From blowing up rock to taming bipolar disorder
Reprinted from "Men" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5), pp. 23-24
Dynamite attracts a strange breed of people. One day in 1974, when I was 19 years old, I saw a guy drilling a hole in solid rock. I thought it was so cool, I asked him if I could try it. At the time I didn't know I'd taken my first step on a path to alcohol and other addictions. And I didn't know I was bipolar. But six months later, I had earned my first blasting certificate, and I did my first solo blasting in the winter of 1975.
Like I said, I was surrounded by a strange breed of people, and I fit right in. Many blasters, me included, have a tendency toward pyromania; they're all mesmerized by bonfires and get kicks from blowing up old cars and launching stumps. Most of the guys were bikers from around Victoria, but everybody drank and everybody partied.
Try as I might in high school, I hadn't been much of a drinker prior to 1974, though I smoked cigarettes some. Two weeks past my 19th birthday, however, the foreman and crew whisked me off into their bar scene. I'm 49 now, and looking back I can see that this was one more new world I had entered and adapted to — one I had chosen for myself.
Steady employment meant steady paycheques, and in my early 20s, the money was rolling in. I was single, owned my own home and drank every day. I began to practically live in one particular bar.
Blasting work entails long hours and is physically difficult in the extreme. I'd be up at 5 a.m. to set up at the job site by 8 a.m., work till 4 p.m. and head back to the yard. After fuelling up the truck and compressor, talking with the boss about the job, and listening to him moan about how much money he was losing, I'd drive to the bar and drink until closing, then take friends and a case of off-sales home. And get up at 5 a.m.!
I know now that I went through several manic and depressive swings between 1974 and 1987. My birthday is in June, on the first day of summer. As May approached, I could sense my energy level increasing. Some sleepless nights I would be consumed by an idea or "get rich" plan. All through summer and fall I had a contagious enthusiasm for ideas, could influence just about anyone, and had a lot of fun — most of it pretty harmless. But by January, I'd end up hungover and broke, or worse, in debt. I'd begin to isolate myself, not wanting people who knew me as a vibrant, fun guy to see me when my personality seemed to be melting away. I'd lose my ability to remember simple things, and a few beers would knock me over. My attitude at work was deplorable, and if my boss of 10 years wasn't such a great guy, I'd have been fired several times over.
By 1980, when I was 25, I was smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, had tried most drugs and was a full-time alcoholic. I couldn't just sit and have a few beers — I always drank as many as possible. And I was turning into a mean drunk with no self-control. Drugs give a temporary high but you always pay a price for what you get. Cigarettes are just about the worst waste of time and money, and the health risks are staggering. And alcohol just plain got in the way.
I managed to quit smoking in 1980 with the help of a dear friend who runs a quit-smoking centre. She talked to me at my bar for about two weeks, saying that most of the hundreds of chemicals in cigarettes leave your body in just a few days, so the rest of kicking smoking involves breaking mental habits. She said that when I was ready, I'd stop. I've now been an ex-smoker for 24 years.
My son Jarrod was born in 1984. I'd known his mother for several years and a relationship with her just wasn't possible, but I did want to help. To come up with extra money for support, I stopped drinking, from November 11, 1984, to May 11, 1985, exactly. Then I started pounding the beers again. It was my manic time and I was missing the action of the bar. When you drop out of alcohol circles, your friends and acquaintances don't follow, so it gets lonely. I wasn't a '12-Stepper,' so my willpower just ran out.
In 1986, two years after Jarrod was born, I met my wife Katy. She's been the backbone of my support system ever since. She was there for me in 1987 when my best friend died in a freak accident. She was there when I quit my job and went to school.
But alcohol was getting in the way: after just one beer I couldn't study, my grades suffered — and I was in danger of losing my wife. So, in 1990 I took my last drink. I was working as a carpenter's apprentice at the time. Drinking on grand scales seemed to have gone out of style, so I didn't notice much difference. Besides I was very busy with Katy's and my new land—two-and-a-half acres of rock that I blasted for driveway, house and more.
Now I only had pot to self-medicate my moods. I never really liked pot — I got too paranoid and forgetful — but it was the pot that brought me to the discovery that I'm bipolar.
The rollercoaster ride wasn't over, either. In 1995, I lost a seven-month court battle, and wasn't able to see my son Jarrod any more. He was 10 years old and I cared for him deeply. Then, during the summer of 2000, my manic motor started up and pot seemed to be inspiring me. First it was one whole joint, and by the end of September, I was smoking 12 joints a day. Even being manic I knew I shouldn't be doing this, so I went to see my doctor, who pronounced me full-blown manic-depressive.
I quit smoking pot in December 2000 after six months of taking antipsychotic medication. Today I take Epival every day for mood stabilization and Effexor for depression. It was rough at first, but a key part of my recovery has been a great support group through the Mood Disorders Association of BC in Victoria.
At first I didn't want to go to the support group, but my wife dragged me. I had never been to a psychiatrist and thought they would hook up the 'jumper cables' and give me 20,000 volts. The group, however, was able to calm me down and let me know that there was nothing to fear. I've been to every meeting since, and co-facilitate most nights. To be among people who experience the disability first-hand is priceless. Until you know you're sick, you really believe all the terrible thoughts you have about yourself and tend to isolate, which is the beginning of the end for a lot of people.
I couldn't have managed any of my crises without support from friends and family. The most important thing, and perhaps the hardest thing, is to ask for help when you need it. If you're choosing self-medication before family, friends or what you know in your heart are the right things to do, you have a problem. I discovered I was bipolar four years ago, at age 45. Now I work, I laugh and I live a good life.
I still have a current BC Blasters certificate, and a few years back I blasted the site for the new cancer clinic at Royal Jubilee Hospital. In 1989 I began a carpentry apprenticeship and today I'm a certified journeyman carpenter, as well as a certified computer graphics technician. Katy and I laugh and love like kids.
Two years ago on Father's Day, Jarrod called me up and we went for a drive. We've seen a lot of each other since. We've worked together, gone to the US twice, and have just plain hung out. He turned 20 on December 10, 2004. I got him a full set of rugged rain gear and we trudged out to the Sooke Potholes during an epic downpour. The waterfalls made the ground rumble, and we had a gas. He knows I'm bipolar and it doesn't matter.
About the author
Stewart is a mental health consumer and lay support group co-facilitator with the Mood Disorders Association in Victoria, BC
- According to the 1996 Canadian Census, in the category for crane operator, drillers and blasters, there were 130 women to 15,570 men. Stats Canada. (1997). Labour force 15 years and over by detailed occupation. Retrieved January 20, 2005, from www.statcan.ca/bsolc/english/bsolc?catno=93F0027X1996007