On Writing Memoir, Part 6, Breathe

As the term wraps up, I’m trying to walk more as the days get longer, and the days—sort of—get warmer. Spring is long in coming this year, and it all looks very different given the COVID19 pandemic.
But the wildlife that finds its way into town seems unaffected, and if anything, has more freedom to move about. You can hear the Canada geese flying in the morning, you can hear coyotes in the evening, and you can find tracks of deer, moose, and maybe bobcat in the river valley. Here’s an encounter I had on an evening walk.
This is the sixth of seven in my series on memoir. When I was twenty years-old, I developed anxiety disorder. No one I talked to at the time understood this disorder, but it was the 80s, so it hardly seems surprising. It was more than ten years before I heard the term panic disorder. I remember being ecstatic knowing this thing had a name—it meant I wasn’t crazy, or so I thought at the time.
“Breathe” was first published as flash nonfiction in Open Minds Quarterly in June of 2019. OMQ is a print magazine, dedicated to issues of mental health, which I encourage you to check out.
I’m including a copy of “Breathe” below. Nearly ten years after the accident that took my sight, I began to realize how affected I was by that accident. It would be another ten years before I had the courage to begin facing the trauma of the experience and, more importantly, begin sorting out my life.

Trouble breathing—sudden panic. Why can’t I breathe. My head is spinning. We are driving. Am I going to pass out? My voice sounds distant as I try to say something is wrong. It sounds to my ears as though someone else is speaking. I wonder, in a distant chamber of my brain, if I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying.
***
I’m in a truck when an accident takes my sight. I don’t remember it well. In that present, I am ten years-old. I am with my two cousins. I remember what happens immediately afterwards—somewhere, above me, my older cousin is shouting our names. I hear the words as though I am lying at the bottom of a darkened well.
***
In this present—my eighteen-year-old present—I am totally blind, the story of the accident far in the past. I’m with a girl. We have been dating for over a year, and we are on a highway, driving to a small town in southern Alberta to visit friends.
And now, I can’t breathe, and I think I’m dying.
***
I don’t die on that trip to southern Alberta, but the experience leaves me shaky and wondering. I learn something important, though. If I drink, then the feeling of imminent collapse and devastation fades away.
Later that summer, I am with my mom. We are in line at the annual book sale at the downtown library. It’s their yearly cull of books. And standing there, in the lineup, talking to my mother, the inability to breathe reaches out and takes hold of me again—this time, worse than the time in the van.
I have to get out of the line. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me. I will simultaneously loose my mind, implode, dissolve, or any number of terrible things. I am shaking all over. My body is not my own.
We make it out of there, to a mall across the street. My mom has me sit down while she goes to find me something to drink—an Orange Julius, if I remember.
Then it hits me again, slamming into me like a truck. This time I know I’ll pass out. I nearly hit the floor. If I could breathe, I would scream.
It’s like terror—paralysing me, stopping my breath, speeding up my heart, vibrating through my limbs.
I can’t breathe—I can’t breathe—I can’t breathe.
Someone calls a cab. I find myself in the backseat with my mom, and we are driving to the hospital. I am bent over in the back of the cab, gasping and struggling to find a breath that works. None of them do.
Then I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m in the emergency. My mother is talking to someone, a nurse, I assume. I don’t remember much for a while.
Later, I’m lying on a hospital bed, in one of those large hospital rooms, each bed sectioned away from its fellows by curtains. I wait.
***
Several hours later, I don’t appear to be dying. They have run their tests. My dad has arrived, and so has my girlfriend. I’m feeling better, save for the sense of humiliation that now colours this whole experience.
Finally, a doctor is talking to me. He asks me what happened, and I try to explain. He tells me that nothing whatsoever is wrong with me. Now I’m feeling stupid. But he gives me a referral to another doctor, someone else who will give me a full exam.
***
I’m with the next doctor, weeks later. The feeling hasn’t come back, but neither has it gone away. It lies there, at the edge of my awareness. This thing has come to live with me. Now I’m aware, I can’t be unaware. I take time off work. I remain in my apartment through the hot afternoons, wondering, thinking, and worst of all, not smoking. My GP recommended the not smoking. Now, I’m visiting this doctor, who, I think, is going to tell me what’s wrong with me.
He asks questions about my life. He is kind and patient. He examines me, from head to foot.
It comes down to this—if I take care of myself, I should go on to have a perfectly happy and healthy life. He actually dictates this into a recorder. So goes his assessment.
We leave the doctor’s office, and I feel less stupid, but still without any answers. With me comes another, a new companion—my ever-present sense of imminent disaster that now lives around the edges of my awareness.
***
The years pass, and I learn to live with this companion, which sometimes comes violently forward in feelings of dread and panic that stops my breath. New sensations are added to my kit—the feeling of being pulled inside-out like a glove, or having my brain vacuumed out through the top of my head are just two.
It’s not until one afternoon, years later, that I learn what has held me in its grip. I now have young children. I’m listening to the radio one afternoon. My kids are home for lunch, but soon heading back to school. The special on the lunchtime program is about something called panic disorder. I experience something like shock as I listen. All the things they are describing are things I’ve experienced in some form or other. I can feel the old feelings assert themselves as I listen, but along with the dread comes a sense of relief that makes me want to laugh out loud.
It’s actually something, I think. I’m not crazy. Other people have experienced this, and it has a name.
Discovering that my experience had a name goes a long way to making it easier to cope. But as my relief enables me to do something more about this debilitating experience, I begin to realize that my panic disorder is only part of a larger constellation of symptoms I’ve been experiencing for years, all leading back to the accident that took my sight as a kid. I have a long way to go, but this is a start.

