What: Fifth Annual Mental Health Awareness Week at UVic, with guest performer Shane Koyczan
When: Wednesday, Jan. 16, doors 4:30; event 5 p.m.; reception 7 p.m.
Where: University of Victoria, Farquhar Auditorium
Tickets: Free but must be reserved at tickets.uvic.ca
Had renowned Canadian poet Shane Koyczan never shared on stage his deeply personal experience with loss, depression and the lasting pain of being bullied, he might never have known how many people go through the same thing.
“There is comfort in knowing you’re not alone,” said Koyczan.
“The thing the stage really gave me is, when you are cocooned as a writer, yeah, that feels more comfortable, but you’re not getting that connection with other people.
“What really gave me confidence or what really gave me the reward was seeing how many other people could relate to what I was going through. It made me feel less alone. A large part of what I do is therapy for me — to be exposed to other people who are struggling.”
Koyczan, 42, an internationally acclaimed spoken-word artist, poet and author — who writes about everything from social justice to love, addiction and death — is a special guest for the fifth annual Mental Health Awareness Week at UVic.
“One of the stigmas that comes with mental illness is that nobody really understands you, so it’s comforting in a way to get up on the stage and say ‘here are the problems I have’ and have people come up to you afterwards and say: ‘Yeah, me too.’ ”
Koyczan is perhaps most recognized for his powerful Canadian ode We Are More, which he performed at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but it’s his spoken-word piece To This Day about the bullied and the beautiful that has turned into a movement.
In the poem, he rallies behind those who were convinced they weren’t enough, that they’d never be loved.
And if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself,
Get a better mirror,
Look a little closer,
Stare a little longer,
Because there’s something inside you,
That made you keep trying,
Despite everyone who told you to quit.
The piece was made into an animated video that went viral and led to a live version for TED Talks, which has been viewed by millions.
Koyczan was born in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. His mother is French and his father is Cree. He grew up in Penticton with his grandparents and was educated at Okanagan College.
In his TED talk, he said: “When I was 10, I was told my parents left because they didn’t want me; when I was 11, I wanted to be left alone; when I was 12, I wanted to die; when I was 13, I wanted to kill a kid; when I was 14, I was asked to seriously consider a career path; I said I’d like to be a writer and they said choose something realistic.”
From 15 to 18, he hated himself for becoming the thing he loathed — a bully. Standing up for yourself doesn’t involve violence, he said.
Then, like a boomerang, poetry came back into his life, he said.
Koyczan advocates establishing support networks of trusted friends and mining laughter from dark places. He quotes silent film actor Charlie Chaplin: “Humour sharpens our sense of survival and preserves our sanity.”
Koyczan also suggests replacing empty acquaintances and experiences on social media with face-to-face conversations, connections and “real memories.”
“We live in a completely augmented reality now,” said Koyczan. “Relationships have been reduced to left swipes and right swipes, but there are still people out there who would prefer personal interaction and those are the people you need to seek out.”
The internet was supposed to connect us, “but people are more lonely now than ever, I think,” said Koyczan. “People live their lives online and it becomes a social currency.”
For the past six months, Koyczan has had to revisit many of the mental-health tools he used in the past.
He recently reconnected with his father, from whom he was estranged since early childhood. But he also lost a vital connection.
Koyczan had been living with his grandmother in Penticton, where he moved to keep her company, though he is often on the road on tour. But his grandmother, who raised him, died May 2.
“Yeah, 2018 was really rough because the person who set my compass to true a lot of the times is now gone and I’m having to navigate and use different tools,” he said.
Grieving “is a minefield for someone who has issues on top of that,” said Koyczan, who compares grief with a “sh--ty landlord” who shows up whenever he feels like it.
The instinct is to lash out or isolate, “but being alone doesn’t save you,” said Koyczan, who says trusted friends have been key to healing.
It’s hard, but he says he knows inviting people in is part of the process.
“It’s been a painful transition. I’m still dealing with it, obviously. When someone leaves, a vacuum is created.”
Sharing raw emotions is part of what made Koyczan famous, but it comes with a price.
“I don’t just get letters from fans saying, like, ‘great show last night,’ ” said Koyczan. “I get letters from fans that are deeply personal. I get letters from fans that are basically suicide letters and you try to reach back and you don’t hear back from them and you have to live with that sort of nebulous feeling. That weighs on me.
“That I got to be what everybody said I couldn’t do feels amazing most of the time, but then there’s days when it’s just too heavy.”
He wrote the poem Graffiti about those fans who are on emotional ledges:
I want to believe that the sleeping pills scattered on your floor are just dreams you dropped by accident or the nightmares you tried to flush.
While Koyczan’s poetry mines a lot of pain, it also contains beauty, humour, self-esteem, triumph and, in Graffiti, the hope of what tomorrow might bring:
Maybe somewhere there is someone,
who will love you better,
I don’t know,
I’m not certain of any of this,
but at times I take comfort in leaning on the shoulder,
of I don’t know.