IV. Pt 2 or, It Could All Be So Simple...

"It could all be so simple / But you’d rather make it hard / Loving you is like a battle

And we both end up with scars..."

Ex-Factor, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

To say that my first night in the hospital psychiatric ward was one of the longest in my existence isn’t an exaggeration. I'd felt so trapped by life, then hurt myself in an effort to become free. The fact that I ended up putting myself in an actual, physical cage, even if it was just for a night, was a vengeful reality that returned again and again anytime I opened my eyes.

I had arrived at the hospital sometime around ten in the morning. I'd waited in emergency for about eight hours, then was taken to a room to be examined by a doctor. Quickly cleared (though not without judgement), I was taken to a tiny room with a small table, two chairs, and a phone. I waited perhaps another hour. I was visited by a nice lady I would not see again who questioned my motives in hurting myself. As she left, she instructed me to call home. I did. After waiting what felt like another hour someone came for me.

It was mid-November so by the time I walked the maze to my home for the next while, it was dark outside. Hospitals at night are not cute. They’re filled with people yet unbelievably lonely. The man leading me through the dim halls didn’t say much, only occasionally looked back to see I hadn’t run off. I suppose most wouldn't know what to say to a teen who tried to off themselves. A joke feels inappropriate and anything serious runs the risk of sounding like an admonishment. Silence seems like the safest option. We came to a sky bridge that connected the main building to the psychiatric ward. Looking out, I saw a parking lot filled with cars. I could almost hear the muffled sound of the atmosphere in its blanket of snow. I remember fear starting to creep in.

We entered the psych ward and I was greeted at the main desk by a big burly bald man (who I would also not see again) with a no-nonsense attitude. My first thought was: he’s that big so he can overpower the patients. The person I journeyed with disappeared into thin air and, after being given a sleeping pill, I was informed that I was being placed under observation. I would be sharing a room with two others and everyone was already asleep, so I needed to be quiet. This wasn't hard. Inside my brain, a terrible cocktail of self-hatred and numbness trapped my words. Even if I had wanted to, I doubt any sentences would've formed. All the lights in the building were dimmed and there was a terrifying heaviness to the air, the kind that made you feel like it would swallow you whole. In those moments it seemed possible I and this big burly bald man were the only ones alive. He took me to some stairs and started heading down. The fear became stronger.

I was led into the basement where we entered a brightly lit hexagonal room. A heavy looking door punctured by a small barred window was on each wall. There was a man in a hospital gown being corralled by two nurses. He was clearly high as a kite and the nurses were trying to get him to return to bed. When he saw me he smiled a smile so sweet. It was one of the first I'd seen all day and I was totally taken aback, not remotely prepared for kindness. When he attempted to hug me I recoiled and the big burly bald man put his body between us, reminding the man not to touch the other patients. He opened the door to my room and pushed me inside. As the door closed behind us, I looked back to see the man in the hospital gown staring at me with kind understanding.

The room was dark and silent save for the breathing of my two roommates. The big burly bald man pushed me toward my bed and asked quietly if I needed anything. I said no and he informed me that we would be checked on every hour. He turned on his flashlight and told me to get comfy. I stiffly sat down. He swung around, checking on the other two who didn’t stir and left. I stared at the light coming from the main room, the way the little squiggly bars cut it up. I listened to the breathing of the two strangers I couldn't see and wondered what they had done to end up here. I started to cry and lay down, tucking myself under the rough hospital sheets. I curled into the concrete wall, wanting desperately to slam my head into it. Looking up, I could see the stars through a small window near the ceiling. I recall being unbelievably pissed at the sky. Like somehow those stars were an affront to my whole existence. I didn't cry for very long. This wasn't that kind of sadness. Instead, I let my hands roam the divots in the concrete, let the cold permeate.

