The Cat is Out of the Bag

After a hectic few weeks, I have finally stolen some time to sit back and reflect.  Things have definitely changed since I released my memoir ‘Completely in Blue: Dispatches from the Edge of Insanity.’

But they haven’t changed in the way that I had, somewhat dismally, figured that they might.  In the weeks prior to my book coming out to the public, my girlfriend can attest to the fact that I was perhaps a little bit nervous.  I didn’t know what people would think.  I didn’t know what I would think, in regards to what others would think.  But the shocking thing is, that it hasn’t been that difficult at all.  I think.

I got ‘eased’ into speaking openly about my battles pretty quickly.  I was fortunate enough to receive an Inspiration Award from the Royal Ottawa and the You Know Who I Am Foundation.  I was blessed with the opportunity to create a professional five minute video detailing my personal experiences with mental illness, as well as my musical and writing pursuits, also in the name of mental health.  The video was shown to over five-hundred professionals in the mental health community last Friday night at the Gala.  

When that video was shown, something weird happened.  I expected to be ashamed, because that is something that I have grown accustomed to feeling over the years when discussing my own mental health.  But instead, I felt proud.  For once, I was finally standing up and speaking openly about my struggles, and I had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.  I got to meet others in the community who have made great strides in the destigmatization of mental health and it turned out to be the perfect beginning to my new life of speaking openly.

Today was another first.  The first book reading/signing.  I was reading with fellow Inspiration Award winner Nathalie Holmes.  Neither of us had really bothered to figure out a format, so we just went off the tops of our heads.  But it went swimmingly.  We both spoke of our own personal battles with mental illness, read some excerpts from our books and answered a wide variety of outstanding questions.  People seemed genuinely interested in talking about mental health in an honest, open and productive manner.  I had nothing to be ashamed of and every single person I met was inspirational in their own way.

As I gear up for a wide variety of speaking engagements that are to come over the coming months, I am very glad to say that it is getting easier.  Much, much easier.  I am starting to feel as though I am a part of something bigger. Part of a societal group that has become famous for being reclusive.  And who are now speaking out.

The support I have received over these first few weeks has been unwavering and I have not, for one single second, questioned my decision to start speaking out openly about my struggles with mental health.

Let’s keep the conversation going.

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The Unsung Victims of Serial Murder

The recent case of the former Commander of CFB Trenton Russel Williams has captured the fascination of Canadians for a number of reasons. Mostly, it was his double-pronged life that kept us glued to our televisions and newspapers: one minute he could be flying a plane for the Queen or the Prime Minister and the next could be breaking into women’s homes in the middle of the night to steal undergarments, leave menacing notes and eventually even torturing and murdering his victims.

But as his infamy slowly dies down and he contemplates his life choices in a tiny segregation cell in Kingston Penn, the media still seem to be focusing on his wife. How could she not have known, they ask.

Mary Elizabeth Harriman married the man of her dreams in 1991. They were extremely compatible from the start, both being driven in their respective careers. They were extremely forward focused and had no plans of having children. They walked together hand in hand, played golf together and seem like the perfect love story. Russell Williams was as perfect for her as she was for him.

Neighbours in their Ottawa suburb home of Orleans that knew them for fifteen years described them as a perfectly happy and normal family. And there was certainly nothing of Williams’ demeanour to suggest that he might be a sexual sadist.

Unlike many serial murderers who may have high intelligence but are unable to put it into practical use, Williams excelled at everything he did. He was a rising star in the military. He performed excellently in school and had generally become a very powerful man. There was never any reason to think that something might be amiss.

I write this for the unsung victims of serial murder; the spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, siblings, cousins and friends of those found guilty of heinous crimes. It is extremely rare to ever hear of the plight of these victims, for society does not view them in the same light as a first hand victims. But psychologically speaking, it can have much the same effect as having lost a loved one.

In essence, you have lost them. They are no longer who you believed they were. In many cases, they are likely as good as dead.

