The Don’t Hit Me Dance (Written in 2006)

This poem was published in Fireweed Magazine. I still like it.

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by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

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Effing Hair! (Written February, 2007)

I’ve reposted this one because I’m slightly amused by how very offended I was, but also because it’s surprisingly still topical. My friend’s daughter wanted a funky, short hair cut and several hair-dressers refused to do it. They tried to talk her out of it. I remember when I was in hospital and I decided to shave my hair short (being sick meant it was mostly just greasy and unkempt.) The doctor declared that cutting off my long hair was an act of self-injury. Self injury! As a woman, for some reason, my hair is not just my hair. I don’t shave my legs. I get stares and comments. My husband doesn’t shave his, he gets nothing. Nada. No one has ever called my husband a dyke (only half true for me, BTW) because he doesn’t choose to remove hair from his legs. I’m away at camp and you know what I worried about before hand? How would the kids react to a woman who wears a swimsuit but doesn’t remove her leg hair first. Why should I have to worry about that? Okay, enough pre-amble. Here’s the original from 2007 (when Brit-Brit shaved her head YEARS after I did. Just saying.)

I get very frustrated when people start talking about folks they’ve never met. Especially when it’s about something so stupid as hair! Hair for chrissakes! I mean, it’s hair. Long, short, whatever. A few years back, a she-celeb chose not to shave her armpits, and it was mother fucking front-page news! How is this possible?

What really eats my eyeballs is that a woman can pay a man to cut into her body and add silicone or suck out fat and no one says anything, unless it’s botched or extra big. Women can starve themselves to death. They can cut and stretch the flesh on their faces. They can change the structure of their noses. They do all this and we say “my, ain’t she sweet?” but cut their hair off and we all think they’re crazy? Are we on some sort of mind-altering drug here? We think normal, average looking people are grotesque and that people who’ve had themselves butchered are beautiful? Ew, so many kinds of gross. We are sick.

Stop talking about hair. It grows back. Real boobs don’t.

This PSA brought to you by pissed off females everywhere and viewers like you.

Oh, I also reposted this because I love that I used the phrase “What really eats my eyeballs.”

The Apocalypse That Cried Wolf (Written in 2011)

This piece was written out of frustration with the 2012 goofiness that threatened to become actual idiocity. It is how I feel when I don’t fall down the rabbit hole of fear I wrote about in The End.

While most North American children my age were enjoying Care Bears, Pogo Balls and Transformers, I was being raised on Apocalyptica. As a youngster, I was exposed to stories, images and movies that make modern horror films seem tame.

One of the truly frightening moments of my life was when, at the age of about six, I stayed upstairs in the adult service to watch a live action play called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. In summary, actors on stage – people I knew from the congregation – made an overt exclamation of their belief in Jesus, or their disdain for him . Then they died. After death, the believers were led through the on-stage door into heaven by Jesus (played by one of the few white fellows in our congregation.) Satan dragged non-believers, screaming, down into the baptismal tub. I ended the day unable to sleep and weeping in fear. My mother bought the cassette tape.

My mother was young, with three small children and little proper support. This violent and totalitarian version of religion drew her in, I believe, because it provided her with absolutes. It also permitted her to use fear, of punishment from God and from her, to control children that she was not equipped to raise and guide with love. Fear was a tool of both the church and the adults in my life. Fear was my constant companion and it almost removed from me the ability to think, learn and grow for myself. Almost.

As I hit high school, the disconnect between people’s belief and their behavior seemed wider. The questions grew more specific and complicated, while the answers grew simpler and less likely. Reading, research and inquiry have allowed me to slowly unwind the ball of fear that the constant watch for an imaginary apocalypse had rendered. And as the fear waned, so did the ability of those who had placed it there to control my actions.

As an adult, I maintained an interest, partly scientific and partly sensationalistic, in the social phenomenon of apocalyptica. I couldn’t help but notice when rag mags ran the latest prediction of when, where and why it would come. My ears would perk up if it entered conversation. As the Internet flourished, I started looking up information, partly to try to understand the source of this idea and partly to keep silent any remaining vestiges of that fear-ball.

