Tag Archives: reflection

Shocked into submission…

Between about 1981 and 1995, my mother was a resident at Riverview Hospital, our provincial mental health facility. I was probably about 15 when she was admitted. It was the last and most drastic move in a series of difficult moves for her.

The reasons for her landing in Riverview went something like this:

  • In 1977, she tried to drink herself to death, self-medicating through a serious depression. She almost succeeded, but survived and came out of Burnaby General Hospital with permanent brain damage and a different, more simplified personality.
  • We could not keep her at home, unsupervised – she would need some kind of constant care and supervision – so she was admitted into the first of what would be a few different private care hospitals around Vancouver. (I remember one out in the Old Orchard neighbourhood of Kingsway in Burnaby, and later, Como Lake Private Hospital in Coquitlam.)
  • She was, I was told, difficult to care for, and at Como Lake had to be strapped to a bed on one occasion. Apparently, after she struck a nurse and walked out into the snow, trying to find her way home, Como Lake Hospital said that she had to go.
  • I really don’t think those private hospitals were equipped to handle her manic-depression or emotional outbursts. So, after that, she went to Burnaby Psychiatric Centre, near Willingdon Avenue in Burnaby. I thought she seemed to be doing much better there. It seemed like a more professional and structured environment. Dad told us that it was basically a “holding pen” for Riverview.
  • Dad said the word “Riverview” like it was a threat – a bad consequence that Mum would get if she didn’t behave herself. She’d been there before, back in the early 70s, when I was about 8 or 9, so she knew what it was like. I think Riverview was not anywhere she wanted to be, but by 1980 or so, that’s where she ended up.

I was very afraid of Riverview with its high ceilings, large heavy doors with their loud metal locks, and the wide linoleum floors surrounded by windows covered by metal grills.

The women’s ward that my mother was on in what was called “Centre Lawn Unit” was, to my young eyes, identical in age, layout and spirit to the men’s ward shown in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, or to the wards seen in the movie “Awakenings”. Not kind of similar. Almost identical.

It was heart-wrenching to leave Mum behind in there after our first visit. She cried and pleaded to come home. She kept asking us “when can I come home?”. It hurt so much to not know what to say, or worse, to know that there was nothing that could be said, that she might never ever leave, and that she either didn’t realize it, or worse, that she knew deep-down, but couldn’t accept it.

Gradually, over the first year or two, our Sunday drives out to see Mum at Riverview lessened to only every two weeks, and then even less, as I recall. It seemed to have become too much for Dad, and on our visits, he began to claim that a sore back prevented him from climbing up the stairs to go inside, leaving it up to me and my sister Kim to go in while he sat in the car and smoked. I saw through his smokescreen, and in my teenaged binary thinking, I deeply resented him for being a coward and for leaving the burden solely for his kids. Looking back now, Mum’s near-death and physical and mental degradation must have broken his spirit and defeated him utterly. It was the final break-up of their marriage – a consequence of things that I only partially had seen as I grew up, and the full truth of which I will never really know. He still loved her, so he told me later, but he always talked about her in the past tense even while she was still alive. Nobody really talked about my Mum Angela after she went to Riverview. She was out there, but she was also just… gone.

Eventually, after Dad had a heart attack and multiple strokes in 1983, his driving days were finished. In 1984, I went out on my own on the bus to visit Mum a number of times. I wanted to take some responsibility for her in a way, and I wanted to see her and maybe try to know her in some way.  I also didn’t want her to be basically abandoned by her family.

By 1984 or 1985, she seemed to not recognize me any more or to remember my name. It was painful to try and remind her every time, but I perservered, and would also bring her a chocolate bar and enjoy her enthusiastic, child-like chewing. She was toothless by this point and ate with the enthusiasm and impatience of a toddler, sometimes coughing it out onto a bib or towel around her neck. She was reduced to a baby’s kind of existence, and I never knew if it was due to some of the meds she was on, or to some mental degradation from years of minimal stimulation.

Over the first couple of years that Mum was in Riverview, we noticed her behaviour change. Her emotions seemed dead and gone, as if her remaining spirit and personality had left her. She had become quieter and distant, and would only speak in monosyllables. In the years later, she would rock back and forth, somewhat extremely, or tremor or shake her arms up and down on the sides of her wheelchair. I never knew what her body language was telling me. Was it involuntary, or was she agitated or excited about something?

Once, after one of Mum’s cousins visited her in Riverview, we heard that the cousin had claimed that Mum had undergone electroshock therapy, nowadays called E.C.T. It was, to me, at the time, a barbaric idea, and I didn’t want to accept it. It felt like that was the worst stigma of psychiatric treatment, like a form of modern-day torture, and I didn’t want to think that my mother would be put through something that I thought was so violent.

