By January of 2009 I was out of money. I had spent what I had left on new hearing aids trying to get my hearing back and on learning once again a new trade. Catharine suggested I apply for the Ontario Disability Support Plan (ODSP) – essentially a disability pension. I applied with her help. For the first time in my life it was beneficial for me to have disabilities. Once I had described all of my disabilities to them and how they impacted on my life it wasn’t hard to qualify. ODSP gave me the breathing space I needed to regroup. My disabilities had gained the better of me and I needed time to get a handle on them. Being on disability allowed me access to the counselling I needed to deal with my depression.
Three months after I started receiving disability benefits a program called Building Bridges (BB) started. Building Bridges was for anyone who wanted to start a business and become self-employed. BB participants could either supplement their ODSP income or get off it altogether. I jumped at the chance. After my longstanding troubles with trying to find paid employment, I now saw self-employment as my most viable option if I was ever going to get back into the workforce. I was determined. This time being in business would be different. There was very little stress in copywriting, virtually no overhead and I could work from where I lived.
The timing of this program couldn’t have been better. Building Bridges was formed through the partnership of two agencies – Ontario March of Dimes (OMOD) and Independent Living Resource Centre (ILRC) – plus the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise (PARO), a not-for-profit business helping women start a business to achieve their independence. ODSP oversaw the progress of the BB participants. The beauty of BB was that social service agencies were partnered with the corporate smarts of a business.
I was in the pilot project for the Building Bridges program. In its 15 year history I was one of the first three men to receive business help from PARO. As you can imagine the men were widely outnumbered by the women. I called it “mixing it up with the ladies” and it was an experience. PARO helped me complete what I’d tried unsuccessfully to do by myself which was to compose a business plan and start a copywriting business. On February 16, 2010, I proudly started BGS Communications, (Brian G. Spare Communications). I became a freelance copywriter with PARO as my first customer.
Then I had an idea for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I really liked the story but the 1850s English was hard going. “Somebody should re-write this into modern prose,” I thought. I decided I would do it. Over two years I abridged and translated Moby-Dick. When I was finished my work was different enough in from Melville’s novel to give it its own title. On October 12, 2012, I launched my first book The Hunt for Moby Dick.
The Independent Living Resource Centre (ILRC) ensured that the Building Bridges participants, given their disabilities, could apply the business skills they learned at PARO. The workshops and seminars at PARO and ILRC provided me with much needed practice in listening to lectures and participating in group discussions. My confidence level was boosted enormously as I learned to adapt my hearing. I was inspired to join the Board of Directors for the Independent Living Resource Centre Thunder Bay.
Ontario March of Dimes’ part in the Building Bridges program was to test for and to teach me the basic skills that I needed to work such as computer and typing. Their aptitude test showed me to be suited for writing among other things.
There was a constant conflict inside me. I wanted to forge ahead in life but at the same time go away and hide.When I explained my situation to OMOD they found me a counsellor for my depression. His name was Hugh. I was expecting Hugh to have a Dr. Phil look with a regular hair cut, standard sports jacket, dress shirt, dress pants and shoes. The man I met was ten years older than me with thinning, grey, shoulder length hair. He wore a denim vest, button up shirt, jeans and moccasins. I found Hugh to be a very knowledgeable, highly intuitive, warm and peaceful man. He wore a broad smile, had a genuine concern for people and was sincere in everything he said. Hugh and I worked well together.
During two years of monthly sessions Hugh coached me out of my depression. It took me that long to change my mindset and really catch on to what he was telling me. Hugh got me to face the hostility in the dark, craggy, cold, gaping hole in my chest. He said the hole was not hostile. It was my space and I had no reason to get rid of it. I learned from Hugh that the hole – the deep emotional wound I couldn’t heal – was my parents’ influence on my life which left me the morning Mom died. What I lost that morning was what I needed to lose if I was truly going to find myself. From then on that hole became a friendly, clean-edged, light-filled space – my space – a womb full of warmth that I could expand to accommodate and nurture all my thoughts, dreams, feelings and experiences. I was released from a feeling of deficiency and found that I am, in a word, complete. I could believe in myself again.
During the time of Dad’s struggle with cancer Mom found an article in the newspaper about a new surgery for people with facial paralysis called Smile-Surgery. It was pioneered by two plastic surgeons in Toronto. I saw the surgeons in March, 1977, to find that I was a good candidate for this procedure. After the surgery I would be able to move the corners of my mouth outward and up to smile.
Smile-Surgery: One end of the gracilis muscle is attached to the chin and the other end to the cheek. The blood supply and nerve are connected to the jaw muscle. After 12 weeks the surgery heals enough for the “smile muscle” to start working. It contracts when the jaw muscle is tensed causing the corner of the mouth to move outward and up to smile.
“Is this the answer?” I wondered, “Would I finally have what I had dreamt of for so long? Would I get my smile back?” I was afraid to hope. I didn’t want to be disappointed again and yet my intuition told me to have the surgery. I thought about it for months.
In October of 1997, I had Smile-Surgery on the right side of my face at the Toronto Western Hospital while Dad and Jeanne ran Tara.
The Smile-Surgery involved taking some gracilis muscle from my inner thigh and transplanting it into my face (right thigh for the right side of the face and left thigh for the left side).
The lack of a smile wasn’t my only problem. Since I didn’t have cheek muscles to support my lower eyelids they sagged. During this Smile-Surgery the surgeons made a sling for each lower eye lid from a tendon out of my left wrist to hold them up.
When I woke up after surgery the incision on my face went from my right temple, down past my ear, around the corner of my jaw and along it to my chin. I had an incision along the inside of my right thigh from my knee to my groin with drains sticking out. I had swollen, bloodshot eyes I couldn’t focus. They had taken a tendon out of my left wrist and there was an IV in my right hand. I was sore all over and all I could do was lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. Man was I ever feeling sorry for myself.
“Brian,” I said, “what on Earth were you thinking? You didn’t have to do this.” Wah wah wah.
Two days later I wasn’t as sore. I could focus my eyes again and I was glad it was over. Four days after surgery the drains came out and I could get up. Three more days in Toronto and I was back in Thunder Bay.
It took two weeks for the swelling in my face to go down. The surgeons gave me step-by-step instructions on how to strengthen my new muscle. I stood in front my bedroom mirror daily to practice twitching it by tensing my jaw muscles. There was no movement at all at first. The right side of my face looked to be more alive but, try as I might, the corner of my mouth wouldn’t budge. I was disheartened but I reminded myself that the surgeons had told me that the muscle needed time to heal before it would work. Of course I wanted the smile muscle to work right away. I kept practicing. Twelve weeks after surgery I was sure I could feel a tug in the corner of my mouth. It was also time for Smile-Surgery on the left side. In early January, 1998, I was back at Toronto Western Hospital.
Now I practiced twitching both corners of my mouth. To the surgeons practicing twitching the smile muscles every day was very serious business. I was like a kid with a new toy. Each day I stood in front of my bedroom mirror to practice twitching my smile muscles. At first I watched the corners of my mouth move slightly. The twitches got broader as the smile muscles became stronger. The joy in my heart grew and grew as I witnessed my motionless, expressionless face come to life. For the first time in 25 years I had movement in my face. I had my smile! It wasn’t the big, wide smile I would have liked but it was bigger than Mona Lisa’s.
“Why not have some fun with this too?” I thought. I discovered that, along with regaining my smile, I could make sounds again that I hadn’t made since I was a kid such as blow raspberries. Awesome!
The surgeons brought each smile muscle around under my lower lip as well. To have working muscles support my lower lip again proved to be a permanent solution to the problem of it curling down.