Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Monday, 6 July 2015

Guillaume, Part Two (Asking People About Their Lives, Episode Two)

(As you know from the blogpost “Too Ugly For Prostitution,” I met Guillaume at a grown-up barbecue where there were cheese curds, mojitos, and opportunities to learn a great deal about life insurance. Guillaume is my second guest for the blog series “Asking People About Their Lives” in which I do just that.)

Guillaume (Not too ugly for prostitution)
Check out Part One: Too Ugly for Prostitution Here
Guillaume, Part Two
(Asking People About Their Lives, Episode Two)

Guillaume grew up in Boucherville. His parents were not that rich but not that poor either. When he was eighteen, it was somewhat of a crapshoot that Guillaume ended up with a job at a homeless shelter. He needed a summer job and out of MacDonald’s, the library and the homeless shelter, it was the homeless shelter that got back to him. They hired him as an “intervention worker.” Basically it meant that he was a “social worker with no training.” At one of his first shifts, a resident attacked a senior worker who had been working in the field for more than twenty years.  The resident was extremely drunk, and the scene was extremely violent. In the end, Guillaume’s co-worker broke his back and was never able to resume work. None of this seemed to phase Guillaume, despite being only eighteen at the time. Very quickly he became very comfortable in this milieu where drugs and violence were run of the mill. I asked him why he thought this was so natural for him.

Part of it was because he spent his adolescence “right in the middle of everything.” He was never a junkie himself, but many of his friends were. And though he feels like he was never directly involved in violence, he witnessed it happening all around him.

For most of his teenage years, Guillaume alternated between living with his friends and his parents. “I was not good at school, not good at anything.” When he was younger he was good at hockey, but he stopped that. Then he got into music. He had long hair down to his butt, and a huge beard. Before discovering the homeless shelter, Guillaume tried a whole bunch of different stuff. He built board games, worked in metal factories, and studied human sciences. Then he found the shelter where he “grew a lot very very fast. I got to know myself better in a very short time.”
Guillaume’s attitude towards serving people seems different from that of the folks I meet who have vast ambitions to change and save the world. I got the sense that a great deal of his work was simply about listening to people, and accepting them exactly as they were. He seemed really grounded.

Guillaume: "Need to be present to the idea that it can be different. People can have a very different life, and it’s their own choice. You’re not going to be there to save anyone, you’re just going to be there to be present to them for whatever it is they are going through. Starting there was a good start for me.”
Eventually, Guillaume moved to Montreal, where he got a job at the Salvation Army. There, he was in charge of a floor of 27 men who were dealing with various mental illnesses. Although he continued to maintain positive relationships with the residents, it was harder because the Salvation Army is a church, and Guillaume’s an atheist. When it came to the residents, Armée du Salut had a clear agenda. Often their philosophy conflicted with what Guillaume believed in. I asked Guillaume about the homophobia situation. 

Guillaume: "In Canada, they are going to be negative about it and they are going to try and cure you."
Erica: "Yah, but that’s super violent."

Guillaume: "I know, but (in contrast to the States) they are still accepting you to come in. It’s just that they’re going to be very severe that you don’t come around anyone else because it’s only men who are there.”
Even worse were the priests who were saying that the people who had mental illness were being conjured by demons. After three years, Guillaume could no longer watch this happen and he had to leave. For a while, he applied his intervention and people skills to being a bouncer at night clubs. This was fun, but the scene got old. When he got the chance, he went to work at a syringe exchange site. There he gave out syringes, crackpipes, lubricants and condoms to anyone who needed them: “cocaine addicts, heroine addicts, people who are mixing it up… most of them are into prostitution, male prostitution, female prostitution.” The exchange site focusses less on making people better and more on trying to help them be as safe as possible in the life they’re leading right now. If people are interested in other resources such as housing and rehab centres, the staff has that information. That said, nothing is forced on anyone. 

Guillaume frequently emphasized the simplicity and power of just being present to people. For him, the job was about “being present and open and welcoming them. Nobody welcomes them in the street.  They’re being spit on, ignored …. They’re garbage, they’re garbage in the street.” The centre is “the only place they can be welcomed, where people know their name. Hi Andrew, how are you? Who asks them how are you? It’s a strange world out there for them. It’s a very very harsh world. They’re a nuisance, they’re being thrown around, pushed around.”
We can say we have open hearts, but we all have blind spots, people we choose not to see. It is a harsh world. Guillaume met all sorts of people at the syringe exchange site. Musicians, well-known artists and hockey players, rich people, poor people.

