Back from the brink – The Hamilton Spectator – June 26, 2000
The Hamilton Spectator,
Life – Online Edition
June 26, 2000
Back from the brink
Mary K. Nolan
The Hamilton Spectator
There was no hint of what was to come. Barry Shainbaum was pretty much like any other 18-year-old kid of the time, growing up in a middle-class, west-Hamilton neighbourhood, going to school, hanging out. The usual stuff. Until, as he puts it, “I just went bonkers one day.”
Now 48, Shainbaum clearly recalls the moment that sent him on what he calls a psychological near-death experience that lasted close to two decades.
“I was waiting for the bus with my guitar in front of Camelot Towers,” he says. “I was going to see my girlfriend in Ancaster. And I got this premonition that I was leaving somehow. It just came over me.”
By the time he got to his girlfriend’s house, he was well on his way to a complete mental breakdown, which eventually resulted in a diagnosis of manic depression at age 21.
With lithium and therapy, Shainbaum managed to paste together a life which included a degree in photographic arts from Ryerson, assorted jobs in the photo and audio-visual fields and the opening of his own photographic studio in 1983.
But it was always a struggle and three years later, after taking a break from his medications, he fell apart again, this time losing his apartment, his business and everything else he’d worked so hard to achieve. He found himself living in a High Park boarding house with an assortment of mentally ill indigents, guys like Harold who’d swill Aqua Velva in the dining room, but at least the fragrance disguised the stink of the place. The police visited at least weekly and Shainbaum spent most of his days loitering in the park eating potato chips and drinking Pepsi.
And then, in 1988, as suddenly and completely as it had descended on him that day at the bus stop, “the illness left me.”
Shainbaum no longer takes medication and professes to an even temperament and a mood that seldom varies from that of “a prolific joke-teller, who enjoys the lighter side of life, the simple truths of life.” He considers himself cured of what is now known as bipolar disorder and rates his mental, spiritual and physical health as excellent.
“I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anybody,” says the youthful-looking Shainbaum. “I had to rebuild my whole life from the basement up.”
But in the process, and with years of therapy, he developed skills of self-analysis, insight and understanding that have led him to a new goal — the publication of a book of photos and essays about individuals, famous and otherwise, who have faced a difficult challenge.
Although many have shown interest, publishers are often hesitant to get behind a first-time author. Shainbaum is still in search of a publisher for The Book of Integrity: Heroes of Our Times, a work-in-progress that he likens to his own battle against mental illness. He expects it will be about 200 pages long and retail for $45 to $50, smaller and less expensive than the average coffee table book.
“This is not just a book, it’s a passion. It’s like the rebuilding of my life,” says Shainbaum, who is financing the project with his own investments. “If my life hadn’t fallen apart, I’d be just another commercial photographer.”
He has spent the past two years lining up the 44 subjects featured in his portfolio and travelling the world to photograph them, an eclectic mix which includes former South African president Nelson Mandela; game show host Monty Hall; wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen; hockey player Gordie Howe; Mahatma Gandhi’s peacemaker grandson Arun; controversial
researcher Nancy Olivieri; poet Maya Angelou; psychic Uri Geller; and the entire Grade 7 class of Wallins Elementary School in Wallins Creek, Kentucky, whose efforts saved the peak of a local mountain from destruction by a coal mining conglomerate.
“All of them, in some way, have made it through some kind of adversity,” he notes.
Shainbaum enlisted the help of broadcaster-turned-psychotherapist David Schatzky, who drew up a list of 25 thought-provoking questions to ask each subject.
The lineup included queries such as: Who influenced you the most? How do you want to be remembered? What is the role of spirituality in your life? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Define integrity. How do you deal with getting older? What’s exciting for you about being alive Do you have any regrets? Does evil exist?
Some answered on the spot. Others sent their responses to Shainbaum later, and their thoughts will be summarized in the book with the individual’s portrait and biography.
Shainbaum’s photos range from sober and serious to the sweet and sentimental — from a former Israeli prime minister sitting in his office in front of the Israeli flag to primate scientist Jane Goodall clutching Mr. H., a sock monkey she takes with her everywhere.
He snapped Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr in the cramped galley of his sailboat, sprinkling herbs on a frying pan of sizzling vegetables. There’s 16-year-old child labour activist Craig Kielburger cuddling with his dog in his bedroom, and Bonnie Raitt leaning on her guitar, a flash of grey in her wild red mane.
Rick Hansen is seen wheeling resolutely along a fern-lined trail while evangelist Robert Schuller stands in front of his Crystal Cathedral, arms flung wide in praise. Shainbaum photographed Julia Butterfly Hill, the young woman who lived in a California redwood for two years, perched in the crotch of a tree, her arms bitten and dirt embedded in her fingernails and toes.
Former Hamiltonian Diane Dupuy, founder of the Famous People Players for mentally handicapped adults, appears with some of her star performers. Advertising mogul Jerry Goodis, who refused to work on tobacco and war-toy accounts, was posing for Shainbaum on a Harley-Davidson at the Toronto motorcycle show when a big, bald biker in sunglasses muscled his smiling way into the picture — and stayed.
Shainbaum reports, too, that actor and social activist Edward Asner has a fascinating office filled with fossils, shells, butterflies and artifacts from all over the world.
He’s shown wearing a tribal necklace of bone or shell and holding an African wood carving.
The book tells Shainbaum’s own story by depicting people whose determination, tenacity and belief in something more important than themselves resulted in success at changing conditions for others.
“I don’t want readers to idolise these people,” Shainbaum stresses. “You should admire them, whether it’s a teenager or Shimon Peres, and then move on.”
Shainbaum figures he has a chance to promote his book on the Oprah Winfrey show, given its positive message, self-help focus and the fact that some of its subjects are friends of hers.
He also thinks his story — and his book — will give hope to others afflicted with mental illness. While he doesn’t suggest people stop taking their prescribed medications, he wants them to put equal faith into positive thinking.
“I was told I’d have this illness until the day I die,” he recalls. “Well, that kills a person’s hope.
“If you have a mental illness … be proud that you are taking care of your self, learn all you can about yourself and your illness, how it’s affected by things like foods or even colours. Associate with positive people who will support you. Hope, even pray, and maybe you will be blessed, like me, and it will leave you.
“I came out of the whole thing less judgmental, and learned that I am no better than the guy asleep on the park bench and no less than the greatest people in this book. We are all equal.”
Shainbaum will be speaking to the Hamilton chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers on Tuesday, July 11 at 7 p.m. in The Hamilton Spectator auditorium.
The public is welcome to attend the free session.
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