A New Beginning
The Full Story
Late one night in January 2017, Don “Shorty” Glenn pulled his pickup over, halfway across the Mystery Lake Bridge in Thompson, Manitoba. As he strained to pull his 6’ 4” frame from the cab—the “Shorty” moniker was an ironic one from high school—he prepared to catch his footing on the icy pavement quickly. All things considered, opening himself to the remotest possibility of a fall right now was more reckless than he liked to entertain.
Below, the Nelson River had frozen over save for a man-sized opening Shorty could see from the bridge. He lost himself staring into that opening, feeling the merciless Canadian air through the collar of his coat. It felt good, almost—like holding an icepack half-an-inch away from a severe burn. Shorty knew that if he tried, he could still leap from the bridge and stick his landing, coming down feet-first in the middle of that gap in the ice. Then he’d have his icepack. He’d be swept away too—his family wouldn’t even have to find his body.
It had been nearly two years since Shorty’s symptoms first appeared. The trouble had started in 2015 with an apparent flu that wouldn’t pass. He stayed home from work so many days that his employer suggested he go on short-term disability, see a doctor, and find out just what was going on.
Eventually Shorty did see his doctor, who was baffled. The flu had finally passed but now he had hives all over and his throat had a new habit of closing when the hives got irritated. He was referred to the only relevant specialist within a thousand miles; she worked nine hours south in Winnipeg and had an enormous waiting list. Seeing no alternative, Shorty got on the list and began waiting. In the meantime, his short-term disability benefit lapsed and he began the 24-month countdown that was his insurance’s long-term disability program.
Shorty, his fianceé Andria, and their two children had moved into their home in Thompson less than a year before. It had come with a finished basement but upstairs, it was a renovation project. Shorty had been fixing it up in parts as it became affordable. He was also building chairs and shelves and even an island for the kitchen, out of scrap wood in his spare time. That would all have to be put on hold as Shorty’s health was now deteriorating quickly. The lightest touch of a hand or even a loose shirt was often enough to leave new hives. For the meantime, the family could go about their business in the relatively cozy basement, venturing up to the main level pretty much only to use the kitchen.
Then one Friday evening, the toilet in the basement started unflushing itself. That is, it filled with and subsequently dropped the first of several hundred gallons of sewage, straight from their friends and neighbors’ homes around Thompson. Seems a sewer pipe under the house had burst and nobody would be answering phones at the city until the following Monday. Until then, there was nothing to do but evacuate to the main level with as many valuables as possible.
At exactly 8:00 on Monday morning, Shorty called the city of Thompson to let them know that it seemed something was amiss with one of their pipes. A representative came and took pictures of the damage, slipped, fell, accidentally swallowed some, and got on his way. Someone would be along soon to drain the place and fix the pipe.
The city deferred to Shorty’s homeowner’s insurance once the pipe was fixed. Insurance would fund a DIY cleanup but if Shorty wanted to hire any help, that cost would be on him. Meanwhile, Andria had to work during the day, especially now that Shorty’s wages had been cut for disability. Looking out at the swamp that had been his basement the week before, Shorty understood through his fever that he would have to lead the repair effort, largely alone.
At times while he was moving furniture and ripping up carpets, Shorty wondered if he was contracting dysentery. Or cholera. Or parasites or the bubonic plague. Or maybe he would just get E. coli and die from that before he or anyone else noticed the change in his overall health.
Other times, he felt inexplicably carried along by a supernatural wave of energy. Occasionally he would work all night and into the next day, stopping only when he was almost too tired to make it to bed, which had become a sleeping bag upstairs. During these times, he oscillated between forgetting about his symptoms and feeling so frustrated by them that he pushed himself, fantasizing that it would cause a heart attack so he could just die right then and there.
Compounding the anguish was the fact that Shorty’s disability pay simply wasn’t going to be enough. They had fallen behind on their mortgage and were now facing the real danger of their house being repossessed. In desperation, Shorty started building fixtures and furniture out of scrap wood again, this time to sell. To his and Andria’s relief, it worked--the pieces sold and turned a good enough profit to keep the family in their unfinished, hazmat-filled home. At least for a while.
Somewhere in the midst of fixing the basement, building whatever would sell out of whatever he found and scratching himself bloody every day, Shorty got a phone call informing him that he had made it to the top of the waiting list to see the specialist in Winnipeg. Jumping at the chance to take a break from wading in municipal excrement, he eagerly set an appointment. Maybe he was only a prescription away from getting back to his old self.
Dermatographia--literally, skin writing--is in a class of conditions named after the Latin word for stinging nettles. During a flareup, the whole world becomes nettles and everything that touches the patient leaves burning hives. In extreme cases, you can actually practice calligraphy with a light caress on the patient’s back or chest.
After several 20-hour roundtrips to and from his specialist’s office in Winnipeg, it was concluded that when Shorty had had his flu all those months ago, his immune system had, in a manner of speaking, broken and given way to an autoimmune disorder which was now causing his body to fight needlessly and treat everything that touched it as an allergen. She said the good news was that a simple prescription-strength antihistamine should clear his symptoms right up.
But a month later, Shorty made another 20-hour roundtrip to give her the bad news. His symptoms were unchanged--except, of course, that they had progressed by another month. He was now sporting
so many open sores that it looked like chicken pox. He took home a second prescription and crossed his fingers.
