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Donna Morrissey: A Medical Scare

Network, Spring 2004

Donna Morrissey has her life’s work down to a manageable routine now. In the morning, she writes. Then she heads to the gym, stops for lunch, and gets back to the computer for a second stretch of writing that often reaches into the early evening. We catch up with her right after the gym section of the day, and Morrissey is brimming with all kinds of positive energy. Dressed in cargo pants, a striped red T-shirt, and a floppy brimmed hat, sunglasses slung round her neck on a black rope, she looks tireless and young — unnaturally young for her forty-five years. She’s chosen a busy little café near her home in downtown Halifax, and, it seems, she knows both menu and staff exceptionally well; she cheers and high-fives the young woman who ducks into the kitchen to find one last remaining date cookie for her.

“I love these cookies,” Morrissey says happily, her eyes a brilliant green.

It was a friend who suggested Morrissey try writing fiction, saying, “If you can write like you talk…” One can easily see why the comment was made. The woman tells a tale with flourish, arms flying through the air, bum shifting in her seat. Words come out rapid-fire and full of every conceivable emotion. “The biggest shock on leaving my outport was discovering the queer way that everybody spoke!” she says with her now muted Newfoundland brogue. “The way they all looked at me when I didn’t speakclearly.”

Morrissey’s first novel, Kit’s Law, is set in a tiny Newfoundland outport most easily accessible by boat, not unlike the place where she grew up. And from the sounds of it, The Beaches was an idyllic place to be a kid. “Everybody’s door was open. Everybody had a hand in smacking you across the arse if we went too far, or near the water…. There was the ocean in front of you, and the woods in the back, and they were your parameters. And in between was your mother and your grandmothers and your aunts and your uncles.”

As most young people do, Morrissey left The Beaches. At sixteen, having flunked out of high school, she set off travelling that vast expanse of country to the west. “I was like, ‘Jesus, I want to see a hippie! And I want to smoke pot, and I want to do all of that stuff and travel the world.’ I didn’t do the world so much, but I certainly traipsed through this country a few times.”

For ten years, Morrissey moved from province to province, working as a waitress, a bartender, a cook on an oilrig. She got married and had two children (a son, now twenty-six, and a daughter, now nineteen). And when she tired of life “abroad,” she brought her family back to Newfoundland and worked splitting cod at a fish processing plant. It was there, in St. John’s, when Donna Morrissey was thirty-two, that crisis struck.

It started with some bad fish and the plant advising all its workers, as a precaution, to get a tetanus shot. Morrissey happened to be going home for a holiday that week, so decided to have the shot there. “The doctor lived right next to my mom, so I just thought I’d hop over and get that done. And while I was in there saying I needed a tetanus shot, he looked at my hand and he saw some little cuts. And he said, ‘Are you experiencing any kind of stiffness of your neck or throat?’ And I’d just spent fifteen hours on a bus getting home, and I said, ‘Well, yes, I am, as a matter of fact.’”

After checking her pulse and examining her throat, the conversation went something like this:

Doctor: You have tetanus.

Morrissey: Okay. So what do we do now?

Doctor: Nothing. It’s lethal. You have at most six months to live.

Some fifteen years later, Morrissey has instant recall of that moment. She can still see herself there, in abject terror, sitting in a chair in that small, sterile clinic. “That was the moment for me. The moment that can never ever be undone…. He said those words — ‘it’s lethal’ — and everything left me. All reason left me. All I felt was this incredible sensation of sinking, losing, swimming, my stomach overwhelming me with its feelings of total fear.”

It’s the moment she blames — and it still makes her mad — for the anxiety, panic, and phobias that invaded her life for many years to come. It’s the moment that triggered unwanted memories.

Years earlier, when Donna Morrissey was twenty-three, she had held her father’s best friend as he died of a heart attack. A few months later, her own best friend died in an accident. And in between these two terrifying events, something far worse. Her younger brother died in a work-related accident while he and Donna were living and working in Alberta. “When you’re twenty-three years old and you’re so far away from home, and you’ve dealt with this kind of tragedy, and you’ve got to take this home to your mom and dad, things happen that you don’t know how to process, really. So when this doctor told me that it was my turn to die, he triggered trauma that was so set within me that I really hadn’t learned to express it.”

Morrissey was told she could die at any moment. The doctor, someone Donna had not previously met, sent her home with pills to take in case of an attack that very night. And he instructed her to get to the nearest hospital the next morning. One can imagine the kind of night that must have been.

At the hospital, after a thorough work-up, she was told there’d been some kind of mistake; she was, in fact, perfectly healthy. The doctors suggested she go home and throw herself a party. Which she did. “I had a great big party, a three-day party…. And when I went back to St. John’s, after the holiday was over, I resumed normal living.” Then she adds firmly: “There is such a thing as normal — I now know that, because I’ve never been normal since. So I know what was normal before that.”