Mrs. Harriman’s life, which was going along swimmingly, is now in complete and utter shambles. The man she thought she knew and the man she thought she loved turned out to be one of the most notorious sexual sadist killers in the history of Canada. And every time she leaves the house, she has another reporter breathing down her neck asking her the same question.

‘How could you not have known?’

The answer to that question should be another question. How could she have known?

Russell Williams is a master manipulator. One of the best. Coupled with his high intelligence and military training, he wasn’t one that left too many clues lying around the house. He had a stash of stolen panties and other items in the rafters of the garage, certainly out of view. But other than happening upon that by accident, how else was she supposed to know?

Serial killers don’t wear special uniforms or wear a particular type of glasses. They look like you. And in many cases, they act like you.

John Wayne Gacy’s wife used to complain about the horrible smell coming from the basement but never assumed that it was from the decaying bodies of several young men that her husband had brutally murdered. Why? Because the last thing anyone ever thinks about is whether or not their husband is a serial killer. People don’t marry people they think might become serial killers. It’s not on your radar.

Gary Ridgway killed 48 women. His wife described their relationship as making her ‘feel like a newly-wed every day.’

Many serial killers, if not most, are what is now referred to as an antisocial personality. This means that they can be superficially charming, yet malicious in their intent. They can lie with ease and do not feel guilt or remorse. It is the perfect guise for a double-life.

I personally can’t even fathom the emotional toll it would take if I found out someone close to me was a serial killer. I don’t even know how I would process that information. But what I do know for sure, is that I wouldn’t want the media following me everywhere I went, hounding me and making an already terrible situation even worse.

Mrs. Harriman is filing for divorce from Williams. Of course, she would like to do this in the quietest manner possible. Her life has already been torn inside out and she does not wish to be exposed to the scrutiny of the cameras as she deals with the most painful situation anyone could ever fathom. But the media won’t give her that. We are curious beings, and we are probably going to follow her until every last drop of news is squeezed out of her.

The bottom line is she didn’t know, and you wouldn’t have known either.

So leave her alone and allow her to properly grieve the death of her husband, Russel Williams.

The Case of Allan Schoenborn

Having been immersed in other writing pursuits, I haven’t been inclined to blog as of late. But the case of Allan Schoenborn coming back into the media spotlight has me riled up enough to submit a cent or two.

Many might remember Shoenborn as the man in British Columbia, Canada who was found not criminally responsible for the murders of his three young children several years ago. Meaning, that he would serve out his time in a forensic psychiatric hospital, instead of a jail. Also meaning that there isn’t any specific length of time that he must be removed from society. It is up to a board of mental health professionals to decide when he is fit to return to society and under what restrictions.

Of course, this all caused a great deal of public debate, much reminiscent of what was heard when Vince Li was found not criminally responsible for the decapitation death of Tim McLean aboard a Greyhound bus. And making the verdict that much more difficult for some to swallow was the bizarre nature of Schoenborn’s offence and subsequent actions. After the murders, that he admitted to in great detail, he ran into the woods. It would take nine days for police to track him down, with the help of a hunter who stumbled upon him in the woods.

Mr. Shoerborn’s reason for killing his children was simple and stated in multiple undercover interviews in jail and with his estranged wife: he thought they were being sexually abused and saw no other choice. He said that he could smell semen in their hair which was proof that they were being abused. He saw no other way to end their suffering than to kill them.

Of course, this isn’t logical reasoning but it definitely displays that he was not of sound mind at the time of the offense and was obviously displaying the symptoms of severe mental illness, likely paranoid schizophrenia compounded by depression.

My entire reason for bringing this painful issue to light once again is that there has been a public and political out-cry since it was deemed that he would get escorted passes to the community. Numerous petitions have been filed and the word spread like wildfire, causing the review board to have to reconvene in a few weeks to review their decision.

This sort of ‘lock him up and throw away the key’ mentality proves that our understanding and appreciation of mental illness still has a painfully long way to go.

