Leif Gregersen

Leif Gregersen’s Story: Inching Back to Sane

See Leif’s condensed story in Newsletter Issue 9

Mental illness came upon me slowly from a young age. When I look back at my school photos, as early as age 9, I see depression written all over my face. My mom suffered all her life from a severe mental illness, experiencing symptoms of depression and psychosis. When I was 10 years old, she attempted suicide, though I was too young to understand what that meant.

At the age of 12, I heard my name called in an empty house where no one was present. This was my first auditory hallucination. I noticed it happened after an exciting weekend with the Air Cadets (a youth military organization based on and partially funded by the regular military) where I got very little sleep and friends were often calling my name. Over the next few years, it seemed a healthy eight hours of sleep would cause the voices and other symptoms to disappear and restore my sanity. I thought getting enough sleep would always solve the problem. However, it wasn’t long before I was unable to bounce back.

Soon after the hallucinations started, and as they worsened, I began to experience mood swings. At one point, I felt high. I imagine this is how I would feel if I had abused drugs, though I never used drugs. I kept talking quickly and irrationally. My parents were alarmed and took me to see my mom’s psychiatrist. This doctor suggested I come into the hospital for observation.

I am certain I was diagnosed, but I can’t remember if anyone told me what my diagnosis was. My doctor started me on a medication to help me sleep. Upon my release, I was convinced I could do the impossible–use willpower to defeat mental illness. I threw out my medications.

During the next four years, I often experienced periods of deep depression with bouts of mania. I drank to excess, and I suspect some of my symptoms may have been brought on by alcohol consumption. After high school, I lived an erratic life: traveling, chasing my lost dreams of becoming a pilot, and moving in and out of psychiatric wards and hospitals. At about age 30, I relapsed into a deep psychosis and was sent to a hospital again for six long months.

It was during this extended hospitalization that I realized I had to change my life and that it had to be a drastic change. I had lost my home and all my possessions and had no more friends left. It also seemed my family no longer trusted me, and they certainly wouldn’t let me stay with them. I realized I couldn’t go on like this. I became very serious about my medications, went to all my appointments, and carefully listened to expert advice given to me by my treatment team. I took life skills courses and never missed an appointment with my nurse/therapist.

Eventually, my hard work and ability to teach and engage in public speaking led to employment as a creative writing teacher. In my spare time, I wrote and published my first book, Through the Withering Storm, about my journey. I found even more work through my local schizophrenia society, talking about mental health issues to groups such as junior high and high school students, university nursing classes, and even the Edmonton City Police recruit class. After faithfully taking medication and staying in treatment, things kept on getting better.

As my life kept getting better, I needed to stay vigilant with regard to my mental illness. Every two weeks I saw a nurse/therapist who gave me my injection and around once a month I saw my psychiatrist. My psychiatrist had been my doctor when I was first taken to the provincial psychiatric facility when I was 18, and I trusted him completely. One day I went in to see him and he told me there was a new medication given by injection that would work better, and I would need to take it less often. I was reluctant to change medications at first, but after a few weeks, I decided to try it. The medication was a good one, and it wasn’t an attempt to save money, as the new medication cost around 20 times what the old one did. The problem was, though it worked well for many, it wouldn’t do a thing to help with my psychosis, and the psychosis would come back with a vengeance.

I soon became delusional, hallucinated, and experienced extreme paranoia. About four months later, by Christmas, I had become so paranoid that I believed my neighbors in the building where I lived wanted to kill me. I barricaded myself in my room with a blanket over my head, eating canned meat and crackers to survive, believing that every little sound I made was enraging my neighbors even more. I also told everyone that I was going to move to Vancouver. In the state I was in, that could have been a train wreck. If I had moved, I would have ended up in a welfare hotel and had a very hard time getting proper medication, or even proper food, and I would have been completely alone.

At that time, I was still working a job teaching writing classes at a psychiatric hospital. Ironically, one day, I taught a class in the morning, and by that evening, my dad, who was horrified at my psychosis, called the police. I became a psychiatric patient in a different hospital in my city that night. I have no recollection of it, but my records show that I charged a security guard in a threatening manner. I was transferred to a very clean and comfortable hospital in the suburbs, but I was placed in the locked ward due to the risk of violence (or so they said).

Often, when the nurses came to check on me, they would find me lying behind my bed on the floor. I told them I thought someone was coming onto the ward with a gun to kill me, though they did their best to reassure me I was safe. I had many delusions, one being that a former friend was narrating my activities through the PA system in the hospital ward. Nothing I did or said went without ridicule and comment from my former friend’s voice which I believed was coming through the PA. The commentary followed me from room to room in the psychiatric ward, and it took all my stamina to keep from lashing out. I also heard other voices that told me a young woman I cared very much for was being sexually assaulted somewhere on the hospital ward, and only I could stop it. I believed an older man on the ward who was very evil was putting ground-up glass in my food to kill me. I thought I smelled horrible.

While on that ward, I spent almost $5,000.00 on clothes, comic books, and a new phone from the nearby mall. I wanted to throw away everything that wasn’t new, and I thought someone had breached the security on my old phone and could read and hear everything I was doing with it.

Even though the symptoms of schizophrenia had taken hold of me, this hospital stay was more pleasant for me than others I had in the past. I had a lot of visitors, including my landlady, my boss from the Schizophrenia Society, and two of my best friends. Once the staff understood I wasn’t a threat to anyone, I was sent to the regular ward where I had a chance to play badminton and basketball. I got along well with the other patients.

When I got a chance, I bought a notebook and started writing poems in it. I later scanned these poems I wrote into my computer, and they became part of a book about my ordeal which ended in me being put back on my old medication with only a few changes. One of the things that turned out differently during this hospital stay was that I didn’t make many enduring friends, though I had treated everyone with respect. It wasn’t that my fellow patients were bad people, but they were dealing with either mental health or addiction issues, and I was ill-equipped to support them as a friend when I was released.

I named the book I wrote from this hospital experience Alert and Oriented x3. I got the term from notes my nurse made about me, which I had later requested permission to get copies of and scanned into my computer, and they became a significant part of my new book.

I now am back to living in my large, comfortable apartment and thriving again after my medication mishap. I hope to stay on my current medication which has worked well for me for many years. My days are full now; I have three part-time jobs plus I work as a freelance journalist. One of my jobs still involves teaching creative writing as a wellness skill to people who have psychiatric disabilities, though I no longer work at the psychiatric hospital. My book, Alert and Oriented x3 has done well, selling a few hundred copies. Currently, I have also published a short story collection that I am hoping will prove I can write fiction with the best of them.

I do not consider schizophrenia to be the end of my life. With medications and treatment, I have academic ambitions again and a real future ahead of me.

I wish my psychiatrist had never changed my medication and that I had never relapsed and ended up back in the hospital. But I would encourage anyone struggling with psychosis to know that psychosis can be overcome with patience, effort, medications, and group and one-on-one therapy. If you are struggling, reach out to a medical doctor or psychiatrist; be as open, honest, and descriptive as you can about what you are experiencing; and get the treatment you need.

With proper care and a good treatment team, recovery is always possible!

You can find writing samples, poems, blog entries and photos at: www.edmontonwriter.com