Growing Up With Illnesses Like Bipolar and Also Having Severe Anxiety

This is a shot I took of a soccer field near my house. When I look at this photo, I tend to notice that though an exciting game of soccer is going on, the bleachers are empty. It takes me back to the one year I played organized sports in my home town of St.Albert. There was a rep team made up of hand-picked players, one for boys and another for girls. Both of them beat us royally, which was not considered a fair match, so when, in our final game–in overtime–we beat the only team that had ever beat us in a fair match, for a few brief moments we were on top of the world.

Soccer is a wonderful experience, and I suggest any parent should encourage their kids to participate. For a long time I used to try and encourage parents to put their kids in cadets, but few have ever done it. With all the training, the sports, the friends, and the travel you get from it, it seems almost ridiculous that anyone would not want their kids to join. Air cadets was something that taught me skills that got me through a lot of very difficult times, and still to this day, 31 years after I left, I rely on a lot of those skills to make my living and get along in the world.

But to try and keep more on the topic I wanted to speak most about, I would like to try and discuss anxiety. Because I was never given any kind of diagnosis, and it is even unclear today at the ripe old age of 46 what exactly the doctors think is wrong, I missed out on a lot of opportunities in my life. I don’t know if there really was any good treatments for anxiety when mine was at its’ worst. I can try and describe what it was like though.

I was 14. I had been taken out of school for an assessment at the General Hospital in Edmonton for two weeks, and during that time I was allowed to attend cadets. On one of those two nights, I had been assigned to get in front of a class of my peers and give a talk about my hobby-which was collecting military combat uniforms. Now, I will digress for just a moment. When I gave that talk, I hadn’t interacted with anyone my age for quite a few days. I felt that my social skills had just gotten rusty, when it was actually a diagnosable illness I had that wasn’t being treated. I got up in front of the room, and I felt a strong pull taking my gaze away from the audience and looking down at the floor. I also became aware of my looks, my acne, and I blushed crimson red. Maybe what hurt the most was walking past a person who was in the class having a laugh with a friend about how horrible my performance had been.

All through my younger days I drowned in anxiety. I would sit out every single song of every single dance the cadets held. The idea that someone could like me or find me attractive was seemingly out of the question. There were a few times I can recall though that I clearly had bipolar disorder as well (I also have a third diagnosis, of schizoaffective disorder). A friend gave me a ride home from the cadet hall where we had been dropped off after a weekend camp at a base near Red Deer. I can’t even describe it. Maybe the tiredness set me off, I really don’t know. But it was the first time I can remember feeling elated, talking way too fast about too many things, and not having a clue that this was something very out of character for me.

All through my teen years I struggled with insomnia, and a good part of it was my own fault. I would stay up late, eat hot dogs or muffins I had brought home from work, then for some reason as time for school approached, I would get this idea in my head that I could be a superior student like I had once been if I studied every word of a textbook. So many times I got these big ideas, then ended up sleeping, and also sleeping in for class. Skipping breakfast, I would race off to school. When the day ended, I would go home and take a nap. This was not only a bad idea that made it harder for me to sleep properly at night, but I would get these nightmares that were just horrible. This was one of the few times that I started to realize that something was going very wrong with my mind. I told my mom about the bad dreams, and she basically responded by asking me what I thought she could do about it. As problems piled up with me, the loneliness, the social anxiety, the insomnia, the depression, and poor sense of self piled up, I almost went to see a psychiatrist but instead waited until I was forced to see one. I really hope anyone who reads this doesn’t tread down that path, especially the young people.

Back at that time, along with anxiety, I had severe depression. I often say that I wasn’t really sure if I was experiencing depression because I had no real close friends, or if my severe depression made it hard for me to open up to and form solid friendships with people. It may apply to a lot of people, but when I think back now to the three or four really close friends I had, I regret ever meeting them.

One of them was a clear alcoholic who was overweight and wore thick glasses and somehow thought he was the coolest and most attractive person ever. Sometimes I am taken back to the odd fun times we had, and I think it would be neat to look him up. Years ago I tried to do so and he really seemed to feel the need to compete with me over anything I said and look for ways to humiliate me. Him and the people he hung around with never really left my home town. There was one guy who I actually really liked and has always been a friend, though a casual friend, and he became a University Professor and moved out of province.

Come to think of it, a lot of the people I knew in school were alcoholics. I was desperately trying to quit back then, but was encouraged into binging a few times with another fair weather friend. Drinking in some ways was magic. It lifted my depression, relaxed me, helped me overcome my social anxiety. The only bad effects was that it was killing me, I was leading an extremely dangerous and risky lifestyle while I was drinking, some of the hangovers I had were epic, and as I drank I watched my family fall apart from similar and different addiction issues. I hate the term ‘self medicate’. I drank because, like many people, I had a subconscious connection with booze and the rarer and rarer good times I would have when using it. Now the very idea of what I used to do as a teen seems ridiculous. Ego contests to see who could drink the most, drinking parties in a delivery car while delivering pizza. Turning into some kind of monster, picking fights with friends or making moves on females that only a 15-year-old could ever get away with.

Getting over those depressions and anxiety was a long road. It was nearly impossible while I was adjusting to medications my doctor prescribed me to try and deal with my fractured social skills. Finding the Schizophrenia Society has been so key in getting me healthy again. I work a few days a week, I earn a little extra money for groceries. I have some solid friends and a lot of self respect from finding a way I can help others even when I am kind of broken myself. Of course having an incredible, intelligent and caring father means a great deal as well.

At first, I really didn’t know what to expect from the Schizophrenia Society. I figured if any students I was going to speak to were anything like I was in my teens it would be hell. But 98% of the students I present to are incredibly interested and responsive to what I have to say. I worked my way up and have given presentations to police recruits, student nurses, criminology classes. It isn’t all that uncommon for me to speak to lecture halls with 200 students. The difference in my anxiety and social skills have been massive.

Well, dear readers, that is all I think I have to say about bipolar and anxiety for now. If you want to know more, or ask a questions, please contact me. If you think you are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, talk to your family doctor about a referral. And if you are in crisis or feel suicidal, please go to your nearest emergency room. Best,

Leif G

 

Stigma: Maybe the Worst Thing About Mental Illness

This is an iPhone night shot of the gate where Chinatown begins and Little Italy ends on 97 street in Edmonton.

 

I wanted to talk about Stigma today for many reasons. I don’t know how many of you may experience this like I do, but all the time I replay things over in my head, especially events where I felt so incredibly ashamed that I actually sometimes feel I don’t even deserve to be alive. This is not a suicide note, my mood is good, I have friends and family who care, a life I love. But there are things that happened as a result of my illness (bipolar, as well as schizoaffective, and anxiety) that I just feel I will never live down.

Things go back a long way. As a kid I didn’t have many friends, my short haircut made me stand out, and I loved reading and books more than hockey. There were so many fights in elementary and somehow I won most of them. Those experiences laid some pretty horrible groundwork for a young teen with low self esteem. I went into high school thinking I was unloveable, ugly, and thinking that everyone hated me. Then, as I got older I found evidence to the contrary due to some attention and even strong friendships with some very attractive women. There was one I was totally head over heels infatuated with. It was an unhealthy obsession. One day I wrote her a letter and she was very nice about things, she told me she herself was very stuck on someone–her boyfriend.

Eventually I stopped calling her and meeting her for lunch and such. It was very hard, but I thought if I made a clean break I could move on, forget her. Things only got worse. I was spiralling down into a serious depression that put me into such a funk that I didn’t think I would ever get out of it. A lot happened. I developed severe symptoms of my mental illness and was hospitalized. Again, due to extreme stigma I didn’t want to have a label on me, didn’t think that I had any problems I couldn’t handle on my own. I stopped taking my medications and hitch-hiked out to the coast.

In Vancouver, I made some close friends, but after a while my illness caught up with me again. I went back to Edmonton and was soon unfit to be outside of an institution. I went back to the hospital again. The fact that I had ridiculous delusions of grandeur, voices, times of no sleep or deep depressions didn’t convince me. Once again I left the hospital and went off my medications. I contacted one of my Vancouver friends and in days I was planning to go out there again.

What was odd about these times is that somehow I had developed some self-confidence, and a lot of social skills, and I was meeting young women left and right. I no longer saw myself as ugly, I saw myself as pretty handsome. I never slept around with any of these women, but I enjoyed their company and was almost never alone or without someone to call. Then my birthday rolled around and as a present to myself I called up my old flame from school.

