Life sometimes seems to come down to small moments that open highways of opportunities that can take you almost anywhere. One of these was my last night working at a grocery store. I showed up at work, sat down in the lunchroom, joked with my friends, but then I started acting a little too confident, I was joking a little too much and laughing too hard. We walked out on the floor, I got a dolly and started opening a pallet of groceries and something just snapped. I decided I didn’t want to be there and realized there wasn’t anything keeping me there. In the middle of my shift, I simply walked away.
The boss tried to stop me. He called security to stop me and tell me if I went outside, I wasn’t ever coming back. The truth was, I loved my job, even bragged about my job. I was making more money than anyone I knew, and it paid for my car and my clothes. Unable to stop me, the security guard let me out and I was fired instantly.
Not long after, I was relaxing at home and a friend came to pick me up in his mom’s car. In the middle of driving into the nearby city, I started acting strangely. — laughing, saying odd things, telling my friend I needed drugs. Thankfully, he knew where to take me. He got me to a hospital. Little did I know I was starting to show signs of schizophrenia. I had already displayed symptoms of bipolar but never psychosis, until then. The hospital staff called the police who came and held me while a doctor gave me a horrible injection. It wasn’t something to make me relax or sleep or calm down, it was something made to sap the will out from under me and make me feel so ill and uncomfortable I couldn’t resist.
It’s an odd thing to think of now as I look back. I take a similar route every Monday. A long bus ride out into a remote area of Edmonton to a place called Alberta Hospital. The main difference is, back then, I was in the back of a police car, and I didn’t know what was happening. Now, I go there to teach a creative writing class to patients. I love my work and the people I work with. They all have their problems, but there is hope for all of them.
When I was first a patient, there was a sense that once you were sent to Alberta Hospital, you were pretty much taken out of the game. You would be treated on medication and released a few months later as it started to work, and you were almost guaranteed to be back repeatedly for the rest of your life. Now, clinics like the Early Psychosis Intervention Clinic try to reach out to young people before they end up hospitalized. Many things are different now. New medications work faster and better. People don’t stay locked away for most of their lives. And there is a lot more understanding and compassion for people with mental illnesses — but there is also still a great deal of stigma.
One of the worst parts of mental illness is psychosis, especially a person’s first experience with it. When you first experience it, it is so much easier to be convinced of your false thoughts, ideas, and hallucinations. Psychosis is what is known as a split from reality that is common to illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar. You get strange thoughts — delusions — and then you get false sensory input — hallucinations — which often support the strange ideas you have, and you also often get paranoia as well, along with a general susceptibility to believe these false ideas and inputs.
For me, I thought that all my life I had been living in a dream and that I was starting to cross over into a new, better kind of existence. I was becoming a part of a collective of people who were more animal than human. They could tell who was part of the collective by looking into each other’s eyes — they would glow, and you could tell what the person was thinking. I thought this new world I had “discovered” wanted me to go after a young woman I liked, despite the fact that she had a boyfriend. All these strange, bizarre ideas came to me after my first hospitalization when I was allowed to go back to school. I picked a fight with this young woman’s boyfriend and was arrested in front of all my friends and peers. It was so surreal, because none of them said anything. No one cheered as I fought with the police, they all just stood staring, seemingly in judgment.
I ended up spending another two months in the hospital. It was a tough place to exist in back then, but I recall one moment — another of those “turning-point moments” where I had made friends with a guy and we were sitting at a table in the smoking room while a TV blared a show I wasn’t interested in. My friend spoke:
“Do you like to draw?” he asked.
“I guess so.” I thought back to helping my dad with his signwriting business. I loved helping him even though I had almost no talent for it whatsoever. “What did you have in mind?”
“Here. Try to draw this,” he said and handed me a pencil, some paper, and a drawing of a tiger. I started to trace out the shape and draw in the details. I was surprised, but it was extremely soothing, and I felt a certain sense of accomplishment that my sketch resembled the picture.
“You see.” My friend said, not looking up from his work, “Now we’re no longer in a mental hospital.”
That was something I would one day come to know as mindfulness. It is a strategy that has gotten me through some difficult times and helped my physical fitness and mental health. Basically, it has been the way I recharge my batteries. It’s all about just focusing on something other than beating yourself up because you weren’t blessed with a perfect mind or perfect life circumstances.
Now, my chosen form of mindfulness is to take long walks. I managed six miles today, a lovely fall day in Edmonton where the sun is still warm, but all the trees are a thousand colors, and the leaves crunch under your feet. I always bring my phone so if I find something interesting, I can take a picture. Photography can be so soothing. I have done some high-quality work and even been paid. The thing about photography is that when you are out walking, wondering when you will get the perfect angle with the perfect light and what settings you should use, or if you need a flash, your mind is so occupied that you can’t help but feel a certain sense of contentment.
About 21 years ago, I spent six months in the hospital. I was more ill than I had ever been and one of the delusions I kept having was that I was soon to be released, but the hospital stay dragged on forever. I was stuck inside for such a long time that I got out of shape and there was very little for me to do. I blamed the problem on the fact that I didn’t like my psychiatrist and he didn’t like me. For a long time, he kept me on a closed ward without properly medicating me and I was constantly being put into the isolation room. I couldn’t imagine a worse form of torture.
