Research: Photos and Feelings of Riverview Hospital

My second novel, tentatively named “The Two Sisters”, deals with some aspects of mental illness and alcoholism, through the lives of two sisters, Connie and Rose.

Rose has a history of mental illness, as well as substance abuse issues, and when my main character, Jack (her nephew) encounters her for the first time, Rose is fairly heavily medicated and tied into a wheelchair so she doesn’t fall out. Rose is a long-term resident at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, a slightly fictionalized version of the real hospital, which is located in Coquitlam, BC.

My second novel, tentatively named “The Two Sisters”, deals with some aspects of mental illness and alcoholism, through the lives of two sisters, Connie and Rose.

Rose has a history of mental illness, as well as substance abuse issues, and when my main character, Jack (her nephew) encounters her for the first time, Rose is fairly heavily medicated and tied into a wheelchair so she doesn’t fall out. Rose is a long-term resident at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, a slightly fictionalized version of the real hospital, which is located in Coquitlam, BC.

Writing Convincingly About Mental Illness

I won’t write about something unless I have at least a little experience with it, and I try to do enough research to fill in any remaining credibility gaps. That’s my explanation for studying and sharing the photographs at the links below. But that’s just the external research part: my claim to street cred regarding Rose’s mental illness and being at Riverview Hospital comes through my mother, Angela Huntley Love (nee Clarke), who was a long-term resident at Riverview for 14 years. A good deal of my portrayal of Rose’s initial appearance and behaviour was based on my poor Mum. My wish is to use the events and emotions from my many visits at Riverview with Mum to evoke some of the sadness, joy and confused feelings that I experienced.

Riverview Hospital seems to be often in a state of transformation. This is probably a reflection of our gradually changing approach towards mental health care and the mentally ill in general. I hope it will continue to change for the better, in order to better serve those people who need it. In my only moderately informed opinion, there are still too many folks on the street who need mental health care.

Photos of Riverview

Here are a number of photo galleries I’ve found of Riverview Hospital complex. Some of them are quite beautiful, displaying the trees, flowers, lawns and sunny days that you’ll find on the grounds during the spring or summer months.  There are also quite a few photos that show the disturbing amount of degradation that old age and lack of maintenance have wrought on the closed buildings. West Lawn in particular, is the most haunting. It was already closed in the 1980s when I started visiting my Mother at Riverview.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobkh/sets/72157594534559416/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ephotography29/3258999854/

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/the-bh/1067953811/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/shoes_on_wires/4448755346/

The darker photos in these collections reflect, to me, the downsizing, decentralization and relocation of hundreds of patients during the 80s and 90s.

Showing these darker images is not intended to stigmatize mental illness in any way, but instead to show how our major institution has changed over time. The images also helped me to connect with feelings of despair, sadness or loss that I once felt for my Mother. That is real too.

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Meditating on Now, the Past, and Raw Material…

Sometimes, a good moment in the present helps you to reflect better on the past, or plan for the future. In my case, a yearly summer vacation to a lovely ocean-side spot near Parksville, BC provided a welcome chance to unwind and reflect.

I also started reading Craig Ferguson’s biography, “American on Purpose”, and even after just a few chapters, the man’s wit, silliness, and achingly honest description of his family and his life have inspired me. Craig’s description of his parents in particular, and the almost glamorous impression they left with him was strikingly familiar to me. He describes his father’s handsome, slender appearance in one instance, and in another instance after his father has become drunk, his biting sarcasm or bitter authority.

This depiction of two-sided grace resonates strongly with my own memories of my parents. Probably everyone wants to remember their parents in a positive way if they can. Children (at least the youngest ones) tend to idolize at least one parent, and place them high on the idolatry scale. I think this must be related to bonding and learning by example. It can be heartbreaking and devastating to find out just how weak-willed, vulnerable or unworthy a parent can be. As kids, it can be hard to  watch our parents (or any significant adults in our lives) act badly or make all-too-human mistakes.

