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The Goddess of battle, strife, and destruction explains it all for you

Shake Hands With The Devil


September 24, 2008 

I’m not quite done with the whole mental illness thread yet, as I’ve just heard about Lucy Maud Montgomery’s suicide.

Montgomery was the author of the beloved Anne of Green Gables books and an icon of Canadian letters.  She died in 1942, having achieved international fame in her lifetime.  Her books are still wildly popular today.  Her cause of death at the time was listed as coronary thrombosis.

Last weekend, her grand-daughter was prompted by a series on mental illness in the Globe and Mail to reveal to the world that the literary giant had suffered from crippling bouts with depression all her life and had, in fact, ended her own life by drug overdose.  The family kept this little detail quiet since her death, concerned with the damage to her reputation. 

Now of course, L.M. Montgomery died in the 1940s, but not much has changed since then insofar as the stigma is concerned.  We’re not still burying suicides at crossroads after decapitating them or denying them internment in consecrated cemeteries, but we’re not creating a climate where people who are struggling with these disorders feel able to seek help. 

I’m lifting the following quote from the Globe and Mail’s superlative series about the mental health care crisis in Canada. I’m not sure if you can access it if you live outside Canada, but I hope so - it’s excellent journalism from an excellent newspaper.

Roughly a half century ago, a report on the state of the mental health care system in Canada had this to say:

'In no other field, except perhaps leprosy has there been as much confusion, misdirection and discrimination against the patient as in mental illness Down through the ages, [the mentally ill] have been estranged by society and cast out to wander in the wilderness. Mental illness, even today, is all too often considered a crime to be punished, a sin to be expiated, a possessing demon to be exorcised, a disgrace to be hushed up, a personality weakness to be deplored or a welfare problem to be handled as cheaply as possible."

And here’s where my two cents begins. 

Nothing has changed, except for the worse. 

With Canada’s dwindling health care resources (Tommy Douglas must be doing the watusi in his grave), the pace and pressures of modern life increasingly hectic and that stigma still alive and well, the crisis is only accelerating.  The numbers are astronomical:  one in five Canadians will suffer some form of mental illness at some point during their lifetime.

Because of the stigma, the shame and the reluctance that people feel about admitting to themselves and others that they are mentally ill, many of them will never seek treatment. 

And let’s talk about stereotypes for a second, shall we?

One in five.  That’s huge.  Odds are, with those sorts of numbers, your picture of what a mentally ill person “looks” like is far off the mark.  The majority of them are functioning, contributing individuals though I can tell you from experience that many of the profoundly ill will at some point wind up in the criminal justice system. 

There are some hideously violent and scary people who are mentally ill out there: I’m not denying that.  We had an incident in Canada last month that shocked the entire country and made international news, but these people are in the minority.  Sadly, those who find their way into the criminal justice system, at least in Canada, are often cycled through it or warehoused – though attempts are now being made to provide treatment to these individuals while protecting society.  It’s not unachievable and in a civilized and democratic society, it is a requirement.

But the violent, drooling killers are in the minority.

What we’re mostly talking about here are your soccer moms, your neighbours, your dentist, your friends, your coworkers, maybe even you yourself. 

Even the gifted are afflicted.

Let’s face it:  there can be enormous consequences to “coming out”.

I have one hero.  Only one.  But my admiration for this man is boundless and I don’t know if I can adequately express it given my meagre talents.

His name is Romeo Dallaire, a retired Canadian general who was in charge of the U.N. mission in Rwanda during the genocide.  Despite all his desperate pleas to the U.N. and working with what amounted to nothing more than a handful of soldiers, his voice went unheard and almost an entire race of people was exterminated.  He was widely reviled for his heroic efforts.  He was even, at one point, blamed for not preventing the genocide.  He wrote a book called “Shake Hands with the Devil” and there is a documentary by the same name.  It’s chilling, but required reading if you’ve got a shred of humanity in you anywhere at all. 

Here’s the short version and I hope it whets your appetite to learn more about this remarkable man.

What Dallaire saw and was unable to prevent in Rwanda drove him mad.  Upon his return to Canada, he sank into an unimaginable depression and attempted suicide on several occasions.  He was medically dismissed from the army and his life spiralled out of control.  This culminated the night the Ottawa police found him intoxicated on a deadly mixture of alcohol and antidepressants, passed out under a park bench.

This caused an enormous scandal at the time here in Canada.  We were already outraged on his behalf (OK, I was outraged but I wasn’t alone) and caused a huge debate about the rules of engagement for U.N. peacekeepers. 

Dallaire raised a huge stink after the fact by suggesting, and quite openly too, that the colour of those being slaughtered had much to do with how much assistance he got (and that would be none) from the international community during the genocide. 

Slowly, Dallaire rebuilt his life.  He is quite candid about his struggles with mental health.  I hesitate to say his story has a happy ending because I suspect the murky places in his head are pretty horrifying, but he has moved on from a place of unfathomable darkness to embrace new challenges. 

I could go on and on about the honours and recognition that have been so deservedly heaped upon him since then, but you’re smart girls:  do your own homework. 

Start here:

He asked what is now an iconic question (if you’re Canadian and tuned in, you will have heard him pose it):  “Are all humans human or are some humans more human than others?”

(Are you seeing why I want to have this man’s babies?)

He was speaking of ethnicity, but in my view the same holds true for the mentally ill.  Are the broken among us less valuable because we are embarrassed by them?  Because we fear them?  Because we somehow consider them to be less than we are?

That answer cannot possibly be “yes”. 

We are, all of us, links in a chain of humanity.  One life is never any more valuable than any other – not because its owner is a certain colour, a certain ethnicity, has a certain amount of money, drives a certain car, owns certain things, does a certain job, lives in a certain place, wears a certain brand of clothes, worships a certain deity or has an iron grip on a sunny personality all the time.

The human experience is a complex one: a diorama of emotions, some exhilarating, some humbling, some heartbreaking.  What binds us together – or should bind us together – is the care we have for each other.  Our differences should enrich us, not divide us.  I was on the point of saying “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…” and then I remembered I was a lapsed Catholic.  But I think you take my point.

If there is shame here, the only place it belongs is at our own feet, for ignoring the needs of those among us who are suffering, usually desperately and in silence.

Other marginalized groups have successfully demanded that their voices be heard and recent history is full of examples:  the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, gay men and lesbians – but the mentally ill are unique in that they may not be able to mobilize in the same way.  The illnesses that plague them may prevent them from organizing and persevering against the enormous bigotry that continues to stigmatize them.  It is up to health care professionals, the media and the rest of us – that means each and every one of you Heartless Bitches reading this right now -- to work to erase this stigma and to create a climate where healing will happen. 

Because healing is possible, but only if you address the illness.

The biggest part of that illness is prejudice.

Think about that.

Till next time,


Copyright© the Morrigan & Heartless Bitches International ( 2008
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