“I’ve seen everyone from every place in the hierarchy,” he said. Some men have lost their families through breakups or accidents. They lose everything and they just can’t deal with it. More common than you might imagine is people who have accidents and become addicted to narcotics during the rehab process. Guillaume knows a man exactly his age who had an accident on a mountain when he was fifteen. Since then, he’s been on the street, in pain, and addicted. “He has no veins to inject anymore,” said Guillaume. Guillaume is very adamant that anybody could end up on the streets. It’s just a matter of circumstances. And we have no idea how brutal it can be.
Guillaume: "So what you do is you inject yourself so you don’t feel the cold anymore, you don’t feel the solitude anymore, you don’t feel...  You get addicted to being paranoid smoking crack. It’s hard to understand but people are actually looking for those sensations because when they’re being paranoid and freaking out, they’re actually not thinking about their own lives. Because their own lives are freaking painful, even more painful than anything."

Addiction and the recovery process make up some of my greatest fascinations. I devour any memoir about alcoholism and drug rehab, and I light up whenever I see an A.A. meeting on T.V. For a certain period of my life, I even decided I was an alcoholic just so I could attend A.A. meetings. In truth, I make a pitiful alcoholic. But so far, A.A. meetings have been one of the only places in my life where I haven’t felt compelled to talk my ass off.  I really wanted to hear what Guillaume had to say about Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous, and the various options for addictions recovery. Guillaume thinks it’s great that A.A. works for some people. Any amount of abstinence from an addiction constitutes a success, a victory. That said, Guillaume has reservations about the Christian framework that lies at the heart of A.A. philosophy. He “can’t stand the fact that they keep telling them that they’re powerless when they’re not, that they’re telling their stories over and over again. And you’re just looking at the past. You’re not looking at what you’re doing now.”

For those of you who are not A.A. junkies, the first of A.A.’s twelve steps is to “admit that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable.” I would tend to agree that the lives of most alcoholics or addicts spill over into the unmanageable. And yet, I sometimes question the insistence of uttering this truth aloud day after day, even after thirty-three years of sobriety. To me, part of it says, “I’m a fuck up, I can’t make my own choices. Ever.” Of course, black and white, never-ever-do-this -again sort of thinking can be helpful for some people. One example would be Simon, my ex-boyfriend who jumped off a building this January. Would have been great if he had come to the decision to never ever drink again. Still, I think Guillaume makes a good point in acknowledging that in fact, nobody, regardless of the mess around them, is truly and entirely powerless. 
Guillaume: “They’re the experts of using those drugs, that have been selling their bodies… I’ve never done that… they’re the experts of their own world we’re there to help them to be better experts, to allow them to have a break, a pause, from whatever they’re going through.”
Although the relentless monologues of an A.A. meeting may prove to be excessive, Guilllaume absolutely recognizes the healing potential of giving a voice to your experience. This made me think of being fifteen and in the psych ward for my eating disorder. One morning a bunch of doctors came into my room. They wanted to hear all about what I’d been through. I remember sitting up in bed and realizing, “Oh, I’m allowed to talk about this now. People care about my experience, and it is beyond what I should have to go through.” It was such an immense relief that I’ve been talking about it ever since.

At the syringe exchange site, Guillaume made sure that people had the opportunity to share. And if they wanted his perspective or advice, he would give it to them. He always encouraged people to take everything they’d been through and put it towards the present moment.
He described a pep talk he gave at the centre, years ago. He remembers saying, “You’re gonna do it in the present tense, you’re not gonna do it in the future you’re not gonna do it in the past. You’re gonna use everything, but you’re gonna do it NOW.” Over a year later, some man stopped him on the street, and shook his hand.

“Do you remember me?” he asked. At first, Guillaume didn’t. He had seen so many men, so many stories. The guy who shook his hand had been through a bad divorce, and had gotten into sniffing cocaine. Guillaume hadn’t been talking to him, but he had overheard the Now talk. The next morning, as he left the shelter, he was about to sniff some cocaine he had stored in his locker. But he kept hearing Guillaume’s words.
“I got stuck with the Now,” he said. He threw the cocaine in the sewer, and hasn’t touched drugs ever since. Within a few weeks he had built up his landscaping business and when Guillaume saw him, he had five employees. 

