mental health

Thank You Emily


Emily collage smaller

Emily, Emily, Emily, Dave Matthews and Emily (1993), Emily, Emily, Emily, Emily, the Gazette and Emily (1993).

When I first started showing up at the Improv Embassy last February, hanging out in the back row and hoping to God I wouldn’t be called up on stage, I had a hard time answering the question “What made you decide to try improv?”

It was a good question, especially when I panicked or blustered or just stood there on stage without a clue of what to say next (which, by the way, still happens).

But I do know the answer, and have for a while – it’s because of Emily MacNaughton.

Emily and I met at the Dalhousie Gazette, beginning of the 1992 school year. Me, from the small town of Labrador City and she, from the bustling metropolis of Kitchener-Waterloo. Her first article was a review of Cameron Crowe’s movie Singles which included her take on Generation X and the ‘Year of Grunge’. I was amazed at her confidence in expressing her opinion so publicly and a little intimidated by her philosophical tone and big words. I still have the clipping saved in my mom’s basement.

Emily loved to dance.

She brought me to my first show at the Double Deuce, back when Halifax was becoming the next Seattle. I think Sloan was playing. My friends from the Gazette would know. Maybe even my roommates.

While she was at Dal, Em and I attended every single Canadian University Press (CUP) conference we could get to – especially the Atlantic Region (ARCUP) ones which always included a rowdy kitchen party.

Emily was a board member of Campus Plus, CUP’s national advertising company. My memory is so shagged up I don’t remember if that’s while she was in Halifax or Toronto. I do know that even after she left Dal and Halifax, she was still involved with CUP and co-chaired a CUP national conference.

Emily was funny, smart, goofy, artistic, articulate and edgy.

She moved to Paris for a few months. I don’t remember when. Between 2000 and 2004 I visited her a few times in Toronto. I think it was during my breaks from Bosnia, and when Mom and Dad moved from Labrador to Toronto so Dad could get a lung transplant.

We lost touch sometime during my four years working at Kandahar Air Field. I lost touch with a few friends back then. Emily was no longer on Facebook, I lost all my emails when shut down and I couldn’t find her on Google. Also, unbeknownst to me, some version of PTSD was screwing with my brain and any friendships I maintained after Afghanistan were all due to my friends’ efforts.

Emily was a really good friend.

Emily tracked me down almost five years ago when she found a blog post I wrote about Remembrance Day. I was so happy when she contacted me. Emails flew. She was still in Toronto, looking for work and living in a nice place called Eden House with nine other crazy people (“I’m the tenth,” she wrote). She volunteered as a sound operator with the Bloor West Players, finished training as a volunteer Expressive Arts Therapist for Hospice Toronto, was participating in a poetry group run by Workman Arts for people with mental illness, and at that very moment was at her dad’s and stepmom’s place learning about golf as they watched the Masters Tournament.

Emily had a great memory. Out of the blue she’d say something like “Your mom is a Taurus, right?” –  20 years after I mentioned my mom’s birthday. She was also an astrology nut. When I introduced her to my roomies, family or friends, within the first two minutes she’d ask “When’s your Birthday?” or “What’s your sign?” Unless I had mentioned their birthday in some previous conversation long forgotten by me, in which case she’d lead with “You’re a Leo, right?”

Emily liked to share.  After discovering a great program she emailed me the link for the Wellness Recovery Action Plan in Ottawa. “I was wondering if your mom might like it.” Emily knew about Mom’s history with bi-polar, but I wonder if perhaps she also sensed my own mental health issues – before I even dared to voice them to myself. She could be very perceptive.

Once we reconnected Emily was really good at keeping touch. She mailed me Christmas cards, emailed me e-cards from the Art Gallery of Ontario and when she went to New York with her mom, she mailed me a postcard. For one birthday, she emailed “Remember how great you are and enjoy being 42.  It’s not so bad, eh?”

