(This piece was written some years ago for our local Arts Festival. After seeing a number of psychiatrists of varying abilities over the years for treatment of depression and bipolar disorder I felt I had the experience to offer some helpful hints to others seeking help.)
If your psychiatrist's name is Dr. Gonnorago do not call him Dr. Gonorrhea.
When your psychiatrist asks you to chart your moods for a week, do not draw a line graph that includes outlines of duckies, piggies and cows.
If you mostly wear pyjama bottoms for pants, do not wear them to your appointments, even if they are your "going out for good" pair. Ditto the mismatched socks.
When you are hiking into town along a highway for an appointment and find a stuffed grouse nailed to a perch on the side of the road, by all means put it in your knapsack to add to your home decor. Do not, however, respond to your shrink's inquiry into the efficacy of your medication by reaching into your pack, retrieving the grouse, and saying, "I keep giving him the anti-psychotics like you said, but he still won't admit he's stuffed."
When you are at home chopping wood and find three gigantic grub worms the size of cocktail weenies, put them in the unused stool sample container you've been saving for a rainy day. Punch a hole in the lid for air. Put the container in a large envelope and leave it at your doctor's office with a note that says, "I figured out what's wrong with me. See enclosed stool sample." It's worth it.
When the only time we hear about schizophrenics and manic depressives in the media is when one kills somebody, remind the general public about the millions of us who would do no such thing.
If you're in the psych ward and find a copy of the "Buy, Sell and Trade" in the garbage, read the ads in the livestock section, but don't keep calling the guy in Bowser and ordering homing pigeons. He won't deliver.
Should you have the strange fortune to watch your psychiatrist go insane before your very eyes, and she's sitting on the floor in front of you yelling, "YOU ARE TURNING PEOPLE AGAINST ME. YOU TURN PEOPLE AGAINST ME. I DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY. I DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY," step out onto the hot, dusty sidewalk in the blazing noonday sun like a gunslinger in a Western. Blow across the barrel of your finger pistol. Say, "My work is done here."
When you've tamed a flock of finches that land on you whenever you are outside, don't tell your shrink that you sit in the yard, head in hands, weeping, and covered in songbirds. He won't buy it.
Clear up common misconceptions about clinical depression and bipolar disorder. Severe clinical depression is not "the blues." It is not like grief. You cannot pull up your socks and snap out of it if you would only try. You cannot think your way out of a severe episode any more than you could think your way out of schizophrenia, a stroke, or a seizure. It is not rational. You may no longer see in colour. You may become unable to speak or move. It is a severe and terrifying brain disorder often involving misfirings of neurons and neurotransmitters and blah blah blah blah until you finally kill yourself. Or worse yet, live.
You'll drink chamomile tea and St. John's wort tincture by the gallon. You'll try high dose vitamin therapy and essential oils. You'll go to naturopaths, homeopaths, and even a few psychopaths. You'll meditate and exercise. You'll go off wheat, sugar, dairy. You'd eat slug slime and dung beetles if it would help. But if nothing provides enough relief and a decent psychiatrist finds just the right drugs to balance your brain chemicals to give you some peace, take the goddam things.
Send that psychiatrist a thank you note on a homemade card with a photograph of dead mice you stuffed into a tiny Volkswagen. But don't add, "P.S. Mice will do anything I say."
Always remember you get by with a little help from your friends. Okay, a LOT of help from amazing friends. They'll sweep up your smashed dishes, launder your filthy clothes, make you bathe. They'll build your chicken coop, your house, your rain catchment, your life. They'll give you land, buy you a trailer, build your road. They'll feed you, house you, massage you, include you. They'll save your life again and again and may not even know they are doing it.
The mental healthcare system is crazy in itself and can be harmful. But if you educate yourself and define your expectations, it can be useful. If you can't stand up for yourself, and who can during the worst times, you'll need an advocate. Mine is my friend, Kathy. She'll never let them drag me off and lock me away. She prefers to do that herself.
Nobel prize winner Alice Munro is my favourite author. In 2002, when I finished reading another collection of her stories, I was moved to write her a card of appreciation. It read: Dear Alice (may I call you Alice?), Regarding the collection "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" - Unbe-fucking-lievable. You are the master and you can put that on your dust jacket and smoke it.
Alice wrote back. Read the card below to see her reply in her own handwriting. I'll wait...
So my words were on Alice's refrigerator. I was thrilled. I showed the card to everyone and joked that I wished I had a fridge to stick hers on, or at least a fridge door. Someone took that seriously and word went out in our little community that I needed a fridge door and there were several offers. I was afraid people would start leaving their broken down appliances in my yard. I put a note on the gate, "No fridge doors today, please."
Later in the year I felt compelled to write to Alice again when a robin I was caring for pooped upon a book of hers. I took a picture of the robin with the book and mailed it to her with some dumb caption about a book worth shitting on. I meant it as a compliment but sometimes only I get my jokes. The way it was worded it could only be taken as a criticism, and a rude one at that, but I noticed too late. I have always felt bad about that. Maybe it's time to write Alice another letter - we have unfinished business.
Now that Alice is a Nobel Prize winner I've pulled out her card from where it lives between the pages of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary under M and I'm showing it off once more.
No fridge doors please.
People of a certain vintage remember where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember the moment I heard Saturday mail would no longer be delivered in Canada. It was summer and I was a kid in the garden eating peas from the pod. Someone in the house heard it on the radio and conveyed the information. It was sad news. I was afraid we'd lose rural mail delivery altogether. I loved walking out the lane to open the creaking metal door and maybe there would be treasure: a parcel, a postcard, a favourite magazine. There you are out in the sunshine on a country road in your cut off jeans and bare feet, cicada buzz threading the air, and you reach into this magic box and retrieve a surprise. Sometimes in mailboxes with ill fitting doors the surprise you found was a nest full of starlings. My neighbour's mailbox contained a nest so the mail lady tucked the letters carefully beside it each day and the starlings hatched, grew up and fledged. My friend and I would take turns reaching in and the baby birds would swallow our fingers. This is what we did for entertainment in the country.
I love it when people get creative with their mailboxes and spotting one that is attractive or unusual is always fun. So this year I made my own. I kept with a simple design because it works best for packages (hint hint) but had some fun with the painting. It has magnets for a closure and four coats of paint. I will plant daffodils around the base. Nowadays there aren't many letters. Movies from the library's excellent 'Books By Mail' service are my main thrill, plus the occasional internet shopping item, but half the fun is the 12 minute hike through the forest anticipating the surprises that might be waiting in the magic box.
Jay Rainey is an artist living on an island in British Columbia, Canada.