It too had no effect, much like the next drug they tried, and the next. Shorty was in despair as he made his sixth, seventh, eighth pilgrimages to Winnipeg.
It was a couple of weeks after his thirteenth trip that it suddenly occurred to Shorty that he hadn’t scratched that day. In fact, some of his wounds looked and felt like they had begun to heal. He remained cautious--one learns not to get one’s hopes up--but after a week of almost no scratching, he couldn’t deny it any longer: the experimental injection he had received on his last trip to Winnipeg was working.
Shorty was giddy to give his doctor the good news. Nearly as relieved as Shorty was, she still cautioned him. The miracle drug--an injection called Xolair--wasn’t commercially available in Canada yet. The government was negotiating with the manufacturer but, for the moment, its demand was too low to sell for a price the government was willing to pay.
There was hope, though—it was already available in the States and his doctor had a four-month sample supply. If Shorty liked, she would give him all four doses to use while she joined the lobbying effort. Shorty replied that yes, he sure would like absolutely as much Xolair as she could give him.
Back at home and symptom-free, Shorty sprang to work with childlike enthusiasm. He worked hard on the basement and, with his faculties about him, finished it quickly. Now he could focus on upcycling more sellable pieces--encouraged by the success, he started learning how to incorporate a business. He also connected with some of the shops in town and got permission to pick through their junk after hours. He got into a routine of making a run through town every few nights, loading up the truck bed with discarded pallets, doors, scrap metal, and whatever else looked like he could make something out of it. He found many shop owners were glad to have less waste removal to pay for, and they wished him luck with his business. A few even became customers.
Soon, Andria found that she was pregnant. Shorty revelled in the facts that the house was entirely nontoxic now and that he was healthy. He would be able to be there properly for Andria during her pregnancy and the baby would be born into a safe, ready home. Every step on the basement’s new, clean carpet whispered a reminder to Shorty that he could do anything.
But four months later, little progress had been made on the Xolair negotiations and it was still unavailable in Canada. His final sample wore off a few weeks into Andria’s second trimester and, day by day, Shorty felt his skin start to heat up again.
I’m never going to escape this, he thought. I can never be myself again.
They say suicide is selfish--quitting your life early and leaving friends and family to clean up whatever mess you decided was too big for you. But after six months with no Xolair, Shorty’s body was the mess;
if he could really aim his jump from this bridge and come down even crawling distance from that opening in the ice, there would be nothing for anyone to clean up.
Andria and the kids were just about the only issue to sort out if he was going to do this. By now, the hope that salvation would return and let him move on from this phase of his life was nothing more than a dream that hadn’t come true. Shorty did a gut check and found that he would still go through fire for Andria and their children... but this wasn’t that. In fact, it would probably be better to just let Andria start recovering from this whole ordeal and be ready to marry again before the baby got very old. Then the new guy could feel like Dad, at least to one of Shorty’s children.
What would happen to the other two kids--their 3-year-old son and Andria’s daughter, Shorty’s step daughter? They’ll make it. And as he thought it, he heard the girl tell someone, “My mom got a divorce when I was little and then my stepdad killed himself.” Immediately Shorty saw Andria holding their son in her lap on the floor, trying to find a way to tell him that Daddy wasn’t going to be coming back.
Shorty wrenched his eyes off the river and stopped pondering his family’s fates for a moment. He considered briefly that that was what he was doing--pondering how he might change all four of their destinies tonight. Every time the kids experienced one of life’s trials, they would be reminded of what he had done. “Is this like that?” they would ask themselves. “Suicide runs in your family,” their doctors would say. “Do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself?”
It will be my fault. I’ll be the reason.
He turned and looked at the furniture parts in the bed of the truck. This had been a strong materials run; there were some exciting items to make out of all these pieces. He had promised to call a customer in the morning to start planning a custom chest. He was definitely riding one of his energy waves tonight so he wouldn’t be going to bed regardless… but there was enough material here to play with until it was time to make that call.
Shorty got back in his truck. He went home.
In the months that followed, Shorty’s mind returned to that night on the Mystery Lake Bridge frequently. He realized that he was remembering it like an episode from someone else’s life. He remembered the thoughts, but it was more like he had heard someone else thinking them; Shorty himself couldn’t have been the one sincerely considering jumping off an actual bridge, could he?
It was another seven months before Shorty got his prescription, but he got it. He thought of the night on the bridge when he got the news. Thank God, he thought. Thank God.
After a few months of blessed control over his dermatographia Shorty told his doctor, as best he could, about the bridge experience. After some follow-up questions--Has there been a time when you were not your usual self and you got much less sleep than usual and found that you didn’t really miss it? Has there been a time when you did things that were unusual for you or that other people might have thought were excessive or risky?--Shorty found out that he had a case of bipolar disorder 2. In all likelihood, he had had it for many years--certainly all through the dermatographia debacle. At the moment he had wanted to leap into the frozen river, he was in the middle of a hypomanic episode.
With his Xolair--and bipolar medication--securely in place, Shorty incorporated his business toward the close of 2017 and, soon thereafter, Andria successfully left her job to manage it full-time. He still makes freelance items as inspiration dictates, but he also frequently works in close collaboration with customers to make extra special, custom pieces. Most customers enjoy the process and appreciate the results so much that they end up coming back for second and third pieces. Many have become friends.