My Journey With Schizophrenia

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My passion for writing began with a love of reading. As a child I read pretty much all the novels the comtesse de Ségur had written. All her novels were written in French. In fact, I did all my elementary and most of my high school education in French, switching to English only in Grade 11, which is the last year of high school in Québec where I was born, grew up and still live. This author of Russian origin was a good storyteller, and there were a lot of fairies in her stories — both good and bad — the delight of children. And since I had a good eye for grammar and spelling I learned to write in French that way. Of course, back then we were still taught grammar in elementary school also. One of the best gifts my parents gave me was the love of reading. My father’s priority was to have proper lighting to make reading easier. 

As far as I can remember I would write notes rather than pick up a phone or go up to a person directly and talk to them, even as a child. Then, later on, I’d write stories for myself based on characters that already existed, and on occasion, write letters to newspapers that did get published. 

In 1991 I received a letter from a school of journalism that offered correspondence courses, and I began to take one but didn’t complete it because I’d shown my mother what I was doing. I was living at home at the time even though I had lived on my own for a couple of years, but because of the onset of my illness in the fall of 1986, schizophrenia, which was initially diagnosed as psychotic depression, I had been forced to move back in with my parents. That was where I was when in 1992 my mom saw an ad in The Montreal Gazette about an undergraduate program in Professional Writing in English at the University of Sherbrooke, (Eastern Townships) in Québec. This was the only university in the whole province offering this programme in the Coop system. I applied and was accepted to start a B.A. in English Studies, majoring in Professional Writing in English starting that fall. I graduated in October 1995. That may seem long but it was because of the Coop program, which required that students alternate between study terms and work terms.

For someone juggling studies with symptoms of schizophrenia, I managed to maintain a GPA of 2.75 with marks being A:4, B:3, C:2, etc. So I was allowed to participate in the Coop program but only got one work term, because a recession threw a wrench in the works. Finding work terms for me was more difficult than for the others because I was slow and could not keep up with the expectations of most employers. In the end there was no mention of the Coop program on my diploma. But I still graduated with a GPA between B- and B, the grading system having changed during the program. Not bad considering French was my mother tongue, and I was still struggling with the symptoms of the illness, mainly depression, auditory hallucinations, and delusional thinking. 

As far as the treatment of depression was concerned, I would be put on anti-depressants for about a year, taken off them, start having symptoms again, and be put on the medication for a while. Back then, I think depression was still expected to last about a year, especially by doctors who were not actual psychiatrists, and one of them that I saw on campus never clued into the possibility that the illness might be something other than depression. 

Then after leaving school I began to see another doctor in the Sherbrooke area who put me back on anti-depressants, because the previous doctor refused to do so, even though I was clearly depressed again. I was not diagnosed with schizophrenia until May 1996. So I somehow got two B.A.s with only partially treated symptoms. The first one was in Linguistics from the University of Montreal from which I graduated in March 1991. 

I mentioned earlier that my illness began in the fall of 1986 while I was beginning the second year of my B.A. in Linguistics. At that time, besides the depression I could not sleep at night and heard voices telling me I was worthless and should kill myself. I believed that I should go into theological translation after my B.A., but I had more or less forgotten about it, and with delusional thinking added to my symptoms, I got the notion I should become a pastor even though my denomination did not ordain women at that time. 

In the spring of 1987 I was so depressed I considered suicide seriously enough to walk to the bank of the nearest river, which was about five minutes away from my apartment with the intent of throwing myself in it. But the current was very strong and that made me pause. It also gave God the time to speak to my heart and convince me to put the project on hold and tell my pastor. So I walked back home and called him. He was not available at the moment but said he would call me back later. When he did, I told him what had happened, and he said I should tell my mother. Nobody in my family knew how depressed I was at the time, and if I had killed myself, by the time they had reported me missing it might have been hard to find my body.

But I was not diagnosed formally with psychotic depression until July 1988, and that was when I was put on anti-depressants for the first time. Since the medication put me to sleep at night, I was able to function during the day and that allowed me to look forward more optimistically than I had until then.

In early 1995 it was becoming clear that finding a job in my field of training was almost impossible, because my condition was not improving. My work-term coordinator suggested I find other ways of using my skills. Some time earlier I had begun to write poetry and submitted two samples to fellow students who were making an anthology of texts by our P.W. class for a publishing workshop, which were accepted. I showed her those two poems. I have never had to give up writing, but having a career was another story. I did get a job in translation in 1996, but it was only a make-work project that lasted 20 weeks. 

Then in 1999 I moved back to Montreal from Sherbrooke, and shortly afterward began to write a novel that won’t get published, based on the story of Simon of Cyrene. In 2006 I joined a writing workshop in French during which I started writing a romanced version of my experience with schizophrenia that is still awaiting completion. I have been in full recovery since that time. That might seem like a long time, but I only began to be actually treated for schizophrenia in 1996, and at that time I was put on Haldol, one of the first generation antipsychotics that in my case proved to be totally ineffective a controlling my symptoms, and I had three small psychotic episodes while on it. By small I mean that I never had to be hospitalized. But my doctor, instead of changing my medication kept increasing the dosage until at one point I felt like a zombie, and my mother complained about it. The last episode happened after I had moved back to Montreal. By then I had a different doctor, a real psychiatrist, and she switched me to Risperdal. Since then another psychiatrist in the same clinic switched me to Seroquel (Quetiapine), and I have been taking this medication or a generic since 2007.

In February of this year I was appointed as the Disability Concerns Regional Advocate for Classis Eastern Canada, a regional group of congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. That means my work as an RA is to help congregations break down barriers in the built environment, communications, and attitudes so that people with disabilities can be fully engaged in the life of the congregation. I am also called upon to make presentations once a year at Classis, as well as to individual congregations who may request it. I am currently working on a power point presentation for when the invitations will come. In my congregation I sit on the Worship Committee; that means I get to prepare the order of worship periodically and choose the songs we sing. I also translate sermon notes into French for French-speaking adherents who are not fluent in English. I have also been involved in a ministry called Community Supper where a meal is served on the last Saturday of the month to the community. People pay a nominal fee for the meal with a maximum amount for a family. I was in charge of baking the dessert. I am leaving this ministry because I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with all the responsibilities that kept piling on. 

In conclusion, although schizophrenia interrupted my life for a number of years, it added depth to it and gave me something to read and write about, so that those who don’t know about the illness will learn that what they hear in the news is often false and based on prejudice. My main reason for writing about schizophrenia specifically, and mental illness in general, is to help those who may be suffering from it or who know someone who does but don’t know how to help because of stigma. If my experience with schizophrenia could serve by moving people to get help, the pain won’t have been in vain.

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