From Rags to Contentment

In August of 2018, I snatched up a last-minute ticket to Burning Man, which is an annual gathering of artists in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada in the USA. I was about to willingly attempt survival in the blistering hot desert for nine days. I recently ditched three very high paying jobs, broke my apartment lease, rid myself of 99% of my belongings, and “moved in” to my little red Prius.

Sounds reasonable, right?

In my eyes this was all perfectly rational, courageous and BAD ASS! The truth is, I had cycled into hypomania as I danced with the idea of either leaving my career or ending my life. Just before this upswing I was trapped in an overwhelming state of depression. I had fought off taking medication for my bipolar diagnosis because of the profound stigma around pharmaceuticals and mental illness. The stress of my career had pushed me to my breaking point and my system responded.

Hypo-mania, here we go again!

Throughout my career as a medical professional it was normal for me to wipe tears from my cheeks while rounding the corner to a patient’s room. I faked a giant smile as I guided them through their speech pathology treatment sessions. I would sob in my car during lunch breaks. I had questioned my professional path as far back as graduate school, in 2006, when I had my first major manic episode, but it promised two things that I was desperate for; financial and occupational security. Graduate school created a ton of debt for me. I was convinced that working in this field was the only way I could afford to pay off my massive student loans. I told myself that when I finally paid them off I could change careers and then I would be happy. So, I never missed a student loan payment for 12 years, but there was barely enough money left for all my epic credit card bills, gas and groceries. I had at least 10 more years of debt to pay, I was absolutely miserable and hardly getting by.

My history is marked by persistent and intense lows with occasional highs. In 2013, I checked myself into a 28 day rehabilitation “resort” during my second major manic episode. I paid for it with credit cards, in true manic style, and it started me on a new path. Since then I have worked tirelessly to avoid stressors, or behaviors that may trigger manic states. I’ve attended counseling, eliminated credit debt, overcome an eating disorder and stopped self-medicating but until recently I continued to refuse pharmaceutical intervention. I convinced myself that my chronic depression was from my job, and not my diagnosis. Besides I enjoyed the manic episodes, no matter how destructive, because for a moment I was free from soul crushing depression.     

In July of 2018, I decided that there were only two ways out; 1.) exit this world completely, or 2.) burn my career to the ground. Ending my life was not going to be my way out. Instead I quit everything. I deferred my student loans, gathered every cent I had and paid the next 4 months of my car loan and insurance to cover me from August to November.

Finally, I gave away – donated – or – sold damn nearly everything that I owned, broke my apartment lease and moved into my car. Obnoxious and cliche as if may be, I took off to Burning man as an epic way to kick off my new life.

I thought my plan was hilarious and genius.

Sadly, my “high” took a rapid nose dive into staggering depression while I was there. When I returned, I was lonelier and more disillusioned than ever before. I roamed the country for several months, free from the career I hated, but growing increasingly paranoid, anxious and confused. I could not deny my need for medical help, or the reality that I was now broke, homeless and unemployed.

Early on my parents were concerned by my Instagram posts that documented my leap into freedom. They were pleading with me to come home. Desperate for answers, I agreed to visit them from Thanksgiving to Christmas, at most.

Upon arrival I enrolled in Obamacare which covered and allowed me to start medication and psychotherapy, both life changing decisions in and of themselves. These interventions combined with diet changes, regular exercise, and self-employment, started me on a clear path to success. Because I spent over a decade struggling to survive with depression, I quickly became an over-achiever as I discovered what stability felt like. I suppose I’ve been making up for lost time.

It is April 2019 as I write this. Over the last six months I have accomplished more than I could have imagined possible. Including but not limited to:

  • Earning a certification to teach English as a foreign language. I am using it to teach English to kiddos in China via the internet;
  • Compiling and submitted a request for pardon, to wipe my criminal record;
  • Successfully teaching myself the fundamentals of graphic design and how to use WordPress and WIX to build 3 beautiful websites;
  • Designing a personal brand for my mental health advocacy work;
  • Joining toastmasters to enhance my public speaking skills and commencing training through a professional mastery course in public speaking;
  • Enrolling in notable business school with a focus in entrepreneurship; and
  • Deciding to obtain an accredited certification in transformational life coaching.

