Eriksson probes mental health issues
February 06th, 2014
Ann Eriksson was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in all three prairie provinces. Having studied and lived in New Zealand, Europe and Halifax, she came to the West Coast in 1978, living for ten years on Galiano Island. Moving to Victoria in 1990, she completed a degree in Biology with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Her work as consulting biologist on biodiversity has had an impact on her writing. In 2007 she married poet Gary Geddes and they now divide their time between Victoria and Thetis Island, B.C. Ann Eriksson is a founding director of the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy.
Both Ann Eriksson and Gary Geddes will be featured at the Word on the Lake Festival in Salmon Arm, May 16-18. Also appearing will be C.Cc Humphreys [see his recent profile on BCBookLook], Carmen Aguirre, Gail Anderson-Dargetz, Diane Gabaldon, Ursula Maxwell-Lewis and Howard White—along with literary agent Carolyn Swayze, singer/songwriter David Essig and editor Shelagh Jamieson. For more information, visitwww.saow.ca
Written when she was a working single mother with two small children, Ann Eriksson’s first novel Decomposing Maggie (Turnstone) concerns a woman who returns to face her past and come to terms with the death of her husband when family property is sold. This elegiac tale about the management of grief was inspired by the deaths of both an infant daughter in 1987, and four years later, her partner. The protagonist Maggie Cooper still wears her husband’s paint-splattered sweatshirt three years after his death. She sleeps in her car, and gathers kelp to weave into the perfect basket for her husband’s ashes.
Ann Eriksson’s second novel In the Hands of Anubis (Brindle & Glass, 2009), follows a Calgary tractor salesman who, through an unlikely encounter in a Frankfurt airport, embarks on life-changing adventures in Cairo in the 1980s with a gusty septuagenarian named Constance Ebenezer. Her third novel Falling from Grace (Brindle & Glass 2010) concerns a three-and-a-half-foot tall female scientist doing entomological research in the tallest trees on Vancouver Island.
Ann Eriksson’s fourth novel, High Clear Bell of Morning (D&M 2014), with references to the ecology of Orcinus orca, the killer whale, examines what happens to a family when a loved one requires help with a mental illness.
“My interest in writing this novel,” she says, “grew from the experience of watching a family close to me implode when one of their children became mentally ill and eventually drug addicted. I was struck by how traumatizing the mental health system experience was for the entire family and by how difficult it was for them to get and maintain the help they needed, both a result of the nature of the disease, (e.g., lack of insight, variability in response to medications, lack of compliance, etc) but also the inadequacies of the system (e.g., poorly understood disorder, lack of psychiatrists, legal privacy and rights issues etc).
“Stigma also remains a huge problem, toward both the ill person and the family. I heard and read many stories about parents who were made to feel they were the source of their child’s problems by poorly educated health care workers, and sometimes shut out of participating in treatment. I was also shocked that a person could go into the system with a mental illness and come out a drug addict. This is unfortunately quite common, as ill, vulnerable and lonely young people, who may have lost all their other friends because of their bizarre behaviour, are exposed in the hospital, group therapy, and group homes, to other mentally ill peers with addiction problems.
“I was told about a group of parents who were considering a class action law suit over this problem.
“For the most part I was a helpless onlooker, and probably with all the stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness in place. So writing about these issues became a way I could educate myself, but also, in some small way, to contribute to raising awareness.”
Decomposing Maggie (Turnstone) $18.95 0888012837
In the Hands of Anubis (Brindle & Glass, 2009) 9781897142356
Falling from Grace (Brindle & Glass 2010) $19.95 9781897142462
High Clear Bell of Morning (D&M 2014)
Interview supplied by publisher:
Q: In High Clear Bell of Morning, readers are witness to utter upheaval in the lives of a family when the daughter, Ruby, is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Why did you decide to tackle the topic of mental illness?
A: I have watched more than one family close to me experience the mental illness of a family member and was struck by how traumatizing it was for the entire family and by how difficult it was for them to get and maintain the help they needed. For the most part I was a helpless onlooker. Raising awareness of the issues through my writing seemed to be one small way I could make a positive contribution.
Q: The title of this book references a flashback to a simpler time, when Glen (the father) and Ruby (the daughter) were watching whales through his binoculars, “the sea, the air so still and pure it rang in his ears like the sound of a bell, high and clear.” What does the title mean to you?
A: I think anyone who spends time on the ocean in boats will recognize that special perfect moment at dawn when all is silent and the sun first tips over the horizon and sheds a soft light over the glassy sea. The title does refer to that experience shared by Glen with young Ruby as a healthy curious child the day they witness the birth of a whale, but there is also a play on the word morning, which can be heard as ‘mourning,’ lending a portentous sorrowful note to the title.
Q: This story is told from the point of view of both Glen and Ruby. How did you approach getting into the mindset of a character encountering the first stages of schizophrenia?
