Reflections on Turning 50 as Someone with a Mental Illness

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It is hard to imagine how far I have come in the second half of my life. I am 50 now, and from the age of 25 to this point in time, I have become a completely different person. At 25, living with a severe mental illness, I rented a series of tiny apartments, drinking too much coffee and smoking far too many cigarettes. I had few friends, only one girlfriend (which lasted just 2 months) and I never went out of my comfort zone unless it was totally necessary. For example, my dad would come by sometimes to take me out to a park or to visit someone or shop somewhere and I would simply climb in the back of his van and go to sleep until we got to where we were going. I would often go for days without rest and then spend 24 hours sleeping. It wasn’t really living; it was as though I was a ghost.

Around age 29, I decided that the medications I was taking, which had kept me sane for a long time, were at too high of a dose. Instead of taking four pills a day, I switched to two. Little did I know that the medication needed to get to a certain level in my blood to work properly. Lowering my dose was the same as stopping the medication altogether. My parents and one of my close friends tried to intervene several times to get me help, but in the end, all that could be done was for me to be locked in an institution until proper medication could help my condition. The doctors took me off all my medications and started from scratch. That hospitalization cost me six months of my life.

When I got out of the hospital, it was critical that I live in supported housing. Six months of being locked up, having my meals cooked for me, and going through all the problems of hospitalization meant that I was ill-equipped to live on my own. I ended up finding a group home run by a charity. I couldn’t live in any of the private ones. The key thing about going into a group home, especially one run by a charity is, as a person with a mental illness, all the other residents had mental illnesses and all the staff members were trained to deal with people with mental illnesses. Finally, there was a place with little stigma where I could live the way I wanted.

The funny thing about going there was when I first went to the unsupervised house I was placed in, the people there seemed very strange. One of them yelled things out loud at the TV set, another person had problems maintaining his personal hygiene, and the third guy seemed to have the IQ of a small child. I didn’t think I would last the month, but I lasted 15 years.

While I was in that place, I reconnected with my ex-girlfriend, though I was very shy, embarrassed, and ashamed of what I had said to her before I went into the hospital. It was extremely awkward at first, but she and I had once been as close as two people could get. She resumed our friendship, and it really helped me heal. Some of the friendships I once had were lost forever when I was hospitalized. My true friends cared about me, but simply couldn’t be friends with me if I was off my medication and irrational and erratic in my behavior.

Having a job was critical to my recovery. It meant that I would have extra money for meals out, that I could save for a computer to do my writing, and I could buy books to read. I could also hope to save up enough to travel, my favorite activity. I started out working for security companies as a guard. The job could be difficult at times, especially when dealing with the public, and it often meant working nights which was hard on my system, but I did the best job I could, and it led to greater things.

One assignment had me watching a closed-down school that was being used for a movie set. I got to be friends with the assistant locations manager, and he encouraged me to apply to the union he worked for and do security for movie sets. Getting this new job was a dream come true. I loved working on the movie sets and the extra money meant I could afford a car. Eventually, they also had me setting up stages for the same union, and I was able to have anything I wanted, which included moving into my own place and traveling twice to Hawaii and once to London, England.

The critical thing my new job allowed me to do was that I was able to self-publish my first book after paying to have it professionally edited. I tightened my belt, got the necessary equipment, and started going to Farmer’s Markets, bookstores, and other places I could sell my books.

Not long after I put out my book, I thought I should try and write a novel. I took it to the Writer in Residence at The University of Alberta and got to be friends with him. He came to the Farmer’s Market, introduced me to his family, and encouraged them to buy my books as well. He soon not only became my best friend, but he also became my mentor.

At this time, my life was going well, but I had a dark spectre of unhappiness about me. I was having problems with gambling when I got bored, and I didn’t seem to be able to stop drinking. I made a resolution to quit both for good and went to support group meetings for a solid year, almost every day. I also learned about the Schizophrenia Society.

At first, I didn’t even know if I qualified, but they said because I had experienced psychosis, I was welcome to attend their classes and support groups. I went to as many of these as I could, and before I knew it, they asked me to work for them, to tell my story to high school and university students, and other groups they would find for me. It was difficult at first. I was shy and couldn’t seem to look people in the eye while talking. But I stuck with it and eventually gained a great deal of confidence. I was eager to tell people about my story and it resonated with a lot of them. I know because I brought my books with me to sell and before long, I was making more from book sales than the Schizophrenia Society was paying me.

I loved being a part of helping to reduce stigma and increase awareness of mental illness. In the support groups I once attended, they often said that once you overcome your addiction, you need to throw yourself into helping others or you will have no lasting abstinence. I now think that perhaps I was never serious enough of a drinker or gambler to need to spend my whole life avoiding it, but I do understand that giving talks for The Schizophrenia Society gave me a lot of reasons to keep taking my medications, keep eating healthy and getting proper sleep. The work I did for The Schizophrenia Society was keeping me sane.

