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NOAH RICHLER (NR): I’ll let you in on something: years ago, a questing, troubled fella not yet twenty; I was a heroin user. Not an addict—it’s important to be true with words—but a fairly serious user with a personality that travelled through various addictions and was on the verge of this one.
For a while after quitting, in the period of a couple of years when I was still in its throes, I could pick out anybody in a room who had been or was still a user and if someone who wasn’t somehow broached the subject I stayed mum, because it felt like even talking about the drug was dangerous—something someone might find romantic, as I had done reading Coleridge and De Quincey and listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Sister Morphine” and the like, so I shut up. Said nothing. But once I was a safe distance away from the fella who’d put all the pain of his adolescence in the tip of a needle and stuck it in his arm—a kind of cutting, I suppose—I couldn’t talk about my heroin habit for a different reason, which was that I felt like a fraud. On the one hand, I believed it was important to own up to my habit (or at least not deny it) because I’d sorted myself and believed having done so should be an example. But on the other, I didn’t know that person anymore.
Now, more than ever, he feels a stranger; one of a number of mes I’ve moved through who’s certainly not the me I am now. Sometimes I wonder if the queer or non cis-gender person who may have tried to fit for so long in the body of a person they weren’t feels this way: that the person they left behind is someone they no longer feel they know.
But I also wonder whether or not, to an equivalent or lesser degree, this is the pattern of any life, or at least ones turned on the pivot of unusual circumstances. If you are an immigrant, and you feel the new society demands you be someone you’re not; if the discovery of stage four cancer in your body has thrust your whole life in a new light; or if, in fact, you were playing host to multiple personalities already, then do you also feel that slow but certain migration from a self we leave behind?
Kamal Al-Solaylee was born in Aden, Yemen, and came to Canada in his early thirties via Beirut, Cairo and England. He is the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, which chronicles his having grown up gay in the Middle East, and Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone), which tells of the meaning of being neither black nor white in the global economy.. Teva Harrison is known and beloved to innumerable readers of The Walrus and her beautiful graphic memoir of the discovery of her stage four breast cancer at too young an age, In-Between Days, and Judy Rebick is the author of Heroes in My Head, a memoir of not one, but the eleven selves of her dissociative identity disorder and the abuse at the hands of her father that caused it.
This lucid three will be able to tell me something of the selves we leave behind, surely.
NR: I was a heroin user for some time. I almost feel dishonest speaking of the Noah who was that heroin user because I don’t feel I know him. subsequently it feels somewhat false so I can understand the idea that we graduate from being one person to another. I want to learn more about this, which is why I’ve gathered us all. Judy you were 45 you say when you began to come to terms the idea that you had dissociative personality disorder and that there were for a time several of you in a sense. And Teva I wonder if learning that you have this serious fatal stage IV cancer diagnosis, there was a sort of rift from whom you might’ve been before.. Kamal you have a very peregrinacios childhood, arrived here at age 31 in Canada and I imagine you’ve left a couple Kamals behind — I want to begin by asking, what do you think of the person that you were in those particular moments. Do you remember that Kamal?
Kamal Al-Solaylee (KA): I do, I do. I was completely comfortable with being gay, there was nothing about being gay that I did not like or enjoy. it was the culture around me in the middle east. it was the way the Egyptian society or the Arab society viewed homosexuality, so I always felt that I am fine, the problem lies with you, not with me. I needed safe space or context to be gay and that did not happen until I went to England in the late 80s. that’s another transformation, not only just the language, but from being a closeted gay man to being an open gay man was two different personalities.
It was survival. in a place like Cairo, or Yemen, when I went to live with my family in Sana’a in Yemen for couple years between the time I was 22 and 24, and the first weekend I was in Sana’a there was a public lashing for 2 men who were caught in the act as it were, I had just come out in the year before in Cairo, I had made an underground gay community, after I saw that I just retreated back to the closet. and for 2 yrs I was celibate, I couldn’t risk the idea that someone might know that I was sexually interested in other men.
NR: For different reasons the idea of retreat into a person you’re not as a course of survival is something that you would recognize, Judy, no?