The pill eventually took hold but, as promised, every hour I was pulled back into the night. The sounds and images in my memory are fuzzy, burned into my brain under a layer of hazy narcotics: there was a clanging door to signal the watcher, a beam of light, a silhouette somewhere beyond. They would stay long enough to know you were breathing, then go. Eventually, the tempo of these visits became the lullaby I drifted off to. Off into a dreamless sleep.

The next morning when I was woken up, my roommates were already gone. I was taken upstairs for breakfast. Everything looked different, including the man in the hospital gown. He looked older now, heavier. He didn't acknowledge me. The cold winter light that infiltrated the building showed it was much larger than I'd expected and also much fuller with people, people who seemed friendly, who wanted to start a conversation. I was in no mood, still trapped in that repugnant cocktail, so I found a corner as far from everyone as I could possibly get and stared out the window. That light. Same as the light the day before. But nothing was the same. I wished for music.

It was only a few weeks before that I had purchased The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Prior to this, my tastes lived most in the space of pop or musical theatre. I was obsessed with Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera. As you may have previously read in Part 1, I was a musical theatre junkie, a complete sucker for the shallow unchallenging waters of blockbuster warbling. But sitting in the psych ward doesn’t exactly promote shallowness. Instead, it promotes introspection and, hopefully, a deepening of your understanding of self. If you’ve heard Miseducation you know that album does the same in the most beautiful, hopeful way.

When my mother arrived for a visit she brought clothes and the only thing I had really asked for: my Discman and a wallet of CDs. The first one I popped in was Miseducation. I’ll admit, to this day, I think of that album as beginning with “Ex-Factor” the album’s third track. For some reason, I always skip “Lost Ones” unless I’m feeling like I need hype, and the “Intro” is not really necessary unless you're a completist.

I still remember my first listen. Probably one of the most mind-expanding non-drug related experiences I’ve ever had. There’s layer upon layer upon layer on that album and each one spoke to a different part of myself that had gone mostly unexplored until then. Now, to be clear, I am aware this album was not written for me. I'm not here to appropriate a Black woman’s gorgeous ruminations on love and life and make them all about me. But I can’t deny that while listening to Miseducation I was allowed access to a worldview and life experience I had little knowledge of. This, in turn, gave me entrance to a part of myself I couldn’t have entered before. In other words, exactly what good art should do. It opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world, pulling me out of my solipsism. The distance I gained from my own situation - one that seemed so hopeless and trapped - showed me I had the tools to continue exploring, to continue breaking down the walls.

This is going to sound simplistic but I believe the lack of this knowledge, the knowledge of your own power, can be a huge part of what allows depression to take hold, to really sink in its teeth. It certainly was for me. I was brought up in a world where I was encouraged to only look so far, where my views were expected to stay confined to a tight box. And, like most people, I had deeper layers that needed tending. My inability to explore them left me emotionally handicapped.

A few weeks back, I was discussing with a friend our differing tastes. I made a bad joke about how his tastes tend toward "white people music." In response, he made a point of telling me that I used music to manufacture emotions because I didn’t know how to access them myself. No, this wasn’t the kindest thing in the world to say, but it’s also not totally untrue. So much of my life was spent tamping down my passions, not being encouraged to speak freely about what I was feeling. And music is a totally accessible way to dig into something you might not otherwise have any idea how to dig into. Lauryn Hill’s vulnerability, wisdom, her way with words… if she could dive into herself, if she could speak the truth about her experiences with strength, then I become convinced I can too.

For example, even though “Ex-Factor” was written about a former lover, its lyrics can also speak to one’s relationship with oneself. I know, even now, I still wage an internal battle on all things. These days, when I listen to Miseducation new things become clear, new layers appear that I can apply to my adult self. Whereas before, I was comforted by the lush romance, and fuck you-ness, today the themes of forgiveness and love stand out in a way they hadn’t before. Like during the interlude at the end of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” when one of the students breaks down the difference between loving somebody and being in love with somebody:

“You can love anybody," they say, "but when you in love with somebody you looking at it like this: you taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what he or she look like, no matter what he or she do.”