A: Ruby’s voice was certainly the most challenging to write. People with mental illness are so often stigmatized and wrongly criticized as making poor behavioural choices. By including Ruby’s voice in the narrative, I wanted to show that she was a victim of her illness, unable to differentiate the psychosis from reality. To develop the character, I interviewed people with mental illness and family members, read memoirs by authors who had experience with mental illness, and consulted technical references. In the end though, I had to put it all away and imagine myself in Ruby’s mind and body.
Q: In many ways, High Clear Bell of Morning is Glen’s story. Glen is a biologist studying the toxins present in the bodies of a pod of killer whales of the West Coast of Canada. How did your own experiences as a biologist inform his character?
A: In the early 1990s, while a student in biology at the University of Victoria, I volunteered with a marine mammal research group. During that time, I gathered all the toxicology data that had been collected on whales along the coast for a paper. I was struck by the number and levels of contaminants—many with toxic properties—found particularly in killer whales, and the potential health effects of these contaminants. A few years later the southern resident killer whales were declared the most polluted mammals on earth and their contamination remains one of the major threats to the population. I have maintained an interest in ocean contaminants since then and was appalled when the Canadian government recently shut down the entire federal ocean contaminants program and fired its seventy-five marine pollution scientists. I interviewed one of those scientists, Peter Ross, for the book. The scientists I know who study marine mammals are a rare breed, and all are very dedicated and wonderful people. It was a pleasure to create Glen, a fictional character just like them.
Q: In your research into mental illness for this book, what findings surprised you the most?
A: I was surprised by most of what I learned. I did a huge amount of research and my writing studio is cluttered with books and papers on the subject. I came into the task with all the commonly held misconceptions and stereotypes, but with an open mind. A few of the things I learned stand out. I’ve already mentioned the difficulties with treatment, and the high probability of drug addiction as a concurrent problem for those with serious mental illness. But I was also surprised to learn that schizophrenia is more common than I thought, a prevalence of about 1 in a hundred (1%). As an advocate of human rights, I was critical of involuntary treatment, but realized quickly that it is a necessary tool that has saved the lives of many seriously ill people who have no insight into their disease; they don’t understand they are sick because of a common and related brain disorder called anosognosia. On a positive note, I had always believed that a diagnosis of schizophrenia was a life sentence on medication or dead to suicide, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that about a quarter of people with schizophrenia completely recover.
Q: Many aspects of the health care system in High Clear Bell of Morning stand out as important factors in Ruby’s recovery or lack there-of. It’s at group therapy through the hospital where she meets Kenny, who introduces her to the slippery slope of self-medication. And once she’s addicted, it’s extremely hard for the family to find assistance, as most clinics will only treat mental health or drug addiction. To what extent are these events based on problems in our own health care system?
A: This is a very real problem. I was told of a group of parents who were considering a class-action lawsuit because their adolescent and adult children were becoming drug addicts after they entered the mental health system. Studies have shown that about half of people with schizophrenia abuse street drugs and/or alcohol, and many of them have been introduced to these substances by peers they met in treatment when they were ill, vulnerable and often lonely, having lost all of their friends to their odd and often frightening behaviour. This situation was one I wanted to illuminate, as I don’t think it is widely known. Stigma continues to be a problem, even within the health care system, with an apparent lack of education for health care workers about the nature of serious mental illness as a brain disease, not a behavioural choice. I heard many stories of parents who were treated as if they were the cause of their child’s problems, and were shut out of the treatment process. The lack of psychiatric specialists and the difficulties with treating concurrent disorders are also serious inadequacies.
Q: One of the most interesting things Glen does to try to understand what his daughter is going through in her illness is to take some of her meds, which leave him feeling overcome by fatigue. Is that something you’ve ever heard of someone doing?
A: The scene where Glen takes Ruby’s anti-psychotic medications was inspired by a memoir, Hurry Down Sunshine by American writer Michael Greenberg, who took his daughter’s medications. Glen’s reaction to Ruby’s meds demonstrates the serious sedative effect of many of the medications used to treat schizophrenia, a common complaint among people who are prescribed them. One woman I interviewed told me her daughter sleeps fourteen hours a day and has an anti-psychotic hangover for hours after waking. This scene also provides an opportunity to reveal some of the other debilitating side effects of anti-psychotic drugs.
Q: What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from reading this book?
A: Someone (I wish I knew who) once said that writers should “conflict the comfortable and comfort the conflicted.” I hope in some small way that this novel will accomplish those goals by raising awareness about the plight of the families of the mentally ill in North American society, and about the potential impacts of environmental toxins on the health of humans and wildlife. I hope also that families experiencing the trauma of a serious mental illness will recognize themselves in the characters and the situations and find some solace in knowing they are not alone.
Top Photo: Author Ann Eriksson