We got along well, and she seemed happy to hear from me and had a few long talks about people we knew and the stages of our lives we had gone through in the years that we weren’t speaking. I don’t know how it happened just then, but at an extremely rapid rate I started having more delusions. I remember one hallucination that I thought she told me that she would love me until the day I died. I started calling her too much, writing letters every day. Soon she changed her number and I ended up in a psychiatric ward.

The worst part of it was finding her number some years later and calling her up and asking:

“Surely you didn’t just think I was some kind of psychopath?”

“Yes I did think you were some kind of psychopath.”

Those words cut me deeper than any injury or knife ever had. They very nearly drove me to take my own life. I never spoke to her again.

Stigma takes so many things away from us. It can take away any feeling of safety a person might have. When I was in high school I missed school for a while before I actually had my biggest breakdown and was arrested in school, and many people knew what had happened. My best friend, who was half my size seemed to think that he was in charge of me and could threaten me with violence to make me do anything he wanted. Remarks were made, lies were made up, accusations of things like pulling a knife or other things came out of thin air. Then there were the threats.

Perhaps what sux the most about mental illness and stigma is that it never goes away. Any place you can find a person who picks their friends based on their supposed social status or popularity among whatever circle you will find people who will cut you out of their life no matter how long you knew them. I had gone to school with one guy, did everything with him from age 14 on. There was a period of maybe two or three months when he would drive out to my apartment, pick me up, buy me lunch and take me to a movie. He was unemployed at the time and I was underemployed and it made for a really enjoyable and memorable summer. Then one day I was experiencing debilitating depression and went into the hospital to get medications worked out and I called him up. I told him where I was and he said to me, “Oh I wish I could do that. Any time I decide I can’t handle life I’ll just go to the hospital like you did.” I couldn’t believe he said that, my best friend.

The funny thing is that there is simply so many forms of mental illness that these people who stigmatize others are damning themselves in many cases as well.

I hate to admit it, but when I was 18 and was coming from a private, upper-middle class suburban high school, I didn’t want to make friends with anyone in the hospital. Fortunately I was able to overcome that as I matured. Very fortunate because I now teach creative writing to patients in a hospital and that attitude wouldn’t have gotten me very far.

For about seven years, I worked for the union that handled labour for entertainment. This was not only a very difficult job physically, the mental stress it loaded on a person was ridiculous. I recall this one guy, a real asshole who had so much seniority that he had no problem at all insulting people right to their face. I was talking with another co-worker once and when I came within range of this stinking fart of a human being, he said, “So what did you f%*$ up now?” I don’t know if he had any awareness of my psychiatric disability, but to me saying something like that is a lot like insulting a paralyzed person in a wheelchair for not getting up for a run.

So what happens then as a result of stigma? People feel isolated, demoralized, insulted, persecuted, on and on and on. They eventually give up trying, their condition gets worse, they start to collect benefits, and one in ten (at least of those people with schizophrenia) die by suicide.

I had occasion not long ago to give a talk about mental health to a group of security guards. One of them was so incredibly insensitive that he put up his hand and gave me a lecture about how important his job is and how he and his co-workers didn’t have time to deal with people in psychosis the way we were suggesting. Some people, and it is often these untrained and likely sociopathic security guards see those with mental health issues as some kind of dangerous threat that has to be quickly neutralized and removed from the mall for public safety. I would have very much liked to mention that  a fellow Air Cadet I knew well was harassed by a security guard with very similar opinions and won enough money from the mall in a lawsuit that he no longer had any money problems in his life.

That is a bit of a digression. There was this one time though when I myself was working as a security guard and a woman ran up to me yelling for help. I told her to stop and to come inside the hotel I was working at so we could phone whoever was needed but she kept on yelling and running. About a block away a police officer ran up behind her and tackled her. That kind of set me off. Tackling someone on grass is one thing, tackling a woman on cement is another. But it was okay, she wasn’t really a human being. Sickening.

Something I would like to write about if people out there are able to concentrate after all this rambling, is what can you do to overcome stigma? And to say stigma, I also refer to the bad memories I often can’t get out of my head. For me, one thing that really helped was to volunteer at a University radio station which was also a community radio station and I got my own show. I met people, learned a lot, and it was a confidence booster. The logical path would be to volunteer at your dream job, learn if you really like it, then try and get some training or school in the field and then try, even if it is low pay, part-time or difficult, to work that dream job you have.

I really have a lot I could say on this topic, but I will leave off there for now. I want to leave you with a quote that has always helped me get through some very difficult times, it is an ancient proverb, most likely from China that simply states, “A man with one friend is a rich man.” So that is my assignment: go out and make a friend. Make a few friends, so you don’t put too much of a demand on just one of them. It can be a stepping stone, a destination. It can also be one of the best ways to tell stigma to go and jump in a lake.

I’m Home After Psychiatric Inpatient Care. When Will I Ever Feel Normal Again?

A random shot of Jasper Avenue, the main downtown street in Edmonton, Alberta. With people everywhere, vehicles battling to be ahead by split seconds, it becomes so easy to feel lost and alone. Yet, when a person goes into a psychiatric ward or hospital, the staff discourage at every turn any friendships or relationships. Sometimes, people with severe illnesses will be discharged with a bag of medications and directions to the homeless shelter. I don’t really have any solutions to these problems. I do know that people in my family cared a lot about me and tried to make my transition from my last hospital stay to the outside world a smooth one. It went well for me, but not 100%. I feel I owe everything to two men in my life, my Doctor and my Dad. Neither of them stopped helping and neither of them asked anything in return.

When I try and think of my recovery, which I will define for the purposes of this blog as the point where I was diagnosed up until the point where I was able to travel overseas on my own, (both Atlantic and Pacific) the word ‘mindfulness’ keeps coming up.

Mindfulness is something that you will often find in books about Buddhism and meditation. Meditation supplies a person with the tools they need to tune out the world, and just embrace the nature of who they are deep down and not analyze or self-talk or really do anything but breathe. This journey for me began with books about Buddhism, mostly ones that my brother Kris loaned me. I found some profound truths of human nature in these books, which was amazing because a lot of the wisdom came from times when the western world was in the dark ages by comparison (if not literally). There were even times when I would delve deep into these books that I was so struck by things that were said it was close to what many people call an epiphany. But I needed more. I was reading dry words on a page, though they were some pretty earth-shattering words. I devoured books by the Dalai Lama, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But where things really started to come together was when I joined a meditation group that was led by a real Tibetan Monk, and incredible man full of joy, decked out in the beautiful robes of a true monk. What did he teach me? He taught me how to breathe, and then he taught me how to clear my mind. That was really about it.

In our minds, especially those of us who have had mental disorders requiring treatment and/or medication, there is a constant dialogue going on, telling us we aren’t good enough, that people are judging us, that we can’t do something. There are also positive messages and neutral ones. In Tibetan meditation the goal is to train yourself not to let these voices control you, something that changed my life after being in Alberta Hospital. I became so much more thoughtful, kind, I had more energy and mental ability. I was able to absorb books and lessons that I could never have completed before despite my high mental functioning. This led me down a path to become a writer, a teacher, a traveller, an Uncle, and more.

I don’t meditate much anymore sitting on a pillow, legs crossed, counting my breath. I like to walk. I like to go for miles, and simply be. To be aware of the blue or grey sky, to look for wildlife or even domesticated life, to not count the steps or measure the distances, just to go out and feel the fresh air on my skin, be aware of increased rates of breathing, from how my heart beats just a little faster to how I begin to warm up no matter how cold it is. I play no music, bring nothing to distract me. I rarely walk with anyone, but it is so healing. I love to make up excuses to walk. One thing that was interesting was that deep inside I have always thought I may have in a past life lived in England and had a special kinship to the Island Kingdom. When I was in London I took a great risk and instead of taking the tube to where I was staying, I just walked and walked for miles to see if I could truly find my way around that great and massive city. I must have walked ten kilometres and never for a moment did I feel lost or on the wrong path.

One of the other ways I love to practise mindfulness is through photography. Anyone who has read a few of my blogs will have seen photos I took with my collection of cameras and lenses. I basically gather all I need for my camera from charged batteries to memory cards and what lenses I need and start out walking. If I can go somewhere I don’t normally go or get off the beaten path all the better. There is no need for me to calculate rights and wrongs, feel angry about someone who cut me off in a checkout line at the grocery store or was rude to me on the bus. I am totally absorbed in finding that split second, that disappearing moment when a shot is perfect. I rarely find it, but in seeking after that perfect shot I seem to mature, grow in some way.

