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The Globe and Mail MENTAL HEALTH
He was the scion of New Brunswick’s wealthiest family, a seemingly successful executive working with his father to oversee their dynasty. Below the surface, things were different. Erin Anderssen talks to Kenneth Irving about his descent into darkness, and what he lost and gained along the way.
A few hours before dawn on April 17, 2010, Kenneth Irving, a favoured son in Canada’s third-wealthiest family, and the CEO of a multibillion-dollar energy empire, sat at the kitchen table in his forest-framed mansion outside Saint John. His wife and two youngest daughters were sleeping upstairs. From the windows of his house, he could see the grand sweep of the Kennebecasis River and the pine trees that he liked to plant in the mornings before heading off to Irving Oil, to take his place in the onetime office of his storied grandfather, K.C. Irving. By every standard, Kenneth knew he was a lucky man. And yet, alone in the dark, all he felt was anger and despair.
He doesn’t clearly remember raising his fist. He does remember that the pain was intoxicating. Later, he would tell one of his daughters that he took out his rage on the one person he blamed for his problems. He swung hard, over and over. He punched himself in the eyes until his sockets were a deep purple, until blood vessels had burst and his knuckles were raw.
His wife, Tasha, woke at 5 a.m. to an empty space beside her in bed, and raced downstairs. She found Kenneth, slouched over the kitchen table, his hands holding his head. He lifted his face to look at her. “Did you fall?” she asked, though she knew he hadn’t. He shook his head. She got on the phone to call for help.
That was the last night Kenneth Irving would spend in the house he had built beside the river he loved. He would never sit again behind the desk that had been handed down from K.C. to his second son, Arthur, and then to Kenneth. He has returned only twice to Saint John, the royal seat of the Irving empire, and then only to pack up his house and finalize the donation of the 50-acre estate to an environmental non-profit.
Later, that life-altering day, after Tasha did her best over breakfast to distract their daughters from their father’s bruises with a well-meaning fiction about bumps in the night, after Kenneth’s psychiatrist arrived from out of town and insisted his patient be hospitalized for his own safety, Kenneth was driven to the airport. Along the way, he insisted on a detour – one last visit to his family’s refinery, just up from the harbour on the city’s east side.
As CEO, he had liked to go to its central control room sometimes, late at night, to watch the computer screens, listen to the two-way radio chatter, and discuss conversion rates and temperatures with the plant operators. He shouldn’t have gone this time – “What the hell was I thinking?” he says now – not looking the way he did. He says he wanted his doctor to understand this part of his life. Perhaps he also wanted to be with the engineers and technicians he so admired before the chance slipped away for good. He gave his doctor a quick tour, and feebly joked about an errant walk into a door, which fooled no one. Then, he left for Boston, because an Irving could not be locked up in a psychiatric hospital in New Brunswick. “That was it,” he recalls. “My last day on deck.”
Some of this story is known. It’s been the subject of newspaper columns and book chapters. But in a sturdy, tight-knit province where the Irvings keep the lights on but store their secrets safely in the shadows, most of what happened that day, and the echoes that followed it, is the stuff more of rumour than fact. With a private fortune estimated at $8-billion, the family owns New Brunswick’s three major daily newspapers, radio stations and a chain of weeklies. The Irving empire includes everything from shipyards and refineries, to pulp mills, railway lines and convenience stores – the family’s name stamped, in tall navy letters, on what seems like nearly every money-making enterprise in one of Canada’s poorest provinces.”The Irvings are a fact of life,” says Hugh (Ted) Flemming, the MLA for Rothesay, the riding next door to Saint John. “Like the Bay of Fundy, they are big and deep and they aren’t going anywhere.” A Senate report once estimated that Irving companies employ one in 12 people in New Brunswick. But you don’t have to work for the family to be tied to its fortunes – or to have an incentive not to speak too freely about the sudden, shocking disappearance of an Irving son.
Kenneth was well-respected, seen as a modernizing, innovative force within the family’s third generation, an Irving with a worldly gaze and big plans to expand and diversify the energy business. But in the wake of his leaving Saint John, there were also whispers that challenged that narrative. Whispers that Arthur Irving, reluctant to fully cede power, had been unhappy with the business direction that Kenneth was taking, and fired his son. That there had been a fight over money. That the stress of the job – and all that went with it – had caused Kenneth to suffer a mental breakdown. But those are pieces of the tale, patched together from fragments of truth to quilt a tidy narrative…
…When he was 25, Kenneth says, he had his first bout of depression, although he didn’t truly understand the symptoms at the time. He was working as a roughneck on an offshore rig – doing well, he says, proving himself, making friends, living away from under the weight of the Irving name. But he was heading back to Saint John, he recalls; and as the return date approached, he was unable to sleep, and “just feeling constant dread.”
