Writer, Broadcaster

I Burst Into Tears. Let Me Explain.

Tom Pelphrey as Ben

(This post contains spoilers for the third season of Ozark)

The other day, during a walk with my wife, I burst into tears.

During the pandemic we’ve gotten into the excellent habit of going for long walks. We find them therapeutic. On this walk, I was telling Lynda about some family history we’d never really got into before.

“He was my favorite cousin,” I told her, and then I burst into tears.

I actually stood hunched over on a corner racked with sobs for what felt like several minutes before I regained control. The last time I cried anything like that in public was twenty years ago, during the end credits of Life is Beautiful, the movie with Roberto Benigni.

This time also had to do with popular entertainment, but it’s much deeper than that.

Three nights earlier Lynda and I had finished watching the third season of Ozark. The season had begun by introducing a character who quickly became my favourite on the show, the brother of Laura Linney’s character. His name was Ben (played by Tom Pelphrey), and it soon came out that the character had bipolar disorder. This became a major plot point, and in the season finale things did not end well for Ben, so much so that I was devastated. I did not cry then, but I was wounded, and it lingered with me for three days, until Lynda and I took our walk, and it all came out.

Apart from the incident with Life is Beautiful, I’m not normally in the habit of crying during or after movies or TV shows. I’m usually immune to entertainment’s emotional manipulations. But this one hit close to the bone. It was more than Ben’s fate that did me in. It was reality. My reality since about the age of twelve.

No, I’m not bipolar. I’ll try to explain, the way I did to my wife during our walk.

When I was about twelve my parents gave me a gift. It was a book. They told me it used to belong to my Uncle Bill.

I wasn’t aware I had an Uncle Bill, and said so.

I don’t know how much my parents told me that day, but over time I learned that Uncle Bill had been institutionalized for schizophrenia back in the fifties. He spent most if not all of his life institutionalized. It’s my understanding that he experienced electroshock therapy during his time in the institution, back before they perfected that. I never met Uncle Bill.

When my parents gave me Uncle Bill’s book something was said. I don’t remember what, exactly. But it was something like Uncle Bill was creative and so are you so it seems appropriate that you should have this book. It was a perfectly innocent remark and it was meant as a compliment. But it had the inadvertent effect of creating, in my young, impressionable mind, a link between Uncle Bill and me.

Around this time, at the age of twelve, my best friend Kevin Brown moved away. A slew of friends I’d been friends with since Grade One drifted away. I found myself isolated. Some jerk at school began bullying me. I got moved out of my bedroom upstairs into the basement while my father built a new bedroom for me. One night, alone in the basement, just before I drifted off to sleep, I experienced the unmistakable, unfathomable presence of evil in the form of absolute despair.

That’s what it felt like, anyway—a fleeting glimpse of horror, of utter hopelessness. It lasted only a few seconds, but it shook me to my core. I had not known it was possible to feel such abject terror.

It was a long time ago so I don’t remember the exact chronology. But around then I decided I no longer wanted to go to school. Every morning, within minutes of waking up, a pit formed in my stomach. I lost the ability to eat breakfast. I just couldn’t eat. It would be eighteen years before I would be able to eat a full breakfast again in the morning. For a while there I couldn’t talk either, in the mornings. I remember reluctantly walking to school with my sister Susan while she tried in vain to understand why I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t have been able to explain even had I been able to open my mouth. I could only nod or shake my head at her questions. Once, or twice, or maybe thrice, I felt so weird during class that my mother had to come to school to take me home. She wasn’t happy about it. She didn’t understand. Neither did I.

I thought I was either crazy or about to go crazy, but I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I had to deal with it myself. I was absolutely certain that what had happened to my uncle Bill would happen to me. I didn’t know it but I was grappling with the inability to prove a negative. There was no way to prove to myself that I wouldn’t go crazy. Because I could have! Logically, if Uncle Bill had gone crazy, if people could go crazy, then it could happen to me. Only time would tell. This fear, together with the increasing isolation of my social circle, did me in, for a while.

It lasted until the summer. Sometime after school let out, my parents got us a puppy, Sarge, and took Sarge, my three sisters and me on a three week long trip around the Maritimes. We camped in Prince Edward Island, drove the Cabot Trail, visited my old friend Kevin Brown in Sydney, Nova Scotia, visited relatives in Norton, New Brunswick, and visited more relatives in northern New Brunswick. The trip was sufficiently eventful and fun that I forgot all my fears and returned to normal. I especially enjoyed visiting my cousins in Johnville, New Brunswick, including my cousin James, who was the same age as me.

