The Last Homely House

“This is the book I write, oh, why’d I let it go so long?” —Spoon

“I paused for a moment. It was impossible not to be impressed by the Great Library, and this in a world noted for its superlative structures, setting and depth. Just by way of example, the landscape inside Lord of the Rings was so stunning and so stupendous that it could be absorbed as a form of nourishment. The huge tourism opportunities within the trilogy had been long understood and exploited, and even though the battles were exciting and fun to watch, most people went only for the valleys, rivers, waterfalls, crags, trees and moss.” —Jasper Fforde

 

Ever since I was a child, I’ve moved from east to west along the Trans-Canada Highway. At least once a year, usually for 2-4 weeks in the summer, and always starting from my home in Edmonton, I would travel westward to British Columbia along a part of the Trans-Canada known as the Yellowhead Highway. My destination was either Vancouver, where my father lived, or Victoria, where my aunt, uncle and cousin lived. Sometimes I’d travel by myself on the Greyhound, but most of the time I’d travel with my grandparents in their Dodge Ram pickup truck. The truck had a canopy cover over the cargo area, and always pulled a trailer. Often it was just the three of us, but other times my cousin Craig would be there, too, heading back with us to his home in Victoria. My grandma would make up beds for us in the back of the truck, and we’d spend the entire trip sleeping, reading Archie Double Digests and wrestling magazines, listening to our yellow Sony Sport Walkmans, or just staring out the window, daydreaming.

An inevitability of the trip was traveling through the Rocky Mountains. It’s impossible to get from Alberta to British Columbia without going through them, and our route was always the same: Edmonton—Jasper—Kamloops—Vancouver. That meant we’d spend about three-four hours in the Rocky Mountains every time we traveled. Being the bookish type that I am, my daydreams would inevitably turn to the world within my favourite novel, The Lord of The Rings. The Rocky Mountains became, in my mind, the Misty Mountains of Middle-Earth. And this meant that somewhere, within the curves and creases of the ranges, in the places unseen from the highway and the spaces invisible to even the Park Rangers, was something I cared about more than almost any other thing in the world: The Last Homely House of Elrond Half-elven.

I became absolutely convinced at a very young age that both Elves, and their home of Rivendell, were to be found within Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Truth be told, I’ve never much wavered from that position. Over time, I came up with other, inexact comparisons between Canada and Middle-Earth—Victoria was Númenor, Vancouver the Grey Havens, the prairies were Rohan, Ottawa was Isengard, and of course Toronto was Barad-dûr—but for the most part I focused my attention on the mountains, in particular the mysterious, hidden House that I knew lay somewhere within them. I cannot entirely explain my fascination with Rivendell, The Last Homely House East of the Sea. I share Master Samwise’s enthusiasm for Elves, so it’s a logical choice. But there are other Elven refuges in Middle-Earth, Lothlórien and The Havens, which have failed to similarly capture my imagination. Rivendell is also home to Elrond Half-elven, child of Eärendil and Elwing, great-grandson of Lúthien Tinúviel, and bearer of Vilya, the most powerful of the three Elvish rings. But though he is one of the wisest and most powerful Elves in Middle-Earth, I’ve always been more fascinated by the Noldorin, in particular Glorfindel and Galadriel, and the ancient Teleri, Círdan the Shipwright. I think the best explanation I can muster for my fascination with Rivendell is that the physical protection it provides, the large expanse of sheltering mountains that hide it from even Sauron himself, has always provided me deep, psychological consolation. It is a safe place, in a secret mountain location. Nothing evil can gain hold, and I have always longed to find my way there and be at peace.

“That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.”

Today I traveled, yet again, the stretch of highway between Edmonton and Jasper National Park. No grandparents this time, nor any Jugheads eating hamburgers. Late last week I decided to embark on my own journey, alone, and Jasper was my final destination. I hadn’t considered Elves or hidden Houses when making my decision, and I definitely hadn’t planned on spending any time while in Jasper reflecting on my childhood or the geography of Middle-Earth. Yet just past the town of Edson, two hours west of Edmonton, the highway winds and climbs up a steep hill, taking the driver out onto a ridge that overlooks, to the southwest, a vast, green valley of pine trees. It is my favourite place on the highway because, beyond that valley, in full view, the driver also gets their very first glimpse of the white, majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Occasionally the mountains are blocked by cloud or by fog, but on this drive the sun was high, and bright, and its rays were beaming down from the east on both the valley and the mountains. Further to the west, in the direction I was headed, lay dark, ominous clouds, but at that exact moment, on that ridge, I could see everything. The view was spectacular, overwhelming in its beauty, and it caused my mind to wander back to Rivendell and Middle-Earth.

