Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based entertainment journalist. He has contributed to the Canadian Academy, POV Magazine, Global News, The Playlist, Screen Rant, We Got This Covered, In the Seats, and Sordid Cinema. He also currently programmes with Rendezvous With Madness Festival.
Despite some mental health issues, Victor didn’t have an easy childhood, he has achieved success as a writer. In this episode, Victor talks about supporting loved ones through their own trials.
WARNING! This podcast may be triggering to some audiences. Audience discretion is advised. If anything you heard in this podcast is triggering for you, please go to https://workmanarts.com/resources/mental-health-resources/ for a list of mental health resources.
Victor Stiff 00:00
I also have to recognize, being the emotional sponge that I am, watching people suffer is always hard for me; watching a loved one suffer is especially hard. I would never want to know that someone needed help and I didn't help them, and that made their life worse; but at the same time, in my life, I've gone through cycles of putting myself out there, putting myself out there, putting myself out there, and just feeling like an emotional doormat. And that's not conducive to me leading a happy life either, right, I have to find a balance between doing what I can to help people, but not just, you know, being taken advantage of, for my support, or, you know? And that's something you know, as I get older, I'm going to struggle with finding that, that balance. Like you know, I want to live a life of meaning I want to give as much to my loved ones as I get from them. But, you know, I always have to conquer my own, my own anxieties and my own stress and broken heart. It's a constant battle, I hope I can beat it.
L Lovell 01:18
Hello, everyone, this is Lana Lovell. For this episode, I'm really pleased to have Victor Stiff. This is the second time Victor and I have talked about issues around mental health in the Black community. The first time Victor was a panel member of Aroba, the symposium that took place in 2021. Anyway, it's really great to be talking with him again. Before I get started, I just want to remind you that this podcast contains discussions around topics, drug use, that may be triggering to some audience members. So audience discretion is advised. We acknowledge that this content may be difficult for some so encourage you to take care of your mental health. If anything you hear in this podcast is triggering for you, please go to workmanarts.com, Resources, Mental Health, for a list of mental health resources. Take care and enjoy the podcast.
L Lovell 02:19
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, what you do?
Victor Stiff 02:23
I'm an entertainment journalist and a film critic. So I cover popular culture, movies, TV, video games, but I really specialize in the film industry. I'm a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. I'm a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic. I watch hundreds of movies a year and I'm plugged into the film industry. You know, I sit down and I speak with directors, producers, actors. And I do try and prioritize speaking with and elevating the artwork of underrepresented artists, because they don't always get the spotlight they deserve. And yeah, that's pretty much anything I can do. If I- you'll find me in a theatre.
L Lovell 03:04
How did you come to this work? What led you to this?
Victor Stiff 03:09
Going back to childhood, I always wanted to be a writer. I thought more about maybe writing novels or graphic novels. And, you know, it didn't seem like something that was attainable to me, no one in my life had ever gone down that route. In school, I didn't really know what I should be doing to actually make that dream a reality. So I kind of just put it on the back burner for a lot of years. And throughout my life, I started to really struggle with my mental health. And I had a bit of a crash around 2014, where my mental health was really low. I was on some medications that were really like putting me through the wringer. I was having a hard time, couldn't work, couldn't go out. And then in that same year, all the people who were the closest to me like my mother, father, sister, brother, it just so happened that everyone had something that put them in the hospital. And, you know, like, everything looked just so bleak. And there was a point where I felt like, you know, what's the point of all this, maybe I don't even want to be around anymore.
Victor Stiff 04:09
And I have just that little glimmer of hope that I never pursued that one thing I wanted to do, which was to be a writer. So I said: Okay, let me just try this out. I'm going to set aside every Sunday, I'm going to watch a movie, and I'm going to sit down and I'm going to write about it. And I just found the process of writing and deconstructing film and discussing movies, it was my form of meditation. It made me feel at peace for a little while. It gave me a sense of fulfillment. It gave me a sense of purpose. And I was doing it just for me, but it was probably about a month or two before I was having it published on tiny little blogs, and I just you know, when things get low, I turned to writing it fulfills me and picks me up a bit. And, you know, just going down that path, I started to meet people in the film community. I started writing for bigger sites. I started getting published in, you know, magazines and doing spots on the radio, and it just blossomed to where I am today.
