Wednesday, 31 December 2014

(Poem) The Sacred

Photo by Allison Nichols, December 30, 2014
The sacred heartbreakers are codebreakers, armed with usernames and passwords
They enter, scramble with our circuitry and steal our SIM cards
Leaving us to writhe and reel through the consequences
Of their consequence-free cosmos
They leave us wondering why the hell we invited them in in the first place
And in doing so remind us of why we live and breathe
And of the sacred faults in our holy programming
We are alive - and that's kind of our own problem
We feel, we crave connectivity - and that's most definitely our own problem
We seek to share with others the fiber of our fabric - and this is definitely a terrible idea
And lest we forget, the sacred heartbreakers remind us of the futility of feeling
And hoist down our hearts from their swingsets on the ceiling

The sacred serenades emanate through iTunes and AM radio
Country boys from Kainai and Cowley through the Crowsnest Pass
All telling us to head on down to the riverside
With that ever-elusive gurrrrrl with five R's, double-D's and those jeans painted on
Leaving us wondering what river I'm supposed to turn off at
And whether the Oldman River Dam is a good scenic place to have sex
Why not? The water gushes, rushes and electrifies
Together with the towering turbines amid the fescue grass of the southwest
While the wind drowns out the drone of Chantelle J, Mountain Radio
Stopping here was the best idea ever
And lest we forget, that J-shaped scar from that twilight tumble
Will snap us back in a second without a fumble

The sacred coping mechanisms are always alive and ready
Kicking into action whenever we need them the least - and the most
They embarrass us in public, forever reminding us
Of how fucking underwhelming our better angels can be
Especially when they're drunk, stoned and overdrawn after a month off their medications
These mechanisms are inevitably embarrassing
Until they remind us of our own humanity, and the humanity of others
Whose better angels' behaviour we're quicker to forgive than our own
It's not our fault we're all walking disasters
In scripture we were rigged for reptilian recoil, and in science built to bloom and bust
And lest we forget, the universe's coping mechanism is simply to keep on exploding and rebuilding
Is that any better than any of ours - or more fulfilling?

The sacred fallen ones teach us a lesson in humility and focus
Provided we're awake enough to hear it
That guy who fell on his ass on the black ice ahead of us
That sad figure who disappeared in the labyrinth of Lagos after a sweet e-serenade from the son of Sani Abacha
And that nameless crazy lady down in Georgia, Alabama and windswept Wakayama
All telling us to pay a bit more attention than we currently are
And what we might do differently
Buzzfeed tells us to feel smug, but experience dictates otherwise
Reminding us that we're all someone's cautionary tale, their sacred stupid-person
And lest we forget, we all have a rendezvous with destiny
Just around the corner - you'll see

The sacred walk is the one we all feel compelled to start anew
Every time we buy a new calendar at the mall kiosk
Switching Doctor Seuss with Penguins, Puppies with Monster Trucks, all as arbitrary as ourselves
And each new skeleton we grow every seven years or so seem to irk onlookers all the more
Even as we're supposed to be striding through the Serengeti stronger and more springingly than before
The sacred walk is one to be taken as lightly and lotus-footedly as possible
Shedding the scorns and scars of bygone barfights and blunt force trauma
Marking our own time, righting wrongs and wronging rites of passage
Refusing to scream for attention through the unforgiving lens of McLuhan's bastard Zuckerberg baby
The medium is the medium
And lest we forget, see Thermodynamic Law Number Three
And absolute zero is wherever we make it be

The sacred ones are our fellow voyagers
The wondrous weirdos that latch onto our lives and hold on for dear life
And in doing so become us
Their joy is ours, their pain is ours
Their neuroses and infantile indignation become the burden we grit and bear
Part of the package deal lest we not be party to their dance parties and dazzling states of grace
We are the ones that made it, the infinitely improbable
The monkey that made his name in musical theatre, the swan that survived the storm
Still pretty ugly yet mighty pretty; barefoot, pregnant and full of rage
Full of resolutions and revolutions, depending on your whereabouts amid that yawning gulf between Tofino and Tegucigalpa
And lest we forget, those eight bright Edmonton lights stubbed out in a terrible December flash
Now seared immortal in our tribal memory cache

Here we all are, those who stand, those departed
I love you all - and on this I've only started.

- Pincher Creek, AB, December 31, 2014

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

10 Sexiest World Leaders of 2015

It's time again for that most hallowed of Brush Talk traditions: the annual Top 10 Sexiest World Leaders contest!

