I’ve started to read Mark Vonnegut’s “Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So”. Those who know me well, know that I have had a life long obsession (too strong a word? – probably not) with the work of his father, Kurt Vonnegut. Mark’s first book “The Eden Express” (1975) made a huge impact on me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my own battles with mental illness were emerging and Mark’s very personal account of his battle with mental illness resonated in a way I found surprising and, as a result, the book made a huge (and surprising) impact. Mark was initially diagnosed as schizophrenic, but that was later amended to the more user friendly term, bi-polar disorder.
My diagnosis has been cloudy too. I was initially told I was in the “bi-polar sphere” and then later received a more or less descriptively succinct diagnosis. I suffer from depressive and anxiety disorders along with something less well known, called “conversion disorder”. A friend once asked me about that last part and jokingly wondered if it meant I constantly changed religions. My joke about it is perhaps less humorous. I call depression, anxiety and conversion disorder the trifecta of mental illness.
These jokes, as hilarious as they may seem to be, exist to lighten the mood around serious life challenges. Mental illness is no laughing matter. In fact, although it didn’t happen in an obvious way, it cost me a great deal in my academic life and in other aspects of my diverse activities as a performing musician/educator/administrator/clinician. It likely had the least impact on my work as a composer and arranger, but, even there, there were negative consequences.
In 2005 I had a major depressive episode and had to go on long term disability from my work in the jazz performance program at the University of Toronto. In fact, I was the department head and my leaving my post for a term caused a tremendous upheaval in the staffing duties of my colleagues. While I was able to recover and teach the second term of that year and all of the following year (2007), my condition suddenly worsened and by the end of 2017 I knew I was headed back to long term disability. In January of 2008, my final official academic duty was to direct the university jazz orchestra in a fund-raising (Free the Children) concert off campus. That event on January 18, 2008 concluded with hugs with students and a wonderfully swinging and magical concert by a great iteration of the U of T Jazz Orchestra. I walked out of the concert hall (Ford Centre for the Performing Arts) and… never went back to the classroom.
In 2008 between the end of January and mid-April I spent 17 weeks as an in-patient in the psychiatric unit (affectionately referred to as F2) at Sunnybrook Hospital. The time there was essential and valuable – not that I would have told you that then.
Put succinctly, I lost my job because of my illness. Sometime in late 2008 or early 2009 I had a meeting with my dean and the department head in the jazz department. I asked them if I would be able to return to full time employment. They had every reason to give the answer they did, which went something like, “We would love to have you return to work full-time, but we need assurances you will not leave again.” Initially, and for some time, I was speechless. Talk about a Catch-22 situation. There was no way I could guarantee my staying healthy. I never was able to be reinstated as an active full-time professor of music, and long term disability lasted until my official retirement date (aged 65) in 2103. Funnily, it felt like a victory to go back on the university payroll at that point, although my income was entirely from the university pension fund.
In addition to my active status as a professor, I lost the friendship and trust of many people. Those for whom I was a first call music festival clinician/adjudicator (a significant part of my career work) stopped calling. At first I was resentful. I felt healthy enough to perform those duties (which I enjoyed on so many levels), but in actual fact, I was not able to do the work as well as I once did. To do the work, one needs to be confident, observant, articulate, empathetic and sharp-witted. I had lost a step (maybe two) in all of those areas. It took some time for me to accept all of this, and to take steps to reinvent part of my working life. As it turned out, I stopped teaching altogether.
Some who I considered good friends, no longer stayed in touch. A lot of it, I think, was (and is) that people don’t feel comfortable or confident in speaking with or hanging with those with mental illness. Despite the fact that 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from some form of this class of illnesses, the ‘gen pop’ does not understand. Too many people misuse the hurtful and erroneous word, “crazy”. Depression is often dismissed by the uninformed as mere sadness or melancholy that can be dealt with by the patient with greater will power or effort. It’s as though they are thinking, “We all have problems. We all feel sad from time to time. Pull up your bootstraps and tough it out.” Etc. Those misguided, uninformed reactions are understandable if one hasn’t spent time looking at these illnesses carefully. If you have a form of mental illness, you know these are not answers. Many was the time I wished that my ‘trifecta’ of mental illness required wearing a cast or a sling. Those tangible signs of injury are never dismissed as fakery or hypochondriacism. Instead, the black dog visits and is invisible to all but the closest friends and family. To the person whose relationship with the black dog is personal and frightening, his or her appearance brings on the beginning of hours or days or weeks of battle. Sometimes it’s a battle to survive.
I’ll return to Vonnegut before concluding. In 1972, while out on a practice teaching assignment I was lucky to be paired with an ‘associate teacher’ whose first name was Jay. My secondary teaching certificate was in English. My main subject area was music. The week I spent with him and his students was a game changer. He and I talked about Kurt Vonnegut (in those days his name included, Jr.). I may or may not have read “Slaughterhouse Five” at that time. It had been published 3 years older and had made Kurt an instant celebrity and suddenly very wealthy. But I know I HAD read “Player Piano (1952) and “Cat’s Cradle (1963). My associate teacher/mentor, Jay, was one of those people one instantly respects and deserves close attention. He told me, in his opinion, KV was one of the 20th century’s most important authors and that I should read as much of his work as possible. This didn’t just pop out of the blue. We had long discussions during my time as a student teacher. His views on so many things were of tremendous value. I wish I knew his last name. I often think about him.
That experience lead to a lifetime of reading everything by KV that I could find. Not just the novels as they came out (every trip to a bookstore started with a visit to the shelves where Vonnegut’s work was displayed), but any and all short stories and collections of stories. I found audiobooks with his reading abridged versions of “Breakfast of Champions” and short stories like those found in “Welcome to the Monkeyhouse”. The reasons that his work resonated so powerfully with me are numerous and I can only attempt a short list as I type this. His writing had irresistible rhythm/cadence. No sentence was too long or too short. His insights could be hilarious and at the same time leap off the page and deliver a firm dope slap to my brain. He saw the world through the eyes of a visitor from somewhere off-planet. He saw the absurdity of all aspects life with clarity that I still find jaw-dropping. His language jumped away from the English I spoke and read as he came up with new words that seemed to me to be perfectly crafted. “Karass”, “Granfalloon”, and so on.
His writing is like great musical composition where careful and clever repetition plays a crucial part of establishing form. Form is, for me, one of the great challenges in composing. KV’s use of repetition appears within the borders of paragraphs, chapters, and even across the many books he wrote over decades. One example: Witness the regular appearance of the absurdly brilliant Kilgore Trout. Trout is an anti-hero. A failure who is unwittingly famous (at least for Vonnegut’s readers). Or the iconic ironic phrase “And so it goes”.