James was a lot of fun. He and his brothers taught my sisters and me how to play many card games, and one night we camped outside their old farmhouse on the old Mahoney homestead. That night James told me the funniest joke I’d ever heard up til that point in my life. “What’s big and hairy and sticks out of your pyjamas?” he asked me. 

I laughed and laughed, and I hadn’t even heard the punchline yet.

“What?” I asked.

“Your head,” he said.

I just about died at the age of twelve laughing.

James was my favourite cousin, I decided.

By the time I started Grade Eight, I had recovered from my anxiety, and no longer thought I was going crazy, and replaced all that with an almost but not quite crippling case of self-consciousness, especially around anybody I thought was better than me, and girls. I thought just about everybody was better than me, especially girls, so I was pretty much self-conscious around everybody. Still, I’d replaced the old set of friends with a new set and with thoughts of my poor uncle out of my mind I was more or less happy for the rest of my teens.

I don’t remember seeing much of cousin James until later on in my teens when we visited my Aunt and Uncle’s cottage on Skiff Lake in New Brunswick. James and I found time to do a bit of canoeing around the lake together, and I quickly discovered that he wasn’t quite the same James as I remembered. He told me tales of a trip to Toronto that did not sound quite right to me, adventures so fantastic and prurient that I did not think they could be true, and that whether true or not I found disturbing. I found I couldn’t relate to him, and alas he became no longer my favourite cousin.

On January 17th, 1985. I was attending Ryerson Polytechnical Insitute (it wasn’t a university yet) in Toronto. I was a long way from home, in a completely new environment, with a whole new set of friends, but I was having a good time. By this time I was keeping a journal. On that date I wrote:

“I am susceptible to two different kinds of depression. One I’ve felt all my life; I call it the ‘Black Irish Mood.’  …the other depression borders on clinical depression.  I’ve felt it three times that I can remember. I get it when I’m extremely tired or physically run down. I felt it for a large part of grade 7, for the last few weeks of summer, and I feel it occasionally now. It scares me. It is characterized by feeling totally out of control of my life. I feel at the mercy of unknown forces.”

I would come to think of that first year in Toronto as one of the best years of my life. Still, that journal entry hints at some dark clouds assembling on the horizon.

All remained well until I returned home to the island for the summer.

On May 5th 1985, I wrote:

“Since getting home I haven’t been feeling like myself.” 

This was a bit of an understatement. On June 17th I elaborated:

“This last week has been one of the strangest weeks of my life, at least psychologically speaking.  All Wednesday night I felt real uncomfortable, and it wasn’t the first night I’ve felt like that. It was like a feeling of anxiety or nervousness.  I had to go plant strawberries at Burn’s Poultry Farm on Thurs, so maybe I was a bit apprehensive.  Why I don’t know; I couldn’t control the feeling. …for some reason I was gripped by anxiety, a pit in my stomach. I thought I was becoming depressed, but there was no reason for it.  Weird ideas and thoughts came unbidden into my head (e.g., suicide, not something I would ever consider seriously).  It crossed my mind that maybe I was on the road to a nervous breakdown or insanity.  I tried to reason with myself, but the pit in my stomach wouldn’t leave. I think it is gone now…I never want to experience it again.”

I would experience it again many times. It was a bad summer. And a bad fall. It was everything I’d felt when I was twelve years old multiplied by one hundred. I became distant from my friends. I became concerned for my state of mind. I was afraid I was going crazy. I WAS crazy, kind of. I thought about how I was feeling constantly. I could hardly concentrate on my summer job. I told no one but my journal:    

July 23 1985

“I still suffer the occasional feelings of anxiety or depression or whatever the hell it is.”

On September 4th, on my way back to Toronto for my second year at Ryerson, I experienced my first panic attack:

“Well, when I hit the plane I wish I knew what hit me. I had a really scary attack of the nerves, at times really bad, that lasted until about 2 hours after I landed.  No reason, no warning, nothing.  Scared the hell out of me. Feeling of total emptiness, of despair, and I knew that if it kept up, a total breakdown, & maybe suicide, was inevitable.”

From that point onward I lived in fear of more panic attacks. I was right to be afraid, because they kept coming. I would have them at night. I would get up and run around my apartment trying to make a panic attack go away, or keep it at bay. I would drink a glass of water, not because I thought the water helped, but because the act of getting the water and drinking it distracted me. I would have panic attacks in the morning after waking up, and run around the apartment like a madman, out to the balcony for fresh air. I would have them during the day, alone, with friends, in class, the entire time convinced that I was going crazy, that it was only a matter of time until I suffered a complete nervous breakdown, whatever that was.