All in all it was a rough year for many of 2014's Top Ten. Of the previous ten, four (Bratušek, Tymoshenko, Yingluck, and Touré) have since been put out to pasture (some democratically, some otherwise), and Haitian President Michel Martelly's days in the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince may be numbered, with ongoing protests and a corruption probe threatening his tenure. Meanwhile, Mexico's guapo president Enrique Peña Nieto has lost a great deal of lustre over his country's declining press freedom, a recent mass kidnapping of students in Iguala and frequent gaffes, while Italy's young premier Matteo Renzi faces an uphill battle against his country's old guard.

This year's list features an almost entirely new lineup from previous years. While Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is still a hottie, after two years atop the sexy list it was time to move on from the Kingdom of Bhutan. And while Albanian prime minister Edi Rama continues to charm, most recently taking steps to improve his country's long frictious relations with neighbouring Serbia, we decided it was time for fresh blood. Except for Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who is simply too glamourous and wonderful to leave off the list. She makes the Top 10 for the third straight year.

It should perhaps be mentioned that when we're talking about 'sexiness' we're not simply talking physical attractiveness. Nope, we may be shallow here but we're not that shallow. Our contestants are rated on a totally non-objective range of criteria, including looks, fashion sense, personal charm and magnetism, and, wherever possible, competence in their line of work. Also, pains have been taken to assure that all regions of the world are adequately represented, although this has never proved to be a problem in these posts. So without any further ado, here is our Top Ten International Political Hottie list for 2015!

1. Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Why HTS again? Well, in addition to being arguably Europe's most glamourous sitting head of government, Denmark's Gucci-toting, Obama-selfie-snapping PM has a lot to show for her three years in office. Under her leadership, Denmark has emerged as one of Europe's best-performing economies, with an unemployment rate half the eurozone average, the lowest youth unemployment rate in the EU, and a global ranking of fourth in 'ease in doing business' (best in Europe). The country also continues to lead by example in combating climate change, with Denmark now on course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Of course Give-em Hell Helle hasn't been without her controversies. Obama selfies aside, the centre-left leader has antagonized many on the left in her country by clashing with teachers' unions, cutting corporate taxes, and overseeing the proposed sale of Denmark natural gas consortium DONG Energy shares to Goldman Sachs. Up for reelection in 2015, she currently trails behind Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the centre-right Venstre Party. But with an impressive list of achievements under her designer belt, Gucci Helle still enjoys substantial support - and is certainly not to be discounted.

2. Xavier Bettel

Luxembourg? Really? C'mon, I thought we were sticking with real countries here! Well, aside from having roughly similar sizes and populations, the postage stamp-sized Grand Duchy of Luxembourg also shares a certain va-va-voom factor with the similarly liliputian Kingdom of Bhutan. Instead of a smoking hot Dragon King, Luxembourg has as head of state the dashing Grand Duke Henri, who has presided over this curious vestige of the Holy Roman Empire since the death of his father Jean in 2000. But while the Grand Duke might be a looker, no man has of late been turning heads in the tiny country like its dreamy head of government, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who in December 2013 became only the third openly gay world leader in modern history.

So how is Bettel faring thus far as Luxembourg's PM? Hard to tell. Luxembourg remains the second wealthiest country in the world by per-capital GDP (trailing only Qatar), with it and Singapore the only non-oil-based economies in the top five. Moreover, the Luxembourg Tax Avoidance Controversy that dogged his predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker appears to have had little impact on his popularity. And in August of this year the country was treated to the PM's wedding to longtime architect partner Gaultier Destenay. That and, well, how hard can it be to govern a place as small and placid as Luxembourg? Well, giventhe spectacular implosion of Iceland (a country with a population even smaller than the Grand Duchy) in the global financial crisis, that the political fallout that ensued, perhaps it's not as easy as it looks.

3. Joko Widodo

Given the fact that Indonesia is a) the world's fourth most populous country; b) the world's third-largest democracy; and c) the world's most populous Muslim country, it's remarkable how little media attention the country's 2014 presidential elections received. While John Oliver famously lambasted the US media for ignoring India's general election (before Prime Minister Narendra Modi became a post-election neoliberal icon), the Indian election was a relative global media circus next to Indonesia's, which went by practically without a murmur. That said, the Southeast Asian nation's 2014 presidential election was a refreshingly placid and uncontroversial affair, which, given the country's relatively recent history of violent coups, ethnic cleansing, communal violence and systematic kleptocracy, is a refreshing sign of a maturing democracy that has come a long way from the end of the ugly Suharto era.

Indonesia's newly minted president Joko Widodo, or 'Jokowi' as he is universally known, shares Modi's rags-to-riches story, but that's where the similarities between the two leaders ends. Whereas Modi's past is clouded by controversy and his present tinged with strident religious nationalism, the colourful former governor of Jakarta appears to be remarkably controversy-free, and his presidential campaign was one centred on pluralism and religious tolerance, earning him the ire of the country's Islamists and the support of just about everybody else in a country long fraught by religious and ethnic conflict. He has also pledged to grow the country's economy by seven per cent a year for the next three years while continuing to overhaul its strained infrastructure.