On Writing Memoir, Part 5, “Flashpoint”

The days are getting longer, and the sun is shining today, which is very welcome in these days of social isolation. Today is also the official last day of classes for the term, which seems odd, considering the last time I met face-to-face with my classes was March 13.
This is Part 5 in my series on memoir. Today, I want to share something I originally wrote as fiction. “Flashpoint” is based on something that happened as I was walking down Whyte Avenue with my daughter several years ago. At the time, I decided to write the incident as fiction—I can’t exactly remember why. The piece first appeared in The RavensPerch, in June of 2017. You can find the story here. It’s tagged as nonfiction on the website, but I clearly remember submitting the piece as fiction.
For the sake of fitting “Flashpoint” into this series, I decided to rewrite the story as memoir below. If you compare the two versions, you can see the only difference between them is the use of the first-person. But just changing the pronouns has an odd affect on the piece. It’s suddenly more immediate, more visceral—at least for me. Rewriting this piece as memoir perhaps says something about the fluidity of memory and of experience; perhaps it says something about the fluidity of genre and the ways experience can move across the boundaries of form. Whatever it says, enjoy the piece.

A photo taken at the Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller.

They come fast along the sidewalk. Even their voices are taking up space. They walk abreast, talking volubly, and pretending they don’t notice those who must shift aside to let them pass.
My daughter does not shift. She keeps to the centre of the sidewalk, and I hold her arm with my left hand, while gripping my white cane with my right. They separate to either side. Part of my brain perceives this as a threat, dialing up old neuropathways, like heavy lines on a roadmap that lead to remembered responses.
These are like the bullies I have known, mostly in school, decades before, the ones who need to occupy movable sections of the world, owning and defending it like territory. These are the ones who make fun of me in the hallways, who tease the blind kid—grabbing my cane, stepping in front of me so I crash into the walls or lockers, yelling at me to watch out when nothing is there.
They teased me before I lost my sight, but it’s different now—coming back to this school for grade seven, a year after the car accident that shattered my life and my face, leaving me blind, visibly scarred, and desperately wanting to fit in.
Several play the game of teasing the blind kid, but none is worse than Ricky Ferrell. Ricky has his own style. Ricky crashes into me in the hall, only to apologize, then turning to shove me hard into someone else. Ricky takes my socks and shoes after gym class and throws them across the locker-room. Sometimes, he comes silently up beside me, only to yell in my ear.
I put up with Ricky; what else am I to do. I’m trapped inside a body that can’t fight back, and Ricky is elusive, always just slightly out of reach
Now, Ricky is following me up the stairs, yanking at the straps of my backpack.
“How’s it going today, Blinky? Nice backpack. Wish I had one. It’s the color of puke, you know. Or didn’t your mommy tell you?”
I pause on the stairs, just long enough to get my footing, then I kick back my right foot hard. I learn later, from Ricky himself, that I kicked Ricky down the stairs.
“You could have killed me, you know,” Ricky says, in the hallway, days later. “I could have died, and it would be your fault.”
But I know it isn’t true, and amazingly, wonderfully, Ricky leaves me alone—leaves me alone after that, just like everyone else.
The memory comes as a flash of feeling, a prickle through my gut, making my heart pound and ears ring as I struggle to maintain my sense of the present.
But they aren’t really a threat, these two idiots who take up the sidewalk. They just want the world to know they are there, loud, brash, and adolescent—striding balls first into life. My daughter doesn’t flinch. She walks arrow straight between them, not losing a step, and saying something normal about the place we are heading for dinner. I murmur a reply, pulling myself back to the present—something I have to do, over and over again, never understanding why my past is so goddamned intrusive, hating the overlay between then and now, but powerless to control the sickening anticipation of harm in the face of such half-imagined threats. The voices retreat down the street, and I work hard to focus on the dinner we will have together, once again stuffing down these old responses, where they will lie quiescent—until the next time.