Judy Rebick (JR): yeah, very different though because in my case, I wasn’t aware of doing it. it was all subconscious. if you want to use that word. the brain does that in response to trauma… so my father started abusing me when I was about 5 and the way the brain works is it doesn’t allow the child to know it’s happening so it’s a dissociation, and in my case, and dissociation is quite common in relation to trauma. like PTSD is a form of dissociation, but in my case it was extreme and I developed all these personalities, but I wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t know there was this extra part of me, except I knew I had big memory gaps until the 80s. I was in my late 30s when I started to hear this one voice that started to talk in therapy, letting me know something was going on. I sorta knew all along, that something was going on underneath the surface I get little signs of it, but I always put it away cause I didn’t want to deal w/it
NR: And you came to having conversations w/these several personalities both spoken and written. Remind me, tell me that sequence, did that come about because you were becoming aware of your disorder? Or because friends and families were telling you?
JR: It came out because I was starting to something triggered the memory of the abuse. I had known before that I had been sexually abused but I thought it was one time and I didn’t want to deal w it because I was so busy all the time. but something triggered all the memories so I started to not be able to see, so I went to a therapist that I knew was an expert now I realize after i’ve written my book how lucky I was to have found something who knew what to do. I think the 4th or 5th session, some voice came out of my mouth was a young boy 12, his name was simon. He introduced himself to the therapist. she recognized right away it wasn’t me she said what’s your name, he said Simon and he turned out to be the guardian personality. and then every session more and more personalities came out that were
NR: But even before that moment, one of your selves tended to be courageous and aggressive to the point that it was actually dangerous
JR: Fearless was the word I would use. I had no fear, I was semi aware of that, I knew I was adventurous, I knew I was diff. than women because I was able to fight, in fight or flight I fought. I always thought that was because of my father, because my father was very aggressive and I fought with him.
NR: You thought it was an inherited tendency. but where Kamal retreated into celibacy, you had this first alter who was fearless and often very angry. How did you recover from those moments of fearlessness?
JR: Well, the only time that I remember having to recover was when the … the fairly famous incident where a man attacked Henry Morgentaler … with the garden shears and I stepped between them.
NR: You at an abortion clinic… in Montreal, and then was opening one in Toronto.
JR: Yeah, and I was accompanying Henry across the street and I stepped in front of the guy and pushed him away. I knew I was in some kind of altered state because I started to chase him down the street, which was really foolish, because he had a weapon, until this psychiatric nurse that was with us sort of followed me and yelled for me to stop. And then I was still ok all day, but the next morning I realized that I was in shock… and I realized something was really wrong.
NR: Because in my fairly ordinary range of cells (JR laughs) I’m often brash and aggressive, sometimes arrogant… what follows on from that … is something I imagine an epileptic might feel – which is a state of quasi euphoric exhaustion… and vulnerability. But the morning after your incident of defending Morgentaler, you were ok?
JR: No, I wasn’t, I just …. all I could think of is “I have to go home, I have to go home.” Because I was staying with a friend. And “I have to go home, I have to go home.” And then I was in therapy at that time, and I called my therapist and I said, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I can’t go to work… and when I told him what had happened, he told me I was in shock, so I went home and I just cried and cried and cried which I almost never cried in those days. So I was experiencing a post-traumatic stress reaction. Which I had been aware of before. I’m sure I had experienced before, but I hadn’t been aware of before. I might have used drugs as a way of avoiding it in the past.
NR: And Teva, when you heard the doctor’s analysis of your disease and the stage four cancer, and the idea of imminent death, what happened?
Teva Harrison (TH): Everything fell away. Initially, I tried to work, I tried to go into the office, I tried to… I was the Director of Marketing for a national charity at the time, and I so much of my identity was wrapped up in my job… but it became something I couldn’t do. When I heard that I was sick.. it was just like everything I valued dissipated. I didn’t care. All of the things that had driven me, that had motivated me, to move forward to be striving to desire to do this big job and be really engaged … just stopped mattering. And for a time there was nothing. It wasn’t like that fell away and then I was immediately my new self, there was an empty space of months where I was just wrapped up in protecting myself. And when I heard that might die in two or three years, I initially felt like “Why bother?” I quickly (to me, a few months feels quick in retrospect although at the time it feels endless) shifted to say if I only have two or three years, I’m not going back to work, I’m not going back strategic planning and budgeting, and I’m doing the things that I’ve been neglecting and I had been neglecting myself because I — when I was younger, I was an artist, and that was all that mattered to me and then I got jobs and I worked and that felt important, and it was in it’s own way. But when I was faced with potentially my quite imminent demise all that mattered was drawing, all that mattered was writing and creating and I found that there were all these things that were more true to me than anything else I was doing, and it was the most important thing.
JR: When you say there was nothing.. you think that was a form of depression?
