From time to time we publish personal stories which illustrate the importance of maintaining the momentum behind the shift from stigma to solutions when it comes to talking about mental health. In this piece, Canada-based Leif Gregersen shares his experience of learning to live with a rare combination of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“Man, another long shift today, Paul. I don’t know how you do it.”
“You get used to full-time after a while.”
“Don’t you hate it when you get off shift, and you’re just in a total fog of depression?”
“I don’t feel that way after work. Maybe you should see a doctor about that.”
That was me at 17. I was driving the car of my dreams, working a job I enjoyed. I had a great boss and all kinds of friends. But mostly, because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, I was unable to find proper treatment.
Eventually, depression manifested itself as a much more deadly and chronic illness. As I got sicker, I had delusional thinking and hallucinations. Little did I know that soon I would lose my job, my car, be kicked out of school, and be locked up in a very chaotic place.
There was a group of people I knew in high school. One of them was Brad. He was the glue that held our group together. We always met up at his house. He was a total gentleman and would do anything for his friends. I was happy to see my friends when they pulled up to the gas station. After a long silence, finally, one of them said the words that floored me.
“Brad is dead.” I went stone silent. I later learned Brad had broken up with his girlfriend, and after spending a night crying on her doorstep, went home and took his own life.
That night we all drank and mourned. I had never experienced death before that day. I kept expecting my friend to come walking in the door. But the only time I would see him again was when he was in his coffin. I often wonder how I managed to live to be almost fifty and not have the same fate.
About six months after my friend died, my mental health rapidly deteriorated. It could be my episodes of deep depression were the prodromal or early stages of schizophrenia. The doctor I saw in the hospital tried to explain that I had bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression).
It always takes a long time to confirm a diagnosis. Years later found out I had schizoaffective disorder with anxiety, a rare combination of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. As things led up to that hospitalization, I asked for help a few times. But I was so ashamed about being flawed. I ended up not getting help until it was almost too late.
One time, I went to my mom and told her about my insomnia and depression. She offered to let me take her psychiatrist appointment, but I didn’t. I told one of my best friends about how difficult life was becoming, and he laughed at me. I told my teacher about my mental illness and also about the abuse I was experiencing at home. He just told me to stick it out at home because that was how he had been able to buy a new jeep.
Eventually, I started doing more and more irrational things. Psychosis, which is a split from reality, not a split personality or anything to do with psychopathy, caused me to believe things straight out of science fiction. One was that the human race existed in two parts, and I had been part of the wrong one. As I walked down the halls of my school, I somehow hallucinated things that reinforced the ideas my delusional thinking created.
After a short visit to the hospital, I went back to school. It seemed to me that everyone now thought I was insane. I didn’t admit being in a psychiatric hospital, even to my closest friends. I was afraid of being ostracized.
Years passed, and I went through cycles of going into hospitals, getting on medication that brought me back from the brink, and then going off meds and starting over again. The hardest thing about staying on the pills for me was that my delusional world was much more interesting than my reality. I lived in a small apartment that cost $300 a month, and I was getting support from the government for $560. All my food, clothes, tobacco, utilities, and anything else had to come out of the $260 that never lasted the month. There was no room for movies or dinners out, no possibility of ever having a car.
In my delusional world, I was a powerful and wealthy man. Pursued by gorgeous women I had fallen in love with, I was on top of the world. But then, I would also become paranoid and act out in fear. There was one time my mom and dad came to my apartment. I took a baseball bat and broke it on a tree. Thankfully, my dad was able to get me admitted for treatment in a hospital that same day. It was difficult to be cooped up in summer, but it was a lot better than being free with all those convoluted thoughts and paranoid ideas running through my head.
The truth is, mental illness is not a death sentence. Some people die on the streets from exposure and never get the help they need. Sadly, some die by suicide. Most people with mental illnesses eventually learn to manage their medication and get into a routine of seeing their doctor and staying aware of their mental health. Many of them go back to work, and some end up in programs that allow them to function and live fulfilled lives.
Three things changed my life. One was going to a group home that gave me enough freedom to feel comfortable and enough structure (along with monitoring my medication) to help me to heal. The next was joining the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta (SSA). The SSA did so much for me. I took a wellness class through them, and after completing it, they paid me to teach the course to others. They also trained and paid me to give presentations about schizophrenia. I go to colleges, universities, high schools, and even the local police recruit classes.
The SSA gave me back my dignity and pride. They also made me feel good enough about myself to stay on my medication. The third thing was a true miracle. After quitting drinking, my dad did all he could to help me. We would go for long walks and long talks every day, and it was therapeutic.
Still, the essential part of my healing is because there is nothing like knowing I am using my knowledge and experience to help others do better. I love to speak to those who work with, have a loved one with, or live with a mental illness. My mental health is a gift, and only by sharing how I regained it can I stay well.
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If you need support and you’re in the UK, you can contact the mental health charity, Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or by visiting www.mind.org.uk.
If you need support and you’re in the US, you can contact Mental Health America by calling 1-800-985-5990 or by visiting www.mhanational.org.