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Through the Withering Storm: A Brief History of a Mental Illness Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. Through the Withering Storm Forward As a psychiatrist, I am privileged to be given a very personal window into my patients’ lives. They trust me and talk about things that they cannot discuss with others. Patients with mental illness, however, are first and foremost, people. Their illnesses may be similar but their personal experiences are all very different. Their experiences are unique because every human brain is unique and it is the brain that determines who we are. Every idea, feeling, decision and action is determined by the delicate machinery that we balance daily on our shoulders without a thought. Mental illnesses happen to people and they don’t happen to someone else – they happen to “us.” About one in five of us will suffer a mental illness in our lives and so all of us have known somebody with a mental illness, if not ourselves, then someone we work with or meet, on a bus, in a car, in the bank or on the street. Although these illnesses are common, we do not usually talk about them much. No one chooses to be ill and there are no “good” illnesses. They all interfere with our lives. The neurological disorders, particularly the ones we call mental illnesses, are especially disruptive because, when the delicate machinery of our brain goes wrong, so do we. Mental illnesses affect individuals, their families, and everyone around them but the costs are not just to lives, careers and families. The social and economic impacts of mental illnesses are slowly being recognized in business, in the armed forces, in our health care system as well as in daily life. Most of these common and very personal situations do not make newspaper headlines. They are private struggles to try to make sense of what may seem an alien, confusing and sometimes hostile world. Leif has bravely chosen to share his own private struggles during his life and his experience with his own illness. He has given us all the unusual opportunity to share his personal and continuing story. It is opportune at this time, when some governments see illnesses only in terms of dollars and have forgotten that it is people who get sick, that someone has the courage to make us realize that this is personal. People are hurt by illness and our governments should not be adding to the suffering. Thank you, Leif, for allowing me the privilege of writing an introduction and for your contribution to the ongoing efforts to remove taboos and ignorance about mental illness. Dr. Brian P. Bishop, Psychiatrist. Dece2m009r, Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. Through the Withering Storm Chapter One: The Last Glorious Summer It was the middle of August 1985 and it was the last of the long and glorious summers I was to have as a kid. For two months, we could laze around, drink tall iced sodas, play with whatever friends we had and generally forget about all the turmoil in the world and the years of work we would have to do before we would finally reach the point where we were finished school and standing tall as fully institutionalized young people. It still stands out clearly in my mind what those summers meant. They were the icing on a birthday cake, they were the oases in the vast desert of being told where to go, what to do and how hard to climb. From September on, I would often look at the calendar or the slowly ticking clock and count the days, the hours, the minutes, until summer would come around again. Summer meant trips to the cool and beautiful mountains and the hot and fascinating Badlands of the Drumheller Valley where my favorite uncle lived, and even longer journeys to the interior of British Columbia where the sunshine and the fresh apples made it seem like you were in the Garden of Eden. Those trips meant everything to me. Probably not so much in 1985, but, in earlier years, I can recall that weekends were so precious that I would occasionally be moved to tears on Sunday night knowing I had to go back and face school for five days until another weekend came around. Always in the back of my mind there was the idea that one day when school was over and I could go where I wanted, I could spend all my time in these beautiful and loving places, far from teachers and bullies and the many things that nearly made life unbearable for me as a child. It was sad, really because I stuck out in school, having a short haircut when no one else did, and I didn’t often care much about my clothes or my general appearance. I liked to read and do well on tests. I didn’t like rock and roll music or play sports outside of the pick-up games of football I used to get involved in. Even then though I was always the last picked for the team and had to do twice as good as anyone just to get the ball thrown to me. In short, I was a misfit, a nerd. Fortunately, a year earlier from this time and place I was in, I found a place where the things I liked mattered, where people approached life a little more seriously, where there was a lot more fun to be had than there ever was at school and I was even able to make a few friends. I found Air Cadets. Joining up was really my mom’s idea, although my dad worked with Air Cadets through the local Lions Club. Air Cadets convened every Monday evening (sports night) and Thursday evening (parade night). We often went for weekend camps and there were longer camps called “courses” that many of us would attend in the summer. Late in the summer of 1985, I was about to attend such a course known only as basic training at a place called Canadian Forces Base Penhold. Penhold was a former Second World War era airmen’s training base not far from Red Deer, Alberta, where many courses took place. It remains a cadet training camp to this day, but has been slightly converted so that it is also a jail/boot camp for troubled kids. Sometimes I laugh when I think of this place being used for punishment and correction because, back then, everyone I knew was there voluntarily and loved just about every minute of it. There were band camps, flying scholarship camps, junior leaders’ camps and of course, basic training. Basic training, for me, would be two weeks of instruction in drill, physical fitness, leadership, survival, and anything else they could cram into two weeks of eight-hour-days for 13-year-olds. The day I remember most clearly, though, is the one just before camp. I had gotten myself into a bit of trouble with my brother Owen. He was a weight trainer and often liked to lounge around without a shirt on. There was something about this habit of his that irritated me, so, as I was ironing my uniform that day in preparation for camp, I snuck up behind him, and, Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 1 Through the Withering Storm honestly thinking it would have the same effect of something very cold (making the person jump) I took the very hot iron and touched it to his back. He didn’t just jump, he screamed, and then screamed blue bloody murder about what he was going to do to me. I took off like a shot, but he was close behind me, and the only thing that kept me from getting a beating was the fact that I held the iron out in front of myself, promising that it would bite twice if he were to hit me. I made good my escape as he went to attend to his wound (there is still a mark on his back to this day and he shows it to me often). I decided to avoid him at all costs until I left for camp. By some stroke of luck, I was able to do this, mostly due to my kind sister Kiersten, who, despite her four-year head start on me, never complained when I wanted to hang out with her and her friends. My brother Owen, on the other hand, used to do things like use code words with his friends when they wanted to ditch me. I would be standing