Meditation is something that has been studied a great deal. One of these studies I came across declared that it had proof that people who meditate a lot each day over the course of years can actually reverse brain damage, something so far thought to be impossible. Even now as I am a little tired I long for those moments in bed just before my mind begins to switch over to sleep rather than being awake and I can feel the true joy of just being.

All of that doesn’t really answer the question though, when will you feel normal again after leaving the hospital. I feel obligated to try and give some of what I feel are facts gained from my own experience. First of all, being in the hospital can put a person into shock, especially if this person was lucky enough to go through such things as ECT or being wrestled down and locked in an isolation room. It isn’t natural for humans, which means that in this time it is actually natural for us to feel the fight or flight reaction. Some lash out, some beg not to be treated that way. Either way, it takes a little bit of who we are as human beings away from us. When you leave the hospital, all of a sudden you are responsible for everything. You may even return to a family that doesn’t fully understand or to school where people know where you were and have no kindness or compassion.

The first thing you need to know is that the effect, the shock of being in the hospital is something powerful. It is also something Doctors and Nurses are aware of and they tend to over medicate people while they are in the hospital. When you leave the best thing you can do is educate yourself as much as you can. When I left after one of my first stays, there was no Internet to Google search on. I went to the library and read for hours on treatments only to be laughed at by a Doctor I spoke to who said they hadn’t used any of those treatments for years. Now, we have Google, so I suggest you search everything you can about each and every medication, each word of your diagnosis and make sure you have a solid understanding. Going in blind to see my Psychiatrist years ago when I was at the end of my rope got me onto a medication I still take to this day that at that time was rarely used. It saved my life. As I built up more awareness of my condition though, I looked for ways to decrease the amount of medication I took.

Often there really is nothing you can do except to kill time, and finances are almost always short for people who just leave the hospital. The first thing I suggest is that you keep a journal, a wellness journal where you talk about how you feel, and what level your mood is, and any other pertinent symptoms. Take a time each day to write, and as you hit milestones, look back at what worked and what didn’t. To people I know who want to make more friends or meet that special ‘life partner’ I always say there are a few steps in the perfect plan at doing that. One is that you settle into a place you can afford, keep clean, and have your privacy. Two is that you look for ways to become involved in your community. Three is that you look for genuine ways to help and care for others. Four is that when you meet someone you want a relationship with, and they themselves have indicated they want a similar relationship, focus on getting to know them, becoming their best friend before worrying about making a move. Don’t force anything, don’t make a fool of yourself automatically thinking this person is the one for you and overwhelming them with attention and gifts. Just be their friend, and your time will come.

Well, Dear readers, that seems to be a good time to draw everything to a close. Your assignment is to 1)get a library card if you don’t have one. 2)take out a book on healing and recovery (my two are “Through the Withering Storm” and “Inching Back to Sane”), and read as much as you can and take some time to sit down, become conscious of your own breathing and clear your mind for five to ten minutes, more if you prefer, then schedule a good time to write in your journal. Who knows? Maybe if you heed this lesson, your recovery will accelerate and I will be reading your blog on WordPress some time soon.

Sincerely,

LG

Mental Illness Takes Over Your Life. You Can Take It Back

Sixteen years ago I made a serious mistake. I had been on a dose of depekane, a mood stabilizer and it was working well for me. At some point in my simple existence of renting movies, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes I decided that I could get along just fine with half the dose of my depekane. I did this without consulting any doctor, it just seemed like a good idea. Gradually over the next few months I slowly went insane. It took a six month stay in the hospital and a number of years of recovery to get myself back to that level of mental fitness I had enjoyed for some time.

I was a little alarmed today to see that there are forums on Facebook and other places where people write in and talk about their experiences with different psychiatric medications. Of course, this sort of thing has its place, especially in the US where health care is extremely expensive, but I honestly don’t think it is 100% positive that people can write what they took for their problems and suggest the same drugs to others. Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors that have specialized in the human brain. Most of the time they don’t treat patients all by themselves, they have a team which may include nurses, occupational therapists, parents of younger patients and on and on.

One of the big problems that happened to me during my last (and I hope final) stay in the hospital was that somehow I started to forget that I was sick. When this happens to me, I end up suffering from all kinds of delusional thinking. It often starts with me believing there are hidden millions out there somewhere that I just have to step up to and claim. Another is that the key to all this wealth rests with a woman I used to have a crush on in middle school/junior high who I haven’t even spoken to in 28 years.

Sometimes the potential reward of these ‘delusional prizes’ seems to be so much that I let myself slip into the belief that they are true. Most of the time though, I have some sanity left over and that is enough for me to seek help, seek a way to quiet the dialogue in my head.

One kind of sad thing I remember was being 19 and being admitted into the hospital. I thought the world was against me, everyone but the young Jamaican clothing designer and fashion model I had become close with during a two-month stay there. I kept trying to tell people that it was the constant pressure of living with an alcoholic parent that put me in there. Of course, it wasn’t true. The part about fighting with my Dad was–but it had very little to do with my illness. It likely did contribute to the pressure I was under, but my Dad had been pretty reasonable and had let me stay at his house while he tried to find better housing for me.

What happened though, while I was in the hospital, was that I kept trying to blame my mental illness on the stressful home life I had, and one time I even told them if they were going to keep me in that place indefinitely I wanted to have ECT or electro-convulsive-therapy. At the time, as I am now, I have an incredibly detailed memory and the smallest things form these chains of thoughts that make me end up feeling like garbage. I had hoped the ECT would have helped with that, but it was a lot more likely that it would only have damaged my brain so badly that I would never have been able to write the way I do now. I ended up cancelling the ECT the morning I was supposed to get it.

So, regardless, by finding a Lawyer who wanted to fight for me, and winning favour of the judge in my competency hearing, I was allowed to go home. Or allowed to find a home, find furniture and pay for all the little things I needed to pay for.

For three months things didn’t go all that bad. My sister will tell you though that my mental health never went through any improvement at that time. I have vivid memories of hearing my name on the radio and of different types of thoughts giving me strange ideas. One of the things I did in that apartment was sit down and watch a class on drawing on PBS for quite a few days in a row. It was kind of fun to think that no one could disturb me. I even tried to work a little for a temp agency, but there was only so much of that I could handle. I don’t know why, but it seems when you work a non-union job the other workers are much more likely to grumble and whine and dislike you. I ended up working in a couple of factories, a chemical plant and a few other places. Then I found the number my friend had written down for me and everything changed.

It was just a little scrap of paper, it didn’t even have my friend’s real number on it, it had his sister’s number. He had given it to me just before I left and told me I could call him for anything Seeing as how (in a small way, mostly because of isolation) Edmonton seemed to really suck and Vancouver seemed to be so amazing, I saw this as a sign from above that my destiny lay on the coast, not in oil town. I called up my friend and almost right away he invited me to come out.

A lot of things happened in that time. I would suggest those interested should buy a copy of my book, “Through the Withering Storm” which takes a much more comprehensive take on the story than I can ever give. The way it all ended up was that I was abandoned by my travelling companion right in his little home city, 8,000 miles from home, with no money or credit card. It didn’t take long for me to realize I had been taken, and I stuck out my thumb and limped back north. How I survived it I really don’t know.

So many may be curious: ‘How do I take back what I lost from mental illness?’ The first step is to find the medication(s) that work for you, that have the least possible side effects. This is. good time to get involved in your own care, a great time to research your illness (if you can get your Doctor to tell you what it is) and study up on what works for others. Then, you just have to trust your psychiatrist and see him/her as often as possible, with notes you have kept about how the medication seems to have affected you.

I did just want to mention though that you need to be very honest with your treatment team, especially your doctor. When I first went into the hospital I had severe delusional thinking but was treated and released in just a couple of weeks. I was just gone for two days and I had spent a ton of money, gotten myself drunk, and basically dealt with my problems in the most childish way I could. All that mattered at that age was looking good and meeting members of the opposite sex so you could use them and then hurt them and get rid of them before they did it to you. I honestly believe it was good advice that once you have a diagnosis of a mental health issue you should never touch liquor again. For me it has been five years since I indulged and it actually feels so great.

Regardless my good readers, I appreciate all the support you give me. Please feel free to email me with any questions, or like and share this blog so I know which posts you more want to hear. And if anyone speaks Danish, I could really use some help doing my dad’s pension plan income tax. Should you want to learn more of my story, I have written two books, one being “Through the Withering Storm” and another “Inching Back to Sane” these books can be found on amazon.com, can be ordered through me using the contact information in this website, and I would love to meet anyone who read through both books. Good day dear readers!

