prepare food on my own because, like anyone else in the world, I would really like to be independent.

And here’s hoping I can find a job I can do, and one where an employer will not discriminate against me, because receiving a disability allowance really doesn’t pay the bills unless I want to live in squalor or unless I can idle on a wait list for a place with subsidized rent.

And on weekends or vacations, it would be nice to get away from it all, but I can’t drive anywhere, and the intercity buses have those very steep stairs I can’t climb, and the hotel isn’t set up to accommodate people using wheelchairs. Or maybe I’ll go to a cottage, or go camping, and maybe someone will go with me — someone with a car — except that now that I am there, I can’t go on any walking trails because nature wasn’t built with people like me in mind.  Or maybe I’d like to go to the beach with my friends, except my wheelchair wheels don’t move through sand very well and, besides, it’s really tough to get in and out of the water.

Today, I am so very thankful that I have the use of my legs.  Life is hard enough with them; people who get through life without them are nothing short of courageous and amazing.

nut house

For any of you who read my blog posts and think, “this guy needs to get a day job,” I’m happy to report I already have one. 🙂

I work in the mental health sector, and my experiences have run from one extreme — “some days, I can’t believe they pay me, I love this job so much” — to another — “if I spend another second here, I’m going to need to be put in a straightjacket.”

I first need to say that my risky choice of title is not meant to be disrespectful.  I will tell you about Linda (name changed).  She is one of the most difficult people I’ve ever worked with, and also one of my favourites.  She has a sense of humour about her mental health, and I see that as a positive.  I suppose some could argue that joking about mental illness might trivialize it and diminish its severity, but I have found that when people who have mental illness joke about it, it tends to put people at ease.  If a person feels that someone with a mental illness can speak comfortably about their illness, that person is more likely to ask questions and learn something.  I feel that having a sense of humour about mental illness — when used effectively and respectfully — can help to break down stigmas.

Things weren’t going very well for Linda and it became necessary for her to stay in the psychiatric hospital for a while.  Like any environment where people come together — school, camp, retirement residence — there is always a good share of drama.  I went to visit Linda and she began telling me all about her last few days in the hospital and all of the antics she had witnessed.  She summarized the experience by saying, “it’s like a nut house in here.”  Then a little impish grin crossed her lips and she observed, “well, it is a nut house.”

Another time, while consulting with a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist asked her if she “hears voices.”

“All the time,” she responded without hesitation. “I’m hearing yours right now.”

The title I selected for this post is meant to represent that, sometimes, people with mental illness need to be able to joke about it.  Some days, it’s the only way to cope.

sad man and rain

Photo Credit: Jiri Hodan; Licence: Public Domain

The hard days are made harder by seeing people crippled by depression or terrorized by delusions.  I’ve watched helplessly while people have made catastrophic decisions when they weren’t thinking properly, only to discover the gravity of those choices later.

Sometimes, my colleagues and I are easy targets for anger and agitation.  I’ve been viciously screamed at and had my life threatened.  I haven’t been assaulted, though some of my coworkers have.  And with all I have experienced, I know it has been even tougher for most of my coworkers whose positions have deposited them at the head of the front lines.

Another woman, Melanie (name changed), used to call me almost every day when I worked with her, and tell me how I was victimizing her by not complying with her every unreasonable demand.  No conversation ended without her tearfully screaming at me.  I felt like I needed Xanax every time I spoke to her.

These experiences understandably have caused me frustration. But in those moments when I am ready to pull out what little hair I have left, I always try to remind myself: imagine what it’s like living inside Melanie’s head for a day.  To be so consumed by illness that everyone has been scared away.  To feel afraid, victimized, isolated, unheard, unloved.

Today, I am thankful that my life has been touched by severe mental illness, so that I can be more grateful for not having severe mental illness myself.

Has your life been touched by mental illness?  Please tell me about in the Comments.

ability

Some of you might know Oscar Pistorius, a really inspiring person, possessing immense personal drive, confidence, and passion for life.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photograph of him without a smile on his face.  He is athletic, fit, and a lover of sports, his passion for sports having started when he was 11, playing rugby, water polo, and tennis.  He is active and vocal in support of his beliefs.  He is pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Pretoria.

Currently, he’s best known for being a sprint runner.  He did not qualify to represent South Africa in 400 metre race during the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing because his running time was about 2 seconds higher than the qualifying maximum.  He did qualify for participation in this year’s Olympic Games, so expect to see him on the track.

Oscar was born without fibias in either of his legs and he underwent surgery at 11 months to amputate the legs at mid-calf.  He runs with the use of some pretty phenomenal carbon fibre artificial limbs designed by an Iceland-based company, Ossur.

This is where I confess with no small measure of embarrassment that I began this post with a paraphrase of that last paragraph before thinking better of it.  It’s a force of habit.  The quickest method of identifying a person is to point out a person’s most prominent physical feature, whether it be a set of beautiful eyes, their physical size, a noticeable difference in their gait.  But it frustrates me that I was so quick to define Pistorius by disability (double amputation) rather than his many abilities and positive traits (talented runner, great guy, smart cookie, etc.).

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