with them and suddenly one of them would yell “three!” or “four!”, which was a pre-arranged place to meet and they would run off in different directions leaving me standing there alone and sad that I had no friends or younger brothers. My sister’s friends were cool. There was Shelly, a very sweet and often flirty young woman who had a brother my age and always made me feel special. Then there was Mark Jensen who Kiersten went to church with. On the night before I left for Penhold, I learned that one of my sister’s guests had even been to the air base and, then, had been sent home the first day for chatting up a female cadet. He had joined the regular army and was about to leave for more comprehensive basic training. I often wonder where he is now. I never heard from him again, though his stories kept me up half that night. In those younger days, I was constantly in a state of fantasy, I suppose like most kids, but my fantasies all had to do with armies and war. It came out in the books I read, the movies I watched, and the clothes I wore. It went back a long way, too. I had been an avid collector of GI Joe toys and used to make aircraft models and paint toy soldiers. At that time though, I used to like to volunteer to help with our local Legion because a lot of the older people in the Legion had served in war and I wanted to honor them with my own service. I managed to get through the night without a beating from Owen and the next morning my dad drove me out to the Canadian Forces Base at Edmonton, where I was to be registered and then sent on to Penhold which was about an hour south on the highway from Edmonton. At that age, as with many kids, my dad was my hero. It wasn’t a small coincidence that I was named after him as people often found we looked alike and acted alike. My dad was born in Denmark and had been trained extensively to be a sign writer and a businessman, and had served in the Danish military as a fireman and medic, all of which he did exceptionally well. In 1985, times were getting tough, but still he kept food on the table. Just as my dad was my hero, my mom was my best friend. Genetically, I didn’t get the best of the best when I was really thought about my family. My uncle, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother all suffered from mental illness and nearly all the men on my dad’s side were alcoholics. As far as love and devotion went, I couldn’t have had better parents. My mom was a highly intelligent person who used to take the time to talk with us for as long as we wanted each and every day, in between her sessions of reading every classic book we had in the house. My dad was so devoted I can remember being read Nobel prize-winning novels as a child of three, and at the same age being taught to play chess and listen to classical music, and although it was often much harsher than I felt it should be, I benefited from my parent’s strong discipline and stability in my younger years. Registering for our camp took several hours and I had time to get to know a few people with whom I was going to take the course. There was one guy who seemed to have only half a vocabulary and the missing half he simply filled in with the word “dink.” I was to find out later that he had an aversion to work and, out of probably 300 cadets in basic, he was to end up in my room. Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 2 Through the Withering Storm There was another fellow who used to walk around wearing a Russian army cap. He complained to me that some jerk had flushed his stash of illegal drugs down the toilet. Most of the cadets I knew had a low tolerance for that sort of stuff so I wasn’t surprised. There were others, but after all these years, the faces and the names have become as indistinguishable as the uniforms. What I do remember is that Air Cadets was the only way out of the small towns and farms for an awful lot of these people. What I also remember about the base in Edmonton was that the food was really bad. The barracks we were in were called the Griesbach (pronounced ‘grease-bah’), but most people referred to them as the Grease-Batch barracks. I clearly understood why. It didn’t take me long to find a friend from 533 Squadron back home in St. Albert. His name was Jeff King, he was actually among my very best friends and, before long, I was feeling as much at home on the base as I ever did back in the neighborhood. Soon, we were loaded on buses, driven off to Penhold, where we had our bags searched (I managed to sneak in the most coveted of contraband — pop and chips) and had our rooms assigned. We were formed into flights (or squads) of 30 or so cadets, introduced to the camp’s non-commissioned officers (NCOs), who would be our instructors, then issued our camp uniforms and canvas sneakers. After another barely passable meal, we were cut loose. Having been told to elect a room senior who would be responsible for supervising us in our cleaning and polishing duties, we all chose the same guy. He was the one who had the undeniable leadership quality of being the tallest person in the room. Soon, we were instructed in the methods of cleaning of our rooms which would be inspected daily. Every surface seemed to need a different cleaning agent or special cloth. Every bit of dust, every corner of the floor, all the windows, the brass doorknob and window handles had to be polished, shined and cleaned, and done over and over until they were perfect. I had no problem with these duties but, inside my locked closet (that I was supposed to keep spotless), my personal items were a total mess. Spoiling potato chips, dirty socks, wrinkled clothing. The NCOs couldn’t see it so I didn’t bother with it and fortunately was never caught. It was an odd thing that when it came down to my image or my reputation as a cadet, I would go the extra mile, dutifully shining boots for an hour each day, pressing my uniform practically whenever I wasn’t wearing it, shining everything right down to my belt buckle, but as far as personal hygiene, I slacked off. Rather than wash my hair, I would have the barber cut it as short as he could. Rather than shower each day, I would take a bath about once a week. I didn’t realize at the time that this odd behaviour was actually a symptom of an illness. It was something that was sneaking up on me from behind and would soon take me down like a wolf runs down a caribou and goes for the jugular. The earliest sign I can recall now was that somehow, I was actually a bit scared of being super clean like a lot of the other guys. In a way, my clothes were like a warm and protective womb that I didn’t want to leave. I would wear jackets and sweaters even in summer, I was afraid to even unbutton a shirt one button from the top. At camp, I even had pajamas to sleep in and I always wore them, something not one other guy among hundreds did. I now know this is something mentally ill youths do a lot – neglect their cleanliness – but, back then, it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I had no idea that something was boiling up inside of me. Other signs were to follow. The pressure and stress of being a 13 year-old kid far from home surely didn’t help. One of my big problems became apparent once in dealing with the guy in my room who kept saying “dink” whenever his vocabulary failed him. He didn’t seem to care much about anything at all. Worse yet, he didn’t do the chores that we were assigned as common tasks. At one point, we all got so sick of him that we got a huge cadet whom I only remember by the name of “Acid” to carry him down the hall and dump him in a garbage can. I decided to assist by pushing down his legs as he was struggling to get out and when he did get free he was madder at me than he was at the rest of the guys. This was something that had dogged me for many years. Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 3 Through the Withering Storm It seemed to me at that age that any time I tried to do supposedly ‘cool’ things, I would be the one singled out to catch all the flak from it. It was so hard for me to make friends with a group and it even seemed like the few friendships I made were with people who only wanted to encourage me to pull one of my stunts. But in this case, I guess this guy figured somehow he could take me in a fight but things never got to that point, at least not from him. The facilities at camp were pretty good. There was an outdoor pool, a store, a bowling alley, a dance hall, an arcade, and even a library (I may have been the only one in camp to ever use the library). I used the pool a few times but rarely went to actually bowl. For me, the bowling alley served the sole purpose of allowing me to find people I didn’t like who were bowling and then reset the pins on them, timing it so that just as their ball was about to hit them, the pins would lift up in the air. Other times, I would watch them hit a few pins and then reset the pins so that their small victories could not be recorded. It was cruel but it was the closest thing to good clean fun that could be found. Of course I never would have done this if I wasn’t trying to impress my best friend Ian. The days went by and, soon, I received my first mail from home including some envelopes with a few coins taped together, slipped into the letter. My parents didn’t have much money at the time and that was the best they could do. I appreciated the gesture so much that I saved the taped-together coins for years afterwards. I can remember clearly that my sister would even draw her funny cartoons on the tape that held the money together. In my heart of hearts, I missed them all dearly but my hard head wouldn’t let on that I was even a little homesick. My biggest problem at camp was that I used to go around and pick fights with anyone and everyone who thought they were tougher than me, of course with Ian in tow who never fought himself but liked to get me going. One day, I was visiting a friend on the top floor of the barracks and, after an interchange of words, some guy came up and started pushing him. The guy was half my friend’s size, but I thought I would show off a bit and kicked him square between the legs with my steel-toed boot. That left him writhing in pain on the ground while I simply walked away. As I got to the stairs at the other end of the barracks, a cadet came running and said to me, “hey, the captain wants to see you!” I really should have taken off at that point, as it would have made my whole life so much easier, but I went back. This captain was quite upset. He really laid into me but he couldn’t stay. He was replaced by a sergeant and the guy I clipped, doubled over in a chair, explaining the story in his words. “Lurch here came up to me and said I was making friction last night and there were stains on the ceiling so I started pushing him and then this guy came up and kicked me in the balls,” he said to the sergeant. It was hard for me not to laugh at this guy’s candor. I basically repeated my story, but with a bit of a spin on it. Then a warrant officer came in and asked to hear the story and I added a little more spin, and the chain of command kept going up all the way to major. In the end, I had enough spin on the story so it sounded like I was doing my best to protect my buddy from this wanton masturbator. When it was all sorted out, we were both given the same punishment but I got a mark on my camp record against me. This was yet another case of me not really being in total control of how far I went with things. To think back now I would never dream of kicking someone unless it was a life and limb matter, but to the ‘tough guy’ thirteen year-old in uniform it just kind of happened. I loved camp but in a way I could hardly wait for it to end so I could go back to my home town. I felt pretty privileged at times to be receiving all this training and knowledge about guns, planes, first aid and leadership, while most of the people back home were simply trying to decide which soap opera to watch and which one to tape. It was impossible not to swell with pride when I felt the power and esprit de corps of marching in perfect timing with a hundred other people. It made me stronger, mentally and physically, and there was a real sense of direction in my younger life. Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 4 Through the Withering Storm Aside from standing on top of a mountain in Jasper National Park, which I did later on, it was about the best feeling I had ever experienced, maybe because I was starting to grow into being my own person. Here, I didn’t have to be afraid to stand tall like I did in school, where you never really knew if a friend would betray you or not for whatever fad came along. Basically we were all the same. A huge unit all working towards one goal, bettering ourselves so we could go home at the end of summer and give something back to our home squadrons. The last few days of camp went by quickly. As hot August days began to turn into cool, breezy, rainy fall evenings, I knew this couldn’t go on forever. This was the end of the summer and I had only been there two weeks. Some of the cadets on course had been there six weeks and some of the staff was there longer. I couldn’t understand why some of the other cadets I ran into were literally crying at the idea of camp being over. Outwardly, I was glad to know that I could sleep in for a few days before school started and that I would be back to the comforts of home. What I didn’t realize is that some of these six- week cadets had made close friends and probably even closer girlfriends that summer and would most likely never see them again. I had some really screwed up priorities. When the last day of basic training came, I had achieved the honor of having the highest mark on the final exam in my flight – a perfect score of 100 per cent. That gave me a bit of leverage when I had to go back home to 533 Squadron and explain why I had been disciplined for attempting to sterilize someone without surgical instruments. When I got home to my parent’s house, I can still remember the song that defined the times for us back then. My sister played it often, and it could be found blasting out of the radio practically wherever there was one. It was Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. I had heard it many times before someone explained to me that it wasn’t any kind of patriotic anthem, it was a song that spoke out against injustices like the Vietnam War and the wars that were to come. It was a song that protested the almighty dollar shitting all over people whom only want to live, love and have children. In cadets, I was influenced a lot by people who were very conservative, believing that a person had to pull their own weight and, if they didn’t, they were of no use to society. Then there were people my sister knew who were very much more leftist and believed in the equality of all mankind. Inside my own head, there was a battle between those two ideologies and a battle for me just to keep my sanity in a society where the only place I felt like I belonged (my home town) was a place where a lot seemed to go against my values, as they were forming. My heroes at that time were people like Gandhi who changed the world by making his enemies look into their own souls. At the time though, I was a part of the defense structure and it was difficult for me to reconcile that with the peaceful side of me. I guess that’s why they called us Generation X when I got older. Not a lot made sense to me, especially that it didn’t seem fair that we were cold warriors in a time when warriors were no longer heroes. These philosophical questions and all the pressures of being a teenager were starting to get to me. I may have gotten perfect