The more I looked, the more ridiculous it seemed. After all, these were stories told to scare children, I thought. It turned out that the tools used to frighten children can also be used to control nations. With 2012, and the upcoming Maypocalypse, it has become clear that this concept is even ingrained in our self-vaunted, intellectual, North American psyche. So much so that NASA’s scientists – folks who should really be busy with other things – feels the need to publically debunk it. Again.

There are recorded declarations of impending doom that date back to the first written records of our species. Every time doom was called for, and the date passed, the clerics or leaders who predicted it would pronounce victory for their moral standard and come up with the next viable doomsday.

Again and again, people revealed the combination of hopelessness and hubris that is necessary to think that our actions could dictate the end of the universe. When the holy spanking never came, we rarely blamed the folks making the original threats. We could see that there was no wolf, but every time the boy howled, we ran out, just in case.

I, for one, am tired of listening. Could 2012 be the end of our species? Could the Mayans be the ones who finally get it right? Could falling blue toilet ice from an airplane kill me as I walk to work today? Er, it’s unlikely. I’m certainly not going to live my life in fear of toilet ice. The next time someone announces that the end is nigh, I plan to let the boy keep right on screaming. As I recall, when the wolf finally did come, the bratty boy was the only one out there to be eaten.

My Canadian Mental Health Association Speech (Written in 2004)

I have worked as a mental health advocate, teaching front line workers what it feels like to have a mental illness like mine. This is the speech I used. 

There are things that I feel it is important for people, especially those who might work with the mentally ill, to know. As I try to discuss these things with you, I am bombarded by concern.

I am concerned that I will be attempting to explain a condition that, unless you have experienced it, you can not possibly understand. After all, your mind, the part of you that you will be using to try to understand me, works differently than mine. So, even in trying to understand me, you will be placing yourself outside of my experience.

Secondly, I know that I will be standing in a tidal wave of misinformation. Daily, I see representations of the mentally ill on television. I read about us in books and hear about us in conversations. The misinformation is so prevalent that it has become our societal truth. We are the ones who push people in front of subway trains. We are a burden on society. We’ve “lost it” with no explanation of what “it” may be. We are afraid of an honest day’s work, of the opposite sex, of being ignored. We could fix ourselves if we found our center, dealt with our issues or pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.

It is a horrible thing that you may believe these stereotypes. It is even worse when our doctors believe them. Moreover – and this is the greatest disservice – most of us believe them. These stereotypes are so prevalent that we see the worst in ourselves – or distance ourselves so far from our disability that we do not seek treatment for fear of being categorized as crazy.

Myself, I fell into the latter category. I had experienced extensive symptoms of depression, on and off, from the time I was four. In school, I alternated between being an excellent student and a delinquent, skipping classes because I was to tired or disconnected to complete assignments or sit through a lecture. My mother called me “close to the water,” which meant that I cried a lot for no apparent reason. I had obsessive thought patterns surrounding death and the various misfortunes of the universe.

From my childhood, well into my teens, I was the victim of abusive individuals. In my adult life, many people have attempted to use this to explain away my mental illness. I think it is important that I make it clear that abuse does not a mental illness make. I see it as an aggravator of a pre-existing disability, like flashing lights to an epileptic. I believe that abnormal stress can worsen a mental illness or even bring a dormant proclivity to the forefront. As I grew up, both my disability and my abuse went undiagnosed. Through countless psychologists, teachers, guidance counselors and even a group home matron, no one was able to recognize my prevalent symptoms for what they were.

This I credit, in part, to the misinformation I spoke of earlier. Mental illness, in popular society is more myth than medical science.

Myth Number One: Depression is a bad mood that can be cured by doing something happy.

Depression is not a bad mood, although the inability to experience the chemical pattern we call happiness is one symptom. Depression is an inaccurate title for a biochemical disability caused by faulty neuro-transmitters.