L Lovell 05:01
We're gonna be talking about addiction today. And I'm curious to know, as a film critic, what your take is on the presentation of addiction, particularly for Black people, in films that you see in media in general. What do you think of it? What have you seen?
Victor Stiff 05:21
I'll just come out and put it as bluntly as I can. It's not the best. Quite frankly, I find a lot of depictions of Black people, who are going through addiction issues, I find it insulting and reductive, and it's, it's not very relatable to at least my lived experience, like seeing people going through it in the community. And I think films often use it as a cliche and a kind of shorthand, in order to elevate the standing of their White characters that kind of contrast them against the Black characters who aren't doing as well. And yeah, I find that very frustrating.
L Lovell 05:58
You referred a little bit to your own lived experience.
Victor Stiff 06:02
Addiction has been a major influence on the way I live my life, even though I've never actually had any sort of substance use issues myself. As a child, I was a pretty clever little kid. In school, they were always pulling me out of class and giving me tests and like science and math, like, they knew I was ahead of the class in a lot of ways. But it wasn't those- I wasn't gonna be an engineer or scientist, I was really emotionally intuitive and creative like that, that was my brain that blossomed into being a writer. So I guess I had what we call now a high level of emotional intelligence. And I was like a little emotional sponge. So I preferred to be around adults, I was wanting to like soak up their energy and their knowledge. So I can, I was really good at picking up on people's vibes, whether they were positive or negative. And growing up, there's some people who were a big part of my life who did have addiction issues. And just seeing that really put me, as a child, you know -- five, six, seven, eight -- through the emotional roller coaster, and I saw the ups and downs and seeing these beautiful people I love just hit rock bottom and become people I can no longer relate to, and it gave me an existential crisis by the age of 12. And it just kind of because of that I live my life just not even touching those things, staying far away from them, and just not no desire to experiment and really associating them with a lot of the negative aspects of what I've seen, my friends and family go through.
L Lovell 07:29
When we talked before that you said that you had a sibling or family member who had had some issues around substance use.
Victor Stiff 07:40
I won't single anyone out, because it's not my story to tell. But I've really seen that whole Jekyll and Hyde perspective of someone can be the most tender, loving, thoughtful, compassionate person one day, and then just become a very insular, mean spirited, selfish person, the next. And I've seen people go from best friends to punching people in the face in the blink of an eye. I've seen people, I remember as a kid going to someone's house where I ended up finding out that the man and his buddies, they were having a party, and they're doing cocaine at the party, and something took a turn where someone felt like he wasn't getting his share. And he got out of the house, and got in his car and just drove through the front door. And like when we came by to visit, a few days later, the fence was knocked down, you know, the glass was broken. And it was just like the scene of a movie, right? And I would just see, like, the way that these people who are like really nice people to me, and people I grew up loving and caring for could just like, go to these dark places where, you know, like violence would be their forced way to react to any sort of conflict.
Victor Stiff 08:50
And my many years on the planet now I've really come around from seeing this as a very black and white issue; as you know: It's good or evil, you know, it's a terrible thing to do. There's no redeeming qualities. And as I've gotten older, as I've dealt with mental health issues myself, I've actually seen a lot of the people who went through these ordeals were people who did have some form of anxiety or depression that went undiagnosed. I've come across a lot of people who have ADHD who've used, you know, who smoke weed, because, you know, that's the only thing that eases their mind. Maybe they've never been able to afford going to a therapist, or, you know, that that just wasn't something that was on the table. So a lot of the people I saw struggle, I realized, in hindsight, they were just people who are hurting in different ways. And this was the thing that was kind of giving them about a bit of peace from, you know, their their torment.
L Lovell 09:41
As I've been looking at the issue of drug use and initially when I started doing this, I was going to look at addiction, gambling, eating too much, smoking too much marijuana, and then very quickly, it went in the direction of the opioid use within the Black community, and the overdose crisis, and harm reduction, which is a philosophy of not making a judgment about the people who are using drugs, but setting up a circumstance where there is less harm done. And so that means getting them kits with clean materials and not drugs, but equipment. And also, you know, making sure that they have food and gloves to wear in the winter time. So it's not a place of judgment, but a place of: Okay, this is where you're at. And let's make sure that no further harm comes to you because of your drug use. So what you were saying before, I agree with that, and I think that it's not particularly helpful to shame somebody around their drug use. That certainly isn't, from the material that I've read, isn't necessarily the best way to get them to abstain. And, and again, as I said, with all of the crises around overdoses, trying to get people to use the resources that are available to them, so that, you know, there aren't any deaths, is a new direction. Not so new, but new for me.