marks on my cadet evaluation but somehow I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Coming home from basic training was going to be one of the last times in my life that I had a clear idea of what I wanted and what the world wanted from me. It was the beginning of a horrific ride down a long and slippery slope. Not long after basic training, I began grade nine – the final year of junior high and the final step before the long-awaited (and feared) start of high school. Being in the last grade of junior high was a huge rite of passage for most of us. It was sort of the defining line between being a child and being a young adult. Not to mention that next year we would mainly be going to school with academic students — a lot of the others would go to trade or vocational schools. I still remember my sister’s grade nine graduation, how she got all fancied up in a pretty dress, had a date in a white tux, and how happy she seemed. But, by now, my sister had reached the golden age of 18 and moved out and I had my own room. It didn’t bother me that it was painted in girl colors, it only mattered that it was my Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 5 Through the Withering Storm space to organize my growing collection of military clothing and collection of war books. I had a place to hide my air rifles from my parents and somewhere that I could listen to rock music, which I was now finally beginning to like. Soon, I would be changing from black to white in many ways. In every grade of every school like mine, there is one knock-out girl and Sir George Simpson Junior High was no exception. Her name was Mandy, she was amazing and, by some stroke of luck, she was in my class. I think she knew she was exceptionally good looking because she always used to come into class fashionably late so she could put on a show of prancing through the class in the always-new clothes her wealthy father had provided. Not only was Mandy gorgeous, she was incredibly smart and would often get 100 per cent on tests – the same tests that no one else in the class did well. Being a former ‘nerd’ or ‘brain’ and a highly competitive person, this really irked me. I even had a theory about why she was so rich, smart and attractive. It was simply because of Darwinian genetics. This girl was the result of thousands of years of evolution. The pretty and smart ones always get a mate and pass down their attractiveness and intelligence until you breed someone special like Mandy. It killed me thinking of how I was short-changed but, still, secretly, I could hardly take my eyes off her. I had a lot of respect for the people in cadets and took it very seriously but had very little respect for school and teachers along with a lot of the people with whom I went to school. One the big reasons for this attitude was that our math and science teacher that year had an obvious drinking problem and it really made me feel ripped off to constantly have substitute teachers. I was getting a second class education because some guy couldn’t handle his alcohol. I was starting to feel a lot of animosity towards ‘drunks’ as I called them and I took a lot of that animosity out on the subs. The sad thing was that I wasn’t just lashing out because of my teacher; my dad was quite far into a problem of his own. I still got pretty good grades but fooled around a lot. It wasn’t unusual to see me wrestling teachers, blowing up electrical sockets, stealing future tests to pass out to the class, and signing out library books with embarrassing titles for other people. Like the time I signed a bunch of books about puberty which the teacher read the list out loud in front of the class, causing my poor victim to nearly throw a fit. Though I was close to six foot tall at age 14, I wasn’t the biggest or strongest kid in school. A jerk named Donald was and he was also in my class. He constantly picked on me. If we were playing hockey in gym, he would bash me from behind. If I was leaning back in my chair, he would try and tip it over. There are times I wanted to literally kill him. When you added that to the fact I was getting into increasingly loud and violent fights with my dad, you are left with a “me” that was under a lot of pressure both at home and in school. I sometimes wonder why I never tried to kill myself back then. In my seat in the back of the room, I was also not far from a girl named Laurie, who had failed grade nine and was now in her second year of it. I really don’t know why, but at one point in that school year, she joined Air Cadets and became good friends with most of my own friends in cadets. She never made much indication of liking me, though we would often talk about our friends and parties we went to. While a lot of people in grade nine were having pop and chip parties, people in cadets were flying down the highway in brand new $30,000 trucks shooting real pistols at road signs, going on trips all over the place, flying gliders and small planes, and being taught how to teach others and lead them. And cadets were often going to parties or dances and drinking the hard stuff. This made a lot of people in the ninth grade jealous and some of them actually wanted to try and join up but I warned them all that if they wanted to join they would be my subordinates and I wouldn’t treat them all that well. I guess people’s image of me was evidence enough that they did not want to become my subordinate because none of them tried to join. I haven’t spoken to Laurie in years but I think it is possible she took on a military career after we completed grade Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 6 Through the Withering Storm 12. The military became so much a part of us that when we quit or got too old for cadets, it was the next natural step to join the regular forces. The days and weeks and months rolled by and I spent a lot of time at cadet weekend camps and with my friends in cadets – among them , Frank, Jim and Kyle (who hated his first name much so we all called him Lurch all the time). He was my best friend for a long time after that, and I still talk to Frank quite a bit to this day. There were bush camps, band camps, leadership camps and Sunday range night with real Second World War rifles converted to .22 caliber. Cadets provided an extremely full life for a kid who didn’t have much. Lurch and I used to put our whole lives into being the best cadets we could be. Lurch was in the colour party, the group that carried our flags for parades, and I was in the band, marking the cadence for the whole squadron with my snare drum. Even though we lived about three miles apart and went to school in different cities, he and I would get together nearly every day. When weekend camps came around, we would train like athletes to be in shape for them. We would go totally gung-ho when we were there. I remember now there were small signs to me (perhaps larger ones to my parents) that I was getting worse mentally. Of course, my clothes were a red flag because they were nearly always army fatigues. Then, there was the fascination I had with fire, knives and my fear of social situations like dating and dancing. During that time, one of the worst symptoms was one that no one could see. I kept thinking that I could hear my name being called, even in an empty house. This would go on for a few hours, especially after a major cadet event, and then it would just go away. Somehow, through sheer will, I would keep sitting still through a phase of mania. By doing this, I would not respond to this delusion but it was getting harder and harder to do. My other good friend, Frank, gave me a book called Truly Tasteless Jokes for my birthday that year. It was divided into sections, from Polish to Black to Jewish and so on. I read that book through a dozen times thinking it would make me popular but in fact it ended up disgusting a lot of