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Stories of Recovery Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Getting back into the game

Growing up in Scarborough, Chris Lam loved sports and there was no shortage of opportunities to play. His favourites were soccer, tennis, and especially hockey, which he played competitively in the Scarborough Hockey Association into his late teens.

These days he has to focus more on “mental gymnastics,” he says – managing the thought processes and delusions that come with schizophrenia.

We first met Chris at a summer picnic program for clients of CAMH’s Complex Mental Illness (CMI) Program. He was helping set up the picnic, which provided some “vitamin green” for his fellow clients. He talked about how he missed going fishing with his buddies that summer.

Chris Lam
Chris Lam

If mental health was a hockey game, he felt like he was in “the third period,” he said – playing hard to get back into the game, to get that elusive win.

In August, Chris completed a 10-month stay and treatment at CAMH. It’s a huge milestone for the 44-year-old, who’s acutely aware that time is tight to get back to work and find his place in the world. In a recent interview, Chris shared some of his challenges, goals and dreams.

Managing his illness

Chris was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a condition in which a person is pre-occupied with an aspect of their physical appearance. “I had delusions about my face,” he says. “It was like my face changes into something bad or ugly.” The delusions and other symptoms reached a tipping point in the mid-1990s as he was struggling to finish high school. He visited the emergency department at North York General Hospital and was hospitalized for eight months of mental health treatment in Whitby.

After he was discharged from hospital, he managed to complete his diploma and took on some work as a courier for the financial industry. A dream to pursue financial services studies was put on hold. He’s struggled with the illness ever since. “Sometimes I don’t believe it’s Schizophrenia. I ask myself: ‘Are these normal thoughts?’ But I think it is.”

Last year, he checked himself into the CAMH Emergency Department and was referred to CAMH’s CMI Program. “The CAMH staff helped me understand my thought patterns, my mental gymnastics,” he says. He tries to understand and be more aware of the delusions that can disrupt his day-to-day life.

The CAMH team also monitored Chris’s medication and provided a range of therapies and programming, including groups focusing on education and skill-building.

Dr. Faizal Ali and Chris Lam
Chris (at right), with CAMH Dr. Faizal Ali, who was part of his care team.

Chris is now receiving daily outpatient care and case management from COTA, a community-based organization that helps adults with mental health and cognitive challenges. COTA’s broader services include case management, supportive housing, short-term residential beds, day programs, court and justice related services, and an assertive community treatment team (ACT).

Strengthening relationships

Chris makes regular visits to see his mom, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in retirement. “She worked all her life, saved and saved, got her own condo after my parents divorced,” he says. “She enjoyed seeing her friends and playing Scrabble.” Now, his mom is increasingly confused and struggles with communication. She has stayed in her condo with health-care supports. “I sit with her, talk to her, help her try to understand things, to read what she wants,” Chris says.

“She did a lot for me. She’s a beautiful lady.”

Chris is also reaching out to friends, some of whom have stuck with him through his struggles. “Some of my friends, I can count on them. You know who your friends are in a crisis.” Others have backed away over the years. He played some pick-up hockey recently with some old friends and is hoping to get back into it this fall.

Getting back into the game

Chris is acutely aware of where he stands compared to some friends and former team-mates, who now have good incomes, cars, homes and families. “I don’t have those things. I’m looking to get some kind of part-time work, to get my feet wet – like a courier job. I do have my high school diploma. Maybe I’ll go back to school too.

“My ultimate goal is to get off disability, to work as long as I can, and save for my retirement. I give it three years to pull things together, to be working full-time by the time I’m 47 or 48.” Chris is also looking for shared accommodation to be able to live independently long-term. “Right now I’m living with my dad. He supports me with my health, he took me on a trip south recently. But it is hard for him; he’s 80 years old.”

Chris says that for himself and his family, “I’m trying to put the pieces back together.”

Janine Bakelaar and Chris Lam
Getting some “vitamin green!” CAMH Recreation Therapist Janine Bakelaar and client Chris Lam get ready to hand out drinks for the CAMH CMI picnic program this past summer.
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