Hello Dear readers. I have been breaking with convention a bit and posting things of a slightly different nature as you may know. There have been a couple of things going on, one of them is that I have been experiencing a fair bit of stress lately. The funny thing is that the stress seems to stay in my blankets. Namely, I feel stressed about facing the world but if I can get up and get dressed I stand a much better chance of facing my problems and at the very least leaving the house to try and do them. Last night was kind of a special night for me because I love to participate in 5-minute live story readings for cash prizes, and the theme for the story was ‘disability’. I couldn’t have picked a more perfect theme, I loved the idea of talking about my illness and where it took me. The main problem was that I had to make it as though I were telling a story, even though my story was pretty much completely non-fiction. I won’t go too much further into it, I thought I would try and post a relevant photo first and then paste in the text of the story I wrote in case any of my readers would like it. Once again I strongly encourage any regular readers to write me with any questions, I can even keep the responses anonymous, and I have no problem even doing some heavy research to answer any questions you have. I think the biggest thing I can say is that once you find a good medication and have a stable life, you can then go into things like a life-skills group where they teach you to better communicate with others, then perhaps once done this successfully, a person who has been in a hospital for a long stay for psychiatric reasons can look into part-time education (and I often recommend distance learning, especially if you are a little older), bettering themselves, keeping their lives low-stress, and then when you are ready move to the next step of finding normal employment. I think this is a time when volunteering is really good because a lot of employers like the idea that you will work for nothing (just kidding) and many other advantages like filling in any large gaps of time in your resume. So, here goes, picture below and then at the bottom of today’s message I will paste in my winning story. Take care everyone!
Story Slam Winning Story
So much of my life I wanted to be a hero. Fight for your country, catch a criminal, save a life. People who did these things and looked good doing them were heroes or so I thought.
Getting older changed the game. Drink the most beer, pick up the best-looking girl, make the most money. Then, one day as I was near to finishing school it happened.
I had heard of phthalidomide before but had never seen a victim of it. A young, healthy man, born without arms, changed me forever. He spoke to our school for an hour, and as he went, he played the saxophone, talked about going to College, and what it was like for people to stare at him everywhere he went.
This young man was a true hero. Someone who spread hope. I could hardly even imagine what he had been through. I told my mom that I felt bad that this unfortunate, birth-defected person had done so much while I had done nothing despite that there was nothing wrong with me.
Soon after, I dove into a self-improvement kick. I quit drinking, smoking, started working out and retreated into my schoolwork every free moment I had. Somewhere in that process something went desperately wrong. As the pressure built, I kept being harder on myself. I began to slip away from reality.
I have no idea what set me off. All I know is that I started to have thoughts and ideas that no rational person would. I gave things away, fell into a deep, dark depression. My mind, my senses were filled with confusion. I was slowly going insane and had no clue what to do about it.
One day a friend came to pick me up and I just wasn’t myself. I was nothing like myself in any way. My friend had the presence of mind to take me to a hospital and soon I was given a powerful injection and confined to a seclusion room.
I just couldn’t seem to understand that despite that this had never happened before, it would happen again, and would never go away. When they released me, I threw out my pills, and just days after, I picked a fight at school and was taken by police back to that horrible place and was kicked out of school.
It took years after that for me to find myself. I ran from my illness. Vancouver, California. Trouble was, I brought my brain with me. Each day was a struggle to keep sane. After another relapse, I finally returned to Edmonton, accepted my diagnosis and took my medication.
So much happened over those years. A thousand lifetimes lived and lost in dreaming or reading or trying to find some kind of work I could handle. I was in no condition to deal with stress, sleeping 12 hours a day because of medications. I was dirt poor and there seemed no hope, no future. When I was around 25, after a harsh rejection from a young woman I once cared about, I took a near lethal overdose.
I laid in bed for days, and while I was under my dad came by and put twenty dollars under my door. That money was enough to get me a cab to the hospital where I spent five more days in intensive care. I wasn’t supposed to have recovered, but miracles happen, and they happen for a reason.
I left the hospital after seeing how much I hurt my family and friends with a new determination. Life from then on wasn’t perfect, but each moment, each sunrise and sunset was precious. They were borrowed moments, time I would never have had if no one had cared about me.
I still became severely ill. Once while in psychosis, I took a tour of the Legislature Grounds and was so abusive and obnoxious that I was escorted off the grounds. It’s a fact that people with mental illnesses are more often victims of violence than perpetrators of it. The misguided attitude that you can do anything, the poor choices you make are the cause. I needed to be in a hospital, and things were so serious this time I wasn’t let out for six whole months.