girls in whom I had an interest. I was the clown to all my friends that year. Clearly, there were no more boundaries for me, and whatever dark forces that hid inside my mind were taking what the world was throwing at me and turning me into just about the exact opposite of a normal kid my age. Jim, another friend, who was Frank’s best friend, seemed like a bit of a stoner back then, but really was quite a thoughtful and intelligent guy and a pretty good athlete (just like Frank in those respects I suppose, but I don’t think Frank ever did drugs). Jim always seemed to be getting into trouble but put a lot into cadets. He also swam, skied and went for long-distance cycle trips all the time. I hate to say it, but I think when I was eventually promoted to corporal, the three of them got frustrated because of not getting promoted themselves and none of them followed through into a third year of cadets with me. I made new friends who I thought were good people but they ended up to be far worse jerks than I think I ever associated with in my life. In school, I had this one teacher who was actually really nice but a bit heavy. One time, I was in the library after school while he was there, and I said, “Hey, Mr. Wiselin! I saw a book here about you!” He seemed so happy and said, “Oh, really? What book is that, Leif?” So, I showed him the book, with the title ‘Ancient Greece’ and he went nuts, throwing me into an arm hold and slammed me into a wall. All I could do was laugh, because I had gotten to him. I used to consider it a personal challenge whenever we had a new teacher or a substitute to see if I could break them. I kept all the people in my class in stitches, but none of it was respect, none of it was caring. Mr. Wiselin gave us a lot of lectures that year, and one day I started to notice that he would walk to one place, sit down for a while, then go to the edge of his desk, sit down for a while, and so on. These little resting spots soon became predictable, so I noted them and one day put a tack on each one. Not one tack on his chair, five or six tacks on each spot he favored. Sadly though, none of them hit home, or so I thought. The whole class had seen me put the tacks Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 7 Through the Withering Storm in the spots though, and it was absolutely gut-splitting to have 30 young people sit breathless as poor Mr. Wiselin sat down on each of his favorite spots. No yelps or painful outcries took place though, but one girl told me later that she nearly peed herself laughing seeing him walk down the hall with a tack stuck in his jeans that had somehow missed all of his nerves. Along with the cadet camps, there were also cadet dances and, of course, cadet parties. I went to probably every dance, almost always wore a military combat uniform and would sit down, talk with my friends, drink a pop and then leave when the dance was over. My appreciation of rock music was quite new, though our DJ, who was also a drummer in our cadet band, my snare drum instructor, could really put on a show for us. I had a terrible shyness and was very worried about looking silly on the dance floor, so I was just a spectator all the time, but it was an Air Cadet function so I always went. One time, a senior cadet on whom I had a crush, literally begged me to dance. It was a slow dance and she had a really nice body but I kept refusing until she quit trying. It was such a shame. I think she knew I liked her and took it as a compliment, but I was totally locked inside myself. That was the worst part of life I had to go through, the feeling that I didn’t deserve to be loved. I knew my family loved me but that meant very little to me because they had to love me and I really thought to myself that any grown person who relies on his family to feel loved was a loser. One time, I was at a dance close to Christmas and some friends and I decided to go to the corner store, after which we were walking around. A car drove past us and the people in it yelled at us and I yelled back “f**k you!” in an extremely loud voice. The car pulled up to us and stopped and I apologized and told them I thought they were some people we knew. They drove off and we walked on. A few minutes later, they turned around, parked their car, got out of it, and started walking towards us. I figured everything was cool, so when one guy came up to me, I said, “Man, I’m sorry about what I said. For a minute I thought you were going to kick the shit out of us.” “You mean like this,” he replied and suddenly a foot came out of nowhere and smashed into the side of my face. I had never seen anyone kick like that and didn’t know what to do, so I took off running and he kept coming after me. Before I could get to the safety of a nearby store, he was on top of me. I curled up into a ball and he started to kick me as hard as he could. Some guy in a nearby truck got out and stopped him. After finding out that I was okay, he had the kindness to give me a ride home. It was weird the way those kinds of events would effect me. I could stand up, take the blows, give a few, but when I got home and was alone, it would eat my insides up worrying about why people hated me so much and why these things kept happening to me. When I got in the door, with a puffed up face and a shiner coming through, I was overcome with the sadness of my separation from the rest of the world, proved through this random beating. When my parents looked at me I started to cry. That was the worst night of my young life. At one dance, Frank invited us to go outside with him because he needed a smoke and we complied, being a tightly knit group. He lit up and passed his cigarette over to me. I took one puff and nearly coughed my lungs up. All my friends had a good laugh over that and I swore that wouldn’t humiliate me again so I “practiced” smoking out my window each night with one cigarette before bed. Soon, I was using every kind of tobacco, pipe, cigars, cigarettes and even the odd chew. Within two years, I was up to two packs a day and had dropped out of every physical activity I had ever been involved in. Smoking took a real toll on me and it took 18 years for me to quit. Since then, I learned that smoking actually releases a chemical in a person’s brain similar to some psychiatric drugs. Apparently, it is no small coincidence that 50 per cent of all cigarettes sold are sold to mentally ill people who represent only between 5-20 per cent of the general population. There was another incident in grade nine that made me feel like bad things happened to me for some twisted divine purpose. As I mentioned, I didn’t get along with too many of the Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 8 Through the Withering Storm groups that were established in school. A student named Stuart, who was a hockey player, liked to pick on me a lot. He would do stupid things, like walk up and shove me for no reason or make fun of my name. One time, he phoned me up and asked if I wanted to fight him. My dad was on the other phone listening in when this happened but nothing came of it. Then, one day things boiled up. I was walking down the hall and he pushed me. I pushed back and said “F**k you, Stuart!” “F**k you, Leif!” he replied. “Wanna fight?” “Sure,” I said, “Any time.” Cadets were probably not the best at sports but we fought like the dickens all the time. I had nothing to worry about from this guy. A time and place was established and, when I showed up, practically the whole school was there. Stuart and I squared off and I used my favorite tactic of simply throwing myself into the fight and letting my superior wrestling skills win out. This time was no exception and after a few minutes of struggling, I put my opponent into a throw that took him right down. Then, I got on top of him and held him so there was no way for him to move. From there, I didn’t