Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Let's Talk

With today being a time to speak up in support of mental issues I thought I would add my own voice to the discussion.  This is a topic especially relevant to people here in Fort McMurray given the trauma of last May.   Compared to most people though I think I've been pretty lucky.  Other than the huge inconvenience of being out my house and my regular routine for 5 weeks, I've managed rather well.  (These days my biggest concern tends to be staying on top of all the economic uncertainty that has been floating around our industry for the past couple of years.)  Looking back on the past 8 months, I've felt that one of the reasons I've managed so well after the fire was the I've been through some pretty tough experiences (which I wouldn't wish on anyone) that have helped me to cope and while it's easier now to look back through the storm there certainly were times when things just weren't so easy.   This is really a post I've wanted to write for some time now.  There's a stigma out there about males sharing their feelings but the hell with it.  Obviously, it's painful and uncomfortable to look back on things but if my story can help just one person in some small way, it will have accomplished its goal.  Here is my story...

Mental issues were never something I ever imagined I'd have to deal with personally.  Sure, I was the quiet kid in school but by the time high school hit, most people people just accepted me as someone who experiences the world through observation and thought rather than by necessarily interesting directly with it.  Mental issues were certainly something I never thought would effect me in my work life.  After all, in my former teaching career, I was used to giving advice and council and support.  I never really considered that I might one day need it myself.  In my view I was on top of the world.  Not that I was connected or anything, far from it.  But at the time, I was confident I had life figured out and that mental health issues were just something that  happened to other people.  In my late-20's perhaps this was something I can be forgiven for thinking.  I was the first person in my family to graduate university, I earned 3 university degrees and was well read,  I was making a very good salary compared to most other people in my peer group, I had travelled to or lived in almost every province and territory in the country, had been the US several times and twice to Europe. 

The two biggest mistakes you can make, in my view, are to believe the fiction that it can't happen to you and the pretend that you don't need help.  "I'm fine" was a refrain I repeated a lot at one point.  Like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, it crept up on me.  In early 2009 or so I hit a particular rough patch during one teaching assignment I had.  I had been assaulted a couple of times and a couple of students I cared deeply about committed suicide.  Once assault late that year resulted in a cracked knuckle, a splitting headache and an expelled student who was also to commit suicide a short time later.  

The day after the funeral I had a debriefing meeting with the community mental health nurse who I knew on both a personal and professional level and she advised me that I might want to take some time and step back from work.  In her professional opinion, she informed me, I was suffering from symptoms of PTSD.  I remember just staring at her when she told me as I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing.  I wasn't sure if she was joking but was quick to see that no, this isn't something that she would joke about.  She had a habit of being bluntly honest and that was what she was doing by telling me. 

I asked her about symptoms and a light came on for me.  I was becoming an angry person with an ever-decreasing fuse.  I didn't want to be around people and when you have a job where you are dealing with people on a daily basis AND you live in a small isolated community on top that it doesn't take much to see how this can lead to some real problems.  I wasn't my regular joking self and was told I didn't seem to smile as much either.  I actually real very clearly describing my situation to the mental health nurse as going in to "bunker mode".  So overwhelmed I would feel at times that I would dig a hole, shut down and hunker down just so that I could get through my day.  I had my coping mechanisms of music, good books, a good game of poker with friends or perhaps a hike.  But none of if seemed to be working.

So I knew there was a problem.  But hey, I'm 34-35, I'm a professional, I have a basic background in behavioural psychology because of my teaching degree and hey, this was something that happened to OTHER people.  And so I pretended or convinced myself that I didn't really need help.

I took one last teaching assignment when, looking back, I would have been much better served by taking a year (or even a few months) off.  Things didn't get better.  At that point in my life I was in a common law relationship and I was able to take the edge off with a few drinks.  Definitely not the best coping mechanism.  I never drank to excess as I don't handle hang-overs well at all but my body grew accustomed to having a couple mixed drinks on a daily basis.   It's entirely conceivable that my intake would have increased as my body grew increasingly accustomed to it.

Without going into a lot of details my relationship was fraught with difficulty at times as I tried to balance the reality of being a father with my professional life while still making time for myself.  Not so easy.  Eventually the situation became untenable and the relationship feel apart.  There was fault on both sides but I was angry.  I yelled.  I felt like I was in a nightmare I couldn't escape from.  Not addressing some important issues cost me my professional life, my relationship and that time and most importantly my relationship with my son.  I have no doubt that a few people that have known me since my school days but who haven't seen me in a number of years will read this and perhaps be shocked by just how incongruous this seems with the person they knew.  

To make a long story short, this was a wake up call for me and I did seek help....from family, a couple old friends people I know locally here and yes, a little professional advice as well.    The biggest help for me was getting myself out of the physical environment I was in.  That meant my teaching career was at an end of the time being and my relationship was over.  It also meant being honest with myself and discussing some very serious topics that I would normally find embarrassing.  It's tough to discuss things like erectile dysfunction even with a health professional but I'm sure if I hadn't my son would likely not have been born.  I rediscovered my passions.  I discovered new ones.  I met new people.  And most importantly for me, I never stopped talking.  This doesn't mean I went around telling everyone about my issues.   My blog notwithstanding, I've always considered myself a pretty private person.  If you're in my confidence it means I really REALLY trust you.  I like to think this isn't really that different from the majority of other people.

