Living the Dream by Sandra Yuen MacKay

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” – Alexander The Great

Believing in one’s abilities goes a long way, but it’s taken me over thirty years to arrive in a place where I feel positive about my life and somewhat in control of the thoughts and ideas in my head, which once drove me to bizarre behaviour, destructive tendencies, rages, depression, fear and distrust.

Let me start closer to the beginning of this story. I am of Chinese descent and was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1979, I was a shy, impressionable teenager. I began to hear voices outside my home, in the car and through the ventilation system at school. For months, I believed I was being watched and followed. These ideas expanded to a point that I believed my parents and students at school were trying to hurt and torment me which drove me over the edge. At fifteen, after a year of growing psychosis and increasing hallucinations, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After three months, I was discharged and returned to school.

In the 1980s, there weren’t resources readily available for a schizophrenic teenager and her family. I took my medication and regularly saw a psychiatrist. She didn’t believe that I had enough insight to understand the illness and never attempted to educate me in any way about symptoms or coping strategies. Today, there’s an increase in mental illness awareness, but there still exists a lot of stigma and lack of understanding by the general public. Anyway, back to my story, I was rehospitalized several times in high school and dealt with a very negative self-image and unresolved questions about why had this happened to me and was it my fault? At the time, I believed I was guilty of some unknown crime and my delusions were my punishment. But what did I do wrong?

Even though I missed a lot of school, I graduated with my class and decided to apply to a fine arts program at a local college. I made some friends and enjoyed working with clay, paint and printmaking inks. Art was therapeutic in many ways. I could express my positive and negative energies without words. I graduated with a Fine Arts Diploma and enrolled at university, majoring in art history. I had a tutor who helped me memorize dates, artists, and other facts. However, I had to withdraw the following year because of reoccurring symptoms of schizophrenia. Eventually, I did complete an art history degree in 1989. I worked for a number of years but suffered from sedation, slurred speech, restlessness and other side effects of medication. I was often absent from work because of my illness. However, I fell in love and married in 1994 to a very supportive husband.

In 1998, I was rehospitalized because of changes in medication which caused me to become manic to the point I went off my medication. I was rediagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I had to quit my job and didn’t want to return home, because of mistrust and manic delusions. Slowly my husband helped me to recover even though I wasn’t always cooperative. I joined workshops and groups where I learned more about symptoms, stress management, triggers (events or things that might bring on foreign thoughts), ways to cope better, and medications. I joined The Art Studios, a fine arts program for people in recovery from mental illness or addiction. In art and writing classes, peers guide and instruct peers. There I found community and acceptance. I was encouraged to rekindle my interest in painting and drawing and joined a creative writing group. After that, I taught creative writing for a year at The Art Studios and exhibited through their Traveling Art Show and participated in semi-annual art sales.

I wrote articles on mental health for The Bulletin, published by the West Coast Mental Health Network. With new insights into my illness, I began to give talks about my journey to mental health professionals, students, consumers and families.  Between sharing my story through speaking and writing articles, I decided I wanted to go more deeply and write a book about my experiences. I approached several publishers but finally signed a contract with Bridgeross Communications, a publisher who specializes in books on mental health. After My Schizophrenic Life: The Road to Recovery from Mental Illness was published, I received emails from people asking for advice or thanking me for sharing my story.

It’s interesting how doors of opportunity opened up to me during this time. I learned to move outside of my comfort zone to try new things. I treated mistakes as a learning experiences. I matured enough to be content within myself and not so envious of others. My confidence grew and my depression seemed to dissolve. I developed a better outlook on life and smiled more. I received the 2012 Courage to Come Back Award and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for overcoming great obstacles to be an artist, writer and speaker on mental health issues.

People ask me, how did you get there? What changed your life? Well, I had the support of my husband, family, friends and mental health professionals. I really had to change from the inside out, and replace self-pity and self-blame with doing things that I felt were productive or helpful to others. To start each day with a clean slate, let go of past issues and problems, and make conscious changes to improve myself through self-care, monitoring my symptoms and working on my day to day conflicts so that I could manage my life better. I had to take control of my life and motivate myself to set goals and keep trying despite setbacks. In years past, I would never have imagined my life would get better, but now I feel I’m living the dream in my own way. I’m not a millionaire and I can’t even work a full work week, but I’m so overjoyed to be in a good place now.

So I encourage others who may have gone through painful experiences, or are on the road to recovery that we can’t change everything but we can choose ways to improve ourselves, our lives and the lives of others. It may take time, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Recovery is possible.

Sandra Yuen MacKay is an author, artist and public speaker on recovery. Her memoir “My Schizophrenic Life: The Road to Recovery from Mental Illness” was published in 2010. She received the 2012 Courage to Come Back Award in British Columbia and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal for her achievements and advocacy work. Currently, she works part-time and spends many hours drawing and painting.

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