In The Fight Against Sex Crimes, We’re All In This Together

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on November 12, 2014 

Late last week, amid the growing scandal surrounding Jian Ghomeshi, buried under the reprehensible politicking and partisan bickering over the handling of sexual misconduct allegations on Parliament Hill, was a remarkable moment of bravery and candour from well-known political commentator and former Parliament Hill staffer Ian Capstick.

A regular contributor to CBC’s Power and Politics media panel, Capstick, while discussing a history of troubling culture experienced by many on the Hill, revealed that as a young staffer he was repeatedly sexually harassed by one MP, and sexually touched by another. Both perpetrators were men, and in neither case did he report the abuse.

Echoing the sentiments of many who posted to the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag – a movement started jointly by retired Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias and Montreal Gazette justice reporter Sue Montgomery – Capstick remained silent due to a sense of powerlessness.

“You feel absolutely without power,” Capstick explained, “to be able to report somebody who is 30 or 40 years your senior, and is perhaps at a status where you just simply, as a 21-year-old, can’t challenge that person.”

Asked by host Evan Solomon what prompted him to divulge such a personal, clearly painful, experience, Capstick cited Zerbisias and her online movement, noting “the bravery of women who have had to go through much, much worse than I ever have,” and that telling their stories allowed for “a very different style of conversation.”

Indeed, what has emerged as a light amid the deluge of trauma is the empowerment of sexual assault survivors — the coming forward, and coming together, of those who’ve long shouldered a common, deeply private burden, and the collective shedding of shame, defiance of stigma, and reclamation of power.

What’s been created is a rare opportunity for constructive dialogue: to discuss boundaries, educate on consent, and shed light on unwelcome behaviours that are often overlooked, seen by many as harmless, not because they’re acceptable, but because they’ve become so commonplace.

This cannot happen, however, when the terms of discussion are dictated by a small, but passionate, segment who, through sweeping assertions that “all men” are equally predatory and are de facto responsible for the behaviour of everyone sharing the gender, unwittingly marginalize an entire group of victims: male survivors of sex crimes.

Men, too, are victims, and are often met with a greater skepticism when allegations of assault – especially at the hands of a woman – are made.

Case in point: Most-“liked” comments under a recent report of an ex-NFL cheerleader’s indictment on charges of raping a minor: “Headline should read: Teen’s Fantasy Fulfilled!” “Raped by NFL cheerleader! Where were they when I was young?” “ Kids have it too good these days!”

Man or woman, gay or straight, old or young, independent or disabled — no survivor is responsible for having been victimized, nor is he or she culpable for whatever societal grievance abusers use to justify their crimes.

A Y-chromosome shouldn’t be an original sin for which carriers must forever repent. No, all men are not responsible for the actions of some.

But all men do, indeed, have a part to play in fighting rape culture, combatting everyday, casual sexism, fostering equality, and teaching their sons – the next generation of men – to do the same.

A deeply ingrained, outdated patriarchal culture can only be uprooted through a collective, unified effort; there can be no substantive change without unwavering, persistent efforts from both sides of the gender divide.

The atmosphere which empowered Capstick to share his experience is precisely the environment needed to advance beyond hashtag-activism toward real-world change. We must shift from talking past each other and begin talking to talking to each other – allowing for input, welcoming questions, listening to concerns – and base the merits of any contribution on its substance rather than the gender of the contributor.

Only then can the seeds of change finally begin to take root.

Circus At The Levant

“Being a Jew isn’t like being Black or being gay or being a woman, or even Israeli where many Jews come from. Being a Jew is a choice, like being a Blood or Crip.

Jews are the medieval prototype of the Occupy Wall Street movement; a shiftless group of hobo’s that doesn’t believe in property rights for themselves – they’re nomads – or for others.  They rob people blind.

Jew is a culture synonymous with swindlers.  The phrase Jew and cheater have been so interchangeable historically that the word has entered the English language as a verb.  He ‘jewed’ me.

Well the Jews have ‘jewed’ us.

This scourge has come to Canada as false refugees, here to jew us again, to rob us blind, as they have done in the Middle East for centuries.”

In September 2012, the star of a Canada’s “most controversial news channel” took to the air, refused to be cowed by those who’d surely “blow (their) hate crime whistle,” and proudly read what is arguably the most racist, offensive monologue the news channel has aired to date.

And for a network whose very existence depends on fomented outrage, that’s saying something.

Impossible, you might think. Surely if any network, particularly one billing itself as “Canada’s home for hard news and straight talk,” aired such a repulsive screed, Canadians, who’d never stand for such intolerance, would be up in arms, calling for the censure of the network; the termination of the news personality in question.

Or at least, being Canadian and all, would politely request an apology.

Indeed, you’d be right. The excerpt seen above has been altered ever-so-slightly: The word Gypsy replaced with Jew; gypped with jewed; Europe with Middle East.

Are you still repulsed?

The network in question, Sun News, and the personality, Ezra Levant, certainly had no qualms about what aired.