Of course, they’re talking about love between two people but as Mama RuPaul always says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” You’ve got a responsibility to learn to accept yourself even with all the flaws, to learn to forgive yourself even after all the mistakes.

Another student responds, referring to a theoretical partner, “Maybe sometimes they never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never - they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.” This can absolutely apply to one’s approach to oneself. If you didn’t know how to love that inner being, were never taught to love them, how easy will it be to accept love in kind? To give love?

Art of all sorts presents us with these questions. Art leads us to a deeper self. The best piece of advice about writing I’ve ever gotten was to go out and take in more art, more life - it doesn’t always have to be about getting something on the page. Those experiences feed the page. Those experiences feed your forgiveness and understanding of self which in turn feeds your forgiveness and understanding of others, which allows you to live more intimately, to create more expansively. I'll admit, I'm still not great at this, the chains of emotional repression are hard to break in their entirety, but I know it’s possible. It will always be possible when there are amazing, sensitive people out there making beautiful, layered, intelligent art. It will always be possible when you allow yourself the space to experience that art.

I don’t actually remember how long I was in the psych ward. Two weeks seems too long, but one week seems not long enough. I suppose it was somewhere in the middle. In between visits to the psychologist, occasional group therapy, and becoming confinement friends with the man in the hospital gown, I wrote in a diary while listening to Miseducation over and over and over again. I consider it the gateway to all the art that has fed my practice through the years all the way up to today. It led me to seek out music with deeper layers, to find films that challenged what I thought film could be, to read more, to write more. That album helped me get through, no two ways about it.

If you're an artist of any kind, you might be that beacon to someone out there. You could be the person whose work makes someone feel seen, lets them feel comfortable with being seen, to love, to be loved, and pulls them out of the mire and into the light. So keep going, keep creating. We need you.  

III. I Dreamed a Dream That One Day I'll Fly Away From This Wicked Little Town (Pt. 1)

I’ve been conflicted about being seen my entire life...  

When I was in grade three my school was arranging a trip to see a touring production of Phantom of the Opera in the “big city” aka Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. At the time we were living in a little town about 45 minutes north of Saskatoon. Even then, I was pretty obsessed with going to the city, probably because it seemed to happen so rarely. We'd go mostly on the weekends for groceries or the occasional movie, and I remember the excitement I would feel when I saw the city rising on the horizon. Y'all, it wasn't even a nice view. But to my eyes, starved for anything out of the ordinary, it seemed like a City of the Future. In other words, the idea of a day trip with no parents to see a theatrical event sounded pretty damn great. I suppose I imagined a Home Alone 2: Lost in New York scenario where I would get to see the glittering stars of stage and then somehow get separated from the group and wander into the hijinks of the city streets. I was excited.

There was a little problem with this daydream, however: I was already being called out quite a bit by my father for not being enough of a boy. I was expected to play soccer and help him with home repairs and generally stop being so effeminate. I already knew these things didn’t interest me, but I was brought up to listen to my parents, to respect their authority, especially my father's. The trip to see Phantom was around the same time as a monster truck rally. We didn’t have much money so I was given a choice: go see Phantom (which my sister had already decided to do) or go to the monster truck rally. You already know what I really wanted to do. But thanks to some pressure from my father and uncle who made it clear that swaying in the other direction would make me a Man Disappointment, I decided to go to the rally. I spent the next couple of weeks performing my excitement for this most masculine of activities.

The weekend of the rally came and we drove into the city where my father, uncle, two cousins and I headed into the arena once known as Sask Place. I don’t know how many of you have been to an indoor monster truck rally but they are truly horrendous. The smell of gasoline, the roar of engines, and the crashing of metal put me off cars for the rest of my life. Still, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a kind of fun. I was, after all, an eight-year-old boy who was getting to spend dedicated time with his father doing something that felt like exactly what fathers and sons should be doing to bond. But the fun was fleeting, to say the least. I remember getting a splitting headache from the gas fumes and bucket of soda we shared. I remember thinking myself much too delicate for all the noise and macho posturing. But, when we got home, I again performed my part. I made it sound like the most fun thing I had ever done.