On Writing Memoir, Part 3, “Fractured”

This is the third in my series on memoir. Adjusting to my blindness after my accident meant many things. My life took a new direction, and not just because I was now an eleven-year-old kid who was totally blind and not able to do many of those things he did before. I began reading books, and the world opened up for me in a new way, just as it seemed to be shutting down in others. I will have more to say about reading in a later post.
When I was in my thirties and had two children of my own, I was at a family dinner, helping my cousin to wash the dishes. She was telling me about suffering something she called seasonal affective disorder, a kind of depression I’d never heard of. It affected her during the winter months, and she was doing a variety of things to manage it. This was one of those moments for me—some people call them epiphanies. it occurred to me that I had been experiencing something similar for years—but during the summer and not the winter.
It took some time, but I began to realize that every year, right around the middle of May, I experienced a strange flattening out, a kind of compression of my emotional life that didn’t ease up until nearly the beginning of the school year in September. It was depression. The accident that took my sight happened in the middle of August, and feeling some form of depression during the summer months had become so normal for me that I’d stopped questioning the pattern.
I began writing about this strange depression, and one of the results is “Fractured,” a piece that appeared last Christmas in Green Briar Review.
This piece describes an early awareness of depression, but I had no ability at the time to understand it. Years later, I still have to work at understanding my depression—when it manifests and why. As a child and a teen, I had few means of sorting the complex, confusing, and often destructive emotions I felt. As an adult, I now have the language to describe it, to explore it, and to better understand it. I’m thankful for that, and thankful for all the hours in therapy that helped me sort through this difficult period of my life.

World Mental Health Day, Something to Write Home About

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. This is a day to acknowledge and raise awareness of mental health issues both in the community and around the world.
***
When I was in my late twenties, I was at a family dinner with my kids. I was helping my cousin to wash up after dinner, and we were talking about depression. She told me about her experience of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), something of which I hadn’t heard. I was intrigued but also a little disturbed. The feelings she described were feelings I’d had for years—except during the summer months and not the winter.
That was a revelatory moment for me. I was able to understand my experience of feeling apathetic, sorrowful, and generally flat during the summers. I had been experiencing depression for years and hadn’t known it. Maybe I did understand but lacked the means of doing anything about it, or even the wish to.
I thought about it hard after that evening. I came to the conclusion that the accident that had taken my sight in 1974 was a kind of psychological vortex on my mental landscape that intensified during the summer. Summers didn’t become immediately easier, but I learned, with each successive year, new ways to manage myself from the beginning of May until the end of August.
***
For this year’s World Mental Health Day, I encourage you to acknowledge and even commit to exploring issues of mental health in your life. Most everyone has experience of such issues, and the intention to explore them—with family, friends, or a professional—only results in a healthier mind and body and a more wholesome life.

Here are some links to places where I’ve written about mental health issues on OfOtherWorlds: from fiction and Mental health, to PTSD, to memoir.
Finally, here’s a piece I wrote several years ago as a way to try and describe my state of mind during bouts of depression. The piece is called, “Depression in 4D.” Enjoy!

Depression in 4D

Traversing myself is perilous. I walk the lines of well-worn neuropathways, carved through my psyche like lightning strikes through a forest. I step carefully, aware my foot might not remain secure—one misstep and I’m sliding sideways into another reality.
Slipping—falling. I’m dropping into a hole in a lunar landscape—not visible in this airless, barren world. Now trapped—in a foxhole blasted into this moonscape, where I turn and turn, unable to escape, while words I cannot utter drop singly from my mouth to congeal in the asteroidal dust at my feet. I will drown here, in this sinkhole of words and memories.
Time doesn’t pass. It remains fixed, fixed in the past. It’s a shard, an icicle of experience, reaching down and down, suspended from the air on an invisible hook with me frozen at its heart. I am both past and present—observing and suspended. For a heartbeat I hang—or is it a year and a day.
The world swims into focus with a silent roar, and I am confronted with the painful clarity of a grass blade, a single dagger of green that pierces my sight. It rises like a beanstalk, as I shrink to watch it speared the sky. And I am in an alien world, at the roots of a vegetable monstrosity, the danger for me lying in the carapaced and many-legged creatures I can hear crawling beneath this canopy, stalking with armoured relentlessness through the brome. One move, one step could take me away, but my feet remain fixed. Perhaps I could escape by climbing this beanstalk, but I know what waits for me in the misty heights is a giant who wants to spread my jellied flesh over toast and grind my crackling bones into bread.