Aside from his humble background as the son of a village furniture maker, he is probably best known for his abiding love of heavy metal, most notably Metallica, Lamb of God, Slayer and Napalm Death, leading LoG frontman Randy Blythe to dub him the "World's First Heavy Metal President." And at age 53 he looks at most half his age. Guess metal really does keep you young!

4. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Argentina's Iron Lady and Presidente de la República since 2010, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has perhaps been something of an oversight in the last two years' top ten lists - if for no other reason that she seems like too obvious a choice. Style-wise she falls into the same category as Denmark's governing glamourpuss, with whom she shares a love of designer labels and haute couture, but Argentina's cougar-in-chief's sexy points stem mainly from her status as a fierce, take-no-shit political warrior with few equals. While Argentina's inflation-ridden economy remains as wobbly as ever, the widow of former president Néstor Kirchner has proven herself to be a fighter equal to her late husband, taking on billionaire US hedge fund managers and British prime ministers with equal aplomb.

Of all of Argentina's leading lady's jousting matches, the most spectacular may have been her KO against the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Pope Francis. While the current pontiff has made admirable, if tentative, steps towards softening the Church of Rome's hardline stance against homosexuality, it was the same Argentine cleric who took to the ring against Señora Kirchner on the issue of same-sex marriage in Argentina. She won, making Argentina the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage, and in doing so just might have helped push the Vatican's sexiest virgin in a more liberal direction. Gracias, Cristina.

5. Michelle Bachelet

Remaining in South America's Cono Sur, 2014 saw the return to power of another one of the continent's leading female political pugilists, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, after four years in opposition. While on the surface, the hippie chick-turned-political refugee-turned-bookish socialist politician might seem like the polar opposite to her Rioplatense counterpart, the Chilean president is no less of a fighter. In her first term as president, Bachelet wasted no time exorcising the country's Pinochet-era ghosts by refusing to grant the late dictator a state funeral following his death in 2006, and three years later opening Santiago's Museum of Memory and Human Rights - a museum dedicated to documenting the horrors of Pinochet's 16-and-a-half year dictatorship.

After four years out to pasture, Señora Bachelet appears to have lost none of her old fire. Her current legislative priorities include legalizing abortion in this longstanding bastion of conservative Catholicism (abortion remains banned under all circumstances in Chile) and educational reforms aimed at narrowing the country's still pronounced socioeconomic divide. At age 63, the guitar-strumming, poetry-loving physician remains one of South America's most eligible bachelorettes. Just be prepared to take a back seat to her three children and her beloved country.

6. Taavi Rõivas

Source: LinkedIn
Estonia may not immediately spring to mind when you think of 'sexy' countries, but the small Baltic state has certainly earned its share of coolness cred since gaining independence from the USSR in 1991. From a melancholy backwater of the Soviet Union, the country has since emerged as an economic and cultural powerhouse, with the highest concentration of tech start-ups anywhere in the world and one of the world's most exciting contemporary music scenes. And while the country took a severe beating during the the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, Estonia's healthy business climate, strong ties to Scandinavia, and growing tourism industry helped make its recession far less painful than many of its fellow ex-Eastern Bloc countries.

If geek-chic has become Estonia's new modus vivendi, the country definitely has the right leadership for the job. In the largely ceremonial role of president Estonia has a bow-tied Bill Nye lookalike named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a social media-obsessed tech maven who famously got into a Twitter spat with economist Paul Krugman over Estonia's 2008 austerity program. Meanwhile, this year's parliamentary election brought to power the baby-faced Taavi Rõivas, who at age 35 is currently the EU's youngest head of government. Combining Justin Timberlake's hair, Leo DiCaprio's jawline, and an easy fluency in four languages, Rõivas might just be the dishiest figure on the EU scene. But don't get your hopes up - his marriage to local pop princess Luisa Värk is one the the best-known things about him.

7. Portia Simpson Miller

When it comes to Gross National Sexy, the land of rum, reggae and rastafarianism has it made. Jamaica may have its problems, but lack of sex appeal has never been among them. From the seductive Irish-influenced lilt of Jamaican English to the island's bad-ass cuisine and its irresistible musical smorgasbord of reggae, ska, dancehall, rocksteady etc., Jamaica oozes sex appeal like few other places. Sadly, however, the island's politics have been decidedly less sexy over the course of the nation's young history, as its diverse economy has long been hampered by corruption and fiscal mismanagement to such an extent that a 2011 revealed that 60 per cent of Jamaicans would, if put to a vote, opt to return to direct British rule. Such sentiments are further compounded by the island's stubbornly high rate of violent crime, with poverty and corruption continuing to fuel the country's notorious gang problem.

