Thursday, September 10, 2015

Death of a hero




Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, though almost nobody knows about it or pays much attention. For the most part, the best sufferers of mental illness can hope for is pity.

But there is another way, something that might just break through public indifference and scorn, and that is the power of story. This piece ran in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal in 2005. It mourns the death by suicide of my dear friend and comrade Glen Allen, an award-winning journalist and great human being who suffered deeply from the effects of bipolar disorder.

I will not say he "lost the battle" with this sometimes-nightmarish disorder because I think he won, in that he lived for over 60 years, loved and worked and married and had children and wrote and taught and travelled all over the world. Even in the midst of unbelievable pain, he was articulate and wrote with a grace I'll never approach. I'd like to share this article again, just as it went down ten years ago, when my grief was very fresh.





December is long and dark at the best of times, and this year the merriment of Christmas was dulled by a death. When I opened my daily paper to the obituary section, I saw a face that made me gasp, a face I had never actually seen but knew as well as my brother’s. I read the account of his death in disbelief, shocked but not completely surprised that my friend had frozen to death beside some railroad tracks in Toronto, full of pills, after wandering away from a psychiatric ward.

My friend was Glen Allen, newspaperman, Maclean’s correspondent, world traveller, insightful and witty writer, gentle, courageous (and sometimes lost) soul. What brought us together was some ferociously honest writing about alcoholism, and what held us together for years and years was a mutual struggle with various demons. He always wrote about them better than I did. Or so I always thought.





I never knew Glen in the usual sense. I never saw his face. I had heard his voice a number of times, most memorably when he read his Getting Sober and Staying Sober pieces on CBC Radio’s Morningside. I sensed straight-from-the-shoulder directness and convoluted complexity in one person. This man was in pain, and so eerily distanced from the pain that he could write about it in prose that shimmered and shocked and stung. His writer's mind was so alive and focussed as to be almost crystalline, whereas the rest of him seemed to be slouching towards oblivion.

Sometime during his short tenure on Morningside, I began to write to Glen Allen. This guy just had a magical way with words, and seemed like a genuine (and pain-ridden, and large-hearted) human soul. I just had to get in touch with him. I was delighted to get responses, brief at first, then longer and longer, and over time we developed a sort of relationship through the mail. This was in the days of real letters on paper, written by hand, and I always delighted in his vital and elegant script, even if it deteriorated pretty badly towards the end. Often he’d write on beautiful blank cards, and I have one in front of me now, gorgeous sprays of crimson and gold called Flowers for Lord Buddha.





I think my letters must have gone on and on. I could hardly help myself, in those days, since I had no idea what was wrong with me and why I could not settle myself the way everyone else seemed to. But Glen had the same square-peg syndrome, which in his case registered as endearing eccentricity. He had a black lady cat named Imelda (I can’t think of a better cat name, can you?); he was concerned about his future once, and consulted a psychic in the backwoods of New Brunswick; when asked to be a speaker at a meeting, he shared his “experience (long), strength (not much), and hope (I’m going to hang on if it kills me)”.

Ten years is a long time, ten birthdays, ten Easters, ten Christmases. What did we write about? I can barely bring myself to open the file folder that holds all his letters, preserved and precious to me. The stark end of his life has made it impossible But I know we wrote about recovery: from alcoholism (we were both afflicted, and though his sobriety was patchy at best, he genuinely loved AA and treated it with the greatest reverence in his writing), from our parents (both of us had grown up with oppressive, cuttingly sarcastic fathers who withheld affection unless our performance in life was perfect: meaning we were never loved at all), and the worst thing of all, depression, the thousand-pound rock that weighs on the sensitive soul and destroys pleasure and joy and love. Both of us had bench-pressed thousands of pounds over the years, and though he told me his official diagnosis was manic-depression, now rather slickly called "bipolar disorder", I did not realize we shared the same affliction until this past spring, when I experienced what is delicately referred to as an “episode”.



I thought then of Glen, wondered where he was, how he was doing. It wasn't the first time. Wasn't even the twentieth. We wrote to each other for an incredible ten years, while Glen pulled up stakes and moved again, and again, and again, afflicted with terminal restlessness, an attempt to outrun his own pain. But in 1996, I finally lost the thread. I tried and tried. I even e-mailed his brother Gene, but got no answer. The trail was cold, and I had to surrender him to fate or the angels.

When I read his obituary, accompanied by a picture of Glen looking like a mere boy, sweet and shy, someone who just called out to be loved, I was barely out of my own thrashing battle, still trying to figure out what the hell happened to me, how the genie had exploded out of the bottle and derailed my life. But I kept thinking: Glen would know. He'd know just what to say to me, he'd know how to spread balm very gently on the raw wound of my mind. Like a sherpa, he'd been there before me, braved the elements and somehow survived it all.




Until now. When I read of the way he died, frozen to death like a street person (those souls he so identified with and wrote about with such compassion), with no one to hold him as the life ebbed out of him, I wanted to scream at the injustice of it all: at the medical community's complete inability to help such a large-hearted, lavishly gifted human being; at the gap between Glen and his loved ones (there was no doubt he loved them, but something always got in the way), at the grim, fearful, love-deprived boyhood that left scars on him, and in him, that would never be healed.

I did take out the folder, and looked at his dear, graceful handwriting, but haven't read the letters yet. I had thought of writing a piece about him, a sort of tribute, but I knew no one would really get it. When I think of him, which is often, tears well up, and I just want my funny, sardonic, gentle, wounded, wonderful brother back.




There is a song from the 70s by a group called Bread that I keep hearing in my mind. It has a haunting lyric that is like an impressionist painting of Glen's life:

"For a love that wouldn't bloom,
For the hearts that never played in tune.
Like a lovely melody that everyone can sing,
Take away the words that rhyme, it doesn't mean a thing."

The words seem to make a melody of themselves: I think I knew his name. I never knew him, but I loved him just the same. Wish that I had found the way, and the reasons that would make him stay.

But he couldn't stay; the pain was too great, the loneliness had hollowed him out, and the demons that screamed inside his skull had to be silenced once and for all. Such a person, making an intentional exit, is often described as "finally being at peace".

I think it goes beyond that. I think he is everywhere. I know he hangs around here, a warm spot in the room, a kind of disembodied smile, and I don't want him to go.





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