Has anyone out there read the classic work “The Gambler” by I think Dosteyovski? It tells the tale of a man so obsessed by gambling that he plots to murder his landlady. I won’t ruin it for you because the whole point in bringing it up is that it portrays an incredibly accurate depiction of a compulsive gambler. I myself was a compulsive gambler for some time, and not only was I totally sure I suffered from this affliction, I also understood that it comes along with the manic side of my bipolar disorder, which is a part of my schizoaffective disorder diagnosis. I could abstain for long stretches, then all at once I would have a severe compulsion and an almost unfailing faith that I would walk out of the casino with more money than I walked in with. Despite making my own computer programs to test my winning strategies and being something of a former math whiz, I would put money in, perhaps win a little at first and then chase my losses until I had nothing. But this hasn’t been my only addiction.
As a young kid, I had an addiction to comic books. I would work myself to death to try and accumulate as many as I could, and even when I got older and stopped reading them, I would often have dreams about still having the literature hidden in my parent’s closet. I simply could not get enough, even when my parents told me no more comics. Then at 14, I started to smoke cigarettes. That was an addiction that took me 18 years to quit.
Perhaps one of the most damaging of my addictions was alcohol. I found it was that magic elixir that would loosen the chains of my anxiety and remove inhibitions. When I was drunk I could meet girls, dance, do whatever I wanted and even if I got into a fight or got beat up for my stupidity while drinking it didn’t hurt that much.
And now I am trying something new, something that is on the edges of anything I ever tried. I want to take all of my possessions and minimize them and somehow stop fixating on getting better clothes, better furniture, better video games. Even though I am 47 I am finding that there are some professional development courses I would love to take but the money just isn’t there and the rules of having the government sponsor a person for part-time learning have changed.
With all of these addictions, I am trying very hard to find a way to not just cope with the ones I have, but to try and avoid getting any more. I met a young man of 33 yesterday who was homeless and addicted to Fentynal. He likely won’t survive the winter unless he can get lucky enough to be put in jail. That is a very scary thing for me to consider, especially when I consider that there isn’t that much difference between him and I other than that I am much older and less able to bounce back from something of that nature.
When I was in a 12-step program years ago, my now-departed sponsor told me once that when you apply the steps of abstinence in your life, you don’t have a cure for your addiction, you have a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of your spiritual condition. He also said that when we abstain, if we don’t deal with whatever personality trait or flaws that caused us to become addicted to something, our illness can manifest itself in other ways.
Clean and purge is all I can manage for now. I do plan to keep a bible and a few books that have meaning for me, but I would like to get to the stage of relying on the library instead of buying and accumulating more and more books. Maybe when I get myself down to the bare bones and can focus on the thing I love the most (writing) I will have enough to not just deal with my addictions, but to really turn myself into a better person all around. I have so little control of my mental health situation. All I can really do is take my medications as prescribed and talk to my nurse and doctor as often as they want me to. I know for a fact that on a fixed income if I can slow down consumption of things such as diet pop (one of my new addictions), purchase of comic books (an affliction that has come back to me) and buying books, I will likely be more able to take care of myself. One of the best things I have found when I want to make an effort to stop a habit is simply to not allow myself to think of the subject. If I have to get off the bus a stop early to walk around a bar that has gambling machines I will. If I have to not go near the mall to not be tempted to buy new clothes, I will do it. And the one thing, the one magical thing that I can always do for myself is as simple as picking up a book, just an interesting book. Reading is such magic, it takes a person to another world, it takes a person inside the mind of the author, it gives a writer a whole new world to create with total omnipresence. Thanks for reading my blog, I couldn’t be a writer if people out there in the world didn’t read my work.