TH: Absolutely (agreement from JR)
JR: Cause first thing that I suffered to was a really deep clinical depression and yeah we always think of depression as a negative thing but I think that depression is sometimes a moment of change. Where you know you have to change, or something in you knows you have to change but you don’t know what that change is so you get depressed, but for me, that was the beginning of my healing was a clinical depression – we never hear about depression in a positive way, and it sounds like that’s what happened to you too.
TH: Absolutely, it’s almost like going into a cocoon, and the cocoon was sadness, I’ve never cried so much in my life, I mean maybe cumulatively in the rest of my life I’d never cried so much. I just had to really empty myself out to make space for who I really should have been in the first place.
NR: Kamal, does any of this sound familiar?
KS: Yes, and no, because I made few decisions that were pretty much conscious so one thing I did is when I moved to England to study is that I actually stopped speaking Arabic and I stopped … and I just wanted to reinvent myself as a scholar of English literature because Arabic language and Arabic culture were associated in my mind with oppression. They were the things that sort of cost my life because of being gay, and I just wanted to escape as far away from them as possible. So, I spent those eight years in England and then came to Canada when I was in my early thirties and it’s so funny because right now, I write a lot of books that would be called ‘identity politics’ and books that are based on either my cultural heritage or skin color, whatever, but for the first ten to twelve years as a journalist, I don’t think I ever thought of myself as a brown journalist, or a brown writer, or an ethnic writer. I was just a journalist, and that’s what I wanted to be.
NR: Well, we don’t actually have to be right about ourselves, or not right away… anybody who has read your most recent book, BROWN, would surely think that the decision to study Victorian literature in England was an effort to be whiter than you are.
KS: Yes, I have absolutely no qualms about that, that was in a way … in the terms you described, clinical depression being like a savior, in a way, that denial of part of myself was strategic – a survival strategy. So I would agree with that.
NR: So, I’ve brought each of you back to a pivot point really, in your own life courses, what’s the first thought that comes to mind, thinking upon the Judy who is 45 years old, the Teva who received that awful diagnosis at 37, you who came to Canada when you were 31. Looking back on that person, what do you think?
KS: Much more full of life and promise back then – the person that I was at 31, not just age, it is a world before 9/11 as well, which to me was another kind of turning point.. it’s a world… in a way I wasn’t encumbered with issues of race, I was freed from all of that stuff. I’m not saying that right now I’m shackled with them, but when I look back at the opportunities I had and at the work I did, in a way I long for those days, and it’s not just nostalgia either.
TH: When I was working and I was working and I was working and I was working and there was so little room for anything else, and I was doing the job that I wanted to do, but frankly anyone with my skill set, my experiential set, could have walked in and done and someone else walked in and took that job when I left. And the pivot for me was to do something that only I could do. And that to me if I were speaking to Teva on Dec. 9th before I got that news, I would have said it doesn’t matter so much, step back and do what matters because it’s so easy to let other people’s priorities become our priorities.
NR: Judy, reading The Heroes in my Head, is an extraordinary education in just about every political movement that occurs between the ’60s and now…. and you were involved in so many of them… I don’t mean this entirely in jest, but Judy, a part of me thought well I suppose this would be easier if your day to day is already the management of several alter-egos, several personalities in yourself – you have a kind of federalism with the personalities.
JR: Yes, there is a truth to that … I do think that in particular when I started to be aware of the personalities, it really helped me understand some of the issues I had to deal with because there were three indigenous women on the NAC executive when I became president of NAC – the National Action Committee on the status of women, which at the time was a very powerful women’s organization and I became president very soon after I became aware of all these personalities and my therapist…
We’re talking 1990 now, I became president in April of 1990, and I discovered the personalities in December of 1989, so it was very close and it was really the worst time of confusion, but I just knew that I felt so powerless in therapy, remembering the abuse that I had to feel powerful in my life or I wouldn’t survive it. That’s how I felt. And I always believed I could do anything … [laughs] and I did.. I did it.
In writing the book in particular, I realized that I was actually having to learn — one of the things that I did as an activist was I taught myself to lead like a man because that’s who had power when I was young, and so that meant I’m always sure of myself, I always know what I think, I never say I don’t know – I was very very dominating and what I realized was that was preventing other women from leading and so as I learned to listen to the different personalities in my head I also learned to listen to the different experiences of women on the executive, particularly indigenous women at that time. And so… it made me more empathetic I would say, to other perspectives, including Quebec sovereignty. I wouldn’t say I supported Quebec sovereignty but I would say I supported the right of Quebecers to decide for themselves. When I wrote my memoir, and I wrote what I did in the ’80s, I thought nobody could do all that. And not only was I doing all that, but I was like suffering a clinical depression and dealing with realizing that my father had abused me all at the same time and yet I was doing like an incredible number of things.