know what to do. I rarely ever punched in a fight and, in just about every tussle I had been in, it was all about who was the better fighter, not who could inflict the most damage. He squirmed and struggled, but there was no way he was getting up. “It’s over Stuart!” I said. “I’m gonna f**king kill you!” he said to me. “Let’s split them up and start the whole thing over again!” some bitchy sounding young female said. I could feel people spitting on me from the crowd and I knew these people had come to see blood, not a fair fight. So, I just got up. I stood right up, let Stuart go and walked off. He came after me and threw a whole lot of punches at my face but, in fact, they didn’t hurt much. He had probably never been in a fight outside of a peewee hockey game. The funny thing is that I never held a grudge about those punches to the face. I did hold a grudge against was the a**hole Donald, who came up and joined in the fracas by throwing me over a fence so I landed on my back. That act made me so bloody angry (and still does) that I don’t know what I would do if I ever found that guy again. Again, when I got home, I couldn’t understand why people were like this, why they were bloodthirsty, backstabbing and hateful. I swore that would be my last fight ever, at least my last schoolyard fight. I wouldn’t be a performing monkey for these people who had no respect for me, my family or the things for which I stood. I would have kept my word too, but one day not all that many years in the future, a frightening blood lust rose in me that I was unable to control. One of the few respites I had from the pressures of school and home was shooting. I had two air rifles and used to pretend I was a sniper by hanging out my window, shooting at leaves for target practice. Sometimes, I would shoot my neighbour’s windows, then hide in my room and hear them come out and search around to no avail for what had made the loud sound. I honestly thought all that was happening was a loud sound, until one day I had a friend over and my parents were out and an RCMP officer came knocking at my door. Apparently, I was actually shooting holes in the windows and causing quite a bit of damage. I really felt bad about it, I even promised all of my summer camp salary to go towards the damages. Little did I know that $120 salary I would have coming for the camp I had chosen would have been a drop in a bucket. To this day, I wonder why I never had to go to court for that. My dad told me recently that I had caused about $6,000 worth of damage in the shootings. On the other hand, my brother had been caught shoplifting a cassette tape and he was charged, had to go to court and was sentenced to a year’s probation, but for some reason I didn’t even have to pay for the broken windows. Our neighbour’s house insurance covered the bill. I often wonder what would have happened with my life if I had been charged and sent to a reform school. God must have intervened on my behalf back then. My main motivation for the shooting was that I had a strong disliking for a girl my age that lived in that house, chiefly because when her family moved in, a good friend of my brother Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 9 Through the Withering Storm and mine moved out. So, in a dumb kid’s way, we blamed her. Ironically, I am now friendly with that girl and we play long-distance word games on the Internet. She even married a soldier. It was interesting the way my parents dealt with me getting caught with air rifles they had no knowledge of – especially considering that my dad had been a conscientious objector when he did his service time in Denmark and he had elected to become a member of the fire brigade rather than carry a gun. He had seen horrors during the war he often related to me when he was past all comprehension drunk. If it weren’t for the stories he told me late at night, I would never have loved him as much as I did and I probably would have run away. I’m sure also a part of him must have hated me for being a combat-uniform-wearing, gung-ho air cadet. In dealing with my shooting incident though, my parents simply had a talk with me and allowed me to set up my own pellet gun range in the basement. This made me truly happy because I could now sit for hours drinking tea and setting up targets or old toy soldiers, picking them off one by one. I could also invite Lurch over to sit down there and talk for hours. Sometimes we would stay up and play video games, drink coffee and tea and talk until the sun came up. It became a tradition with us, one we carried on through a number of years and good and bad times. As the year wore on, I was having increasing difficulties at school, with my grades and my attitude and, at home, with the terrible fights with my dad. After a while, I left my parents no choice. They sent me to see a psychiatrist and the meeting didn’t go well. That day is still clear to me. I wore a dark green Canadian Forces uniform, my short hair wasn’t combed or washed, and I sat nervously answering questions from a man I had never met before and in whom I had little confidence. The end result of that short and sweet interview was that he wanted me to come into a psychiatric ward for a week for observation. I was devastated. It didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t see myself from the outside and I had no friends to bounce my mental deficiencies off. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t suffering from the same illness I had watched my mom go through these past many years and numerous hospitalizations. I was a victim of the violence that was the result of my dad’s drinking and the bullying I had endured through most of my school years to that point. It was an incredibly egotistical and selfish belief I had, but I actually believed my dad hated me because I was smarter and more successful than him. My dad often used to say he had half of a grade 12 education, he had grade six. I didn’t think this was a fair qualification to manage the life of a young Einstein like myself. Hadn’t I figured out on a computer how to calculate a mortgage when most kids weren’t sure what a mortgage was? Hadn’t I earned honors in grade eight and accolades in basic training? Little did I realize that my dad was probably twice the genius I was for fighting his way up and out of a war-torn country to fly halfway around the world and build a successful corporation in a place where he didn’t even know the language. In my current state of thinking, it didn’t seem right. I did go to the hospital and I spent that week in almost total rebellion. It wasn’t a nice place to be but, when I look back, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as places I would one day go. I had my own room and there was a pool table there. No one forced me to go to school or do anything really. I think the one thing that bothered me the most was that I couldn’t smoke and there really was no place for me to exercise. It was also a place that exposed me to so many sick people – something that, in my middle-class world, I hadn’t realized even existed. I had a lot of misconceptions about psychiatric wards, first of all that being around these people could make me ‘crazy’. I remember being scared when a guy came up to me and told me nicely where the TV was and then I saw a huge river of spittle come rolling out his mouth. It was terrifying because I didn’t think I could avoid becoming such a person if I were kept there. My object became to do everything I could to thwart anyone from helping me, getting close to me or putting me down as anything but an abused but normal kid. I knew that the nurses would make their rounds about every half hour so I would pretend to be asleep when they came. When they left, I would take out a book I had brought about the war in the desert during the Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 