Leif Gregersen

Mental Health and Addiction Issues the Homeless Face Daily

The streets of Edmonton, where I live can be cold and unfriendly. Many people fall into a trap of  being struck down by mental or physical illness, then addictions and eventually homelessness. You see it a lot where I live, makeshift tents with a shopping cart full of garbage nearby. Long line-ups at the soup kitchens and shelters. When oil was at a peak, people came from all over wanting to take part in the prosperity, the huge amounts of money to be made in the oilfields and in Edmonton in some of the numerous supporting industries from plastics to catering. It is almost sickening to think of what all the fossil fuels are doing to our once pristine and beautiful country, yet fracking and pipelines continue. When I was in eleventh grade, a friend was trying to encourage me to get a job in the oilfields. My ambition then was to be a lawyer, I found his idea almost laughable now, especially since he went on to become an alcoholic working under the table so he didn’t have to pay child support. When you take a long look at all the big money jobs in the oilfields, it just doesn’t seem worth the real price in loss of quality of life and many other factors. I know of so many dreamers who became homeless, addicted, mentally ill. A lot of organizations have tried to fill in the gaps left when people have nowhere else to go. From New Year’s Eve 2001 to the present, I have been living in supportive housing and despite the books I’ve written, the work I’ve done, the money I’ve made, I really don’t think I could have done any of it without living in places that supported me through my difficulties with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder.

When I last got out of the hospital, my life was destroyed. I had lost control of any finances, I was heavily medicated, and virtually unemployable. A long-term group home was found for me and I was able to recover almost completely. I still have troubles with sleep and stress, I still have times when I question my own existence or allow myself to get angry over things I can’t control. But none of those things can destroy me anymore, I have been allowed to grow new skin over my wounds.

Living in a group home had a number of advantages for me. I lived in a house with three other people, and though there were arguments and fights, and even people who did horrible and disgusting things, the needed stability was there. One time I was in a house with a barely functioning, overbearing bully who kept trying to order me around and pick a fight with me. I had to deal with him by calling the police one night and when I talked to them I didn’t have a chance to mention that he is in the habit of picking fights, losing them badly and then going to an organization called ‘victim’s services’ where he is given money in exchange for proof of his injuries. Another roommate in the same house once called the police and confronted me because I had woken up late for work and took two slices of a cold pizza he had left out in the kitchen because he had put it in the oven and was so drunk he forgot about it.

The thing though, was that when you live with others who suffer from a mental illness, the stigma and guilt are greatly reduced, and provided you are on the medication you need, it is so much easier to function, so much easier to heal. In the group home I lived in for 15 years, medication was given out each day. Adherence to all appointments was necessary. I had the benefit of having my dad come and take me for a walk in the park also which was extremely healing. There were a lot of difficult times with people who lived in the group home. There was one guy who believed that he could legally play his music as loud as he wanted as long as he turned it down a little after 11:00pm. I dealt with it by simply going to the basement and shutting off the breaker for his room, leaving him in silence and darkness. Then the management passed a rule that we weren’t allowed to touch the breakers. Soon, my roommate was playing his music again and I shut him down once more from the breaker switches and then plead my case to a higher authority. The same guy had a habit of coming home from work and turning up the heat as far as it would go, then taking off his shirt in the living room and laying down to watch TV. That was around the time I took up the habit of hiding the remote. Then, when he found it, I would insist he give it back to me as it was legally mine, then when I got it back I would turn the TV off. I had to find ways to amuse myself somehow.

It was an eye-opening experience to live there. For perhaps the first time in my life I could simply exist. I didn’t need to be some wealthy young entrepreneur, I didn’t need to be an A+ honour student on his way to Oxford, I just had to exist, take my medication, and hopefully not kill any roommates. I found out that housing like this, which is in extreme demand these days, costs about 1/4 of what a hospital bed costs the health care system. I have also heard information about how homeless people, job or not, cost society a great deal as well. I can see why because, to use one example, a shelter needs a lot of resources. They need food, staff, a constant inflow of donations of money, clothing, heat, security. I worked at a drop-in centre that didn’t even have any beds for homeless people and it seemed they had nine paid staff or volunteers supporting, educating, counselling, and even motivating the many people who relied on them. I guess I just wanted to say that in many places in North America, cold weather, extreme in some places is coming fast. Consider gathering up unneeded items, especially things like hoodies, toques, gloves, scarves, and finding a charity that would be extremely grateful to be able to distribute them for you. Something I have seen happen a lot is that people will put warm clothing items onto a tree or fence with a note saying that anyone who needs to warm up can take the item. Excess household items like books and furniture are needed at many thrift shops that support worthwhile charities. Consider also volunteering your time (if a place exists near you) with a schizophrenia society office, or finding ways to help integrate disadvantaged people into the greater community. This time of year is ideal for looking for ways to give back as many students get a Christmas break, and most charities need volunteers at Christmas, which they recruit in October and November.

Sadly though, all of these great ideas doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people, whether they read this blog or not, suffer themselves from a mental illness and don’t have the housing or the support or even the medical attention they need, and many of them are all alone in this world. I can’t imagine what things may have been like if I didn’t have my dad and my sister to advocate for me last time I was ill. To people in this situation, I just pray that they can plant a seed of hope deep inside of their minds. Just enough so that they can get to a clinic and find a way to get the assistance of a psychiatrist, find a way to get their medications. I know that in the US it is much harder to get by as a poor person, but I have also noticed from my own experience that once people see you are trying to take responsibility for yourself, trying to improve your own life so you can perhaps one day help others, they are more than willing to support you in your efforts to recover. One thing I would say is that there are opportunities to dig yourself out. There are things like newspapers that homeless people sell by donation, and if these don’t exist, approach your library and get them to help you put together a booklet of writing about people who are struggling in so many ways. Charge a buck or two and use the money for the essential things the group needs.

I wish I could keep writing. I also wish I had all the answers. But the sad fact is, each person who is ill, each person who is addicted or homeless, needs to find their own way. I found mine with the help of people who cared and loved me back to sanity. I wish this for all of you.

Do You Have Schizophrenia, Depression or Bipolar? Sadness and Loneliness Could Be Deadly To You

When people are struck down with mental illness, a lot o things are taken away. Some of them are permanent, and others you slowly get back over time as I discuss in my book, “Inching Back to Sane.” You could be inside a hospital and temporarily lose your freedom. You may lose the ability to be able to speak up for yourself and not be treated like a child. Perhaps the worst part about it is that you will lose friends and family members outside of the hospital setting, and it is extremely important to note even some loved ones will turn their back on you. No matter how hard it may seem, these are the times when you need to reach out to others more, make more effort to sustain and build relationships (not romantic ones). This is the time when you need others more than ever it is also a good time to practice self-care. I recall during this stage in my recovery that it was very important to have time to myself, to go for walks, to stay up late reading. This is also the time when I sat down and started to get serious about my first book, “Through the Withering Storm” writing while in a recovery program was difficult, but now so many people read that book and draw inspiration from it.

Studies have shown that approximately 1% of the population suffers from Schizophrenia. I don’t know how to take that figure because, from personal experience, delusions and hallucinations don’t always get reported. They get denied and buried, and the stigma attached to mental illness is the reason. No one wants to admit they have potentially embarrassing lapses in their concept of reality, so there could very well be more. I do know other illnesses, such as Bipolar, Depression, OCD, and others can lie dormant for years and come up at the worst possible times. It doesn’t help that mental illness can be accelerated by drugs most people here think are harmless like pot, mushrooms, hash, etc.

But let’s look at that 1% idea first, as this is something I have researched in my work with mental health. In Canada last I heard, there are around 33,000,000 people. This is an incredibly small number if you consider that we are larger than China. But, of those thirty-three million, at 1%, we would be looking at 330,000 people with schizophrenia so severe it greatly effects the economy and the people who want to do this type of work that helps the very young., (you are not alone!) Of those people, 10% will eventually die by suicide. This is not a figure of how many people are weak enough to give in, or how many people never had the fortitude to live their lives. This is 33,000 people who have an illness so severe that they feel dying is the only way out. Who is to blame? It seems that everyone shares blame a little. I work for the Schizophrenia Society in Edmonton and I have been made aware of some of the prejudiced thinking people have towards those with a mental illness. Yesterday I went to get some frozen fruit from my freezer to make a smoothie. Inside was a package of “mango mania” frozen mango chunks. Why did they have to put ‘mania’ on it? Thinking of times when I suffered from mania, or elevated moods that are almost totally uncontrollable, and have at times caused me to want to die just to make the merry-go-round on steroids stop spinning, the idea that they could use such a horrible thing to advertise a product made me sick.

