Alan Kirker


April 28th, 2021 by

The following story, insofar as I can recollect, is true. It is clear, in my estimate, for the reason of the poignancy the whole episode and its repercussions had on me. It deals with a difficult topic – that of mental health – and my own experience with it. The names of the people and of the organizations referred to herein have been altered. The reference to the organization’s name itself has been altered also to reflect its personal effect on my life.

I did not at any point throughout this ordeal exhibit any inclination towards violence or self-harm which may have otherwise warranted the initial intervention. I suggest that perhaps due to my living on my own, there was concern expressed that such risks might arise if I am alone thinking deluded thoughts, and they’ve got these two big projects at stake.

I hold no ill will towards this organization, I have never signed any non-disclosure agreements about the episode with them, nor have I ever sought financial remuneration or compensation from them for any of the effects this had on my life and work during this time. The work projects undertaken were all completed successfully for this client due to my hiring an outside contractor.

The whole experience provided fascinating insight into the nature of mind, and influenced my view of the world in interesting ways. 

It was the spring of 1998 and my business was thriving. I was doing graphic design for a number of my own public sector clients, including school boards and health care organizations.

From my apartment, this work was done using an early colour Mac, monitor, scanner, and laser printer; all of which I had dropped nearly fifteen thousand dollars on. Like many of my designer friends, work was plentiful for self-starters who had some studio or agency experience, and valuable new “computer skills”. Our design school class had graduated some years earlier at the start of this revolution, and these skills enabled the execution of complex design, illustration, photo-retouching, and layout tasks, as well as the ability to output files with software including Quark Xpress, Photoshop, and Illustrator, instead of markers, coloured pencils, tech pens, airbrushes, Letraset, artboards, typesetting, repro cameras, colour separations, and film-stripping, and thus had been disrupting the entire publishing, and print advertising industries at the time. 

“Bullshit!” barked Bob, cutting me off mid-sentence into my design proposal presentation for a comprehensive behaviour modification program paired with prescribed nicotine patches for smokers wanting to quit. It was a large partnership between the addictions education outreach branch for my client, a large mental health facility with whom I was also currently engaged in the production of their annual report, and a large pharmaceutical firm who manufactured the nicotine patches.

My design for this project, to be applied across manuals and marketing collateral, was an illustration of a fractured cigarette atop a swirl, meant to represent the breaking of addiction’s spiraling vortex. 

“It’s all just marketing, after all” he continued. Bob was the director of this addictions education outreach department.

“Yes, it’s all just marketing” I replied, flustered, biting my tongue as the meeting drew to a close; my face turning that Pantone Warm Red, same as the spot colour on the design I was showing, same too as that of the bright, bold, package of my own brand.

I can recall walking home from elementary school watching for motorists tossing still-burning butts out their window as they drove past. If still burning and there was sufficient cigarette left, I would sometimes take a pull on one, just to see what all the fuss was about. The smell was certainly more pleasant than the taste, perhaps reminding me of the sweet scent of the pipe tobacco my Dad smoked in his study at home, and which I always seemed to enjoy being in the midst of. No doubt too, there was the influence of that famous cowboy’s image that was plastered all over, as were those of many elegant and sophisticated adults who appeared in the adverts selling these things. Being only for adults, of course, just fired one’s curiosity up even more.

After I received a fax that used an entire roll of such paper to belch forth a book’s worth of changes and amendments to the project, now well underway, late one Friday, after many delays, for a Monday turnaround, I snapped. I got really angry.  When the anger subsided, I felt unusually calm and open. I dined that night with a friend, Carol, and later recall asking her if they too felt that one particular item on the plate at the restaurant was in fact a peyote button. No, it certainly was not, was the reply. This lovely interdimensional lady-friend of mine handed me a small toy plastic figurine of an alien on the way home that evening, whereupon I asked “Why this?”

“Look at him closely”, Carol replied, and I saw this figure – the typical little grey being with the large bulbous eyes – was wearing a sash draped across the shoulder. “The sash is because he’s a diplomat”.