In fact, it wasn’t until Kory Teneycke, former spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and current Vice President of Sun News, was pleading to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for his networks’ inclusion in basic cable packages across the country – a full six months after the segment aired – that Levant expressed any reservations about that episode, prompting a surprise on-air apology, followed by a farcical you’ve-been-a-naughty-boy! finger-wagging from Teneycke for good measure.

Should you think the apology was at all sincere and unrelated to Sun News’ application to the CBSC, consider that shortly after the original broadcast, a joint op-ed from three respected, influential Jewish figures – former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress Bernie Farber,  Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger, and president of Ve’ahavta: The Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee Avrum Rosensweig – appeared in the National Post, condemning Levant’s “contemptible screed;” Noting that, just as the Jews were targeted during the Holocaust, so too were the Roma.

“There is even a Roma proverb that speaks of Jews and Roma trudging to the gas chambers together,” wrote Farber et al. “Andje jekh than hamisajlo amaro vushar ande’l bova: ‘Our ashes are mingled in the ovens’.”

What was Levant’s response to Farber, a man Levant has never shied away from sparring in the past? Absolute silence.

Though, after the apology, Levant was back to lobbing insults, calling Farber a “self-hating Jew,” a “censor and a liar”, and “too stupid to really be Jewish.”

You see, Levant likes to style himself the ultimate defender of all things Jewish; the decider of who qualifies as a ‘real’ Jew, the exposer of traitors and pretenders, labeling anyone who dares cross him, a “jew-hater.”

And, as evidenced by his attacks on Farber, not even fellow Jews are safe from Levant’s  nonsense.

In 2010, Levant penned an atrocious, ripped-from-the-furthest-corners-of-the-conservative-conspiratorial-blogosphere column for The Sun chain of papers titled Moral Hollowness At Work in which he, in great detail, slandered philanthropist Geroge Soros – a favorite boogyman of the American far right fringe – alleging, among other things, that Soros, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust, was secretly a “Nazi collaborator (who) turned on other Jews to spare himself.”

After Soros threatened both Levant and Sun Media with a hefty lawsuit, both a retraction and apology were issued, reading, in part:

“A column by Ezra Levant contained false statements about George Soros and his conduct as a young teenager in Nazi-occupied Hungary. The management of Sun Media wishes to state that there is no basis for the statements in the column and they should not have been made.”

This is what Levant does: He deliberately mischaracterizes, misconstrues, and misrepresents – and often entirely fabricates – facts to suit his narrative.

His most recent misreporting stems from a confrontation that erupted between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators at a rally in Calgary on July 18th; a gathering initially meant to express solidarity with the people of Gaza.

To hear Levant tell it, “Pro-Hamas thugs … took over the streets of Calgary,” streets where “Arab extremists (chase) Jews and Gentiles;” where “Queen Elizabeth’s laws don’t rule … Sharia law does.”

It was “a throwback to anti-Semitic ground troops of Germany in the 1930s!” That’s right. An otherwise uneventful rally, according to Levant, could have been mistaken for Hitler’s Brownshirts carrying out street violence against Jews.

How on earth could Calgary, in a few short minutes, have transformed from a beacon of tolerance to a scene straight out of Gaza and/or Nazi Germany?

First at fault: Nenshi.

Apparently Levant learned nothing from his previous attempt to smear Calgary’s Mayor: His campaign to paint Nenshi as an intolerant Muslim who targeted Christians was so mind-numbingly absurd that even The Calgary Sun refused to climb aboard.

Still, on Twitter, Levant recycled the accusations against the Mayor, claiming Nenshi ‘harassed’ the noble Artur Pawlowski — Canada’s own Westboro Baptist preacher: a rank homophobe who claimed the historic floods of 2013 were a result, in part, of God’s “weeping for the perversions of homosexuality;” who protested this summer’s World Pride in Toronto with a giant “Satan Loves Fags” banner — yet hadn’t condemned the “violent Arab thugs.”

On air, Levant called Nenshi “a disgrace,” a man who “never shuts up about anything” but “hasn’t said a word” about July 18th.

In truth, however, Nenshi, who announced on July 15 that he was off to a family wedding, wasn’t even in Calgary in the days leading up to, during, or following the rally. And upon his return, he did, in fact, speak on the issue.

Of course, had Levant acknowledged either of these things, he wouldn’t have been able to rally his troops to spend days hurling slurs and accusations at the Mayor on Levant’s behalf.

Second at fault: The Calgary Police.

Granted, CPS’ approach, or lack thereof, at the rally was bungled from the get-go, and the police admitted as much. However, Levant’s assertions of political influence, calling the police liars, alleging bias, willful blindness, and a hand-off approach out of concern for maintaining diversity  is not just untrue, but grossly irresponsible.

Alas, responsible journalism is a lousy means of inciting backlash.

While there’s no excusing the violence that occurred at the July 18 rally, as the police rightly noted: both sides were at fault.  What transpired was the result of a small segment of agitators from both sides looking for a fight.