But it’s not just there-it’s everywhere. A little while ago I thumbed through an old Archie Comic-possibly the most politically correct, wholesome-type comic they have for sale. On just about every page there was some prejudiced statement about mental illness. Jughead would have to be crazy for not eating 20 hamburgers, Reggie was nuts to think he could get away with talking to Big Moose’s girl Midge. Then you look at the TV. Shows about the most depraved, perverted criminals are displayed as having schizophrenia or bipolar. Some reason to shuffle off some of the real problems of society, like the constant glorification of violence and extremely outdated attitudes towards women. Stigma like this destroys lives and will continue on until people take a stand for those who simply suffer from illnesses that can be treated and controlled with medication and other care.

When you leave your community and are sent to a place that supposedly helps you deal with a mental illness, all too often you are no longer a part of that community. Shame, stigma, the isolation that many people with illnesses force on themselves will drive you out eventually–unless you have a supportive family and friends. These are such essential aspects of getting better. My problem was that when I first went into the hospital I was only 18 and just about every one of my friends did very little other than get together and drink beer until they were incapacitated. A harsh reality is that beer, this seemingly innocent social lubricant is just about like poison to anyone who is taking psychiatric medications. I learned at another time that once a person is put on psychiatric meds, they are supposed to quit drinking completely for the rest of their lives.

Quitting drinking was one thing. Being a part of a social group, having friends who didn’t drink were another. It has been very hard since that time when I first had a mental breakdown. There were times when I sold things pennies on the dollar just to have a few bucks in my pocket to buy a sandwich or a bag of chips as I hitch-hiked in near winter weather across the Rocky Mountains. I feel so lucky now. It was such a long process. My depression started at a very young age, I can recall it being a factor in my life before I was even ten. I was prone to crying spells and isolating myself even then. At the end of a weekend, I was often so upset at the idea of going back to school the next day I would literally cry myself to sleep. These depressive episodes went on and on through my teen years. The worst part of it was that I kept it all to myself. I had an inkling something was wrong. Most people didn’t seem to be in a cloud of self-loathing and depression. But I had no way to reach out for help. One thing I keep replaying in my head is talking to my mom about some of what I was going through and her offering to let me see her psychiatrist about these problems. This was my last chance, my last hope. I turned it down and within just a couple of months I ended up stark raving mad for want of a better term.

By miracles of modern psychiatry, when I did get very sick, it only took around a month in the hospital to get my brain operating the way it should (with medication) but I wasn’t ready to admit I needed the meds. Those were really dark times. I had a few close friends left, and I even have a couple of warm memories of doing things like working as a bouncer at a dance party, getting drunk out of my mind and feeling the bliss, the numbness, and the joy of no longer caring about everything.

One thing that my illness took away from me was my meek nature, my idea that everyone mattered, that each person was a human being like me. One night a friend came over and we got very drunk and decided to go play some basketball. For no reason at all, when we were on the court, I threw a basketball as hard as I could at a kid a couple of years younger than me. I look back now and see myself as some kind of animal. I just no longer cared. My school ‘career’ was ruined, all my credibility was ruined, kids were running around calling me psychopath and my reputation was ruined. It seemed I had so few options. I chose to join the military in hopes of finding an honourable way to die, but even those people didn’t want me. After a lot of problems with my dad, I cashed in everything I could, sold my motorcycle for $20, and put my thumb out and headed for the highway. It wasn’t all bad. I got to see the Rockies from a convertible. I experienced the many wonderful aspects of living in a coastal city. But I didn’t get into the military. Without my medication I slowly decayed until I was out of my mind again and returned home. From there I went through more treatment and when I got out all of my old school friends wanted nothing to do with me, aside from a few people who I would call just users and abusers. I was taking my medication, but there was no system in place to give me ongoing treatment. I didn’t even leave the house much. At that time I started to slip back into my delusional world. Movie stars were in love with me, millions of dollars was waiting for me just to claim for my own. Most of these delusions came in the form of distorted memories on the radio. I sat and I watched TV and let time slip by and soon I had been there three months and had accomplished nothing but gaining a bunch of weight and missing the life I had in Vancouver.

Over the next years, I was often left with a choice: associate with unsavoury people and have someone to talk to, or not have anything to do with these people and slip further and further into isolation and depression. There were many mishaps, and they didn’t really come to an end until my parents intervened and convinced my doctors to add an anti-depressant to the medications I was taking. This really made a huge difference. I was able to get refreshing sleep. I was able to sit down and read. Not long after I got a job but the stress soon proved nearly impossible to deal with and I quit. But I was writing.

For a while I went to church, I did make some friends, but nothing like the friendships I had with my cadet buddies. My anti-depressant somehow stopped working and I ended up going on Prozac. What a difference that made in my life. It helped with my moods, it helped control my horrible nightmares, and it also helped a little with my social anxiety. A few years later though, I went through a very difficult time in my life. Basically I learned that I would never get another chance to be friends with a young woman I thought the world of. Instead of having any means to deal with my feelings, I once again isolated myself. Perhaps I was trying to punish myself. But I stopped taking my Prozac as well, and a few months later took a very near deadly dose of painkillers. The feelings of rejection and loneliness were just too much. But people still cared. My parents, after all I had put them through happened to come by and when I didn’t answer the door, my dad slipped a $20 bill under it. If he hadn’t done that I would have had no way to get a cab to the hospital and I likely would not be here writing this.

This blog has actually gone on for quite a while and I haven’t been 100% on topic. I think I will follow up on this topic in the next blog, so stay tuned. For now, I hope my readers, whether they have a mental illness or not to practise self-care. Take a mental health day off of everything. On your death bed you will never wish you had spent less time with people you cared about and more time working. If you smoke, quit and put the extra money it gives you into taking a relaxing and renewing vacation. My trips to Hawaii and London, England have proved to make me happier, more fulfilled, and even simply more talkative with friends about the things I have seen and done. If you experience depression, look into medication options, but do your research. Talk to a doctor you trust, talk to a pharmacist you trust. And when you are put on a medication, don’t stop taking it because of symptoms you can handle. Some symptoms may be too much, but it could be detrimental to just stop a medication. Do everything you can to hold out and wait for the good effects to come about and for your body to adjust to the negative ones. And reach out. Find a counsellor, join a support group. Your most effective and powerful tools are your social abilities. Human beings need each other. And, above all, before you decide to do something desperate, pick up the phone. Heck, drop me an email or reply to this blog. I’ll do what I can.    viking3082000@yahoo.com

When Things Get Bad: Being a Patient In a Psychiatric Hospital

This is a shot of the sunset over what used to be the Edmonton Municipal Airport. The planes on display, which you may have seen before in other posts are part of the aviation museum. It always kind of bothered me that they would put the last of the three up, a surface to air missile called “the Bomarc” This missile holds a lot of meaning for Canadians, because it was what we got in exchange for the Avro Arrow, the most famous of all Canadian planes that never went into production. The Bomarc on display is something I also disagree with because it was originally designed as a nuclear missile and like many of my time, nuclear war was a very real and scary possibility.

To get on to the stated topic, there is a lot to know about hospitals, especially psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric wards of ordinary hospitals. The first big thing that I didn’t like about being in a psychiatric hospital is that there is often very little medical help and poorly funded medical/dental help in these places. When I was 19 and had nearly destroyed my knees from too much running, I actually encountered staff members who purposely moved my room to the end of the long hallway of the ward I was on to discourage me from smoking, while at the same time being completely ignorant of the incredible pain and discomfort of my injuries and constant requests for tensor bandages, and even a few times, a wheelchair. I even tried to appeal to my Psychiatrist, who had taken the full training of a medical doctor and he simply told me, “oh, I forgot all that medical stuff years ago.” Then, somehow an appointment was made for me to see an orthopaedic surgeon, and after waiting just about the entire three months it took to see one, a nurse casually informed me that she had taken it upon herself to cancel my appointment because she didn’t think I needed it.

Funny enough though, being in the hospital can be a very productive time. One of the biggest problems is that while you are there you may be very ill mentally and not be able to participate in any of the programming that could help. Things like communication groups, anger management groups, can teach a person to better manage their lives and better communicate to others when they go out and try to rebuild something of a normal life. Something that has to be stressed though, is that the people you encounter are likely a good deal more sensitive about things than you realize. I can remember getting into trouble because some woman overheard me talking about sex. I was 20, I didn’t have many other topics on my mind. I didn’t even say anything to her, I got into trouble for talking to someone completely different than the person who complained. All I could do was suck it up and try not to bring up the subject.

