Henriette Ivanans: left - in 2011; centre - in 2016; right - cover of her book

By BERNIE BELLAN
A few weeks back I was contacted by reader Debby Davis, who asked me if I would be interested in reading a new book by someone by the name of Henriette Ivanans. Debby added that Henriette is married to Kevin McIntyre, whom I know.
Without going into much detail, Debby told me that Henriette’s story is absolutely riveting. I responded to Debby that I would certainly be open to taking a look at the book – and soon thereafter I was contacted by Henriette herself, who told me that she could drop a copy of her book off at my house.

 

 


Now, I should explain that I had written an article about Kevin McIntyre a few years back when I chanced to meet him at the Etz Chayim Synagogue one summer Saturday morning in 2016. (I first me him at Rainbow Stage years ago, when Kevin was a frequent performer in productions there.)
When I saw him again in 2016, however, Kevin explained to me that he had converted to Judaism, hence my article about him that year. (If you want to read that story, it’s still online on this website at https://www.jewishpostandnews.ca/features/2369-kevin-mcintyre-male-lead-of-rainbow-stage-s-mama-mia-tells-how-his-having-appeared-in-a-winnipeg-jewish-theatre-play-two-years-ago-led-to-his-becoming-jewish)

When I reread my story about Kevin – to see whether there was any mention of his wife, here’s what I found I had written: “ In due course Kevin did convert to Judaism – about a year and a half ago’, he said. I asked whether his wife had converted as well. He answered that she’s in the class at the American Jewish University – also with the intention of converting.”
So, naturally, when I happened to meet Kevin’s wife when she came to my door, I asked her whether her book mentions Kevin and her being Jewish? (I assumed that she had completed the conversion process.)
Henriette looked a little uncomfortable when I asked her that question. She said that the book isn’t really about that aspect of their lives.
“But ours is a Jewish paper,” I said to her. “If I’m going to review your book, I really should have a Jewish angle.”
Henriette said she would leave it up to me to decide whether I’d like to review her book – and so, after what couldn’t have been more than a 30-second encounter, I was left wondering whether the book I had just been handed merited being written about in a Jewish newspaper.

And then – we were sent an advertisement by Jewish Child and Family Service for an upcoming program to be held November 25 at the Shaarey Zedek titled “Secret No More”, which will feature two individuals by the names of Lisa and Jacob Hillman “sharing their story of hope and healing through opioid addiction”.
It occurred to me that writing about Henriette’s book might serve as a perfect segue´ for that program. (That thought crossed my mind before I actually began to read “In Pillness and in Health”.)
Once I had read the first few pages of the book, however, I realized that I had entered into a world that read like someone’s worst nightmare. Not only was Henriette addicted to so many different drugs – including an entire gamut of opioids, barbituates, and benzodiazepines, she also became an alcoholic. And – you’re plunged into her hellish world from page one.

I don’t know how many of our readers will be able to relate to Henriette’s experience. I’m sure that many will – at least in part, as the abuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, has become an epidemic in our modern world. But, I daresay that very few individuals will be able to compete with Henriette to the extent that she abused drugs.
That being said though, there’s a reason that Henriette Ivanans became such a hopeless drug addict: Her kidney failed when she was a teen and she had to undergo a kidney transplant when she was only 19 (her mother was the donor). That led to a steady diet of painkillers, beginning with Tylenol with codeine (on top of the immunosuppressives that any transplant recipient must take for the rest of their life), that rapidly escalated into ever stronger drugs.
Reading the account of what Henriette went through is like reading a guide to pharmacology. Here are the first few chapter titles: “Xanax 2011”, “Xanax 2006”, “Prednisone”, “Fiorinal 2008” (and I have to admit I had never heard of Fiorinal. Henriette’s love affair with that drug is mind-blowing, and that’s not meant as a pun. Can you imagine digesting 200 pills at one time – of anything, never mind a drug that is described this way: “Serious, life-threatening, or fatal respiratory depression has been reported with the use of Fiorinal even when used as recommended.”)


By now, you would have realized that “In Pillness and in Health” is not exactly a light-hearted read. But, when my wife would ask me: “Do you like the book?” as I continued to read it night after night, I said it’s like watching a car crash; you just can’t look away.
On top of everything else, moreover, Henriette Ivanans is one hell of a good writer. It was hard for me to equate someone so incredibly talented with being so ferociously self-destructive at the same time. Her plunging into the most harrowing details of her addiction – from her constant craving for more and more drugs, washed down with voluminous quantities of alcohol, to the abuse to which she subjects her oh-so-incredibly patient husband, Kevin…well, her gut-wrenching honesty about her own addiction is downright astonishing.
If you want to get a glimpse of what Henriette’s life was like – until quite recently, that is, go to her very well-done website: https://www.henrietteivanans.com. You might also be surprised to learn that Henriette had quite a successful acting career for a time – even while she was heavily medicating herself. Further, when you look at pictures of her when she was younger – she was absolutely gorgeous, yet she also has pictures of herself when her kidney had failed again – and she was an addict, so she doesn’t try and hide how far down she had fallen.
“In Pillness and in Health” is not exactly a tale of redemption either. You realize fairly early on that drug addiction of any sort is not something to which anyone can say good bye. At best, they can try and stay clean through an arduous process of constant self-evaluation and by being brutally honest about their addiction.
If this review seems like it’s going on a mite too long, it’s because I found myself asking this question over and over again, while I was reading this book: “How on earth is Henriette Ivanans still alive – never mind apparently doing quite well – and living in Winnipeg, of all places?” (The book doesn’t answer how she ended up back here, although Kevin McIntyre is from Winnipeg.)
This book was originally written as an exercise in a writer’s course at UCLA (in 2015). It won something called the “Allegra Johnson Award in Memoir Writing”. Presumably, Henriette was subsequently encouraged to publish her work for a wider audience. As she notes on her website, “In Pillness and in Health is a medical memoir masquerading as a Jennifer Weiner beach read. Fans of Bill Clegg’s visceral prose, Carrie Fisher’s wry commentary, and Paul Kalanithi’s graceful medical writing will appreciate this against-all-odds journey, as I break up with Pills and learn how to love again.”
That pretty well sums it up – definitely not for the faint-of–heart, however.

Here is an excerpt from “In Pillness and in Health” :
Top 25 Ways I am Powerless over Drugs and Alcohol
(From my 2012 list. The following appear throughout In Pillness)
1. June 2010. Taking 120 Fiorinal in 3 days. Hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai. Kevin talking the ER psychiatrist out of 51/50-ing me. (temporary involuntary psychiatric commitment in California)
2. Winter 2011. Drinking every day and abusing Xanax on dialysis.
3. April 15, 2011. Having a beer the second I was discharged from the hospital, post-transplant.
4. Throwing my wedding ring out the car window during a huge fight with Kevin.
5. Buying 4 bottles of wine, hiding 3 from Kevin and placing one on the counter.
6. Having one glass of wine going and another hidden on the water heater behind the laundry soap.
7. Since 1996, every time I went to Canada, the first thing I would do is go to a Shoppers Drug Mart and buy Tylenol 1 with Codeine…the list goes on for two more pages – you get the idea.
“In Pillness and in Health” is available at McNally Robinson Booksellers. You can also buy it directly from Henriette on her website at https://www.henrietteivanans.com/take-action. It’s also available for the Kindle.