What doesn't kill me makes me stronger
Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, 1(17), pp. 16-17
To its student body, Simon Fraser University's architecture and location — perched high up on Burnaby Mountain — are often synonymous with the isolation and depression felt on rainy and gray days. On the other hand, the school is a medium-sized university, which brings many advantages, such as more frequent interaction with professors, staff and peers. I experienced the school both as an undergraduate exchange student and graduate student. In the latter case, I found it to have a rather homey atmosphere, especially in our Political Science department where graduate students and professors know each other and often meet and socialize together.
Graduate studies can be an exacting time in one's life, especially if away from one's family and home country. I came here from the Czech Republic, leaving everyone I knew behind, attracted by the challenge of finding a new place in a different society and discovering another culture, as well as experiencing the North American educational system. All of that, though, slowly started taking a toll on me. I became overburdened with the responsibilities of school and work. In order to be able to afford my living and studies in Canada, I was working 25 to 30 hours a week while going to school full time. It was different from doing the same at home in Prague. At SFU, I had a social network of friends, but I lacked the insight that comes with age about the way I was leading my life. I also had to tackle a lot of cultural differences. The SFU campus became my small world: I lived there, studied there, worked there, and established almost all of my friendships there. The only person I knew from outside was my boyfriend. The relationship with him was very intense and didn't last long. This was because my claustrophobic existence started closing in on my mind, and I was becoming paranoid about the people and events around me.
My mind was working at its top capacity. I was tired and extremely productive at the same time. I thought I could be on top of all aspects of my life. But in spring 2001, I went through a psychotic breakdown that lasted several days. The ensuing delusional state went on for several weeks. Psychosis as a word is very scary — so, too, is the experience of it, not only for me but also for people in the student residence where I lived. They thought I was trying to harm myself, but in actual fact I was trying to stay alive, because in my mind I believed many people were trying to kill me, since I was the most important person in the world. When I look back on it, it must have been very distressing for the others in my residence, seeing me in my pitiful state, living a different reality, and not being able to help me.
The residence assistant contacted emergency services, but it took many hours before the ambulance came to take me to the hospital. There I was admitted and stayed for 5 weeks. Throughout this time, the psychiatrists weren't sure about my diagnosis and thought I had schizophrenia. My experience with the hospital and the people there was very positive. I came to think through a lot of things in life, and my mind calmed down over time, thanks to medication and the patience of the people around me.
The hardest part was returning to normal life, especially the embarrassment of returning to places that reminded me of my psychotic break, and seeing the people who witnessed it. The Royal Columbian Hospital did a great job in my discharge planning and worked closely with my supervisor at school and the Health, Counselling and Career Centre (HCCC) at SFU. I was reassured that SFU would support my return to school after a convalescence period with my family in the Czech Republic.
The SFU International Office provided me with a plane ticket home and a supervisor from the HCCC for the journey. In September 2001, after spending a restful summer at home and undergoing counselling, I felt strong enough to come back and returned to studies and work. It wasn't easy, but I managed to get through, thanks to an individualized plan of multiple deferrals of the courses I did not finish before my episode. The graduate committee at the Political Science department was very open-minded regarding my scheduling of studies and even granted me a semester-long fellowship/scholarship in the spring of 2002 based on my study results. This helped alleviate a lot of stresses from work.
My family at home was great, and as for my social support in Canada, my friends, professors and the staff of the International Office at SFU were amazing. They visited me daily in the hospital, and once I was back on campus, they made sure that I felt welcomed. As for me, once I was able to conceptualize what happened, I became very open about my condition. Perhaps as a way of overcoming my embarrassment, I transformed my memories of the ill state and hospital into humorous stories of my 'craziness' and informed my friends of what was going on in my mind before — and they stayed my friends and watched over me when I returned to school. People on campus were curious about where had I disappeared to, and depending on who it was, I either told them the truth, or I told them that I needed a break from my studies and had gone home to Prague.
Strong rationality, openness and humour on my part, as well as the open minds of people at SFU were crucial in my coming back to this life — this, in addition to staying on medication and receiving intensive counselling, both of which I am slowly phasing out. Now nobody can guess that my mind and soul were once in such turmoil.
I look back on what happened to me as a learning experience and I am not bitter about it. I take it as a kind of slap in my face, telling me to slow down and notice the beauty of life around me. I had to modify my lifestyle and reduce the stresses in my life. I do tend to be more depressed than before — and what happened to me can come back again if I am not careful, or when life becomes hard. But at least I am aware of the signs, and people around me are informed about them too. Now, in the spring of 2003, I am finally coming to the end of my studies. I have a good job at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Vancouver where I can give back to others some of what was given to me by my family, friends, the Royal Columbian Hospital and SFU.
About the author
Dana is a Masters of Political Science student from Simon Fraser University