Category Archives: Mental Health

Gateway Compliment


My friend Gayle had this great Facebook post about the awkwardness some of us feel giving a compliment after listening to someone read their work, and how it seems strange that a bunch of writers would have trouble finding the words to communicate our appreciation of each other. I certainly agree with this. Whenever I try to compliment anyone about anything, a little part of me steps back and starts critiquing the compliment. “UGH, you seem so PHONEY!” So then, while trying to have a goddamn moment with somebody, my eyes start darting around, my words falter, and the response of the person I’m complimenting (which is probably just their own awkwardness at receiving a compliment) feels like a sure sign that my appreciation came off as insincere.

So it should come as no surprise that when I am given a compliment on my writing, I just go ahead and assume the person giving it is insincere or at least misguided. Robbing myself of any real opportunity to enjoy the moment. I think I’ve written before about my friend Jay, the one who used to give me a hug, and then remind me to stay in my body, because there was hugging happening? Yeah. He got it.

My instinct to run from intimacy is annoying. What am I afraid of, exactly? If I had to come up with a word quickly, it would be expectation. I’m afraid of intimacy, because I don’t know what kind of expectations accompany that kind of closeness. Okay, sure, you respect me, so what now? Conversation? Friendship? I wrote those words in my pyjamas, eating Fritos, sobbing into a wad of toilet paper between keystrokes during the emotional bits. I have no glamour to offer you, no wisdom. Any thoughts you see expressed on that paper were able to germinate because I was alone. So what do you want with me?

It’s like not wanting to cuddle, because you don’t want to have sex. Gateway intimacy– too risky. Better just avoid it.

I envy people who have cultivated this comfortable faux-intimacy: a breathless, sweeping, hand-holding focus that zeroes in on you and penetrates your shell with the intensity of tongues touching, then flounces off before things can get serious. They call you “sweetheart,” and ask you how you’re doing with such vigorous sincerity, you feel utterly nurtured for a moment. But just a moment. These people can give compliments. They can dig deep and come up with just the right words so that you have no choice but to share a moment with them. And in the aftermath of that little heart opening, you don’t even care that they’ve moved on to the next person. They gave you a gift, one of the most rare and elusive gifts. Connection. Who cares what their motives are?

I have also run across some of these same people when they weren’t prepared for me, and noticed the flat affect and irritation they seem to experience at being caught off-guard. I’ve come at them like a puppy, seeking some of that feel-good they can dispense so effortlessly, and they’ve thrown up a wall. Yeah, I envy these people, but I’m a little afraid of them as well. Their ability to turn connection on and off. In the end, I probably have no choice but to be myself, awkward, but reasonably authentic.

I received the best possible compliment the other day, and this got me thinking about Gayle’s post. A woman I work with at the bookstore said. “You know, we get a lot of (finger quotes) “writers” here, so I wasn’t expecting much. But I looked at your blog, and I was pretty impressed.”

That’s it. It left me buzzing happily for hours. I think that anyone who is honest enough to tell me flat out that they didn’t expect to be impressed by me is worthy of my trust. I’m not suggesting you go out and compliment people using this method. I don’t think some people would appreciate it. But if self-doubt is keeping you from expressing your appreciation to others, keep in mind that their standards for receiving compliments may be lower (or at least different) than you think.

Schizophrenia (or something like it)



I’m writing a play about a family member who lived with schizophrenic symptoms for ten years. She had been diagnosed and medicated. She spent a year in a care facility for people with mental illness. She stopped doing all the things she excelled in: writing, singing and acting. And she was very good at these things.

But she’s not schizophrenic. She has something called somatoform disorder. And she’s been told that in 2-5 years, she’ll be free from most symptoms. Plenty of people with schizophrenia live life to the fullest, but she hadn’t had time to get past the idea that the illness was a life sentence. A sentence that has now been reversed.

I’m not writing from her perspective. I don’t think I could ever really understand what she went through, and what she’s going through now. I’m writing from my perspective, a family member who abandoned her when things started to fall apart. I told myself she was faking it. But I noted with no shortage of fear how much her reported symptoms sounded like my own. I was diagnosed with pretty severe anxiety in third grade, and it’s the kind of disorder that mutates into a thousand other weird symptoms if you don’t take care of it. It’s not something I like to talk about, because I hate sounding like a victim. But it’s there. Things were pretty out of control for me around the same time she went to the hospital. I didn’t leave the house much, and when I did, i felt like everyone was watching me. I used to sit at home, frozen on the couch, because I thought that if I moved, the kitchen knives would fly out of the drawer and stab me. I was embarrassed about this. I joked with people about it! But I was trapped in it. I assumed that my anxiety had crossed the line into the full blown crazies.

I convinced myself that a diagnosis for her was a diagnosis for both of us.