There’s a reason Levant failed to delve into the profiles of some of the Pro-Israel protesters as did those on the pro-Palestinian side: It would kill his narrative.

For example: Two of the pro-Israel demonstrators involved in the scuffle – including the man in the orange shirt featured in the ‘evidence’ photos Levant himself helped circulate – are well-known provocateurs Merle Terlesky and Jeff Willerton: a pair notorious for an altercation at Calgary’s 2006 Pride parade, where, waving “No Pride In Sodomy” signs and shouting homophobic slurs at marchers, Terlesky was punched to the ground.

But facts be damned, Levant’s got an axe in desperate need of grinding and persecutory delusions screaming for validation; So on Thurday, July 31, Levant will host his own rally, a “REAL Canadian” rally.

A “rally to take back Canadian streets from violent thugs!”

The successful, peaceful, pro-Israel rally which was held in the days following the contentious rally was an inadequate repudiation of the violence, it seems.

And not-at-all lucrative.

Just as freedom isn’t free, outrage doesn’t come cheap, and Lord knows Levant isn’t about to fund this traveling circus.

As Levant admits in his call to action/invitation to the rally/plea for donations: “This isn’t about Israel or Gaza at all.”

Indeed. This is about Levant; about feeding his ego and growing his brand, not to mention his bank account.


 

Want To ‘Send A Message’? Vote.

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on June 12, 2014 

In October 2013, British comedian and actor Russell Brand, acting as a guest-editor for a revolution-themed edition of New Statesman, penned a bizarre, 4,500-word call to revolution.

“I have never voted,” Brand declared. “Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot.”

Brand’s manifesto quickly went viral. He was called “brilliant,” lauded as the “de facto voice of a younger generation.”

What a shame that would be, given that if a generation adopted Brand’s approach to democracy, they’ll have rendered themselves mute.

Brand’s type of misguided effort to affect change has found an audience, though on a much smaller, not-quite-so-revolutionary scale, in the run-up to the Ontario election.

Decline Your Vote, a movement launched by conservative activist Paul Synnott, bills itself as a means to “(send) a message to all political parties that you’re not happy with what they have to offer or how they’re conducting themselves.”

“Declined votes,” the website notes, “are required to be recorded and reported as a separate category from spoiled ballots.

This your opportunity to vote NONE OF THE ABOVE.”

If only change-making were that easy.

Let’s be clear: It is absolutely your right to spoil, decline, or altogether refuse to cast a ballot. That’s the beauty of democracy: you’re free to vote – or not vote – for whomever you choose.

However, declining your ballot succeeds in “sending a message” about as well as abstaining achieves a “total revolution.”

There are legitimate frustrations over the first past the post electoral system; real grievances about the quality of the current slate of politicians/platforms/parties; an overwhelming desire to “throw the bums out,” yet a distinct lack of worthy alternatives behind whom to throw one’s support.

Cynicism toward the political system is understandable. But by forfeiting the influence you do have – the power of the vote – you are handing the power back to those you argue haven’t earned it. Whether by 10 or 10 thousand, the candidate with the most votes will be deemed victorious. Even if more ballots are declined than cast for the winning candidate, someone will be elected by night’s end.

Little notice will be taken of the number of ballots declined. Votes that, it can be argued, were wasted; that depending on turnout, might have made a difference in voting a candidate in – or keeping one out.

Case in point: In Nevada, where “none of these candidates” is an actual choice on the ballot, Democrat Harry Reid defeated Republican John Ensign by only 428 votes, while “none” garnered 8,000 votes. Similarly, Republican Dean Heller beat Democrat Shelley Berkley by fewer than 20,000 votes, as 45,000 votes were directed to “none.”

If you want to have an impact, are disaffected by the current state of political affairs, declining your chance for a say in the matter isn’t the answer.

Though your ballot may lack an ideal candidate, you can choose to support the person or party which represents your ideals better than the others.

Then, after ballots have been counted, get involved. Become politically engaged with your party of choice; have a say in shaping policy, work to recruit quality candidates.

And perhaps, come next election, you’ll have someone, something, to vote for.

 

Ending The Stigma

This op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on January 28, 2014.

 

On Dec. 29, Christopher Peloso, the 40-year-old husband of former Ontario deputy premier George Smitherman, was reported missing.

“Freedom from depression has been elusive for Christopher,” Smitherman tweeted on the eve of the 29th. “We fear for his safety.”

A followup tweet issued just hours later linked to a brief statement which confirmed that Peloso had been found dead, noting (the family) would “find comfort somehow in knowing that he has found peace from the depression that has wreaked havoc on his mind.”

At Peloso’s memorial, Smitherman eulogized his late husband, telling those assembled in the Toronto community centre he would “not be afraid, in Christopher’s name, to tell his story and to tell our story … A man took his life because the pain in his brain was unrelenting.”

Smitherman addressed those who might be dealing with depression: “If you’re holding something back and you bring it out into public life, it is the first step and it is cathartic and it is powerful.”

