Michael Musi is an actor, writer and producer whose miniseries Something Undone is streaming on CBC Gem.
In 2012, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And I became a different person: a warrior, defending my mother against any and all incursions.
She was terrified of dying, and when she told me early on that having me by her side brought her comfort, that’s where I stayed. If a doctor so much as wanted to say hi to my mom, he had to ask me first. I became a human shield, protecting her from the oncologist’s poor bedside manners and the nurse’s displeased sighs at my mom’s potassium levels. I was unrecognizable, even to myself. I was a true pillar of strength.
Or at least, this is what people might’ve seen. Heck, it’s what I saw. But deep down, even beyond my own understanding, I was crumbling. I was such a warrior for my mom that I forgot to fight for myself.
About a month into my mother’s diagnosis, I was in the car with a good friend when my left arm went completely numb – I couldn’t even lift it up – and I was almost certain I was having a heart attack. I begged her to get out; she wanted to stay, but I didn’t want her to see me like that, so I begged louder and louder until she agreed. I was a warrior, after all – even though I was certain I was dying. I drove myself to the hospital, left my car running and barged into the emergency wing. The ER doctor told me I was having a panic attack.
When my mom died less than eight months later – pancreatic cancer is especially brutal – so did this warrior I had been inhabiting. Much like the final curtain call of a play, the role was no longer useful, so I had to say goodbye. I returned to who I really was: a sensitive 24-year-old, out of my depth and in desperate need of my mom.
Without any way to channel my grief, I kept it hidden. I morphed my trauma into dead-mom jokes that I’ll still whip out at the first pang of sadness. I told myself I had a good grip on my grief because of my improving ability to shove the pain to the side, allowing it to be released every few months in one epic cry. “You’re handling it like a man,” I told myself. “You allow yourself one cry, Michael – just one big cry and then you soldier on.”
I was raised in a pretty traditional household with a Greek mom and Middle-Eastern dad. My dad’s parents, Sito and Gido, moved in with us as soon as they arrived in Canada, and from then on our house smelled perpetually of a mix of cumin and church incense. They never learned English and so we were forced to learn Arabic. But no matter the language, mental health was something we never discussed in our home. No one even knew what it was. Therapy was a place Robert De Niro went to in the movie Analyze This. It was something rich people felt they needed because they had everything else. Immigrants, even children of immigrants, didn’t need therapy – I grew up believing it was a North American solution to a North American problem.
I first saw a therapist a few years after my mom passed away and absolutely hated it. She just sat there and listened to me talk; she didn’t give me the guidance or fix I was looking for. It was lots of “How does that make you feel?” and “what do you think you should do?” I quit therapy quicker than I quit the intense spinning gym I only joined because there was a shockingly good deal on Groupon.
As things in my life got harder, including a pretty complicated divorce, my anxiety mounted to an all-time high. The stresses of life felt increasingly difficult and the warrior I was for my mother was nowhere to be found. It became clear to me that I needed professional help, but I couldn’t shake the disappointment of that first visit to a therapist. But then a good friend told me that finding the right therapist is like dating: you have to meet with a few before you find one you actually like. I thought: Who has that kind of time?
Then two months ago, my anxiety manifested in a brand new way – which is particularly fun, during a pandemic. The tiniest of inconveniences would lead to heart palpitations, shortness of breath and sleepless nights. On one occasion, while also dealing with the stress of creating a show, I thought a friend was mad at me, and I was legitimately worried I might pass out.
Something had to give. So, taking a cue from how most of Gen Z deals with their problems, I went online shopping – for a therapist.
I wanted to speak with someone who could understand my aversion to therapy but also understood what I like to call the “Middle Eastern pride” that’s especially acute in men like me: Men who didn’t ask for help, and only offered it; who didn’t talk about problems, but solved them instead; who didn’t cry, but shouldered others. I’ve always been the person that friends came to with their problems, and I never imagined myself on the other side. I noticed that my female friends saw no weakness in going to therapy – that they saw strength in asking for help – and while I wanted to be like them, I kept getting in my own way.
Eventually, in Julian, I found a practitioner who makes therapy feel like a conversation rather than a session. He knows when to shift gears or stay put when we need to dig deeper. Most importantly, he lets me make jokes – laughs at them, even – while ultimately helping me understand why I’m making them in the first place. And all the noise I filled my head with has started to go away. Now I genuinely look forward to our sessions. I dare say I even like therapy! It’s early days yet, but I already feel different. Lighter, even.
It may have taken me eight years to get here, but I’m feeling in control again. I hope others like me – a second-generation Canadian who grew up believing that therapy wasn’t for me, or that mental health wasn’t worth talking about – get here sooner than I did. Because I’m starting to feel the warrior in me again, still alive underneath all my pain, just as strong and just as resilient. But this time, instead of screaming in his car when no one’s around, he’s breathing deeply and sharing his fears. I like this guy so much more.
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