The wild ride from basements to bikes
Reprinted from "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(2), pp. 10-11
Much of my life has been a wild ride into mental illness—and a climb out of it. It’s a ride I’m still on and will continue on until it’s done. No matter where you are on this life journey, however, it is vital to know that working your way out of mental illness is worth the effort.
As a child, I was always very quiet at school. That changed in grade five. I began speaking up for the first time, cracking a lot of jokes and eventually befriending the cooler kids at my school. My increased energy from hypomania (i.e., mild mania) was not disabling at that point—it actually made me attractive to other people. And my academics weren’t adversely affected either. In my grade six year, I won my school science fair with a project on animal intelligence and my teacher told my parents he thought I might be gifted at math.
I was in the prodromal (beginning) stage of my illness.
From basketball to the basement to a special school
When I was 12 and in grade eight my real difficulties began. Early in that school year, I hit my head while playing basketball for the school team. I developed a headache that was constant for the next five years.
But what was much worse than the headache was that the head injury triggered psychosis. A month after I hit my head I had to leave school because of my illness.
I don’t remember much from my high school years. But—consistent with a diagnosis of schizophrenia—I do remember paranoia and thinking that people could read my thoughts and thinking that the television was speaking to me. I had a fear of ghosts and saw them in hallucinations, and thought I had magical powers. I was clinically depressed and had little energy to do everyday activities. I pulled out my hair and rubbed my skin. And I had an extreme amount of social anxiety. All this made functioning at school extremely difficult.
During my grade eight year, my parents and the homebound education service attempted to home school me, but I was too sick to handle the demands. My teachers, however, decided to pass me on my grade eight courses so I could return to my same classmates. When I went back to high school at the beginning of the grade nine year, I only lasted two weeks. My symptoms were very strong when I was at school; I simply couldn’t handle the stress of the social environment.
When I was 14, I spent the whole time in my basement. I had a sleep disorder that caused me to sleep for only short periods at odd times and in a state of psychosis. I only left the house to see doctors and therapists. I was put on antipsychotics by a psychiatrist and began to improve, but gained a lot of weight from the medication and the lack of activity.
When I was 15, in what would have been the start of my grade 10 year, I tried to take grade nine again at another high school. I only attended for one week because the school environment brought back my symptoms.
In January of that same school year, I was placed at Glen Eden Mulitimodal Centre, a treatment centre and school for children with disabilities.1 At first, I only attended for about 10 minutes each day. But, after half a school year, I began to attend more regularly. I had problems with academics because the focus of the school was more clinical than academic, and problems with social functioning because of my interrupted social development. But it was probably the best environment for me—being around other young people struggling with mental illness was reassuring. I spent a year and a half at Glen Eden, though I continued to have occasional relapses and wasn’t able to attend for a four-month period.
Saving graces—including cycling
When I was 18, I was put on another antipsychotic medication and my functioning improved markedly. I lost a lot of weight because of the change in medication and started doing adult education at with the Vancouver School Board. First, I took a Biology 11 course and scored 96%. Next, I decided to take Biology 12 and received 94%. Courses at adult education are done in terms of two months. I realized that, if I could do this three more times, I’d qualify for admission to a science program at university. An English placement test allowed me to jump right to grade 12 English. In math, I had to start again in grade eight. However, I completed Math 8 through 12, plus differential calculus, in one year. I scored 100% on about 80% percent of the math exams that I took, including 100% on my Math 12 provincial exam. I graduated with a grade 12 Provincial Scholarship Award, a Passport to Education Scholarship for grades 10, 11 and 12, and tied for first place on the provincial Math 12 exam.
I understand that both psychosocial and medication treatments are very important to recovery. But, for me, the vast improvement has been due to a medication that suited me well. It’s unfortunate that, for many people, finding the right medication can take a long time. I have great empathy for people still in this process.
Later, I regained much more functioning because of good psychological treatment and my social interactions through cycling.
Today, I attend UBC where I’m studying psychology. I also spend a lot of time pursuing competitive cycling. The team I’m on rides in support of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Our aim is to raise awareness for the association and reduce stigmas around mental illness.
I still struggle with problems related to my illness, but I’m confident that I will continue to improve. I think the future is very bright for people with mental illness. Discrimination and stigma will continue to be fought and newer treatments will be discovered, making us all better off.
About the author
Chris, now 25, lives in Vancouver and studies psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is a team rider and the Charity Director for a competitive cycling team
- Glen Eden Multimodal Centre, located in Vancouver, BC, is “an independent, not-for-profit treatment centre and school that assists children and adolescents who are unable to function effectively in a typical school system. Glen Eden is designed for the complex child who has learning challenges due to a possible combination of medical, psychological and/or psychiatric causes...” For more information visit www.gleneden.org.