My life with schizophrenia
Reprinted from Storm Breaking, 2002, pp. 64-68, CMHA BC Division
I have gone through difficult times like many of you. In my story, I am going to write about my past, my illness, the lessons I have learned and my future directions. By sharing openly with you, I hope to fulfill my dream of helping others with severe mental illness overcome their difficulties and live full lives.
I am originally from India. My family came to Canada when I was two years old, in January of 1967, with the high hopes of coming to a new and prosperous country. My parents were young and my father was a newly minted mechanical engineer who graduated at the top of his class. My mom was a beautiful young lady who was damn proud of her son. My parents settled in Vancouver. My dad got a job as an engineer and my mom as a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital, in the young and booming economy of the city in those days.
However, problems began to develop: my young brother was stillborn in 1968 and my dad began to lose his jobs and had difficulty staying with any one job. At that time, people blamed it on the stigma he felt of being an Indian in a white country. With a lack of insight into what the real problem was, my parents considered going back to India, and in the summer of 1973, we visited India with the intention of staying there.
But again, my parents were not able to settle down and we came back to Canada in the fall of 1973. Prior to that, in 1972, the unfortunate event of my father being diagnosed with schizophrenia took place.
In those days (and still to some extent now) this was extremely difficult news to take, and my mother was no exception. In the 70's we were not that far removed from barbaric methods of treating people with mental illness and asylums. I remember going to Riverview Hospital (a mental sanitorium, as they used to be called) when I was eight to meet my dad after his diagnosis and my mother was clutching my hand tightly — the hand of the only functional man in her world now. It was a terrifying experience seeing people loaded up on medication, wearing their night-clothes, and walking around like zombies — the living dead. This was my experience then. As you will see my views on people with mental illnesses have changed quite a bit.
The ensuing 12 years were hell. My dad did not have insight into his illness and would not stay on medication. A formerly intelligent and handsome man was reduced to shambles by schizophrenia. He did manage to operate a business out of the home by working with my mom and they brought up a family of three kids, but let me tell you, it was tough. I could not bring friends home because of the way Dad would be, and I was terrified my friends would find out about his illness.
I entered university in 1982 with plans to become a professional accountant. After being the man in the family, the furthest thing from my mind was that I too could be struck with mental illness. The first year, I excelled. I got straight A's and founded the University's Accounting Club. I enrolled in the co-op program and received job offers from six companies. Then the problems started. I first encountered 'people problems' with my supervisor. I took exception to the fact she was dating a co-worker (as if anyone else really cared about this) and then I went back to school and switched to a program that would encourage isolation and discourage social skills, as compared to the business program. Please don't judge my behaviour. It was the result of the early stages of my illness. We are too quick to see early problems as the fault of the individual, not the product of a mental illness. I continued with school, but my dad was going into a depression after not working for a few years. He still had not developed insight into his mental illness and would not take his medication (I am a firm believer in medication as well as complementary therapies as also being helpful). Eventually, in 1985, he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.
He lives in my memory now, and I feel he is always with me. But in the official statistics, he is just another suicide. We all feel the pain of mental illness. To many of us, it is devastating but, dear reader, it is conquerable and possible to live a great life with something as stigmatizing as schizophrenia.
Receiving a Diagnosis
I graduated in 1988 with a B.Sc. and moved to Toronto to work for a bank. The job was stressful and my initial social problems began to develop into paranoia. I began seeing a motivational psychologist through health coverage at work to deal with these problems. It was at this stage that a trained professional should have been able to diagnose schizophrenia, but the psychologist did not suggest it, and I think it didn't even cross his mind, in spite of the history of my dad. One and one half per cent of the population will develop schizophrenia and one per cent will develop bipolar illness. Our gatekeepers such as counsellors, psychologists, nurses, doctors and social workers should be trained to recognize the symptoms of such common illnesses, but too often they do not have this training. If my illness had been discovered at this time, I feel my recovery time would have been cut in half.
As it was, after 15 months at the bank during which I suffered a great deal of emotional distress, I came back to Vancouver and my mom informally diagnosed me with my 'father's illness.' When she said this, I remember feeling like my world had caved in and immediately wanting to see a doctor. We went to the emergency ward of the local hospital, the friendly doctor talked to me for one hour, and then announced that my mom was the problem and that I should move to Edmonton where I had a seat in an MBA program. It's hard to believe, but the doctor sent me packing from the confines of home to a new city, when an untrained person like my mom could make the correct diagnosis. Doctors: isn't it time to listen to, and treat with respect, the family members who are there for the ill person and know them best at the end of the day?
After six months in Edmonton, during which time other students dumped garbage at my door because they didn't understand I was ill, I withdrew from the program under a doctor's care. Initially, I didn't believe the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia because of what the Vancouver doctor had said, but I dutifully took my medication. Please people — take your medications and with your doctor's help, experiment with the drugs until you find the right dosage or combination of medications.
Then I moved back to Surrey with my mom. As I was doing OK, my psychiatrist took me off medication but I again became ill and my mom had to call the police, who took me to hospital in January 1992. The hospital was a welcome relief from the emotional pain and upset I had been going through. It was here that my recovery began. It started with me recognizing my weird behaviour and the acceptance of my diagnosis. During the next three years, I went through rehab programs. I found these helpful, not not nearly long enough; while recovery can take years, most programs last only a few months.
During the same period, I agreed to an arranged marriage. It goes against Canadian culture to have an arranged marriage. But if done in an open, honest fashion where the married couple choose each other, it can work like a charm. It works because parents often have wisdom that young people don't, and people of similar family backgrounds are matched up. I know it is not for everyone but it's something that works for many people.
My wife is a loving and fair person whom I love very much. Having her by my side for the past six years has accelerated my recovery. I share a lot about the state of my mind and my thoughts with her and her comments keep my thinking on track.
I remember walking into a large banquet hall in a top hotel back in 1994 to attend an awards ceremony for those in the mental health field. Some would have the view that such a lavish dinner would be an unnecessary expense. However for me, to have mental illness not only openly talked about but to have it rejoiced in a posh environment meant a great deal. I'm sure the event raised my expectations about the future and eased my stigma around having schizophrenia.
Early in my recovery, I attempted to bite off more than I could chew and took on too much with poor results. The best way is to try and identify an end-goal for work or school, cut it up into small manageable steps and be patient with yourself because everything takes longer when you have a severe mental illness. Eventually, I owned a business for three years, worked as an assistant financial planner for one year, and worked three years as an information and referral officer for a non-profit organization. Each activity was a small step to recovery.
I like to use the analogy of a poorly performing person with severe mental illness as being like a campfire where the coals have burnt down and are covered with ash but are still alive. If you tend the fire and place twigs and leaves on it and blow on it, the fire will light. By systematically building it up with wood and air, you can have a bonfire that will burn for a long time. It is the individual effort and the oh-so-important supports around him or her that build this fire. And it is individual. Each fire's eventual nature and size is dependent on individual circumstances.
The first step to getting well is acceptance of the illness. After that comes taking control of the illness and not letting it control you. When people get to this stage, it's wonderful. I feel, now that I have conquered my schizophrenia, I can tackle the other challenges that life will throw my way.
I would not trade this life for any other life and I look forward to each minute of each day as holding new events and experiences that are there for me to enjoy. I once was a negative person. But I have learned to overcome this too.
About the author
Punkaj lives in Surrey with his wife and daughter