Features

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The SAD Epidemic, and How to Deal

Baby, It's Dark Outside

I’ve spent a large portion of my twenties in the waiting rooms of Vancouver’s walk-in clinics and emergency rooms. I’ve spent hours sitting in vinyl seats, listening to QMFM, just to tell a medical professional that I was sad. Everything in my life was blurry and slow and heavy and dark, and eventually I started to wish I could go to sleep and never wake up. I would describe this crippling sadness to doctor after doctor, and I always got this question first:

“Are you from here?”

Apparently, depression and suicidal thoughts are normal side effects of moving to Vancouver. The doctors would tell me they see it all the time: someone moves from a city with winter, spring, fall and summer to Vancouver, the city with thick grey skies and rain for ten months of the year, and suddenly they lose the will to live. It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly abbreviated as SAD) and when you live in a city that barely has two seasons, it becomes a big deal. Vancouver is a city full of SAD people for most of the year. According to the medical community, we have a full-blown SAD epidemic.

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Illustration by Eva Dominelli for Discorder Magazine
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Sarah Jickling || Photography by Sara Baar for Discorder Magazine

Obviously, if I had answered yes to that first question, there would be no need for me to visit every waiting room in the city. Unfortunately, I’m from Surrey. I grew up with this constant drizzle. My dad used to say that the rain would follow us if we ever went on a vacation, so part of my little kid brain thought that my family must also be the reason it rained so much in the Lower Mainland. I’d tell the doctor that no, I was not some previously happy East Coast Canadian who made a terrible mistake and moved to the “wet” coast, and we’d move on from that question to the next one. As a native Vancouverite in her early twenties, it was expected that I was used to the constant darkness.

After what felt like a thousand trips to the doctor and a couple trips to the hospital, I was eventually diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And, like literally everyone with Bipolar Disorder, I also have Seasonal Affective Disorder. But on my list of problems, SAD ended up at the bottom of the list. I spent years trying to find the right medication that would treat my bipolar disorder without worsening my anxiety disorder, and finally I could get through a month without throwing a plate across the room or sleeping for fifteen hours straight. It was August 2016 when my psychiatrist and I agreed that I was doing well enough that I could go three months between visits instead of the usual two weeks. I finally felt okay. And then October came.

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Illustration by Eva Dominelli for Discorder Magazine

I’ve been stable on meds for a year and a half, and while that doesn’t make me an expert, I’ve learned that from October to May, life is harder. By the time pumpkin spice latte season comes around, my symptoms of depression come creeping back like clockwork. I’ve tried everything my doctor (and the collective hive mind of the internet) has suggested to fight it. I have a little happy lamp which I try to stare into for 30 minutes every morning. I take more vitamin D than the bottle suggests. I try to have fun with the fall and winter holidays. Last year I bought tickets to the Halloween train in Stanley Park, Zombie Syndrome the outdoor interactive zombie play and the “no splash zone” at Evil Dead The Musical. I went to the pumpkin patch, the Christmas market, the other Christmas market, a Christmas-themed musical, saw the lights at VanDusen Garden and if my money hadn’t run out, I would have bought tickets to a Christmas ghost tour of Gastown.

It was ridiculously hard work, and as October came rolling around this year, I didn’t have the energy (or the money) to throw myself into celebrating cozy, fuzzy feelings that only ended up feeling forced and hollow. This year, instead of trying my best to have fun, I’m going to try my best to take care of myself, even if that means allowing myself to feel depressed. Instead of spending my money on overpriced Christmas markets, I’m going to make sure I exercise (I can be found at the local pole fitness studio almost every night), eat food at least three times a day, drink water, and sleep eight hours a night. I’m going to say no to projects I can’t handle, or postpone them until the summer when I have more energy. I’m going to expect less of myself. Bears hibernate. Maybe people with SAD need to hibernate too.

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Illustration by Eva Dominelli for Discorder Magazine

 

To everyone who struggles with their mental health this time of year, I would like to remind you that Christmas doesn’t have to be joyful, New Year’s Eve doesn’t have to be exciting and Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be romantic. You don’t have to pretend that this is the “most wonderful time of the year.” You have to take care of yourselves and make sure you survive until summer, no matter what that means to you. Maybe one day, we can all move to the south of France. But right now, we’re here, and we’re having a hard time. And that’s okay.

 

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Sarah Jickling is a Canadian songstress and mental health advocate. Over the past few years, Jickling’s whimsical indie-pop songs have been featured on radio stations across the country and in independent films. The twenty-six year old uses her music to spread mental health awareness, and has opened up about her experiences with Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorder on radio, local television, podcasts, blogs and at live speaking events. She now performs her music in high schools across the province with the BC Schizophrenia Society’s Reach Out Psychosis Concert Tour. She can be found in hospital waiting rooms and pole dancing studios around Vancouver.

 

RESOURCES:

To speak to a psychiatrist or join a coping skills group, ask your doctor or a walk-in clinic to refer you to the Mood Disorders Association of BC. If you are feeling suicidal and are looking to see a free counsellor immediately, contact SAFER at Vancouver General Hospital. If you are looking for an extremely affordable counsellor and don’t mind being on a waitlist, contact Oak Counselling. To learn skills about mindfulness and other coping tools for free, email the YMCA Youth Mindfulness Program and ask to be put on their waitlist (for people under 30 only). If you need to talk to someone, or to find more resources in your area, please call the Crisis Centre or chat online with the Crisis Centre Chat (for over 24 years old) or YouthinBC.com. If you are in a crisis and you don’t want to go to the ER, there is now a mental health emergency centre called the Access and Assessment Centre. They can send a nurse to you and have counsellors and psychiatrists on site.  Some helpful mental health apps include: Wysa, Calm, Headspace, Mindshift, and an app in progress called Aloe.