The other problem I faced a number of times is with regards to a psychiatric hospital. The hospital I went to was divided into two major parts, one for forensics, and the other for people who hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime. Many times I ran across some very seriously bad people in the non-convict section I was in. I vividly remember a man who was on my ward to be assessed to see if he could get off a crime he had committed for mental health purposes, and he made some very serious threats to me. Should he have been in the forensics part the whole time? I honestly believe so, but the doctors didn’t see things that way. In a more recent visit, there was a guy from some middle eastern country who for some reason didn’t like me. One day we got into an argument and he attacked me. I was accused of starting the fight, but he was the one who tried to dig his nails into my carotid artery so he could end my life,

I really don’t want to scare people when I write this. I do admit that I am ranting though because these things never should have happened. What are some of the ways others can avoid serious problems like this? First of all, while it is a given that you need to be completely honest with your doctor about what is going on inside your head, you also need to communicate with the staff where you are a patient about people who are giving you problems/on your case. Most of the time the staff can deal with it. If you find yourself in a serious situation where you think someone is going to attack you like happened to me a number of times, the best thing to do is to assume a defensive stance, and yell for staff as loud as you can.

I can also recall though being assaulted by staff members. This seems almost impossible, but it was a daily reality for me when I was last in the hospital. It was a very difficult situation because my doctor was avoiding me completely and I was on medication that was not helpful at all. If he had talked to me, he might have realized that I needed a mood stabilizer, a pill for psychosis, and an anti-depressant, Instead he played golf or whatever they do when they don’t feel like doing their job. My family and I tried everything to have this situation dealt with, and nothing ever came of it, and the same Doctor was later made head Psychiatrist of the entire Hospital. But regardless, not being on proper meds made it almost impossible for me to think straight or be as pleasant as the staff preferred me to be, and as a result, with the express order from my absentee doctor that I should be placed in isolation at the first indication of problems, I was put through this torture. Once, when I was locked inside the isolation room for a long time, I put the plastic mattress up against the wall and slid behind it so they couldn’t see what I was doing. The staff member watching me came in and a fight ensued, I grabbed his ‘life call’ button and pressed it and all kinds of alarms went off and other staff came running from all over the hospital. As a result, with too many witnesses, I was spared a beating.

The fact is, most of the people who will end up looking at this blog will have been through the very difficult stages of being in a psychiatric hospital. What I am hoping to get across is that it is very important to have a good psychiatrist, and to be honest with them, take your medications and never miss your appointments, and when you feel your mental health is starting to deteriorate, get in touch with your doctor and try and get into a hospital ward for psychiatry rather than a psychiatric hospital.

Then comes the day to day business of surviving as a patient. I recall that my time was best spent in the hospital reading and listening to classical music. Reading was difficult, and many of you may too find the same thing. Often when you are in the hospital you are getting your medications changed around and until you get used to them it can be hard to concentrate. I do like to remind people though that with medications, it takes time for them to work, time for your body to adapt to them, and there is also a period of time that you need to adapt to how they affect you. I take a number of pills and they make my hands shake, but now after 15 years on a similar dose, I know how to function. My typing speed and pool game aren’t what they used to be, but I can function, and I can maintain my mental health.

There is another factor that I have encountered regarding hospital visits. It is a difficult thing to go into a hospital and adapt to the conditions there. You need to get used to the food, the institutional air (which people often feel contains some kind of funny gas, but the doctors breathe it too). Then, you adjust, you get to know a few people who are patients, a few staff members and doctors. Then you are deemed well again and sent home where you go through another serious adjustment. When you are leaving, this is the time first of all to get yourself involved in life skills classes or support groups in your community. Make sure and rekindle any neglected relationships, this is when you are really going to need your friends. The one thing you have to be careful about is trying to form long-term relationships, be they friendships or romantic involvement, or even friendship with a staff member. First of all, staff members may seem friendly and nice, but they have professional ethics, plus may not like the idea of having to interact with people when they aren’t getting paid. This happened to me when a doctor and a nurse who I thought cared simply dropped my case and never said another word to me because they didn’t feel I was trying hard enough. In my mom’s case, she had the same nurse/therapist for years and tried calling her up at her office one day after their professional relationship ended, and she was devastated to learn the nurse wouldn’t even say one word to her.

As far as friendships and romantic involvements go, it can be nice to sit down with people and talk after going through therapy and dealing with the same food and the same staff members. But everyone who is there as a patient is there for a reason, most likely a very serious reason and it almost always ends up in disaster when you try to continue these friendships outside the hospital. Once I met a young woman who was an independent film maker and I showed her a copy of my book. We seemed to get along great, there were some great positive things about her. But shortly after she was released from the hospital she accused me of stealing her manuscript (my first work of non-fiction, “Through the Withering Storm”) and then accused me of “stealing Ian’s treasure box” which I don’t even know a thing about. There were other problems. Once I met a guy who was supposedly going to help me get my truck driving license and I simply never saw him again.

This one is getting long, so I am going to mention one last thing. If you feel your mental health is deteriorating, do everything you can to stay out of the hospital, but make sure there is someone who cares to help you decide when the breaking point will be. Keep a bag by your door with a few things you will need to help get you through the difficult days at the hospital. A radio with headphones can be a lifesaver. Simple to finish puzzles can also help. Then a few hygiene essentials such as toothpaste, toothbrush, etc. and a change or two of clothing. It is often best (unless you have made an attempt at suicide) to get a ride or take a cab to the emergency department. Many paramedics get pretty snarky when you don’t appear to have any surface problems even when your life is falling apart on the inside. Your bag could include $10 for a cab ride if you so choose. It would also be good to bring a small journal, which could be used for many things, including a sort of diary for how your mental health progress is coming. Don’t be afraid to write down some goals related to your recovery, and even some goals you just want to do to have something to look forward to. And please, please understand that many people do care and that there is a way, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You won’t be a hospital patient forever, and everyone can have a full and productive, happy life, even with a mental illness.

Stigma and Disability: Will Mental Illness Destroy My Whole Life?

The photo above is a close friend. He worked hard for many years, built up an excellent work record, bought a home and has been to many places in the world. Now, after a lifetime of struggle, it sadly seems that compulsive spending, depression, alcoholism, hoarding, and other problems came about from him growing up in poverty and working so hard that substances were his only escape. It all seems such a waste, but even for my friend there is hope.

For most of 2001, I was a patient in a locked ward of a very unpleasant place, the provincial psychiatric hospital. Now, in 2018, I work there and am paid well. This and other jobs has allowed me to do so much, including travelling to London and Hawaii, buying the computer I am using now, having many friends, and living a comfortable though somewhat sparse life.

People are often amazed that I have been able to write more than 10 books, and to get up in front of people I don’t know and talk about the intimate details of my illness. I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that I’m not so much afraid anymore. I have experienced great loss, adventure, been close to death, but there have been some simple axioms I took to heart that have gotten me through.

One of them was from a young man who was an engineer. He said when engineers work on a very large, complex and difficult problem, they will break the larger problem into smaller ones and solve them one small piece at a time. There was another man who I have never met, but who wrote an excellent book and is an example to every young person in the whole world I feel who attributed his success as an astronaut and space station commander by always making sure he had taken the time to properly prepare himself for tasks to come. When I want to sit down and start writing a book I can’t just put pen to page and expect it to come out perfect. I draft up several possible outlines, then toy around with some dialogue, maybe even try to picture my main characters and, by hand, write out some dialogue. If this starts to engage me and I keep on for pages with my pen I know I have something I can continue to work on, to craft into a cohesive story. But most of my books came more from just writing a little for one sitting. I would write a poem and then transfer it to computer and then cut and paste it into Facebook and when I had a bunch of them I would self-publish a book of them. Easiest thing in the world. People even buy them and enjoy them. In a way, I used these two methods of planning and preparation to overcome my severely diminished state after I was last in the hospital.

I had to start with a small step, and I decided it would be medications. I took each dose at the proper time and then looked at the rest of the day as my free time. Not wanting to waste my days away watching TV re-runs, I would try and read a little in one of my Steinbeck books. One of the amazing things was that now that I was over the worst of my symptoms of mental illness, and people could see that I was trying to improve my lot in life, help seemed to come from every corner. My dad would take me for walks, a part-time job allowed me some comforts. Even the cooking chore I had to undertake every two weeks or so taught me many things I never knew about food.

