Mike’s Recovery from Addiction

Mike shares about his journey seeking help in Toronto's mental healthcare system for recovery from addiction.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that if you want to live a different life, you need to do things differently… People say, ‘Well, mental health is physical health. If you break your arm you’d go to the hospital. So if you break your head or your brain, you should go to the hospital, too.’ Yes. But that doesn’t mean the care or the treatment of that problem is the same, where you just go, you get it fixed, it heals, and then you move on. For me and I think for the vast majority of people with substance use or mental health problems–which I think they’re the same, though they’re still classified differently these days–it’s not like that. You actually need to change everything you do and how you do it. So that’s what I did… And that’s another problem with the system. It doesn’t support the continued maintenance of well-being and self-care.”

Audio 57:16

A Brother’s Journey With Schizophrenia

Mike shares the story of supporting his brother in finding help for schizophrenia in Toronto's mental healthcare system. The story spans several years, bouncing around multiple hospitals and mental health services, interactions with the justice system, and personal mental health challenges.

“In terms of the hospital and care-giver people–and, again, I acknowledge how difficult it can be–but there needs to be some sort of way for them to take care of themselves so they can provide better, happier care. It’s not ok to just say, “Well, this is a hard job and I’ve dealt with so many f**ked up people that I’m allowed to be miserable or have a grudge or be upset or walk around with my nose down.” That’s not an excuse. That’s not ok. So how can the healthcare providers, individually or as a whole, express a more welcoming, helpful environment? I’m not saying it’s easy, but there’s got to be a way to improve that.”

Audio (1:00:14)

Purple crystals don’t help with sex addiction

U of T student seeks help for compulsively hooking up with people online. Goes to free counselling service at The House, targeted at youth. Feels awkward in a room decorated in purple and pink and frilly things and crystals. Struggles to explain the problem and get help. Hopes services will develop more rigorous screening processes to spot comorbid issues.

I should preface this by mentioning that it happened in 2004 and the clinic I went to is now run by a different organization. But I think the problem I ran into is likely one that a lot of guys encounter when they want to get help from mental health services: we feel like we shouldn’t be there. So hopefully this can help some other guys seeking help and maybe it can help services change so they spot larger problems that clients aren’t talking about.

I set up a counselling appointment at The House, which was a United Way funded agency at the time that offered health services for youth. I was spending all of my time online trying to find guys to hook up with or watching porn and it was interfering with my life pretty significantly. I was a student at U of T but had bad experiences with their psych services so I wanted to go off campus. But when I stepped into the counselling room at The House, I felt so awkward and anxious, I immediately regretted it.

The room was all purple and pink and there were lots of frilly fabrics and there was a purple crystal sitting on a table. For all I know, it could have just been that the counsellor used it as a paper-weight and got it on a trip home to Thunder Bay, but the moment I saw that room, all my defenses went up and I had already written-off anything the counsellor was going to say. It was hard enough to open up about what I was feeling and doing. That already felt emasculating. But now I had to do it in a bad parody of a hippie girl’s dorm room.

I was also dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia, so the only thing I wanted to do in that room was crush a beer can against my forehead, tell the counsellor there was nothing wrong, and then go and play some first-person shooter video games until I’d killed enough aliens to feel manly again. I realize this was all very unhealthy but I was very unhealthy. That’s why I went there.

So I was very defended through the conversation. It was embarrassing to explain the extent of the problem and I was embarrassed to be there. I remember not being very open with the counsellor but I did mention that guys would offer me money to hookup with them and the thing that really stuck out to me afterwards was that the counsellor said something like: “Well, why don’t you try that then?”

Throughout the conversation, the counsellor was trying to be very sex positive about everything I brought up, and I understand the importance of that, but I had a legitimate problem. I was trying to find a way out of the situations because I couldn’t control myself.

I never went back. The counsellor called to set up another appointment and I deleted the message. It was another three years before I tried therapy again. I was in a different city by then. Things had only gotten worse and the sex addiction issues turned out to only be a tiny part of other mental illnesses that overwhelmed everything. But I did finally get help and get over them.

I don’t know if things could have been different that day I went to see the counsellor. Maybe we could have avoided a lot of disasters and pain. Maybe not. My own lack of awareness and inability to articulate what I was dealing with certainly played a part in not fully describing the problem or the symptoms. My insecurities were a big barrier to getting help with issues caused by my insecurities.

But looking back, there were so many warning signs of the other mental illnesses I was dealing with. The counsellor seemed oblivious to those. I think it would have helped if there’d been a more rigorous screening process for other mental health issues. The other problems would have come up if the counsellor had done any standardized assessments on depression or anxiety disorders.

I think anybody that comes into a mental health service talking about one compulsive issue should get screened for others. There’s always others. And losing control of yourself is always going to cause anxiety and depression.

I think a clipboard with a mental illness symptom questionnaire on it–or an iPad if they’re slightly tech savvy–sitting on the table when a client walks in might be a hell of a lot more useful than a purple crystal.

And if you’re somebody that’s trying to get help, it is important to get effective, skilled help (not every therapist/counsellor is effective or skilled), but also be aware that your own insecurities can become one of the biggest barriers to getting the help you need. Talk about those insecurities and get help with them so they don’t chase you away from getting support.