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 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.