Mood and Anxiety Program client Angela was a guest speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony in April 2010 for the Intergenerational Wellness Centre, which will include inpatient rooms for youth and geriatric clients. Here is her speech, in her own words.
I'm so happy to see so many people here today for this important groundbreaking event. I feel honored and proud that I'm standing here today to share just a little of my experience of mental illness, and the role that CAMH has played in my education and recovery. Please bear with me. It's been more than 5 years since I've been a public speaker so I'm a little rusty.
My first experience with CAMH and its staff was a little over 4 years ago when I was brought into the ER at the College Street site. I was suicidal and unable to help myself any further, and I had no idea what was happening to me and why my life was in such shambles. In retrospect, I had hit my personal rock bottom and was in desperate need of treatment, support and education.
While the staff at College Street that first night in the ER were gracious, kind, and incredibly supportive, the surroundings were the polar opposite. The building at College Street, and the buildings (save the 4 new ones) at Queen Street, are a far cry from the mausoleums of healthcare lining University Avenue. In those healthcare institutions, patients with primarily physical illnesses recover in rooms with their own bathrooms and with a basic sense of privacy, and visitors walk through the front doors into a bustling and inviting environment with shops and comfortable places to rest and eat and share. That was not CAMH. My initial experience of CAMH's facilities were terrifying, polarizing and immediately filled me with a sense of shame.
My diagnosis was bipolar disorder and if left undiagnosed and therefore untreated, the severity and debilitating effect of it often grows with each year. For me, I was 32 when diagnosed. I had managed, despite worsening symptoms throughout my teens and 20s, to lead a relatively successful life: graduating from university, traveling and living abroad, growing a young software company from start-up to revenues in the millions. But this all changed for me that night I was brought into the ER at College Street.
For the next 3 years I received treatment as an outpatient at CAMH. I saw (and still do) my psychiatrist once per week. He worked tirelessly for me to craft the best treatment program I think I could hope for. A mixture of medication, psychotherapy, and education, the treatment enabled me to understand bipolar and how it manifests itself in my life.
As part of this treatment, I was fortunate enough to get a spot in a two-month outpatient day treatment program. This program is part of the Mood and Anxiety unit here at Queen Street. The location was Unit 2, one of the "old" buildings on this campus. Each day my partner Jason would drop me off in the morning out front of Unit 2. It was May, so the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the huge magnolia tree beside Unit 2 was in full bloom. Despite all of this, and even before entering the building, there was a sense that I had entered a completely new realm: Queen Street was hidden by the monolith of the old Admin building, the concrete units all looked the same creating a sense of disorientation, and the roads leading to the units were more like a mean maze than roads someone would choose to stroll down on a sunny spring day. Upon entering the building the sun disappeared, the temperature rose, and an interior maze ensued. I felt angry that I had to be there, I felt shamed that I had to be there, the physical environment only made those feelings stronger.
The day treatment program lasted 2 months. I learned a great deal, I was exposed to a variety of treatments outside of medication and psychotherapy. The treatment model was excellent, as were the staff, however recovery still seemed to be a holy grail for me. Fast forward to late 2008. It's November and I'm suicidal again, not uncommon given the time of year. My psychiatrist again manages to find me a spot in a new program, a groundbreaking program in itself. It's called the Alternate Inpatient Milieu Program, a bit of a mouthful, so people refer to it as AIM. This program is fundamentally different in two ways: first, it emphasizes very strongly other forms of treatment outside of the traditional medication therapy model, some practitioners practicing the 20% medication/80% alternate therapy model. Second, its home is in one of the 4 new buildings on White Squirrel Way and is an inpatient program without the lockdown portion that is typical of inpatient treatment.
The differences between Unit 2 and White Squirrel Way could not be greater. I remember the day I was admitted to AIM. For the first time we turned off of Queen Street onto White Squirrel Way and I had a strong sense that something was completely different. At the time I couldn't describe it, but with each day, I understood more about this difference.
The building is accessible off of a street running directly off of Queen Street and is not hidden by the massive Admin building. There are trees and sidewalks and parking meters and benches lining one side, somewhat reminiscent of what University Avenue looks like. The buildings look more like 4-storey apartment or condo buildings than they do an "institution". There are picnic tables and an inner courtyard in each building, something I didn't personally experience given it was November, but I could picture myself sitting out in the sun on a bright summer day enjoying the sun rays that are so important to those with mood disorders.
Inside is inviting and oh so bright with windows placed pretty much everywhere one could possibly go. Each resident has their own room, with a bathroom and shower and a large window to let the light in. Each floor has a common kitchen/lounge area where residents eat meals together, read, watch TV, or simply sit and just be. They say a huge part of recovery is in having a shared experience of mental illness, and this building was clearly designed to breed and nurture the sharing of the ravages of, as well as the recovery from, mental illness.
I have a little anecdote related to sharing amongst the clients of White Squirrel Way. When I was an inpatient I grew to know many of the other 24 clients in my building. One client had a real fascination with the name of our street, White Squirrel Way. He wondered if there were in fact real white squirrels at CAMH, and having never seen one, he would search day after day for a sighting as we walked from our building to other parts of the campus or onto Queen. It quickly became an inside joke amongst us clients and we'd joke around with him asking whether he'd had a white squirrel sighting that day. If anyone here knows if there are in fact white squirrels, I'd be thrilled to be able to let our "white squirrel seeker" know! The shared laughter that always followed our white squirrel discussions were as much a part of my treatment as all of the formal therapies in the program. Without a setting like White Squirrel Way, I doubt that I'd be sharing this anecdote with you today.
So finally, as both an outpatient and an inpatient of CAMH, as someone who has experienced CAMH in both its original setting and its new, I believe the transformation that is taking place here is of critical importance. The transformation is not only providing clients with better facilities and care, but is smashing stigma with each brick that falls from the old, and each brick that is laid for the new. Stigma prevented me from seeking treatment for years. Stigma prevents many children, teens and their families from seeking treatment early on. Stigma isolates our elders from their families and friends. Stigma breaks apart families or keeps families from coming together in times of great need.
With this second phase of transformation, two groups of clients that I believe suffer more than the rest of us will find a new home for the duration of their treatment. I'm speaking of the young and the old. I feel that these two groups are our most precious, yet often cannot advocate for themselves. Without support, whether it be a parent, a friend or a partner, recovery is ever more elusive. I've watched in glee over the past two months as the old Admin building fell brick-by-brick. Recently I had the opportunity to tour the construction site with Catherine Zahn and we watched together as the last bit of the building was cut open and finally demolished. And wow! Queen Street was visible from within the campus! And standing there on that day I thought about the future children, teens and elders who will walk on this land in a new setting only two years from now, and I found myself feeling hope for the future. And I also hope that the citizens of Toronto will feel the same and feel they can visit, check-in, stay, or simply stroll the new streets of 1001 Queen Street West as they are laid and the buildings are erected, one-by-one.