The Sick Days: Part 12

The mantra, the mental spellcheck and a call to the show

The suburban beat suddenly gets grisly when a serial rapist starts stalking Scarborough, leaving a young reporter haunted by a narrative loop of horror that demands spiritual healing, while her body slowly tapers off high doses of prednisone

By Shelley Page

A suburban monster, he overpowered her from behind, dragging her into the backyard of her parents’ Scarborough home. There, he strangled her with an electrical cord, while viciously raping her for almost an hour.

He left her tied to a fence with her own belt like a dog.

The details in the press release were spare, stark. The victim was 19. I wasn’t much older.

I quickly typed up the brief and filed it to the senior cop reporter based at One Yonge, Toronto Star headquarters.

Reporters are observers. That is our blessing and our curse. We know we can’t help, but we’re uncertain what or how to feel, as though it were a professional liability.

Reporters are observers. That is our blessing and our curse. We know we can’t help, but we’re uncertain what or how to feel, as though it were a professional liability.

Still, as I typed, I trembled, my mind dancing from the victim to the imagined rapist to the long hand hopping past six. Deadlines were very hard for me then, whether I was writing about a brutal sexual assault or a motion on garbage pick up at Scarborough city hall, which by then was my part-time beat in the Star’s east bureau.

My daily prednisone dose, at 5 mg (down from 80 mg), was finally below the replacement level for the cortisol the adrenal glands typically produce. And it was unclear if my adrenals, sitting atop the kidneys, had started producing cortisol again. The longer you are on prednisone, the higher the dose, the harder it is for the adrenals to bounce back.

I was hot, then cold; wired then weak.

When I was on a tight deadline, I no longer responded like my colleagues, hunched over keyboards nearby. I would tremble, sweat, strain to focus my thoughts. Sometimes tears welled in my eyes for no good reason. Or because a 19-year-old girl had been tied to her parents’ backyard fence. And I had absolutely no control over how I responded to stressful situations, like deadlines.

Did my overreaction to most circumstances mean that I wasn’t ready to drop my prednisone even lower? Would I get sick again, if I did? Was that inflammation I felt in my right pointer finger? My left elbow? WAS I GETTING SICK AGAIN? I had so many questions. Calls to my rheumatologist’s office only seemed to irritate his receptionist. I couldn’t imagine sharing my anxieties about the taper with my colleagues.

Back then, I didn’t know about the inner workings of my immune system, its defective B cells or overactive T lymphocytes. I just knew that prednisone had saved my life, but I didn’t like how it had left me.

I’m not one for gurus, but a spiritual guide seemed preferable to a rheumatologist.

A mantra for my thoughts

The introductory lecture about Transcendental Meditation occurred on the upper floor of a high-rise in the city’s financial district.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but not this crowd. Stockbroker types in silk suits, loosened ties. Women with shoulder pads befitting gladiators. Fear and self-doubt scented the room. None of us looked at each other. Fortunately, there was no sharing circle.

A calm, but enthusiastic teacher sold us on the many benefits of Transcendental Meditation. This was before hucksterism of the Natural Law Party or gimmicky Yogic Flying, but long after the Beatles studied in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Perhaps those of us in the room had come to Transcendental Meditation late, but we were made to think we would soon be on a blissful carpet ride.

The instructor spoke of collective consciousness, inner and outer peace, and the health benefits of TM. He also said something that rang true to me. Our fight or flight response, which in prehistoric times helped us cope with imminent and mortal danger and saber tooth tigers, has been discombobulated, leaving us in a constant state of stress.

Sitting in silence for 20 minutes twice a day, and repeating a mantra – a meaningless sound you’re not allowed to tell anyone –apparently helps you reach a point of expansive silence. Your body floods with a warm and pleasant feeling, and a profound sense of rest.

I thought of my adrenal glands, flattened, and a fight or flight response gone haywire, and of rape victims and their attackers and all the facts I might get wrong at any time.

I dropped several hundred dollars on a handful of workshops that would culminate in a ceremony where I would be given my mantra.

My stupid brain

You bring a handkerchief, fruit and a bouquet of flowers to the ceremony and offer it to the teacher.

It takes place in a small office, just like a middle manager might occupy, but it was called the initiation room. An altar had been prepared, with a lit candle, incense; there was an offering of sandalwood paste and rice for Guru Dev, the Maharishi’s Master.

All that transpired in that room, was to be kept to ourselves. But it culminated with the presentation of the mantra, and meditating side by side with the teacher, who slipped out of the room so I could meditate alone.

My brain didn’t quite know what to do without the clang of gibberish and neurotic sound effects.

Eyes closed, breathing shallowly, I mentally spellchecked the story I’d filed earlier in the day and considered various perpetrators and their victims. I didn’t feel awash in calm, I felt anxious.

Eyes closed, breathing shallowly, I mentally spellchecked the story I’d filed earlier in the day and considered various perpetrators and their victims. I didn’t feel awash in calm, I felt anxious.

What were the other initiates thinking about? Overpriced real estate? An investor they’d screwed over? Debts unpaid? The size of their shoulder pads?

I did my best to follow the teacher’s advice and examine each thought, then let it float away.

When the teacher returned, 20 minutes later, I confessed my failure to find inner peace or even a few moments of peace. He told me to keep meditating twice daily, and eventually calmness would come, time would stop.

A lupus headache

So I kept at it, meditating in my car, sitting against the wall in my basement apartment, in the office after my colleagues had left. Eventually, it became easier to shut up my stupid brain. It’s not that time stopped, it ceased to exist. There might have been a feeling of peace or warmth, sometimes tingling in my limbs. There were no thoughts, no emotions, no mind attempting to grasp what was happening.

I wouldn’t call it inner peace. Transcendence, maybe. I no longer spellchecked my stories or wondered about rapists while meditating. Amid this calm, I crept ever lower on my prednisone, until I was only on 2.5 mg. Almost nothing.

When a knuckle became large and stiff, or I couldn’t bend and unbend an elbow without pain, I pushed it out of my mind, too, like a nuisance thought instead of a sign of illness. Then, after several months of dedicated meditation, I developed a horrible intermittent pain on the right side of my head that eventually took hold. Its roots spread down my face, behind my ear.

Over-the-counter painkillers would not lessen the pain. I attended a group meditation session and the TM teacher speculated that the headache pain represented emotions surfacing. He spun it as possibly a good thing. My rheumatologist told me I had a ‘lupus headache,’ which was very hard to treat then, except with more steroids.

I toughed it out. The headache stayed for nine weeks. I dutifully meditated, sometimes with tears trickling down my face. Then one day, I woke up and it was gone.

I never knew if the headache was caused by lupus or meditation.

The Show

But I’d made it through without increasing my prednisone, while learning to cope with deadlines and stress. I often felt like my old, pre-sick self.

So when I got the call, in mid-December, that in the New Year I going downtown to become a general assignment reporter, I was elated.

One of the last stories I filed from the east bureau was about the rapist, who’d struck again. I wrote,

“Police have issued a warning to Scarborough women who travel by bus at night after linking the vicious rape of a 15-year-old girl to two other rapes in the area.”

I was relieved to be leaving the haunting grounds of the Scarborough rapist, who would become a sexual sadist and murderer.

With mantra and my low dose of prednisone, I moved to One Yonge, excited for what lay ahead.


The Sick Days continues Wednesdays and Sundays in The Ex-Press, to read past instalments, click here.

THE EX-PRESS, November 1, 2015



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