TORONTO, March 8, 2017 - Marie Ryan was on a solo trip to Europe as a young woman in 1998 when she first experienced some symptoms of mental illness. She had taken a break from her job teaching self-defense skills and principles to students at different school boards in the Toronto area.
But while experiencing the beauty and culture of countries such as Holland and Spain, she was also struggling with repetitive thoughts and delusions. These included distorted perceptions of herself, and a state of “hypervigilance” and anxiety around perceived threats.
Marie, with her Peer Support Worker Marc Loranger, just outside the CAMH Downtown Central Clinic.
“When I got back to Canada, I landed on my sister’s doorstep. She knew I needed help and called an ambulance right away. I was treated at CAMH Emergency and then the Women’s Unit at 250 College Street.”
In the years since, Marie has continued to work on her recovery. She’s received inpatient care at CAMH during difficult times when her symptoms peaked, and has also worked as a waitress while living in the community.
Refusing to quit
In late 2015, Marie transitioned from inpatient care to CAMH’s Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACTT). She visits the outpatient program at CAMH’s Queen Street site twice a week to meet with her psychiatrist and a range of professionals in her care team offering occupational therapy, social work and nursing, including her Peer Support Worker: Marc Loranger.
“Marie is a warrior,” says Marc. “She’s still dealing with some difficult issues and fears but she refuses to quit. She is a very curious person and always tries to find new interests. She’s doing everything in her power to be well. She’s an inspiration to our team.”
As a CAMH outpatient, Marie has found a new food services gig working two days a week at The Grill café at CAMH’s Community Mall. She also started lessons for Zumba, a Latin dance form. The new activity builds on her base in martial arts movement -- she had studied Karate with her “Sensei” or mentor when she was a young woman. “My friend and I go to Zumba classes and we’re still beginners. It’s a lot of sweating at this point,” she laughs. “But it’s inspiring to see our Zumba instructors – those girls can really move!”
And with encouragement from her CAMH team, Marie is giving back.
To work on her communications skills and confidence in groups, she recently joined Toastmasters. “I gave my first speech, with some vignettes about different parts of my life, going back to my childhood,” she says. (See her Caterpillar story at the conclusion of this article) “The hard part is the table-topic presentation, where you have to think on your feet to deliver a short speech.”
When it was Marie’s turn to give the table-topic for others to speak about, “I gave everyone a wand. I asked them to think about their special power. It was fun to see how creative everyone was. A small prop like the wand can really change the whole dynamic and the confidence of everyone to share their stories.”
“Marie is calm, creative, compassionate and engaging,” notes Marc. As a Peer Support Worker, he blends expert knowledge of CAMH treatment options with “lived experience” as a former mental health care consumer. “The beauty of the inter-professional care team is that everyone brings a different view or specialty to help our patients,” he says. “We get together daily to discuss care strategies for all of our patients.” Having seen both sides of mental health care, Marc says his role is “to bridge those two perspectives.”
“Marc knows my storyline,” says Marie. “He’s been there for me and I can bounce ideas off him.”
A new leadership role
Marc recently invited Marie to take a co-leader role in discussion groups with other patients at ACTT. Marie is now co-facilitating those weekly meetings.
“It’s about getting people to open up and make small steps,” she says. She gives the example of a fellow patient, who had been in inpatient care for 15 years, speaking about some life skills she had learned from her parents.
“A little idea can become a big idea,” adds Marc. “Our group focuses on where our patients find strength.”
Marie adds that Marc knows how to put patients at ease in the group. “He walks into the room with a big smile and greets everyone by name, and makes everyone feel comfortable.”
The road ahead
Looking ahead, Marie says her biggest goal is “to feel better. I am working to be more disciplined around my physical and mental health.”
And with some of the steps she’s taking to improve her communications and leadership skills, “I’m also interested in considering a role as a Peer Support Worker in future.”
The young woman who once studied and taught self-defense is still a warrior.
Marie and Marc outside the Downtown Central Clinic at the CAMH/Foodshare Sunshine garden.
Marie’s Toastmasters story: Three lives, lost and found
Here is one of the short stories Marie told as part of her first Toastmasters speech recently. “This one is still so vivid in my memory. I think there are also some good lessons in it,” she says.
Our Grade 2 teacher had asked us to prepare something for show and tell. I had found three colorful caterpillars at home. I put them in a glass jar with some holes in the lid, and carried them carefully to school with me that morning. I was nervous but excited to do my show and tell that day.
It went fine, and I had the caterpillars in their jar when I got back to my desk. That’s when the student in front of me turned around suddenly, hit them with his elbow, and sent them flying. The glass shattered on the floor and my caterpillars scattered with the broken bits of glass.
Our teacher called the janitor and he came and swept up everything and took it away. My classmate didn’t do it on purpose, but I was devastated. I was wailing and pretty soon I was in my teacher’s lap and she was comforting me.
At that point, I think she realized how much they meant to me. I was so proud of them. I cared for them. They were living creatures. I was responsible for them.
My teacher took me down to the janitor’s room and we started going through the bags of garbage. My teacher was persistent.
Finally we found them -- the caterpillars were alive! We got a new jar and put them in it and I took them back home for safe-keeping!