I ate my words when my sister came home the next week from the performance of Phantom. Since her ticket was deeply discounted she had some money left to spend and came home with the double tape of the Original Cast Recording featuring the legendary Michael Crawford and (gasp) Miss Sarah Brightman. I was immediately fascinated by the deep black of the tape sleeve with its broken glass titles, punctuated by the red of the rose and bluish white of the Phantom’s mask. Then, I listened. And OH. MY. GAY. GAWDS.

(Hold up, I put it on just now as “background music” and got completely sucked in. I haven’t listened to this shit in years and somehow every word is still up there. Will I remember this when I’m on my deathbed!? I hope so.)

Anyway. Another souvenir had come home with my sister: The Complete Phantom of the Opera in glorious hardcover. Inside all the secrets of the development and mounting of the original production were revealed and I became obsessed. Not just with the show but with the process of theatre. It seemed like such amazing magic. They had a boat, my friends. On stage. And a chandelier! And and and! Then, after all this joy and fascination, I crashed. The world of lights and costumes and curtains seemed completely inaccessible to a kid stuck in a wasteland of flatness. I vowed then and there that I would never pass up another opportunity to see one of these big touring productions. In the following years, I begged my parents to take us to every show possible. They did their best, bless them. I honestly don’t think they knew what to do with the little girly boy who holed himself up in his bedroom and listened to the Phantom tape over and over. Taking me to these shows might have become one of the only ways for them to get me out of the house.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was my next obsession. Mostly because it was a frustrating missed opportunity. When the production came through they announced that they were looking for local kids to join the children’s chorus. Despite my desperation to be on stage, I was beset by horrible doubt that theatre wasn’t an appropriate desire for a boy to have, and my father was still doing very little to dissuade me of this notion. I hadn't ever been a, let's say, socially talented child, possessing very little self-esteem and feeling unsupported in my dream didn't help. So I missed my chance to make my theatrical début. I was crushed. Especially when I got a chance to see it and the sea of white kids who emerged as the chorus made my theatrical dreams that much more inaccessible. I became a critic that night. As much as I appreciated the talent on stage, I was struck by the shoddiness of the production, something I probably couldn’t (but absolutely could) tell from our cheap seats in the sky. Also the fact that Joseph was meant to be this wonderful, kind, attractive young man, but struck me as a terrible brat. I could have given him heart, I thought. I was also put off by the blatant kid-pandering of the score. I was sophisticated, you see. I found myself wanting to play the Narrator, an interesting choice in hindsight.

It was Evita that truly solidified my love of the stage. I mean, come on. Latin actors (maybe) on stage! Latin characters that I could (maybe) play! And Eva Perón was exactly my kind of lady: outspoken, ambitious, calculating, and glamorous with a deep-seated need to Get Out, to Live the Dream. There were many times where my father discovered me using my music stand as a makeshift balcony of La Casa Rosada, singing quietly and emoting gigantically. He could never hide his displeasure and I would shrink into myself, trying not to be seen, trying not to take up space. Despite this, or because of this, I swear Evita was the real cementing of my queerness. How could it not be? It was Diva Magnifica Miss Patti Lupone whose voice I pretended was mine, and there’s a song called fucking “Rainbow High.” If that's not Gay!, then I don't know what is.