Jamaica's current prime minister Portia Simpson Miller represents a significant departure from the island's previous leaders. As the country's first female head of government, Sista P, as she is commonly known, has shown a willingness to swim against the current when dealing with her country's warts. Most notably she has been the first Jamaican leader to publicly advocate on behalf of LGBTQ rights, a thorny issue in one of the world's most notoriously homophobic societies. While her performance on this front has been mixed in recent years, her administration has overseen a gradual opening of dialogue with gay rights groups and reforms aimed at curbing homophobic violence. And at age 69 she still looks glamourous, which helps when you're blowing kisses at LGBTQ rights protesters in New York City.

8. Joseph Kabila

Unless you're a wannabe mercenary with a serious danger fetish, the Democratic Republic of Congo is about the furthest thing from a sexy tourist destination one could possibly think of. The Central African country formerly known as Zaïre and previously known as the Belgian Congo has for most of its post-independence history been the sum of every negative cliché about the continent, from the cartoonish kleptocracy of dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko to the horrors of the country's two post-Mobutu civil wars, which together resulted in as many as 5.4 million deaths - more than any armed conflict since World War II. Even now, over ten years after the end of the Second Congo War, the eastern regions of Kivu and Ituri remain humanitarian disasters, where rape continues to be employed as a weapon of war with terrifying regularity. Indeed, using the word sexy in the same sentence as the DRC might strike some as inherently in bad taste.

That said, there once was a time when the nation's capital Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville) was a hip and happening metropolis known affectionately as 'Kin la Belle' (Kin the Beautiful), which teemed with jazz joints and cafés, even as Mobotu and famously hosted Foreman and Ali for their legendary 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle' bout. And while much of the country remains a humanitarian nightmare, there are signs that life in the capital and other more peaceful regions is returning to normal - such as an emerging jazz festival in Kinshasa. As for sexy leadership, former guerrilla fighter-turn-president Joseph Kabila is certainly the handsomest head of state the country has had since the assassination of its dapper founding president Patrice Lumumba. While Kabila's 2012 reelection was marred by irregularities, he's been a saint compared to his predecessors - and at the very least is easy on the eyes.

9. Atifete Jahjaga / Tatiana Turanskaya

Sources: /
In the ninth spot we have a split decision between two leaders whose countries fall into the category known to political scientists as 'places that don't exist'. The post-Cold War disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia left in its wake a bizarre assortment of self-declared nation states ranging in size from Kazakhstan (about four times the size of Texas) to places small enough to defend with a single large man with a Kalashnikov and a pack of rottweilers. It is into this latter category that fall the republics of Kosovo and Transnistria, two 'countries' that remain unrecognized by either much or nearly all of the world. On this front, Kosovo is on slightly more secure ground. Nearly nine years after its declaration of independence in 2008, it enjoys full diplomatic recognition from most developed western countries, including most of Europe. Transnistria, on the other hand, only enjoys recognition from fellow unrecognized breakaway republics Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, although Russia, which maintains a troop presence in the region, continues to accord it 'special status' - whatever that means.

Transnistria and Kosovo also share the distinction of being led by two of the youngest female political leaders around. In 2013, the parliament of Moldova's breakaway eastern sliver selected as its prime minister the 40-year-old Tatiana Turanskaya, a former city administrator and mother of two, which is about all we could find out about her. (Concrete English-language information on the secretive Transnistrian Republic seems to be hard to come by.) More, however, is known about her Kosovar counterpart Major General Atifete Jahjaga, the country's former Deputy Director of Police who in 2011 became the region's youngest and first female head of state at age 35. While her ambition to move Kosovo towards EU membership might seem a long way off, she looks to have at least secured her country's place within the International Olympic Committee. Which is more than can be said for Transnistria, whose athletes have no option but to compete under the Moldovan flag.

Jahjaga and Turanskaya are both lookers - and therefore both make the list, but for all intents and purposes Jahjaga's worldly charisma and tough cop image puts her on top in the beautiful-women-running-tiny-states-struggling-for recognition category. Turanskaya appears to be more of Eastern European Danielle Smith than anything - possibly ready to cross the floor to Russia or Moldova at any moment.