To that end, Peloso’s father, Reno, spoke of his son, noting “Chris suffered from depression and committed suicide and there is no shame in that.”

Not only was this a powerful message to send during a period of such personal grief, but it was a remarkable, and incredibly necessary, break from the norm; of glossing over the heart of the tragic situation; of speaking in euphemisms and dancing around the issue that caused so much pain, such unrelenting anguish, that the only reprieve Peloso thought he could find was through death.

Though Peloso’s loved ones were widely lauded for their openness in discussing his lifelong battle with depression, the notion that suicide be addressed so matter-of-factly proved disquieting for many. Some feared that accepting Peloso’s final act without judgment somehow glorified it, that failing to attach shame or scorn to the suicide essentially validated, or worse, encouraged it.

These widely held, though unfounded, concerns demonstrate why it was necessary for Peloso’s family to address his illness — including its end — so candidly: to break the stigma about what it is to live with, or die from, mental illness, so that others might find the courage to seek help for their own demons, or, for those who have lost love ones in a similar manner, to leave behind the guilt or sense of having failed the deceased.

And breaking the silence, erasing the stigma, is what Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign on Jan. 28 is all about.

One in five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in a given year. Yet a report from the Canadian Medical Association revealed that only half of Canadians would tell a friend if they had a family member with a mental illness, as compared to disclosing a family member’s diagnosis of cancer (72 per cent) or diabetes (68 per cent). But why is that? Like any ailment, mental illness manifests in a number of ways, and to varying degrees of severity. Not every cancer is treatable; broken bones don’t always heal correctly the first time. Some diabetics are able to manage through diet alone, while others require multiple shots of insulin, daily. That lack of understanding of what constitutes mental illness, especially when it presents as a chronic or severe condition, is what drives the stigma surrounding it. And the apprehension about openly discussing the more extreme cases of mental illness — those who self-harm, commit suicide, are plagued by intrusive, sometimes violent thoughts, are crippled by rituals or compulsions — only furthers the ignorance surrounding such conditions.

The same CMA report found nearly a third of Canadians reported being fearful of being around someone suffering from a mental illness; almost half believing people use the illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, and fewer than half reporting a desire or willingness to associate with a friend who was diagnosed with a mental illness.

How terribly sad. It should be noted, however, that such beliefs aren’t because people want to exclude or isolate those suffering from a mental illness. Only recently have people begun to buck the societal norm of only speaking of mental illness in whispers, of “othering” those who suffer. In many cases, people want to better understand; they are genuinely interested in learning more about what it means to live with a mental illness, about the challenges faced not only by those diagnosed, but how their experiences, in turn, affect the lives of those around them.

The problem is, they are unsure of what, or how, to ask.

They don’t want to intrude, are afraid of offending. So they instead make assumptions, quietly draw their own conclusions.

Which then leads to misconceptions, feeds into the fear, and further perpetuates the stigma. This is why Bell’s Lets Talk campaign is so important: It provides a platform for a genuine conversation between those living with mental illness and those who’ve never experienced it. Those afraid to ask questions can follow as people share their stories of living with the disease, silently gaining a better understanding of what it means to have a mental illness. Many who suffer in silence find strength in seeing others talk openly about their own struggles and, in turn, find the courage to open up, and if they haven’t already, seek help.

The family of Christopher Peloso understood the value in having a candid dialogue about the illness that plagued him, and ultimately claimed his life. They were, in essence, doing exactly what the Let’s Talk campaign aims to accomplish on a larger scale: To end the stigma surrounding mental illness, talk openly and honestly about all aspects of the disease, foster a better understanding about life with mental illness, and to encourage those who are suffering to reach out.

There is no shame in having a mental illness, and there’s no weakness in seeking help.

And there’s no better time than now to talk about it. So Let’s Talk, Canada.

 

Poppy Wars

This op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on November 11, 2013

“Ottawa Students Don’t Care If ‘White Poppy’ Offends Veterans!” screamed the Sun News headline.

In what has become the annual stopgap war between the War On Halloween and War On Christmas, the Poppy War was again trotted out as a means of politicizing a day of Remembrance, of asserting some sort of self-ascribed conservative monopoly on supporting the military over the stereotypical “hippie, anti-war pacifists” on the left.

A quick scan through the comments on any of the multiple stories urging readers to get angry over the Rideau Institute’s White Poppy campaign demonstrates just how successful that call to arms was.

“I guess these pacifists would have preferred the world to stand peacefully by while Hitler gassed millions of Jewish people,” reads one comment. “I will personally call out, injure and defame ANYONE I see in public wearing a white one!” states another. And perhaps the least enlightening, but most telling comment (written, of course, in ALL CAPS): “NEVER WTF WHITE POPPIES CANT SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS WERE BECOME SOME COUNTRY THAT NEVER STANDS UP FOR WHAT OUR FOR FATHERS CREATED. COPS WEARING TURBINES IN ARE LEGIONS AND POLICE FORCE. STOP TRYING TO CHANGE ARE TRADITIONS YOU SHOULD BE DEPORTED.”