Once in Saint John, single and living alone, the dread grew stronger. “It was really rolling,” he says. “I was just getting up at night, feeling total despair, and not knowing who to talk to.” His fragile psychological state manifested as an irrational fear that he was physically sick – that he was dying, that maybe he had cancer, or even AIDS. Finally he saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication, which he took for a while, though it made his legs shake, his mouth dry, and working difficult. Looking back, he describes this time in his life, struggling to heal mostly on his own, as his “first real experience with loneliness.”…
…But in January of 2010 – calling Tasha from that Toronto hotel room, begging her not to leave him alone with his thoughts – he finally acknowledged that he’d already waited too long to seek the support of those who loved him. After that night, Tasha made sure that, wherever her husband went, he was not left alone for long periods. He continued to travel – going with Tasha to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, at the end of January; and with a colleague to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. But Kenneth was struggling, Tasha recalls. By mid-February, she found him a psychiatrist in Boston and he started a treatment regime that involved medication and talk therapy.
At that time, Kenneth explains, he wasn’t in the office as much – the refinery was in the hands of Mike Ashar, and he was setting up Fort Reliance, the holding company. One of his goals was to create a corporate structure that would allow the management team to operate at arms-length from the family shareholders. On work trips, he would make detours to Boston for therapy appointments. He was still, he says, refusing to admit how sick he was. “I thought, ‘Okay, I will just take some pills, they will help me sleep, I went through this before, I will just power through.’”
But, as the early morning of April 17 would demonstrate with a force he did not see coming, he’d been only barely holding the black dogs at bay…
Around the time that he was hospitalized [after the first serous self-harm incident, which happened 2 weeks after starting the antidepressant – Ed], he says, he received a message, through an emissary understood to be acting on his father’s behalf. A source who had contact with the family at the time says that Arthur appeared not to understand the severity of his son’s condition, and that he had an old-fashioned view of mental illness, shared by many of his generation – that depression is something a person can shake off, not a medical condition requiring professional treatment.
Since that day in April when Kenneth’s life irrevocably changed, he says, he and Arthur have spoken only twice…
…Kenneth was admitted into a locked ward. “I was in one of those places where you go through the door, and it’s a heavy door and it closes, and before I went into my room, they took everything from me, my nail clippers and everything else sharp out of my toilet kit, and took my belt, and I remember Tasha crying and I just wanted to lie on the bed and I wanted them to shut the door.”
The hospital, Tasha says, was a difficult environment, an acute-care facility that treats patients with severe psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia. With the support of Greg Thompson, who flew into Boston, Kenneth was released into Tasha’s care. For a few days they tried to stay in a hotel suite with a nurse present, while he sought help as a hospital outpatient. This wasn’t sustainable. Soon Tasha – nicknamed “the sentry” by Kenneth’s psychiatrist, for her near-constant watchfulness – was exhausted, and not sleeping herself, and Kenneth was finally admitted to a private psychiatric hospital.
During his first week there, he remembers thinking, “Okay, now they will send me home.” He had responsibilities waiting for him. “I had to return to New Brunswick, to get back at it, and I convinced myself that it was not that big of a deal.”
But his doctors and his family knew otherwise. He would remain in hospital, for nearly two months, until the end of June. There, he began an intense round of treatment, involving both medication and cognitive-behavioural therapy. “In the beginning, it was just … chair … pen … glass … bottle,” he says, pointing to those objects on the table at the Royal York. “That’s how far gone I was. You have got to get into the present. I had gone elsewhere…
…He didn’t want his daughters to see him in the condition he was in, not least because his ongoing self-harm was evident in the bruises around his eyes – but Tasha suggested that his daughters would want to be involved in his recovery and could handle the truth…
…The self-harm continued even as he worked through the depression – the urge to punch himself was hard to shake, like giving up drinking or smoking, and he struggled, for weeks, to stop. “Once you cross over,” he says, “you are a runaway train.” During our first interview, when I ask him about the self-harm, he pulls out his iPad and shows me a photo. It was taken during his brief stay in the Boston hotel, before he went to the private hospital. Kenneth and Willow, his youngest, are curled up together on a cot. He is looking at the camera, expressionless; his eyes are black circles; his eyelids are swollen, like a boxer who has lost the fight.
“That was not the worst of it,” Tasha will tell me later. In private, when he was supposed to be sleeping in the hotel suite, or later in the hospital, he still hit himself. Sometimes his wife would also catch him rubbing at his bruises, as if he didn’t even realize he was doing it…
Asked to explain what was driving him to hurt himself, he says, “It is so hard to put into words. Waking up in the morning and having to, literally and figuratively, look at yourself in the mirror and be in that state, where I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to do good. I wanted things to be different, but they weren’t. And I ended up not being able to process it. I just became overwhelmed with those feelings.”
As forthcoming as he is, he struggles to talk about that time. “It is a very dark moment in my life; it doesn’t reflect how I generally felt about myself. And it’s hard to imagine that something would present itself so catastrophically. It’s just, Bam! One morning Tasha wakes up, and sees that I just went … ” He says there was no single event that drove him to it, “no particular catalyst.” [maybe the medication that he started ;ess than 2 weeks earlier? – Ed]