In one early email, she wrote that she recently talked to Dave Matthews, a friend from our CUP days and now an Anglican priest in London, UK with whom she had also been out-of-touch for a long time. She described him as “very much the same fast-talking, charismatic, witty man,” who had tickets to see Barbara Streisand and Black Sabbath. “So, same Dave, a little older like the rest of us.”

In another email, she said she and her dad saw Zack Taylor on TVO’s The Agenda, talking about conservatism in Ontario. “He looks exactly the same!” she wrote, and told her dad she “once worked as a co-chair for the CUP conference with our star!”

Emily could also annoy the hell out of me, as only a good friend could. “Have you been writing?”, she’d ask. “Why don’t you write?”, and “That would be a great story to write.” And “Would you please read my poetry and let me know what you think?”. Well, at least she wasn’t asking me about writing.

Emily would read her poetry out loud. In public. In front of strangers! And she got her poetry published. She tried to encourage me to write again but most of the time I just changed the topic.

Emily and I would catch up whenever I was in Toronto for work or whenever she was in Ottawa for a job interview. She was very keen on getting a job where she would need to speak French. For a while she worked with Kids Help Phone and then with Public Works, while taking courses through Bloor Street United Church in preparation for the ministry.

We talked about depression and PTSD. We talked about recovery, roommates, boys we dated and books we read. I think we talked about going skating on the canal the next time she visited.

Emily died a year ago yesterday. She was in her pajamas, in bed with a book nearby. During one of our dinners she had mentioned a heart condition, but no one had expected this, especially her family who were waiting for her at their pre-Christmas dinner the next day. Emily was 45 years old.

I was out of town when it happened and found her Christmas card waiting for me when I returned. I sent her a Merry Christmas text and wasn’t worried when she didn’t respond.  Maybe she and her mom went on a trip. I think she had mentioned they might go to Paris. I left her a voicemail around New Year’s.

I found out about Emily when I was taking a quick peek at Facebook during work on a Thursday afternoon. Dave Matthews found out about it from Emily’s dad, and the news was handed down a short chain of CUP presidents, from Dave to Alayne Armstrong, to Joanna Shepherd Zuk, and then to me. Which I then shared with our Gazette and Dalhousie friends.

Emily’s memorial service took place on January 19th at the Van Duzer Art Studio in Toronto. I booked my hotel for the wrong week, took the wrong bus twice to get to the service and showed up too late to hear Dave’s message read out. Friends and colleagues and family took turns getting up to speak and share stories about Emily. One friend read some of her poetry. One counselor shared that Emily would also ask her to read her poems and provide feedback. It seemed most of the people there knew Emily from her more recent Toronto days. I wanted to say something about how I first met Emily almost 25 years ago. But I couldn’t speak. I physically couldn’t do it. As each person finished talking I tried to will myself to speak up, but words wouldn’t come out, no room for my voice to squeeze past my heart-blocked throat.

Eventually the minister stood up, made a last call for comments, and then started  wrapping things up –  when I found myself standing up.

I think I said my name and that I first met Emily at the Dalhousie Gazette. I talked about her review of Singles and how she loved to dance and that she was energetic and…. whatever that word is for someone who speaks well. I had forgotten the word “articulate”. I said we lost touch when I was in Afghanistan and when we reconnected she was living in a nice house with nine other crazy people. I think some of them were there – and they laughed. And I said she was brave. So very brave and she inspired me. I cried pretty much the whole time and someone insisted I keep their pack of Kleenex.

I met Emily’s mom, dad and step-mom for the first time after the service. They said some very nice things to me and I hope I said some nice things back. I said I would email them photos of Emily. I don’t remember if I did. I spoke with some of Em’s recovery friends and there was an instant bond, because we all belonged to different chapters of the same club.

I then spent my time in Toronto asking myself “What would Emily do?” and did it. Instead of staying in bed listening to murder mystery novels on Audible, I went to the Women’s March. Instead of going to see a fluffy superhero movie I went to see a film I figured Emily would prefer – something real, edgy and possibly uncomfortable: Twentieth Century Women – it was pretty good. And then I went to Sneaky Dee’s on College and Bathurst… and got drunk. Not something Emily would have done now, but something we both did in our twenties, so screw it.