Society has basically said that whether he was mentally ill or not, he has to pay. And should pay by spending the rest of his life locked up. If the review board deemed him able to go on escorted walks, that means that he is likely progressing with treatment. He likely no longer believes that his children were being molested, and likely can no longer justify that belief for his dreadful actions. Therefore, he has to face each and every day with the thought that he brutally murdered his three beautiful children.

That sounds like punishment enough.

But apparently, it isn’t. This gentleman just wants to go to the coffee shop and take a walk around town. And he wouldn’t have been alone. He would have had escorts from the hospital. But due to our fears of everything we don’t understand, he won’t be going off of property for quite some time.

The bottom line is that you can’t punish someone for having a mental illness. People who commit gruesome acts whilst under the thrusts of mental illness don’t have the capacity to understand them in the same way that you or I would. When your mind is constantly distorting your perceptions, your belief in what is real is greatly affected, and thus impairs your decision-making abilities.

Allen Shoenborn wouldn’t have killed his children had he been of sound mind. And now that he is beginning to gain some sense of normalcy in his otherwise chaotic and deluded world, we shouldn’t take this tiny progress away from him.

He’s mourning the death of his three young children.

And there is no greater punishment than that.

The Sad Case of Vince Li

The mental health system in Canada has been brought to the forefront of all of our minds with the shocking case of Vince Li, the Chinese immigrant who decapitated a Greyhound passenger and was recently found Not Criminally Responsible for his actions.

The family of the victim have publicly denounced the court system and have even said that Li is ‘getting away with murder.’ They were also quoted as saying that ‘he will be able to get a job in a day care and pursue life as he pleases.’

Frankly, it sickens me that these outrageous quotes and misinformed ideas have been allowed to spread through the media and the public opinion. It is understandable that the family of victim Tim McLean are completely shocked and abhorred by this unfortunate incident, but their distorted views are only bringing the plight of the mentally ill back another step.

Schizophrenia is one of the least understood of all of the major psychotic disorders. However, one thing is known for sure: people with schizophrenia are not any more likely than the general public to be violent. And in the rare cases that they do become violent, the violence is usually self-inflicted or geared towards close friends and family members. These types of situations are usually preceded by either a failure to take medication, experimentation with drugs and alcohol or extremely stressful life events, leading to a psychotic break with reality.

I have been following this case closely from the beginning and I admittedly have a more avid interest than most. As a student in the Mental Health and Addictions program, I will be doing my placement at the Forensic Unity of the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Although Mr. Li will be hospitalized in Manitoba, I am eager to be able to meet other patients with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders who have come into contact with the law and hopefully piece together a bit of the puzzle.

Mr. Li most likely believed that he would be heralded as a hero when he jumped through the window of the Greyhound bus covered in blood from head to toe. Instead he was treated like ‘some sort of murderer,’ he later told a psychiatrist. In his mind, he had killed McLean on a direct order from God, because McLean was a demon. In his mind, he was doing the right thing. It was only weeks later upon being stabilized on anti-psychotic medications that Li came to understand the extent of his actions.

For some reason in mental illness, we tend to still somewhat hold the person responsible for their actions, where we never hold the same stance for physical illness. For example, the mother of the victim would probably not be as enraged if her son was killed by a driver who had an epileptic seizure behind the wheel. They are both out of the control of the patient, but for some reason we as a society still think the mentally ill should have to be punished for their actions.

Fascinating Mental Health Books

If you’re anything like me (and I suspect you might be if you found yourself here in the first place) you enjoy reading about mental illness.  As most of my casual reading is on mental health, I thought I would point you in the direction of some amazing reads.

Bar none, the most fascinating book I have read on mental illness is by Richard Bentall.  His book ‘Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature’ is a wonderful look at mental illness and the many misconceptions surrounding it.  Dr. Bentall has spent most of his professional career working with the severely mentally ill.  He has done extensive work on psychosis which is wonderfully presented in this book.