L Lovell 11:23
And the reason why I've been talking about it in the podcast is, it's not just the kids, but it's about an attitude, that in the Black community that we talk about the drug use that's happening, and try, so that we can make ourselves as a community aware about it, and also start coming up with solutions and coming up with facilities and -- resources is a better word -- so that we can start coming up with resources so that we can be of support to people who are using drugs; because as you were saying before, you know, sometimes people haven't had the opportunity to get the medical attention that they need to know that they have some kind of anxiety or to know that they have some kind of, you know, their brain is hyper. And so they're self medicating trying to figure out a way to deal with this, or sometimes people have suffered such extreme trauma, that this is the only way within the resources that they know that are available to them, for them to deal with the situation that they've come across. Yeah.
Victor Stiff 12:45
A hundred years from now, people are gonna look back at us and see that we were throwing people with substance-use issues into jail, and they're going to look at us like barbarians. It really doesn't make sense. Harm reduction facilities, they're safer than people doing them on their own. It's effective in slowing the transmission of disease. And most importantly, people who are part of a harm reduction centre are more likely to get off the substance than people who are just going through it on their own. The problem with harm reduction, is if you're not an open minded understanding person, it's a pretty tough sell. And especially, you know, people who lean towards being a conservative, how are you going to sell them on we're spending government dollars so that people can take heroin or, or, you know, smoke crack, like, they don't understand that you're actually, by put- investing the money into these facilities, you're actually slowing people from maybe going to the hospital or going into the prison system, or, you know, maybe not being able to find work in the long term because they're struggling with these issues.
Victor Stiff 13:50
So you and I, as artists, we really have to take it upon ourselves to use the platforms. We have to make sure that people who are unaware of these things get to see them, and maybe people who aren't totally closed minded, and they're open to the possibility of things like harm reduction, we have to find ways to get the message in front of them. I start the day reading about an hour of news from all different walks of life. And just being that I've had my own mental health struggles and people in my life have dealt with addiction, I'm always looking to, you know, documentaries, and podcasts and books that cover the topic and just seeing if it can, you know, give me more perspective on what we've all been through.
L Lovell 14:31
Yeah, absolutely. How would you encourage somebody who has a family member who's dealing with a substance issue? How would you encourage them to be of support to that family member?
Victor Stiff 14:45
This is something I go back and forth on to this day. As much as I do my best to be optimistic, there's part of me that's quite cynical, because I've seen time and again, it's very difficult to help people until they're ready to commit to helping themselves. And this isn't just with addiction use this is any, any aspect of life. And I've just had my heart broken by people I've been willing to help so many times. So in a way, you almost have to remove yourself from it and not put all your hopes in, in doing it at first, if that makes sense. It's a lot to take on, it's a heavy burden to carry on your own, I think you have to reach out to other family and friends and kind of put your, your support together to approach this person. I think you have to do it in a very non judgmental way. I think you actually have to put yourself in that person's shoes, and really think of what's compelling them to do this. And not just how you feel about how this is affecting you; you really have to think, is this person suffering in a way I'm not aware of? And that's probably the hardest aspect to do if you can take a few steps back and really try and look at it from their perspective, and get them the help that they need and not the help you want them to have. Those are two different things.