So I avoided her, as if that might keep it away from me. I told people she was faking her symptoms because she wanted attention, and I argued with my parents about whether she was actually sick. I had to go through every tiny wrong she had ever committed against me with my therapist, like I was banking reasons to cut her off. When we were together for family events, I simply endured her. I never told her how I felt. Sometimes, she hinted that maybe she knew. Over time, we just stopped interacting.

Now, she’s “well” and on her way to recovery, and from what I understand, she has been suffering from an illness that is anxiety related.  On the mental health front, we did have something in common.

She sent me an email when she found out.

“I didn’t want it to be anxiety,” she said. “I know that is your thing.”

“I didn’t want to take away from what you’ve been through.”

Silence on the flight path. (the midnight sum)

raven lunatic

The Northern solstice is pulling the top off my skull and I feel like a healer’s cliché.

The motifs are ravens (raven lunatic!) and the (ubiquitous) light. Midnight sun in the black coffee, and pushing through the blackout blinds.

The smells are lavender (on my pillow) and pine in the air. Pine at the footbridge over the green Yukon river. still a tangle of current, even with the rapids blasted out. The trees are so skinny here!

The colours are red (on my pillow) and green in the waking hours, but the sun is ubiquitous  so where does that leave us?  with magnets in our heads. nodding toward the midnight dome.

I feel like a cliché because I want to talk about dreams, but what else is there to talk about in this sleep-wakefulness? My daytime self is nearly incoherent but my nighttime self is busy writing happy endings to nervous dreams. The ones lucidity usually cuts off before the finale. Frantic packing for a flight I know I’ll miss. But last night, I filled suitcases leisurely in comic-strip frames: black and white and red.  Shook hands with my old life, and flew away.

Free-running through an exotic hotel and into a courtyard, so lithe I’m on strings. This is usually a chase scenario, set in a steel-and-glass venue of elevators trapped between floors. This time it’s green and pink and terracotta. Curved awnings and stone passageways, flowered vines trail out of windows. Last night I ran for the feel of it, and when I had my fill of movement and architecture, I stopped. Then there was nothing left to do but walk into wakefulness. When I open my eyes (midnight sun!) I realize how seldom I let dreams run their course, preferring a smash-cut into consciousness. These endings are anti-climactic, but satisfying. Good will messages, assurance that everything on the inside is okay.

Back to (mostly) sleep. Now it’s dreams analyzing dreams: a childhood nightmare unpacked. This character was a constant: a bull with meatless head-no skin no eyes- on a shriveled cow body. It hopped on one leg, backwards, and preferred to drop in on dreams already in progress. Watched me from a tree as I fought through a corn maze. Appeared at my window while I searched for a light switch that wasn’t going to work anyway. Sometimes it just hopped backwards in-between dream scenes, from rooftop to rooftop, looking for mine.

Last night, dream-Carleigh was researching a mythical Eastern European creature: a cow head that walked backwards on two human legs.

“Ah ha!” said my dream-self, and wondered aloud if it wasn’t perhaps time to get in touch with my Croatian relatives. The relatives who are always feuding with people. And with each other. The ones who outlive their spouses and children, proclaiming every day a misery. If you ask me my background, I’ll say Métis-Icelandic. Never Croatian. This is the only part of my blood heritage I haven’t made peace with.

The last time I had dreams like this, dreams that rubbed slave on old wounds and gently suggested cutting into new territory, I was in therapy. Now, the Northern solstice is pulling the top off my skull and picking around-adding up numbers. It’s turning us all into raven lunatics in its midnight sum. But still, there’s silence, even on the flight path.

Choose your illusion or: how I learned to stop worrying and watch the news.


I stopped watching the news a long time ago. Stopped listening too; even CBC Radio 2, with its half-hour “rape and murder report” and quarter-hour quickie reminders (yep, everything still sucks!) between classical music and tips on wine collection, was too much. I ended the pretense of adulthood that my Globe and Mail subscription provided, even when the media arrogantly claimed that a lack of readership in the nineteen to thirty age range was a sign of youth apathy. Surely it had nothing to do with the pearl clutching and editorializing that was creeping into nearly every news story, delivered by a collection of performance-journalists who appeared to believe whole-heartedly in the coming Armageddon. They even seemed kind of energized by the concept! They still do.

“The Terror Report,” people called CNN. I think CNN even called themselves “The Terror Report,” but sans sarcasm. But this kind of reporting was all over more reputable news sources as well, since it was obviously selling to the masses. Even people who claimed that mainstream news was all bullshit continued to shovel it into their systems with the devotion of a three pack a day smoker. These people also worked themselves up into a froth about the bullshit, as if that was somehow dissipating it, exposing the true state of world issues to them and them alone. This just seemed exhausting, and frankly, misguided. Anger has not traditionally been a very effective path to absolute truth.

