Last night I was extremely privileged to be one of eight storytellers for ABC Canberra’s ‘Now Hear This’ at The Street Theatre. It was wonderful to hear the other people’s stories – they were simply fabulous. The venue was superb, the audience friendly, and ABC’s staff was completely supportive, but I was way out of my comfort zone telling my story for the first time in a long time. And it was a really important process for me.
Below is the story that I was rehearsing. Once ABC’s video is added to its website, it will be evident that I didn’t stick to the plan. Hey, I was nervous because I decided not to take the easy way out – by not simply relying upon my public interest legal case & naked walk in Toronto for my story – and it is the first time that I went on this particular path. While I stumbled and was far more nervous than usual, it was an absolutely fabulous growing experience for me, because it ended my ‘storyteller’s block’ of relying upon my acute psychosis episode. I went deeper – and it was far more raw, and unpolished, and cathartic. [Here is a link to ABC’s video of my story.]
A CHANGE OF MIND
A decade ago, I wanted to hide the fact that I had experienced psychosis in Toronto and had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.
However, I changed my mind.
Today, I am a social worker, employed to help people with mental health problems in Canberra.
My story of experiencing psychosis and recovery has been featured in The Canberra Times, is the subject of a short film by American E.C., and inspired a play written by Sue Murray.
Currently, I am developing Mentalympians, an online initiative to promote awareness of recovery. The term Mentalympians inspired by the important work done by Paralympians.
And recently, I was flattered by being acknowledged in the Senate by Tasmania’s Carol Brown.
Like everyone else, my life has been influenced by a number of factors, events, and changes.
CORPORATE INSIDER TO ACTIVIST
I was born in Montreal, and studied business before starting a corporate broadcasting career in Toronto in 1987.
During a stressful period in 1994, I started getting less and less sleep — while my energy increased.
Given my family history, I should have recognized these changes as early warning signs of a problem, but I did not.
My grandfather died in a psychiatric hospital in Montreal 6 months before I was born.
And my father and been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a suicide attempt.
In short order, my symptoms became worse and I experienced my first life-altering episode of psychosis; a relatively mild one.
While suffering delusions of grandeur, I listened to Bob Marley’s song Get Up Stand Up approximately 30 times one September afternoon.
The following morning, I quit my job to reform the Canadian broadcasting system.
I had changed into an activist.
At first, my knowledge of the cable television industry and the federal broadcasting authority came in handy.
3 MPs joined me at an Ottawa press conference in March 1995. —We called on the Government to investigate a corporate welfare scheme, designed to unjustly enrich media companies selling cable-TV service.
While there were questions to the Prime Minister in Parliament, the Government dodged the issue — and journalists did not effectively cover the story.
However, I was determined to get a public inquiry into the broadcasting authority — and I put everything else in my life on hold.
The affair was stressful, but I pressed on — and on — and on.
DEPRESSION – DIAGNOSIS – PSYCHIATRIST
I had lost nearly 20 per cent of my body weight before collapsing into a severe depression in May 1996.
Less than a year earlier, a columnist at The Globe and Mail had publicly praised me for “charging head-long into battle with two of the most powerful opponents in the country” — but depression was a far bigger opponent than either media companies or the government agency.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — and I felt deeply ashamed.
I remember being curled up in the fetal position one morning on my bedroom floor, in pure misery — sobbing — certain that I was never going to work or enjoy life again.
Intense thoughts of suicide dominated my waking hours.
During that period, a psychiatrist told me that it was impossible for me to return to my role as an activist — because I had a severe mental illness, and stress is a trigger to relapse.
However, as soon as there was a crack in the darkness, I returned to the issue, which helped raise my mood — but it was too soon — and I pushed myself too hard.
In October 1996, I appeared before the broadcasting authority at a public hearing, and urged commissioners to address the corporate welfare scheme in the public interest.
One month later, I experienced my second life-altering episode of psychosis.
I was transported to a Toronto psychiatric hospital by police — my life was shattered, my reputation destroyed and the people who loved me highly distressed.
Earlier that day, while looking at my dog Zach, a Black Labrador Retriever, I realized that DOG spelled backwards is GOD. In my state of psychosis, this simple reality had a profound impact on me.
I went to my bank, took out some money, and started giving it away to people begging in downtown Toronto.
Once all of the money was gone, I gave a gentleman my jacket, despite the temperature being minus one.
Although I am not religious — I experienced a moment that I believed that I was connected directed to God. I thought that God was willing to end poverty and suffering, IF I was willing to demonstrate my faith that all that I needed to change the world was the truth, BY walking the world naked for the rest of my life.
Of course, the deal was simply too good to reject. But I didn’t get too far in my new pursuit.
Two weeks after my fashion faux pas, I was discharged from hospital — but I was a broken mess.
I wanted to disappear. So I did. Spending time in the United States, Europe and Africa.
In 1998, I returned to Toronto for a trip to visit family and friends.
During that time, I bumped into an Australian woman at a friend’s party.
On our first date — a highly enjoyable dinner at a Toronto restaurant near Lake Ontario— I started thinking about when it would be appropriate to tell her about my circumstances.
I was pretty nervous that it might not go over very well — so, I opted to do it sooner rather than later, and told her my story over dessert and coffee on that first date.
It turned out that one of her friends had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after suffering psychosis.
Gail and I have been together ever since. And my life has been fundamentally changed by her love, friendship and support.
I found a good Toronto psychiatrist, who introduced me to Mindfullness Meditation practice – but I was still struggling in Toronto — so Gail and I moved to Canberra for a fresh start in 2001.
A few months after relocating to Canberra, I saw a flyer by Mental Illness Education ACT, searching for volunteers to share their personal stories of mental illness to high school classes to reduce stigma and encourage early help-seeking behaviour.
The idea of using my experience to help other people really appealed to me — and I became a volunteer educator, a decision that played a vital role in my recovery.
I had a sense of belonging, and got to know and respect other people with mental health problems — which helped me accept myself. And I was mentored by the organization’s executive officer, Margy Wldye-Brown.
As a result, I started developing a self-identity as a mental health advocate.
In 2004, the late Dr Grace Groom hired me to work one day a week at the Mental Health Council of Australia, which was also a major turning point for me, by increasing my confidence, self-esteem and circle of friends.
The following year, I started studying social work at ACU, completing my degree at the end of 2007.
ENDING – PSYCHIATRIST WRONG
In early 2008, two months after I had conducted a presentation on my recovery at the World Psychiatric International Congress, I made a trip to Canada to appear before the federal broadcasting authority, the first time since 1996.
I was granted 15 minutes for my presentation — I only required 3 minutes to say what I wanted to say on the public record.
My presentation resulted in questions in Parliament the following day about Canadians being over-charged by more than $1.2 billion dollars for cable television service since 1995.
Once again, the Government dodged the issue — and Canadian journalists totally dropped.
But I felt a degree of vindication nonetheless.
And this time, I didn’t put my life on hold to fight the system. I left Canada to return home.
While the psychiatrist who told me that it was impossible for me to be an activist was wrong — I had been wrong to ignore his warnings of relapse from stress.
Not only had the result been devastating for me — the people closest to me had also paid a high emotional price.
A week after the questions in Parliament, I started my first job as a professional social worker — as a case manager at Community Youth Justice in Canberra.
I joined Woden Community Service in May 2009, to work in mental health in the Personal Helpers and Mentors Program.
Consequently, it is fair to say that I’ve gone through a number of changes in my life.