"October". Even as the second wave of a pandemic approaches the empty beach that is 2020, I know many people are grateful for autumn, happily anxious and gearing up for Hallowe'en. I would be too, if October didn't also trigger an avalanche of feelings that ruthlessly competes with warm memories of crisp night air, pumpkin-carving, costumes and parties. I won't list all the things that can cause that cascade for me. Some of them are too personal. Some of them wouldn't mean anything to anyone else. Since I was first treated for PTSD, I've learned a lot about why some things affect me in ways I wish they wouldn't. But there are a few things about October that should rightly make a lot of people uncomfortable.
Thirteen years ago this October, Robert Dziekanski died. Three years ago this month, the Supreme Court of Canada sent two of the men involved in Dziekanski's death to prison. Not for the actual death. At least not legally. No, they were put behind bars because one retired judge (now deceased) and two BC Supreme Court judges felt the explanations from the Mounties for the mistakes they made in recounting what happened, couldn't possibly be due to how quickly the incident happened, how shocked they were when it did, or anything related to the trauma of being labelled murderers for a year and half before being called to testify about what happened. It's at this point I'd like to suggest that if you're reading this without having read Blamed and Broken, you should stop. Go get the book. Borrow it. Buy it. I don't care. Just read it. Read it so I don't have to keep recounting all the reasons why my seasonal thirst for darker beer, my penchant for plaid shirts and roasted pumpkin seeds shares mental space with the stunning realization that even in the highest court, guilt or innocence can come down to a feeling or an opinion, notwithstanding how learned the opinion maker is.
If you have read Blamed and Broken, you know it does not diminish or downplay the tragic death of Robert Dziekanski. But the events of October 14, 2007 also put other people on a path with tragedy. And in that October mental mashup I struggle with, the death of RCMP Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre looms large.
Blamed and Broken delves deeply into who Pierre Lemaitre was beyond the headlines that defamed and diminished him. I wrote frankly about what lead up to Pierre ending his own life in 2013. It took five years for a Coroner's inquest to get around to picking over the details of his struggle with depression and PTSD.
Lemaitre had been a respected, dedicated and affable spokesman for the RCMP. He’d had his share of hardships: a failed marriage and some traumatic incidents as a police officer. But that’s not what broke him. In the first few hours following the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver’s international airport in 2007, Lemaitre made some mistakes in his initial interviews with the media. Unfairly branded as a liar and a spin doctor by some of the same media he served, Lemaitre became the target of unrelenting abuse and bullying both inside and outside the RCMP. His mental health followed the downward spiral of his career.
The inquest into his suicide focused on the failures of the RCMP and the treatment Lemaitre received from some of his peers and superiors. The jury made some predictable recommendations endorsing more sophisticated and better-funded mental health programs in the force. What you won’t find in the report, or any significant media coverage of the inquest, is any analysis of the troubling testimony offered by Lemaitre’s doctors. I remember sitting in gallery listening. While many of my journalism peers were aching for any dirt about whether Lemaitre was bullied by the brass, I already knew what he'd been through. What I hadn't heard before was his medical history. And I came away from the testimony stunned.
Over a period of about 20 years, Lemaitre had been prescribed a menu of antidepressants and antipsychotics in an attempt to control his depression. The drugs have science-lab-sounding trade names intended to inspire faith: Prozac, Wellbutrin, Abilify, Cymbalta, Cipralex, Pristiq, with Ativan and Clonazepam thrown in for good measure. I took most of those too. In Lemaitre’s case, when the drugs didn’t seem to work, his doctors juggled the doses and shuffled them in and out of the mix the way a painter mixes colours on a palette to get the right shade of blue for the sky. But Lemaitre’s sky remained black, and years later at the inquest the best his psychiatrist had to offer was a speculation: perhaps the drugs had just made Lemaitre comfortable with the idea of killing himself. It turns out that's an actual thing. It suddenly became clear to me why my own experience with antidepressants had been so unsuccessful. It occurred to me I might be one of those people who either get no improvement from drugs that are intended to tweak the brain's neurotransmitters, or possibly one of those people who feel worse. Because as it turns out, antidepressants are not the panacea they're often marketed to be. And so on that day, upon hearing that drugs touted to ease the pain of Pierre's depression might have actually made him feel "OK" with killing himself, I decided to approach the subject as a journalist.
It's no secret that my therapy involved psychedelics - both a legal but experimental use of MDMA, and, when the Health Canada approval for it was withdrawn, ketamine. As I wrote in a piece that has been published today by The Tyee, I'm quite certain it, and the doctors who treated me with it, saved my life. Pierre never had that option. And as I began looking into why that was, and how it's changing, I stumbled on to a story. October has once more decided to make this a memorable month.