Taking Mental Illness Out Of The Shadows, And Into The Light
By Lindsay Thompson
My Personal Story: Learning To Thrive With Schizophrenia
I remember with haunting clarity my first time on a psychiatric ward. I was 17 and scared and confused. My Mom brought me into emergency where I was admitted and brought upstairs to the psychiatric floor. It was night time and walking down that long, dark hallway to my room, catching glances from the other patients induced a fear and loneliness I’ll never forget. I cried all night. The next day, although, still scared and desperate to go home, I was less afraid. The ward was bright and the patients were “regular” people.
I’ve lived with mental illness all my life, but it wasn’t until I was 17 that I was diagnosed. I have schizoaffective disorder which is bipolar and schizophrenia at the same time. The bipolar component affects my moods. They swing from one extreme to the other; from depression to mania or mania to depression. Often, I am left hanging in an uncomfortable state somewhere between depression and mania. This is known as a mixed state, characterized by a negative energy, racing thoughts and severe agitation.
The schizophrenia part of the illness affects the types of thoughts I have and my interpretation of the world around me. From frightening images that bombard my mind to believing my thoughts are being broadcast to those around me, from voices whispering in my head to feeling followed, watched and even chased, from misinterpreting people and situations to knowing I am a bad person, an unworthy person; it all adds up to the painful existence that I deal with everyday.
There are medications that can keep these symptoms from getting out of control; however they never completely go away. A big part of my illness has to do with medication compliance. I’ve often stopped taking my medication…only to end up back in hospital. There are times when I’m complying with the prescribed medication regime and doing well, when I get the idea that I no longer need the medications, or that I never needed the medications, or that in some way the medications are impeding my life. There are side effects to every medication and I’ve had to put up with many disruptive side effects.
Mental illness has had an impact on all aspects of my life. I’ve had to stop my life more than once because the illness had permeated my whole body and mind. There were points when I didn’t know what was me anymore. In high school I was forced to take a decreased course load and an extra year in order to graduate. I felt so ashamed. At the same time I lost all my friends: a result of misinterpreting situations, people and the subsequent withdrawal from everyone.
After my extra year at high school I spent seven months in a psychiatric hospital, which put off university. When I did finally get to university I did my best to be normal and to fit in. Unfortunately, I had stopped taking all my medications and was therefore very psychotic. I managed to get three credits, which is a big deal considering how sick I was.
When I was unable to continue at university I attended a program for people with mental illness. For five years, I spent my days working on activities of daily living, in the ADL program run through the local hospital.
Currently, I live at home with my family. Even though I have forced them through many horrible experiences over the years, they are always there for me. I am lucky my family is so supportive. There is a lot of guilt that I harbour around my family and my illness. There have been so many instances and incidents that I know must have hurt, confused and angered them. If I could take back time and do things over, I would in an instant. As much as my life has been left in shambles, my family’s lives have been shaken as well. I can never forgive myself for what I have done.
I would like to be able to go to school, to work, and to support myself one day. Right now, I volunteer four mornings a week at a charity thrift store that employs people with mental health issues. I have a lot of anxiety when I am around people but I dream of one day having friends and relationships.
There is no cure for mental illness; however there is hope and recovery. With the proper help from doctors, community programs, workplace accommodation and medication, people with mental illness can reach a state of recovery. Everybody deserves a place where they can function within society and feel good about themselves and their contribution to those around them.
Mel’s Story: The Story Through The Eyes of A Father
“Ride across Canada? What are you thinking?” That was the initial reaction from family and friends when I shared my plans for the spring and summer of 2009. I had set this goal four years earlier and had been building up my ride distances each summer to the point where I was now ready to do it. I had run marathons and climbed mountains. When I set a goal I do everything possible to achieve it. At age 60, I was as fit now as I ever was.
The real inspiration for me, however, then and now, is my daughter Lindsay. She is the oldest of our four children and has schizophrenia. As a family we all agreed that by dedicating the ride to Mental Health Awareness we could make a difference. By raising funds for community programs we could lend a hand to people who live with mental illness and depend on these supports. No one is immune from mental illness and when it hits you, or someone you love, you are never prepared.
For over ten years our family has been learning how to live with mental illness. At age 16 Lindsay was an excellent student, a talented artist, and a very good athlete. Her behaviours started to change but we believed it was normal teen age rebellion. By 17 Lindsay was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and had to learn to cope with the regimen of medications and all of their side effects. The diagnosis was changed to Schizoaffective Disorder at 18. She was not able to concentrate and ultimately had to leave the university she was attending. We struggled through many hospitalizations and personal and family crises. As parents we were devastated as we watched our daughter’s dreams slip away.
During our 100 day journey across Canada, The Ride for Mental Health aimed to bring the issues of mental illness out in the open, get people to share their own experiences with it, and debunk the myths and misconceptions. Whenever possible Lindsay rode sections of the route with me, and my wife Carol kept us on route and on time driving the support vehicle. The Ride for Mental Health created a source of optimism for us that was often hidden inside this difficult challenge. We thrived as a family and will continue this journey together.
There is still a social stigma attached to mental illness that keeps many people from seeking the help they need. It is the disease that no one likes to talk about, but it has a devastating impact on people who suffer from it, their families and society in general.
Lindsay hopes one day to be able to return to school and work while building long-lasting relationships. We, her family, carry the hope in our hearts that these dreams will come true. We know there is recovery, and that is how we stay optimistic.
Carol’s Story: A Mother’s Story
For a long time the possibility of mental illness never crossed our minds. The dreaded realization just sort of crept up on us.
As Mel and I embarked on the parenthood journey Lindsay was our template. The oldest of four, she was first to be cradled in trembling, proud arms, first to put her tiny hand in ours and walk, first to start school. We relied on the experiences we gained with Lindsay as our other children came along. As she grew and spread her wings, we did too.
Our experiences with the other kids pretty much followed the template until high school when things began to change with Lindsay. We had heard all the usual stories about teenage angst and the rebellious teen years. So when we noticed Lindsay’s behaviours change we weren’t too worried. Her grades began to slip, she withdrew from the family, she slept a lot. It’s natural we thought; a normal rite of passage. She seemed to swing from angry and irritable moods to depression and back. There were many stormy periods in our family as we struggled to deal with the turbulence. Life at home became stressful and unpredictable for everyone and it spilled into other parts of our lives as well. It began to dawn on us that this was beyond the normal experience and we faced the scary realization that Lindsay was ill. By this time Lindsay knew she needed help too. She agreed to see a counselor who immediately advised us to see our family doctor. From that point on we became engaged in the ongoing quest to find appropriate treatment and help for Lindsay, something that she could accept and adhere to.
We have felt overwhelmed by the effects of mental illness on our daughter and our family. We have felt guilt as parents thinking that somehow bad parenting was to blame. We have felt helpless as we search for ways to help. We are proud of our daughter and her valiant struggle against the illness, her determination to be well.
In looking back over the years the telltale signs were there but mental illness was not something that readily came to mind. Had we known about the signs and symptoms of mental illness when they began to appear, we may have been able to intervene sooner. It is vitally important for everyone to be aware of mental illness as early treatment results in more positive outcomes.
And that brings me to the whole point behind The Ride for Mental Health. Our goal, plain and simple, was to raise awareness about mental illness. We are continuing to do so. In sharing our experiences we hope it will encourage others to share their stories too. Our hope is that we can help people gain a higher level of understanding and acceptance of mental illness. It’s time to change, so open the doors; let’s take mental illness out of the shadows and into the light.” Awareness Works.