CBC Literary Prizes

To the Uninitiated by Tracey McGillivray

Tracey McGillivray made the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for To the Uninitiated.

2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist

Tracey McGillivray is the author of the essay To the Uninitiated. (Andrew Kriegler)

Tracey McGillivray made the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for To the Uninitiated.

She will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have her work published on CBC Books.

The winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize was Jenny Boychuk for Slow Violence.

You can read To the Uninitiated below.

Warning: This story contains difficult language and subject matter.

I'm trapped in a world with unnatural laws
Where bad thoughts are spiders
And spiders have claws.

Exhibit A: One odd rhyme pinned in my journal. Written the week before the doctor gave me the pills. It's close. As close as I've come to describing how it feels.

When I give birth to our first beautiful baby, lilacs bloom to welcome us home from the hospital. I heal quickly — physically, at least — from unexpected surgery. The baby and I stroll every day under a canopy of leaves and filtered sunlight, and my heart swells to see my child's curious eyes taking it all in. We play and sing and read from books made of cloth. 

Colic rears its head but my husband comes home from work each night and takes the evening screamer out, cradled in his arms, to circle the neighbourhood. I do dishes and laundry. 

I need you to know: I am a hardy farm girl. Holder of multiple university degrees and responsible positions. A brick house type of little pig. But in the early days of motherhood, the grout fails at the base of one brick wall. A crack appears. One black, articulated leg extends.

I hear wailing when I'm in the shower. I turn off the water and go to stand, dripping, by the open bathroom door. My husband's in the kitchen with our child, who giggles and coos. All is well. All is well.

The internet informs me this is not uncommon.

[I]n the early days of motherhood, the grout fails at the base of one brick wall. A crack appears. One black, articulated leg extends.

Eighteen months later we have another beautiful baby, with a full head of dark hair and enormous blue eyes. I'm less devastated, this time, when my body fails in the delivery process. Hubby and I know the drill of those first topsy-turvy weeks, but it's not easy to meet the needs of two under two. No matter what we try, the baby cries inconsolably.

A second leg wiggles through the crack in the wall. Then a third, and a fourth. A bulging abdomen appears.

"Are you thinking of hurting yourself or the baby?" asks the doctor. She has entered the examining room to find me exhausted, weepy. I shake my head no. I do not speak of fleeting images of dropping the baby over the side of the deck because, in my thoughts, he lands safely, cradled by dense, waving grasses. Or, later, of the car flying off the bridge on the way to school, landing amidst the welcoming trees. No one is hurt in these strange imaginings. Surely, they don't count?

Child number two is on the autism spectrum. I give up the idea of going back to work full-time. We find help. He makes strides. Two three-word sentences that take years to achieve.

When the kids are seven and five, or six and four, I'm not sure which, my mother tries to kill herself. I am blindsided because, for my entire life, I have only known her bipolar disorder under control with the right medication. I'm remorseful that, overwhelmed by my own family life, I've been oblivious to her suffering through a year of drug trials, brought on by changing needs as she ages. I am terrified, for my children and the genetic heritage I've unthinkingly passed on. I'm furious, at the aged, bicycle-riding psychiatrist who in the course of 18 months prescribed more than a dozen anti-depressants and sleeping pills. I'm also grateful, for second chances, and for the care my mother receives after the crisis. These intense, conflicting emotions weave through my psyche. The slightest provocation triggers the entire web.

Are you thinking of hurting yourself or the baby?

When we were newlyweds, my husband and I took a hiking vacation in the Rockies. We explored high alpine meadows, ate lunch hunkered behind one lonely, rugged tree, then rinsed our fingers in an ice-cold mountain stream. We held hands, and our breath, to cross a slippery slope of scree. One day, we navigated a hillside ravaged by fire. At that altitude, recovery would take decades. The bones of the forest lay grey and striated on a blanket of mountain moss. As we walked I thought I heard crying: the ghosts of the trees keening for the joy of photosynthesis.

"Where are you?" asks my husband, in the bathroom of our home. I'm sitting on the edge of the tub, staring at the floor. When my grandfather died, in my early 20s, I didn't ask for details. The only image I had of suicide was from the movies: one limp arm shot against white porcelain. The thought of my grandmother finding her husband that way. The thought. She was a nurse and a proper lady. "When washing a male patient," she'd say, "One washes as far down as possible and as far up as possible. Then, one hands the cloth to the patient to wash the impossible."

My grandfather had terminal cancer. That makes it different, right?

I try yoga. The first teacher has a droning voice and speaks, during final relaxation, of sitting by a trickling stream. I need to pee, and sputter with laughter. But I persevere. In the third or fourth class, the teacher touches me, near the scapula, and I collapse on my mat with hot tears on my cheeks. I don't go back. The second instructor plays music that evokes the strangling of geese. The third is the charm: a woman of warmth and wit. She also has the power to make me weep, although by then I realize the purge is helpful. Necessary.

I love my family madly. I find a therapist. Volunteer at the children's schools. Raise money for autism causes. Walk the dogs. Swim in the cold, great lake where I spent my youth, drifting to sleep at my grandparents' cottage with the sound of crashing waves in my ears and a battered copy of Charlotte's Web splayed on my chest.

Sometimes I feel well. The diet, vitamins, exercise, good works and talk therapy are enough. At other times, my fascia roils and jolts, as if electrified barbed wire hums beneath my skin. On the worst days, I feel like a bird caught in an oil spill, wings weighted by sludge. I tell myself to shake it off. Damn you. Fly.

But the bird, and all she holds dear, is doomed. So say the spiders.

On the cusp of my 50th birthday, menopause torques two decades of sometimes-controlled anxiety and depression into blinding rages. I slam drawers. Eye knives with new appreciation for a keen edge. Hatch wild plots to leave my husband of 27 years, for the slightest of slights.

Now I am a bird on fire.

"With your family history, this instability is very dangerous," says the doctor when I confess. "You don't have to live like this. Medication can help."

It's nothing I haven't heard before. Rejected before, out of hubris and fear. But I am so tired. And the volatility, like an internal, gut-wrenching roller coaster, is scaring the silk out of me. I've tried telling myself I'm both rider and operator: I can stop this thing.

Or, maybe, it's time to put my hands in the air.

 The doctor writes on a piece of paper and holds it out. I take it. On the way home, I stop at the pharmacy to fill the prescription. I study the possible side effects, which I could have recited even before looking at the monograph.

Excessive perspiration.

Ha! That's no way to scare a menopausal lady.


No, thanks; already have some.

Blurred vision, nausea, weight changes, constipation.

Well, shit.

Suicidal ideation.

My grandfather: completed. My mother: attempted. Me:

The bottle sits on the kitchen island for a week while the worry spiders travel their well-worn paths.

Near the end of our long-ago hike through the burn, we came upon a scene that made me reach for my husband's arm. "Look!" The photograph we took that day hangs, framed, over our bed. Most of it is a swirl of grey and green, but there, just off centre, is one red, thrusting paintbrush.

I study the capsules with red lettering. Are these pills of peril or possibility? 

I don't know. I don't know.

I reach for the bottle.

I turn the lid.

Read the other finalists:

About Tracey McGillvray

Tracey McGillivray is a Toronto-based writer. She was raised on a farm near the shores of Lake Huron, which remains her happiest happy place. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail and Today's Parent and her short story Things Float Away was published in Little Bird Stories, Vol. 8.

About the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.