EDITOR’S NOTE: I was recently accepted to the Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction program at King’s. This is the essay I submitted with my application. If the fates are kind, I’ll have another degree and a nonfiction book in two years.
In 1990, King’s College President Dr. Marion Fry presented me with the Governor-General’s Medal for academic achievement. Sixteen years later, I tried to sell that medal to buy firewood to heat our home.
I was desperate — the desperation wrought by unrelenting physical pain. Over the previous 13 years, I had suffered unforgiving daily migraines, and my descent into hell was nearing its grand finale. Barring a miracle, I knew that I had maybe one or two years to live.
In the early 1990s, after graduating from J-school, I felt blessed with opportunity. I was writing entertainment features, and food and wine columns for The Halifax Daily News, and freelancing for several magazines, including enRoute, Wine Access, and Endless Vacation — the world’s largest travel magazine. I sold everything I wrote, and started looking for work at bigger newspapers. Then, my body betrayed me.
I didn’t make the sale that cold, damp February day because the money was a pittance. The pawn shop owner offered me $150 for the medal bearing Ray Hnatyshyn’s likeness; I needed $500. So I stashed that hefty pewter disc in my sock drawer, reserving it for an even darker day that seemed just months away.
Unexpectedly, I received my miracle. Seven months after visiting the pawn shop, I learned about a new theory swirling around neurology circles. Recent research suggested that, in rare cases, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, and stronger prescription arthritis drugs create the very symptoms they should alleviate. My new neurologist didn’t ask any questions at my first appointment. Instead, he explained my medical history to me in a new way: an initial diagnosis of inflammatory arthritis predicated by sports injuries and their resultant surgeries, the increasing dosages of anti-inflammatory prescriptions, then stronger drugs as the inflammation and pain deepened. The pattern devolved into headaches, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and, finally, overwhelming daily migraines.
My neurologist persuaded me to go cold turkey. He changed my life.
And so the next day was better. And so was the day after that. The migraines remained, but their frequency and intensity diminished perceptibly. I could again find some small pleasures in living a quiet life.
I tried to pick up the pieces.
After my ordeal, I was shaky. During my illness, I had been unable to hold a traditional job, unable to support myself, unable to make plans for the future.
Now I was debilitated by anxiety and uncertain of my skills. You may have noticed that severe physical pain extinguishes language. Hit your thumb with a hammer and, at best, you’ll bear that injury stoically. More likely, the pain will express itself in a deep curse or inarticulate yelp.
Overwhelming pain had stripped writing from my life. It wasn’t just exhaustion, nor some manner of depression. The truth is that I could find nothing left inside of me during those years. No words. Pain had dammed my creativity at its source and I had written nothing of consequence for more than a dozen years.
With fewer bad days, I began tapping the keys again. First, hesitantly, on a blog called Smart Like Streetcar. Then a few professional pieces. Writers I admire and respect sent compliments on my stories. Eventually I found full-time minimum wage work as an online writer, then at a call center. On the side, I wrote a book for young adults that eventually won an Atlantic Writing Competition for unpublished novels.
In truth, I only had about 18 good months. Then the migraines returned with a vengeance, accompanied by searing facial pain, and deep fatigue and weakness. My doctors were mystified. A new endocrinologist soon discovered that a supposedly benign, harmless pituitary tumor diagnosed 20 years before was nothing of the sort. It had grown dramatically, and was remodeling my sinus cavity and threatening my optic nerves. I was running on empty, my body devoid of hormones. Tweaking my medications failed to control the growth, and a 12-month experimental drug trial made things worse. So I underwent five hours of brain surgery to remove the little bugger, now enormous and threatening my sight, and my life.
The pituitary is a delicate, sensitive gland, and the surgery caused complications. I spent four days in intensive care, another four in the neurology wing. I have lost all hormone function permantly. But I also found something unexpected during my ordeal. Devouring several issues of The New Yorker in my hospital bed rekindled my love for long-form journalism. I became curious about a new MFA in creative nonfiction program at King’s, and doing more work to realize my potential.
Decades of illness bring introspection. I’ve thought a lot about the world, and my place in it. I have never been satisfied with easy answers. I disliked reporting news because barebones facts trumped nuance and color. Because a fair and balanced 800-word article was chopped in half when column space was limited.
I want to tell real stories, and I’m good at it. This master of fine arts in creative nonfiction is the degree I would have chosen in 1989 had it been offered. I want to write books that consider important topics, books that will be read and discussed. I want to write the sort of book that Canada needs right now.
I am also mindful of my need to get it right this time. I will be 54 years old when this program begins in August, and I’m not sure how many do-overs I have left. The MFA program offers the opportunity to work with incredible mentors and make strong industry connections.
It’s brilliant degree, and it will serve me well for the rest of my days. It gives me the chance to write my way out of two decades of misfortune.
So I am looking forward to King’s again, and completing the circle that began with my journalism degree. This time, I plan to do ever better.
And that excites me.