Sigh. So many errors, so little space.

The white poppy movement is nothing new; it was an idea born out of the U.K. in the 1930s as a way of remembering those killed in the line of duty, but with an added emphasis, in the view of the wearers, on a push for peace. What this idea has become, however, is a well-intentioned, though ultimately misguided, push to “refocus” our attention on Remembrance Day, to stop “celebrating and glorifying war” and instead to “remember for peace.”

The thing is, that’s precisely what Remembrance Day is for. When we don the Red Poppy, that enduring symbol of sacrifice captured so beautifully in John McRae’s poem In Flanders Fields, we don’t do so with the intention of marking the next year’s ceremony with an expanded list of soldiers to commemorate. We stand in solidarity with those who fought, or are still fighting, on our behalf. We mourn those who died in battle, acknowledge the survivors and express gratitude for every soldier’s service to our country. And we do so while reflecting on the brutality of war, pushing for a future free of conflict, where diplomacy is chosen over deployment.

Both poppy camps are essentially working toward a common cause: reflecting on past atrocities in the hopes of avoiding future conflict. However, as the two sides fight over whose approach is nobler, the very people whom they claim to support are squeezed out of the conversation.

Completely lost in this red versus white battle of egos is the plight our soldiers currently face right here at home.

Our soldiers, veterans, aren’t exactly concerned with the colour of poppy on your lapel; they’re too busy fighting the government — the very Conservatives who never pass up a photo op with those in uniform, who use their proclaimed support for the troops as an attack on the opposition — for the basic benefits and support to which they’re entitled.

Right now, soldiers wounded in Afghanistan are being delayed compensation as the federal Conservatives seek to overturn a B.C. Supreme Court decision permitting veterans to sue for their benefits.

Elsewhere, wounded soldiers are being discharged ahead of their time, disqualifying them from a military pension.Hundreds of jobs have been slashed at Veterans Affairs, leaving the most vulnerable of the veteran population without access to critical, front-line workers, destroying lives in the process.

The Last Post Fund, intended to provide impoverished veterans with a dignified burial, has rejected over two-thirds of applications received since 2006 — 67 per cent of veterans’ families have been turned down. When a non-partisan motion was presented in Parliament to improve the fund’s eligibility requirements, it was voted down by the Conservatives.

As Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino takes to the radio to compare himself, an ex-police officer, to soldiers who’ve served “in the trenches,” veterans who actually served on the front lines are gagged.

Wounded soldiers are being made to sign agreements stating they will not criticize their senior officers or air their grievances on social media. That’s right: those who fought for our freedoms are having their own curtailed, lest what they have to say reflect poorly on the military or the government.

And heaven forbid the public find out they’ve been calling for Fantino to be removed from his position.

Rather than fighting each other over the colour of a symbol of remembrance, those in the trenches of the Poppy Wars would do well to direct their energy toward fighting for a better future for our veterans.

Our soldiers need more than a single day of remembrance; more than a “moment of silence” for their service. They need a government that pays them more than lip service and a public whose support goes beyond chest-thumping patriotism.

Lord knows they’ve earned it.

Yes – Let’s Talk

Though dismissed by some as a cynical marketing ploy, Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign not only succeeded in raising $4.8 million for mental health initiatives, but also provided a forum for canadians to share their stories, reach out for help, and address the stigma associated with mental illness.

That conversation, seeing people I know and respect open up about either having/had issues with mental health, or knowing – and still loving – someone who does, was, to me, so much more valuable than monies raised.

Though mental illness itself can, and does, destroy lives, the stigma attached to those afflicted can be just as devastating.

For me, the stigma was nearly fatal.

My story is long and complicated, so I will do my best to include just the information necessary to understand my experience and explain how it relates to where I am today. I don’t mind going into greater detail and am more than happy to elaborate/answer questions people might have regarding my experience with mental/emotional illness, but I think it’s important to stay focused on the topic of stigma for the purpose of this post.

At the age of ten I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and by eleven I was in the throes of depression, battling a severe eating disorder. I was hospitalized for 3 months for the anorexia at age twelve, and again for two months when I relapsed at fourteen — a relapse due, in part, to the OCD developed as side-effect of one of the many off-label drugs I’d been prescribed.

I’d been an incredibly talented competitive dancer (tap, jazz/contemporary, ballet) up to that point – also competing as a swimmer and in soccer in both my age group and the one above – but found the anxiety related to international travel demands made continuing on this path impossible. I continued with all non-competitive aspects of dance and scaled back my commitments in soccer and swimming, but the competitive void was soon filled with what had long been my passion, though had always played second fiddle to dance: gymnastics.

With the eating disorder conquered, my dietitian continued on as my sports nutritionist and closest confidant. She’d been by my side since I was eleven, and I trusted her.

