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.
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.
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).
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
“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
“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.”
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