After it became clear to me that I was going to have to spend a few years getting my personal issues with anxiety in check, I started therapy, learned how to meditate, changed my diet, started taking vitamins, and stopped watching the news. Only the last choice seemed to alarm friends and family, who genuinely feared that a few years out of the loop might result in the demise of my precious worldliness. A modern worldliness that I felt had contributed to an unwillingness to even leave the house by myself.

For a while, my parents (bless their hearts) tried to help out with my misguided campaign of willful ignorance by filling me in on world events every time I called home. They seemed to double their viewing efforts, and read a lot of books about global economics, global governance and the globe in general. To be fair, some of it sounded really spot-on. John Ralston Saul clearly has his shit together, and Margaret Atwood managed to write a pretty sweet book about economics in between the penning of award-winning poetry and fiction. No biggie.

My mom was particularly big on the situation in Africa, an issue that had seemed impossible to fathom since I had learned that all those earnest ______-Aid concerts I had sung my heart out to in the eighties had been a complete disaster. Now, even throwing money at a problem wasn’t going to help. And how on earth was I qualified to do anything BUT throw money? I’m not interested in world politics. I’m not the slightest bit interested in economics. And even if I was, how many years of education and dedication would be required to qualify as someone who could help? The entirely qualified, utterly rational voices seemed to be hopelessly drowned out in a sea of performance-journalism. A morally outraged Anderson Cooper, screaming at red-faced US Senators, before running off to his photo shoot for People Magazine’s 100 most beautiful people. Shit.

Now, five years after acquiring some stellar tools to deal with the daily onslaught of anxiety that modern life guarantees (Surprise! There is no cure for anxiety. Only dogged daily maintenance) I am tiptoeing back into the loop. To be honest, I still don’t see the benefits of trying to get a handle on everything that is going wrong in the world. But I have made good on my goal to begin slowly incorporating carefully-chosen news sources into my weekly viewing. And to make an effort to learn more about issues in my community, since this is the only philanthropic path that doesn’t induce a feeling of utter helplessness. I choose to read and share stories about peaceful demonstrations, community events and yes, even vigilantism, because I like to hear about people who take action. Even if I don’t agree with their methods. Finally, if I’m going to to follow a world news story, I make an effort to educate myself on the relevant history of that country. Otherwise, trying to follow the current state of global affairs is like trying to trying to solve a math equation without understanding arithmetic.

I just finished a book by Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible. This is a book that absolutely slogs through the miseries of the Congo on its way to becoming Zaire; one of many African countries cursed by its wealth of resources and its lack of imperialist ambition. If this statement sounds hopelessly lacking in nuance, forgive me, I still have very little understanding of what actually happened in Africa, and what is happening there today. Baby steps.

But how is it that I finished Kingsolver’s book with a desire to learn more about African history? If anything, she shone a light on my feelings of global impotence by dragging her characters through their own struggles to effect change. I think the answer is simple really, I needed the cushion of narrative. And not the kind of hysterical narrative provided by these braying idiots on Fox News. By easing in to an understanding of political history through fictional characters, I could lower my personal defenses and actually pay attention. Kingsolver doesn’t pull any punches in this book either, I was constantly bombarded with the endless complexity of globalization, the destructive power of greed, and the inability of the characters to make any difference in the situation around them, despite being utterly immersed in it. Somehow, I still didn’t want to slit my wrists after reading.

I’m not saying that reading a novel makes me an expert on African history. This would be like claiming that watching CSI would make me a forensic scientist, or all those Matlock episodes prepared me for a career in law. But it did spark an interest in me.

I had the same response to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a darkly comedic story that introduced me to Russian-Ukrainian conflict in a way that left me googling the Holodomor and Ukrainian independence movement for days. I’m still reading about it, in fact. And in my own rudimentary way, I’ve started to work with international history in my own writing.

This is where my perspective has really changed on the need to shake off the ignorance that sustained me through my healing process- I actually do feel like maybe I can contribute positively to change, and perhaps in my own small way, I already have been. I write a lot of stories about mental health and recovery from addiction. I have a personal agenda to help de-stigamatize both of these topics, not by preaching but simply by telling stories of characters who are dealing with these issues. I don’t want these stories to stand out in their radical point of view, but rather to add to a point of view that will one day become so voluminous, it will seem like the norm. My politics may be relatively moderate. I may not be attending the marches, holding the megaphone, or writing the new manifesto. But I am doing something. And in order to contribute at maximum efficacy, I need to be educated. But I need to protect myself, too. Blowing out all my energy cursing the state of the world is going to deplete my precious resources. In the end, the only thing I have control over, is me.