This summer I saw a grief counselor. I spent a lot of time in high school raising money for a cancer support centre in Oshawa (Hearth Place...for anyone who after reading this is looking for help!) The place was headed up by a friend's Mom who struggled with cancer for years before succumbing to the terrible monster while we were in high school.  By that point, only a few close friends had been personally touched by cancer.  It was somewhat rare. Now it seems every other person is dealing with cancer.  Six degrees of separation is down to only one or two these days.

Anyway, I decided to take advantage of some of the services the place had to offer since it was in town and I knew that it had provided a lot of help to a lot of people over the years. I believed in the place from the start but I wasn't really going for me.  I was going to see what options there were for my Dad and also hoped that I could contribute something of value to my family to help them deal with everything.  I thought maybe even just being around other people who had a clue what it was I was going through might help everyone cope a bit better.  My father had not yet passed away but I had accepted by this point that he was going to die.  It took some of the rest of the people in his life a little longer to accept.  That's the funny thing about cancer.  It's never a sure thing: there are so many treatments now and it's so darn rampant, that it's almost become a right of passage.  But it's also this stressful thing that lurks in the darkness.  Every time you close your eyes you wonder if this is it.

The doctors were pretty clear about what my Dad's short future held, as much as the brain tumour guide they sent us home with after St. Mike's anyway but because so many people we'd know had been struck and made it out alive, after watching the battle first hand last a decade in some cases,  it was easy to hold false hope too.   While the surgeries were happening, I was busy on the internet trying to get as may clear answers as possible: what to expect, at what kind of pace he was expected to degrade, how we could minimize his suffering, what different dosages of certain medications could tell us, how much time he had left.  On top of it all, during this time, we were still in the phase where we had to pretend that wasn't the case.  Not in a repressed, 'He can't be dying!' kind of way; which of course we all felt as well but the doctors had warned us that the stress of imminent death would likely worsen his condition and in the case of the brain, if we wanted to make the most of the time we had left with him we literally had to live in the moment.  In other words, we couldn't tell my Dad he was going to die.  We had to walk into the room with a smiles on our faces, not get upset and pretend as though he was only sick but that in the end, he'd be just fine.  Obviously, this wasn't an easy thing to do knowing in a few days time we were going to walk out the door and take Dad home to die in his bed.  All of this was especially difficult as my father had already transformed into another person: he was childlike now, had very little balance and a particular sense of humour: no sense whatsoever of the 'inappropriate'.  Traces of himself but not the real deal.  Of course, there were funny moments here and there.  One afternoon, my brother took him for a ride in his cruiser.  Walking back towards the help, impatient as ever and feeling 'FINE', he fell and my brother luckily broke his fall (he just about cracked his head open on the cement walkway leading to the house) with his foot.  'So Dad, how was your day?!  How was the drive?'  'Well, it was great.  But it would have been better if your brother didn't kick me in the head on the way into the house!!!'  We were much the same, playing along with his temperament, encouraging him to eat more if he wanted to, to fish to play golf to do anything and everything he wanted while he could, but, in the meantime, we were all holding back the tears and the words we wanted to say, the questions we wanted to ask, the undying love we wanted to impart and we just went on pretending it was any other Tuesday: everything was hunky dorey.  Eventually, it all became a little more than I could handle on my own.  It became too much for anyone to deal with on their own.  Each of us took turns having breakdowns.  Mine hit me like a ton of bricks.

I'd seen a counselor a couple of times before but wasn't wowed by the process of it and it didn't make me better in and of itself.  I remember it easing the conscience of a lot of the people I was leaning on for support. Because the truth about grieving is there as much guilt to the process as there is sadness.  You feel guilty that you aren't letting people in.  You feel guilty for asking too much, for being a downer.  You feel guilty about being weak.

The first time for me was after a couple of my friends died rather young.  I was twenty two at the time and found myself in lecture halls writing their names over and over on my notebooks because I couldn't hear anymore. I couldn't listen to anyone talk about anything, it didn't make sense.  This was all that mattered anymore.  They were dead.  We would all die too.  What was the point?  Suddenly talking about existentialism and international relations felt masturbatory and I wasn't in the mood for it. Anyway, I didn't have any ambition left, no appetite, no sex drive or even a life drive at that point.  I wanted absolutely nothing and getting out of bed in the morning was becoming increasingly difficult.