10. Park Geun-hye

Source: New York Times
Of all the innumerable US-backed dictators of the late-twentieth century, few cut as jaunty a figure as South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee, who dominated his country's political scene from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. A former Imperial Japanese military officer during the colonial era who seized power in a 1961 coup, General Park is simultaneously loathed by modern-day Koreans for constructing a police responsible for a laundry list of human rights violations in the 1970s and 1980s (including the infamous Gwangju Massacre of 1980), and revered for his instrumental role in the country's spectacular economic ascendancy from the 1960s onward. Koreans' conflicted relationship with their former dictator has been thrown into sharp focus in recent years with the dramatic ascension of his daughter, Park Geun-hye, to the office he once held, making her the first female leader of any of East Asia's 'tiger' economies.

A little-known fact about South Korea's sitting president is that in 1974, as a 22-year-old university student in France, she suddenly found herself in the official role of First Lady following the death of her mother in a botched assassination attempt on the president - a direct link to the country's most autocratic period that makes many Koreans uncomfortable. But while her administration took a beating in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster (although her decisive response to the disaster earned her many plaudits) and more recently has been shaken by an influence-peddling scandal within her Saenuri Party, she remains East Asia's most powerful woman according to Forbes Magazine, and her popular nickname 'Queen of Elections' if nothing else confirms her unquestionable commitment to the democratic principles her father once usurped.

While 'sexy' might not be the right adjective for the stern, buttoned-down mother of the nation, she nonetheless manages to blend Margaret Thatcher's charisma and resolve with the maternal streak of Michelle Bachelet. She remains unmarried, alluding in the past to being 'married to South Korea'. It's therefore doubtful that Korea's Iron Lady has a profile on Plenty of Fish, or whatever the Korean equivalent to that is. But with her maximum term in office to expire in 2018, one never knows for sure.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Hey Melanie! (In Loving Memory of an Old Friend)

Hey Melanie
Yeah you
You with the fearless eyes and solid gold smile
You are not forgotten
Not for an instant
Your words, etched against time in high school yearbooks
Imploring me to live life more fully
Words to live by, words that depth-charge and catapult me now more than ever
Look at me now, Mel!
Look at all of us inlet kids
Scattered like summer driftwood
But still singingly alive
Just like that grin of yours
Never to fade away.

Hey Melanie
You who was always the life of that perpetual party
Forever the summer of '93
Can't you hear us?
We're right behind you, cuz us inlet kids never quit
Can't you hear the house band?
They're not half bad, I think
With Tyler on drums and Brian D on guitar
That's me on the microphone
And that song? That's the one your electric spirit
And that note you passed me in grade 9 French class inspired
Riotous times ensue
With you at the centre, egging us on

Hey Melanie
Yeah you, soul sister from the straits
Central Saanich will never be the same
Without your raven hair, raucous laugh and roiling spirit
Durrance Lake is still the place to be in summer
'Cept the trees cinched in an inch or two
With news of your departure
An endless shout still echoes through the rainforest
And amid the rocks and stones of Island View
The beauty became you, and you it
Distinctions now melted away.

Hey Melanie
Don't you know that smile of yours
Still ignites the night sky
Over the island canvas of my childhood
Paths long diverged but never forgotten
They say you can never go back home
But us Brentwood babies never truly leave
That place where summer nights are long
But memories linger longer still
We'll see you again when all us inlet kids
join you on the beachhead of the day after
fire alight, spitting at the moon, rainclouds running scared
with you in the middle, forever keepin' in real

Hey Melanie
Don't you know on the island there are no goodbyes
Only catch-you-laters
But until then our hearts will cry out for your sassy smile
All our thoughts and candlelit pujas cast loose upon the ocean
For you to catch on the other shore
Eternity begins tomorrow - not that long to wait really
But until then, stay warm and be loved
And don't let go
Cuz we sure as hell won't

Monday, 1 December 2014

6 PR lessons from clinical depression (or "How mental illness made me a better communicator")

"The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality."

This very telling quote is by author, journalist and mental health advocate Andrew Solomon, from his deeply moving TED lecture entitled Depression: The Secret We Share. It was midsummer of this year when I first heard the lecture, and at the time I was in the midst of the deepest, most serious bout of depression I have ever experienced. For whatever reason, Solomon's lecture struck a chord in me like nothing I'd yet heard on the subject of depression, and for a few days I listened to it over and over, latching myself onto the man's pristine prose and light-hearted pathos as though it were a life raft. It felt like a roadmap out of my malaise.

Here is the video. I highly recommend it - whether you're depressed or not.

In May of this year I announced to the world, through this very blog no less, that I was "going it alone" as an independent PR contractor. It had been tumultuous and stressful spring, but one from out of which seem to spring unexpected opportunities, and feeling adventurous at the time I embraced them. And for the first month of my voyage into the seas of freelance work, all seemed to go well. It didn't last.

