“If I didn’t use drugs, I’d put a gun in my mouth and kill myself,” Graham says.
Looking at his surroundings you can understand why.
Graham lives in the homeless camp in the woods near Wal-Mart, inhabiting the log cabin built by his late friend Red.
He talks about drugs and suicide as he sits on the dirt floor, looking up at a hole in the roof. Shortly after Red passed away, the pipe that vents hot air from the wood-burning stove sparked a fire that left a charred two square foot gap up there.
Outside his door, rats scurry around. He says they’ve moved in big time since the fire, and now he’s started digging a trench around the foundation, installing mesh he hopes will keep them from digging their way in.
The camp is just as filthy as it was when Red lived here, and more people are showing up as the weather turns nice.
But it’s not his surroundings that make Graham feel like checking out.
It’s mental illness.
Graham says he’s suffered from severe anxiety and panic as long as he can remember.
“I’ve got almost an insane need to be doing (something),” he says, trying to explain what he feels. “And when I’m not high or trying to get high, I don’t know what it is that I’m supposed to be doing.”
He can’t or won’t discuss the cause of these issues, and honestly, he’s not sure he even knows.
The slightest mention of it causes him to fidget.
“I don’t know if I can explain it, and even right now, just thinking about it, I’m close to getting up and going for a bike ride,” he says, looking very uncomfortable. “It’s just that I’ve spent so long trying to avoid it.”
This camp that he calls home, with conditions unthinkable for most of us, is Graham’s safe haven.
When he visits the outside world to earn a living searching through dumpster bins, he has to deal with people.
They make him uncomfortable, and he embraces making them uncomfortable.
Graham claims to hate beards, yet cultivates a tuft of thick Duck Dynasty chin hair.
“I don’t wash my hands,” he adds, smiling as he holds them up, showing two palms caked with enough grease and grime to make a mechanic blush.
Anything he can do to make people cross the street when they see him coming.
“It keeps people away,” he says. “And I’m aware I’m presenting the cover of the book that I accuse them of judging me by, but in some respects I want that.”
“I’m doing my thing. I’m not hurting anyone and I just want them to leave me alone.”
Graham won’t take medicine for his anxiety, mostly because he’s deeply suspicious of pharmaceutical companies.
“How can you trust anyone whose profit margin depends on people staying sick?” he asks.
When he returns to camp after a 10-14 hour day hunting for cans/bottles/scrap metal, crystal meth is what he turns to to prevent his otherwise razor-sharp brain from thinking itself to death.
“I don’t sleep at night, and often I’ll go eight or nine days with just a few naps before I crash,” the 47 year old says. “The way I abuse my body is probably what will get me in the end. I’ll never get to be 71 years old like Red because these stretches of nine, 12, 14 days will take their toll.”
Graham is a smart man.
Talk to him for an hour when he’s not using and you’re left with the idea that he could have been a doctor, engineer, lawyer or whatever else he put his mind to. He articulates strong thoughts about mental illness, even if he’d rather “run a knife through his forearm or shoot his foot off” than talk about his own.
“I see all of them out here, the whole spectrum of mental illness,” he says. “Everything from full-blown schizophrenic psychosis to mild cases of aggression, and everything in between. I doubt there’s one I haven’t seen.”
“Being face to face with it so much, it doesn’t phase me.”
It certainly phases other people.
Be honest now. What do you think when you see someone muttering to themselves in Safeway or yelling at passers-by on the street?
“The public’s not used to it because we’ve hid it away in asylums and shit for hundreds of years,” Graham says. “It’s only now that it’s barely entering the greater societal consciousness, and it’ll be a while yet before mainstream society can come to grips with the idea that what they see and react to is just a blown-up picture of what’s going on in their own head.”
“They need to be brought out of the dark ages.”
Graham’s voice rises as he talks about the stigma of mental illness, yet he understands why people react as they do.
Twenty years ago, he suspects he was the same, slapping the ‘crazy’ label on people he didn’t understand.
What confuses him is that the people who are supposed to care the most sometimes care the least.
Like his last trip to a hospital. He visited Abbotsford Regional Hospital not long ago because a urinary tract infection had spread to his testicles.
He claims they’d swollen to the size of a baseball.
“But the second I walked through the door I was labeled a drug seeker and the triage worker was snotty as hell,” he recalls angrily. “There was an assumption about who I was until she realized I actually had a serious problem.”
“She’s a health-care professional and if she can’t control her assumptions she’s in the wrong job.”
“I’m probably no better than the people I’m accusing, but we have to be on guard for that sort of thing. Otherwise, what’s the point of being human?”
Graham would avoid hospitals forever if he had his way, and for his mental illness and addiction issues he insists that he doesn’t want help.
He’s tried Prozac and it made him feel manic. He’s tried therapy and won’t talk enough to make it worthwhile.
Graham is fine doing what he’s doing, hiding in the woods and self-medicating.
“A mental health worker could come up the pathway right now and ask me to talk, and I’d say sure,” he says. “But they’d give up from boredom after a week or two because I won’t say diddly.”
“I’m just not gonna, period, and I’d be on my bike heading for the hills if it was ever enforced.”
Graham’s had lots of ‘traditional’ jobs, but couldn’t hold on to any of them.
Sometimes, when he’s out and about, someone will yell at him to ‘get a job’
“Well I’m dragging around 180 pounds of stuff and it feels like work to me,” Graham laughed. “I told one guy he should try it.”
He says he won’t collect Welfare, ever, even if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself showed up in the forest and begged him to take it.
“Taking free money to sit out here and do drugs would make me a hypocrite,” he explains. “I make it on the $20 to 40 a day from cans and scraps of metal, and I don’t need more than that.”
He doesn’t want a place of his own because that would mean dealing with a landlord, paying rent, paying bills.
All of it adding stress he can’t handle.
“Any one of those things is too much and could tip me over the edge,” he says. “What confounds so many people is that I can be content with so little.”
I don’t need a car, phone or TV, I like sleeping under the stars and the hole in the roof wouldn’t be an issue if I’d just get off my lazy ass and fix it.”
Graham admits he is in the minority.
He believes the majority of Chilliwack’s homeless and/or mentally ill want help and either don’t know how to get it, or are scared to.
He’ll talk at length about the need for more outreach workers and serious Welfare reform.
But Graham is cynical and world-weary. He doesn’t expect anything to happen because deep down, he doesn’t think anyone cares.
And even if they did?
“I don’t think that there would be a solution for me, because I’m not going to participate,” he says. “If people read that and say I deserve what I get, I say amen. I don’t argue that at all.”
A year from now Graham expects to still be in the forest, surrounded by filth and hopefully a few less rats, doing the only thing that works for him.
“People keep telling me I need to figure it out,” he says. “Well I’ve already figured it out. This keeps me sane and keeps a gun out of my mouth and this is what I’ll keep doing.”
Additional stories in this series:
Part 1: The long way home