Lifestyles of the sick and famous — (The Eye Opener)

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The Eye Opener

By: Karon Liu

January.24.2006

What if the key to life-changing fame was a crippling, life-altering accident? Karon Liu pieces together the inner workings of Lavarius, a man who’s made his name at the cost of his sanity.

In August of 2001, Lavarius was riding his bike at 45 kilometres an hour on a five-lane stretch of Mississauga highway when he was struck by a car going 30 km/h.

I stare at my notes scattered across the table like the thousand and one pieces of a puzzle. I have no idea where to begin. I’m flipping through quotes from a University of Toronto psychiatrist who had the most charming Irish accent, a first hand account of a hit-and-run accident involving a bicycle and a five-lane highway and a brochure from a student film festival.

His name is Joseph Lavarius Wyciszkiewicz, though everyone calls him Lavarius. In the four months I’ve known him, he went from being an obscure artist recovering from depression, to the subject of a documentary, to a lecturer at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

At 44, his career is the only high he wants to achieve after going through a medicated recovery that was more painful than the accident itself.

The story begins last October when I covered the Student Shorts Film Festival and met the three filmmakers who produced the five-minute film Lavarius.

“While walking down Queen Street one night, I met this artist who does these bright neon paint drawings and it turns out that he’s an (out)patient at the mental health centre on Queen,” director Michael Hurlbut says.

“He’s so energetic and so all over the place, it’s hard to get a straight sentence out of him,” editor Michael Pierro adds coyly.

“And he was pretty high,” Hurlbut jokes.

I had to find out more about Lavarius. So I set up a meeting with him the following night at Labyrinth, a dark and deserted bar behind the more popular Future Bakery in the Annex. Standing a little over 6-foot-4, Lavarius walks in with a long black leather coat draped over a printed shirt with autumn leaves.

“Tell me about yourself,” I ask, breaking the ice while waiting for the beers that he ordered.

Lavarius takes off his black wool cap to unveil his shaved head and leans in with all seriousness over the tea light on our table, as if he were going to tell a ghost story. “When I was baptized, my godfather gave me a camera, I still haven’t used it yet!” he says with a laugh.

I try to follow his train of thought as he goes from his recollection of the accident, to his obsession with water and hydration.

Lavarius’s story, according to the filmmakers, begins in August of 2001, when the former triathlete was riding his bike at 45 km/h on a five-lane stretch of Mississauga highway. He was struck by a car going 30 km/h, resulting in torn ligaments and broken joints. Shortly after he was dismissed from his tile-setting job.

Overwhelmed by the events and the inability to cycle, he turned to the CAMH to treat his depression. After his three-day assessment he voluntarily stayed for another 10 days.

Lavarius says he’s also filmmaker as he opens the black laptop case beside him to show me some of his works: a montage of him running amok on Queen Street West at night to the soundtrack of his own rock band; a serene five-minute shot of him clad in yoga shorts while peddling a boat on a lake; and a short film, entitled The Power of Water, consisting of crushed granite and lava rock splattered with florescent paint while facts about dehydration scroll across the screen. It would eventually screen during last November’s Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival at the CAMH.

“Becoming involved with art made me develop an awareness. I made sure that I drank lots of water along with that…. It’s the opposite of darkness and nothingness.”

We’re interrupted by our server, Arianna, with her short pixie haircut and a slinky black top held together by mere strands of fabric. She brings us our pints along with complimentary shots of Sambuca. As we clink shot glasses in celebration of the film, Lavarius asks Arianna where she got her top and strikes up a conversation.

“I’m in this film festival tonight, I’m a star,” he boasts.

“Oh darling, I’m star struck,” she says with a smile.

“I had too much of everything: pills, alcohol,” Lavarius narrates in Lavarius later that evening at U of T’s Innis Theatre, as black-and-white clips of him crushing rocks and painting with a trowel flash on the screen. “My only support was a government institution.”

But suddenly splashes of flaming tangerines and lusty reds show up on the screen, symbolizing his recovery as the film ends with him saying, “Just the fact that I can express myself on canvas and in colour shows me that I can live in colour. I choose to live in colour.”

With that, I leave to write about the film and the filmmakers. But I felt as though I’d only written the first chapter to the story of Lavarius.

