“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
There was a time when I lived without hope. Mental illness struck me at the heart of my youth. The University of Victoria had been my sanctuary for six months when the first symptoms emerged. And then slowly the storm intensified.
It started as mere rituals and preoccupations. Fixations with cleanliness, order, symmetry and personal appearance overtook my drive for academic achievement, and even the most insignificant triggers initiated the need to check, recheck and then check again. I cleaned, organized, tidied, checked, measured, scrutinized and preened, and then repeated, over and over again. The anxiety followed me everywhere, carrying with it a sensation of a thousand pinpricks to my chest.
I was first diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) shortly before my eighteenth birthday. I was put on an antidepressant and told it would take six to eight weeks to notice an improvement. That would prove to be too long a wait as a new symptom took hold. Paranoia.
By the time my second year at the University of Victoria came around, psychosis was in full swing. Fearing other students were gossiping about me and spreading rumors behind my back, I isolated myself from social connections. Hallucinations, both auditory and visual, intruded upon my attempts to maintain a stable scholastic journey. Sleep constantly eluded me. I paced back and forth across my small dorm room, immersed in suspicious thought and consumed by the nagging obsessions that cluttered my mind.
I spent four days in the psychiatric ward after uttering threats of suicide. It was the first of nearly twenty hospitalizations over the span of a decade.
After withdrawing from the University of Victoria, I sunk deeper into a well of despair. It wasn’t long before I succumbed to the grips of grandiosity. This is when the voices intensified to a deafening roar and suicidal ideation became a dangerous burden. Schizoaffective Disorder, the doctors called it.
I self-medicated to dull the throbbing melancholy before eventually being re-diagnosed, this time with a concurrent disorder. Yet despite continuing to be detached from reality, I completed a degree in Economics from Simon Fraser University.
It wasn’t the hospitalizations that lead me to where I am today. Yes, they had been necessary to save my life, but I had been a victim of the all-too-common ‘revolving door syndrome’, falling through the mental health care cracks and unable to break the institutional cycle of frequent hospitalizations. The medications and accompanying side effects had lead only to non-compliance. It took a community treatment team to show me the path to recovery.
I was assigned to an ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) team two years ago and from there my life took a remarkable turn. Together we created a medication regime I could tolerate and assessed a broad range of achievable goals which suited my ambitions. ACT offered me continuity of care unlike anything I had previously experienced. The team advocated for social housing, which provided me with a sense of independence that had been lacking since my days at the University of Victoria. With the help of a vocational therapist, I went on to complete a diploma in Business Administration and Commerce and began volunteering with the Canadian Mental Health Association to fulfill my aspirations of helping others who bear the weight of mental health challenges.
The person I am today stands in stark contrast to that patient I used to be. No longer lacking an identity, I know my purpose and it lies in eradicating stigma, educating the public and promoting hope for those who live in the shadows, the same shadows that nearly overwhelmed me.
Today, I look forward to the future, whatever it may hold. Although I try not to dwell on the past, I see great value in keeping the lessons of the past at the forefront of my mind. I have grown and been strengthened by these lessons. But now I look to what lays ahead. As Jack Kerouac wrote, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” And as I tread on down this road, I think, how grateful I am to have stepped out of the shadows and into the wide open world before me.
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.