Then, I started to improve a little and spent some time off the ward doing things like going bowling or going to the computer room. One day, my psychiatrist was gone, and another doctor was taking his patients. I went to see him and showed him a list I had typed up and printed in the computer room of all the things I wanted done. For some reason, he was incredibly impressed by my ability to type out and articulate anything. My own doctor might have told him I was an illiterate fool who needed to be punished to be taught anything. Right there the new doctor transferred me off the ward, I was put on proper medication, and in a few short weeks, I was released from the hospital.
One of the key things about leaving the hospital was that I had proven I had not done well living on my own. Before going there, I had an apartment that was literally 10 feet by 15 feet, 150 square feet including a kitchen, bathroom, and living area. I don’t completely blame my doctor; I had done something I never should have done. I had been treated with a mood stabilizer called Depakote for several years and was doing well. I had a car, I had jobs. I even published an article in one of Edmonton’s major newspapers and was paid for it. Somehow though, I got the idea that I was taking too much Depakote. I thought it was just draining my energy and I thought if I cut my dose, it would still work. The problem was, Depakote, like many psychiatric medications, must reach a certain level in your blood to be effective. By cutting my dose in half, I opened myself up to a world of problems.
So, when it was time to be released from the hospital, I went to a group home. The first one was a horrible place where the woman forced us to work for her, set unrealistic curfews, fed us the cheapest and the worst possible food, and one day exploded in anger right in my face so bad my roommate convinced me to call the police and have her charged. The police came, but as a former psychiatric patient, they sided with the landlady. I nearly moved out into substandard housing again, but instead went into an excellent group home found for me by a social worker at the mental health clinic.
This was among the best times of my life so far. I got good food, my medication and appointments were monitored, I slept well, and had plenty of time to read. As I took time to put my life together, my dad would also come to visit me every day and take me for long walks in Edmonton’s beautiful river valley. That combination of light exercise, companionship, and fresh air did me so much good. Not long after that, my dad and I both got digital cameras and would take our walks in various parks looking for birds to photograph. I had changed a lot. When I was a teenager, I was a hunter; now I only shoot animals with a camera.
Living in the group home went well for me, though after a few years I tried living on my own again. A couple of times I had a beer or six and got so sick I knew I needed to get back to the 12-step groups I had once had a lot of success in. They can be a good place to learn how to bring about self-transformation to a more spiritual life, which can help people overcome addictions. When I had gone to them before though, I had gone more to socialize. A friend once warned me that if you sober up a drunken horse thief you still have a horse thief. For a whole year, I went to as many meetings and as many church services as I could, without making many friends, just trying to do my best to live a good life. I did become close with family and people in the group home. Community is so essential to healing.
I can recall when I was much younger and was just getting out of the hospital for the fourth or fifth time. I met a taxi driver who rented me a room in his house and became my sponsor. He once shared something with me that was also a pivotal moment. He said:
“We don’t have a cure for drinking. We merely have a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”
Over the years, hoping more to get a handle on my chronic mental illness, I have sought out that spirituality in many ways and I think I have finally found my daily reprieve from suffering from mental illness. I tried studying philosophy, meditating, doing Yoga, attending an evangelical church, and attending a Catholic church. Attending 12-step meetings of various kinds. What I found is, what I need to seek is ways that I can not only occupy my mind and my thoughts on something, I need to seek ways that I can use what I have been given to help others through what they are experiencing. Some feel that 12-step meetings are the best way for them, but I was never a chronic alcoholic. What I do have is a lot of lived experience as a person with a mental illness.
One of the first things I felt I needed to do was to tell my story. I put it into a book I titled, “Through the Withering Storm.” I often wonder if I had the best intentions in writing it. What I went for was total honesty, total reproduction of the facts of my decline and fall. In a way, I wanted the world to know why I didn’t accomplish as much as my peers. But as time went on, I worked with the book and went on to write two more because I wanted to do two main things: increase awareness and decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness. After I wrote the second one, another small miracle happened. I learned about the Schizophrenia Society.
I called the Society up and they told me about support groups and classes and all kinds of things they offered. I took a “Wellness and Recovery” class through them, and after taking it, they asked me to teach the next class. That started a whole new life for me. They also asked me to become a lived experience presenter and later a peer support worker. My life has become so great. I speak to all kinds of classes; I find new ways to market my books and write articles about mental health. And I consider all this work to be “feeding and nurturing my soul.” In a way, I almost feel as though my chronic mental illness was a gift. Without my mental illness, I may have become a lawyer or a computer expert or even a pilot. But these would have been empty, self-serving accomplishments. With my life now, I know I make a difference in the lives of others, and that is its own reward beyond measure.
Leif Gregersen is an author of fiction and non-fiction, and has published 12 books, of which 4 are poetry collections, 3 are short story collections, 2 are short novels, and 2 are memoirs of his life experience with mental illness.