Chasity Cormier

Battling bias on the road to recovery

Third in a series, social stigma against mental illness continues to hamper people who are trying to recover in Chilliwack.

This is Part 3 of a four-part series on living with mental illness in Chilliwack. Part 1 examined the impact of housing, and Part 2 the impact of employment, on recovery. Read both previous stories, as well as the introduction to the series, here.

Chasity Cormier has a goal: she wants to open an ecotourism wilderness retreat for people with mental illnesses by 2018. Set in an off-grid house in Williams Lake, in B.C.’s interior, the one-of-a-kind retreat would help people who have acknowledged their illness, are managing their medication, and now need to regain their self-esteem.

“You do self-healing and self-awareness through small things — building a fire, snowshoeing, ice fishing — without the stress of society,” she said.

But the 38-year-old Chilliwack resident has a steep trek ahead of her in realizing the plan. Ever since she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 30, she has watched some of her independence and social standing slip away.

When she became a patient in the mental health system, she fell under the B.C. Mental Health Act, which allows doctors to treat and hospitalize the mentally ill without their consent. The act is the latest in a long line of historical efforts to keep patients with psychiatric conditions on the path to recovery. As with other people in her situation, the “certified” mentally ill label has pushed her, by default, to the margins of society. Cormier has been battling to regain some of that independence ever since, all the while resisting the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Up until she was 27 years old, Cormier was completely healthy. She was working as a groundskeeper at Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa, and volunteered with search and rescue.

Then she started becoming paranoid. Her mind sped along with thoughts she couldn’t control. She was always anxious, and afraid. Always in the middle of a conspiracy of her own making. Cormier likens it to being in a scary movie that you don’t want to be in for years on end. At the height of Cormier’s multi-year psychosis, she thought people were doing black magic on her. She physically felt the effects, such as her stomach turning. She thought people in a house across the highway were talking about her. Cormier read up on white magic to counter this, and burned sage and used other tricks to protect herself.

When she had had enough, she would run. Cormier ended up hitchhiking between Chilliwack and Nova Scotia twice. She only started to recover when she acknowledged her illness.

She returned to Chilliwack ready to restart her life, but felt shattered.

“After going through psychosis, you’re really vulnerable. It’s almost like you’ve been in a car accident, and broken every bone in your body. And people don’t visually see it,” she said.

Paranoid schizophrenia, usually hitting women in their late 20s and men in late teens, is one of the most serious mental illnesses, and one from which psychiatrists say a person can never fully recover. Chilliwack psychiatrist Dr. Nizaar Lilla calls it a “long-term, seriously debilitating illness.”

This year, Cormier is well. She lives with her Chihuahua in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Chilliwack, and supplements her persons-with-disabilities allowance with a 10-hour per week housecleaning business. She is also a peer support worker to other people with mental illnesses, helping them recover. She babysits her seven-year-old niece some weekends.

This normality does not come easy for people with mental health issues. Unlike with other illnesses, community support doesn’t accompany mental illness.

“When you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s opposite of cancer,” said Rob Dueck, a mental health worker in Chilliwack. “When you have cancer, you have a heroic fight against cancer. Everyone rallies around you. But I’ve never seen a case where there’s a heroic fight against paranoid schizophrenia or something. It’s typically the other way around, where everybody leaves you. You lose your house, your job, your sense of security, and are in poverty. And that’s kind of the life you live.”

As Dueck pointed out, calling someone “retarded” or something “gay” has become socially unacceptable. Yet calling someone “crazy” or “insane” is still OK.

Severe mental illness remains a taboo topic in modern society. Few admit their illness to others, and others still may live their entire lives denying their diagnosis to themselves. Life can become lonely.

“It’s a dirty little secret. There’s a lot of people sitting in apartments by themselves, and screaming in pain. They need help,” said Bryce Oostenbrink, who has kept his bipolar diagnosis confidential until recently.

Family members can struggle to understand the illness, because their loved one still appears normal from the outside.

“One thing I see a lot of is family members tend to blame the patient for certain symptoms. They feel they should know better. They interpret their behaviour from their own perspective,” said Lilla.

And friends and family can fall away, or are shut out by the person who is ill.

“People who aren’t mentally ill don’t want to associate with you. They all think that we’re going to go crazy, and hurt them, or something like that,” said Eric Hunken, a man living with bipolar and borderline personality disorder in Chilliwack.

Even within the mental health field, there is a stigma against workers self-identifying as having a mental illness for fear of being treated as “one of them.” Very few mental health case workers, staff at non-profits, or doctors have experienced mental health issues, or have revealed it publicly. Even Dueck, who works at the Creative Centre Society’s Cheamview Clubhouse, which serves as a social centre for the mentally ill in Chilliwack, doesn’t openly discuss his battle with depression with other staff members.

This is in contrast to modern treatment of substance abuse, wherein counselors and case workers often have personally overcome addiction. It may even be a job requirement.

For Chilliwack’s mentally ill, it is a common feeling not to be taken seriously by society. Cormier’s ecotourism dream may be labelled as a delusion of grandeur by some.

As Dueck said: “When you’re in the system, anything you say is invalid. You could say, ‘the sky is blue.’ But you’re diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and they’re like, ‘ummm…'”

Cormier has experienced this in different ways, such as through a previous job of waitressing at a pub where her emotions were not always validated. If she expressed frustration to a colleague about a difficult customer, the colleague would usually assume Cormier was overreacting.

She has also fought for years to reduce her anti-psychotic medication. Psychiatrists are reluctant to tamper with dosage levels once they have found a drug that controls a patient’s symptoms, because of the difficulty of matching meds to patients. But Cormier knew her previous anti-psychotic pills were too strong, and had terrible side effects. This included memory loss, such as forgetting the ending to a story as she was in the process of telling it. Cormier’s mother had to intervene before the psychiatrist agreed to reduce the dosage.

Cormier has been lucky. Her mom has been her anchor throughout her illness, and her sister has supported her.

Now, after eight years of learning to live with her diagnosis, Cormier feels stronger and wants to move forward with her life. But she is still being told she needs to slow down.

“My psychiatrist stresses me out more than any other person I deal with. Because he’s always telling me to back off, and take it easy, too much stress. It makes me question myself, where I’m comfortable working and doing all the things I’m doing,” said Cormier.

Cormier’s dream of opening a retreat where people with mental illnesses can heal may seem like a natural recovery program. But despite her experience in managing outdoor environments as well as several years of living off-grid, Cormier has a hard road ahead of her to persuade society to trust her with the implementation of an eco retreat.

Next Week: Part 4 examines the negative side of living with mental illness: what happens when a person lacks adequate housing, employment, and social support?

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