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A personal journey: To the brink and back

Local author shares personal story of dealing with mental illness.

It was a sunny August day. I decided to walk to my doctor’s office downtown. Things were going great. I had two jobs I loved, I had been able to save a little money and I felt in control of the most critical part of my life—my mental health.

I have an illness known as schizoaffective disorder with anxiety. Without proper psychiatric care and medications, I am a complete mess. The medications I take have serious side effects, but nothing is more important to me than being coherent and able to function in my jobs and social situations.

“I have some good news for you Leif," my psychiatrist said. "There is a new medication which will have less side effects and you need it less often than your current injection.”

If I could have seen the future, despite the respect I had for my psychiatrist, I may have fled his office at that moment. I asked for some time. My previous doctor didn’t believe in changing things that were working and I would soon find out why.

Two months later I consented to the change, and was weaned off my previous medication while being introduced to the new one.

Over weeks and months, I started sliding down the dark, slippery slope back into psychosis--a condition where your mind isn’t aligned with reality. It can include false fears, hallucinations, delusions and a susceptibility to believe what your delusions and hallucinations tell you. Worst of all is the paranoia.

Though I had rational voices trying to reason with me, I soon became delusional. Sadly, there is little to change a person’s mind during psychosis. What I needed was my old medication, and time.

It all boiled over one day going to the psychiatric hospital where I taught creative writing. It seemed people were talking about me, wanting to harm me and that I smelled really bad. It was a profound irony I was working in a psych hospital that morning and by night I was taken to another hospital, severely mentally ill.

While waiting in the emergency room, I swapped my clothes for a gown, thinking they smelled. I also thought I was going to be punished for a brutal murder of a friend who was fine. Everything I heard or thought seemed terrifying.

I had to stay on a secure ward for a week and a half and then spent three more weeks in an open ward. I have so much gratitude for the support and care of family and friends, and my two bosses for coming to visit. This was critical to me wanting to get better.

It took weeks for the old medication to take effect. It was never easy, but eventually, the psychosis faded. I credit my boss with the Schizophrenia Society for believing in me. She scheduled me to speak to an entire lecture hall of students at the University of Alberta just three days after my release. I told my story to thundering applause, and after the class, a young woman approached me and said the words I needed to hear most: “I just wanted to tell you that I’m proud of you.”

After hearing those words, dealing with mental illness no longer seemed like a thankless and empty task. Instead, what I had to do to get through each day were the necessary things a person with a purpose in life must do to help others who tread the same path.

Accessing help

To speak to a confidential, qualified counsellor in Edmonton (first session free, next sessions based on sliding scale according to income) call The Family Centre at: 1(780)900-6129.

In Calgary, call The Calgary Counselling Centre at: 1(403)265-4980

For immediate help: Edmonton: 1(780)482-HELP (4357). Calgary: 1(403)266-HELP (4357)

For addiction and mental health community-based programs in Edmonton, visit Anderson Hall at 10959 102 street NW, or phone: 1(780)424-2424.

In Calgary, contact Access Mental Health at 1(403)943-1500.