Then came Les Misérables. Joseph and Evita were cool, but they felt obviously scaled back for touring. Les Misérables, on the other hand, was BIG. Having love for Les Misérables is pretty basic, it’s true. It’s a bunch of accessible pop songs strung together by a "plot". Characters come and go at random, giving us A Moment and then often dying tragically and glamorously. But for all the Bigness, the moment that stuck with me most was when Eponine, your favourite tragically glamorous street urchin in unrequited love with Hunky Marius, wanders the stark night-lit street of that French place they were in (Paris? Who knows, who cares!). This was when they still had that giant rotating disk as the centrepiece of their set so she was walking but stayed. In. Place (gasp). Dilapidated windows looked down on her as she belted out her emotional deprivation. I meeeaaan. Girl! She was me, I was her, we were one. Both "on our own." Pretty sure I’ve described this moment in reverent tones to practically every single one of my friends. Then, the dumb girl had to go and die to save Hunky Marius and I was outraged. Why would she do that? He was a dick! He didn't deserve her love! She should've said "Boy, bye" and gotten outta that fucked up town, lived her dream in some other fabulous city where they appreciated her kind. I had conveniently forgotten her (and my own) financial hardship. 

The next few years were pretty dry. The only major theatre in the city underwent renovations or lost a contract and could no longer host the bigger productions that rolled through town. I spent those years going to the library as much as possible. The main branch in Saskatoon actually had a really great musical theatre section and any chance I got I would head down and spend hours browsing the CD’s. I would bring a stack up to the counter and cart them home. I stuck to the more traditional stuff, South Pacific (nope), Carousel (nope), Sunset Boulevard (meh), and Jesus Christ Superstar (meh).

Then the renovations were finished or the contract renewed and one of the first shows announced was Miss Saigon. I’m not sure if I can fully describe how impactful this show was to me. Asian people (maybe) on stage! Parts that ambiguously raced people like me could play (maybe)! And the scale. They had a fucking. Helicopter. And there seemed to be so many people on stage! Things flying in and out! A pink Cadillac! And the melodrama of it all. I assume it’s because I’ve become accustomed to Lea Salonga’s voice from the Original Cast Recording but I swear the woman who played Kim sounded exactly the same. How could you not be turned into a jelly mess when she sings “I’d Give My Life For You”? But, as big a deal as the show was, the music wasn't always memorable and the icky fetishizing of Kim was truly unfortunate. Theatre still seemed so far away. I needed to find something that spoke to me. 

And then I found Rent. As A Theatre Gay of the 90’s, I’m pretty much obligated to have a past with Rent. I found the double CD at the library, pulled in by its colourful cover, with a diverse group of faces set in grungy, hip expressions. And the music! Everyone was so angry and ~arty~. They were also glamorously tragic and, despite living in New York City (the centre of the universe!) they desperately wanted to Get Out. My parents probably know the words as well as I do because of my near constant listens. This love only deepened when I got into a summer theatre program in Edmonton where we workshopped a new show by Marty Chan called The 7th Circle. The kids in the program were a gaggle of mostly middle-class nerds from the suburbs of our various cities and we were supposed to be playing a bunch of disaffected teens in a high school based on Dante’s Inferno. Rent was the angriest thing most of us had any experience with so clearly we had many sing-alongs while partying in basements. I was playing the closeted gay teen who led the main character through the halls of the school AKA the seven circles of hell. At some point, my character was beaten up by a gang of boys. He eventually shot the school up in retaliation, at one point dramatically dumping a backpack full of bullets on the stage. Despite the difficulty of the role, I was in heaven. I remember quite clearly when we choreographed the beating. It was appropriately hot as hell that day and the studio was beyond stuffy. For some reason, the director had left this scene to the last hour of a very long day in the final week of rehearsal. I spent much too long on my hands and knees on a hard floor in the middle of a circle of young men enacting a violent beating in slow motion. When we finished setting, I left feeling emotionally distraught but challenged. It felt good to tell the story of a queer kid, to make explicit the kind of violence that can happen to us. I had a lot of bottled up rage and pain from never really feeling safe to be who I was and, being away from home, playing this role, gave me a chance to let some of that out. Because of all the emotional catharsis, the run felt like a resounding success. I was given an award for performance excellence and on the last night, as we partied, we belted out "Seasons of Love" until our voices ached. I felt like a new person, finally free, finally more comfortable with being seen, with taking up space. 