Guillaume: “As of today, it’s one of my first and greatest achievements.”
Towards the end of our interview, I brought up suicide. As all of my readers can probably tell, these days, the topic has been pretty prevalent in my head, due to the fact that my ex-boyfriend Simon jumped off a building this past January. During my stints in the psych ward and day treatment program for eating disorders, a number of the teenagers I met were suicidal. At the time, the protocol for suicidal people was to put them in isolation for 72 hours. This practice continues in hospitals across North America. It only recently occurred to me what a terrible idea this is. I just feel like such a huge part of mental illness and suicide is feeling isolated and alone. How is it that we’re treating the problem with more isolation, more seclusion?

Guillaume agrees that isolation is one of the worst things you can do for people who want to kill themselves. At the syringe exchange site, many of the people who came into the centre felt suicidal. 

Guillaume: “Nobody actually wants to die, but everyone wants to stop suffering. .. a huge part of most suffering is that you’re silent and nobody is listening to you and you’re alone in your pain… Just having someone listen usually relieves part of the initial crisis, and they realize that they can come back.”
But I wonder if part of the issue is that some people really do want to die. Or at least, they want part of themselves to be dead. And maybe we need to let people be honest about this part of them.

Erica: "In high school, they present us with power points that say don’t ever do this, you will hurt those you love. What about acknowledging the part of a person who wants to die?"
Guillaume: "Nobody actually wants to die, you want to stop suffering from whatever you are suffering from. You want to stop that pain. We have to look for solutions. It’s not that in talking about it that you are going to find solutions but if you talk about what’s actually going on to the relevant people you might find that you’re not all by yourself. You might find some solutions."

I feel like for Simon, any solution would have been too little too late. The fact that he would always have to endure hard times, maybe this was unacceptable for him after a while. As though he had already put in his time with the misery. He was all done. In my speeches about Simon, I always say, “I just feel like he would have had one more good day.” I said something along these lines to Guillaume.
Erica: “There would have been at least one more thing that he would have enjoyed. He seemed to enjoy sex. Or the exchange with the cashier at the depanneur, something … But I don’t know what it was like to be Simon for that long… he was probably like shit, I’m still me and it’s still this.”

Simon is dead, and I think about him so much more than when he was alive. It’s like by jumping off the building, Simon wrote this piercing and haunting book that I’ll never get out of my head. Fucker. Since Simon was a child, he imagined throwing himself from way up high. Resources or not I suppose it was inevitable. And Simon was pretty adamantly against treatment services, or being labelled with a condition or a problem. Volatile, impulsive, filled with alcohol, Simon wanted to stay Simon, whatever that means.

G: "In public services, you are a number, and you are one out of so many. They’re overencumbered So many requests for so little support that is available. And… people are actually numbered, they’re issues. So you’re schizophrenia, and you’re neurotic and you’re this and you’re that and what I’m saying is that you’re a human being who is just as worthy as I am, who is going through different issues than I am but you’re just as good, you’re just as worthy as any human being. You’re not a case, you’re not an issue, you’re not a problem.”

Hear that, folks. Not a problem. Just as worthy as any human being.

The End.

Guillaume is currently working on broadcasting content on a website called Twitch.
You can find his stuff here.

Follow me on Twitter: @mypelvicfloor
Like My Facebook Fan Page: Exuberant Bodhisattva on Facebook
Read the Book: I Let Go

I am looking for more interview candidates, for Asking People About Their Lives. So far the process has been empowering for everyone involved. I am interested in all kinds of humans. Let me know if you would like me to ask you about your life, or to ask someone else about theirs.

Also, the call-out for the Internet Diagnosis of Every Three to Six Weeks is still on. Thanks! Strange earwax, odours and involuntary twitches are all welcome. Thanks!

Guillaume, Again
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  1. Have you reading this article from a couple months ago?
    Long but super interesting. And not quite as aggressive as the title suggests!

  2. Hi Marie! Sorry for the delayed reponse, but thanks so much for stopping by! I did check out the article. Definitely worth the read! All my best, Erica.