“I’ll take a walk, I think, and look at the stars of Elbereth in the garden.”

For the next few days, my Last Homely House will be the Lobstick Lodge in the municipality of Jasper, Alberta. I have come here with a computer, some books, some music, and a broken heart. Over the past year, I have become increasingly sad, unhappy and depressed. I have been experiencing profound feelings of loneliness, abandonment, anxiety and insecurity, and this has resulted in, amongst other things, a severe lack of confidence, an inability to think clearly and coherently, an inability to sleep, an inability to stay awake, an inability to cry, an inability to feel prolonged periods of pleasure or happiness, a withdrawal from the world around me, as well as the inability to write and work. I have felt a great deal of shame and guilt over my condition, and have not shared my feelings with anyone other than my wife and two close friends. I am embarrassed, and horrified by the thought of how people I love might react to my admission. The internal strife and struggle has been devastating, and all that remains of me is a tattered, beat-up and broken-down husk of a soul. I have become a wraith.

Depression has been a constant in my life. I have always, for as long as I can remember, experienced the peaks and valleys that are part and parcel of depression. Yet throughout my life, I have always been able to employ tricks, coping mechanisms, which would allow me to normalize my emotions and consequent behaviour. I have always refused seeking, with one exception, the help of a physician or a psychologist, and have never had any interest in taking any sort of medication intended to level off my peaks and valleys. I have always held the belief that I could work through my depressive states on my own or with the help of family and friends, and that the peaks and valleys were preferable to a medicated state of mind I saw as emotionally deadening. I believed it was better to be a periodic nutcase than a permanently listless Wight.

I did not realize, until very recently, that something much deeper, something much more prolonged and serious, was occurring in my life. To my life. I did not realize that I had moved beyond what for me was a ‘normal’ level of depression. I did not realize that it was something that was now permanent, and that it had been advancing to this point for a very long time. I assumed my depression would be temporary, and that soon enough I would crawl out of my valley, and see my life return to normal. I could then carry on with things, as I have always been able to do. I have lived with and battled depression my entire life, and I had, at least to my mind, always emerged victorious. Bruised, yes, but nonetheless victorious. I honestly didn’t expect this time to be any different. I was wrong.

“Frodo found himself walking with Gandalf. ‘This is the Hall of Fire’ said the wizard. ‘Here you will hear many songs and tales – if you can keep awake. But except on high days it usually stands empty and quiet, and people come here who wish for peace, and thought.”

I don’t know how it got to this point. I don’t know how I got to right now. I do know I’ve internalized the struggle, the difficulty, until it’s become a paralysis. An inability to write is just one example. I have writer’s block. I really don’t know what else to call it. It’s a block. Not a shortage of ideas. I have plenty of those. Pages, actually. I’m always thinking of things to write. But it’s a block, nonetheless. A block that comes when it’s actually time to flesh out those ideas. I can’t do it. I get stuck. At best I start and quickly stop. Most of the time I don’t even get that far. I write down the idea, the snippet, in one of my notebooks, or in one of the many places I keep such things on my computer, and do no more.

I used to write all the time. I’ve never had a problem saying what I wanted to say. Yet somewhere along the line it dried up. I dried up. The words didn’t flow as easy. It took longer to finish a piece. I didn’t like what I was producing. I became frustrated. Doubt crept in. A crisis of confidence permeated my being, writing became fumbling, and then writing became no-thing.

I have written a little. The occasional blog post. Speeches, press releases and other communications pieces that were required for work. Lots and lots of little thoughts, or pensées. But for the most part I haven’t been able to write at all. And even those pieces I completed were excruciatingly hard to finish. Panic would set in. My vision would become foggy. My breathing short. And a grip, like a heavy weight, would grab hold of my chest. I would take hours to finish the shortest of pieces, and days and weeks for the longer ones. I’d struggle through if I absolutely had to, but most of the time I just quit.

Even now I’m struggling to find words and string together sentences. I want to run away. I’m trying to free write, to just put down what immediately comes to mind, but my body is fighting me. My hands are cramped. My mind feels slow. Addled. My eyes are blurry. I feel a very strong urge to stop what I am doing…right…now. To flee. To say to myself, “another day.” Another try.

And isn’t that the thing? There’s always another day. Thanks to my depression, I have no job. No commitments. I have nothing but free time. Why can’t it wait? Why can’t I continue in this state? Why can’t I hide from my friends, hide from family, and hide from the world?

