When walls have faces

How do you buy a gun? How many pills would it take? Which building is tall enough? “These are just some of the questions asked by people who…

How do you buy a gun?

How many pills would it take?

Which building is tall enough?

“These are just some of the questions asked by people who suffer from schizophrenia and mental illness,” said Bill McPhee, Tuesday.

The functional schizophrenic travelled to Whitehorse this week to speak during a mental health services forum at the Yukon Inn, in honour of Mental Illness Awareness Week.

“If I felt the same way I did 13 years ago, I would be asking those same questions now,” he said.

“Can you imagine watching a 10-year-old cut the grass and you can’t even get enough motivation to cut the whiskers from your face?”

But life was not always a battle for McPhee.

“It was wonderful growing up,” he said.

The group homes, the attempted suicide and the mental hospitals were still a long way off.

At 13, McPhee got his first job, a Dixie Lee ice cream boy who peddled a freezer of treats around his hometown of Fort Eerie, Ontario.

By the time he was 15, he’d lied about his age and was a lifeguard at Crystal Beach.

His passion for water led to a scuba-diving certification and soon he was travelling in South East Asia, hoping to work as a commercial diver.

But five years later, back in Canada, he found himself standing naked beside a four-lane highway on the coldest night of the year.

One out of every 100 Canadians has some form of schizophrenia, said McPhee.

And many go undiagnosed.

Things didn’t start to shift for McPhee until he turned 24.

He was in a relationship that resulted in a child and to deal with the stress he turned to theology.

“I was suppressing lots of stuff,” he said.

“And around this time my sleep patterns started to fall off and I started to miss shifts at work.”

Tossing and turning, McPhee turned on the light to try and read and things got even weirder.

Words began to float off the page.

Then he looked at the wall and the knots in the wood became faces.

“But when you’re mentally ill, you don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re mentally ill,” said McPhee.

Instead, these illusions and hallucinations sowed seeds of paranoia.

“I started to think I was causing world events by reading scripture,” he said.

And weird coincidences helped back his struggling mind’s delusions.

McPhee remembered running into two acquaintances at Canadian Tire during the early onset of his illness.

Then, after driving across town, he ran into them again.

“They said, ‘Bill are you following us, or are we following you?’” said McPhee.

“Well, what a thing to say to someone who is paranoid,” he said with a laugh.

Things kept getting worse.

And it came to a head in January ’87, on the coldest night of the year.

“I had this sensation I had to go meet someone,” said McPhee.

“Then it came to me by telepathy, I had to prove myself to God.”

McPhee lived by a busy four-lane highway and to prove himself, he decided he’d walk out in traffic, towards the oncoming cars.

“There were transports blowing their horns and cars swerving, and I had this deer in the headlights look,” he said.

Although 50 per cent of schizophrenics attempt suicide at some point, and 10 per cent succeed, McPhee thinks many don’t actually want to die.

“If I’d been hit by a car or truck and killed, it wouldn’t have been because I wanted to commit suicide that night,” he said.

“It’s just my sick mind that put me in that situation that could have taken my life.”

Back on the sidewalk, McPhee decided to prove to God that he didn’t need anything. Not even his clothes.

He was standing naked under a streetlight when the police showed up.

McPhee was admitted to a psychiatric ward where he attacked an attendant, punched holes in the walls and plugged the toilet with towels.

Eventually, after finding the right drug, and circulating through a number of group homes, McPhee was released and went home to live with his parents.

But things didn’t really improve.

“I spent five years on my parents’ couch doing nothing,” he said.

When he wasn’t on the couch, he was sitting at the top of the stairs with his head in his hands.

He’s lost his friends, his job and his independence.

“There was this emptiness, this hole or black spot in my gut,” he said.

“My mom would ask if I was feeling better all the time.

“But it’s not like a broken arm where you put the cast on and it’s healed — it’s a long-term illness.”

Even after being diagnosed with a legitimate mental illness, McPhee found himself pondering ways to kill himself.

Schizophrenia has two types of symptoms, positive ones and negative ones.

The positive symptoms manifest themselves through delusions, paranoia and hallucinations.

But the negative symptoms came into play after McPhee was diagnosed and on a restorative drug.

“I lacked self-esteem and confidence,” he said.

“I was just one out of 100 people who had been diagnosed with this illness known as schizophrenia.

“When is the last time you could not sleep?” he said.

“Well half the world, while they’re sleeping, we’re up pacing with thoughts running through our mind, like what did we ever do to deserve this illness?”

Gradually, starting with a tutor who came once a week to help McPhee with his penmanship, he started to re-enter society.

But every little thing was a struggle.

“I joined this photography class at the college,” he said.

“But then I had to wash and shave.”

And nothing really excited him, not even the photography.

“I knew I needed to find a spark,” he said.

Around this time, McPhee stumbled upon the book 101 Ways to Start a Business with No Capital.

“I thought, that’s me,” he said with a laugh.

He took a small business course at college and started a publication championing what he knew best — schizophrenia.

 This was in ’94.

Seven years later, McPhee, who is happily married with young children, was awarded the Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Now, Schizophrenia Digest and its offshoot bp Magazine, for those dealing with bi-polar disorder, are distributed throughout Canada and the US.

But McPhee wants more.

He’d like to see changes in the Canadian mental health system.

“When you have a physical illness and you’re discharged from the hospital, someone usually picks you up to take you home,” he said.

This isn’t so common for psych-ward discharges.

“If it was decided that psych wards weren’t going to discharge people until they had a place to live and a pharmacist, you’d see how quickly changes were made in government with how mental health is treated,” he said.

To learn more about Schizophrenia Digest go to www.schizophreniadigest.ca and for bp Digest go to www.bphope.ca

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