Published on October 3rd, 2017 | from CAMH
Removing the Blindfold
By Nancy Dorrance
You won’t see his wispy grey mutton chops in the new CBC/Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s historical fiction, Alias Grace, but my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Workman, did make a cameo appearance in Atwood’s award-winning book – as the real-life superintendent of Toronto’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum back in the mid-1800s. That austere facility has evolved over the past century and a half into the country’s largest mental health and addictions teaching and research hospital, CAMH.
As a prelude to one of her chapters, Atwood quotes from a letter Joseph wrote in 1866:
“A surgeon can cut open an abdomen and display the spleen. Muscles can be cut out and shown to young students. The human psyche cannot be dissected nor the brain’s workings put out on the table to display.
“When a child, I have played games with a blindfold obscuring my vision. Now I am like that child. Blindfolded, groping my way, not knowing where I am going, or if I am in the proper direction. Someday, someone will remove that blindfold.”
All these years later, is that blindfold still intact? If Joseph Workman were alive today, I wonder what he would make of our current attitudes and beliefs surrounding mental illness. And would he be surprised to learn that some of his own descendants struggle with the same mental health issues – anxiety, depression, addiction – that he was beginning to identify at the time of Confederation?
As a recovering alcoholic who was diagnosed with melanoma earlier this year, I’ve experienced firsthand how differently society views these two health issues. People are eager to express sympathy and offer support when they learn you have cancer; they are much less comfortable around an admission of addiction or mental illness – and so often, the two are intertwined.
When you have cancer or arthritis, you aren’t identified by your disease. But someone with addiction becomes an “addict” while a person with mental illness is labelled crazy, a nut case, mad, unstable, or – in my great-great-grandfather’s day – a lunatic.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to recovery is the tendency to isolate ourselves and not reach out for help. Compounding that is the stigma that still pervades both addiction and mental illness, despite well-meaning awareness campaigns and testimonials by people in the public eye. It’s one thing to declare your disease when you’re already famous for your achievements; quite another if you are secretly mired in shame, self-loathing and fear.
If a time machine were to deposit Joseph Workman in downtown Toronto today, I think he would be astounded by the changes to his once-rustic hometown. The house he built on Mutual Street has been replaced by Ryerson University, while a Canadian Press building now occupies the King Street site of his family’s hardware store. Commuters travel underground in minutes the same distance it would have taken him hours to cover by horse-drawn carriage. And books like Alias Grace have been transformed into talking pictures that you can view any time in your own living room, through the miracle of digital streaming.
But sadly, the attitudes and misconceptions surrounding mental health and addiction remain too little changed.
Just like cancer, mental illness is a great leveler, crossing all social strata and affecting families in every part of Canada – including Joseph Workman’s. Not that long ago, a cancer diagnosis was discussed in whispered tones, if at all, as the dreaded “big C”. Today, people proclaim their support for research and treatment of the disease by wearing colour-coded bracelets, while celebrities and corporate sponsors help raise funds to find a cure.
Now that “the big C” has finally come out of the closet, let’s hope it won’t take another 150 years for addiction and mental health issues to follow suit.
Thankfully, champions like CAMH are already leading a shift in public attitudes towards mental health, and helping to “remove that blindfold.”