How I Found Beauty in the Wreckage

November 3, 1993

We’d finished off a few pounds of Gordie Howitzer’s Elbows (or chicken wings for the uninitiated). Estelle wandered by, checking the status of our pints. Homer’s glass was near empty and he nodded for a refill of whatever watered-down near-beer he was drinking. I confirmed my request for a fresh pint of Guinness and we waded back in to our philosophical meanderings.

The Wheat Sheaf at King and Bathurst has been attracting Toronto’s deep thinkers since 1849. Mercifully the lavatories have been slightly modernized and there’s some neon now, but it remains an honest, unpretentious watering hole.

It was a pretty good year. The Leafs were at 16-3 with Wendel and Dougie leading a remarkably skilled team in front of little Felix Potvin. Hopes of a Cup glimmered faintly.

When the epiphany occurred it came in with a whimper. There were neither clashing symbols nor horns blowing in exaltation. It was the realization that we had passed what was probably the midpoint of our time on earth that prompted us to this remarkable clarity. We declared that after wallowing about in the trenches for some time we had ‘achievements’, we were ‘recognized’ and, most remarkably, we were being paid some pretty good coin.

It puzzled us. Then we figured it out.

Homer probably declared it first with this eloquent insight, “We know some shit!”

Segue to the 21st century and 26 years after the Wheat Sheaf summit, and I come to the fatal realization that I actually don’t know that much. My delusions of wisdom are buried in the painful reality that unless I continue to learn and evolve, my remaining years on this earth will not bring the outcome I so hoped for.

I come back to the essential question then. What do I know? And I don’t mean this in the vein of Rod Stewart’s song where he states, “I wish I knew then what I know now”. This is very much a present moment issue that revolves around my need to put the black dog in the kennel and try to keep it there for as long as I can.

It’s a painful reality that knowledge of an issue does not immediately create the capacity to manage it. Coincidentally, it was also 26 years ago that I was formally diagnosed as someone who would live with depression. In the years since, my path has wandered throughout the grey mists of the illness punctuated by several moments when the sun would break through.

It is those brilliant moments to which I should cling and use as a touchpoint for finding the way forward. What is it, then, that gets in the very obvious way of bringing this realization to active practice every day?

Depression is an insidious illness that infects everyone with whom you interact. And, perversely, the infection grows exponentially in correspondence to how much love you feel for those closest.

Let me explain.

In 2006, I married Kate. She entered my life a few years before and in that period I came to realize that she was someone who created shining moments. With Kate, I emerged for long periods of time from the shadows. She was a powerful antidote to my misfiring synapses and created in me a feeling that we can always reinvent and reimagine.

In 2007, we brought Gabriel into the world and what a stupendous joy he was. Samuel followed his brother into our family in 2010.

Our life was on a beautiful trajectory.

But depression brings along the reality of collateral damage. Depression is non-discriminating in this regard and, as such, is capable of throwing a knuckleball into your life at any moment. Unfortunately, it is those closest to you who are exposed to this potential disruption.

It’s difficult for me to contemplate the notion of mental health in the context of my family and particularly my kids. The formation of a child’s mind is a hugely complex undertaking and one we learn about each day. I am a disciple of Dr. Dan Siegel and his book The Whole Brain Child. In it he writes,

“In fact, even though entire libraries have been written discussing mental illness, mental health is rarely defined. A simple way to express it, though, is to describe mental health as our ability to remain in a ‘river of well-being’.

“Imagine a peaceful river running through the countryside. That’s your river of well-being. Whenever you’re in the water, peacefully floating along in your canoe, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you.

“Sometimes, though, as you float along, you veer too close to one of the river’s two banks. This causes different problems, depending on which bank you approach. One bank represents chaos, where you feel out of control. Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day. You need to move away from the bank of chaos and get back into the gentle flow of the river.

“But don’t go too far, because the other bank represents its own dangers. It’s the bank of rigidity, which is the opposite of chaos.”*

When I read this I realized here was another example of my non-knowing and my need to learn to ensure my kids weren’t tossed about during their trip on the river of life.

And then, in November of 2011…

I’m waiting in the lineup to pick up my boys from school. Sam is 2. Gabriel is 4.

The phone rings.

I answer and hear from my wife, Kate’s, GP. “Your wife has a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer.”

Finding beauty in the wreckage

My canoe veered violently to the bank of chaos.

For grown-ups, cancer is overwhelming. Can you begin to imagine the impact on little boys, aware of their environment while trying to understand that something very different was happening but being incapable of fully absorbing, expressing and understanding? Can you imagine, when it is so important for all of us to feel, what these children were struggling with while enveloped in a cloud of big-person words and confused, oddly-behaving parents?

Learning that there was very little support for male caregivers, I decided to see what I could do to fill that gap in some small way. I began to write a blog. I sought conversation with other male caregivers when Kate was undergoing her chemo treatments at Credit Valley Hospital. I spoke to groups. I appeared on television. I wrote a book (Riding Shotgun: A book for men and the partners they care for).

Kate left the corporate world and began educating herself in Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts. She started her own company Wake Up Kate. We simplified our lives. We moved from our monster home in Oakville to a much smaller home in Burlington. We changed our diet. We modified our approach to life by becoming more concerned with being and less concerned with having. I entered the world of psychotherapy. I too studied mindful meditation (although I still find it difficult). We focused as much as possible on being in the present moment and creating experiences for our family rather than acquiring things.

I continued to grow my copywriting and brand strategy company, Don Kerr Writes. Then, inexorably drawn back into the world of marketing, Kate and I started our own company Wake Up Kate Marketing with a solid determination that our re-entry into this world would revolve around purposeful marketing.

Our boys are now 10 and 12. Most of the time they travel down the middle of the river and when their canoe veers to one bank or the other they have the resilience and ability to get back to calm waters. Most of the time! They’re still growing after all.

And that brings me right back to the start…I’m still growing too.

The black dog still drags me around the block. My family still has to deal with someone who can be unpredictable. But at the heart of it all there is growth and a comfort in turning toward adversity.

I didn’t really know much that truly mattered on that day at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern and I still know that there is much that I don’t know.

Where the beauty arises from the wreckage is in having the confidence and humility to admit that I am flawed. And as time has passed there is one thing I do know with certainty: Experience, including all of the highs, lows and middles should soften you up rather than toughen you up. Remaining open to the small pleasures in life and acknowledging that we will fail miserably at times results in a fuller human experience.

While it might seem odd to quote Albert Camus when thinking of finding beauty in the wreckage, this little and huge thought from him has illuminated my life. Perhaps it will trigger some little light for you as well.

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.”

*©2011 by Mind Your Brain, Inc., and Bryson Creative Productions Inc.