But, there’s every likelihood that Angela did go through E.C.T. at Riverview. I’ve read recently that it was a fairly commonly-used therapy at Riverview until maybe the early 2000s.

I’ll just leave this here…  http://www.ect.org/news/130shocks.html

Making the most of a ghost…

How do you commune with the dead?

I know this sounds morbid as hell, but the question comes back on me every so often, like a bad aftertaste.

Why bother, and why care? I don’t believe in any afterlife or reincarnation, so why is the need for mental continuity so compelling?

I think for me, especially where my mother Angela is concerned, it’s because she represents the most significant unfinished conversation in my life.

As a kid, I can’t remember more than a dozen words Angela ever really spoke to me. In any memories I have, she didn’t make my lunch, she didn’t play with me, she rarely spoke with me one-to-one, and I cannot remember one clear “I love you” . I believe that she must have loved me, for I can see it in her face in a few photos from my babyhood, but she wasn’t “there” in my life very much. She just wasn’t a presence, parental or otherwise in any meaningful way.

I think this present-yet-absent theme explains the attachment issues I have with women, and why I tend to treasure the women who mother me in their own ways. I’ve had a few woman friends who’ve baked cakes or sweetbreads for my birthday, and it has always touched me very deeply. There’s something about the time and effort taken by a caring person to create a treat that triggers my sweet tooth (not to mention dopamine), and that I may enjoy over multiple sittings. It’s taken me a long time to see these little acts of kindness and friendship in a balanced way, and not let them get blown out of proportion.

All the same, the sweet taste of a treat made just for me helps to eclipse the bitterness left inside my gut. It came from a little boy who didn’t understand that some women are not wired to be nurturing mothers or to be demonstrative or affectionate in general. Such may be the nature of introversion or depression, or a product of how my mother was raised.

So as I’ve gotten older and less subjective, I’ve tried to see my mother Angela in a whole-person kind of view and accept and understand her nature, and not internalize it as any form of personal rejection. It’s a simmering-down of the neediness that peaked in those one or two occasions where I can remember that we had some one-to-one time. Inside me, that little eight-year-old boy needed attention from his mother and needed to know that she saw him and loved him.

Over the years, it hasn’t been easy to depersonalize and detach from someone who sat in such a symbolically significant position, but that’s what happened gradually, as our family broke up and we lived apart and disconnected from each other. It has happened to all of us to some degree, but it was especially so with my Mother. Gradually, from my age of nine to twenty nine, Mum went from being my familiar mother, to being a curiosity and a worry inside our home, to being a lost person whom you no longer knew (and whom you feared no longer knew who you were), and ultimately a stranger you never saw anymore.

If that arc doesn’t describe the downfall of a relationship for all of us (me, my sister, and especially for my Dad), then I don’t know what could.

Although I accept how and who she was, I’ll never know if she ever truly wanted to be a mother, or if it was family pressure that ultimately cast her in that role. I don’t really think she ever became her own person. I think her mind became a kind of depressive hell which she ultimately gave in to. It’s possible that, if her life or choices had been different, she might have found fulfilment in a different relationship or via a deeper connection with her creative artistic and musical impulses.

So I sit here and wonder what I would say to her if we could speak for a moment. I suppose the simplest and most direct thing is “I love you” . The voice is mine, and unfortunately so is her answer.

Confessions of a Pack Rat

My memories are captured in thousands of files, folders, emails, and websites – and somehow, my pack rat nature has allowed me to preserve most of the digital evidence of my life since about 1998.

The Digital Studio Space

My desktop is a collection of hardly-used capturing tools: a flatbed scanner (that also does slides), a graphics tablet I used for one illustration job seven years ago, a digital camera that has been supplanted by my smartphone, and various bargain audio and video analog-to-digital conversion devices. I still have VHS tapes and audio cassettes that testify to past projects.

It must be something in the blood: my grandfather (and namesake), Ernest Clarke, was a prolific photographer, and I have his prints, negatives, slides, and 8mm film to prove it. His mission seemed to be to immortalize his wife and especially, his daughter Angela. He was somewhat compulsive about it, from the scores of evidence he left us, ranging from photos of native elders probably taken in the 20s, to colour home movies he shot in the 1970s. He’d have gone crazy with digital.