The other thing that happened to me at around the same time I left my old job at the airport is that my doctor recommended that I try going off my anti-anxiety medications. I had been prescribed Duloxetine about two years previous during a time of similarly high stress, and I had been taking it religiously ever since in what had ended up being two years of tremendous professional growth and productivity. Why I thought this was a good idea at this turning point in my professional life I still can figure out, but I took my doctor's advice. This, it turned out, was a colossal mistake.

By the end of May there were plenty of outward signs that my overall mental state had deteriorated. It began with seemingly constant memory lapses, lapses that I simply put down to the stress of client-hunting and financial uncertainty. But by the end of June things had deteriorated to such an extent that I could no longer be blind to what was going on. Work assignments that would have been a breeze months before became epic struggles. All I wanted to do was sleep and hide from the world. My emotional outbursts became more and more extreme. My only moments of reprieve were swimming, running and walks with the dogs in the river valley.

Amazingly enough in retrospect, it wasn't until the first few weeks of July that I came face to face with the true depth of my depression, and when, like Andrew Solomon in his personal account in his book The Noonday Demon, I found himself completely paralyzed - and reached out to my father for help. This was the start of a long climb out of the abyss I had found myself. I found myself a new doctor and I began once again with the medications and the therapy, realizing only then that I would probably have to be on some sort of mood stabilizer for the rest of my life.

I also returned to the job market, figuring that given everything I had been through I was better off in a permanent position with good medical benefits (namely a plan that offered psychological services) and a paycheque I could count on every other week. After several months of job-hunting I figured I would have to take the next semi-decent thing on offer and then hold tight until I found something better. Instead, I landed in a fantastic position that thus far (it's only been three weeks mind you) appeals to me more than any job I've had up to now.

I'm back. A little shaken up still, but I'm back. The vitality I so sorely lacked this summer is back in full force. I'm writing again, back in classes (finishing the PR department I had to put the kibosh on in my previous job due to the onerous commute), involved in the spoken word/poetry scene and in far more of a mood to socialize than I've been in a long time. But my climb out from the abyss this summer has also meant mending relationships strained by my moods. The only way truly to break free from my summer of hurt was to be open and frank about what I had gone through, and in doing so fire a broadside at the taboo that still prevent so many of us about talking frankly about depression.

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. And as a professional writer and communicator, a key component of that vitality is being open about my experience, with the hopes that it might help others who have dealt with - or may currently be dealing with - similar struggles. And in the last few months, in my numerous conversations with friends and colleagues, I've come to several conclusions, namely:

  1. Most of the really smart people I know feel like they're barely holding it together much of the time.
  2. The communications profession is particularly rife with mood disorders, probably through a combination of the stress that comes with the job and the emotionally sensitive nature of the type of people generally drawn to the profession.
  3. People are generally forgiving when it comes to this sort of thing. And if they're not, chances are they're not people you want in your life anyway. In other words, there's nothing like a serious bout of depression to tell you who your real friends are.
  4. We all medicate. Be it uppers, downers, booze, weed, obsessive exercise, RPG games, work, reality TV, porn, Pinterest - we're all on drugs of one form or another.
But enough about me. What can we, as public relations practitioners, take away from our struggles on the fringes of mental health so as to make the world a better place, and be better at our jobs. Because ever since returning to the work world with a refreshed mind, body and soul, I've honestly felt like I'm better at my job than I was before. Could it be that going through what I went through, as unpleasant as it was (and something I wouldn't wish on anybody), was one of those "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" things? I've never been a fan of this cliché, but my bad run of mental health made me, if not stronger, certainly more aware and mentally agile.

So what were my 'educational takeaways' from this experience? Here's my attempt at distilling them into words. I'll probably have more to add later, but here's what comes to mind now, for what it's worth.

1. The truth lies.

Any experienced public relations person will tell you that "telling the truth" is only the start of your ethical obligations in the profession. Being honest and transparent is, of course, of vital importance and a baseline requirement of any credible organization, but blurting out truths without framing them in a manner that protects you and your organization is potentially as injurious as lying. Some might interpret this as tacit dishonesty of a sort, but a comparable example would be to rephrase the sentence "We're all going to die" (an indisputable truth) with "We only live ones, so let's make the most of it." Is this a spin? Perhaps, but it's one that we're all better off with.

Anybody who has ever battled clinical depression will tell you that, when you're in the throes of it, you feel as though a veil has been lifted from you, thereby forcing you to stare unflinchingly at the dark and horrible truths of the world - and of you yourself specifically. And while some of the statements that a depressed person habitually makes are easily refutable (i.e. "Nobody loves me."), others are less easy to fend off, such as "What, concretely speaking, is the point of it all? I'm a mid-level word-monkey who's out of a job - what the hell am I contributing to the well-being of the world?"