He explores the science behind hallucinations, voices, paranoia, depression, mania and everything in between.  The great thing about his work is that he does not believe in terms such as ‘schizophrenia, bipolar disorder’ and the like.  He makes an excellent case against the DSM diagnostic criteria of mental illness and does so with passion and poise. Definitely worth checking out for anyone who is interested in psychosis.

Next on the list would have to be Kay Redfield Jameson’s ‘Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.’   Jameson, who is herself a sufferer of manic depressive illness takes a look through time at some of the most creative people who have ever lived on our planet and relates many of their accomplishments to mental illness.  Although she touches on other illnesses such as depression, she focuses mainly on bipolar disorder.  This was actually the book that originally got me interested in mental illness.  Take a look, and prepare to have everything you thought you knew about mental illness torn to pieces.

Also by Jameson is her memoir ‘An Unquiet Mind.’  This is a remarkable memoir detailing her struggles with psychotic mania and violent depressions.  Perhaps one of the most heartfelt biographies I have ever read.

Last on this list is ‘The Day the Voices Stopped’ by Ken Steele.  A lifelong sufferer of schizophrenia, Steele eloquently brings the reader into his mind from madness to hope.  His powerful words are definitely worth reading for anyone who has the debilitating illness or knows someone who suffers from it.  The hope that it provides is monumental as Steele went on to become a leader and speaker on schizophrenia.

Oooh, I almost forgot ‘Electroboy’ by Andy Behrman.   This astonishing account of bipolar disorder is a definite must-read for anyone who is subjected to the illness.  It reads as a fiction story as most of his real life is far stranger than fiction.  Behrman is an activist for mental health and certainly has the life experience to back up his passion.

Hopefully this short list will get you started on your journey to understand the most complex thing on Earth: the human mind.

Exploring Stigma

*This was written for a teen-based publication, Evoke Magazine, but can be applied to all ages*

It’s an ugly little word that rears its ugly head in almost every aspect of human life.  But in order to combat stigma, we must first appreciate what it is, its negative power and the sneaky ways that we can all fall victim to it.

Stigma has the ability to create worry and self-doubt in anyone who bears its heavy brunt.  It has the ability to cause depressive thoughts, suicidal ideations and a negative self-image in impressionable young people.  It has the ability to change the way someone looks at the world.  It has the ability to take the drive and courage from a promising young mind with only a few words that can echo for a lifetime.

Stigma isn’t something that can be narrowed down to one specific set of behaviours.  It involves anything from labelling another as stupid, retarded, fat, nerdy, scrawny, crazy or any other demeaning term.  Essentially, it is deciding that someone else is inferior to you because you say so.

It isn’t until some people reach adulthood that they begin to realize the true impression that stigma left on their childhood experience.  Many young adults can speak at length of the pains of being labelled during elementary and high school.  It causes permanent damage and is certainly not something that is limited to the school experience.

The negative forces of stigma work in the real world as well.  They exist in creating political and racial divides, the stereotyping or profiling of minority groups and individuals and cause endless amounts of distress in our political and social world.  Unfortunately, much of that is out of our immediate hands.

However, it is the stigmas of everyday life that we can do something about.  When you break it down, stigma is caused by developing an uneducated assumption about a person or a group of people.  Therefore, stigma can be erased, or at least lessened, by becoming better educated about those around you.  Especially those who aren’t exactly like you.

It’s about not passing quick judgment on someone whose behaviour you might not understand.  It’s about not whispering to your friends in the hall that the desperately thin girl in front of you should just eat a hamburger.  It’s about not labelling a group of people ‘losers’ just because they don’t enjoy the same activities as you.  The bottom line is that it is about caring for your fellow humans and doing your part to ease the strain that we all feel as we struggle to find our place in the world.

Instead of labelling someone that is different than you, take the mature route and get to know them instead.  Get to appreciate your differences, which will in turn allow you to uncover your similarities.