My athletic career as a gymnast included some of the best years of my life. I was healthy, strong, and successful, and for the first time, I was comfortable being me. I liked myself. I loved that I could push harder than everyone else; I loved the battle between mind and body when engaged in intense conditioning regime, because I knew I could push my body to beat my mind, every time. I craved the exhaustion, loved the pain, and found a sense of accomplishment in the fact that, though I wasn’t the most advanced gymnast in the gym — having entered the competitive realm at the ‘ancient’ age of 15, I missed the crucial formative years, and though it wasn’t in my future, a few of the girls I trained along side went on to become Olympians, others to successful NCAA careers — I was the strongest, the most dedicated, the hardest working and fittest athlete there, and was recognized as such. I was held up as the epitome of physical and mental strength; Where others had to be pushed, I had to be told to slow down. Where others were urged to work harder, I had to be reminded – if not forced  - to rest, to take a break. To let myself relax.

And that felt incredible.

What didn’t feel quite as wonderful was what was happening physically, on the inside. I’d had digestive issues for some time, but always assumed it was due to the physical demands of my sport. After a few years of progressively worsening symptoms, however, the discomfort in my abdomen was replaced by as intense and chronic pain, and I was bleeding. A lot. Every time I landed I felt as if my intestines were being torn from my body.

I know I should have gone to the doctor at that point. Hell, I should have gone long before it got to that point, but I didn’t. I was afraid I’d be told to scale back training; that I’d have to stop competing. And, like any dedicated athlete, I had dreams to pursue, dammit!  I didn’t have time for a sabbatical.

When things really started to fall apart, they crumbled fast. I was losing weight at an alarming rate. What used to be an endless source of energy, my body had nothing left to give. My coaches, my family, my friends all assumed I’d begun to relapse back into an eating disorder, despite the fact I was eating, down to the last gram, the same diet I’d been following for years – the one set out by my personal dietician, who was herself at a loss to explain what was happening.

I’d expected my (relatively new) family doctor – let’s call her Dr. K – would be eager to start testing for whatever was going on, but she quickly chalked it up to an anorexia relapse. Why? Because that was the simplest explanation, and the history of anorexia apparently clouded every visit I’d ever had with her.

When I told her of my intestinal symptoms she brushed them off as psychosomatic; when I showed her the blood, she insisted it was menstrual (even though, as is typical of elite female athletes, I was amenorrheic).

One day, Dr. K decided she was going to admit me to the psych ward. I told her I’d go voluntarily on one condition: that she let me meet with a gastroenterologist while I was there.

She reluctantly agreed.

The GI doctor took one look at me, felt around my abdomen and ordered an immediate scope. Lo and behold, the colon was indeed bleeding, and there was some sort of abnormality – an ulcer? tumor? Chron’s? – in the ascending colon.

A biopsy was ordered but came back inconclusive (or so I was told by Dr. K) and the GI fellow left for a previously scheduled mission trip before I could speak with him again.

I was referred to the GI department in London, but Dr. K refused to send the GI report, so I was met, yet again, with skeptical eyes. The history of anorexia, and whatever had been written by Dr. K, told them all they needed, or rather, all they wanted to know.

I had a J-tube inserted to provide nourishment via machine, but when the weight still hadn’t returned, I was blamed for somehow sabotaging the effort. I soon developed a high fever, and a grotesque odour was emanating from the site of the tube. I had so little energy I couldn’t even make it to the car under my own power. I arrived at emerge in London where I was shuffled to a back room where I remained for hours, splayed out on a gurney, gasping for breath, as the doctor responsible for the tube’s insertion told me that he “will not remove a feeding tube from an anorexic; you are just trying to get out of eating.”

Having remained silent until that point, my mother demanded I be evaluated by someone who hadn’t seen my chart, who didn’t know of the eating disorder I’d battled, and let me stress once again, successfully overcome years ago. She got her wish, and the emerge physician quickly determined the J-tube was infected and I’d developed sepsis. The tube was immediately removed and I was put on a course of IV antibiotics and, after about a week in hospital, was sent home.

By now my family was quietly preparing for my death. My sisters had already written me off, as it was too painful to watch the daily deterioration of my health. As if the years watching their little sister fight through depression, anxiety and an eating disorder hadn’t already strained our relationship, witnessing this prolonged death march proved to be a breaking point. On more than one occasion one or the other would tell me she wished I’d just die already, because the situation, as it was, was tearing the family apart.

Throughout everything, I had never shied away from my mental and emotional struggles; our community was a small one and hiding any medical condition was simply not possible. So I embraced it, offered to talk about my experiences to help educate others, and always took full ownership of my illnesses. There was never shame or denial of the depression, anxiety, anorexia, or OCD. Perhaps it was because I was so young that people were understanding. I mean, who could blame a ten, eleven, twelve-year-old for such problems?

So it was that much more frustrating when, suddenly, I was being accused of lying; of being in denial of a problem I’d fully embraced and tackled in full view. I remember one of my final days in the gym being ignored by one of my coaches. He wouldn’t even look at me. When I approached him, he snapped “Come back and talk to me when you’ve gained five pounds!” and walked away.

