Say it ain’t so, Joe.

I happened by chance on this sad item today in the Huffington Post. A familiar picture caught my eye:

It only took me a moment to realize where I’d seen it before: in my Twitter feed. Joe followed me, and I followed back, as I recall. He was fun to talk to; witty, intelligent, kind. He retweeted me a fair bit, and I him.

I didn’t really know who Joe was, and maybe that’s just as well. Had I known he was so famous, I might have been intimidated, and inhibited, and unable to talk back. I’m an introvert, after all. And I used to be SUCH a shy kid. To converse normally with a famous writer used to be unthinkable for me. It was not until I read Joe’s obit that I realized just how famous, and how otherwise remarkable, he really was:

Bodolai, a writer on “SNL” for the 1981-1982 season and a producer on the Canadian hit sketch show “Kids in the Hall,” kept a blog called “Say It Ain’t So, Joe,” where he posted a long final note on December 23rd. In his short section of “Things I Regret,” he included, “My inability to conquer my alcoholism” and “That I am no longer able to withstand any more of life’s pain.”

The section of things he is proud of, however, paints a picture of an impressive and happy life, both professional and personal. Proud of his two grown sons (“graceful, intelligent, strong, handsome, creative and loving young men”), and his wife Bianca (“If there is a loving god, she was my blessing”), Bodolai listed his resistance to the Vietnam War and campaigning for Robert Kennedy amongst his proudest personal moments.

Professionally, he was most proud of writing for “SNL” and producing videos with Andy Warhol; being asked by Lorne Michaels to produce “Kids in the Hall”; helping bring Major League Baseball to Toronto; creating a comedy show on Canadian television that he felt would help the nation compete creatively; and writing the first draft of “Wayne’s World” with Mike Myers.

“Wayne’s World”, that touchstone of my ex-boyfriends’ lives. He wrote that. And we were tweeps. Schwing!

That’s why learning that his life behind the witty Twitter persona was so sad, was…well, so SAD. And that’s why I feel compelled to write this.

Alcoholism is a disease, much the way clinical depression is a disease. It is a chemical malfunction of the brain.

I’m not an alcoholic, but I do know why Joe hid his condition from the world. Mentally ill people do that all the time. It’s how we cope, it’s how we convince themselves, how we hope against hope that we finally have a handle on something that is frighteningly hard to get a handle on. Something that we, as a society, have failed to get a handle on.

“Mental illness” is really a misnomer. It implies that a condition is “all in your head”, and it is…but it’s not just imaginary. It’s real, it’s physical, it’s wired into the chemistry of your brain. You cannot snap out of it, and nothing anyone else says or does can snap you out of it. It IS in your head, quite literally, and that is why there is only so much that conventional therapies can do for it. You can tell an alcoholic that s/he doesn’t need to drink, and s/he might even agree with you…at least until the urge strikes again. Just as you can tell a depressive that there is nothing to be sad about, until s/he falls ill again. It doesn’t matter what you tell a person about that THING in their head. It’s all very easy to be “rational” about, until the chemical demon once again rears up from the deep hidden recesses of the brain.

And then, you are powerless against it. And that is the most frightening part of all.

We do try to fight the beast on a biochemical level, however. There are medications for depression, just as there are medications for alcoholism, but finding the right one can be a daunting task. And even if it doesn’t flat-out fail, it can still carry horrendous side effects. One of the worst, in antidepressants, is suicidal ideation. How ironic that the drugs some of us take to keep us from killing ourselves over depression, end up making us feel just well enough to act those horrible suicidal thoughts out!

I said I knew why Joe hid his illness from the world, and I do. I have used the word we for a reason. I, too, have a mental illness.

I am a clinical depressive. I have major depression. I have been sick enough in my life to be full of gruesome suicidal thoughts at rare, but lengthy and terrible, intervals. The last time I was gravely ill was pretty much all of 1993, and probably the tail end of 1992 and the first few months of 1994 as well.

I’m sorry about the vague wording, but the illness crept up on me silently, and went away just as silently; I cannot mark a single clear moment when the curtain fell, or when it lifted again. Depression is a maddeningly fuzzy beast, and it literally cast a fog over my brain.