This of course, on a basic level, is true, but at the time it's the equivalent of a company telling its shareholders that "Well, in the fullness of time the sun is going to swell to the size of a supergiant and swallow the four innermost planets of the solar system, incinerating the earth and everyone on it, before going supernova, so what, concretely speaking, is the point of expanding into the European market?" This of course is a caricature, but if nothing else it's made me all the more sensitive to the wording of both internal and external communiqués. The truth lies - this is one of the most impactful statements in Andrew Solomon's TED talk, and one that has stuck with me ever since.

2. SWOT analyses are awesome.

Anybody with any training in public relations, or has spent enough time in the profession, has at one point or another sat down to do one of these. For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, read my early post entitled 'If Fictional Characters Conducted SWOT Analyses'. And for those of you who are well versed in them, you may be interested to know that the process is not only a crucial step in writing a communications plan, but also a useful process for bushwhacking your way out of a deep depressive episode.

Why a SWOT analysis? Simply put, it helps you filter out all the noise that clouds your judgment and keeps you paralyzed while at the same time giving you the 'comforting' base of cold, hard facts devoid of the cloying platitudes of The Secret-style positive affirmations. In other words, it appeals to the emotionally calloused mind of the depressed individual while at the same time offering a way out, and by way of the 'Weaknesses' and 'Threats' boxes you're neither invalidating nor giving undue credence to what the toxic voices in your head are saying. Because if you simply try to wallpaper over those voices with sanctimonious clichés, in my experience you just end up strengthening their resolve.

3. Aw hell, why not write yourself a whole goddamn communications plan?

I didn't actually do this, but I nearly did. I certainly wrote myself elements of one - key messages about myself and all. And all in all, I think this was more helpful than most of the self-help books I picked up and subsequently tossed aside. After a few weeks back on my medications, I felt like I once again had the energy to get up and do something useful towards getting my life and career back on track, and feeling like I was completely out of touch with my profession, the process served as a useful refresher. It also felt more real, like my own personal change management process. In other words, I was determined to sound good until we feel good - or at least have the right messages.

4. Writing will never let you down.

Once it became apparent to me that I was in the midst of a severe depressive episode, one of the first things I did was disentangle myself from as many commitments as a reasonably could. I quit a summer class. I resigned from a board I was heavily involved in at the time. I simply felt I couldn't fulfill the responsibilities I had taken on, and admitting this fact to myself was one of the first steps in acknowledging that what I was dealing with was an illness - not simply a case of head-up-ass syndrome. Like a drug addict entering treatment, it was an acknowledgement of my own weakness and vulnerability - the first step on any road to recovery.

But at the same time as I was pulling back from my numerous extracurricular activities, I was thoroughly burying myself in my writing - the one place, it seemed, that my brain was still working. I wrote poetry. I revived a novel project I had long abandoned. And I took on new freelance writing projects, projects I knew I could still do a bang-up job on in spite of my fragile state of mind - the type of work I've been doing for ten years now and can virtually do in my sleep. And in my writing work I found a semblance of sanity, and rediscovered my love of words and communication. And from that I started to rebuild my professional life.

In actual fact, I managed to get quite a lot of work done during the summer, in spite of it all. Much of it I feel was on some sort of automatic pilot, and the fact that I was able to keep moving, albeit slowly, through this morass proved, in the end, to be a source of pride. After all, I could scarcely have been able to do that it was truly sucked at my job. Whether you're deeply depressed or at the peak of mental fitness, write your guts out! I have no doubt that Emily Dickinson would have made a fine PR professional had she had access to the types of treatment that exist today.

5. Never lose faith in your network.

Probably the hardest thing about coming out of my midsummer depression, apart from the job hunt, was the fear I had that my depression had made a mess of my own personal and professional social life. After all, PR people, even the most introverted among us, are at heart social animals whose profession is centred on interpersonal connections and imparting meaning between people. And with Edmonton's marketing and communications community being pretty small and close-knit, I found myself re-entering the workforce with a profound fear that my sudden disappearance from the scene and my failed attempt at going independent would leave me scarlet-lettered in the profession.

All this turned out to be classic paranoia. One of the worst aspects of depression is that it's an inherently selfish and self-centred condition that causes one to spend an inordinate amount of time fixated on oneself and one's flaws (real and imagined), which to all around you is practically as bad as being a narcissist who is constantly flaunting their positive attributes. In other words, unless your mental state has caused you to behave in a truly egregious matter, chances are you're still regarded in the same light as you were before things began falling apart. To put it bluntly, people don't really pay that much attention to you most of the time, unless you're really out there screwing things up.