This may seem like funny picture to post with the topic in the title, but for me there is actually a lot of significance in it. From my early days when I was a pre-teen, I was in Air Cadets. After becoming a Sergeant, I quit and tried to forget about that whole part of my life. I spent most of the summer after I quit cadets wishing I had stayed in, that I was still connected to my friends who were out having the times of their lives, going to camps that taught them flying or advanced survival or advanced leadership. I really regret quitting, but a few years later, after having severe psychosis and acting out violently which caused me to be put into a secure unit in a psychiatric hospital a number of times, I wanted all that I had lost back. The trouble was, none of those options were still out there for me. Despite my mental health diagnosis, I took out a massive student loan in BC and tried to get my pilot’s license. This was the best time of my life. I was meeting all kinds of really attractive young women, I was travelling, and the flying was absolutely amazing. When this period of my life ended, and I found myself unable to continue flying or even take care of myself outside of psychiatric care, the depths of my pain were immeasurable. I remember feeling like my life was over, that there would be no more travelling or fun or any of it. What I didn’t really take into account was that at the time I was unable to really take a good hard look at myself when I was flying. At the time, I did experience psychosis, but only when I had been off medication for a while. What I did experience was bipolar disorder, which left me incredibly depressed or far too animated for my own good. I actually was fired from a job because I talked to customers too much. I would talk their ears off, not realizing I was experiencing a manic episode. Then around Christmas, I contacted a friend I had met at a summer camp and if there was any chance of a relationship or even a friendship, my illness made sure that would be impossible.
What was amazing though, was that somehow I was able to hold on to who I was, what mattered to me when I was discharged from the hospital in Edmonton after my return. It took a long wait and a lot of paperwork, but I was given the opportunity to return to high school and complete my grade 12. When I was there, I met the girl of my dreams. I did exceptionally well in school despite little effort, but my main tragic flaw that came was that I decided my penmanship and attractiveness were more important than my mental state and I stopped taking Lithium which was my mood stabilizer (which made my hands shake) and I also stopped taking my pill for psychosis. I don’t know how I have managed it, but that was more than 25 years ago and to this day I still have that same girl (sorry woman) as a best friend. But I had to come first to a point where I was able to admit I had a mental illness. I had to accept treatment. For a long time I lived in severe isolation. In our presentations at the Schizophrenia Society, we relay a disturbing truth. 40% of people with schizophrenia try to end their own lives-and 10% of people with the illness will succeed. It is believed that isolation and stigma are the main factors.
I have come to learn a lot about this fact, and to develop in myself a measure of compassion for those who suffer still by taking on a job at the Schizophrenia Society as a phone support person. Every few weeks I am given a list of people who are shut-ins/isolated and I just call them and talk to them. I try as hard as I can, but I hate to admit that I seem to only make a real difference in a low percentage of the cases. Some of the people though are really so interesting that I don’t understand why they isolate. The trouble is, mental illness has been so stigmatized, so shuffled off to the dirty little corners no one wants to sweep up, that some people don’t even realize that they are full members of the human race regardless of any illness. People need to come to understand that an illness is not the fault of the person who it manifests itself in. To the best of my understanding, there are millions if not billions of nerves in our bodies. Our brain is an example of a bundle of nerves so complex and active that many many things go on in it at once, even while we sleep. Mental illnesses that cause psychosis (and I really don’t think it is relevant to distinguish between diagnoses, but instead to look at how to keep the whole person and their family as healthy as possible, mentally and physically) are based in this huge complex of nerves. Nerves communicate by shooting chemicals called neurotransmitters back and forth to each other. A good deal of psychiatric medications have the end effect of helping stabilize these transmissions. They may reduce the reuptake of the transmitters (serotonin is one of the main ones) or even simply just slow down the nerve traffic so the person can ‘come down’ enough to respond to other treatments. It is worth noting that nicotine affects these same neurotransmitters in much the same way medications do. What all of this adds up to is that this is a physical illness. Yes, maybe people may seem like they are willfully acting out sometimes and doing disturbing or distasteful things, but it is because there is a storm going on in their heads that they simply can’t control. Even people on ideal doses of medications may still experience symptoms.
Well, dear readers, that is it for today. I welcome your comments and feedback. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or topic suggestions. Thanks for continuing to give me the strength to keep this blog going.