I still do not have much more than my little red Prius and the clothes on my back, but I am content with my life and excited about the direction I am headed. This leap of faith has gifted me with a complete mental and emotional transformation which has proved to me that stability is worth far more than riches. By breaking through the stigma of bipolar disorder I have found healing through self-acceptance.

Author, Nicole Hathaway

Transforming Obstacles into Strength: Meet our Scholarship Winner Gabriella!

Gabriella has made her mental health challenges into one of her greatest strengths, but it didn’t start that way.

Struggling with anxiety for as long as she can remember, Gabriella says, “I never knew any different. I thought everyone’s brain just worked that way.” As she got older, the anxiety evolved into recurring panic attacks and began affecting her schoolwork. Still, her anxiety also motivated her to work harder, and although her anxiety caused her to have challenges in school, she asserts, “It was also one of the biggest factors that led me to where I am now.”

With the support of OtsukaLundbeck Alliance, the Stigma-Free Society provided a post-secondary school scholarship to Gabriella to put towards earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration at Simon Fraser University. She feels that her competitive spirit and perfectionism allow her to have success in such a difficult program, but it’s these same traits that made her reluctant to seek help for so long.

Like many people in our society, Gabriella didn’t want to admit that her mental distress was an issue and that it severely impacted her life. She told herself that she ought to simply, “Suck it up,” and get by on her own.  A shift in thinking came after she made many positive lifestyle changes from diet modifications to exercise regimens, and while this helped to some degree her mind simply would not shut off from relentless anxiety and worries. She stumbled across a documentary about women struggling with anxiety and depression, and eventually decided to try medication.

Gabriella often told herself, “If I’m not taking medication, I’m winning.” There is so much stigma around people who take medication for mental health, whereas people who take medication for physical illness are rarely judged so harshly. Gabriella states, “I noticed in a lot of people, they feel that taking medication for mental health is something that is a weakness instead of something that can make you feel stronger.”

Since then, she has received support from friends and family, and has had friends tell her that her decision to take care of her own mental health has inspired them to do the same. Gabriella asserts,

“Mental health is in everybody, and everybody needs to be taking care of it.”

Finding out her condition had a name felt empowering to Gabriella. She finds success in overcoming her anxiety through regular meditation and exercise, and practices positive affirmations. Like many people who struggle with perfectionism and anxiety, no matter what has been achieved, Gabriella often felt like she was never enough, or that she was not meeting her own expectations. These practices, as well as working with a doctor regularly to manage her mental health, help her feel that she is not a victim, but rather an active driver in her own wellness. Gabriella states, “I have a part-time job in Finance and I am in school full time for Business. I have a really great support system and my friends mean the world to me.”

One of the most important insights about managing her mental health is refusing to see herself as a victim. Gabriella does not view her anxiety as a negative obstacle, but as a means to push herself and become stronger. She encourages others by saying, “Use whatever strengths and weaknesses you have, that’s who you are. You can work to improve yourself, but you can’t change who you are. Use that to motivate yourself and do great things. Use it as a positive light.”

Author,

Robyn Thomas, Community Development Manager, Stigma-Free Society

Thank you to the OtsukaLundbeck Alliance between Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. and Lundbeck Canada  for their generous donations to two Stigma-Free Scholarships in 2018-19. We are very grateful.

Meet our Stigma-Free Society – Otsuka-Lundbeck Alliance Scholarship Winner!

Many students on campus are carrying around more than just heavy textbooks. Not only burdened by the pressures of fitting in, and keeping up high grades, some students are facing hidden adversity made worse by the effects of stigma.

Ruzzelle – Stigma-Free Society Scholarship Winner

With the support of Otsuka-Lundbeck Alliance, we were able to give two deserving students who have overcome societal and self-stigma a scholarship to put towards their post-secondary program of choice. One of our two scholarship winners, Ruzzelle, began having mental health issues in high school but didn’t believe that getting help from a professional was an option.

“I almost failed my first year of University”, she says, “and it wasn’t until I started to see somebody later on that I could slowly get a handle on just living.” Mental health wasn’t something Ruzzelle’s friends in high school talked about, and like many families, hers did not talk about mental illness in a constructive way. “When I told them I was depressed, they wanted to take me to Disney Land because it’s the happiest place on earth! They just wanted me to get better and they didn’t know how.” Eventually, her family offered her the financial support to see a counselor.