Back then, I was in my mid-20s. And I was so sick that I could not go near a railroad track because my chemical demon, my major depression, made my blood burn in my veins, and the only “cure” for it, as suggested by the demon itself, was to lay my neck on a nice, cold rail as the freight was rolling by. The train seemed to create its own vacuum, sucking me closer to the tracks, and it took all of my sorely limited strength to pull back and get far enough away to survive. I don’t know how or why. I barely had the energy to drag myself to and from my part-time job at a local fabric shop, and after working hours, to the local amateur theatre, where I appeared as Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, and as Letta in Death of a Salesman. To this day I don’t know how I did all that. As my illness progressed, I became more and more easily exhausted, and if I could have spent all my time in bed, I would have. I did not have the energy to live, and I thank my lucky stars that I was not put on Prozac or Zoloft or anything like that, because then I might have acted on the demon’s urgings and lain down upon the rails.

I did not, and do not, want to become a suicide, any more than I want to be a depressive. I can count all my major depressive episodes on just one hand, and I shudder in fear of needing a second. Just as I shudder in fear of the side effects of current antidepressants, which is why I prefer to seek out natural remedies: vitamins, herbs, exercise, right livelihood, human solidarity.

So far, so good. I haven’t been truly sick since 1994. Given that my illness has a roughly six-to-seven-year interval between flare-ups, that makes me LONG overdue for my next bout. It is this that reassures me that I must be doing something right. I have moody episodes, and I tire easily still, but I am firmly in control. The dragon is nowhere to be found. The burning sensation in my veins is gone, and I don’t miss it. Even the horror of 9-11 hasn’t sent me into the paralyzing death spiral it might so easily have done had I not taken matters into my own hands in the latter 1990s, when I began taking Vitamin B complex and looking seriously into things I could do that would nourish my depressive brain back to health.

One of the things that has helped me most, after righting the critical vitamin shortage in my central nervous system, is being able to talk about my illness. I tell my family, and my friends, what to look for, and to haul me off to my doctor for a psychiatric referral if I ever start showing those signs again. It’s not easy to overcome the stigma of having an all-in-your-head illness, something that makes you deathly ill without you looking even a little bit sick. It isn’t easy to stand up and be counted in this pusillanimous, cowardly world of ours. Especially not as a mentally ill person.

But I have consciously chosen to do just that because the alternative is silence, and silence, as the AIDS activists have so often and rightly pointed out, equals death. Depression runs in my family; I am not the only one who has it. I also have so many friends who are, themselves, depressives of one sort or another: bipolar, or dysthymic, or major depressives like me. Some have had suicidal thoughts, and gone me one step further by acting on them and failing. Some of them are struggling with medication and side effects, trying to find the pill that works best. Others, like me, have managed to tough it out long enough that the demon just gradually let go again, letting them breathe, think rationally, and seek out preventive solutions.

I don’t propose that there is a singular natural remedy for alcoholism, any more than there is one for depression. If these things are chemically wired into our brains, they are surely in our genes. I can only say what works for me, what keeps me well…and one big thing that does, is resisting the urge to relapse. Resisting the urge to quit taking vitamins just because I feel better, or to quit doing yoga because I’m calmer now and not having panic attacks at the slightest provocation like I used to.

And resisting, above all, the overwhelming urge to relapse into silence, into death.

But that’s the nature of the beast that is mental illness, no matter which of its many forms it takes: You hide behind a cheerful, competent façade — or a silent, morose one, as I did, pretending for the longest time that nothing is wrong, because you fear that you will be kicked out of school, or lose your job, or lose your friends, or lose your sweetheart or spouse, or just lose everything. Including your shit. Because you have so much to lose when you spill your guts, don’t you?

But here’s the sad paradox: You stand to lose even more if you don’t.

If there is just one thing I wish I had done, it would be to recognize the signs of Joe’s trouble, and talk with him frankly and honestly about it. Who knows, maybe he would have survived. Now that I really think about it, the very title of his blog sounds like a cry for help wrapped up in a thick layer of ironic, humoristic denial. Why, I wonder, did I not pick up on the signs sooner? Am I not a writer, do I not have the sensitivity that comes of having been there myself?

I don’t want to beat myself over the head with it, because this is nobody’s fault. But whenever I hear of one more suicide — especially if it is someone whose face and name are known to me, and it’s someone I’ve talked with personally — I feel like there is so much more I could have done.

There is so much more we could ALL do.