Like Craig Ferguson’s Dad, my Dad was tall, good-looking and smelled of Brylcreem. Like Craig Ferguson’s Mum, my Mum was a physically beautiful woman whose image haunts me. I’m convinced that my Dad was an extremely intelligent man, who was often frustrated by the idiocies he saw perpetrated around him, and possibly convinced that he was smarter than most of the people around him. I don’t doubt that he was right either. Dad was proud, smart, and independently-minded.

My Mum had multiple creative and artistic talents: singer, musician, actor. She also struggled with manic depression (bipolar disorder) and alcoholism, throughout her life. She had a light within her that I never really got a chance to see.

Both of them, at their best, loved to laugh and quote silly humour like poems by Ogden Nash, phrases from Groucho Marks, or sing along to silly songs with lyrics like “Boop Boop Diddim Daddum Waddum Choo! | And they swam and they swam right over the dam!”

Maybe life ground them down more and more as they went through middle age – maybe depression took over. Maybe the silly little joys just evaporated from lack of practice. Maybe happiness gradually gave way to depression, and light-heartedness just transformed into tension and pressure.

Perhaps “unrealized potential” is the term that describes my Mum and Dad best of all: feeling trapped in a life that seems to be preventing you from doing what you want, or getting to a point in your life where you feel like all your dreams have gone past you and all opportunities for success have been spent.

I think that with more care and more support in their lives, perhaps my parents might have been able to shed their alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies and might have had more of a chance to have a real life together. I often imagine a mythical Jim and Angela, healthy, smiling, talking together, traveling together and living together – living lives that are similar to the life I enjoy with my wife. I guess that means that I am happy. I wish they could have been happier too.

For me, the lesson I take from them is that one must make one’s own opportunities in life, and find or manufacture ones own happiness and fulfillment. The saddest people either forget this, or feel that they will never achieve it. The happiest, I think, are those who strive for it in spite of any obstacles. The best of us are those who help others to achieve their bliss in some way.

What I have left is a number of photos that prove that once upon a time, my folks were indeed happy and bright, and optimistic about the future.  Once, they ran a small household, went on driving trips through the western provinces, camped in a camper truck, and visited their relatives.

Maybe for some people, happiness appears to be a limited time affair. I’m not a recovering alcoholic like Craig Ferguson (thank god). The stats say that I should be. But, I do believe that Craig and I have something in common: a belief that happiness is tied to personal growth and health, and is a daily work in progress.

Anyway, nice book Craig. Truly.

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Preview Owe Nothing Free, on Google Books

In the spirit of “try before you buy”, I invite you to read a preview of my novel, Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

Owe Nothing is my non-mainstream look at Vancouver: an adventure novel based upon real people and places that I knew when my family lived in dodgy Kingsway Motels for over a year. The names of the people in Owe Nothing are fictionalized, but the people and events are inspired by reality…

All ow me to introduce a few of the main characters…

Jack Owen
A young guy looking for adventure, and an escape from his lower-class rut. By accepting a bizarre job offer, he soon discovers that the back alleys and rooftops of East Vancouver hold more mysteries than he may be able to hide from his Dad or his Sister.

Parminder Singh
Jack’s buddy from work, and his companion through some bizarre surveillance tasks that they’ve been recruited to do for a man they’ve never even met. Parm’s not sure if this is on the up and up, but he’ll do it for the money.

Mike and Chris Coffey
Brothers, and friends of Jack from the neighbourhood. They’ve got to find a way to get rid of their violent alcoholic step-father Ted, without their mother Regina finding out. Maybe Jack can help them…?

Check out the rest of Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

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Process: Meditatng on Personal Freedom…

In recent weeks, I’ve been researching mental health – manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). In my second novel, The Two Sisters, one character (one of the Sisters) has struggled with manic depression most of her life, and has been in and out of hospitals and halfway houses over the years. Her name is Rose, and by the time her nephew (and the novel’s main character) Jack Owen meets her, she is a long-term resident of British Columbia’s provincial mental health hospital.

