Every night was a search for an old flashlight or pair of matches; hands pressed on walls and corners, trying to get a mental picture of the layout. I always knew them to be in the same place—top shelf, next to my tape cassette that doubled as a radio—but darkness has a way of making something familiar feel like a maze. After two months in darkness, my eyes adjusted, but my ears never did. That was the hardest part for me; getting used to a home without its soundtrack. Forget the vibrating hum of my refrigerator or the orchestrated noise of entertainment appliances, just an environment on mute.
I didn't bother to tell anyone apart from my immediate family and friends—that my mom and I spent 10 months without electricity nine years ago. Why would I? The shame was too much. But here I am putting it out there.
It wasn't easy convincing my mother to allow me to write about it, even all these years later. Anyone can see the obvious shame attached to the idea.
The ridiculousness of going without electricity in any modern setting is not a water cooler topic. It's poverty in all its nakedness.
"Just don't mention my name," was my mother's only condition for this story.
I had no problem with that, because the fact is that this situation was partly my fault. My mother did her best to provide with my dead weight under her roof.
I was a loser, and I mean that in the most unfiltered way possible, I was a dud—an unemployed bum, still living with momma at 23; a damn stereotype.
And the sad truth is that I allowed my mother to take on the weight because I was all she had, and she was willing. It's why I gorged myself on electronic vices (video games, internet, television, etc) to help silence this disappointing image I had of myself. Day in, day out, it was a wake up in the morning and plant myself in front of a computer screen sort of routine—ignoring the daily anxiety and the fear of judgements or people that came with that. It's not like I got officially diagnosed, because I simply didn't get it at the time. All I knew was that the non-action had a ton to do with plain ol' fear.
That was who I was. Quiet. Scared. Comfortable in escapism.
It's not like I was proud of not having any prospects or goals. My 9-5 was a Beavis and Butthead episode that I was tired of, but too afraid to move away from. And man, the amount of electricity I was pulling to satisfy that side of me came at disrespectful levels. Sure, I was warned, but the mantra of "stop wasting power," gets tuned out as fast as "pick up your clothes." But reality, as I've come to understand, is known to have a strong left hook. And damn, that punch landed.
The First Day: Lights Out
I first noticed the digital clocks. The most mundane thing in my house. I rarely think to look at clocks that aren't attached to a smartphone or computer these days. And even in early 2009, I rarely looked at the things, but I still noticed. Like Tom Selleck without a stash, things just looked off. I confirmed my suspicions when flipping on the kitchen and bedroom lights gave me nothing.
My first thought was that it had to be neighbourhood wide.
I still remembered 2003's Northeast Blackout that impacted 50 million people in eight American states and Ontario over a stupid software bug in Ohio. Those days were a collection of barbeque smells running down for blocks and actual neighbour-to-neighbour conversations; hermits be damned. But backyard cookouts were out of the question when I noticed dim living room lights along my street.
Of course we go through the whole process; checking the breakers and asking our closest neighbours and then finally calling Toronto Hydro and finding out about the problem—a $3,000 power bill.
You gotta understand that aside from rent, that kind of four digit figure wasn't in our financial vocabulary, so it seemed insurmountable.
"I stopped paying because I felt like I was being charged too much, and it began to pile up," my mom would later tell me.
It was the same song sung by many people who've reached that breaking point. That damned if you do, damned if you don't option between rent, food, or electricity.
It didn't help that I may have been the cause. It didn't help that I wasn't pitching in to help her. And it probably didn't help that I was kept in the dark. Despite all my bullshit, she still tried to protect me from a coming storm.
Early on, I still walked in our now dark hallways, confidence set to max, and relaxed in the idea that this would last a week tops before the negotiations began. No one could allow a family in this day and age go too long without electricity.
I was wrong.
The First Week: Alone
The moment the power gets pulled, you think you're going to be able to handle it. It'll be like a camping trip. It's gonna be laughter and drinks and stories to tell someday on a bar stool. What really happens is that you're at the bottom, according to Western living standards. And you know this.
Unlike a neighbourhood power outage that feels like a shared experience, you feel alone in this. That water boiling process just to take a shower? That's all you. Reading novels like Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty-Four under a flashlight until you fall asleep? That's all you too.
Being cut off was often a blow to my psychological health; not only because of things like low temperatures, a stank fridge or the darkness that could bring about depression, but also because of what living in that kind of condition told me about myself. That I needed to get my shit together.
The First 5 Months: Depression
My routine had changed but I'd still be playing to that escapism card to lesson the creeping depression through words. It could've been living through a father and son's post apocalyptic venture in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or experiencing racial pains through Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Reading allowed me to feel the worst life had to offer, and by proxy, make my situation feel far more manageable, a little less shitty.
Beyond that, it was the walks, so many walks. Natural light was an incredible relief compared to the artificial white light I'd grown to hate in the darkness. I'd spend as much time as I could pacing through roads and streets, allowing myself to be anonymous to the shameful shit that awaited me at home. This was a healthy escapism.
But it was home when I felt that pit the most.
I remember vividly one night leveling a pot of Mr. Noodles over two propped candles for a good 20 minutes. I knew that at that point I was knee deep in depression. You don't have to be poor to enjoy a good bowl of Mr. Noodles, but try it with lukewarm water and noodles twice their size due to water absorption and you'll soon hate it.
This is the kind of "savoury" we got when the propane gas ran out. With the cold comforts of a fridge no longer in play—and the rankness of rotten food that still gives me sensitivities to anything foul smelling—non-perishable goods became the main option. We'd have weeks where we'd be forced to invent ghetto fab methods of cooking. I even went as far as to try lighting a fire in a pot like some "no-badge" boy scout; match to newspaper kinda logic. You can see why this was a story I kept to myself for so long.