The counseling sessions helped Ruzzelle become aware of her self-defeating thoughts, self-stigma being among them. She spent years struggling to simply get out of bed, but for a long time, felt that it was a problem best handled alone.  Now Ruzzelle says, “I feel like the anxious thoughts are more manageable now, I think because I’ve had all this practice, time and support.”

Now that she has the support she needs, Ruzzelle is completing a Masters Degree in Speech-Language Pathology. “I’m entering a field where I’m going to be able to help other people go through their own journey of stigma which is amazing. I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

We asked Ruzzelle how it felt to receive a scholarship based on her experiences of overcoming stigma and she responded, “I felt very supported. I heard all this bad news in the media all the time, but hearing what one non-profit is doing for students about stigma is amazing. One of the good pieces of news that I need.”

When asked what she would say to other students suffering from the effects of societal or self-stigma, Ruzzelle would like them to know that, “You’re not alone in your journey. All it takes is one person to really listen to you and it can be life changing.”

Congratulations Ruzzelle and all the best in your Masters Program!

Thank you to Lundbeck Canada and Otsuka Canada Pharmaceuticals Inc.for making the Stigma-Free Society Scholarships possible.

A CHAOTIC ROLLER  COASTER  RIDE  OF  MELANCHOLIC  MOODS  and  RAPID  CYCLING  EUPHORIA

I would describe my life as…

A CHAOTIC ROLLER  COASTER  RIDE  OF  MELANCHOLIC  MOODS  FOLLOWED BY  RAPID  CYCLING  EUPHORIA

I was born this way.   I also knew I was different from a very early age. It was like I had many faces and each face had a different mood, and I never knew which mood would suddenly  appear.   I have Cyclothymic Bipolar Disorder which means I don’t have a low mood period or a high manic period rather a constant fluctuation of moods with rapid cycling.

I have had one serious episode of suicidal thoughts in my life, it happened when I was sixteen and living in foster home.

Before I was 13 years old I started getting into trouble, hanging with a bad crowd. I was still having mania racing thoughts every day and was always hypersensitive. My mind was so full of ideas and emotions that I couldn’t deal with them and I acted out by running away, stealing, fighting, taking drugs, drinking. My dad eventually placed me in foster care when i was 13 hoping a family with a mom would settle me down…it didn’t.

Stigma-Free Zones

I thought it was me that was behaving badly…It wasn’t till I was in my thirties that I was actually diagnosed…what a difference that made…finally some closure.  Turns out I also have ADHD, Social Anxiety Disorder and Personality Disorder. I’m surprised that I’m still alive and married to a wonderful woman.

I’d like to summarize my life to share more about the in-depth part of me. My mother died when i was 9. I have 6 sisters and 2 brothers. My older brother Dave has schizophrenia and bipolar living on the streets. I found him about 10 years ago while searching with my wife. He refused to acknowledge me as his brother and asked me to never come see him again. I miss him. My brother John was a heroin addict in his teens but found religion and is living his life  devoted to Christ. I guess that is the better route to go, God before drugs. I’m happy he is happy.

After mom died…

…our childhood home burned to the ground.

…my sisters all turned out OK.

…my sisters held dad close, me & my brothers never were let in.

…the boys were the ones affected.

My foster parents beat me for acting out and punished me by withholding food. I think that’s why today I have an eating disorder; I can binge eat even when I’m full I fear i won’t get more. I’m working with my psychiatrist on this issue along with others. I had an affair not because I wanted to but because of impulsive nature while off my medication.

On the bright side I have a wonderful supporting wife who has stood by me through everything, a family that supports me and grandchildren whom I adore.

I became a nurse…

…to help others understand what they were going through

…to help others realize that they are not alone

… as therapy for myself.

I loved being a nurse but my illness didn’t allow me to work for long. So, after 13 years of nursing i was forced to retire and go on benefits at 50 years old.

I have made some lifelong friends, something i never would have been able to do in my younger days, because in those days I burned bridges.