L Lovell 16:01
One of the things that I came across -- I've been talking to different people, and in particular around harm reduction -- and one of the things where I wanted to go and go to some locations, there was a lot of hesitation around that, because there was concern about me bringing attention to this location, and to these people, because there is this harm reduction philosophy and approach that some people are working towards and are engaged in. But there's also the criminal justice, very strong arm that is also part of how we deal with people or the society deals with people with substance-use issues. And I was wondering if you have any experiences around seeing how people have been dealt with in the justice system or the criminal-justice system? Because you talked about it a little bit before that, you know, like there are people who use it as a hammer, you know, like it's not my problem, let you know, the criminal legal-justice system deal with that. So as I'm asking if you've seen anything that you'd like to talk about,
Victor Stiff 17:21
Well, even liberal-minded people are very quick to get behind the cause like this, but then when it's time to put a harm reduction centre in their neighbourhood, it's like, please, what is it called, NIMBY: not in my backyard, right? So it's easier to get behind it, instead of actually getting out there and doing the work and finding the funding. And, you know, being open to having those facilities in your community or even going out and doing the fundraising yourself. Without a doubt, harm reduction works. And I think with something like that, it's like, you know, the throwing the frog in the pot of boiling water, you got to like, start cold and turn it up slowly, and he doesn't realize he's- I know, that's kind of grim analogy, but I don't think you can just like throw people into this, because if they're not on the right wavelength, it's just going to seem totally alien. And it's better to maybe come at them with the data and the numbers for showing them how effective it is. And maybe pointing to countries like Portugal, that would, you know, really cut back their drug-possession criminal charges, right, and they just opened it up. And you can see how the community improves because of that. Again, it's like, why are we punishing people who are struggling with things that are so difficult to control? Like, we should be, you know, opening up centres to, you know, give them more opportunities for therapy, and, you know, support groups like we should be pouring funding into this instead of, you know, throwing them in jails where they're just, you know, going to struggle and develop more mental health issues while they're there. More stress, more anxiety. It really doesn't make sense.
L Lovell 18:57
It's very interesting. You know, the police are a hammer. And so they, you know, that's what they do, they hit the nail, you know, that's how they resolve just about all issues. It's interesting. A couple of years ago, I heard about a rockstar whose son had a drug addiction problem. And one of the things that this rockstar did, who obviously has resources, they didn't call the police, they called the fire department, because they know that if they call the police, the police are looking for drugs and they're going to arrest, right? But with the fire department, then the emergency workers come out and they can give them some kind of treatment, and they can get them into a hospital. And it doesn't move down this criminal track line. Yeah. It's just knowing how to deal with it. So you can get the help and it not become this criminal issue. Right?
Victor Stiff 19:56
We- the whole way that we deal with drug offenses just really is, is so antiquated because you look at how many, much more in the United States, but how many people's lives were ruined for marijuana possession, right? And you think about people who smoke weed versus people who drink alcohol. It's like, every Friday and Saturday night I can walk through my neighbourhood and see people pouring out of the clubs drunk, puking all over the street, getting into fistfights people jumping into cars, getting into car accidents, it causes so much carnage. Whereas marijuana use can actually be used to help people with their anxiety, can help people with their chronic pain, and we're throwing people in, in jail, we're giving them criminal records and felony, and charges for that, right? It just, when you really step back at it and look at it, it makes no sense at all. But we're just so used to things being that way, we don't really question it. And we really do have to work to draw attention to just how ludicrous the situation is in 2022.
L Lovell 20:51
Well, we're fortunate that marijuana has been decriminalized, you know, in Canada anyway. Although, I suspect that there are people who are still in prison, you know, from charges that, around marijuana, that, you know, don't change that, you know, that sentence hasn't changed just because we've decriminalized it. But in terms of health, I think that the opioid use tends to be more traumatic for people, you know? In fact, I think that alcohol is a harder drug than marijuana, actually. I think it is harder on the body, harder on the mind. And marijuana, it was just that some people decided that, yeah, we're gonna make that illegal. And now it's legal. And it's interesting to know that a former police commissioner is now on the board of and part shareholder of a marijuana company, right. So it's so hypocritical.
Victor Stiff 21:54
Bakari Sellers, he's a lawyer, and he talks about defending people for marijuana charges while he is invested in, you know, he has marijuana companies that he's profiting from while he's defending people for these same charges. It's just, it's ludicrous. And so much of the way we look at drugs and drug offenses in, you know, penalizing people for drug possession is really rooted in race and how these things were used to disproportionately convict people of colour. You just have to look at things like how having cocaine was so much easier, less of a charge than having crack when effectively it's the same thing. Right. And if you go back to the 20s 30s and 40s, again, it was a lot of you know, it was a way of targeting Mexican farmworkers who really, you know, were known for using marijuana at the time as a way of relaxing and going after, you know, Black artists and you know, Black inner-city people, it was they just put a target on marijuana, and I believe it's like a level-one offense up there with like heroin, and to this day, it's still there. Like it shouldn't have been there in the first place. It was only there because it was a way of targeting people of colour.
END OF PART ONE