Even with the stretch of cooking struggles, that isn't what bothered me the most. It was the pain of not knowing. I never grasped what it meant to be connected to the world at large until those months without electricity, to be separated from life's breaking news in all its forms: television, the internet, social media. While books and walks helped in their own ways, you gotta understand that this was just in the middle of the smartphone craze in 2008, less than a year after the iPhone was just introduced. Facebook was producing user numbers greater than the population of the US, and apps were slowly becoming a thing. I was knee deep in all of it before the lights went out.
I was feeling that withdrawal.
"New addictions don't involve the ingestion of a substance. They don't directly introduce chemicals into your system, but they produce the same effects because they're compelling and well designed," said Adam Alter in his book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology. "Binge viewing and smartphone use are relatively new, but they've become progressively more difficult to resist."
Apparently, neurobiologists get that human beings, folks like myself, are wired for intimacy. Actual visual images of people, interactions via social media, appeal to that vulnerability. We don't feel as alone through the illusion of friendship and digital communication that we interact with on a daily, on demand. Even the act of scrolling down a Twitter feed gives us the feeling of being a part of something.
It's something that I felt detached from.
I'd of course get the occasional internet fixes from public library computers but the more I did, the more exposed I felt. "Why is this guy here everyday?" "Doesn't he have school or a job to go to?" All questions I felt directed at me, even without having heard them. In retrospect, I was probably asking myself those questions in their stead.
It even followed me as I tried to interact with close friends. Glazing over the elephant in the room while making jokes at my expense about cooking with candles and living like a caveman. It was mostly happy bullshit. There was always a voice to my left shoulder telling me that I wasn't allowed to feel equal or higher than anyone that didn't fall short of being a literal bum. And five months in, that's pretty much how I felt. Like a bum. Forget girlfriends, forget a sex life, my confidence was at an all time low.
8 Months in: Desperation
I was at a period, eight months in, around November, when saying "help us" got said so many times that I began to feel worthless, edging closer to a breaking point.
"Of course I felt bad that it was happening to us, and yes I wanted to continue to ask for help, but how do you tell people the reason why?" remarked my mother when I asked her about the issue during last Mother's Day.
So we'd shield ourselves, in this reflexive way, searching for ways to stubbornly help ourselves instead of that expectation of help from anyone else. We didn't have a choice. I personally didn't deserve a damn choice. We were cold. Walking around indoors fully bundled like something out of The Day After Tomorrow. I stopped boiling water for showers and just got used to the freezing cold water. We were past tired of eating canned food and ordering take out. And I thought my eyes were getting way too used to the dark from the squinting at every sun ray within range.
I managed to find one email that I sent to Toronto Hydro during that time. My frustrations tried to leap out of all the formalities if you look closely.
The response we got was to basically the same that most get. Pay off the rest.
It's dismissive answers like that gave reason to the cost of electricity becoming one of the biggest issues in Ontario politics today.
Earlier this year, the Liberal government in Ontario set a plan into motion to reduce hydro rates by 25 percent, and this was just days after NDP Leader Andrea Horwath made her promise of reducing rates by 17 per cent. This came as the cost of electricity skyrocketed in Ontario over the last decade, rising at four times the cost of inflation.
"We had these hydro bills and they just kept coming in bigger and bigger. I was asking friends for extra money, giving away exclusive rights to beats," Jeremy, aka Jay Reno, a hip-hop artist from Windsor, Ontario, told me over a phone call.
"I remember consecutively getting four or five which put me within a $5000 dollar balance of what I had to pay and they wouldn't work with me. That's when I said, fuck this, I'm gonna write this song about it, I'm going in."
The artist shared a tune "Hydro Bills" on Facebook back in January of this year. He put it out as a blast to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her provincial Liberal party. Even now, Wynne's promise of cost reductions hasn't convinced him.
"At the end of the day, all they're doing is shifting the money around. At the end of the day, people need to talk about this."
I assured Jeffery that I'd try.
The End: Power back on.
It was around month 10 before we managed the make enough to pay off the last of the hydro bill. It's hard to express what that was like; it was as if we discovered electricity for the first time. Light switches left on suddenly illuminated our halls during the day. The sounds of appliances turned on all at once, bringing back the soundtrack of our home.
I wasn't itching to reach for the computer though, I just took shit in.
I was still between this world of minimalism and connection, and wasn't sure which place I wanted to stay in. I honestly don't know how the Amish do it, but I can now understand the appeal. I had more time to think, read, write and improve myself as an individual without all the noise.
The kinda noise that included reruns of Seinfeld to laugh away my reality or sessions of Grand Theft Auto IV, for digital escapism. Popular culture consumption always had a self-medicating appeal, and that was lost to me. I had no damn choice but to become better. Reading was the new vice; allowing me to tap into something that felt new. Through it I explored methods of language that I would normally have rejected.
Looking back now, it's kinda ironic, because I hated English in school. I never liked my teachers—the reading out loud in class, analyzing prose, finding the hidden meanings in everything, it all felt like bullshit. But here I was with this different way of expression that improved with time. More than anything, it gave me a tool that helped me to make up for my nervous tongue. This way to empty out all the bitterness and self-hate in ways that felt easier to express and control.
So yeah, as I sat there, that hum of electronic noise brought back sound to my muted home. The experience probably transformed me as a person, but I wouldn't wish that kind of extremity on anyone.
Frankly, the shutting off power for such an extended period of time was just inhumane, and is an inhumane practice that needs to end, particularly for willing payers. Thankfully, the Protecting Vulnerable Energy Consumers Act is doing its part in refusing to disconnect power during winter seasons. That's something that wasn't in place during our experience.
But even today, bad memories aside, I feel completely at peace in darkness and silence.
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