I take medication every day.  While on meds, I sometimes felt like I could save the world, which I can’t, so I would stop taking them. But nothing good came of that.  I have been seeing a psychiatrist once a month for the last 7 years and it helps.

Today I am somewhat stable although I still cycle and always will, but now I know the reasons why. It is hard knowing I will never work again because of my mental state.

There is so much more about me I’d love to share and so much more I have to offer. I’m looking forward to hearing back from you.

Thank you for listening to some of my story.

Author, Steve von Kanel

Hope is the Bird who Feels the Light and Sings while the Dawn is still Dark

Bonjour, I’m Pauline. It’s a privilege to offer my experience to your understanding of bipolar disorder and dual diagnosis with substance abuse. I once self medicated with alcohol, but now have 11 years of sobriety. May I begin by respectfully acknowledging the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations on whose traditional and unceded territories I live, work and play.

I’m a 55 year old mother of three, Nani-Ji to a half Punjabi Grandson, and I’ve spent 35 yrs being the wife of a saint. I’m a daughter, sister, friend, teacher, mentor and colleague. Many people are affected by having this ‘soul sickness.’ Besides social dysfunction, I have suffered from denial, which presented a barrier to accessing care and finding interpersonal healing.

In the last 16 yrs, I have been on 10 medications, and now fine tuned on three. Honing my insight, I am at my healthiest yet, with the expertise of my psychiatrist and psychologist. In my own mind, it is far easier to relinquish alcohol and gain a clear mind than give up the highs of mania. I had resisted adequate treatment fearing “a root canal of my soul”. To compound denial, my eccentricities were encouraged by all except those closest to me. I was lauded for my flamboyance, generosity and humour. Coercion to step up treatment occurred in 2014, when for one day, I found myself psychotic after many sleepless nights in pain. I was rescued by my family and kept safe in five point restraints over night. This, my only hospitalization, lasted 1 month. Besides avoiding hospitalization, the imperatives to accept aggressive treatment also included avoiding depression and dementia, both associated with brain burnout from the highs. Less ups means less downs.

Depression is waking to the disgust within the nostrils of my rotting body. It is the compulsion to take all my pills and slip under the bath water, a profound inertia confining me to days of indecision and bird watching from the sofa. Where can one find hope? In the words of Tagore; “Hope is the bird who feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark.”

For patients suffering, hope in mental illness is the gift that treatment extends into the darkness. To the many scientists and clinicians who have played a part in this miracle of healing, I give my deepest gratitude. Treatment resulted in dampening my inner world of symbols and connections. Purpose and significance, I now share with others. I am abstinent of spirituality; which has been replaced with reasoned atheism and measured forays into transcendence. I still write poetry, but much less prolifically. And I am more objective about their quality.

Ecstasy is replaced with peace.
Unpredictability becomes constancy.
Impulsivity is stayed with pause.
Multitasking concedes to completing one.
Irritability softened into patience.
Restlessness is answered by acceptance.
Overconfidence yields to humility.
Bragging surrenders to confidentiality.
Interrupting quiets for listening.
Over-sharing is set aside for curiosity.
A monologue of opinions opens to dialogue.
Gregariousness settles in self-contentment.
Flirtation returns to loyalty.
Extravagance levels into moderation.
Risk taking is tempered with caution.
Selfishness imbued with empathy.
Insomnia crushed by sonorous coma.

I don’t miss drinking whatsoever, but I do miss my highs. I doubt myself when I am feeling good, worried I am escalating. Rebuilding self-trust is by one deserved day at a time. I am grateful to have got a grip before I lost everything I cherish. I am thankful for effective treatment, for wholeness and the chance to renegotiate my identity and rediscover my soul.

~Pauline

Let’s Talk About Stigma with Author Jack Travis

An interview with mental health advocate and author, Jack Travis

In late October, the Stigma-Free Society connected with 23-year-old Jack Travis, who wrote a self-help book titled Starting Point: Your Journey to A Better Life Starts Here… Inspired by Jack’s personal, first-hand experiences regarding mental illness and addiction, the book aims to provide knowledge and guidance to those who are struggling in life and wish to live healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives.