Engage yourself and rise above stigma.  For the benefit of the future.

The Blood is Mightier Than the Sword

The reasons that a person might harm themselves are as vast and complex as our individual genetic makeup.  However, there seems to be one predominant goal associated with self-harm: release.

“I would resort to cutting myself for two reasons: the first being to release the tension, the build-up of emotions and thoughts that I just could not deal with. I wanted to scream but couldn’t,” said Julia P. who has battled and overcome self-harming behaviour.

Self-harm manifests itself in a number of ways but can be defined as any behaviour that causes ‘deliberate and often repetitive destruction or alteration of one’s own body tissue, without suicidal intent,’ says Armando R. Favazza, M.D., the author of Bodies Under Siege.

The most prevalent form of self-harm in Western culture is cutting, which involves taking any sharp implement such as a knife or a razor blade and cutting across the skin, usually drawing blood.

There has always been a certain stigma surrounding self-harm.  It was once thought of as a cry for attention or as a failed suicide attempt.  In fact, evidence points to the fact that most people who engage in self-harming behaviours are not trying to end their lives but are rather using it as a coping mechanism for unbearable emotional pain.  And many go to great lengths to hide their self-harming behaviours, which dispels the myth that it is simply a plea for attention.

Self-harm can disguise itself as cuts around the arms, wrists, shoulders, stomach, inner thighs  and ankles but can also include branding (burning the skin with a hot object), hair-pulling, self-strangulation, stabbing, carving words or symbols into the skin, head-banging, pinching, biting and even piercing and tattooing, when it is done to relieve emotional stress.

Self-harm does not have its own category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but is rather mentioned as a symptom of other disorders, including depression, eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa and personality disorders.  It is also commonly found in patients suffering from severe anxiety.

“I would want to scream but couldn’t.  It was like I wanted to blow up and scatter all over the place.  I would desperately search for something to stop it.  I just pulled a knife from the drawer and started cutting like a maniac up and down my arms and upper thigh. I would usually choose a serrated knife.  I liked to feel the ripping. With each cut I would feel calmer.  It was easier to deal with; I had something to focus on. It would give me a high . . . an almost euphoric feeling,” said Julia P. putting words to her battle with self-harm for the first time.

Although Julia cut to gain a sense of calmness, there were other reasons as well, that are all too common within the realm of self-harm.

“ I would cut and it would help me release the emotions that were hidden and building up to an almost unbearable level. It would help me cry when I couldn’t,” she said.

Self-harm has been linked as a response to a number of childhood incidents, including sexual abuse, assault, incest, feelings of worthlessness and helplessness, negative self-images as the result of an eating disorder, drug and alcohol abuse as well as family disruption or the death of someone close.

Although self-harm can be found across all cultural and age brackets, symptoms tend to begin at around the age of 14, according Dr. Favazza.

Although it is impossible to predict who might be inflicting self-harm, there are some signs to look out for, including wearing long sleeves in hot weather, spending more time alone, claiming to have an over-abundance of freak accidents, scars, cuts, bruises and other unexplained blemishes.

Every situation of self-harm is different but one thing is for sure.  If you or someone you know is cutting himself or hurting himself in any way, it is important to talk to a mental health practitioner, because there are likely underlying psychological reasons for the behaviour that need to be addressed.

In some cases, medications such as SSRI anti-depressants, including Paxil and Zoloft, have been found to be effective, but individual cognitive behavioural therapy, which is centered around finding healthier ways to cope with life stressors, has been more effective at terminating symptoms.

In many cases, simply talking about it with a loved-one, trusted friend, teacher, or guidance counsellor can be enough to start the healing journey.  Self-harm is much more common than was once thought and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.  Talking about it and taking the issue out of the closet is the first step toward a healthy body and mind.

