Across systems and provinces to finally find the 'magic'
Reprinted from "System Navigation" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 10 (1), pp. 24-27
In January 1998, when I was 28, I voluntarily entered St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver after one of my voices, Noah, told me to go to the hospital.
I lived in an art studio, had recently finished film school and was just starting to find my voice as a screen writer. But I also lived in a delusional spirit world, where I was an artist on the brink of being ‘discovered.’
Six weeks later I left the hospital with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and a prescription for antipsychotics. My parents let me move home, so I took a six-month leave of absence from my job and moved to Calgary.
As a family, we knew very little about mental illness. The nurses in Vancouver had given my parents brochures on schizophrenia, but I was in such denial I never read them. And we knew nothing about services in Alberta.
My mom took care of me, as my dad often worked up north. But neither my mom nor I grasped how important the medication was for me to remain healthy. I was trying to write a comic book, but couldn’t write when on the meds so didn’t want to take them.
Early on, though, when my dad came back from up north, he found a psychiatrist in the local phone book. He marched into the psychiatrist’s office saying he had a mentally ill daughter and wanted her to get some help. The psychiatrist did help. He got my records from Vancouver, and I had about 12 sessions, one every two weeks. He also gave me medication samples to offset drug costs.
After the six months, I returned to Vancouver and my job—and I failed miserably. Again, I wasn’t taking medication—didn’t see the point of it, and it made me put on weight.
Since the hospital didn’t know I’d returned to Vancouver, there was no way I could get help unless I looked for it myself. I’d never heard about mental health teams or that there was Persons with Disability income assistance, and I didn’t know anyone who had schizophrenia.
I just talked endlessly to the voices in my head—I was ‘taking the Master Class’ at the art school in another world.
Finally, a friend, worried by my bizarre behaviour, called my parents. They rescued me for a second time, just a year later.
My struggle to get where the magic happened
My mother couldn’t handle my bizarre behaviour, so my father came up with a Catholic group home for women with addictions and other life problems. (I’m Catholic, so this was okay.)
Again, I wasn’t taking meds—I’d been on an antique antipsychotic that made my muscles lock. Group home staff took me to the mental health team and I was tested by a psychologist, but I kept saying I was going back to Vancouver, so there was no follow-up.
After eight months in this home, the police and ambulance showed up and took me to the psych ward—this was my second time, though the first in Calgary.
After being certified for 30 days, they let me leave, though the hospital psychiatrist put me on “extended leave.” This meant I had to see her every week. To minimize hassle, I stayed on meds. They helped with my racing thoughts, but didn’t work on the voices.
In 2002 my dad got me involved as a volunteer with the Calgary branch of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta (SSA). This was a very positive experience. I took a course called Outreach, and visited people in hospital, explaining illness and the value of meds. I also performed in a play and did public speaking, and got paid for my contribution.
Through my involvement with SSA, I was put in touch with a mental health team and mental health housing in Calgary. I lived in a mental health apartment building for about eight months. I was with others who had schizophrenia, and it was nice to be somewhere I fit in.
But my roommate had loud, bratty parrots and our meds (my sleeping aids) were being stolen. I was feeling well at the time, so my parents helped me find a place to live in on my own that wasn’t in a mental health building.
My time in this bachelor suite was really positive at first. I even started jogging up the hills in my neighbourhood. Then a boyfriend, an IV user, moved in and I started using some harder drugs. When I used them, I heard no voices at all. But, like it always was with drugs, it was a hell disguised as heaven.
When the mental health team found out I’d used cocaine, they kicked me out. Service providers were still practising the “ping pong” approach, separating addiction from mental health treatment.
In 2003, when I landed in the psych ward after my boyfriend beat me up, I found out I was five months pregnant. They took me off medication because there was very little research on medication and pregnancy. Off medication, I couldn’t sleep at all. The voices were louder, more intrusive and very abusive.
In my seventh month, however, I took a bus trip to Vancouver to see a friend. We mental health patients learn to work the system. I learned that if you act calm and keep your cool in hospitals, they assess that you’re not a danger to yourself or others and they discharge you.
I hadn’t felt the baby move at all during the 15-hour bus ride, so went to St. Paul’s Hospital to get checked. (My friend worked there.) The baby was okay, but they wouldn’t let me be pregnant and homeless. I was found a place in the St. Elizabeth’s shelter.*
In St. Elizabeth’s, I attempted suicide by pill overdose. My voices were threatening to kill me in horrible ways and to make my child a sex slave. I felt that leaving this world would be best—I could raise my beloved child in heaven.