As a result, at the age of twenty-five, I found myself tired, confused, unhappy, uncoordinated, unable to eat, unable to sleep, experiencing illogical panic attacks – even unable to stand and walk across my living room floor. I did not consider that I might have a mental illness. After all, I was not crazy, cuckoo, nuts or a few bricks short of a load. I was a logical person. I was just sick. The symptoms were physical, actual, and undeniable. I thought I was dying. Bright lights and noise seemed to erupt in my head. After all, our senses are neurochemical in nature. I would sleep at odd hours or, alternately, not be able to sleep for days. I would find myself unable to breathe, my thoughts twisted against me in illogical panic. It was not a matter of calming down or talking myself out of it. The chemical messages that offer you calm were not present for me, so whatever fear was in my mind was magnified and could not be subdued.

I was confused and afraid, as was my husband, Graeme. It took a while, but we agreed that there must be something very wrong with me. Thus began our emergency room visits. We must have visited every emergency room in the city, sometimes more than one in a day. I was sent away with a rag tag mismatch of diagnosis, including heartburn, a thyroid condition and asthma.

Finally, I made my third visit to the Women’s College Hospital emergency room on December 6th, 2001. I said, “If you don’t help me, I’m going to stand in traffic.”

Apparently, that is what they were waiting to hear.

Here I will tackle Myth Number Two: Suicide is a cop-out and the mentally ill are weak minded.

Speaking for myself and for all of my mentally ill friends, this could not be further from the truth. People assume that suicide is a choice between life and death. I have not found this to be the case. I believe that if offered the choice between dying and being well, any mentally ill person would choose wellness. However, we are not given this choice. To me, it was a choice between suffering without hope, and finding relief. If, during my life, I had been exposed to the truth of mental illness, I may have had the hope necessary to fight towards help. If I had been diagnosed when I was a child, or a teenager, and treated then, my symptoms would not have been able to develop to the point of complete devastation.

Finally, when I said those words, when my disability had become so prevalent that it threatened to end me, I was offered some support.

At WCH, I was tested for drug use. As a mentally ill person, I was now suspect. Found “clean” I was sent on to the Clarke, part of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health.

At the Clarke, a seemingly endless stream of doctors interviewed me. They asked me the same questions repeatedly, inconsiderate of the fact that I had not slept or eaten for days and was borderline comatose. Mostly residents, fresh from medical school, they eagerly attempted to summarize my life, condense it into an easily referenced title: my diagnosis.

My mind, though not performing at peak efficiency, recalled all of the images of the mentally ill that I had ever seen. I remembered a raving Jack Nicholson, “Here’s Johnny”-ing from inside his cuckoos nest. I remembered Jeffery Dahmer. I thought of Van Gogh, earless, and suffocated by insanity. I remembered the villains in Saturday morning cartoons. I remembered Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence and Michael Jackson.

To be told I had a mental illness was being told that I was everything bad and odd and broken down. I had never been taught differently.

The Clarke admitted me as an in-patient. I remember walking with a doctor to the elevators and travelling up to the 5th floor. I remember my panic when the ward door locked behind me and I took in the people around me. They were so sick it frightened me. It took less than a day to realize that this was also how I appeared to the world. In my fellow patients I found a treasure trove of information. Many were on their 5th or 6th visit, with periods of relief and wellness in between.

I was on suicide watch, which meant that the staff checked me every 15 minutes. I mostly tried to read, a passion that had been taken away almost completely. I would test myself against the medication to see if there was any improvement. If I could make it through one more page, one more word, then I knew it might be working.

You may assume that, in an institution dedicated to Mental Health, I would find some reprieve. This would assume, though, that the same stereotypes and assumptions that I had fallen victim to had not affected the doctors and nurses. It would assume that they were not human or afraid or poorly trained.

This brings me to Myth Number Three: The doctor knows what is best. If a patient and a doctor disagree, then the patient must be wrong.