Then, I returned home to play Scarecrow in my high school production of The Wizard of Oz. The shock to my system was immediate. All the old walls and expectations started to build up. Depression started to creep in at the corners. I needed... more.

I went back to the library where I had been eyeing a certain CD. On the front was a black and white photo of a sad looking person holding a microphone under a single light. In the top right-hand corner, in bright pink, it declared: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For balance in the bottom right-hand corner was one of those Parental Advisory: Explicit Content fearmongers. I was fascinated, completely. First, Explicit Content? Yes please! Second, this person on the cover was ambiguous in gender. They wore a skin-tight dress with a slash of red on their lips. Their legs were muscular, their shoulders wide, their jaw square. I mustered up the courage to face the judgy library worker and took the damn thing out. Friends, this album. The moment Miriam Shor snarls “Ladies and Gentlemen, whether you like it or not: HEDWIG!” made me a fan for life. I had never heard anything like it. Hedwig was my dream role. A self-professed “slip of a girly boy” sitting alone, listening to quiet music and imagining a world far away from the world they inhabited was exactly me. Unfortunately, Hedwig is German, blonde, white and clearly, I am not. I was also tragically unhip and trying with every last bit of my gay heart to continue being the good kid I was supposed to be, never rocking the boat, never being too emotional or too feminine. Having gotten a taste of what the world could be, I felt even further from it than I had before and, as my sexuality crystalized, all that need to be good and fit into what was expected became more of a cage than it ever was.

Things got really dark then. Playing a brainless sack of hay was obviously unchallenging. And the director had a rather unsavoury habit of separating the lead actors from the chorus folk by treating us like friends, equals, regularly belittling the chorus members to our faces. It fed my ego, sure, but took a lot of fun out of the proceedings. As one of her favourites, I was supposed to live up to a standard: the good kid, the upright example. Over the next year, I partied more and more, trying to be anything but That Kid. I started going to raves and sneaking into the local gay bar where I hung out with drag queens and disappeared into an all-night lucid dream. I thought, if this is who I have to be at school, then it's too much to try to be the same at home. The rebellion was strong. This turned me into a disappointment in my parents' eyes and the weight of managing lies - pretending everything was all right - was heavy. The depression drew closer still.

The next year, as a senior, I played Tommy in Brigadoon. This show, man. It was the complete antithesis to everything I found interesting or creative. The songs were dull and totally unchallenging, I was one of the only people of colour in the entire cast, and I was supposed to be playing a masculine charmer of a man, the kind who falls madly in love and croons gently in the fog. I've since softened on it, but at the time, Brigadoon felt like the kind of thing that could only appeal to someone at death's door. So, not only was I not feeling free to express myself at home, but I was also left without a chance to do it in my chosen art. Without a proper outlet, I spiralled further. My aforementioned fear of being seen came back with a vengeance and that meant I was too scared to speak up or seek help. Who knows if it would have mattered, I don’t remember Saskatoon having much in the way of queer youth outreach. I felt completely muzzled without the proper tools to deal with anything I was going through.

I tried to kill myself that winter. I know, I know, dramatic shift. But that's how it happened. I made the choice suddenly. Or at least that's how it looked from the outside. Really it was a choice that felt inevitable, the darkness laying under the surface of my skin finally ready to come forward. I remember quite clearly lying under the twinkle lights I’d set up above my bed, as drunk as I’d ever been up to that point. Nicole Kidman was singing “One Day I’ll Fly Away” softly from my CD player. The world of Moulin Rouge with its bombastic romance and tragically romantic bohemians felt like a universe away, space that despite all my efforts, I could never ever have access to. I’m not going to describe how I did it, that's too personal. But I can say it felt very freeing. I know now that was a huge part of why I did it: to exert some kind of control over my own existence.

I drove myself to the hospital the next morning. And that night as my sleep was interrupted every hour by a watchful flashlight, a new vow began to form: to never let myself be muzzled again and to focus on the kind of art that felt rigorous and challenging.

This was much easier said than done.