Morrissey went back to work at the plant. She took care of her kids, spent time with friends. Then in the early hours one morning, just after some of her closest friends had said goodnight, everything crumbled. “I was just doing that last-minute cleanup before you go to bed so you don’t have to deal with the empties in the morning… and I was walking up the stairs to go to bed. Just skipping up the stairs, and suddenly it was like something hit me, something black and awful, like I’d hit a wall. It was that sudden, and it was that physical. It brought me to my knees…. I crawled upstairs, got into bed, and finally I went to sleep. And when I woke up — wham, there it was again. I walked around like that for eight months.”

During those eight months of “black, dark, awful” fear and anxiety, Morrissey told no one what she was feeling. She said she was fine, if ever anyone cared to ask. Went to work each day, came home again each night, all on a kind of auto-pilot. “And all I kept thinking about was, ‘Jesus, I’m mad, this is madness!’ and I knew it totally had to do with that doctor.”

Finally, one morning as she was driving to work, she found herself so exhausted she could no longer go through the motions. “All of my energy was being taken trying to cope with feelings of fear inside of me, and fear for no reason. I just felt choked in fear, and I couldn’t break away from it.” In desperation, Morrissey drove, in full fish-worker’s gear, to a doctor’s office in St. John’s.

“I’ll never forget the moment. I was wearing a white coat, rubber boots, and I had a hairnet on, and a splitting knife tucked into my rubber boot. And I just pulled my car over, got out of the car, walked into his office.” She told the doctor she thought she was going crazy. She started to cry. Then the doctor leaned forward in his chair and did something entirely unexpected. He handed her a lollipop. “A candy sucker! And he pulled one out for himself, and he said, ‘Oh, do you really think so?’ And I remember saying, ‘Just when I thought I’d had every kind of day.’” (Years later, she would recreate elements of the scene in Kit’s Law.)

Then another odd thing happened. “I saw a picture of an old woman on his desk. And I said, ‘She looks like my great-aunt Emma,’ and he said, ‘Well, her name is Emma.’ And it turned out we were cousins, me and the doctor. I had no idea.” Not what you expect when for the first time in your life you admit to fear of losing your mind. But not entirely ineffective either. Morrissey got herself to work that day.

Meanwhile, the doctor/cousin referred her to a psychiatrist, then a psychologist, both of whom recommended psychotherapy. It didn’t help her much. “The psychiatrist was bloody well learned, wasn’t she, and the psychologist was bloody well learned,” Morrissey says, her face switching from humorous-scene-telling mode to a flush of real anger. “They looked at me and said, ‘We don’t think you’ve resolved your grief around your brother.’ I [thought] ‘Don’t give me that shit — maybe I haven’t, but where’s my pill and where’s my cure? I’ve seen a lot of people in grief but I don’t see them walking around like me.’ I sound really cynical and I am, because they didn’t help me.”

What did help was a book recommended by her psychiatrist on Morrissey’s very last visit. “She had little else to say to me that day, and her eyes just happened to fall on this book that some other poor idiot left behind the last time they sat in the chair I was now sitting in.” The book was called Hope and Help for Your Nerves, and reading it was a profound experience. In it, she discovered such terms as “generalized anxiety” and “posttraumatic stress disorder,” both of which she concluded applied to her.

Intrigued, she started taking psychology courses, and five years later she had earned a social work degree from Memorial University. (She got divorced during this time, too.)

“I started piecing together what happened to me back there and understanding. Then I was able to at least work with it.” Where she had once stayed silent, she now started telling anyone and everyone about what ailed her, soliciting opinions and advice. “I found my information through friends, through talking my heart out… and through reading, through my own research,” she says. In this regard, she considers herself fortunate.

“What causes me suffering,” she says, picking up speed and fury like a preacher at the pulpit, “is knowing that in those outports where I come from — and in these tiny little towns all over the country — there are so many people who suffer in silence; they still don’t have what I have found in terms of support and knowledge. They’re cut off from that.”

Read as she could, talk as she might, Morrissey’s own troubles were far from over. Anxiety plagued her for years, worse at some times than others, but never really disappearing. “No matter how hard I worked with it, it wouldn’t end. It was always there. It was like a fucking bird flying over my head, with its shadow. Even though you might be anxiety-free for today or this week or this month, even, you never felt that it wasn’t going to catch up with you. So you become afraid of lots of things. You don’t want to travel. You don’t want to go far from home. I never did become agoraphobic, but I certainly see how that can happen.”