That hurt so much. And was rich, considering the other girls all had daily weigh-ins to ensure their weight remained artificially low. To their credit, my coaches (up to that point) had been nothing but supportive. They were well aware of my eating disordered days and never discussed diet, body composition, or weight with me. Another girl in the gym was falling into bulimia at the same time my intestinal issues were too severe to mask, but when vomit was found around the toilet it was pinned on me. Even though I’d never been bulimic.

Anorexia and bulimia are two entirely different disorders.

Yet everyone, save for my dietician, my grandmother, and my mother, had decided I was causing this; that I had relapsed back into anorexia and for whatever reason refused to admit it this time around.

After two years of clinging to life, an opportunity for relocation presented itself; My mother was offered a move to Calgary, and she took it. Given the lack of medical help available to me in Ontario, I opted to move with her, knowing the alternative was nothing short of death.

I faced many of the same barriers when first seeking treatment in Calgary. I’d yet to find a family doctor, and the only medical information at hand was the inaccurate report from Dr. K. My mother implored me to enter into the Calgary eating disorders program. At the very least, she thought, I’d get access to a doctor who could then address what was really going on.

So I went.

I went for assessments, meetings, an orientation, etc., but I refused to play their games. I was told the only way they’d look into my intestinal issues is if I agreed to an intensive in-patient stay, complete with daily therapy for a problem I no longer had.

I wouldn’t do it.

The final meeting with the team at the eating disorders treatment centre included my mother, and I was offered the chance to ‘prove’ my non-anorexic status by eating a chocolate bar. I laughed at the Kit-Kat so smugly being passed my way, and told the lead therapist, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck herself.

That was a long drive home. My mother went to bed, disgusted with me, with the medical system, with the whole experience.

I spent the night sobbing, trying to decide the least painful way to end my life by morning.

It was shortly after that incident that I connected with the man who would take my case, who’d become my family doctor and advocate, and ultimately, who’d save my life.

Let’s call him Dr. J.

Dr. J was the first medical professional to take me at my word with regards to the past mental health issues being, indeed, in the past. Time would tell, he argued, whether or not I was being truthful.

He quickly realized, I was.

Dr. J made it his mission to solve the medical puzzle at hand. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, and there were a few more instances of being written off as “the anorexic in denial” without so much as a basic examination.

But thanks to his unwavering commitment to my case and a keen interest in a good medical mystery, Dr. J built a team of specialists and surgeons who dealt with me as if I’d never had a history of anorexia; who evaluated and treated me as they would any other patient who presented with these symptoms, but who didn’t have that scarlet letter stamped on their medical chart.

Due to the lack of proper diagnosis/treatment for such an extended time, the damage to the intestine was extensive. Recovery would not only be a long one, but it was unclear as to what extent recovery could occur.

I had a segment of my large intestine removed (only one segment because it wasn’t clear I’d be able to survive a more extensive surgery) and an intestinal prolapse repaired. What remained of the large intestine was left intact, but disconnected from the small intestine at the ileocecal valve.

For the first time since 2002, I was entirely free of pain.

I was 58 pounds at that point, and it was determined my small intestine had lost the ability to function. I devoured obscene amounts of food to no avail. I could – and did – eat anything and everything, but my gut simply could not digest or absorb nutrients.

An intensive intestinal rehabilitation program was proposed as a last-ditch effort to restore the small gut’s function before I’d be resigned to a life on TPN, and, in the end, it proved successful. 18 months of round-the-clock, high-volume, high-caloric intake, in addition to a steady stream of complete meal replacement drinks, allowed the lining of the small intestine to regenerate and the gut to regain function — though at a less-than-normal capacity.

Next step was tackling the endocrine deficiencies and dealing with the fallout from the period of chronic malnutrition.

My mother remortgaged the house and I took out a $30,000 medical loan, allowing for all medications required as well as one treatment not covered by medicare (long story).

So, after two years of fighting the stigma assigned to me based on a battle from childhood to find a doctor who’d look beyond, followed by proper investigations and diagnoses, two intestinal surgeries and six years of intestinal and endocrinological treatments, I find myself where I am today.

That, being the final stretch of the treatment plan, preparing for one final surgery and planning for life after the completion of treatment.

I can only imagine where I’d be right now had I received prompt medical attention; had the ulcerative colitis not been allowed to get to the point of severity it did. It’s somewhat comforting to know the medical professionals I’ve dealt are now using my case to teach new doctors how not to handle people with a history of mental illness.

It’s nice to think that, in the future, someone will be spared the barriers to treatment that nearly cost me my life.

At least, I hope they will.

On The Media, Journalism, And The Willingness To Support it

It has been a tough month for journalism.

Reports of mass layoffs and (select) publication suspensions at Postmedia engulfed the twitterverse late Monday afternoon, the second such round of job cuts for Postmedia, who earlier this month opted to close their wire service, returning to the content produced by the Canadian Press.