KS: I mean we’ve all written memoirs in a way and I didn’t necessarily realize that until I’d written my memoir how much of my life has been about escaping being potentially killed for being gay and then going somewhere where it’s safe to be gay. That has been the singular most consistent pattern in my life, if you look at the dedication to my first book, it is actually dedicated to Toronto, and it is about the place and the freedom and the rights that Toronto has given me the way that eight years in England did not, because I was always, you know, the exchange student, the foreign student, but Toronto is the first place in the world that felt like home to me, so if it’s not brown, if it’s not gay, then it’s a Torontonian at least.
NR: In a city of disparate selves
KS: Exactly… exactly, a city where I don’t really feel conscious in this city for anything, for being gay, for being brown, it’s just a place that I just feel that I belong to and it belongs to me, there’s just no friction between us.
NR: You’re balancing on a different fulcrum, Teva, was there a discovery of a community in your … in the path you’ve taken since your diagnosis?
TH: Absolutely, it’s a difficult community though. Because the median survival with metastatic breast cancer is two to three years, there’s a lot of turnover. You know. There’s a lot of loss and it can be very very difficult to become close to someone… but necessary because although other people can understand intellectually, there’s something very different about communion with someone else who’s living the same story even if every other aspect of their life is completely different and we wouldn’t necessarily come together over anything else.
NR: Did your experience affect your ability to love? Or that was there all the time?
TH: That was there all the time … I was lucky to grow up in a really loving place surrounded by really loving people and that just came naturally… came with the community I came from – back to nature hippies in Oregon… [LAUGHS] It’s different to when I first met my husband, his family didn’t really hug… now we do [LAUGHS].
KS: They pivoted [LAUGHS]
NR: Judy, I love that towards the end of The Heroes in my Head, you speak of your alters, and you say that you’ve come to accept each as a part of you and that in fact you don’t see personality dissociative disorder as a disorder at all.
JR: Yeah, I think it’s a defence mechanism. And quite a brilliant one, like, I was five years old when my father started to abuse me and the only person I told was my grandma who I thought was only one who loved me at the time, and she hit me and said “shmutz” which is a yiddish word for dirt, so if she wasn’t going to help me, no one was. So when you say, well, what can you do, when the person who is supposed to take care of you is abusing you, well, a child has one thing – her imagination. And that’s how I see it… I see it that I created these imaginary friends to take the abuse for me so that I could survive it ’cause I think you can’t survive that as a child. Where it gets to be a disorder is if you’re an adult and when you’re an adult and they emerge again and then they interfere if you don’t have the right treatment.. if I hadn’t had the proper treatment to learn how to integrate them and learn how to handle them.. the journal conversations I had with them for example… um, the way that I could get away when they were coming out so that I could… you know, they gave me a warning sign – you know, that kind of thing. Otherwise I would have wound up in the hospital and I think if I’d wound up in the hospital, and this is a critique of the existing system, I don’t think I would have survived as well as I have. I think I would have been labelled, and I would have been marginalized and so on, so I think that it was how I survived. And it also gave me other skills in addition to that.
NR: Is there something in my assumption that we graduate from one person to another to the point that we may no longer even know that person that we were or is it instead an affirmation?
KS: The younger Kamal who lived in the Middle East, I’m actually trying to reconnect with that in a way, so I am forcing myself to watch Arabic soap operas [LAUGHTER] without subtitles, there’s one on egyptian soap opera called Secret of the Nile and I force myself to watch all of it without subtitles, just to kind… it’s a tawdry trashy murder-mystery kind of upstairs downstairs set in upper Egypt … and I sort of kind of want to make amends to it as well because I think I’ve been really harsh in kind of burying it in a way — what I’m trying to do is build bridges with my family that I cut off by coming here.
NR: So the Kamal you want to reconnect with, you would do so through making the language your own?
KS: The language is actually the key of what I’m doing and part of what my next book is going to be is that how do you re-learn your native language? And that’s really important to me – that’s a big question I’m trying to … and I’ve found that there’s a lot of studies and other writers and other people who have suppressed their native languages and reinvented themselves as new people and I’m really fascinated with that. I somehow feel like this sense of loss of something that I’ve lost that I would like to retrieve – which is the native language.