The topic of hygiene covers a lot of ground. I wanted to talk about this subject today because I often struggle to keep myself as clean as I like to be while many people tell me I am even cleaner than they are. I know of many cases of people who go for a long time without showering or brushing their teeth and the sad thing is that they pay for this luxury in friendships, job opportunities, and general social interactions. Not too long ago, I was having medication problems and I was experiencing severe paranoia. I believed that people around me thought I stank and that it was so bad they wouldn’t sit near me and they would make jokes and comments. This is yet another aspect of the same issue that plagues people with mental health issues. I can recall being younger and if I was lucky I would take a bath about once a week. Add to the fact that my clothes didn’t get washed often and you have a real problem. In a way, I was afraid of water and taking my clothes off. It may have had to do with the fact that I live in Edmonton where it regularly dips below minus 40 in the winter, but I think there was an actual fear of exposing myself. I had always loved swimming though. Now, thanks to a benevolent government in our city, I am able to get a pass that allows me full access to city swimming pools and gymnasiums. If I am able to swim that is a day I can go without having to shower as they provide hair and body soap for showering before and after a swim. And then, there are times when a shower really does help me get through certain things, like when I am waiting for a long time to do something like meet a friend or get to an appointment. One of the best things about showering I think is that it can be replenishing, refreshing, and even change how you look at the world. Often, when I write a short story, I will go and have a shower so that I can come back and look at the piece from a different point of view after not thinking about it for a while. The benefits of swimming are numerous. If you have ever had a sports injury, swimming is often the best way to exercise with a very low impact on things like joints and knees and ankles and such. It also burns a lot of calories because it exercises many muscles you don’t normally bother with in some workouts like walking or cycling.
One of the things I do to motivate myself to continue my hygiene habits is to try and make them as simple and as enjoyable as possible. I don’t spend too much time in the shower and I no longer take the time to have a bath and have to fill and drain and clean the tub. I jump in the shower, scrub and shampoo and jump out. Then I shave, put on deodorant and quickly brush and floss and use mouthwash and brush my hair. Once you get used to it, it can take under 20 minutes. What I like about it is that I am much more able to feel comfortable around others when I am clean.
Of course, that isn’t the answer for everyone. I had heard of a young man who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. For some time he didn’t shave and grew a long beard, as well as had a hard time showering. His caregivers were told that the important thing to do was to take all pressure off of him, and eventually he went back to taking better care of himself. There is another factor that the “one in five” who have a mental illness of one type or another often need to take medications which causes dry mouth. Fifteen years ago I had no cavities. I was put on medication that caused dry mouth and now I have no more molars. I have just two good chewing teeth (pre-molars) left to eat with and am putting off getting dentures for as long as I possibly can.
Of course there is also the factor that regardless of the mental illness you are diagnosed with, you can experience depression. I can’t offer any advice for this, and I don’t suggest that even people with lived experience give any advice because I am not (and they are not) psychiatrists. It is so important to be totally honest with your psychiatrist, and if they aren’t helping you, you need to discuss this with another person in the field who can tell you if you might be better off with a Doctor who listens more and is more compassionate. This depression can make you simply not care if your teeth or clothes or body are clean. In this case, forcing yourself to shower and all that may not be the priority, getting your sadness dealt with should be.
Self improvement, which I feel is a cornerstone of recovery from a mental illness, and also something that everyone can benefit from, can take years of work. I can remember in my younger days, for want of a better term, my feet smelled really bad. I dreaded the prospect of being invited into a nice house where you had to remove your shoes and often didn’t in my parent’s home. Years later I learned that you can put anti fungal cream on your feet which is also known as athlete’s foot (and also works well on jock itch) and the smell will completely go away (at least until you walk around in a locker room in bare feet anyway). This changed my whole life, and is a perfect example of how much a person can suffer if they are not open and honest, and fully disclose any issues they have to a Doctor. Well my friends, that is all I have for now. I wish everyone a Happy Easter and the summer of your lives. For those of you who are approaching middle age, I just want to tell you that life only gets better as time passes. Ciao!
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,
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.
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.
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. email@example.com
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,