And not knowing when to ask
Reprinted from "Men" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5), p. 26
I had an insidious onset of schizophrenia that progressed for nine years. It was so gradual that I lost all my human relationships without anyone realizing I was becoming ill. I’ve been told that schizophrenia often follows this pattern: first you have trouble with your attention span, then you lose your social skills (I was socially inept in early high school), then you lose academic ability, and then you develop psychosis.
I knew something was wrong, and I read a lot of stuff like Gestalt psychology (focusing on the immediate present and expressing feelings) and Rolfing (body work that manipulates the myofascial or connective tissue system). But having no knowledge of schizophrenia, I wasn’t moved to make an appointment with my family doctor. I suffered quietly without ever seeking help.
People need to know when to seek help. I have since learned that the three main characteristics of serious mental illness are the severity of symptoms, the duration of symptoms and the disability caused by symptoms. I’ve also learned that all untreated schizophrenia leads to psychosis, and all untreated psychosis eventually leads to hospitalization, homelessness and/or incarceration. I spent time in all three places over the course of a ten-year untreated psychosis.
In 1979, I was kicked out of graduate school in Halifax for incomplete course work, and within a year I was homeless in Calgary, believing I had caused the Mount St. Helens volcano eruption. I was homeless for six months. I had lost my ability to survive in the competitive world of employment and was completely alone, without any supportive relationships. And I was too proud to run back to my parents with my tail between my legs. If you’re male, once you leave home it’s hard to go back.
As winter came on I was driven to Victoria, where I was able to pay rent for a basement room, and where I studied Tibetan Buddhism.
Victoria is a beautiful place, but I felt I was being punished for bad karma, and I barely survived. My mind was constantly invaded by thoughts of a particular Tibetan lama. Within five years I was convinced there was a secret war going on between two groups of people: the Tibetan ‘anti-sexuals’ (the celibate monks) and the Tantrics, who were very sexual. Whoever won the secret war, I thought, would determine the fate of humanity. If the anti-sexuals won, humanity would destroy itself in a nuclear holocaust that would break up the continental plates, evaporating the oceans and destroying all life on the planet. In 1985, I ran away from the anti-sexuals. I headed back to Ontario and, several weeks later, a plane blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. I got very scared; the anti-sexuals were obviously trying to kill me.
In psychosis, unrelated events can become very significant and often very frightening as your mind jumps to wild conclusions about powerful outside forces. For the next five years I interpreted song lyrics as secret messages, and the messages let me down time and time again. My imaginary wife promised that three blonde beach bunnies would drive up in a jeep and take me to a cabin in northern California. For several years I just knew that a stretch limo would pull up with two identical teenage girls, who knew who I was. When the aliens promised to transfer my mind to the body of a wealthy man on the French Riviera, but instead I woke up on the living room floor of my cockroach-infested rooming house, I became furious, and started breaking windows. The police arrived very quickly, and I was subdued and hauled off to a holding cell and then put in jail.
The police intervention marks a watershed in my life. As a condition of my probation, I was sentenced to see a psychiatrist for three years. This eventually led to hospitalization for alcoholism in 1990, and treatment for schizophrenia.
The first few years of treatment were really tough. I was so alone, so poor and so celibate. I made a few friends at a day program, but I really missed the opportunity to socialize with women my age. And I felt ashamed of my poverty.
I kept expecting my psychiatrist to perform miracles and make all my problems go away. One day, however, I realized that if anyone was going to solve my problems, it would have to be me. The medication would enable me to solve my problems myself.
Each year on medication for schizophrenia has been better than the previous year. I’m now working 30 hours a week and enjoying life a lot. I just wish I had asked for help when I was 17, so that I could have enjoyed more of the years I’ve already spent.
About the author
Ian is employed by the Homewood Health Centre, a mental health and addiction treatment facility in Guelph, Ontario. He is a consumer consultant for the Community Outreach and Support Program and a peer specialist for the rural Assertive Community Treatment Team. Awards include the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry Courage to Come Back Award (1998) and the Guelph Mayor’s Award of Excellence (2001)