Can we start, please, by just not stigmatizing mental illness anymore? Can we make it okay to talk about this taboo subject, to even laugh about the illness without mocking the sick ones, and not shrink away when someone mentions suicide? Can we start putting money back into mental health care, instead of taking it out and giving it to corporations who only abuse it and make us sicker? Can we quit pretending that a psychiatrist is some kind of luxury only to be had by the rich, who can pay for the best out of pocket if they have to? Can we admit that nutrition matters, and that our fast-food culture is leaving us malnourished on so many unforeseen levels? Can we admit that the manufacture of discontent is killing us, and that our atomized, expensive, every-man-for-himself culture is every bit as toxic, and addictive, as 100-proof alcohol?

If we can, there is hope for us all. I write this in sorrow and in hope. I have chosen to stay and fight; at the time I did not know why. THIS is why. I vow to do whatever I can to help, however little and late it may be.

I miss you, Joe.

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6 Responses to Say it ain’t so, Joe.

  1. sassy says:

    I’m not sure quite what to say except to say thank you for writing this courageous and from-the-heart post.

  2. thx1138 says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I had a friend, now dead, who suffered from schizophrenia. It was a debilitating disease, but the condition touched everyone around her in a sort of profound fashion. She made people question who they were, and to ask themselves ‘what is this thing we call reality?’. Personally, I thought it was a kind of gift that had been bestowed upon her and which she offered up to anyone who took the time to listen.

    I agree with you – we have to begin living as human beings again, and to always practice hope and compassion with each other, however difficult sometimes that may be.

  3. Simon says:

    Hi Sabina…Wow. What an EXCELLENT post. So honest and so powerful,and so badly needed. The best way to smash that ghastly stigma is to talk about mental illness as honestly and as normally as we talk about any other human condition. And you sure did….

  4. thwap says:

    I am dealing with this right now. With a close family member who has lost so many years to untreated schizophernia and is now medicated and miserable.

    I do not know what to do.

  5. Sabina Becker says:

    Thanks for the good words, guys. I’ll probably be blogging more on this and related topics later, since it’s obvious that somebody’s got to, and since I’ve started something here, it may as well be me.

    I’m glad to be well right now, because one of the worst things about major depression is that it takes away the urge to do so many things, and particularly things you love…like writing, in my case. If I ever fall silent here for weeks on end, with no explanation, that would be a bad sign.

    And since we’ve broached the topic of schizophrenia, I may as well talk about that, too, since I’ve met people who have it, and yes, it’s a real bitch of an illness. Hard to diagnose precisely, and harder still to treat. The symptoms of mild schizophrenia are just exaggerations of things that any non-schizophrenic person can also have. Eg., we’ve all experienced visual, auditory and other hallucinations at some point, and probably never made the connection that they WERE hallucinations, because they were so mild and non-frightening. We’re told that hallucinations, delusions, etc. are terrible and grandiose, but the majority of them are not. Ordinary people get them, and forget them, all the time. Only in the really sick do they rise to that level. THAT’s schizophrenia, in a nutshell. Unlike a healthy person, a schizophrenic doesn’t know how to distinguish between “just seeing/hearing things” and a full-blown, evil conspiracy directed at him/herself. The disembodied voices and weird visions are so intense that they overpower the capacity for rational thinking sometimes. That’s when it becomes apparent that s/he needs help.

    And when that person GETS help, it’s often inadequate because science just hasn’t yet come up with an anti-schizophrenia medication that doesn’t have horrendous side effects. Antipsychotics definitely damp down the voices and visions, but they damp down everything else, too. No wonder, then, that the medicated schizophrenic feels more like a major depressive. In some ways, that’s exactly what it is; the lethargy and loss of interest is almost the same. Or else there’s a pattern that goes like this: Schizophrenic gets help, goes on medication, improves, thinks s/he is cured…and goes off again, only to relapse. And thanks to our poor understanding of the nature of mental illnesses, there’s the prevailing mindset that once you’re “cured” you don’t need medication anymore. It couldn’t be more false; we’d never tell a diabetic to just go off insulin when their blood sugar stabilizes, for example. Because as soon as the dose wears off, that person is going to need another. If we treated mental illnesses the way we do chronic physical ones, we’d probably have a lot fewer mentally-ill homeless people roaming the streets.

  6. Beijing York says:

    Thank you for posting such a compassionate, frank and very powerful post, Sabina.

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