Breaking the Silence

John Gulak, Calgary lawyer and author of Sick to Death of the Silence, talks about his search for identity, struggle with addiction and how rediscovering creativity brought him back to life.

His first book, Sick to Death of the Silence: Stories to break down the stigma of mental illness, had John Gulak spending much of his spare time in 2013 and early 2014 interviewing people who had been directly affected by mental illness, suicide or addiction and writing their stories down in his own words.

Two years ago, when the book’s creator, Cindy Radu, a dear friend of Gulak and Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region board member, asked him to be the book’s author, the project became an opportunity for the 52-year-old to embark on the dream he imagined as a young boy.

As a big-firm securities lawyer for 20 years of his life, Gulak’s vocation didn’t exactly translate to being the kind of writer who could paint vulnerability and emotional honesty into his words. His passion for writing began seeding itself at early age, as he discovered a love for reading, and later becoming the editor of his high school newspaper. But the need to be taken seriously somehow got in the way, and Gulak forgot about it until years later after undergoing some difficult growing pains.

Today Gulak’s day job as Vice President, Legal and Fun for Prairie Merchant, one of former Dragon’s Den star W. Brett Wilson’s entrepreneurial brainchildren, has kept him somewhat in the legal world. He spends much of his spare time volunteering, spending time in the outdoors, writing and taking photographs. And it isn’t unusual to see him riding his bike around downtown Calgary.

But it wasn’t so long ago Gulak was hanging on for dear life. Caught in the throes of a self-described “mid-life crisis,” he experienced a cocaine addiction at the age of 41 that would nearly cost him his life.

“At first, it wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t that bad,” Gulak says. “But it was sort of feeding into what I would call my growing identity for doing things different. And it gave me permission to be talkative.”

With a growing need to “escape,” this was another way Gulak could run far away from the person he had so diligently pursued to be – the person he thought people wanted him to be – for the majority of his life.

Gulak grew up in small-town Lloydminister, AB. The eldest of four, he describes his young self as a serious introvert, shy and always very responsible – a top student.

When Gulak was 15, his father, a well-loved, small-town lawyer, died suddenly from a brain aneurysm, leaving Gulak’s mother a young widow.

“I was serious and responsible before my dad died. And when he died it was like the golden opportunity to be more responsible,” says Gulak. “It was a big loss, but I’m not sure if I really processed it in a healthy way at the time. I think that I sort of threw myself into working even harder at school, excelling at school, trying to be the responsible, oldest child.”

In his speaking notes for a presentation he made for the Norlien Foundation, Gulak had later written, “In the months and years following his death, I did everything I could to act grown up and not let my sense of loss become too apparent, either to myself or others.”

With a need to be taken seriously and “hell-bent” on becoming a lawyer as quickly as possible, Gulak went to University straight out of high school. He was in law school two years later and began articling for Calgary law firm, Bennett Jones LLP, by the age of 23. Gulak was married by 25 and had a son, Tyler, at age 28. Gulak had worked hard to check off the boxes of “success.” And it was all as he thought it should have been, he explained. Or at least it looked that way.

Gulak had been somewhat unknowingly running from most of his life unearthed during his late 30s through deep-seeded confusion and dissatisfaction in life.

“I slowly realized in my late 30s, and I had realized at certain times earlier in life, that I wasn’t getting a lot of satisfaction out of my career. I noticed the people I liked the most were always leaving to something that seemed a lot more interesting. I was feeling abandoned, you know, ‘It’s all about me.’… and yet, I had been there by that time for 15 years and was feeling as I became more specialized it was a huge risk to make a shift and do something different. Plus, I was a very cautious by nature. I felt trapped.”

He continues,“I had all the makings of a classic mid-life crisis. So I went out and had an affair, which people who know me well were hugely surprised about. And it was with a guy, which was very different… So you took me, who was a self-described ‘boring, unhappy, serious person,’ and it all felt very exciting. Then it was really easy for me to justify that in my own mind. I think it became an escape for me from the role I had always been in, which was very responsible, always made very good choices. You know, that was an example of a spectacularly poor choice.”

Although it was a difficult journey at first, coming to terms with his sexuality was something Gulak found quite liberating.

“I became more emotionally aware of myself,” he explains. “I realized that part of being a gay man and not coming to terms with it is you conceal a lot of yourself. It gets in the way of having authentic relationships because you’re always keeping something at bay. Once I came to terms with that, it was a huge relief to me because that was no longer something I had to pretend.”

After his marriage ended, Gulak continued to search for the “fun” he had missed during the formers years of his life. So when he tried cocaine at age 41, the high he experienced made life far more interesting. Until it all but consumed him.

“At first it was exciting but it got bad really fast to the point where I was not showing up for work, or if I did show up for work it would be late in the day… I lived only two blocks from my office, and there was only one person I gave a (house) key to and that was my dealer. If I was working long hours, he could just drop it off at my place. He ran a tab for me, so I just had to pay him at the end of the month. So it was very convenient.”

He remembers days when his hands would shake so intensely as a result of his addiction he had to keep them hidden from colleagues. He experienced extreme anxiety and paranoia that someone would find out he was addicted to drugs.

During this time, Gulak’s son remained in the periphery of his life, and when Gulak did spend time with him, he recalls he wasn’t present.

“I knew I had a problem, and it didn’t sit well with me. My world got smaller, and there were things that I would have liked to have done that I knew I couldn’t do because I needed to have my [cocaine].”

Eventually, Gulak came to a point where he was ready to ask for help.

“It had long ceased being fun, and it wasn’t an identity that I ever thought would happen because I had been so moderate in everything all my life. I never experienced anything like this where I was so out of control.”

“I was aware that other people were aware something was wrong. And then I had a 25-year-old cousin, who died of a drug overdose. So that impacted me quite a bit… I could see that it wasn’t going to end well [for me] if I just kept going.”

Gulak chose to confide in a close friend about his addiction, who helped Gulak navigate disclosing his struggle to his workplace, and then subsequently reach out for professional help. Gulak chose to go to rehab, where he gained support from a psychologist. He began to work through the pain, grief and confusion he had been burying deep within himself for much of his life.

Gulak took 15 months off work to reconsider his career. After dealing with both his sexuality and addiction, he could see a career change would be comparatively easy.

“I didn’t have a lot to show for [my time off] it in regards to external achievements, but I had huge renovations going on inside. It was the first time in a long time that I felt creative,” Gulak explains.

And this is where Gulak began writing again, where he rediscovered his love for taking photographs, and where he began repairing relationships.

Today, Gulak uses his experience to support others. In addition to authoring Sick to Death of the Silence, he also sits on the Board of Directors for Calgary Drug Treatment Court as well as the Alberta Lawyer’s Assistance Society.

His love of writing and storytelling has translated into his writing various columns about his own experience in the Canadian Bar Association Alberta publication Law Matters and other freelance work.

It’s clear he has found deep meaning in talking about mental illness and addiction through his work as a speaker, peer supporter and as the author of a book that is helping to break down stigma on mental illness, addiction and suicide. And by sharing his story, Gulak is also breaking the silence.