Morrissey, who had travelled the country solo as a teenager, hitch-hiking and camping and fearing nothing, now found herself terrified by a twenty-minute bus ride across town. Sitting close by the exit, she’d try to protect herself against… “What? I don’t know. The past, the fear you’d freak out in front of [people], whatever.”

An anxiety disorder, she came to understand, is nothing like your occasional, run-of-the-mill bout of nervousness. “Patterns of thought become entrenched; patterns of being, of thinking. It changed everything about me: how I thought, how I saw things, what I did, everything.” Getting others to understand these concepts was another matter. When she told a boyfriend she was struggling with anxiety, he suggested a walk. “It’s like, ‘Sweetheart, I went for 5,000 walks! I’ve walked 5 million miles! This isn’t about taking a walk!’ Unless they’ve been there, I don’t think they really understand.”

Morrissey describes anxiety as a physical presence, a bodily experience she equates to a car engine grinding because it lacks oil. When she read up on serotonin depletion and its possible effects on the brain and emotions, the physicality made sense to her. “I could just feel my brain grind with no fucking grease in it! And it was like, Would somebody loosen it, free it, oil it? But I couldn’t find anybody with intelligence enough to put it together for me.”

If the ineffectual doctors prolonged her agony, and the confluence of traumatic events preceded and contributed to it, Morrissey still lays the bulk of blame at the feet of that outport doctor who’d told her she would die. “He made me sick. I’m sure if he had said that to my mother, it wouldn’t have happened. So [there is] a predisposition, maybe, [but] he was the trigger.”

University helped, because it gave her a routine and an incentive to keep getting up every day. But recovery was “clawing, day by day, week by week, month by month.”

Morrissey started writing after finishing her degree, taking pen and paper to a neighbourhood café each morning. Not long after, she moved to Halifax, where she wrote seven hours a day: short stories, screenplays. She was in her late thirties and only just discovering where her talents, and her passions, lay. And very quickly, she was winning awards and critical acclaim.

When her mother — “my heroine” — was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Donna Morrissey moved back to The Beaches to care for her. There, by her mother’s bedside, and with her input and advice, she wrote the manuscript for Kit’s Law, telling the story of a teenage girl growing up in a troubled home in an outport called Haire’s Hollow. When the manuscript was finished, they mailed it off and anxiously waited — together, because it was a labour of their shared love — for an acceptance letter. In the months ahead, while her mother’s health deteriorated, there would be no such letter. And soon her mother was at death’s door. Then another striking confluence of events, which Morrissey later described in print: “Sunday, at 2 p.m., she departed. Monday, at 9 a.m., Penguin Canada called. My mother had plied the hand of God, and I was now a writer.”

The novel became a national bestseller, winning a Canadian Booksellers Association award and being picked up by publishers in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Its success — her success — has in turn forced Donna Morrissey to take the final plunge in overcoming her anxiety. “Suddenly, I had to go on this cross-Canada tour, and I had to do public readings. I am phobic of flying. I have a phobia of public speaking. I had like twelve ongoing phobias, and I had to now do this solo act. And I thought, ‘There’s not a chance in hell.’ But at the same time, I said, ‘There’s not a chance in hell that I’m missing it, either. No way. It’s too exciting.’”

A close friend encouraged Morrissey to try an anti-anxiety drug called Celexa, which had worked wonders for her. Morrissey, who had “started getting tired of the fight,” decided to give the little white pill a try.

“Gee, it was hard. I remember standing there with that little pill in my hand for two, three, maybe four or five days, trying to get the courage to swallow it. Finally, I had to. I was going across the country, alone, flying, reading to 400 people in Vancouver. So I just had to.”

Several nights into her tour, she found herself coming to a realization:nothing was going to go wrong. She’s stayed on the drug ever since, although now at a reduced dose. “I’ll never go off it,” she says.

Since that tour, Morrissey has published a second novel, Downhill Chance, also set in Newfoundland. She’s travelled to England, navigating the London Underground alone, appearing on live television and radio — something that can raise the blood pressure of even the calmest soul — without a hitch. The medication “works beautifully. I do my presentations and my talks, and I go anywhere I want.” When she travels now, she carries a pill in her pocket, a few in her purse, and more in her suitcase. “It’s like, don’t let me be separated!”

Soon she’ll be off to New York, the first of several stops promoting Kit’s Law in the United States. And this time, there’s no anxious waiting for a publisher for her new book: she already has three — one for Canada, another for the United States, and a third for Britain.

“I want to cross my fingers and say, ‘Jesus! Don’t go singing too loud, because the song might end tomorrow,’” she says, laughing. “When you go through these feelings of fear and anxiety, you start understanding we’re so vulnerable — you don’t take anything for granted.”

And she doesn’t.

From Beyond Crazy by Julia Nunes and Scott Simmie, published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd., The Canadian Publishers. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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