One wonders why a doctor would spend years in medical school, just to do a poor job. Why would an architect study and work, just to create buildings that fall down? Doctors in the mental health field have disadvantages that few other doctor’s face.

  • The brain is not mapped out. A great deal of assumption must go into their work.
  • There is no common test for mental illnesses. Diagnosis is based on the symptoms of the patient. Communication issues, perception and even the disabled patient’s ability to explain their experience can limit diagnosis.
  • Like any human being, a doctor has fears. If a doctor were to accept that mental illness is completely random, unpredictable and beyond the control of the patient, they would have to admit that it could affect them or someone they loves. They would not be able to elevate themselves above it or distance themselves from the immeasurable suffering of the person in front of them.
  • As there is no quick fix for mental illness, hospital doctors do not get to see the results of their work. They do not see the well person that may emerge after months or years of treatment. This can create a sense of futility. It can open yet another avenue of blame that points toward the patient.

For these reasons and many more, I am not alone in my experience of the mental health system. I was put on a low dose of an ineffective medication. Within two weeks, I was sent home with no follow-up, no outpatient care, no primary care psychiatrist and no new skills for living with my disability. I had no way to map any progress I might make. I knew only slightly more about my disability when I left the Clarke than I had when I entered. The day before my discharge, I had overdosed on over 100 sleeping pills, my second overdose in a week. I had cut my throat with a broken Christmas ornament and slashed my body hundreds of times. I told nurses or doctors before hand that I knew I could not control it, but they told me that I needed to try harder. This was not a signal to the doctors that I needed better or more effective care. They took it as a sign that I did not want to be well. Why would I not want to be well? I had a wonderful marriage, an excellent career as a writer and a great group of friends. If I could have made myself well and enjoyed those things, I would have. They told me that 10% of people with mental illnesses die at there own hands, then sent me away as an acceptable loss.

I know there is an image of the patient, held and treated against their will. With over-crowding in our hospitals and the predominance of misinformed professionals, I found the opposite true. I was sent away when I needed care.

Repeatedly, I found myself in the Clarke’s emergency ward, begging for help. Repeatedly, I was sent away. If I cried, then I was being maladaptive. If I became angry at my treatment, then I was manifesting signs of a personality disorder. If I was calm, then I did not need help. As a mentally ill woman, I was constantly suspect. I could not be trusted. The symptoms of my disability were used as justification for not treating me. I was told that I was addicted to the hospital. My husband, who trusted that I needed help if I said I did, was told that they could not help me because I was not willing to do the work. He was baffled at this. It was frustrating and devastating. I was beat down and worn out.

Finally, after many visits, I took a stand. On February 4th, 2002, I demanded help. This resulted in the worst night of my life – and that is saying something.

They refused me help, cruelly, as I would not listen when they said it nicely. I was forcefully ejected from the building by two male security guards, both easily twice my size. I was bruised on my arms and legs, souvenirs of the token struggle I gave through my exhaustion and confusion. I was dropped, unceremoniously, into a snow bank, in below freezing weather, just feet from the door of the Clarke. I was immobilized. It was past midnight and for two hours I lay, wailing and shaking, as staff entered and left the building, ignoring me. I was not human to them. Finally, a psychiatrist’s assistant, against orders, took me to a coffee shop nearby and bought me a tea in an attempt to quell the shivering and bring warmth back to my hands. I was incoherent, ruined, broke down and soaking wet. I stayed there until dawn, surrounded by homeless men rejected from the shelter across the street for their drunkeness.

I could not go home, because I knew I was too ill for my husband to help me. He would have tried and failed and that would have ruined me. I was still trying to protect him from the monstrosity I felt I had become. In the morning I was again refused admittance to the Clarke, and later to St. Joseph’s. St. Joe’s sent me home in a cab. I think I would have killed myself, had I been able to. I did not have the strength. Instead, I contacted the Gerstein Centre. The Gerstein is a sort of safe house for the mentally ill. A quiet place with staff who don’t try to analyze or fix you, but are there if you need to talk. They help you if they can and serve as your advocate at the hospital if they cannot. What I needed, I received. I spent my three days there alone, in my room, recovering. I did not need talk, I needed to study my illness and come up with a plan to try to help myself get well.