One of the other things that happened when I first became ill was that I was arrested in my school for fighting and being belligerent to the school administrators. I felt so bad about all the things that happened. Then, on the advice of an employee of The Schizophrenia Society, I went to see the Minister of Disabilities. We talked for a long time, and she not only bought a full set of my books, but she also donated them to the library of my old high school. Then she set things up so I could go to the school to give a talk to the students. This was as close to a dream come true as I had ever experienced.

Not long after, I was looking for new opportunities. On the advice of a friend, I approached an agency called “The Learning Centre” about them purchasing some books. They passed on my number to a director, who called me up and said, “Actually, we’re looking for someone to teach creative writing at Alberta Hospital.” They signed me to a contract and before I knew it, I had a regular shift every Monday morning at the hospital I once thought I might never leave.

The job was perfect. Every Monday morning, I would get up, take a bus, a train, and another bus to the hospital, then plan out my class. I would often teach poetry, and I liked to tell my students that I was a former patient myself. What I most wanted to impress on them was that when they are trying hard to write something, or working on a puzzle, or reading a book, they can leave the dark and difficult world of being a patient for a little while, and before they knew it, they would be feeling better, and would get their chance to go home.

In one class, I worked with the students, helping them to write a group poem. We called it “Discharge Day” and when I got home, I typed it up and sent it to a magazine published in Saskatchewan for people with mental health troubles. To my surprise, they published the poem and sent me a cheque for $25.00. I celebrated with my students by taking them to the hospital cafeteria and getting them coffee and donuts, a rare treat for them.

One of the harsh realities of my illness was that despite my years of good health and many successes, I wasn’t immune at all to relapse. In 2018, my doctor decided to try out a medication that was supposed to work better and needed to be injected less frequently than the antipsychotic medication I was on. But everyone’s system works differently, and mine simply did not tolerate the new medication. I became seriously ill and once again had to be hospitalized, this time for five weeks. It was an irony that one day I was working at the psychiatric hospital in the morning, and by that evening I was being admitted to a psychiatric ward of another hospital.

All my old symptoms came back with a vengeance. I had delusional thoughts backed up by hallucinations. I somehow imagined a guy I once knew was controlling all the sounds on the hospital ward around me and that he was talking to me over the intercom. I imagined a young woman I was close friends with was being sexually assaulted somewhere on the ward and that I had to save her. I imagined someone was coming to kill me and laid down behind my bed frame in fear. Fortunately, it was easy to understand where the problem lay, and I was compliant with treatment. My biggest regret was that I carelessly spent thousands of dollars on clothes and a new phone while in the hospital, thinking that someone had hacked into my present phone and could see and hear everything I did with it.

Once again, The Schizophrenia Society came through for me. My boss came to visit while I was in the locked ward. She also kept me to a promise to return to work. Just three days after leaving the hospital, I spoke to a full lecture hall of university students. I was a little nervous, but I was able to tell my story, how my illness first manifested itself and what treatment was like. I even went out on a limb and talked about how illnesses like schizophrenia don’t go away, they require ongoing treatment, proven by the fact that a small medication change made me as ill as ever.

And then the pandemic came. It was hard on a lot of people, but somehow, I came out on top of it. It is scary to think of the early days when there were simply no masks available. I felt like I was in the Middle Ages getting on a bus that didn’t charge any fare but had signs up asking people not to sit on every second seat. Sometimes it seems like I laid down on my couch and didn’t wake up for two years when the pandemic ended. But I learned some important things. One of them was the need within me to be stimulated by my walks each day and to talk to people. I spent quite a bit of time on the phone or walking long distances and taking photos in the silent, empty streets. Fortunately, I wasn’t out of work because of the pandemic. I wrote articles and gave my presentations over the computer.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from the pandemic was how to save money. I considered it a game as to how careful I could be with what I ate and drank while I didn’t have to spend anything on my social life. My biggest expense was books. The miracle was that when things started coming back to normal, I still had work and I had socked away a good sum of money, enough so I could plan a trip or even start a retirement account.

Maybe the most important thing that happened was that I took a huge chance. One day I went to the local church and felt good afterward. I sat down next to my phone and somehow, I was able to remember a number I hadn’t dialed in 20 years. It was a number for an old friend from high school and by some miracle, it still worked, and he answered. Right away he asked for forgiveness for cutting me out of his life, and I completely understood why he had. When I had last seen him, he had a young baby at home, and I was out of my mind. His three children are now grown and I was so happy for him. We talked for a long time and suddenly it was like having a best friend back; the whole 20 years meant nothing. I even learned that when I was ill at the age of 29, he had tried all he could to get me help and was told by my doctor to cut off all contact with me, which he regretted.

In the end, despite schizophrenia, life can be amazing.

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.

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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.

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