I was pretty messed up about it all, seeing both of them everywhere. Not in a scary ghost way but in the kind of way where I couldn't accept that they were gone. Deep down I already knew what I needed to do and was unconvinced that going to see some university counselor was going to make it any clearer.  I studied psychology and philosophy: I had the tools and the know-how to talk myself down from the ledge but somehow when real life is happening to you, all of that goes out the window.  Before I knew it, I wasn't me anymore and I could feel the Julie in me slipping away into that black hole of depression. I didn't care anymore about love or friends or family or enlightenment or anything. How could I? We were all going to die. And sooner than we think. And having been so sick for so long as a kid I partly felt guilty that life had taken these two great 22 year old friends of mine in such horrific ways. Should have taken me instead. But, you can't go on living that way - I'd done my share of reading about depression already by that point - one foot in front of the other, day-to-day -to-day. So, I caved and made an appointment at the University and I spoke to a psych student, only a few years older than me for a couple of hours a couple of weeks in a row.

Going into the appointment, I half expected the black leather sofa, mohogany cabinets full of books, framed diplomas from this school or that, and paisley curtains. Maybe even a particularly beautiful area rug.  I expected him to have thick rimmed glasses and a  beard and to ask me questions and YES, to answer yours: I've obviously seen too many movies! Instead, we were in a white room that looked a lot like the reading rooms in the library. Plastic and metal chairs and a fake wood desk with a desktop computer and a grey telephone. The man asked me nothing. He told me to talk about what I've been going through, what had happened. What I expected to get out of counselling sessions with him.  The first time I didn't cry. I told the story matter of factly: my friend died. I was fucked up about it. I couldn't concentrate. I was ruining my personal relationships and thinking about dropping out of school or at least taking a year off. Then another friend was in a horrible car crash and escaped as the only survivor, including the three other passengers in her vehicle and the truck driver who struck them. She was in a coma for a month and then died too on the operating table. We weren't extremely close but we were starting to be. I felt lost. I felt that life was unfair and I wasn't sure I wanted any part of it anymore. What was the point? I was reading way too much philosophy and only weeks prior had conditionned myself to see the world in a very different way than before: fearlessly it all fell to pieces quite literally. Particles of matter moving around aimlessly – nothing mattered any more than anything else and everything was suddenly simple and clear to me. We were one, all of us. Every experience, every breath, every life, every death. And then death knocked at my door and my feet slammed back on the ground and I felt like a pretentious bullshitter chasing down my own kind of God so that I could have something to believe in. The church had never done it for me. And believe me, I'd tried that too. At the time, I couldn't see the comedy in this ultimate test of faith. I should have and a few weeks before, I probably would have but once Ian was gone and the funeral was over and done and I was back in Vancouver where no one knew my old friend and no one could undestand how sad I was that I'd never see him again (it happened very suddenly in a swimming pool and he was cremated before I got back home) I was just a scared child, feeling alone and little crazy.  What did I expect to get out of counselling?  Fuck all.  And I expected about as much out of life itself.

Eventually, I allowed the counselling to be what it should be: an outlet for talking to oneself.   Permission to be selfish. No one really goes in looking for advice, they just need to hear themselves tell their story out loud.  It permits you to distance yourself from your own inner pain and brings you back to the bigger picture.  You don't have to feel guilty about suffering.  Until you're talking about it aloud, until you can describe to someone who you once were and the fear you're feeling now over losing some big part of yourself, you can't get better.  You need to get it out of you.  And as long as it's there, locked up inside, you can't get better.  It'll eat the rest of you alive too if you go about it that way.

Truth be told, I probably should have been talking to a therapist for a large part of my life with all the crap I've been through. Sometimes the people you're with make you feel strong enough to deal with anything that comes your way.  Friends can be magnificent for that and yet, it's also an unfair facet of the relationship between two people to lean too much on their supporters.  It's not what you want to share with people you love.  Of course, yes, people who love you will always be there for you but no, friends are NOT for leaning on when times are tough.  They are only reminders of the things to look forward to later.  They are the people you CHOOSE to LIVE WITH. Family is different.  And friends can be like family sometimes,it's true, but in my opinion anyway, there is something all-together mean about dragging your friends into your depression.  It's hard not to feel for deeply when your friends are down and out.  It's hard not to sympathize and want to help but we all know that there is nothing to do but get through the feelings.  We all know that the battle is within us and that no matter how many times we hash the same awful  stories to our friends over and over again, they still won't be able to do anything to help apart from reminding you that they exist and that they're there to have fun with whenever you're ready.  Anything more than that evokes that 'guilt' thing I spoke of earlier and a breach of trust.  Both parties feel guilty.  One for making their friends feel so bad, the other for being unable to solve the problem for you (because a true friend will WANT to do that!)  

There is also a weakness associated with asking for help, especially from the people hat you love and trust and respect that I've never been partial to. I'm kind of a boy that way. I don't like to cry in front of people. I don't like to talk about feelings. I make jokes so that nobody ever digs any deeper, I make light of the serious because if I don't, I'll drown in the suffering. It's not phony and I don't even think it's a defense mechanism (Freud might disagree, who knows...) for me, it's a choice. I used to call myself the ETERNAL OPTIMIST.  My goal in life was to make people happier. To do good. To love well. To understand. To laugh.