Some of you may know the rest of the story. A long incarceration, a longer recovery. A new job spreading the word about stigma and mental illness. Other work teaching Wellness, Recovery, and Creative Writing to people who suffer. The years slid past and here I am. How far have I come? From being kicked out of the Legislature to being given a special recognition by Canadians For a Civil Society to Participate in Human Rights Day in the same Legislature I was kicked out of eighteen years ago. Am I a hero? I couldn’t tell you, but in my long journey of growth and recovery I think I may have come to a point where I have done more good than harm. Thank you.
Something I have become aware of in the past few years is that it seems everyone, but especially those who have a mental illness, have something that engages them, something that fulfills them. For me it has been photography, which can be rewarding for everyone, but often people’s passions start earlier in their lives than mine did. I didn’t start getting serious about photography until I was around thirty and better and more reliable digital cameras came out. I had tried taking pictures, I had even taken two photography courses, one in school and another in cadets, and it always just frustrated me. I would load the film wrong, I would take pictures and not have the extra money to have them developed or I would wait too long to have them developed. Now, photography to me is an amazing hobby because I don’t need film, I just need a camera memory card and I can load the pictures onto my computer and fool around with the light and colours and even the composition.
I ran into something very interesting the other day, I was in a class and I found it hard to keep my attention on what was being talked about. There were also breaks and blank spaces in the day that I felt a little bit resentful about because I had nothing to do. Then I noticed the person beside me had taken a sheet of an adult colouring book out and had started the long process of colouring in pieces of it with a ball point pen. I took a sheet for myself and started to do the same thing and it was almost like magic. I was fully engaged in colouring, but I was still able to hear and understand everything being said in the class. I have never really seen myself as much of an artistic person, at least not in the case of drawing things with my hand, but there was a time years ago when my dad, who was a sign writer, asked me to come and help him get some patterns of signs that he needed to recreate. At the time, I often fought with my dad and I hate to say it but had a low opinion of him. I felt the things he did for a living to be something beneath me, but still part of me wanted to do things with my dad, we had a glimmer of the special father-son relationship we used to have when I was much smaller. Anyhow, what he needed me to do was to take a ladder, climb up to where “no entry” signs had been posted and using special thin paper, trace out the whole sign. I wish I could describe it better, but really when I did this, I thought it was pure magic. At that age, I mostly did two things, I delivered pizza and I was a student. But now, I was an active part of something, and I was actually creating something useful. As I carefully sketched out the outlines of the sign, I had such a feeling of personal accomplishment. It was a time in my life I will never forget.
Not all that long after that, I was having severe mental health difficulties and ended up in a locked ward of a psychiatric hospital. I was very young to be there, I had just turned 18, and there was another person there my age who seemed to be something of an odd fit to the situation as well. One afternoon, when there was absolutely nothing to do but watch television, something I mostly hate doing, this young person and I sat down and he showed me how to sketch a tiger or a lion. As the task took over all my concentration and effort, he said to me, “See, now it’s like we’re not in a mental hospital anymore.” and it really wasn’t. Over the years I have tried to engage myself with similar things, but I still kind of feel that drawing, painting, visual art is not my best choice, though as I said it can get a person through some pretty tough times. I have found writing. When I feel a day is slipping away from me and I have accomplished nothing, I can come here and write a blog. When I want to feel I am doing something useful and worthwhile, I will sit down and plan out and write a first draft of a short story or a poem.
Basically dear readers, I don’t want to nail you down to any one activity that will be a catch-all for your problems. What I do want to suggest is that you find something that engages you, takes all your concentration and personal skills. For some it could be building a wooden chair or desk. For others it could be working with stained glass or drawing a cartoon. If you don’t already have something like this in your life, find a book that will teach you the basics of something you feel would be interesting. Work through it, find others that do the same kind of things, be it gardening or even simply reading or writing poetry. Try and stick with it, and before you know it you will have a long list of happy memories, and you will have gotten yourself through some difficult times. I know it has worked that way for me.
I live in the city pictured above, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. At the moment the weather is ideal (aside from a lot of rain this year) but it isn’t always the healthiest climate for recovery. A few years back, I was in the hospital for a month on two separate occasions, and wanting to enjoy the summer weather, I sat outside my apartment on a picnic bench, and a young child while hiding himself was yelling insults at me. This of course is a common thing for young children, but I found it extremely disturbing at the time and felt it was directed at me.