This piece of writing here, about Emily, I started on the train in January, to and from her memorial service. The first writing I’d done in more than a year. The next month as I sat staring at my computer after work I googled “comedy class Ottawa” and found something called Improv Embassy on Rideau St. And they had something called an open jam that evening for $5 – so I stopped in. I took my first class in March. I took two more classes in May, one of them a sketch writing class. Somewhere in between there I tried stand-up at the Embassy. In September I took another improv class and joined the sketch troop the Shit Hot Shit Show, in October I took a photography class with the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa and in November I was able to memorize my lines for three and a half Shit Hot Shit Show sketches. This month I finished my photography course and submitted my final assignment of six photos, which were, I explained to my instructor and classmates, inspired by my friend Emily – who found me when I was lost.

Judy Emily Still Life

My still-life composition for my photography class assignment: Me and Emily at the Grawood Lounge, Dalhousie University (circa 1993, photo by Mike Graham), Emily’s Christmas card to me (2016), and my medals from Bosnia (2000-2003). My writing about Remembrance Day, Bosnia and Afghanistan is how she found me in 2014.

I wish I could tell Emily how much improv has helped me. How that flood of fear and panic I feel on stage helps me calm down during the rest of my waking life. That I started writing again, although I’m still a terrible procrastinator. That Mom and Kelley came to see me in some sketches last month and laughed their asses off. Seriously, I could hear Mom laughing all the way from the back row. That I’m applying to the Ottawa Fringe Festival next month and if I can find a venue I might actually be doing a one-person show in June called How to Get Over a Guy in 723 Days…. and Other Useful Things I Learned from PTSD.  That I started dating again, and maybe she could rate my Plenty of Fish ‘matches’ based on their astrological signs.

That I say weird stuff out loud. In public. In front of strangers!

That I miss her. Very much.

Thank you Emily. I so wish you were here.

Assignment collage minus 1

The rest of my SPAO photography assignment inspired by Emily. Architecture: Laura Secord looking over flags at half-mast on December 6th; Portrait: My very expressive friend Behi; Landscape: Frozen leaves in my backyard; Documentary: Two performers at the Improv Embassy; Architecture 2: Not the usual view of the National War Memorial.

Crazy, Horny or Feminist – You’re Gonna Love This

Jesus Loves a Crazy Horny FeministWhen I first saw the Facebook page for Jenn Hayward’s one-woman-show Jesus Loves a Crazy Horny Feminist, I thought it would be fun to see. But once I read her blog, I knew it was a show I couldn’t miss – and neither could my family.

Jenn Hayward is a mother of three who at the age of 38 penned and performed her autobiographical play which debuted at the Saskatoon Fringe Festival last August. She’s been performing comedy in Ottawa since 2007 and credits both stand-up and her family for helping her through mental health issues she’s had since she was a child.

Jenn is an astonishingly open and ferociously funny woman who wants to encourage dialogue about women and mental health – and make you laugh your ass off while doing it. Earlier we chatted via email about her show’s titillating title, the importance of setting boundaries, and why she’d pick Wanda Sykes as her understudy.

Why should we come to see Jesus Loves a Crazy Horny Feminist? (playing 2-5 March 2014 in Ottawa) 

Mostly to laugh, then to cry and then to laugh again. Honestly the main reason to come is to be engaged in a dialogue that is long overdue. My story is one that is relatable to many people.  Maybe not ALL of it lol, but some part or another. Also supporting local artistry is always reason enough, but the fact that this show has received great reviews thus far should provide more confidence in your ticket purchase!

What is the toughest part about doing this one woman show? 

To me it’s the producing part. I am thankful to have a publicist [Susan Murphy] who is doing so much legwork; she is amazing! The rest is just time management. When I perform my husband usually is home with the kids but this show has him involved (he is the voice of God) so it’s managing sitters and such. This is NOT a child friendly play. 🙂

What’s the best part about doing the show? 

