My alarm clock read 3 am. I lay awake, unable to sleep. It was the fifth night in a row that I’d gone without sleep. Five nights is enough to break anybody, let alone someone in the early stages of mental illness.

I’d been struggling the past few months. My grades weren’t as great as they I would have liked, I was becoming increasingly isolated, anxious, and moody, and my mind persistently raced. A slump, I reasoned. But my “slump” didn’t explain Charlie.

I lit a cigarette, and waited. I had come to expect nightly visits from Charlie. I hadn’t told anyone about him. Shit, no one would believe Charlie existed. To be frank, even I was doubtful. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And there was certainly something devilish about Charlie.

My mind had, over the course of a year or so, become consumed with religious ideas.  Odd, considering I didn’t associate with traditional religion. Prior to my encounters with Charlie, I never would I have considered myself a religious guy, but midway through my second year at the University of Victoria, I was convinced I was possessed. This was my only explanation for the supernatural entity I knew as Charlie.

When Charlie spoke to me – his many voices clamoring inside my head – he’d tell me I was the reincarnation of Christ. Charlie often came to me with visions of the future. I saw myself leading a revolution, and deposing the corrupt and deceptive powers that be.

Let’s backtrack a bit. I was using drugs – cannabis – and was drinking heavily on the weekends. The University of Victoria is a party school, and I found myself immersed in the campus culture of reckless indulgence. But substance abuse is normalized among students, and among young adults in general. During the Paris expat era of the 1920’s, Gertrude Stein referred to post-war twenty-somethings as “lost.” Looking back, I realize I had too had become lost; just a lost boy looking for his next “feel good” moment.  I would have fit in well with Stein’s “lost generation.”

My friends were beginning to worry. I was no longer the pal they once knew.  I had taken on a disheveled and rough around the edges kind of look, and my behaviour had become erratic and odd. Engrossed in the twisted fantasies that filled my head, I stayed up all night watching “The Exorcist,” chased phantom silhouettes around my landlord’s backyard, and had assumed a vacant thousand-yard stare. I was a shell of my former self, unrecognizable to my innermost circle.

It had become clear to everyone around me that my mental health was deteriorating, and quickly at that. While my friends and family advocated for help on my behalf, I edged closer to a full blown psychotic break.

I had a lot on my plate.  Not only was I facing psychosis, but I had been battling a severe case of OCD and depression for a year and a half.  When I finally saw a psychiatrist, at the age of 19, I was almost immediately diagnosed with psychosis NOS (not otherwise specified), OCD and a mood disorder. A couple of years later, I was re-diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (part bipolar, part schizophrenia) and OCD.

My substance abuse complicated matters. Following my diagnosis, I explored hard drugs: cocaine, opiates, opioids, and a diverse array of GABA-ergic medications. I became a recreational, and at times habitual, user.  My drug use exacerbated my illness, and suicide or overdose quickly became a dangerous reality.

I’m 30 now, and having lived the past thirteen years with a mental health diagnosis, I can honestly say, I’m not out of the woods yet. I may be past the hospitalization phase of my illness (I have racked up a total of 20 or so hospitalizations since being diagnosed), but new challenges loom on the horizon; integrating back into society, learning to cope with day-to-day stressors without the crutch of drugs and alcohol, and repairing damaged relationships will not be easy.

They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. This saying shouldn’t be taken at face value; it’s a metaphor. And it fits well with the topic of mental illness.  Perhaps it is those of us who’ve lived with mental health diagnoses – not the devil – who work so hard at convincing the world we don’t exist.

Above all other reasons, it is the stigma associated with mental health conditions that keeps us silent and hidden. We’ll sweep all traces of mental illness under the rug, just to give off the impression of normalcy.  I haven’t escaped stigma unscathed. But I deserve credit where credit is due. Acceptance is the first step on the long road through recovery. The devil has his tricks, but I’ve got an ace or two up my sleeve, and the greatest trick I’ve ever pulled was convincing myself that I was ill.

About Andrew Woods

Having been diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder and OCD at the age of seventeen (while attending the University of Victoria), my struggle with mental illness has been a full spectrum experience. I have made much progress since my last hospitalization (three and a half years ago). I returned to university, eventually earning a degree in Economics and a diploma in Business Administration. Today, I have aspirations of following a career in writing and communications. Currently, I spend my time as a mental health volunteer, working as a mental health navigator, exhibitor and communications support volunteer.

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