The answer, which I did not know until now, is that depression isn’t ‘normal.’ It isn’t a temporary state of mind. It’s a permanent condition. A mental illness. The cold, hard truth is this: I am ashamed of myself. I hate myself. And that is not healthy. That is not right. To a certain degree, not liking who you are is a good thing. We are all fallible, sinful little creatures, and it’s important to recognize your failings and work at eliminating them and improving yourself. It’s a philosophical exercise that demands courage, self-awareness and discipline. It takes a lifetime of effort, with no surety of success. But that self-examination and personal criticism can destroy you if you scrape away too much of your dignity and confidence in the process. That is, I believe, what has happened to me. My self-examination became self-loathing, and that self-loathing eroded my protections. Depression has come at me like a knife in the dark, and I have been defenceless.

I’ve also felt trapped, with nowhere to go. Who wants to admit such pain and shame? Who wants to go to a doctor, or a psychiatrist, and ask for help?  Who wants to ask for help from loved ones, or make their sadness common knowledge? Who wants to turn their life into a public confessional? Not I. I don’t want a potential employer to do an Internet search on my name and find a public admission of personal, and possibly professional, failure. I don’t want to be mocked or teased about something that is so emotionally painful and draining. I don’t want to see that judging look in a friend’s eyes. I don’t want to be told, however kindly, that the depression is all in my head. That things will get better. I don’t want the sympathetic gaze, either. It would probably be worse. I don’t want pity. I don’t even think I want understanding. I just want it all to go away.

“Then Elrond removed a splinter. It was deeply buried, and it was working inwards.”

And so I am here, at least for a few days. My goal is to rest, to be alone, and, hopefully, to heal. It’s not the house of healing I imagined when driving through these mountains as a child, but it’ll do for now. Like Bilbo, I’ve also brought my papers and pens and pencils, and I hope to scribble down some thoughts by the fireplace. I believe it will help. I believe that putting anything down on paper is a good thing. A place to start. A signpost.

There will be no Grey Company to protect me, no Half-elven master of healing lore or High King with crushed Athelas to ease my pain. There will only be me. My visit here, to my Rivendell, is but an early stop on my journey to recovery, but it is one that I am glad I am making. Somehow, somewhere, some time ago, I was wounded. And, rather than heal, the wound festered. It drew closer to my heart, like the blade of a Nazgûl, and is threatening to destroy me from within. I cannot let that happen. I do not want to die from the inside. That is not how I want my story to end.

“I want to see the mountains again, Gandalf – mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest…I might find somewhere where I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.”

 

 

Note: My trip to Jasper and this essay really were the beginning of my recovery. Though just recently finalized, my first draft of this essay was originally written in March of 2010. Upon returning from Jasper, I sought out medical attention, and have been on anti-depressants since that time. Upon my return, I also did a lot of soul-searching, and confided in and sought out help from friends and family. I am happy and proud to say that I am feeling healthier and more at peace with myself and my life than at any other point in the past 15-20 years. I am writing again. Not as much as before, but enough to keep me happy. I am working again; in a place I love, doing a job I love, surrounded by people I love. Most importantly, I like myself again. I love myself again. And so this posting here, on Father’s Day weekend, is a gift to myself.  I share it because I can. Nothing is holding me back anymore. I will not be a slave to my illness. I am free, and I am me. I’m relying on the rest of you to get me the Elves. I know they’re out there.

As always, this is for my two biggest fans, Van and Ben. Love.

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Comments

  1. Dear Andy,

    Thank you for this beautifully written, and deeply courageous essay, sir. I’m glad I discovered you through Nathan Fillion’s Twitter page.

    Mister, you write so incredibly well you must be Elf-born. And you are a Light for others: You know that only the strong ask for help, and you are strong, indeed! Awesome!

    Wishing you all that is wondrous and good,

    Kcat

    P.S. Incredible power can come from inner pain, as you have proven. Have you read “Lincoln’s Melancholy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk? Good stuff. Blessings to you and yours!

  2. Thanks, KC. I really appreciate it!

  3. Keep on truckin’.

    🙂

  4. Always and amen, sister. 😉

  5. Karen Unland says:

    I have been on this journey, geographically speaking, and I have witnessed this journey, psychologically speaking. You convey both beautifully. It’s a great service to let those trapped in the abyss know that escape is possible. It is a hard lesson to get across. It requires multiple tellings. This is a good one.

  6. The Last Homely House = Abbot Hut http://bit.ly/pidvMZ. A magical place that really exists in the Rockies.

  7. Wow, that’s an incredible piece. Really glad to hear that the steps you decided to take were ultimately beneficial. Thanks for sharing.

  8. John MacKenzie says:

    Good piece of work Andy. It is hard to recognize the reality of depression in one’s self and in others. For several years now, with the help of medication I have been what Imwas intended to be. “Uncle” John.

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