One of the key themes that weaved through our conversation was the idea of fear, and how it fuels the stigma of mental illness. On one hand, many people fear the mentally ill because they think people with mental illnesses are dangerous. On the other hand, people who are struggling with mental health issues are afraid to seek professional help because of the misconceptions about mental hospitals, therapy, and support groups.

Stigma is like “Twisting a Knife”

One of the first questions I asked Jack was, “What does mental health and stigma mean to you?” And Jack responded by saying:

“I believe stigma is a big problem and a big barrier that makes it hard for people to heal. In order for the sufferers to heal from their mental illnesses, they need love and support from other people. They need people to point them in the right direction. If they have people in their lives telling them that there is something wrong with them, and that they are dangerous or crazy, it’s just adding to the problem, making them worse. It’s like twisting a knife that’s already in your body.

Before I sought professional help, any time I felt the need to talk to somebody, I tried to talk to my friends. I wanted them to be there for me, but they were going behind my back and telling people to stay away from me because I was supposedly “dangerous.” Then, they betrayed me by making false accusations against me and trying to get me in trouble. It was really hard on me. I lost a lot of friends because of that, but they were not bad people; they were just afraid of me because of the stigma.”

Overcoming Fear with Knowledge

When talking about addressing the unfounded fear and prejudice the general public has towards people with mental illnesses, Jack explains,

“The most common fear is the fear of the unknown, and the only way to conquer that is by gaining knowledge. The more you learn about something, the less scary it is. It’s like when you were a kid; you thought there was a monster living under your bed, and you had a stress response because it was a perceived threat to your survival. However, when you grew up, and you learned that it was not a monster, but just a sweater. It eliminated that stress response because you now know that there’s no immediate threat to your survival.

Similarly, when I learned more about mental illness, I realized that it’s actually not that scary. People who are mentally ill are not dangerous; they are just really hurting, and they really need love, support, and guidance to get through their issues.”

“The Mental Hospital was Actually Quite Pleasant.”

We also talked about the misconceptions about mental institutions, and how they prevent mental illness sufferers from seeking professional help. On this topic, Jack shared his own experience with being in a mental hospital.

“There are a lot of people who are afraid of going to mental hospitals. That’s why I talk about my personal experiences with that and how it was actually a pleasant experience. The first time I got hospitalized, I tried to commit suicide the night before. I was in the emergency room for about 12 hours before the doctors did a psych evaluation, and then I got transferred to the mental hospital. I did have anxiety going into it, but once I got into the psych unit, it was a very positive and welcoming atmosphere.

The security guard brought me to the unit and introduced me to other patients, and they all welcome me with smiles. They were saying things like, “Hi. Nice to meet you.” They all had interesting stories, and I connected with them. It was really nice. The staff took great care of me, and there were all different kinds of activities like meditation, art therapy, music therapy and group therapy. You got to go outside if you wanted to, and they fed you three meals a day. That’s why I tried to let people know that it’s not as scary as it seems. Professional help is a much better option, in comparison to the terrible alternative of self-medicating with substances.”

Trust the Professionals

A lot of people, who are troubled by mental illnesses, also have difficulty trusting mental health professionals and opening up to them about their own personal experiences. Here is Jack’s response:

“A lot of people are afraid of opening up because they opened up to the wrong people in the past. Those people judged them and made them feel worse about themselves. That happened to me, and I was afraid to open up because I thought that I was going to be beaten down, threatened, or yelled at like others did to me.

Sometimes, families and friends may not be the best people to open up to because they are the most biased; they are not entitled to keep secrets, and they may mislead you. Again, it’s not because they are mean; they want to help you, but they may not know exactly how. That’s why you want your support network to be mainly people that know how to help you.”

Building Resiliency and Finding Your Passion

When I asked Jack, “what recommendations would you give to someone who is struggling in life? How do you motivate them to make a positive change?” Here is Jack’s answer:

“It’s all about breaking unhealthy thought patterns. If you were abused for your whole life, especially verbally and emotionally, you are conditioned and taught to think in a certain way. Unless you recondition yourself, you will continue to think that way. I hope the information in my book can help people break out of those negative thought patterns and teach them the right ways of life.”

One thing I learned in life is that the harder you fall, the higher you can rise. Think about dribbling a basketball; the harder it hits the floor, the higher it bounces back up. In other words, the worse you feel in one moment, the better you have the potential to feel in the next moment.