Feeling insults and threats were directed at me is also something not new and not always valid. Before my last hospital visit, I was having extreme problems with paranoia, delusions and hallucinations due to a new medication not working properly. It really can be extremely difficult to function when this sort of thing is going on, difficult to leave the house or to work. I actually got to the point where I thought the people next door to me were laughing and directing insults and threats at me that I recorded what I thought were the remarks on my cell phone to play it for my building manager. She listened to it and couldn’t hear a thing. I remember thinking, and saying that something was very seriously wrong.
One thing I want to note here is that a person’s first few years with a diagnosis of an illness like schizophrenia or bipolar can be very difficult, but statistics show that you can bounce back, that most people do bounce back. The most important thing I feel at this point is just not to isolate yourself. You may be unable to stay with your parents or a sibling as a helper and caregiver, but it would be really positive if you had a roommate. I remember getting an excellent suggestion that I put up a notice at the University in the psychology department telling the truth, that I had a mental illness, and asking for a student to share a room. I didn’t end up going through with it, but still it was a pretty good idea.
I wanted to talk a little today about resentments. All of us have times in our past where we were pushed around or bullied, hurt, taken advantage of. Sadly that is not just the normal for people with mental illnesses, but for most people in general. I remember my junior high days being filled with beatings from the biggest kid in school, for no better reason than I was the one he needed to prove he was tougher than. The fact is, and I myself am guilty for this, you can’t continue to live your life and constantly look back at regrets.
There are a couple of ways of looking at times when people hurt or wronged you. These incidents often play themselves over and over through your head, and when you have psychosis, they can actually change in your memories to be even more disturbing and troubling. One of the ways I have recently discovered to help deal with feelings like this which was suggested to me a long time ago was to take all of your anger and hurt and put it into an exercise like swimming or lifting weights, really push yourself to your limits and let the anger loose. I haven’t always agreed with this, but I know that it makes you feel a lot better and has many healthful side benefits.
Another way of looking at thinking about those in the past who hurt us is that we are literally letting them rent free space in our heads. In the end, we have control over how we see things, we have control over how we let them affect us. The trouble is, not everyone knows how to enact this control. One of the best ways to learn is to participate in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but that can be expensive and time consuming. Still, it gives proven results. Look into places you can get this kind of therapy on a sliding scale, or perhaps even join a group therapy session.
The next way of dealing with these thoughts is something I didn’t really event, but I seemed to discover it on my own as a teenager. I was a smoker and I hated what it did to my health and really wanted to quit. My most successful attempt at quitting came when I used a psychological method of distracting myself from my cravings. One of the big motivators for people in their teens is attraction and desire, so what I did was whenever I wanted to light up a cigarette, I would indulge myself in putting thoughts and images in my head regarding a young woman I really liked. Although I started again later, this was very nearly a successful result that ended up taking 17 more years and professional help to deal with.
So, some of those methods can help get the thoughts out of your head or distract you so you don’t dwell too much on one thing, but I also wanted to describe one of the best things you can do for your mind and your brain. It is meditation, and I make no apologies that I have talked about it before. It is such a simple, though not always easy thing to do. You need to have some quiet time and space, unless you are fortunate to have a class or monastery available where you can learn, and all you really do is focus and breathe. You simply try to clear out your head, and think of nothing. This can be difficult at first, but as you practise meditation more, it will become easier. You breathe in and count one, breathe out and count two. You try to count to ten without being distracted or thinking of something else, which will happen many times, but just gently guide yourself back to not thinking and start again from one. There are many books on meditation, and also many resources like apps. I even once owned a virtual reality headset that had a ‘game’ where you could go to one of 12 destinations and just be alone to think and let your positive thoughts grow and negative thoughts go away. With that, I hope all of you can find peace and enjoyment in your lives, be you caregivers or people who suffer from mental illnesses, all the best!
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,
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.
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.
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.
Sadly, this picture doesn’t do the subject justice. The other day, after a panicked phone call from a friend, I went outside to see something I have never imagined I would ever see–the sun was cherry red from thick forest fire smoke hanging over the city.
Don’t forget to scroll past today’s poem for today’s blog on coping with depression.