10 Through the Withering Storm Second World War and read it for a few minutes, then go back to pretending to be asleep in time for the next round. Every now and then, I would sneak out of my room and take handfuls of crackers and jam from the snack area with the intention of using them for my many hikes with friends into the wilderness around my hometown. Every time I was interviewed or asked why I thought I was there, I said pretty much the same thing. My dad is an alcoholic and we fight all the time and because of this I act up sometimes and it’s his fault I am here. That is what I believed. I had no concept there was anything wrong with me, even though I must admit, the red flags had been flying for quite some time. At the end of the week, my family came and I thought my mom was going to back me up, explain to them that my dad was fighting with me and hitting me. That was what she told me when I told her I didn’t want to go into the institution. She said it might help my dad to get some counseling. When the doctor started asking questions about what the problem was, I was stunned when my mom said, “No, it’s you.” I felt so totally betrayed by the one person in the world I thought actually cared about me. I literally came out swinging, with tears running down my face. My brother started hitting me and my dad started hitting me and I started hitting back. When the smoke cleared, the doctor said he was going to keep me there for another week. I cried and cried that night. I didn’t know who I was or what I had done wrong. I thought people were supposed to be proud of their soldiers. Everything, I did stemmed from a desire to, one day, become a soldier and to be the best one I could possibly be. Surprisingly, while I was incarcerated, I was allowed to attend parade night at cadets and I was promoted to the rank of corporal. It all seemed so meaningless to me – the idea that I was being rewarded, on one hand, for behavior that I was incarcerated for on the other. I felt like a complete piece of garbage, having to return to the psychiatric ward after cadets. It was that night that I discovered something about myself. The more I isolated myself the worse my social skills became. It was scary because this was one of the first times that I could have believed that I had an illness. Each cadet in 533 squadron was required to either teach a class or take a class and, at that time, I was taking a course on public speaking taught us by a former squadron member who was in Toastmasters. It was really a wonderful course but that night, after having spent seven days hiding in my room in the hospital, I was called on to speak about my hobby of collecting genuine military uniforms. I was a wreck. I was shaking badly, I was a deep shade of red, and, for whatever reason, I was so self conscious and nervous that I couldn’t keep eye contact, something in me literally pulled my head down like I was experiencing 3g’s of force. The only thing I can compare to that horror was being injected with a major tranquilizer that took over all of your muscles to the point where you literally bend over backward. Many times, I wished I was a doctor so that I could find that chemical in a person’s makeup and work my whole life to eliminate it from the human race. But in reality I am just a sufferer and a client. I will never forget those cutting words I heard of one of the people who was in my class, mocking my ‘speech of fear’ to a young woman we both knew. When I got back to the hospital from receiving my promotion, I sat in my room at a reading table hunched over, holding my coveted corporal’s stripes, sobbing with the pain I felt and the utter loneliness and rejection. I felt right on the edge of self-destruction and uselessness that night. It was the worst feeling I had ever experienced. I don’t know exactly when I made the decision but, soon after that night, I decided I was going to run away. Not just from the hospital, but from school, my family, from everything. I had a pretty good plan going for me. My sister was coming to take me out on a day pass and I told her they said I could stay out overnight. I would simply pack a bag that had more than I needed for just an overnight stay and leave it by the door of her apartment. Then, I would grab it and say I was going to the 7-Eleven Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 11 Through the Withering Storm or whatever and head for the wilderness, in which I was more than experienced at surviving. There was little that could stop me and, if I made it to the forests, there was probably no one who could find me. My sister came and got me and as we were walking out, she smiled at the nurse and said, “He’s going to stay with his sister tonight!” “Oh, f**k!” I thought. Escape was meters away and she has messed up the whole plan. “No, wait a minute, he’s only allowed to be out for a few hours,” the nurse said. One little sentence, a few little words changed my whole life. I could have made it on my own. I was a smart kid and I was convinced I could have lasted for months. But, instead, I was trapped inside a freaking mental ward at age 14. I know now that running away was no solution but I don’t know if sending me back to my parents was any solution either. Something would have to give eventually and it turned out, a few years later, that it was me. When I left the hospital, the doctor prescribed me some pills that I took for a while, but I couldn’t stand the odd feeling of being light headed all the time. I was against drugs of all kinds back then, and my doctor had never explained that I had an illness or what illness he thought I had that would require this medication. The pills were promptly flushed down the toilet. It was an easy thing to do because no one really seemed to care. I think it was about five months later when my dad noticed that he hadn’t replenished the pills for me. I told him what I had done with them and that I felt I was comparatively fine. He was mad, but in his belief, it was my life when it came right down to it. I’d bought myself some fashionable clothes and had started to turn away slightly from the extreme behavior. Little did I know that I was only repressing it. I remember arguing with him, saying that the doctor told me I had too many ups and downs and the pills would stabilize them (though at no time did he use the words bipolar or manic-depressive) and I felt that if you take away ups and downs you are just a zombie that doesn’t feel anything. At that time, I was addicted to a drug of sorts; I was a total adrenalin junkie. Having my own room was great because I was a good climber and my room had a window that opened to the front of the house which had sort of a shelf I could lower myself onto and sneak out at night and climb back in without using a door. Most of the time, I would instead wait for my dad to go to bed, then go in the bathroom, count off a few seconds, then flush the toilet and use the noise of the flush to sneak downstairs. Then, I would stay up often all night watching old black and white shows, drinking tea, making microwave hot dogs and doing a workout I found in a Ninja book. Other times, I would actually sneak out to meet up with friends, or just wander the neighborhood. Luckily, I didn’t fall into the criminal element in St. Albert or start going out at night to steal things. In a way, I was still being influenced by the comic books I had read as a kid, especially Batman, who was totally dedicated to doing what was right. I felt like going on my adventures at night was more like training. I saw doing things like climbing the school or wandering the streets as a challenge, not an extra source of income. When people I thought were my friends were doing this sort of thing, breaking into cars or stealing musical instruments from the school to pawn them, I was appalled. Not least of all because they were from considerably more well-off families than mine. A big reason for the changes in behavior and clothing was that I had finally really started to take an interest in girls, though the only real knowledge I had of them was what I got out of Playboys my dad left sitting around or late night soft-porn movies and a few of the disgusting jokes I’d read. I had no concept of love or devotion or romance or any of that. Women meant sex and sex was supposed to be the end-all, be-all of life for men. It was a powerful enough force to turn me from a combat-clothing-wearing teenybopper to a well-dressed young man. It was around this time, as I neared the end of grade nine, that I started to be influenced by my sister and her boyfriend, a communist immigrant from Greece, who had grand plans of changing the world by getting a political science degree. Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 12 Through the Withering Storm They kept talking about how there would be blood in the streets in 10 years and how messed up our society was. It took a long time but, after a while, I became infected by their rhetoric and started to look negatively at everything including my friends, the air cadet movement, having a job, owning things and so on. When I first met this guy I was almost going to report him to the authorities as a communist spy. I told my sister about this and she flipped. “Do you realize he could be deported!” she said. I kind of liked that idea but I didn’t report him – probably only because I didn’t know where to. This guy was a real slob. I remember going over to their apartment frequently and there was no furniture but a kitchen table. He would be sitting there in his underwear, (if he wore that much clothing for company) eating with all the noise one person could muster, insulting me for wearing a tie. I used to tell him how repulsive his eating was and he would say that where he worked (for a forestry company) food to them was just fuel and it didn’t matter how it was consumed. It made me sick to my stomach, and, possibly because of the big impression he had on my sister, it made me begin to doubt my very image of myself. That was pretty much the end of air cadets for me. Though I stayed on for one more year, my heart and soul just wasn’t in it. Close to the end of my grade nine year, when we were going through the process of applying for our summer camps, on a Monday sports night I sustained a serious injury. We were playing a game called ‘stick in the middle.’ We were split into two teams and numbered off, with the same numbers on opposing sides of the gym (one to 10) and a hockey stick was placed in the middle of the two groups. Without warning, the leader of the game would call out a number and the two people who were assigned that number would have to run full tilt and literally fight for the stick, and then bring it back to their side. This time, luck was not with me and a cadet named Todd Reader, two years my senior, had my number. I didn’t back down though. I went towards the stick full on and somehow my foot got twisted around under Todd and he got the stick and got it away from me, leaving me writhing in pain on the floor. I limped off to the sidelines and one of the senior cadets, a young woman (who I had a complete crush on) asked to see my foot. I told her I was okay and since sports night was nearly over, I figured I just had a sprain and could go home and rest my foot and it would be fine in the morning. When I got home (after the ritual hamburger we gorged on after every cadet night), my foot was in even more pain. I ended up getting my dad to drive me to the hospital where I found out it was broken. This didn’t sit well with me because we had to take a medical to complete the application process for our camps, and when it came time to answer the question of whether or not I would be okay to march on a hard surface, the doctor ticked ‘no’ and I failed the medical. I had it re-done, but, by the time I resubmitted my application, the junior leadership course I really wanted was filled, and I ended up getting the air crew survival course, where they sent all the slackers. It was a two-week course at the same camp where our squadron went for weekends during the year. Still, I guess I was lucky, because only half of the guys who applied for courses got one and I liked the idea of training in the bush. I was going to have some fun, despite myself. It was so hard for me to accept that I had limits, that my bones could be broken. The weekend after I broke my foot, we had a camp and because of my injury I couldn’t go. I think it was the first such event I had ever missed. These bush camps where everyone wore their army clothes and worked on survival and combat skills were my favorite part of cadets. I had so much fun going to them that often I would go without sleep for the whole weekend. On that Saturday night, I went downstairs after my parents were asleep and I soaked my cast in hot water and took a pair of scissors and cut it off. My dad woke up and saw me sitting there with all that plaster splashed in the dining room and promptly took me to the hospital. The next cast they put on broke because I wouldn’t stop walking on it (in those days I would walk a mile every day to get cigars). My doctor decided to make a deal with me. He would take the cast off and not put another one on provided I took it easy on the foot. Copyright 2009 Leif Gregersen. All rights reserved. 13 Through the Withering Storm I was such a jerk back then I wouldn’t let anyone sign my cast. I don’t know if I hated myself or if it was the illness. I just couldn’t let myself be human. Humans were weak, friends were disposable, and family was to be controlled. I hate to say it but when I look back through the eyes I have now, I was a monster. At least, part of me was. Part of me wanted love and happiness. Part of me wanted to self-destruct. After that the bush camp was over, there wasn’t much time left in the school year for anything but our grade nine graduation ceremony and there wasn’t much to that. In fact, when I heard it was on the same night as my favorite TV show, I nearly backed out of it. Had it been on a cadet night, I never would have gone. It was held in the school gym, it wasn’t mandatory to wear a tux and there would be a few parties afterwards. I was lucky because, although I was only 14, I fit my dad’s clothes, so I wore his dark blue three-piece suit to the ceremony. I was bit proud that I actually did make it because, even though I worked hard in some parts, and there were more than a couple of As on my report card, I had nearly been kicked out of school a few times, and for the last third of the school year I did very little work. My Grade 9 diploma had a space waiting for it next to my basic training diploma and that was that. I had thought to myself when I saw those two together that smaller men had built empires on less. The really big thing I remember about that night was how great Mandy looked. She had on a grad dress that was probably more expensive than most dresses girls buy for their high school graduation, she had a fabulous tan and a 1980s big hairstyle that was just killer. At one point, she was walking through the schoolyard with a friend and I was walking down an adjacent street in my dad’s suit and she said to me, “So, Leif, I guess in 10 years we will be seeing you on the stock market.” That really blew me away. They were probably the last kind words any attractive female said to me for at least the next six years. I would never forget that night and I will never forget how good she looked. Often, I wish I could forget about Mandy but likely because she was a ‘first crush’, I probably won’t. As years have gone past, I often wonder having heard a thing or two about her whether she was
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