I kept the way I was feeling entirely to myself. I pretended I was okay. There’s a picture of me with my friends and roommates on Thanksgiving after baking a turkey. We’re all standing around the turkey smiling at the camera. My smile is too big, unnatural, entirely fake. What was going on outside was entirely at odds with what was going on inside.

One day one of our professors at Ryerson paired each of us students up for an exercise.  I was paired with a young woman whose name I wish I could remember now. She was nice, I liked her. We were told to interview one another. Ask one another a bunch of questions, get to know one another, and afterwards, share our impressions with the rest of the class. I was a mess, but I got through it okay.

“What were your impressions of Joe?” the professor asked.

“Calm,” she said. “Confident. In control.”

Anything but, I was shocked that I came across that way. But the turmoil I felt was completely inside. I did not let anything out, except rarely. I told two friends how I felt, but they were too young, had no experience in such matters, and could not help me. One of them teased me about it later, while I was still in anxiety’s horrible grip. I mention it, but I don’t hold it against him.

I went to see Ryerson’s doctor, explained my symptoms. I remember him as being older than I am now, writing this, though he might not have been. We might as well have been on two different planets. He attributed my symptoms to stress, which sounded too much like, “it’s all in your head” to be of any help to me. He couldn’t—or didn’t—help me.

I remember long, long walks at night, around enormous city blocks in the cold, to chill the fear out of me. It kept the panic attacks at bay but did not otherwise help much.

Still, a part of me resisted this invisible, relentless foe. Though I could see no end to my suffering, tiny nuggets of hope occasionally appeared to sustain me. A grandmother wrote to an advice column that she had suffered depression all her life, only to have it mysteriously lift in her old age, and now she could enjoy her grandchildren. If it could happen to her, it could happen to me. Maybe I would be fine in my old age. It was something to cling to.

One night when I decided I needed professional help. I visited Princess Margaret’s Emergency department. The emergency physician asked me several questions. The only one I remember is whether I was gay. I guess he figured maybe I was struggling with that. That wasn’t it. I asked if I could see a psychiatrist. He said the waiting lists were long, but he’d put me on one. I never did hear from anybody.

I went home for Christmas that year, barely holding it together. Fake smiles, fake Christmas cheer. I felt better when I drank, so on occasion I drank a lot. One night at the local hot spot in town—it may have been the Regent—it was Zombies. You know, to turn me into a zombie. I drank one after another. They had no absolutely effect on me until suddenly they did. My mother was waiting up for me. Even less impressed than when she’d had to retrieve me from school back when I was twelve. The next morning we had our family picture taken. Shortly before the shoot I was in the bathroom puking my guts out.

“We have to get our picture taken in fifteen minutes and listen to this!” Mom complained to my father outside the bathroom. I barfed, on cue, sick, depressed, but amused.

That family picture hung on the living room wall for years. Punishment, I guess.

Waiting in the Charlottetown airport to return to Toronto, I found a patch of sunlight by a window, sat in it, and reflected on my state of mind. I decided then and there that I had to beat this thing, whatever it was. There was nobody to help me, only me. I had decided this before but it never quite took. This time resulted in a subtle shift in attitude. A positive bias that hadn’t existed before. Back in Toronto things got better. Not all at once, the panic attacks didn’t quite go away—I continued to have them off and on for years—but I dealt with them better. My fear of going crazy gradually vanished. I wasn’t going to become like my uncle. I wasn’t going to become schizophrenic. I became myself again—happy.

Meanwhile, my cousin James, my erstwhile favourite cousin—the same age as me—was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He attended university in Ottawa. I don’t know the whole story, but one day after he stopped taking his medication they found his car abandoned in a field. The driver’s door was shut and his wallet, money and identification had been discarded on the passenger seat. The passenger door was ajar. None of us has ever seen James again. They never found James’ body, and they never found James.

Thirty-four years later I watched Season Three of Ozark and rooted for my favourite character Ben, who suffered from Bipolar Disorder—not the same disorder, I know, but it resonated, like all great art.

It had all ended okay for me because I’m lucky.

It did not end well for Ben, but that doesn’t really matter because he doesn’t even exist, other than in our imaginations.

But there are those who have existed, and my cousin James is one of them, and it didn’t end well for him.

Three days after I hurt for bewildered, betrayed Ben as he stepped out of that restaurant in that final episode, I stood on the street with my wife, and said, “He was my favourite cousin.”

And it brought forth such a well of long suppressed feeling that I cried for James, and for my Uncle Bill, and for my younger, hurting self, I think.

And then I had to explain it all to my wife, as I’ve just done for you.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Cutress

    Thank-you for sharing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2021 Joe Mahoney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