When I think of how the other point I made, of making sure you are adequately prepared for something, especially something difficult that you need to do, I think of a close friend who I knew since high school. Before my most recent stay in the psychiatric hospital, I was extremely delusional and ‘manic’ as well as having other symptoms of psychosis such as thinking the radio was talking about me, that I had billions of dollars and so on. At this time, her sister had heard I was having troubles and tried to help, and for want of a better term, I scared her half to death. My long friendship was over and I was devastated. Almost a year later, I went to see her and it was only because in advance I wrote down what I needed to tell her and predicted how she would react that I was able to successfully convince her she could trust me and that it was worth having me as a friend.

These are common tactics, writing out a script of what you might say to your boss who you know is debating whether or not to fire you. Setting goals, no matter how preposterous or long-range they are, and then setting smaller, more attainable goals that lead you towards that better place. I often think these things can get a person through anything.

One of the things I would like to touch on today may only apply to Canadians, but I will try and add a universal component for people in other countries. One of the hardest things to face when a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, and spends time in a psychiatric hospital is the poverty that is going to follow, perhaps for the rest of their lives. The Canadian Government developed a plan to help those who are disabled for any reason to overcome this, it is called the Registered Disability Saving Program (or something similar-ask your bank staff) this plan allows you to put somewhere around $2,000 to $3,000 away in an account, and have grants and subsidies top up that amount by multiples of two or three times. You can’t take it out for ten years, but it could really go a long way for a person to take a trip or to buy a home.

This seems almost unfair to Americans or people in other countries that don’t have this program, but I think even people who have a savings plan could benefit from my second favourite book ever, “The Richest Man in Babylon” by Richard S. Clayson (my favourite book being “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig.

In the ‘babylon’ book, using historical figures and examples, a plan is explained where a person takes a careful look at his earning and spending and tries to get his or her spending down to just 70% of what they earn. 20% of that is put towards debt, and the remaining 10% goes to savings, which, as it grows, you invest. Regarding the investment side of it, the book talks about a very simple strategy to keep your money growing, or at least safe. If you want to invest your money, seek out advice. But make sure that the person giving it has spent all their time and effort in their entire lives to being an expert on what they are talking about. Getting a tip from your neighbour who is a musician that stock in a steel mill is guaranteed to double just doesn’t cut it. But the musician might be a great person to consult to find out which brand of marijuana stock is the best one to invest in based on his own personal choice of the stuff.

Another factor that many people don’t factor in when they think of living in poverty as a disabled person is that as time goes by, especially if you can find a way to work (when I got out of the hospital in 2001 I was useless for any task, but I could still work as a security guard and it gave me a sense of self-respect and some extra money for things), as you get older, you will not only learn to use and invest your money better, you will also have paid for much of the things you want and need and the pressure to always get more money and more stuff will lessen. Of course, you are also free from the thing that made me want to buy a sports car at 18 instead of saving for University-peer pressure.

So, all I really have to say if I must sum it up is that with diligence, a steady and focused effort day after day, week after week, planning and preparing, your life may not just get to be as good as most, it just may get better. And remember, people really do care.

 

Psychiatric Medications and Weight Gain: Can They Be Controlled?

A reconstructed Hotel and Canada Place. Both have meaning to me, the one in the background (Canada Place) is where I worked myself half to death helping my Dad paint stairwell doors for untold hours each day when I was in High School. The hotel, according to legend, is one that Leonard Cohen stayed at after being kicked out of the Hotel MacDonald, just up the street.

 

So here is how it went: I was a skinny kid when I went into the hospital 17 years ago. I think after making an effort to fatten myself up, I was about 170 pounds/77 kg. I got out of the hospital and life seemed pretty bland, but I enjoyed my freedom. I enjoyed it so much I nearly lost it just a few months after getting it back. I would eat three meals a day, then late at night go buy a large bag of chips and a submarine sandwich. If I had the money I would get a pizza. What I remember is that I was so ravenously hungry that if I didn’t have any food I wouldn’t sleep that night. So I ate and ate and ate. The more food I took in, the more food I was able to take in. I was exercising, but mostly just light walks through the river valley with my dad. Time passed and before I knew it I was 260 pounds/118 kg. By some miracle, if I got much higher than that I was able to fast my way back down. If something happened, I would drop a few pounds but they always seemed to come back.

The first thing I wanted to mention is actually really sad. My mom had a mental illness. She was such a sweet, kind, and caring person and she tried so hard to lose the weight that three kids and a bunch of pills made her get to. After years of trying various diets, she decided to try walking. She ended up walking about five miles each day and the pounds just came off. But maybe she did too much. Maybe she had the early signs of osteoporosis. We don’t really know. What we do know is that she ended up with a crushed vertebrae in her neck. The stress of surgery for it messed up her diet and exercise and not only did she gain weight rapidly, her mental health became very poor and she had a few admissions to hospitals. She spent the rest of her life overweight.

What happened to me was that I moved into my own apartment and was able to cook any type of food I wanted. Thinking that if the Irish people could do it, I could do it, I ended up eating way more potatoes than was healthy. I would bake two of them in the microwave, slather them with butter and salt and gobble them up. I started in on easy, deep fried or fast food. I stocked up on chips, pretzels, cheese puffs and all that. And I ate out a lot. It didn’t seem all that bad. I wasn’t having that much sugar–or so I thought. I was exercising a lot, though just hovering around the same weight. I was also eating a lot of TV dinners. A good friend was appalled because he used to be a prison guard and that was what inmates got.

So one day I ended up having a pretty bad stomach ache. I went to a walk-in Doctor and he prescribed some pills and sent me for some blood tests. When I came back expecting to be complimented for my fitness, he told me that I had diabetes, I didn’t believe him. Even with all the eating and the rolls of flab on my midsection I really thought diabetes was impossible. So I asked for another test. For this one I had to fast for 12 hours. I should have known the night before what the results were going to be. I nearly went mad with hunger. I drank all kinds of water (the only thing allowed before the test) and my whole body screamed out for something fatty or salty or crunchy. Despite staying up all night I made it through and the test was that I had to drink a large glass of sugar water with some orange flavouring in it and then wait for two hours for them to re-check my blood sugar level. I failed. It all seemed so surreal.

I had heard and read that type two diabetes can be reversed, but a doctor assured me that if I reverse it I would still have to stay on a special diet for the rest of my life. Of all the people in the world, the one person I needed most to be able to talk to was my Dad, but he told me in no uncertain terms that diabetes was something that Doctors make up to sell pills. He practically made fun of me. I didn’t hold it against him but I kept it clear in my head the old men I saw in a hospital I worked in who had limbs missing from the same illness. Or the teacher from my junior high who taught us about diabetes and how it greatly shortens a person’s possible life span.

So I had to dig in and form a plan. All sugar was now out. All white food, and fast food was out. Snack food–gone. I did decide that I could eat popcorn but my teeth aren’t in all that good of shape either so it had to be in moderation. On top of all this, I had to start reading every ingredient and every nutritional label on any product I planned to eat. For the first while this was really hard. So many things have high levels of fat. So many of the foods I loved from tomato soup to submarine sandwiches were off the scale for things like salt in the soup and fat in the submarine sandwiches. It seemed there was nothing I could eat. And as an added bonus, I had to start taking a pill for cholesterol and another pill called metformin to regulate my blood sugar level. I also got a kit for testing my blood at home and actually I kind of found it a bit fun–until I had to prick the same finger a dozen times and it got sensitive. The metformin caused me dizziness and tiredness. Fortunately, like many of my psychiatric medications, after time it started to work and the bad side effects mostly went away. I did notice that the metformin seemed to make me extremely jumpy and my nerves were on edge.

And as time went by, I started learning about what my body needed when my blood sugar level was low or when I couldn’t sleep. My Psychiatrist had approved certain pills for use when I needed to sleep and I hate to admit I took more of them than I absolutely needed.

What really seemed to save me though was walking. I have always done a lot of walking, but now I started to take it to almost extremes. My moms record of five miles a day didn’t seem like much at all. I would walk four miles, go for a swim, then walk four miles back. I always felt so anxious about getting to a scale at a pharmacy or a doctor’s office just to see if I had lost another pound. A few times I worked way out in the West end of Edmonton and walked for around three hours to get home. Now I don’t know what to do.

I did something significant. I lost 30 pounds. I found I slept better, I could bend over and pick things off the floor when it used to be a very hard thing for me. I also saved a bit of money because I wasn’t spending cash on fancy restaurants or garbage food. I have to admit I don’t get all of my vegetables. When I cook up a supper though, I often add in frozen peas, broccoli, green beans. I actually like the taste of them now. I have been doing so much learning about food and nutrition it has been a lot of fun. Who would have thought an illness that threatened life and limb could be described ‘fun’?