So am I "cured"?  Does this sort of thing go away or is there some sort of invisible line that I've crossed over in the intervening years?  I don't know.  I still carry an aversion to loud noise and feel awkward in social situations at times and I suspect this might not ever completely go away but I am better able to cope.  I won't pretend to be an expert on this topic, but I do know that things have gotten better.  Hell, I just feel better overall.  

I still have stressful days of course but when I look back at the person I used to be and the journey I've travelled to get to where I am today, I feel empowered.  What I have gone through and experience has, in sum, made me stronger.

Mental health issues don't mean you are in any way "stupid" or deficient or an idiot.  It's one small part of your being you might some day have to deal with...but it is NOT a summation of your entire character.  It can be addressed and positive change can happen.  You are not alone.  


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

My Response to Jane Fonda

James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Neil Young....its seems that there is no shortage of celebrities lined up to bash our community and our industry.  And now, we can add Jane Fonda to the list.  Fonda is in town today ostensibly to "inform" herself about our region.  

Fonda claimed to a local resident that she is not against [us] but given the economic turmoil we currently face, to say nothing of the forest fire that devastated our community last May, I really have to wonder.

Let's be honest: Fonda is a professional activist.  She has made a career of supporting all sorts of causes and spouting all sorts of nonsense no matter how hurtful it may be to some. It wasn't until 2011 that she got around to apologizing for offending Vietnam vets on her blog.

Fonda claims that (according to the CBC article regarding her visit) "It's like someone took my skin and peeled it off my body over a very large surface."  Ah, such hyperbolic language.  It makes for a great sound byte, I'm sure.  But just how large of a surface is that?  Let's put things in perspective.  The boreal forest covers about 60% of Canada.  What percentage of Canada's boreal forest is subject to surface mining?  Turns out THAT figure is 0.2%.  Since 1967, the year GCOS (the forerunner of present-day Suncor began), oil sands mining has disturbed approximately 760 square km (roughly 294 square miles).  That's an area smaller than New York City, London or Berlin.  All of these figures can be verified on official government websites, unless of course Ms. Fonda wishes to indulge in asinine conspiratorial-types claims.  Sorry, Fonda, but your simplistic analogy utter fails.

I do have to question where she will be getting her information from.  Will she be getting it from industry leaders?  community leaders? people who actually live here?  people who actually work in the oil sands? actual scientists?  Will she be getting it from Green Peace scientists instead?  Oh yes, Green Peace doesn't actually have real scientists, only paid activists.  Has Ms. Fonda ever heard of SAGD technology? (Google it)  Of that this technology will be the way going forward.  Let me guess, she flew over Suncor and Syncrude north of Fort McMurray which employ older mining techniques but conveniently DIDN'T fly south of Fort McMurray where SAGD is employed.  If you're only going to talk to those opposed to development or see what you want to see, you only get one side of the story.  Ms. Fonda, it's called an "echo chamber", a massive case of confirmation bias if ever there was one.

She wants to claim how horrible our industry here is yet I would challenge her to visit any number of other oil-producing nations so she can compare how we stack up with the rest of the world.    Of course, Fonda won't do this.  She's more interested in publicity and Canada's industry is the low-hanging fruit on the tree.  She can show up, pose for the cameras, mouth some nonsense and fly (yes, she admitted she flew here....on a plane.....which burns oil) back to Los Angeles with no real cost to herself.   As I said at the outset, we've had a long slew of personalities role through here, fly over in a plane (again, burning oil), mouthing nonsense and leaving.  If you can't understand why some people here might be a little bit annoyed with these antics, I'm afraid I don't know what to tell you.

She's like the visitor that shows up at your door unannounced and uninvited, then enters and walks around without taking her shoes off and eats some of your food off your table before leaving.  If you really cared about people I would suggest instead that you should visit struggling families in Abasand, Beacon Hill, Waterways, Stone Creek Saprae Creek, Anzac or Wood Buffalo, areas which were devastated by last May's forest fire.  Why not visit a local first responder who lost their own home to the fire (and there were many)?  Why not visit a Keyano college student who is stressed out over whether there will be a job for them upon graduation.  Why don't you talk to Chief Jim Boucher or any member of the Fort McKay First Nation and how our industry benefits them.  (Oh right, you WERE asked that question and ducked it.)  Rather than engage in reasoned debate or even respond to a reasonable question, you simply ran away because it challenged the narrative you are trying to push.  Please, don't come here and tell us that you're not against us.

Sorry, Ms. Fonda but being a celebrity and an exercise guru does not make you informed on our industry.  Far from it.  You should stick to yoga and the things you know.  Truth is, Fonda is NOT on our side.  It's akin to playing a hockey game in overtime with Ms. Fonda over in the corner kicking around a soccer ball (or flopping about on a yoga mat.)  This doesn't mean you aren't entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.