When I think about how sick and unstable I was, as opposed to how I am now, I honestly believe that anybody can do what I did if they are given the right help and guidance. I want to help prove that to the world. That’s the reason why I wrote this book because I want to help others who are in a similar place and be the person who wasn’t there for me.”

Author’s Final Thoughts

I certainly learned a lot from my conversation with Jack in terms of why people behave in certain ways, when it comes to mental health issues, and how we can go about reducing the stigma in both the general public and the sufferers. Knowing Jack’s lifelong struggle with mental illness and addiction, and how he was able to bounce back and change his outlook on life in less than a year, gives me hope that other people who are struggling in life can do the same.  If you would like to connect with Travis Jack and/or purchase his impacting book, please check out his website.

Author, Danny Li, Community Development Manager, Stigma-Free Society

Natalie’s ‘Coming Out’ Story…

So I guess this is my ‘Coming Out’ story, as I have spent the past few years battling with my identity; the illness vs me. Now it’s time to come clean to my wider circle of friends and family, and perhaps to myself as well.

The signs of bipolar were always there, a diagnosis merely highlighted the facts. I was often met with the label of ‘too intense’, ‘hypersensitive’, and in some cases just pure ‘crazy’. The lookers and pointers where always quick to tell me something was wrong, but until I decided to realize it for myself, everything was just ‘fine’; fine with roller coaster highs and fine with lows that could not be reasoned with. Until now.

Now I stand proud with my bipolar label.

What does this mean for me? A bipolar diagnosis sheds light on some of my past thoughts and actions and it now puts my future into perspective. I take daily medications and use self-care strategies. I work on a colour-coded mood scale, that depicts my darkest and brightest states. I never thought I would be so at home with a label, a chart, even an identity, but you see bipolar is not my identity, it is deep rooted in who I am as a person. A person full of love, happiness, creativity and excitement. Someone who, with the aid of said colour-coded-chart, can pin point her mood at any given time and proactively see the potential pitfalls coming her way and react to them accordingly.

Coming to terms with, and accepting this illness has been by far my hardest task to date – even given some of my most intense episodes and hospitalizations. The realization that there is a manageable life to this eternal illness and having the strength to push on with, and uphold the strategies I need to stay in a safe place, has been nothing less than an epiphany.

So here I stand, guilty of the highs that send me into psychosis and allow me to talk to god, as well as the lows that dig a bigger hole than a JCB excavator! I no longer anguish over the past, but instead, look forward to the future. I now know I can take each day for what it is with the help of some very strong and supportive family members, friends and helpful local organizations such as Stigma-Free Zone. I have returned to University in a bid to learn this illness inside out, I continue to hold down a job and care for my four-legged friend Sandy the Chiweenie (although she may well be the caregiver). I recognize the difference between self-care and selfishness and continue to grow as a person, each and every minute.

I’d never wish this illness upon anyone, but for now I am happy to say it is very much a part of me.

I am Natalie, a daughter, a friend, a lover, and I proudly manage, not struggle, with a disorder called Bipolar 1. I am Natalie, and I have bipolar.

Jenny’s Inspiring Story – The Impact of the Teens2Twenties Support Group

JennySeven years ago, I met Andrea Paquette and seven years ago, she and the Bipolar babe Teens2Twenties program saved my life.

Back then I wasn’t who I am today. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at the age of seven years old and it was at that age that I first attempted to commit suicide. Even being this young I knew I didn’t want to live because the feelings I had were too strong and I couldn’t understand how everything could be so painful. I thought life would always be that way and it started a very self-destructive cycle that took years to break.

Over the next several years I would be shuffled from foster home to foster home, my mental health would deteriorate rapidly and unfortunately, I would begin to normalize abusive situations. I developed a serious eating disorder, drug addiction and would go through various intense psychotic episodes which would result in hospitalizations due to my Bipolar Disorder.

Over the years, I would be hospitalized repeatedly due to self-harm. At my worst, I received forty-seven staples for self-inflicted wounds just to be released from the hospital and given no help what so ever, I was told I was a lost cause by doctors, nurses, friends and family.