Rose is based, to some degree, on my experiences with my mother, Angela Huntley Love (nee Clarke), who struggled with manic depression, depression, and alcoholism continually through her life. Mum seemed to always be somewhere in the middle of extremes of behaviour: happy, laughing, loving and normal sometimes, and loud, loopy, drunken or depressed at other times. As a kid, it was difficult to know who she was, or how to feel around her.

Mum was an enigma to me. I can honestly say that I cannot remember having more than one or two actual conversations with her in the 12 years she lived with me. Perhaps it is unfair of me to think that way. Kids’ perceptions are often very subjective and skewed. I wish I could have known the lovely, charming and talented musical performer that Mum’s friends and family got to know. Anyway, water under the bridge…

After bouncing in and out of a few private hospitals over the course of a year or two, Mum finally landed in the Burnaby Psychiatric Centre on Wilingdon. Dad explained that this facility was essentially a “holding pen” for patients who were bound for Riverview.

Riverview. That name was a caution to me back then, something to be feared. Dad used to warn Mum “Angela – behave yourself, or you’ll end up in Riverview!” I never took this to be an idle threat. Dad’s voice conveyed the worry and stress that told me Riverview was not a good place to go, and it also sounded like the kind of place that you didn’t come back from. These are the words that form stereotypes that stick with you. And they did.

Mum was admitted to Riverview in 1980. The first few visits were extremely difficult. Looking back, now that I am almost the same age Mum was when she was admitted, however sick and brain damaged she might have been, she knew what was happening to her, and she was scared to be left alone in that place. Once or twice, we had to leave her while she was crying and calling for us to take her home again. It was absolutely brutal, and I’ll never forget her face and voice in the little window in the centre of the door.

Back in 1977, not too long after her father, Ernest, died, Mum went into a prolonged depression, rarely rising from her bed or the couch, except to get up to eat, drink, or vomit. Eventually, she stopped eating altogether. We lived with this for a long time, and it was rarely ever acknowledged. Finally, one day, my little sister couldn’t wake her up, and her protests got Dad to call the Doctor. My few happy memories of my Mother are all I have, and my little sister has no personal memories at all.

Mum’s liver had quick, and she’d have died if she had been at home for 24 hours longer. She’d suffered permanent brain damage and a fair amount of recent memory loss. After she detoxed and received a transfusion, her personality had changed noticeably. Her personality was almost like a clean slate. She was much more direct and basic in her needs, and she never ever brought up the past anymore, the way some people do (raising old issues, or chuckling over old shared memories). The person she had been was changed forever, and now, it was almost like we had a new, different Angela to get to know.

Mum didn’t have a concept of how her own actions or inactions might have put her in that situation, and she didn’t seem to get that she’d never be able to live alone or independently again. How could we leave her alone in the house during the day? She never blamed anyone else though. There was no bitterness directed at her situation or towards anyone in particular either. She just wanted to come home. She cried for it.

The character of Rose is a bit like Angela, and shares an event which happened to Angela. In “The Two Sisters”, Rose’s meds are adjusted on the advice of a new Doctor, and she changes from her regular quiet, almost vegetative state, and becomes much more lively. During this time, Rose has slight episodes or mania, but otherwise seems quite normal. It’s during this time that Jack is able to ask her questions about her past, and about his late mother Barbara, who was Rose’s cousin.

Jack’s Aunt Rose becomes something of a surrogate mother figure for him, and has her own brand of road-worn wisdom and street smarts to impart. After a week or two, Rose has a particularly bad manic episode, complete with hallucinations and violence, and reluctantly, her Doctor is convinced by his peers to reinstate Rose’s original drug regime, which returns her to her passive, almost vegetative state. Jack feels as if he has lost Rose, but continues to visit her periodically, providing her with some companionship and care in his own way.

