Have you ever wondered what you would do in a horrible situation like a tsunami, or if you lost your legs, or were trapped in rubble after an earthquake? How would you react? Do you wonder whether you would be strong enough to handle it?
I was faced with a horrible situation. I was blindsided. The pain and terror of what I was going through made me feel like I was being chased by a heat-seeking tornado. A relentless onslaught of death.
This insidious beast chasing me was mental illness. A nice mix of schizophrenia, depression and anxiety.
I grew up in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada, a small seaside resort town. My mother was a nurse, and my father was a high school English teacher. I don’t have many complaints about my youth. I was a straight-A student, but could have had more confidence than I did. I liked playing golf, biking around the town, going for runs.
I did have an unmet need to go exploring, though. This came to a head in the middle of university when I decided to bicycle across Canada.
I was in my third year of engineering, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should have. My heart wasn’t in it. Although I was fairly smart, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life.
But throughout university, I didn’t feel right. I had no idea what was going to come down the tubes for me at the end of university. When mental illness hit, it hit hard. For five years of university, I struggled a bit with my thoughts and emotions. But I could get still get good marks, feed myself and live independently. I was on the university rowing team, did a triathlon, and even biked across Canada.
But at the end of my studies, the tornado came for me. And I was put to the test.
If there’s anything I would like to tell people after what I have been through, it is that you are capable of so much more than you think you are. I believe everybody has inside of themselves vast amounts of courage, determination, and resilience lying dormant, ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
Navy SEALs are taught that they are capable of 20 times more than they think they are.
The sheer effort it took me to withstand the pain coming from my body was tremendous. I was tormented. The anxiety was like a machete stuck through my chest. Just to sit still in a chair took a kind of will I didn’t know was humanly possible.
If you do a search on the Internet for the phrase “desperately trying to save their life”, countless headlines of news articles will show up. They will involve people drowning or in natural disasters, being chased by wild animals, or other horrific situations. People can understand why those people are desperate. They are trying to save their lives. They will use any means possible to do so. They are desperate. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
So when I found myself desperately trying to save my life, I wondered, Why is it that people are sometimes scared to interact with you? Why do people walk past you? These are questions with which I still wrestle. I have some ideas as to why we help some people who are desperate and not others, but some part of it still mystifies me. I read that when horrible things happen to you, the people in your life often leave you unless you already have a deeper relationship with them.
I know that this isn’t set in stone. I heard about a man in the hospital who was given no chance to live. One of his attendants came in and talked to him every day for months. Very few people came in to see him. He ended up making a full recovery, which essentially was a miracle. When asked what kept him going through it all, he responded that he did it for the hospital attendant. He said that he couldn’t let him down and hung on because of him. Miracles do happen.
This is why I feel that it is important to build relationships with more depth in your life, so that if disaster does strike in your life, there will be more people who know you and are more likely to stick with you. To get a deeper relationship with someone, start with simply sharing a bit more about yourself than you usually would. Get used to doing that with some of the people in your life. You’ll find a little sharing can go a long way.
So, yes, I felt a sense of desperation that would take many years to go away. The experience of mental illness is also a very bewildering and confusing one.
I always considered myself a nice guy. I have done some dumb things throughout my life, but overall I thought I was a good person. When mental illness struck me and started altering my thoughts and emotions, it was very confusing for me. Also, I didn’t understand what schizophrenia was (this was 1994 before mental illness was even talked about in mainstream conversation). What was schizophrenia? I didn’t know what it was or did to a person.
So I wondered, Am I evil? Does this mean that I will do bad things? And that terrified me. And this was on top of the terror I already felt with the disease. I went for about 6 to 8 years living this way until I read a sentence somewhere that said;
People with schizophrenia are no more violent than the rest of the general population.
And I breathed a sigh of relief. I was so glad that this meant I wasn’t evil and wasn’t going to hurt anyone. But at the same time, I thought, Why didn’t anyone tell me this at the very beginning when I was first diagnosed? They say knowing is half the battle. I fully agree. Sometimes I think knowing might be more than half, even 90% at times.
You can also feel very helpless and defenseless. I felt like the people around me felt helpless as well, because there wasn’t anything they could do to relieve me of my pain. I felt like everyone was looking at me wondering whether I was okay, not knowing what to do in a lot of situations. It was a miserable experience for everyone involved.
But there is hope. And more hope than you even realize. People who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were asked what they thought the moment after they jumped, when there was no turning back. Many of them regretted it. One moment they were all for jumping, the next they wished they hadn’t. I wish more people knew this fact about those who had jumped. It goes to show that, yes, you can hold on for longer than you thought. Even when you have no hope, there is still hope. There is hope beyond hope.
At the end of my fifth year of engineering, I went to get help. I went to the university health clinic. They took me to the local hospital, and thus, I entered the mental health system. The doctors found a medication that worked. I stayed on it. I never went off it. It worked, but it worked painfully slowly, or as I like to call “glacially”.
Time went by slowly. Every day seemed the same. Yet everything was so chaotic. The outside of my life was pretty peaceful. I didn’t have a lot of problems in my life other than mental illness. But the disease made me feel like my life was a whirlwind. Every day felt the same and everything was chaotic at the same time. It is an odd juxtaposition. I don’t know how chaos can feel so unbelievably boring, but that’s the way it felt, unpredictable and monotonous. And my medication kept working. I noticed a small improvement each week from 1994 until today.
I never had any problems with substance abuse.