After the Gerstein, I found a Psychiatrist to work with. I found an occupational therapist to help me with the everyday task of living. She made overwhelming tasks, like cleaning my living room, seem manageable. Just clear a path to the door, she said one week. Just clean off the couch. Try to eat a healthy meal. My husband and I did what we could on one income, with him working almost 10-hour days.

There were times we could not afford food. Times we walked until three in the morning, trying to figure out what to do when there were no avenues for help. Times held me while I cried or could not cry or just wanted to be near someone, even if they could not help me.

It was hard. Very, very hard. We had to seek out our own resources, find our own information. I had to lean on my husband when I should have been able to lean on the Mental Health system. I had to accept that there was no way a person can survive this, unless they became their own best advocate.

I do not tell you this to make you feel sorry for me – in fact, I have a genuine distaste for pity. I do not tell you this to vilify the doctors, the security guards or even the system. I tell you this to show you the strength our assumptions have – mine, the doctors and yours. I tell you this to present to you the divergent care given to the mentally ill as compared to any other ill or disabled group. There is no telethon for us. We are not heroes when we fight and survive. If a person in a wheelchair is unable to climb a set of stairs, the fault lies in the stairs. If an obstacle confronts us, the fault is ours. A person would not assume to tell an epileptic to stop having a seizure, realizing it is beyond their control, but we are expected to spontaneously cure ourselves as though we could. The power of ignorance is immeasurable. It causes normal people to accept horrible things.

If I had understood my own disability, I would have been a better advocate for my rights. Had the doctors understood it, treatment would have been offered when I needed it. If society could understand it, the mentally ill would not die in such high numbers.

Through my own zealous research, I came to understand my disability. I eventually found a doctor who was able to help me. He had seen it from both sides and his perspective, along with my husband’s care, saved my life. For the last three years, we have fought to surpass this disability. After many failures, we found an amalgam of medications, including Zoloft, Disipramine and Ativan; this has helped abate the more severe symptoms.

This brings me to the final myth. Myth Number Four: Anti-depressants are happy pills or placebos.

Anti-depressants fall into three major families. The most common ones are Seratonin Re-uptake Inhibitors. This helps keep my neurochemicals where they are supposed to be long enough for them to do their job. This allows me to live my life. A physical disability required a medical cure.

I am writing again. I am able to feel happy again. I am able to eat, sleep and move when I want to. I am not well, but I am better. I know that my disability is a beast waiting to pounce that I may have to fight my whole life, but I will not be fighting it ignorant, or alone.

It would have helped greatly to be treated like any other ill or disabled person. To know that it was not my fault. To know that I did not have a flawed soul, but a neurochemical disability. It would have helped to be spoken to with compassion. To have received requests instead of orders from doctors and nurses. It would have helped me to play a deciding role in my own treatment. It would have helped if the hospital had talked to my husband or friends to try to understand what I was like before I became ill. This would have allowed them to separate the illness from the woman. It would have helped if someone had talked to me when I cried, or left me alone when I wanted solitude, or listened when I said I was too ill to go home. It would have helped if the doctors had seen me, really seen me, instead of a broader medical spectrum.

If there is one thing I want you to take away, it is this –

When you are confronted by mental illness in the media, when someone uses the word nuts or psycho or schitzo, question it – out loud, if you can. When you find yourself laughing at the guy on the bus talking to himself, imagine that it is me, the me I was three years ago. Or, if you can, imagine that it is you. The you that you could one day be. Challenge your assumptions. Remember that information is the most important tool in saving the lives of the mentally ill. Remember that I am not crazy. I am a good and unique person who wants nothing more than to be well.

Thank you.