One could develop a squint eastwood brow furrow staring endlessly into a large colour monitor from inches away for hours upon hours; fiddling with bezier handles in vector drawing programs, matching colours to print output, and exploring a multitude of different options for each design, quickly and effortlessly, and which almost gave the whole exercise itself an addictive quality. Hunched up, crunched up, in a swivel chair behind a massive nineteen-fifties Steelcase desk on whose tabletop was my entire rig, apart from phone and fax which were over by the sofa, was how I spent most days and nights, when I wasn’t also running around engaged in wearing all of the hats that a small business entails. There too, atop that desk on its leftover space was often a small forest of upright-standing cigarette butts, their tiny ash stacks sometimes an inch tall, leaning precariously. I was so engaged in the screen that I often couldn’t even be bothered to find or empty an ashtray. So busy with work too, that there often wasn’t much time to sleep.

If you have ever experienced a third-eye-opening, albeit a pharmacologically botched one, or as what in common parlance might be referred to by some more elegant phraseology according to that big diagnostic manual, that one that’s kept with the locked-up drugs meant to treat this type of phenomenon, it certainly is a surreal experience, even for someone who may have some very limited familiarity with psychedelic drugs and all of that.

After arriving home that evening, thoughts about the project swirled back, I had the distinct physiological sensation of an electrical buzzing or sizzling that began just beneath one side of my forehead and travelled across to the other. As the initial shock of the sensation itself wore off, suddenly, everything seemed incoming and alive; as though the receptionist up there in the forebrain had walked off for lunch and decided not to come back.

I experienced serendipitous synchronicities; such as knowing that I was about to receive a phone call and from whom, several seconds prior to the phone even ringing. I got a knock on my rarely-used front door from a somewhat alarmed native friend of mine, Linda, on Saturday, in a terrible state, and in some oblique prescient foretelling of what was about to transpire, warned me about the “cops” in this town. Sunday, I arranged to meet my friend Pete out by a large shopping complex on the west side of town. As I drove out, I felt my anxiety rise when I turned the radio on and it was blaring the strangest and most effusive bursts of electronic squeaks and beeps, and that were on every station across the FM band. When I arrived in the large empty parking lot, he sensed my unease but could not offer any explanation. As my anxiety continued to rise, a row of cumulus clouds began bubbling up on the perfectly clear blue eastern horizon in that sped-up time-lapse manner. “Take it easy, Al!” he exclaimed.

On Monday morning, after no sleep at all over the weekend, I looked out the front window and noticed a pair of cars with tinted windows and telltale signs leading me to think they were unmarked law enforcement, or worse, and that they were likely there keeping an eye on my progress with the project. I thus sent an email to my annual report contact at the firm, Penny, whom I felt was better connected with regards to the organization, and asked if these cars were in fact sent by Bob, the contact on the other project.

Feeling something wasn’t right, she called her colleague Dick, who in turn must have spoken to Bob, and who urged that he and Jane, the contracted psychologist and educator for the smoking cessation program,  go over to see me.

Dick and Jane came down from Housefires, Canada’s century-old leading mental health care facility over in the adjacent town, set on a sprawling pastoral country estate right within the urban community. A lovely campus and an institution of high repute, I concur wholeheartedly, for sometimes it is just the ill-conceived. if not well-intended actions of a few people that cause small things to cascade.  

“Alan, we’re worried: You seem really agitated… We’d like you to come back down Highway 7 with us so we could do an assessment.”

I did not know what to do or say or think, as both Dick and Jane looked at me, worried. Feeling really paranoid now, I nonetheless agreed: “Ok. But only if I can bring my stereo receiver with me”…. to which the receiver got disconnected and put in a large plastic garbage bag, and loaded into the trunk. I can distinctly recall thinking: “What exactly is going on?.. Why is this happening?… Why am I being taken away?…

I next recall waking up on a bed in a small room. I felt completely disoriented and slow. When I tried to move, it took concerted effort, and I was aware of my movements as occurring in a sort of delayed fashion. When the nurse entered and told me I was in the Trillium 1 intake wing of Housefires, and asked how I was feeling, my speech seemed similarly delayed and slow, as though my mouth couldn’t properly vocalize; “I – I – I –  am -m -m -m  n- n- not sh- sh- sh- sure.”..

(to be continued…)


About Alan Kirker

Introduction & statement.

Curriculum Vitae (pdf)

Employment & education highlights.

Contact Alan with your questions.

Page top | Home | Art | Blog | © Alan Kirker