When I aged out of foster care, I was put on permanent disability and was not expected to ever recover. My case was “difficult” and I wasn’t reacting to therapy and medication properly so I felt there was no way I would ever escape the torture that I was feeling on a day to day basis. I was unable to work, go grocery shopping, fill out forms or do normal day to day tasks such as cooking or cleaning. If I opened my eyes and reality set in, I would start crying and take more pills to fall asleep because being awake hurt too much.

At 20 years, old I met Andrea and I had no idea that it would change my life, she and the Society gave me purpose and a community ofshutterstock_126377570-2 people I could relate to. She gave me work and volunteer experience, she provided me with tons of resources such as guidance on how to assess proper psychiatric care, counseling and I attended the Teens2Twenties Support Group over the years. She eventually hired me as a group facilitator for the Society’s Women’s Group, supported my art and mostly importantly supported me. She and the Society saved my life.

Now I’m twenty-seven, I’ve gone to school full time and I currently work at a hair salon with the position of assistant manager and advanced stylist. I no longer suffer from psychotic episodes and my Bipolar Disorder is considered to be in stable condition, I no longer self-harm, I recovered from my drug addiction and eating disorder. I sell my art, volunteer, practice yoga and dance and I’m a very active part of my community.

I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Andrea, she and her Society literally saved my life and all I want is for others like me to have the chance I did!

Jenny

Andrew’s Fascinating Story: Psychosis to Recovery is not an Easy Road

stigma free zoneMy alarm clock read 3 am. I lay awake, unable to sleep. It was the fifth night in a row that I’d gone without sleep. Five nights is enough to break anybody, let alone someone in the early stages of mental illness.

I’d been struggling the past few months. My grades weren’t as great as they I would have liked, I was becoming increasingly isolated, anxious, and moody, and my mind persistently raced. A slump, I reasoned. But my “slump” didn’t explain Charlie.

I lit a cigarette, and waited. I had come to expect nightly visits from Charlie. I hadn’t told anyone about him and I mean no one would believe Charlie existed. To be frank, even I was doubtful. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And there was certainly something devilish about Charlie.

My mind had, over the course of a year or so, become consumed with religious ideas.  Odd, considering I didn’t associate with traditional religion. Prior to my encounters with Charlie, I never would I have considered myself a religious guy, but midway through my second year at the University of Victoria, I was convinced I was possessed. This was my only explanation for the supernatural entity I knew as Charlie.

When Charlie spoke to me – his many voices clamoring inside my head – he’d tell me I was the reincarnation of Christ. Charlie often came to me with visions of the future. I saw myself leading a revolution, and deposing the corrupt and deceptive powers that be.

Let’s backtrack a bit. I was using drugs – cannabis – and was drinking heavily on the weekends. I consider the University of Victoria to be a party school, and I found myself immersed in the campus culture of reckless indulgence. But substance abuse is normalized among students, and among young adults in general. During the Paris expat era of the 1920’s, Gertrude Stein referred to post-war twenty-somethings as “lost.” Looking back, I realize I too had become lost; just a lost boy looking for his next “feel good” moment.  I would have fit in well with Stein’s “lost generation.”

My friends were beginning to worry. I was no longer the pal they once knew.  I had taken on a disheveled and rough around the edges kindshutterstock_162565103-2 of look, and my behaviour had become erratic and odd. Engrossed in the twisted fantasies that filled my head, I stayed up all night watching “The Exorcist,” chased phantom silhouettes around my landlord’s backyard, and had assumed a vacant thousand-yard stare. I was a shell of my former self, unrecognizable to my innermost circle.

It had become clear to everyone around me that my mental health was deteriorating, and quickly at that. While my friends and family advocated for help on my behalf, I edged closer to a full blown psychotic break.

I had a lot on my plate.  Not only was I facing psychosis, but I had been battling a severe case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and depression for a year and a half.  When I finally saw a psychiatrist, at the age of 19, I was almost immediately diagnosed with psychosis NOS (not otherwise specified), OCD and a mood disorder. A couple of years later, I was re-diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (part bipolar, part schizophrenia) and OCD.

My substance abuse complicated matters. Following my diagnosis, I explored hard drugs: cocaine, opiates, opioids, and a diverse array of GABA-ergic medications. I became a recreational, and at times habitual, user.  My drug use exacerbated my illness, and suicide or overdose quickly became a dangerous reality.