Doing the show! All of it; the writing was fun, rehearsing with the husband, the reviews and accolades have been nice, but to me the best part is when I have a woman who comes to me after the show and says “I’ve never talked about my mental health, I’ve always been ashamed, thank you.” Every show, EVERY show I have at least one woman approach me. This is the best part of this show, having this important dialogue.

I would imagine some people might consider your show’s title controversial. How did you come up with it and what would you say to people who may pronounce it as a cheap marketing ploy?

The title of the show is very representative of what is in the show. I have had people love it and one of my besties back home hate it, lol. I chose it easily for one reason; it is direct and really gets to the meaning of the show. I talk about God, I talk about sex, I talk about feminism, and I talk about mental health and how all of that connected in my life.

You’ve dealt with mental health issues since you were 11 years old and were 35 when you were diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. What is BPD and what sucks most about having it? 

Oh dear, there is so much. It’s not known as the fun disorder to be honest. I’d say I think this explains it best:

When did you start becoming vocal about your own mental health issues and why?

I used to do jokes about it on stage but it never felt right. Just making fun of being crazy has never been what I’m about. That’s why I wrote this play I guess. It wasn’t until after I wrote it that I really understood myself and my last 20 years the way I do.

A good friend of mine who is in AA talks about being a “grateful alcoholic”.  Is there any part of having BPD that has made you grateful for what you’ve learned, or lead you to positive experiences that outweigh the pain of BPD?

Not really, though I will find the humour in everything, it’s hard to go through it. I am relatively stable now, have an amazing job, friends etc., but I still have those bad thoughts.They will always exist; I’ve just learned better management. 

In one of your blog posts you talk about the intense pain of having a former friend cut ties. What do you do to help yourself get through that kind of pain? 

I’ll let you know when it happens! I have had friends come and go, but in the end I always remember who has stayed, not who has left. This last one was particularly hard, but sometimes space makes life better. BPD people can be prone to drama and sometimes the person triggering the drama needs to be gone. Ultimately the only way to get rid of the pain is to feel it and let it pass.

I always considered myself to be comfortable handling mental health issues because of Mom’s history with bipolar disorder, but I’ve been slow with looking into my own. If I were completely honest I’d have to say I’ve been dealing with some anxious behaviour since returning from Afghanistan, and sometimes wonder if it’s related to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  What advice would you offer advice to people dealing with mental health issues of their own?

My advice is that first you are not alone. So many people suffer, many in silence. The second is to seek information and help.  The third is to then stop reading about it. We can become so obsessed with learning about the disorder that we start to hate ourselves for what it says.  Finally, my advice is to never use mental health issues as an excuse to hurt others. This may in fact happen – I have lashed out with harsh words or neediness while in my pain – but in the end no one deserves to be treated badly, ever. 

One of the hardest things for my sister and me to handle was not taking it personally when Mom wasn’t well. What advice would you give people who care about someone with mental health issues that occasionally lashes out? 

Funny I didn’t read this before the last question!  I would say forgive them, but have STRONG boundaries. We as mental health folks need to learn to manage on our own. My husband doesn’t try to fix me; he just loves me and lets me know where his boundaries are. He will have to put his foot down and trusts our relationship. Be compassionate but also take care of yourself. Accept apologies but don’t allow yourself to be mistreated.  It’s a balance.  

With everyone talking Oscars, who would pick to be your understudy for Jesus Loves a Crazy Horny Feminist

This is a great question. I think Wanda Sykes, not for any other reason but that she’s my comedy hero! 🙂

Jenn, Jenn & Wanda

My mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than 25 years ago. Last week I called her at 5:20 am to read aloud one of Jenn’s blog posts likening a messy accident in her Jacuzzi to dealing with the crap life throws at us. Mom laughed her ass off and told me to buy her a ticket to Jenn’s show.

Jesus Loves a Crazy Horny Feminist is playing in Ottawa March 2, 3 and 5 at the Arts Court Theatre on 2 Daley Avenue from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 each and the show is for (mostly) mature audiences only.

Jenn’s Website facebook  Jenn’s Blog