Sure enough, once I had built up the courage to start reconnecting again, it was as though nothing had happened. Moreover, for those with whom I did divulge what I had been through during the summer, the reaction was universally sympathetic, usually followed either by a similar personal account or accounts of people they've known. This is, after all, a line of work full of people who 'feel all the feels', people generally endowed with high levels of emotional intelligence, and as safe a crowd as any for talking frankly about mental illness. That and my poetry circle, of course.

A good friend and mentor of mine told me early on that whatever happens in this line of work, "The network will provide." And in my own struggles this year I've really come to realize how prescient this remark was. The network did provide, and I am now back on my feet, feeling stronger than ever.

6. We need to be talking about this stuff.

As a privileged, educated and well-connected urban professional living in a progressive city and working in a profession dedicated to communicating truth in an emotionally nuanced way, I, if anyone, should feel comfortable talking frankly about ups and downs in my own mental health. And yet I don't. Not really. Even though I live in a country where I enjoy legal protections from discrimination due to mental health, the stigma persists. Even as I write this blog post, the hesitant Piglet archetype lurking in the back of my mind is urging me not to press the 'publish' button. "You don't know what this is going to do to your reputation!" it chirps. "Have you really thought this through?"

My answer to this is a definitive yes. I have thought this through. This is a post I've been wanting to write for months now, and it's only been my schedule and my cognizance of the persistent taboo around discussions of mental health that have kept me from doing so. But I truly believe that as professional communicators, we have a duty to talk frankly about depression and other mental health issues (bipolarity, BPD, OCD and so on). It is estimated that one out of five of Canadians will personally experience mental illness in their lifetime. That means that not only one out of five of our fellow PR professionals will go through it, but that a full 20% of our external and internal publics will. That's a hell of a lot of people!

I am fortunate that I now work for an organization that not only provides a stellar health plan for its employees that includes mental health care, but one that also 'walks the talk' through active promotion of health and wellness (including mental health) to its staff and is also on the frontline in training community support workers to help the most vulnerable people in this province - and help empower them economically. Awareness of mental illness continues to increase in our society, and it is heartening to see more and more employers taking the problem seriously. But at the same time, the taboo around disclosing such conditions to anyone other than a clinical psychologist behind a closed door persists, and it is up to people like us to 'push the needle' big-time on this issue.

And like any paradigm shift, it seems to me that it needs to start with us, among ourselves as a professional community. I know for a fact that I'm far from the only professional communicator who has struggled with clinical depression or worse. We are a sensitive, highly-strung bunch as a profession with a penchant towards workaholism, insufficient sleep and one or two extra glasses of wine at the end of a long event that we perhaps don't need. And a lot of us are prone to an acute sense of isolation (especially those of us who specialize in writing) that creates the perfect breeding ground for all manner of mental malaise. We talk a good talk, but lots of us are kind of a mess deep down.

My challenge to you all is this: let's keep it real when it comes to depression. Let's actively engage in conversation about it, whether that means being frank about our own struggles or acknowledging those of others - and prioritizing the promotion of mental health and wellbeing in our work. As a person who has been through a nasty spell of it and come out the other end, I'm extraordinarily thankful to my family, friends and colleagues who have stood by me and helped me put my life back together. And I'm also more determined than ever than ever to use my position to help make a difference - and that has to start telling my own story.

A number of years ago a campaign entitled 1,000 Conversations, spearheaded by Native Counselling Services of Alberta (through its National Day of Healing and Reconciliation event-planning department), set out to trigger a nationwide wave of conversations about truth and reconciliation in relation to past injustices committed on Canadian soil - primarily the Indian Residential School System but also the internment of Japanese Canadians and other skeletons in Canada's closet. Among the project's greatest champions were CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers (who this May was appointed chancellor of the University of Victoria), a woman who in recent years has gone public about her own struggles with depression - which she has likened to "sliding into caves of emptiness." 

To my mind we need something akin to the 1,000 Conversations campaign for sufferers of depression and the like - a consciousness-raising campaign aimed at ending the stigma once and for all. And if anybody's going to spearhead something like this, it's people like us PR folks. Not that I'm necessarily offering myself up for the job. After all I've got a new job to focus on and a school program to finish - not to mention a poor, neglected blog to revive. Down the road, who knows? But for the time being, I float the idea out there for all it's worth.

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and we communicators are in the vitality business. The news we communicate isn't always good news and we're certainly not in the business of spinning bad news as good. But it is our job to empower our publics, internal and external alike, with calls to action and offer solutions. And the more we can collectively chip away at the taboo surrounding depression and other forms of mental illness, the more empowered we'll all be in our efforts to elucidate and punch through the noise.

(Special thanks to Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker series for his timely visual appearances in this text. Even though I can't lay claim to a brain the size of a planet, I still feel your pain!)