I’m 30 now, and having lived the past thirteen years with a mental health diagnosis, I can honestly say, I’m not out of the woods yet. I may be past the hospitalization phase of my illness (I have racked up a total of 20 or so hospitalizations since being diagnosed), but new challenges loom on the horizon; integrating back into society, learning to cope with day-to-day stressors without the crutch of drugs and alcohol, and repairing damaged relationships will not be easy.

shutterstock_140221207-2Once again, they say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. This saying shouldn’t be taken at face
value; it’s a metaphor. And it fits well with the topic of mental illness.  Perhaps it is those of us who’ve lived with mental health diagnoses – not the devil – who work so hard at convincing the world we don’t exist.

Above all other reasons, it is the stigma associated with mental health conditions that keeps us silent and hidden. We’ll sweep all traces of mental illness under the rug, just to give off the impression of normalcy.  I haven’t escaped stigma unscathed, but I deserve credit where credit is due. I’ve persevered.

It’s still early days, but I’ve come so far. Acceptance is the first step on the long road through recovery. Accepting my illness and the consequences of living with a mental health condition has been one of my greatest and most hard-earned accomplishments. The devil has his tricks, but I’ve got an ace or two up my sleeve, and the greatest trick I’ve ever pulled was admitting to myself that I was ill.

~Andrew

From Partying to Peace with Bipolar Disorder

From Partying to Peace with Bipolar Disorder

I was born on October 7th 1991; I was my parents’ first child and they were happily expecting me. They obviously had no idea what life had in store for them. From birth you could tell there was something different about me, I would constantly cry for hours and for no apparent reason. By 2 years old, I’d refused to sleep every night because I wanted to play. My parents took me many times to see the family doctor, but he said I was just a crying baby and as I grew older, it would get better. Years went by and things just got harder as I couldn’t make any friends in school because I wouldn’t fit in anywhere. In grade twelve the ‘friends’ I thought I had turned their backs on me and threatened me daily. They even came to my house at night, while my parents were gone on vacation, wearing ski masks knocking on my doors. That was a week before my prom, no wonder I refused to attend.

The Party Scene and Addiction

Finally, once out of school I made new, older friends quickly; they were into alcohol. I loved alcohol; it seemed to drown everything away so quickly. Almost nightly, I would attend a bar or a club to drink, everything seemed so much better that way. I started experimenting with drugs and I became very addicted. To me, those pills were like magic and giving me super powers. It gave me the ability to dance all night and to lose weight at the same time. I lived on pills for a few months but wanted to try something different. When I started hanging out with a new crowd of friends I was able to put my hands on some very dangerous drugs. Heroin became my best friend; I loved it so much in fact I overdosed twice within a month. But after the second time, I realized how lucky I was to survive and decided to sober up forever, and to this day I remain clean & sober. However, after a few years my life was just not getting any better, my head was in a very dark place, and I had my first suicide attempt. I went to the hospital, never saw a doctor but got diagnosed by a resident. We talked for only 20 minutes and he told me I had ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’. He said there were no medications but only therapy. So, I followed Group Therapy and Individual Therapy every week but things never seemed to get better. My ups and downs weren’t going away and I was always acting out on impulse.

Finding Peace with Bipolar Disorder

Three long years later my boyfriend and I moved into our first home together, Within months, I found this amazing family doctor who took the time to listen to me and finally diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder. I have been off work for 6 months and I am working towards my future. I take daily medications and follow weekly therapy and I can tell you, the difference is like black and white. I had no idea what it was like to go through life without all those ups and downs but I now am in control of my emotions, living peacefully.

All this to say; whoever you are and wherever you are, don’t give up. This life has so much to offer, but you have to be willing to make some sacrifices and tough decisions.  You have to keep your head up, there’s a reason why you’re still here. Somebody out there is willing to listen to you and you have to keep searching! Some people don’t understand the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of a mental health illness; it’s like not being diagnosed and treated for a broken foot and you need the right support to heal from your suffering. I believe you can’t live peacefully with an untreated mental illness, but in turning my own life around, I know now that total peace is possible. Thanks for reading, Sophie 🙂