I know you’re hurting but don’t think you found a better way
Before you waste your life I have some words I want to say
Each one of us, your friends fears to take a chance
And each one of us has failed at romance
Please don’t give up trying
Giving up and giving in
When it comes to love
Is almost like a sin
You have to understand love sometimes fades
The way we all see it you weren’t to blame
You put body, mind, and soul into being a friend and lover
And now that your love is no more you can’t recover
Just keep something always in your mind
You have looks and youth, there is every chance you will find
A new path to happiness once more
Though you may wait a while and find it on a distant shore
The time will come for you then you will just need to go through that open door
You will not regret starting fresh and finding someone new
Right now, those of us who care fear greatly for you
Too many young people gave their lives away
For hurt feelings that would be gone so soon, literally in days
The final choice is up to you
Only you can decide what you do
But my friend I will say anew
So many people care and I do too
Coping With Depression:
I think a lot of people, heck I’ll go out on a limb and say everyone has had their down days. But when you have an actual diagnosis of clinical depression it goes far beyond what most people experience. Depression, which can be referred to as clinical depression or unipolar depression, is extremely debilitating. When it happens to you I think the most important thing you can do is to not isolate yourself. I went through some times living on my own when it just seemed like there was no way out, that my life was going to end in a bad part of town living all alone in a cheap apartment. I recall literally laying on the floor repeatedly trying to touch wires in the back of my oven for no real reason. I wasn’t trying to kill myself, but I was close to being past the point of caring.
One of the hardest things about dealing with depression, (and I should also note a good deal of today’s blog applies to bipolar disorder as well, which has a depressive side to it) is that you are not visibly injured and a lot of people can be extremely judgemental. When I was first out on my own I had a job at a grocery store for a few months but I had a very hard time coping. Somehow when you add stress to depression, you end up with a great deal of anxiety and discomfort. Working becomes impossible. More than a few times I have had jobs where I had to call in sick for no better reason than that I didn’t feel like working. Of course I made up more elaborate excuses than that, but it was next to impossible for me to find any kind of job that understood my needs as a disabled person, so naturally after years of trying everything I could, I was put on a disability pension. I was very lucky because I found something I could do, I found that I could write and also give talks for the Schizophrenia Society and help others. Things have turned out extremely well, but I still have the odd bout of depression and mania. I also have symptoms of schizophrenia since my full diagnosis is anxiety, bipolar, and schizoaffective disorder.
One of the most important daily strategies I use is meditation. Some time back I made an in-depth study of meditation and the things I learned were astounding. For a long time I would use sitting meditation and count my breaths and simply try and focus and keep my ‘monkey mind’ from running around and thinking all kinds of different things. I found it helped with anger, it took a good deal of stress off my shoulders especially when really needed like just before a shift at work, but I slowly slipped away from it. Now I practise walking meditation more, which is great because it is helping me lose weight and feel better which is extremely important for mental and physical health, but I do think I need to go back to sitting meditation soon. There is nothing that gave me more of a positive and caring attitude than sitting meditation.
Of course, when you consider depression, it is important to consider anti-depressants. I take prozac (among pills for other reasons and an injection) and I honestly don’t know what I would do without it. Not every pill is right for every person. I do have to say though that there was a time when I went off prozac because I thought I was ‘cured’ from my depression and I sunk deep into a depression that was literally so bad I couldn’t see that my mental and physical health were seriously deteriorating. I barely left my apartment, I found no joy in anything. And to top it off, I contacted a high school crush and was told to get out of her life. A short time later I made a very serious suicide attempt and ended up in intensive care. Lesson: don’t discontinue medications without the supervision of a doctor/psychiatrist.
So what about the people who feel down but don’t think their situation is serious enough to get treatment? Talking to your family Doctor about it, or finding a counsellor/psychologist may be the best thing you could ever do. I think a lot of people who have the blues a lot don’t even remember what feeling good was like.
There are many more strategies I can go over. One of my favourites is to get a supportive and positive group of friends (preferably ones that aren’t regular drinkers or drug users) and get five phone numbers. When you feel you need to talk, call the first one, then when you next want some support, call the second and work your way down the list. This way you don’t put too much pressure or demand on one person to help you.
As I mentioned above, physical activity can be a great way to lift the spirits. Walking is great, especially if you have someone to walk with. Sports like tennis or racquetball, or even team sports can be great, but don’t force yourself or risk injury. It is always a good idea to consult an MD before starting a new regimen. But none of these things work alone. Use all of them or a few of them. Get five friends, make an appointment to talk to your family MD to talk about your depression. In most major cities, you can find resources to see a counsellor/psychologist for free. Above all, do everything you can to maintain good health from brushing your teeth to watching salt and fat intake. And if your depression lasts, strongly consider anti-depressants. They were a miracle for me and depression almost killed me more than once.