Then, out of nowhere, I wasn't able to laugh at my life at all anymore, I was losing my father and a lot of other things too simultaneously (we're friends...I'll spare you the details!) but mainly, I was losing the last of my faith that there would ever be a happy ending.  And I didn't want to bother my friends anymore, they'd already been at my side through piles and piles of other crap leading up to the cancer.  I didn't want to drag them down with me and I could tell that's where this was going.

Things were bubbling up and bubbling over inside of me and I'd already exploded on a couple friends over minor infractions (as though anything whatsoever was their fault) and as soon as I saw myself putting my stuff their shoulders, rather than dealing with my baggage, I sought professional help. It wasn't so much for me but it was to be a better person.  I was smart enough this time around to not repeat the same mistakes.  I also wanted to be able to ask questions for how I could help my own family get through this impossibly difficult time.  Anna Sapershteyn told me something years ago: 'People need to learn to own their own shit'. But the brain is a funny thing. It tricks us into all manners of madness and folly. It fools us with the notion that we are right when often we're wrong. It has a self-destruct button that is so easily set off by the slightest disappointment. Mine does, anyhow. But I had surpassed all that. I was already done with living. Tired. Exhausted. Too much bad. No good. And I felt like a homeless orphan because my family had too much to deal with to be there for ME and of course I wasn't expecting them to. There were bigger things happening but I was also going through some pretty heavy stuff and I didn't know where to turn.

So I called, made an appointment, sucked up my pride and saw Ted one morning at ten o'clock.  I was going to own my own shit, even if it killed me.  I knew I probably wasn't ready to talk about any of it yet, it was all too fresh.  My father was still at home.  Still upright.  Still eating.   He asked me why I'd come to see him and I told him the truth. This happened. Then this. And this and this and this and this and this...he sat there with his jaw dropped and I felt guilty for complaining but only for a few minutes, impossible to feel unlike a whiner when you've got so many complaints and so little gratitude.  I knew the cliches applied: 'La vie c'est pas du gateau' (Life isn't a piece of cake). I already knew all of that and I was naive anymore.  I also knew people who were going through things a Hell of a lot harder than what I was dealing with but I couldn't shake the cursed feeling inside of me. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a victim. Like it wasn't fair. People were unkind.

How did some end up with far simpler existences? Happy families. Love. Profound friendships and careers they reveled in. Mine was the kind of solitary story you write tragic books about (and for that I was grateful, of course) but I didn't want to be ME in my story anymore. I couldn't take one more bit of bad news. When I finally got around to talking about what it was like for me going through all of this stuff I started to cry uncontrollably. Not out of sadness. Not even out of pain, really. It was more overwhelming and inexplicable than that. For the first time, maybe ever in my life, I was listening to myself tell a stranger who I was, where I came from and where I was going and it was too much to hold in any longer.  And by the end of the hour, I knew I'd made the right decision by calling.

Ted let me cry. And he said everything I was feeling was perfectly normal. More than normal. Sometimes we need to hear that from someone that we don't love (because our friends and families can't be trusted in those circumstances!) It's not even about being 'normal' perse, because you don't feel normal when you're going through all of these things; you feel isolated and separate from the rest of humanity and truth be told, you're probably NOT normal while you're going through them.  You become effectively crazy.  But we all need to hear that it's okay to be feeling all that you're feeling while you're feeling it.  That you're not alone in feeling empty - the whole damn world feels the void - why do you think counselling is such big business!?  Ted proceeded to tell me a story about his own life. He lost his father and his brother in the span of a week: à la Joan Didion. He talked about how awful it was, how alone he felt.  How there seemed to be no purpose to go on living without them.  How he almost lost everything in the process.  Somehow it put things into perspective for me in a way that I knew I could only do in my own head.  He made me feel less alone.  He didn't make it better.  He didn't make any of it better but he made that light in my head go on reminding me that 'this too shall pass'.  And while you're in it, you feel like you might drown in there.  You certainly don't see an end in sight.

Everyone has their own bag of shit to deal with.  Full of madness even the Brothers Grimm didn't bother to teach us as children: I'm not talking murder and betrayal, I'm talking about those 'life' things that happen to everyone eventually: the human traumas that makes you question the point of anything at all. For some people it's just loneliness for others, it's evil for some it's just the plain lack of justice in any of it.  There are days when optimism seems impossible, futile and plain foolish.