The former triathlete attempts to distract himself by trying to identify the movie playing on the flat screen behind him when we talk about the accident. We’re sitting down in the back of an empty cafe where he’s more tranquil this time, ordering a ginger ale rather than a beer and a shot of Sambuca. He takes a sip. The waves and spirals of red and orange brush strokes on the painting to his right reminding him of what went through his mind moments before the car struck him.

“My body decided to fight,” he says as he gets out of his chair to get into a self-described “Bruce Lee” karate stance.

“The ability to brace myself saved my life. What saves you from the impact is the fluid in your body; it’s like an airbag. That’s when I realized it paid to be healthy. A lot of doctors told me that I was fortunate to be in that kind of shape or else I would have been paralyzed.”

After his stay at the CAMH he was prescribed with the antidepressant Effexor XR by a family doctor. During those eight months, Lavarius went through what he could only describe as a “mania,” so he concludes that the pills consisted of a combination of cocaine, ecstasy and Viagra. Unwisely mixing the doses with alcohol, he got kicked out of bars, became restless and painted all the walls in his apartment (which created one mighty surprise when his roommates came home).

“When I went on Effexor I didn’t take all of it. I took charge of myself. I knew that I was sensitive. It changes you chemically like a virus burning inside,” he leans in to say with intensity in his brown eyes.

“The person being medicated has to believe in themselves, not just the doctor who has a wild card after reading textbooks.”

Dr. Mark Berber, a lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at U of T who specializes in anxiety disorders and depression, says many doctors tend to push the dosage too quickly and it usually takes three to six weeks for the medicine to have an effect. It may have actually been a smart decision for Lavarius not to take what he was prescribed.

“All antidepressants appear to be equally effective. It’s important to start off the dose slowly. Nausea and agitation are common side effects.”

Another effect? Suicide. The United States Food and Drug Administration reported in 2004 that antidepressants, including Prozac, Paxil and Effexor, could actually increase risks of suicide among adults and children. But since alcohol was thrown into the mix, antidepressants weren’t the only cause. As alcohol is a sedative, it can actually cause depression when consumed in large volumes.

People like Lavarius seek alcohol to numb the pain from the medication, creating a dangerous cycle. But ironically, Lavarius says that it was a combination of the medication, alcohol and pot that spurred his artistic career.

“I wouldn’t say that I regretted anything that I did. When I look back at tapes of myself, I saw somebody else. It was me at another time. It wasn’t a good thing but it made me search for alternatives.”

His zeal toward health and nutrition even landed him a guest lecturer spot at the CAMH last Monday, after The Power of Water left audiences chugging down complimentary bottles of water and searching for alternative medicine.

“It’s the chronic mild dehydration that causes depression,” he stresses.

“It’s a social norm to drink at a party and drink coffee everyday, which dehydrates the body.” He reasons that drinking water helps to maintain glial cells, which regulate the environment in the brain and provide support for neurons in the nervous system.

But “lack of hydration and depression aren’t linked,” Berber says.

“The main causes of depression are the stresses in life. Lacking water will cause physical illness but not mental illnesses.”

Nevertheless Lavarius swears by the healing powers of water as he gives me recipes for health shakes and soup.

I finally ask him to tell me about his upbringing sans tangents about water or connections between laughter and the libido.

As a kid his parents and brother moved from Poland to the town of Weston, near Etobicoke. The former boy scout attended Humber Heights Consolidated School in the late 1960s where he remembers his teachers and principal isolating him because of his Polish name.

From there he majored in general arts and science at Humber College where he also took photography classes.

Afterwards he worked as a tile setter with his father and even had his own tiling company that motivated him to run for vice-president of his union.

After his mother was “prescribed to death,” he went to Cuba with his father, in place of her, and repaired their father-son relationship.

As for the highway, it turns out to be an ordinary road where the driver didn’t see him pass before colliding with him. Because his bike didn’t have a light, the case was dismissed in court.

Suddenly, the image of the grandiose downtown artist that materialized the day of the accident was no more, giving way to origins that anyone could have had. It’s ironic that the very cycling accident that caused so much pain for him also ignited the documentaries, the film festivals and the lecture for which people know him.

I call him one last time and he answers.

“I’m the happiest, most depressed person around.”