It was just weeks ago that Globe & Mail was asking staff to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave in an effort to curb expenses over the summer months.

And now that both Postmedia and the Globe & Mail plan to erect a paywall around a given portion of their content, similar to the one successfully implemented by the New York Times, the predictably vacuous back and forth between the stalwarts of ‘new’ and ‘old’ media has again erupted.

Now, it’s hardly a secret that I’m a media/news junkie; addicted to information, advocating for quality journalism. The reasons for which I stumbled into the realm of politics/media I have never widely discussed. And for the purpose of this post, will continue to refrain from doing. In the wake of Monday’s news, however, I wanted to take moment to briefly touch on my experience with the industry, including the people whom I have come to admire, respect, and in some cases, to know as friends.

It was 2005 that I suddenly found myself with hours upon hours of vacant time (previously occupied by a gruelling training schedule (35 hours/week), work (20 hours/week), and school) and I was in desperate need of a distraction. Or more importantly, a purpose.

Having always had an interest in politics and the media/journalism, I used my circumstances as an excuse to immerse myself in both, and pursue a curiosity I had previously sidelined when I opted for a an academic path more closely related to my athletic career.

Admittedly, when I began my quest to discover as much as I could about the world of journalism and how the media worked, I held a certain level of disdain toward ‘the MSM’, and a few organizations in particular – one of which happened to be Canwest, now known as Postmedia.

Due to my ignorance at the time, I based my view of an entire organization on the workings of  a handful of asinine columnists/editorial writers who’d managed to infuriate me on a daily basis (Gunter, Corbella, Martinuk, to name a few). However, once I had sufficiently acquainted myself with the various sources (and platforms) of information, I began to look at Canwest (Postmedia), and ‘the MSM’ as a whole, in a different way. Rather than associating a given piece of written work with a given media chain (which, as a neophyte, I had foolishly been doing), I instead focused on who was doing the writing. (Quite the ‘revelation’, I know … )

I compiled a list of editors, columnists, and reporters whose work I most enjoyed, who I found to be the greatest source of information and informed analysis/commentary. In doing so, I quickly shed the stereotypical view of ‘the MSM’ as overly biased and/or untrustworthy, and found a good number of those on my ‘favourites’ list were those at Canwest (Postmedia).

I closely followed the work of my ‘favourites’ for years, using what they had written on a given matter as a base from which to embark on hours of research on the issue at hand, for no reason (aside from the ongoing glut of time to fill) other than to satiate my desire to learn about that with which I was unfamiliar. I gained an appreciation of the amount of work required for a single piece of (exceptional) writing, and though I still followed (and supported) various ‘non MSM’ news sites/writers, I began to value the content produced by the traditional print media/journalists at an entirely different level.

I joined twitter during that period as well, and it (obviously) became my network of choice, providing the ability to share what I had read with others, the chance to discuss/debate issues with experts on various matters, and the opportunity connect with the very people whose work I’d followed for years.

Shortly thereafter, I wanted to begin writing about politics and the media (and eventually did, via this blog) but felt like an impostor of sorts; I had no formal journalistic training (read: no J-school), and as far as I was concerned, had no business in the area whatsoever. But with the help of some fine political bloggers and journalists who’d embraced me on twitter, I mustered up the courage to begin to write publicly.

Not that I was (or am, for that matter) particularly good at it, mind you, but I was confident in my ability to research and seemed able to find the words necessary to form seemingly coherent finished products.

And much to my surprise (and delight), I wasn’t mocked; wasn’t shunned by the political/journo community for not being ‘one of them.’ In fact, I received many messages of encouragement, and as the years pressed on and death was no longer the final prognosis, I found I had a new passion outside of the life I had previously known, and the very ‘MSM’ I found suspect back in 2005 had not only become my most trusted source of information (and wicked smart analysis), but a handful of those journalists had offered advice/guidance. Others, friendship.

In addition to the remarkable work they do and the unparalleled in quality content they have a hand in producing, those in print media are some of the finest people I’ve had the fortune of getting to know.

It’s for these reasons that I’m more than willing do my part in keeping their industry alive.

I subscribe to my local Postmedia paper (Calgary Herald), and pay an additional monthly fee to access Postmedia archives. I do the same with the Globe and Mail (Globe Plus), and the Toronto Star. I subscribe to numerous political magazines/weeklies as well, including The Hill Times, Embassy Mag, and Maclean’s, and U.S. publications Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The Nation, and Mother Jones. (Yes, I still consume news at a ridiculous rate. I very much enjoy it, though don’t quite have the glut of time I relied on to do so before.)

People are quick to complain when the media (in their view) fails to do its job. However, it’s those same people are the least willing to pitch in and ensure there are journalists employed to do the job they are demanding be done.

In my view, there is no question as to the importance of journalism in the traditional sense. That standard of journalism costs money.  Though I don’t have the solution for what ails the industry, I will continue to do my part in sustaining it for as long as it’s around, and hope others will soon come to the same conclusion.