In my eighth month, I was flown back to Calgary, where I delivered a baby girl in July 2004. I knew the chances of me raising a happy child were low, so a girlfriend connected me to two women who wanted to adopt, and I eventually chose them to be my daughter’s parents. It was a bittersweet time, but my baby was healthy and her parents were awesome.
After the baby was adopted, I thought very little of myself, and the stigma of the illness was hard on me. The war of voices raging in my head was so intense, again I thought about suicide.
The hospital sent me to a different mental health team than the one I’d been kicked out of. There, I had a new doctor who tried his best, but my life wasn’t improving. I did a lot of revolving through hospital doors—going in hospital was my way of trying to hide from the voices and get some respite care.
I was incredibly unhappy living in Alberta. While living close to family had its positives, I really needed to move on from their care, which had lasted for eight years. My friend read some research that said moving away from family is a self-empowering step forward, because you have to take care of yourself.
In 2006, I made the bold step to move back to the city of my dreams—it was always my dream to live in Vancouver and be an artist—and this is where the magic happened.
When ‘systems’ work together
The Calgary YWCA homeless shelter, where I’d been living, gave me a list of shelters in Vancouver. When I stepped off the Greyhound bus, I called a women’s shelter and they had a bed for me—it was St. Elizabeth’s.
I was very sick, but I knew I had to phone a mental health team. The women at St. Elizabeth’s gave me the number of the team closest to their area. (I don’t think I was referred; it was a self-referral.) I phoned and told them I’d just moved to Vancouver and I was a schizophrenic. I remember them telling me I did the right thing to call. They received all my hospital records and mental health team records from Calgary, and we went from there.
Because my new mental health team advocated for me, I was able to enter the mental health housing ‘system.’ After about four months in the women’s shelter, the mental health team placed me in an MPA Society licensed care home until they could figure out what would be a good situation for me. I was still very paranoid, but no longer suicidal. I was also drug-free.
I lived at the MPA house for five months. A housing worker came to evaluate me. I had a good attitude, so they suggested I move into a group home.
To be honest, I really don’t know how I got to where I’m at today. I know I had a good case manager and a good team. My case manager even came to visit me in my group home. And the mental health worker at the group home was no ordinary mental health worker! She gave a shit. She didn’t let me sleep all day, and we were all encouraged to find a volunteer job.
At the mental health team, I was told about peer support work. I decided I’d be good at that and took the Vancouver Coastal Health peer support training in 2007 and 2008. To my surprise and delight, I was hired by a mental health team. I was elated—after years living on the edge, I had a job!
And after 18 months in the group home, mental health housing came calling again to make a new placement for me—I didn’t have to call them. I was still paranoid about people hurting me, but mental health housing thought I’d do well in supportive housing. So, in August 2008 I moved into an MPA Society (Motivation, Power and Achievement) supportive housing apartment.
The mental health worker there was a rare gem too. She helped me when I got so tormented by my voices that I voluntarily checked into hospital a few months later.
That hospital stay in 2008, for 22 days, was my last. My doctor termed it a “med change” stay. I was still hearing voices, but I left the hospital knowing that the professionals there couldn’t do anything more for me.
Self-empowerment at last
I knew I had to learn to live with my voices and find my own solutions to my problems. I read every book the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Vancouver-Burnaby branch library had on mental illness.
After two successful years in my supportive apartment, mental health housing interviewed me once again, and my next move was into a partially subsidized apartment of my choice, under Coast Mental Health’s semi-independent living (SIL) program. However, since I had a history of suicide (I’d made about four other attempts), they arranged for a housing worker to visit me twice a month.
I’m so happy with the way things turned out. My parents are very proud of me too. They finally agreed that moving to Vancouver has been the best thing for me. And, in my mind, Vancouver is the best mental health community anywhere. I got the help I needed to find a way to live—there’s no way I can fail.
I found that Vancouver had many resources, advocates and social enterprises where I could work despite my voices. I went to meetings, forums and seminars on mental health, all to find a community of people just like me. Most of my friends do have a mental illness, and we support one another in many ways. The motto of a BC Schizophrenia Society class I took, called BRIDGES, was: “You are not alone.”
Today I’m known as a “professional consumer.”** Employment gives me meaning and purpose.
I’m also medically compliant, getting an injection every two weeks. I still live in the same SIL apartment. And I was a finalist for a Coast Mental Health Courage to Come Back Award.
After being rock-bottom, I knew there was only one way for me to go—and that was up.
*St. Elizabeth’s women’s shelter is a service of The Bloom Group, formerly known as St. James Community Service Society.
**There is a movement to make this title the professional designation for peer support workers in Canada, or consumer contractors, and to oversee and regulate the training and work.
About the author
Ana lives in Vancouver and plans on writing more in the future