Rose’s “Awakening” episode is based on my Mother’s similar experience. Around 1991, late one evening, when I was thinking of going to visit Mum, I got a phone call from a Riverview Nurse, telling me that my mother wanted to talk to me! This had never happened before, and I listened with a pounding heart as this slightly excited, frantic-sounding yet familiar voice greeted me. I spoke to her for a few minutes, and told her how nice it was to hear her voice. I told her I loved her, and that I’d see her as soon as I could. Then she said goodbye, and immediately after I hung up, I phoned my sister and we laughed, cried, and were generally amazed by the whole thing.

However, when I went up to see Mum, she’d already been put back on her old regime of meds, so had returned to her non-communicative, vegged out state. So, that phone call is the only window I got into who my Mother might have become.

I decided that when I had Rose go through the same transformation, I would give Jack a few weeks’ worth of that wonderful awakening. I think he deserves it.

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Owe Nothing: a different look at life in Vancouver…

Recently, people from all over the world have been watching Vancouver, BC perform at its best, and there certainly is a lot to be proud of.

This city has many sides to it, and truly, no two people experience this town in the same way.

Owe Nothing is a non-mainstream look at this city: an adventure novel based upon real people and places that I knew when my family lived in dodgy Vancouver Motels for over a year. The names of the people in Owe Nothing are fictionalized, but the events and feelings are based in reality…

Meet a few of the characters…

Jack Owen:

A young guy looking for adventure, and an escape from his lower-class rut. By accepting a bizarre job offer, he soon discovers that the back alleys and rooftops of East Vancouver hold more mysteries than he may be able to hide from his Dad or his Sister.

Parminder Singh:

Jack’s buddy from work, and his companion through some bizarre surveillance tasks that they’ve been recruited to do for a man they’ve never even met. Parm’s not sure if this is on the up and up, but he’ll do it for the money.

Mike and Chris Coffey:

Brothers, and friends of Jack from the neighbourhood. They’ve got to find a way to get rid of their violent alcoholic step-father Ted, without their mother Regina finding out. Maybe Jack can help them…?

The Reviews are Good:

Readers have given me some very positive feedback:

“Awesome”, “Engaging, endearing… with a deft humorous touch”, “a great read!”, “A real coming-of-age story”, “Vancouver is a city without much appreciation for its history… you’ve rendered a great service with such a vivid picture of that time and place”

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A Metaphor for the Creative Writing Process…? (Part 2)

So, finally, here’s an answer to one of the questions I posed earlier:

“Am I really writing more for myself, or more for my (hypothetical) reader?”

The answer to this is both.

I certainly write for myself, as a creative outlet (“I gotta be me”), a personal challenge (“Can it be done?”, or more to the point, “Is it any good?”), etc. That is my selfish personal development stuff, exorcising itself.

For my reader (you know who you are, and I look forward to finding a few more like you), I hope there are engaging-enough characters presented, in an interesting and sympathetic world that makes you want to return. I want the people, places, circumstances and imagery to resonate with you.

Actually, I want to visit these people and worlds again myself too.

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A Metaphor for the Creative Writing Process…? (Part 1)

Hi,

My first novel, titled Owe Nothing, was published in April 2009. At the time of this writing, that’s just a couple of months ago, which makes me, in many ways, a new novelist. However, that first project took years to complete: from midnight scribblings on the edge of my bed, to numerous Grande-Americano-fuelled sessions on my laptop in Starbucks, to the seemingly-endless rounds of edits with my publisher. All the same, that’s probably just the first of many rites of passage – all part of the game…

As a relatively new novelist, I admit to being perhaps just a bit over-analytical or self-involved where my writing is concerned.

I’ve probably collected many more questions than answers.
So, here they are:

Am I really writing more for myself, or more for my (hypothetical) reader?

What is the quantitative evidence of “success”? (e.g. Sales?)

What is the qualitative proof of “success”? (Against what measure do you gauge good quality?)

How discerning and specific do I think my audience is? Is a book lover kind of like an art lover?

Are these questions ridiculous?

In subsequent posts here, I’ll try to address each of those questions in turn – especially that last one… 🙂

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