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Barbershop of Horrors

I’m in a barbershop in Toronto wishing that I was in Halifax getting a hair cut from Phat.  Phat is my Vietnamese master of bullshit barber who always promises his haircuts will get me laid. I’m fairly certain this haircut will not come with the same guarantee.  I hate sitting through a haircut when the barber screws up early on. You just watch it get worse and worse and can’t do a thing about it.

Famous Canadian author Marion Toews is talking on the radio about how her family’s struggle with mental illness has influenced her work.

“What is this depression she speaks of?” asks the Ethiopian barber. “What is a mental illness?”

My ticket to fame and fortune?

The date of my horrible haircut is November 3rd, 2010. Exactly one year ago I was struggling to understand this same question only in a less theoretical manner. On November 3rd, 2009 my mental breakdown began. Despite the fact that I have written extensively about those days the horror always sits off to the side of the words, like I have become my own science experiment.

As the anniversary looms I get little creeping memories without the safety of story to protect me. A reminder of that strange eclipse of my past and future, where I’d entered a new life that I could barely stand. Where I couldn’t remember living before November 3rd and I couldn’t understand the life that would come after it. The desire to have never been born to never have to feel like this.

I remember how surreal it was to put together this video advertising “The Cure”, adding music to pictures to describe what the worst time of my life was like. Providing a soundtrack to my mental breakdown that I’m constantly working to market to push forward my career.  Sometimes I picture myself time traveling holding up a camera to capture my panicked reactions to record them accurately. Laughing ghoulishly at my own torture, knowing that this will make a perfect chapter in my future bestseller.

What is depression?

“Is it when someone is sad because they don’t get something?” he asks.

Like a good haircut?

“No that’s being sad,” I reply.

“But people say that is depressing,” he says, continuing to butcher my hair. “Isn’t that depressing?”

“Say you didn’t get into university,” I say.  “You feel depressed because you have something you feel you need.  If you got a letter saying that you got into university you’d be happy, right?”

“Of course,” he says.  “I’d be on my way to being rich and successful.”

“If you were depressed that wouldn’t matter,” I reply. “You’d still feel like shit and would find some way of making it mean nothing. Like I don’t deserve to go to school there and everyone will know I’m a fraud. But hey you get amazing marks and are really smart. You don’t see that. See being depressed is different from being sad. It’s not about one situation that can be resolved but chemical imbalances and a cycle of constant negative thinking.”

“Always negative?” he asks.

He cuts another chunk out. Fuck.

“Not always,” I say.

“Mental illness, a sickness of the brain,” he says, tasting the words for the first time. “So medication solves it?”

“Not exactly. Makes things easier,” I say. “It’s funny that you would ask me about this.”

“Why funny?” he asks and laughs to show he understands the idea of things being funny. His scissors slip a little and the possibility of getting any work as a professional model fall to an all time low.

“I’m writing a book about this.”

“Really?  A whole book,” he says. “You are very young to have written a book.”

“I wrote my first one when I was 10. It sucked.”

Today I signed the papers with Anne McDermid Agency.  Drinking peppermint tea as we talked about book proposals and plans for the future. A year earlier at the same time I was in my room, panicking at my complete and utter inability to sleep, reason or slow down my thoughts. Scared of my fear like I have never been scared of anything in my life.

“Are you a psychologist?”

“No, I had a mental breakdown last year.”

Pause in the conversation that often comes when I say something like this.  There are a few moments of silence as he continues to chop off more and more of my hair. I wonder if he has enlistment papers for the army in that half opened drawer with the papers sticking out. After this I’ll have the right haircut.

“Oh. Personal experience. You can identify with them,” he says.

“Yeah, I know what they are going through,” I reply.  “I danced in crazyland.”

He laughs because he knows this is supposed to be funny. I often try to make self -depreciating jokes about my mental illness and have noticed the awkward response of friends as they tense up and try to figure out what they should say. I don’t think we are very well equipped to talk about mental illness in Western Society.

Which makes sense when admitting you had a mental illness use to mean getting electroshock therapy and the various tortures of institutionalization. In the interim between lying to our children about the happy lives they are guaranteed to live and the harsh reality of the truth of the real world there wasn’t any time to tell them that sometimes people get sick and their brain stops working the way it should.

The worst part of mental illness is the self-absorption that makes you believe that you are alone in being unable to properly function. The idea that no one else can understand what you are going through and the shame that comes from that. The inability to properly communicate even with yourself.  You can explain a hundred reasons why what your feeling is bullshit but the logic keeps sliding off your fear, like it was cloaked in Teflon. The isolation and fear can make you believe that you aren’t able to go on living. Your inability to communicate with yourself and others drives many people with mental illness look to suicide as their only exit. Where society lacks any comfortable language so we avoid having a dialogue about it at all.  We are left with notes that no one is allowed to read and causes of death the media aren’t allowed to report.

Media worry about mythologizing suicide and that somehow in the process of discussing it giving children the idea of killing themselves. Which I think is bullshit. Pretty much everyone I know has at some point contemplated suicide even if they haven’t written the note or figured out their plan.

We can’t protect our friends, family and children from contemplating suicide. We can only make the discourse public so that we can work out someway of talking about this issue before we are left with notes from people who don’t believe that if they spoke that they will be heard.

“Medication,” he says. “Do you take it?”


“Can you get off of it?” he asks.

“I hope so.”

“Did you have a bad life before all of this happened?” he asks.

“No I was very lucky. I was a pretty happy guy”

"You happy now?" he asks.

"In some ways happier than I have ever been."

He stops talking for a moment unable to get his head around any of this.

“What about you? Do they have depression in your country?” I ask.

He shrugs his shoulders. “We don’t talk about it,” he says. “People become sad if say you are in school and someone does better than you. Jealous of their success. But I don’t know if we have depression. I’ve never met an Ethiopian who suffered from it. That I know of.”

I went home and did some research. Apparently Ethiopians can suffer from depression. In fact many are dying due to the taboo regarding seeking treatment. But for now I imagine Ethiopia as a perfect place where no one suffers from mental illness at the cost of having very shitty haircuts.

He takes the golden bib off and I look at the mangle he has made of my hair.

“You like it?” he asks.

Some things don’t get better by talking about them.

“Excellent job, my man.”