Starving to Perfection

Starving to Perfection

Eating disorders are developing the reputation as having the highest mortality rate of any illness, as well as being one of the most under-diagnosed psychological conditions today.  And far too often, it is too late when someone takes notice.  The signs differ from one person to the next making eating disorders difficult to spot to the untrained eye.  Close attention is needed in order to recognize possible warning signs such as reluctance to eat with the family or in a group, repeated trips to the bathroom after meals, complaints of never being hungry, distorted views of their body, mood swings, and having less energy and interest in previously enjoyed activities – all should be taken very seriously.

“Eating disorders occur in secret,” says Teresa Sullivan, a psychotherapist in practice for 23 years who specializes in treating eating disorders.  “People are usually in denial that they have a problem so it can go on for years before someone notices.”

Society puts a tremendous amount of pressure on us to be thin so it’s really not all that surprising to learn that eating disorders typically occur in early adolescence with poor self-esteem and body image as the most common contributors.  Anorexia is one of the most common eating disorders.  It is the pursuit of thinness, with anorexics going to extremes to maintain an unsafe body weight often in secret to conceal their behaviour from others.  They obsess over counting calories and fat, measure food portions, read food labels and keep food journals.  Fixated on weight, body shape and size of clothing, they only see a ‘fat’ person when they look in the mirror.

Fueled by the media, they deviate from normal, healthy attitudes about body image to self-starvation including unhealthy diets, purging, fasting and excessive exercise.  What is not immediately apparent is the denial of the dangers of anorexia.  As self-starvation persists, more body fat is lost and complications become evident.  Doctors can see the amount of weight-loss, digestive problems, Amenorrhoea; the absence of menstruation, and damage to the esophagus and larynx from acid reflux.  Dentists see salivary gland  enlargement (chipmunk like features) which are indicators of bingeing and purging, as well as tooth decay.  Other physical changes include weakening and swelling of the muscles and joints, periodic fractures, thinning and brittle hair, dry and flaky skin, ease of which the body bruises, a jaundice-like skin tone, brittle finger nails, low blood pressure, palpitations of the heart and possibly kidney failure.

“It’s all about control,” says Jennifer, 24, from Toronto who is battling an eating disorder.  “Whether you are anorexic or bulimic, you are ultimately seeking control over an otherwise chaotic life and mind.  An eating disorder completely takes you over.  You become it and it becomes you.  All that you can control is what and how much food you put in your body.  It’s when you lose control and your body shuts down that things get really scary,” she says.

Bulimia on the other hand, generally occurs with anorexia but can exist independently and is characterized by binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting, fasting, the use of laxatives and over-exercising.  Bulimics eat a large portion of food; more than most people under similar circumstances within a fixed period of time and feel a loss of control over how much and what they eat.  The need to remove food from the body before it can be digested to prevent weight gain is overpowering.  More difficult to detect than anorexia because sufferers tend to look ‘healthy’ and have fewer physical complications.  It too can be equally destructive to the body.

“On the surface the body appears okay – thin usually, sometimes fit looking, but internal damage is occurring to the heart, kidneys, liver, intestines and oesophagus.  They develop compulsive tendencies and can often become depressed,” says Sullivan.

Recognizing the warning signs is crucial in treating an eating disorder.  The longer it goes unnoticed, the longer treatment will ultimately take.  There are a number of treatment options out there for you to explore.  However, treatment can take months or even years depending on the severity of the condition and the length of time it went untreated.  In severe cases, hospitalization is required to stabilize the vital organs, but once the body regains some of its physical health, the underlying psychological causes for the disorder can be explored.

“It’s not like I just woke up one day and knew I had an eating disorder,” said Jennifer.  I guess I was always conscious of my weight, even as a young child but it only go to the point of being noticeable to others when I was in high school.  I would go weeks without consuming anything but water while exercising up to six hours a day.  I lost a considerable amount of weight.  That’s when my parents stepped in and I started counselling.”

A positive body image starts with a healthy attitude.  If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, contact your family physician, a crisis intervention team, the school counselling office or any other medical professional.