So here’s the sad part: a lot of people I know who have mental illnesses and take medication have diabetes. One of these people has it because of overeating and inactivity. His culture, the way he was raised, was that one ate until you were full. I will never forget going for breakfast with him one day and watching him clear his plate, then order another special. Another friend who is on even more medication than I am had some incredible success with a system I am trying to do myself. One plate, four sections. One quarter is your meat, one quarter is a vegetable and the last two are some kind of greens.

Gaining weight, having diabetes, and many other issues from heart disease to colon cancer are serious issues for people with mental illnesses. What I have found though is that if you can just somehow tough things out for a couple of weeks you will start to change how you taste things and you will almost miraculously be tuned into eating healthy food instead of junk or fatty and salty food. I would so much rather go to my fridge and get a navel orange or some grapes than pretzels that are doused in salt. I will admit though, as I mentioned, I do love popcorn. It is incredibly cheap, has great aspects to it like its high fibre, low-fat content, and there are things one can add to it like nutritional yeast that make it taste divine. I do still add melted margarine and a little salt, but I make sure it is non-hydrogenated, low calorie margarine, and I go as easy as I can on the salt. Remember that your body does need some salt and some fat. The trick is to exercise it off.

So are there any alternatives if you feel your situation is so far gone even a diet won’t help you and you don’t seem to be able to exercise? In most countries my blog is read in, there is an option called bariatric surgery. There are actually a few surgeries, but bariatric is the only one I know anything about. There is a waiting list to have the surgery done, which is time you spend acclimatizing yourself to having a much smaller stomach and learning how to keep up a healthy diet and other factors. It doesn’t work for everyone, but I have seen it work. If this situation sounds like you, talk to your MD.

Well Dear Readers, this session of blog writing seemed to go a little long. I hope some of it helped some of you in some tiny way. I encourage you to make comments when you read this, it really would help me keep coming back to write these knowing there are people out there who are being helped by it.

Best,

LG

 

The Scourge Of Mental Illness Stigmal and the Ways it Can Affect Those With Bipolar and Schizophrenia

To me, the idea of flight always seemed to symbolize freedom. I saw this in many ways, one of them in which I envisioned myself as the pilot of a plane. I even took some training and went to Commercial Pilot’s School when I was younger before I had a mental breakdown and had to stop. Other ways could easily be explained in some of the writings of Richard Bach, perhaps best in the short work, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”. There have been so many times, most of them right in the city I live in, when I felt some negative feelings or had low self-esteem for a moment and would just stop and take some time out to watch birds in flight. Even the lowly gulls and magpies had such incredible amounts of skill that it surprised me their brains were in such tiny areas of their body. The other way is also about a dream that came true for me, when I was able to board a plane and fly to London, England. This has been a dream of mine since I went there the first time. As a kid, I even went to the post office and asked how much it would have cost to mail a package suspiciously the weight of a 12-year-old to England. It was thoughts like these, those quests for new heights of achievement, new realizations of goals I never imagined I would reach that kept me going through the difficult times.

I don’t know if I have written much about the hardest times when I was last in the psychiatric hospital. There was so much time spent not just locked up in a small ward, but also locked into an empty room, screaming, swearing, kicking, pounding my fists in opposition to the way I was being treated, which likely only made them feel that I did belong in an isolation room even more than they initially thought. When I was in there, I kept one idea firm in my head: this would pass. This would happen, but it will end. There were times I wished I could have found a way to kill myself to make the pain stop, times when things seemed to overwhelmingly impossible to deal with that I broke down in tears, but somehow I knew it would end.

It is funny, but in my last hospital stay, I was transferred out of the locked ward and put in a less intense one and there was a woman who talked about living in an apartment and having a friend come over each and every night to have tea with her and talk/visit. That small bit of solace, that image of having just one friend nearby was something that hadn’t really ever happened to me–until recently. There is a young woman my age that lives in my building and we have become friends, and we talk over a cup of tea just about every night. In so many of my previous apartments, the other people in the building never came over for a visit, or did come over once and never came back. It is a funny thing, but I encourage people with mental health issues to find housing where there are many others with similar issues to yours. The big thing about that is that when you put two people together that both deal with all the struggles and difficulties of depression or mania or schizophrenia, there is simply no stigma, they can relate on a very important level. That is why organizations like AA work, that is why a lot of psychologists put an emphasis on group therapy.

Stigma affects just about anyone with a mental illness, and even effects those who work in the field and have family members with an illness. My dad told me once that back when he was younger, in the 1940s I think he meant, if a family had a child who had a mental illness, they would build a special room for them and either lock them in there permanently or whenever they acted up. This sounds so incredibly inhumane, but my first reaction to this was to think of how terrible it feels to be in a psychiatric hospital separated from friends and family. I can recall years back when I first spent time in Alberta Hospital and later when I was in the same place and others, that I could go a very long time without having any visitors, and when I was lucky enough to have a visitor, it would be my dad who, sadly, I didn’t get along with all that well when I was younger. I can remember getting my first apartment and then getting my very own phone and thinking that as soon as I plugged it in I would get all kinds of calls from old girlfriends or people I grew up with who lived in the suburbs of the city I had moved to at the time. After having the phone about a week it finally rang–and on the other end was an incredibly abusive and hostile credit collection agent. It was so bad that during that time I had so few calls from anyone I actually wanted to talk to that I would answer the phone by yelling into it. Once or twice, when the collections people called about my student loan or student credit card that I received for a course I could no longer physically attend, I would deny that I was the person they were looking for. Of course I was lying my face off, but it was fun to confuse these people not knowing whether or not I was a fair target for their abuse. Then one day they got smart and had an attractive sounding young woman call and in a very positive voice she politely asked for me by name. When I said it was me, she put me on hold and in seconds a vile, abusive and hateful collection agent was put on the line again. For a minute I had thought this was one of those people that I had spent my entire life around in my suburban home from age 0-18 who actually wanted to get ahold of me. I think that was around the point I had my phone disconnected and went and bought a roll of quarters so I could use the payphone down the block. It really surprised me that seemingly no one at all that I had grown up with had any interest in contacting me, even my former best friends. The pain and loneliness I went through at that time was immense.

There are so many ways that stigma can effect people. At first, when I was officially labelled, a lot of the stigma came from right between my two ears. I had done some things that I felt awful about. One of them was to pick a fight with a guy who had really done me no other wrong than laugh at me while I was in a vulnerable state of mind. That situation led to me being arrested in my high school and resisting arrest when I learned that I was being taken out of my school in front of each and every member of my peer group. All my thoughts and actions were so confused. For some reason I followed a girl around my school and I don’t know what it made her think. And lastly, and perhaps worst, I was in the mall in my home town and my voices or delusions somehow made me think I was supposed to accompany a girl at the mall to her home. I walked with her and for some reason she didn’t say a word. If at any time I thought she didn’t want me there I would have left, but I got no indication. Then, without any more words, her and I got in the van of the person who was giving her a ride. I looked over and the poor girl looked terrified, and was soon in tears. I realized that I had been deluded by voices or whatever was going on in my head and so when the van stopped I got out and as I closed the door I heard the young person burst into tears. This is perhaps the greatest regret I have to this day. At the time my guilt was so severe that I had made a decision to join the army, and volunteer to be sent to the Persian Gulf where I hoped I would be killed. I began intensive training to get myself fit enough to join the military, running countless miles each day and lifting weights in between working a warehouse job. My own self-stigma was eating me alive. I pushed myself so hard I got what I would almost describe as a second disability, my knees were mostly destroyed from too much running.

The sad thing about all of this is not that I hurt my knees or any of that, it is that all my life I had been conditioned to shun, stigmatize, insult, and perhaps even fear those who were mentally ill. Everything from Fred Flintstone cartoons to stories in Batman comics about the insane, obsessed Joker gave me a very unrealistic image of mentally ill people. If, four years before the above incidents happen, I had been able to accept a diagnosis and medications to treat it, there would have been almost no question at all of me being ill at the age of 18. I might have even had a youth that I could look back on as being pleasant, not wracked with loneliness and depression. My worst enemy in all this? Myself. The stigma towards mental illness I had towards myself.

Well, dear readers, that is quite a bit for today. I want to thank all of you for following me. All I can really say is that there are many more to come. I am consulting with others now to make a complete book of essays on my knowledge and experience, and some of them will be based on these blog entries. For now, I just hope you like my writing on this blog enough to share on Facebook or retweet on Twitter. It is the support of people who get something out of my words that keeps this blog going. I don’t actually make any money, but I get rewards when I hear from those who read this and they say it has helped them in some way. Best wishes,

Leif Gregersen