There's always a reason to be sad and there's always going to be. If they'd have just said that from the beginning, I'd probably feel a lot less dissappointed now than I did in the beginning. But it's enlightening all the same. And that's because of the way I feel today. I feel alive. I wouldn't say good or bad or even alright but I feel alive.  I feel like I'm fighting my way through.  I feel older.  I wouldn't call myself an optimist anymore but I'm shedding a bit of the cynism.  Enough to remember the things that I love.  The people that I love.  Enough to taste my dinner and wash it down with a nice glass of wine.

Ted told me one other thing that stayed with me throughout the time my father was ill and again following his death: 'You'll be surprised at the people who are there for you through all of this and those that aren't. I couldn't believe it. And be ready, the ones you think are going to be there, they're going to be the first to disappear. And it's not because they don't love you but some people just don't know how to deal with death.  These types of things make you realize who your friends are.'

He was absolutely right and it wasn't all a negative experience. In a way, I was happy of the people that weren't around and glad of the people that were. Friendships were solidified in some cases and idealism was negated in others. I saw the best and worst in people. I sometimes felt at home just being in the presence of the right person at the right time - occasionally that person was someone I didn't know very well prior to any of the 'crazy' and going through that together has cleared a space for them in my life that didn't exist before.  There were other moments, I couldn't be around anyone but myself (hence the house in the woods...). Anything more seemed too intense.  There was a long period this year where I'd tested the hypothesis: if you don't have human relationships, then you've only got your own pain and suffering to deal with. If you're alright with yourself, you should still be able to realize a pretty satisfying life: I tried with writing and guitar and piano and cooking.  I was right and being alone was necessary to the healing process and it took forcing myself to do those selfish things just for me to remember who I was.  But there was also an element of humanity that integral in regaining some element of faith.  There was also a time where I needed to clear the cobwebs and tell people what I thought.  Sometimes I didn't have the nicest things to say.  Other times, it was just to say 'I love you' when I had the epiphanies of knowing who I did and didn't love.  Life is short, after all.  And we are all connected whether we want to be or not.

Which of course brings me to the end of this meandering journey through my brain: death. It's always present. It's on everyone's minds a lot of the time. Sometimes we push it out because we're afraid of it, other times we long for it because anything else seems too much or not worth the trouble. Death's going to follow us around for a long time, part of the family. It's not going anywhere no matter how much living we do. Apart from birth, it's one of the few experiences we've got in common universally. You're born and you die. And everything in between is a whole lot of emotional wonder. Wonderful because of it's beauty and heaviness and ability to move us to the poles of pleasure and pain with the flick of a switch. In one year I have felt love more profoundly than I've ever felt in my life and I have felt it's equal share of horror and pain. The best and the worst of it all. And the rôle of death has taken on a different meaning. It's just the end of the story. Nothing more, nothing less. It's not something to fear or chase or even avoid. It's just there and when it's ready for ya, it'll get ya.

I think there are two different parts to living. One where we're alone a lot, reflective, looking at the world we're in, where we've come from, where we're going, where you're going and where you've already been. There's the personal struggle with the universe that we all share: the reasons we look for love and the reasons we seek out the pain and suffering too. And then, there's the debauchery part. The living part of the program. Above, we wouldn't consider 'living'. Thinking somehow gets shoved to the sidelines in today's society. There's just too much to do to wonder why things are the way they are.

Those of us who take the time to look in once in a while, generally fair better in the scheme of things.  So let me be  the stranger that tells you you owe it to yourself to be selfish.  You owe it to the people you love too.  You've got to sit down and look at your story.  And it might be a horrible story at points.  Tragic.  Bloody awful but it's yours.  If it's not bad, you probably haven't done enough living yet.  And until you're ready to look at it front to back, to read it out loud and to analyze yourself as a main character, you just can't get better, plain and simple.

That's what I think.

Don't lose all your faith. There's always a little to hang onto if you put your mind to work. And don't deny anything that you're feeling ever. It doesn't give you a licence to be a dick but it ought to take away a bit of the judgment that we're beaten over the head with as children.  And if more people felt okay to express what was really going on inside of them without the fear of what 'others' might think of them if they say or do this or that, we'd be getting somewhere.

So true.  La vie c'est pas du gateau.  Life's just slightly more complicated than that.   Life's not covered in sparklers and icing.  It's not there just for weddings and birthday parties and first communions.  You could never make one with so few ingredients as egg, some flour and sugar and oil just won't do.  Life's a lot harder to digest too.  Sometimes it can take years, decades even.  It's sole purpose is not only to be eaten or even shared.  And yet, sometimes we all wish it were a little closer to cake.  At least then we'd always know that at some point, we'll get yet another shot at having our wishes come true.  No.  Life just ain't that easy and it sure ain't a piece of cake, but then, no one said it would be easy...and anyway, easy usually means 'too good to be true.'

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