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Can we know someone by their words? I believed so in university, supplementing a kind of loneliness with poetry and prose. I found intimacy with writers through their words, and upheld these one-sided relationships until I didn’t need them as much.

I hadn’t thought about this for a while until my interview with local filmmaker, Kathleen Hepburn. She wrote and directed Never Steady, Never Still, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this summer. It has since played other festivals in Canada and internationally.

Set in Northern British Columbia, it is a realistic portrayal of a family that copes with a degenerative condition and sudden loss. It’s centred around a mother with Parkinson’s disease, and shows the dynamic between her and her husband, her son, and her community. The narrative branches off to follow her son into oil fields, parties, and lustful encounters both inside and outside of his mind. Though it addresses serious topics around illness, sense of belonging and sexuality, the story is delicate, minimal and intentional.

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Never Steady Never Still || Illustration by Lou Papa for Discorder Magazine

When asked about creative influences, it wasn’t surprising that Hepburn responded, “I take a lot more influence from writers than filmmakers when I’m writing.” She also noted admiration for filmmakers Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold and Kelly Reichardt, who seem to share a love of literature.

While writing Never Steady, Never Still, Hepburn was reading Tinkers by Paul Thomas Harding: “It is about a man on his deathbed, going through his relationship with his father who had epilepsy. [It is] very imagistic and poetic. That was what I used to get things flowing.” Jamie, the son in Never Steady, Never Still, was influenced by Toronto-based poet, Matthew Henderson, whose poetry book, The Lease, documents his experiences working on oil sands as a teenager.

Jamie is an interesting character. He learns responsibility through work, and having to step up after the death of someone close. The viewer sees him mature suddenly. Pushed into adulthood to a certain extent, Jamie questions his sexuality, but only sharing his uncertainty with the viewer. Jamie’s sexuality is one of the film’s many thematic undercurrents, but it is strong enough that it places Never Steady, Never Still within a growing canon of LGBTQIA2S+ Canadian cinema. Or as Hepburn thinks, “on the edges of it.”

“It’s not that it’s not a queer story, but more that I think Jamie’s identity struggle is less about sexuality than it is about being seen. But because he’s a teenage boy, sex is a major factor in that struggle. But, it’s not until he experiences someone else’s pleasure that he can really understand what the pleasures of sex are,” explained Hepburn.

 

Amid a dozen glowing reviews of Never Steady, Never Still in print and online, there are some bad ones. Writers have critiqued the character development of Jamie, and his mother, Judy. The negative reviews have largely demonstrated an ignorance of neorealism and the slow cinema that inform the film’s script and aesthetic. With regards to the character of Judy, negative reviews have suggested that Hepburn missed an opportunity to feed the viewer’s hunger for more positive role models around chronic illness and disability. This critique in particular, is tokenizing. Speaking to the expectation for filmmakers to depict “positivity” for the sake of it, Hepburn said, “I think there is also the responsibility of being honest.”

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Kathleen Hepburn || Colin Brattey for Discorder Magazine

“To me, the mother is an extremely positive role model. She is realistic in that she can’t express what she wants to express, but she’s incredibly strong and independent. She’s trying to take care of herself and her son,” explained Hepburn. “I wanted to show what I see as strength, which is the day to day, getting through shit.”

This idea of representing the quotidian in rural settings encroaches upon a wider national debate around the status of fiction film writing. In January 2017, Cameron Bailey wrote an op-ed “Dear Canadian filmmakers: it’s not about you, it’s about us” for The Globe and Mail arguing that Canadian filmmakers rely too heavily on personal experiences of alienation. Filmmaker Kevan Funk (Hello Destroyer) responded with an open letter that acknowledged Bailey’s perspective, and agreed “Canadian filmmakers need to be much more bold,” before dismantling the op-ed. Funk pointed out that Canadian filmmakers have few resources, and that funders (federal and provincial arts programs, broadcasters, Telefilm, etc.) are more keen to invest in depictions of Canadian identity than other content.

Hepburn agreed with both sides: “It’s true that we tend to get drawn to the personal, but I think a factor is that first-time filmmakers are often telling personal stories because that’s the only thing they know how to do.”

There is also inconsistency across the country. Hepburn explained, “I think that the problem is that we’re telling a lot of Canadian stories that aren’t authentic. I feel that there’s a wave coming from the East Coasters, that they’re telling these very intense, realist [narratives], which is what I think has been lacking from the milk-toast Canadian rural stories that we’ve seen before.” Considering the issues posed by Bailey and Funk, Hepburn concluded, “I think it’s a mix of both. I think we need to look at politics and our social situation and be more critical, but I don’t think that necessarily means not telling personal stories.”

And so, our conversation circled back to writing. Hepburn holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. For Hepburn, working on a degree gave her the time to slow down and focus on scriptwriting Never Steady, Never Still. Time is a luxury that many filmmakers don’t get.

“There is always a push to get to the next stage, to get films made,” Hepburn stated. “I think that’s something that screenwriters don’t usually get to do, is to take their script and beat it to death, but in a good way, treating every line as crucial.”

Never Steady, Never Still is a labour of love and conviction, a testament to taking things slow. Is a filmmaker known through their work? I believe so.

 

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Never Steady, Never Still will be screening again in the new year, dates to be announced. Kathleen Hepburn is currently working on a new feature film with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers called, Stay.