TH: You know that’s interesting too because to me, in my experience, because this is very much me, I lost what I’m retrieving, but it’s in a different way..
KS: Through your arts mainly.
TH: Coming back into that and into myself.
NR: How are you retrieving that Teva?
TH: Through practice. Through allowing myself the space to think around ideas and create things with my hands. I was denying myself the space and the time to be creative before. it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do my job, it wasn’t that I didn’t love my job, I cared very much about … I wouldn’t have devoted so much of myself to it, but I wasn’t allowing myself the space to be true to who I really am at my core.
I think it also comes down to that fight or flight, what do we do when we’re up against a wall, right? And that’s I think where a lot of authenticity comes from is what comes to the surface when everything else is disrupted?
NR: Judy are you ever worried that your stable of alters … so in a sense, if I can put it in a capsule way, you managed to understand and vanquish your situation through realizing/remembering the incidents that gave.out of which arose these different alters.
JR: Yeah, that’s right. In a way, they told me about it.
NR: Do you ever miss them? Do you ever miss that company?
JR: No, no I don’t. Because I really only spent three years of being aware of them, so do I miss them, no.
NR: How much were your personalities a response to the times in which you were living? I ask that thinking that it’s interesting to me that although there was a male/female divide, someone with dissociative identity disorder today might possibly give birth to people with more multi-faceted gender and racial expressions.
JR: True, that’s true. I have thought about there’s boys and girls and I thought the boys are actually, when I start to talk about it, I realize the boys were much more dominant than the girls and that would reflect the society that I was living in for sure. Racially, I’m not sure because I couldn’t see them, you see, I could just hear them [LAUGHTER] and I had a dream about Trouble and he was dark, he wasn’t white, he had dark skin, not white skin, so I don’t know about that in the dream.
NR: So, looking forward, each of you, are you comfortably yourself? Do you imagine some further changes?
JR: If I could just say, where I experienced the pivot wasn’t around the dissociative identity disorder, it was around a concussion I had two and a half years ago.That’s where I experienced like leaving my old self behind and being a completely new person, that’s how I felt. And there was a lot of shame in it, I don’t know if either of you have felt that.
NR: Because you lost capabilities.
JR: Yes, because I lost capabilities, so one time I was being introduced in an audience and people were cheering for me and I felt shame, because I felt like they were cheering for the OLD Judy Rebick that’s not me anymore, right? And I just wonder if either of you have felt shame-related to leaving behind part of yourself?
KS: Guilt is the better word for me…not shame.
TH: Sadness is the better word for me. I mean I didn’t choose….
JR: You didn’t choose ..right.
TH: I’m just making the best with what I’ve got, like we all are. But Kamal made a choice to conscious thought-out choice to be in a better place, you made a choice to get well.
JR: Well, I guess.
TH: Or get together, or find your way forward. I feel like I had choice stripped away from me, and I mean that led to the depression, but as soon as I got through that choice became infinite again. The only choice I don’t have is to be well. Everything else is available.
KS: I made choices, I am now making a different set of choices, I’m making choices to reconnect with my family, with that culture. I mean, I’m talking about part of the world that is falling to pieces. Yemen has been in the middle of a war for about four years now, but also it’s a cultural war as well because it’s a part of the world where you know places like al Qaeda and ISIS have taken over so it’s the destiny of that country.
NR: What does that word ‘choice’ mean to you, Judy?
JR: I think we’re all limited in our choices, depending on lots of things, I’ve had a lot of choice in my life, I think that’s one reason I survived as well as I did, because of what I would consider privilege – I was able to pay for private therapy, I had a choice to do lots of things that other people didn’t have, and I think that helped me to survive what I survived and not get marginalized or you know, addicted or in the street or whatever. So, I think I had a lot of choice in my life.
NR: I have to say thank you because there’s a live show coming on.
NR: Thank you Judy Rebick, Teva Harrison and Kamal Al-Solaylee for your thoughtful contributions to “The Selves We Leave Behind,” the fourth episode of this, the podcast series Pivot. Judy Rebick’s The Heroes in My Head and Teva Harrison’s In-Between Days are published by the House of Anansi Press, and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable and Brown by Harper Collins_.
And Charles Spearin provided the music.
Pivot is produced by Angela Misri and Judy Ziyu Gu with the assistance of Jonah Brunet and should you wish, you can find transcripts, links and subscribe to this podcast at thewalrus DOT ca SLASH podcasts.
And I’m Noah Richler. Thanks for listening.