Recently, I upgraded my windows PC to windows 10, and bought myself a 3 terabyte external drive for backups. My desktop PC and all its peripherals and programs constituted my modern digital studio space – my personal workplace for explorations, communications, study, and networking. my grandfather Ernest had a little painting easel tucked in a corner of his basement for working in oil. The tools are different, but I suppose the drive is similar.

With the advent of mobile touchscreen devices, something happened that I didn’t expect: my tablet and laptop took me away from my desk, and kept me either on the couch or in a Cafe (and often digging through Facebook).

Soon enough, I found I was using my smartphone and tablet for almost everything, and rarely ever using my PC for anything (except for banking). That shift in behaviour seemed to change me from a creator into more of a consumer. For quite a few years now, I’ve spent more time surfing and consuming other people’s bytes than I have creating and promoting my own. I think. So, with the spiffed-up desktop environment, I’m probably now in a better position to focus on building my own content again.

So, that covers tools, but what about content? Who and what am I writing and imaging about?

Preserving People, Real and Imagined

I have worked, side-by-side or remotely, with hundreds and hundreds of colleagues since 1992, when my full-time career really kicked into gear. Each person I have met has taught me something about them, and about myself. Some of them were characters, and some of them are bound to become them one day.

Sometimes it’s true that “Hell is other people” . In some social groups, there are always manipulators and cajolers, liars and criers, who use your niceness against you, or use sympathy to gain your confidence and trust. If you don’t let these folks, damage you too badly, they can provide valuable learning regarding human nature. I’ve found that once I recognize the evils and virtues in somebody else’s character, I begin to see them in myself.

Thus, the memories of people you’ve known can be great inspiration for personal memoirs, or raw material for fictional characters.

Space, the Final Frontier

In my profession, I have treasured my semi-private offices or cubicle spaces. Having a little bit of solitude and at least some form of blinders provides an emotional and mental buffer zone, and helps one to concentrate.

However, too much isolation tends to raise stress levels in me, most likely my mind needs a break and a little interaction with someone every few hours. I often forget to do that. it’s important to listen to your heart and mind, to recognize when you need to be alone, or when you need to socialize.

The Real Undiscovered Country is Inside

(Well, I’m on some kind of Star Trek riff, now.)

The value of forming bonds with friends and family is obvious: we need to belong with and to someone, and want to feel part of something bigger and more secure (perhaps) than ourselves.

The hard lessons for me were learning to listen to the voice of my internal judge, to know how much sharing, emotional intimacy is enough with each person, to say enough, but try not to say too much.

Generally, I have a hard time discarding people and objects once I have assigned some sentimental attachment to them. So, I tend to collect people and things.

Interpersonally, I can’t always judge my emotional boundaries and moments quite right, but I tend to keep my doors wide open for anyone to walk in.

Memories are subjective, elusive, permanent, and recurring…

Memories are like dear friends, and bitter enemies. Both burrow down under your skin. They find your emotional nooks and crannies, remind you of your strengths, and expose you to your weaknesses.

Memories can seem as immutable as stone, as unchanging as the mountains, and as permanent as the Earth.

But I have learned that memories are more like chameleons: they take on the colour of your current outlook, and their themes and tone  reflect your own. They’re my own little constructs, my personal little fantasies, performances that I continually re-stage in my own private playhouse.

The stories that I’ve written for myself probably started in my head as soon as I could think. Like James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, the language and models that I built have evolved with me, over the years.

Memories age and mature with you, like your reflection. You just can’t trust them- they’re as slippery and subjective as you are. For me, memories are the ghosts I live with, the echoes of old events and past ideas, reflections of my life and past visceral emotions.

Some memories used to be exceptionally strong, but have waned with experience and considerable reflection:

  • The chest-puffing pride when I was eighteen and would talk about my Dad, or hear his words come out of my mouth. I demolished his pedestal years ago, and put the pieces to better use in rebuilding a platform for myself.
  • The bitterness and mistrust that I held against richer, happier kids, and their functional families. I secretly resented every other kid I saw, certain that they were so much better off than me. Eventually, after high school, I started to get over it.
  • That feeling that I was unique in my life experiences, wiser and more resilient than my peers, and just plain special. This was mostly my own defense against self pity, isolation, and misery. It worked sometimes, but it was mostly a mask behind which I hid my fear and insecurity. I don’t worry about hiding that much anymore. After the age of 45, me and my insecurities began to feel much more secure in each other.

Each of these little treasures have waned with time, going from opaque, well-rehearsed scrolls to delicate, dried-out parchments that have degraded with age, and worn down to near transparency.

I can see right through those old narratives now. They still have occasional influence on me, but most of the time they’re not very convincing anymore.