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A Memoir: Addiction, Mental Illness and Survival

In From Strive to Thrive, Gayle Chapman offers an unflinching look at her life.

By Gayle Chapman 17 Jul 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Gayle Chapman has spent her life dealing with mental illness and addiction, and is now an artist in Victoria. From Strive to Thrive, her first book, is available from Amazon here.

[Editor’s note: Gayle Chapman’s new memoir looks honestly at living with trauma, addiction and mental illness. In “From Strive to Thrive,” she presents an often harrowing story of her life, and an insightful look at human kindness and the health care system and its failings. This excerpt deals with her return to Victoria after spending her 40th birthday in prison in 1990.]

Motel life, like apartment life and prison life, did not suit me. The darkness and the stillness ate at my soul. I was in a limbo that I could not crawl out of. I spent my days, my agoraphobic days, imprisoned inside my room. The highlight of these days, besides using and listening to mean, demanding voices in my head, was the walk to the hardware store to stock up on my escape juice.

I lived in this prison of a room without any activities or, for the most part, visitors. On a couple of occasions my dad and stepmom came to “check up on me.” Satisfied that at least I had a roof over my head at that moment, they walked back out into the scary dark night.

When I was released from prison, I was subject to three years of supervision by a despicable probation officer who constantly threatened to send me back to jail because he was so sure I would “re-offend,” when in fact I had never offended.

My probation scared me so much that the weekly bus trip across the city to the meet the probation officer threw me into a state of terror. He made it clear he hated me for my wrongdoings and that I was scum, and did not deserve any mercy from him.

I was receiving no real help or treatment while I was at the motel. I interacted occasionally with the Mental Health Centre, but with no real involvement. Case workers were a peripheral part of my live — around, but not playing an active role. I was on very little medication, as doctors feared that, given my suicidal thoughts, I might use it to end my life. But I was never hospitalized while I lived at the motel — mostly because, I believe, the system had not really recognized that I had returned to Victoria.

I wanted to die more than ever before, but I was usually too frightened to leave the motel room, especially in daylight, for fear of being snatched up by the police, so I couldn’t go and buy the means to eliminate myself. I felt so deeply hurt that I was being treated by the universe so terribly. But what could I expect? I had “committed” a humongous crime.

There was almost no community support. I lived on welfare, less than $600 a month. The motel room ate up more than half that amount, and the other half — well, I tried to spend it on food, but the pain of abandonment and guilt always sent me to the hardware store instead of to the café around the corner.

At first the manager of the motel was not aware of what I was doing. But my room was connected to his suite with a door that did not quite meet the ground, and I thought he must smell the fumes. Even at night, when I used in the bathroom with the door closed, the odours could escape. After a few minutes of huffing I quit worrying about whether I was polluting his suite, yet my guilt consumed me when I was sober. One day, after three or four weeks, I told him I was using and addicted to solvent — toluene to be exact.

He was appalled. He swore at me, screamed that his wife had lupus and I was compromising her health. I’d never heard of lupus and just ignored his yelling.

He told me I had six hours to get out.

Stoned, frightened and with absolutely nowhere to go, I phoned my sisters, my dad, friends — mostly from church — seeking asylum and refuge. No one would take me in. Finally, though I do not know why, I phoned the doctor I had at the time. With only an hour left on my eviction clock, she answered the phone. I told her I was about to be homeless; she hesitated and agreed to take me in. Thirty minutes later she pulled up at the motel, alone in an SUV to collect me and my bits and pieces of luggage. She was younger than I was, a single parent with three children — two girls (one about eight or nine and the other in her mid-teens) and one boy (about twelve). She was a general practitioner with a specialty in obstetrics. She had a fanatical laugh and I was amazed at how much energy she had. Her love for her children was overwhelming to me and I envied this.

Yet, despite all her kindness, I hated the ride to her place because I felt, just as I had many times before, that I was being rescued again. I had come to know that these “rescue” situations never turned out well — and I was always the one who produced the unhappy ending.

My doctor lived in Oak Bay, the snazzy part of town. I felt like a country bumpkin moving to New York City when I arrived that afternoon at her huge three-storey house with its tidy wood siding. Her medical office was in the basement at the back. I had been there many times before. She had taken me under her wing early on as my physician, offering empathy for my mental health and physical problems. Yet at the moment I arrived at her home to live, I felt I was a foreigner in an uncharted country.

I shared a room with one of my doctor’s friends — a half-wall dividing us in the dark basement. This friend was gone most of the day, babysitting somewhere. Once again, I was lonely and isolated. I was supposed to be doing laundry and other bits of housework in return for room and board. But I rarely ate — no meals were offered, and I couldn’t make myself venture into the kitchen to cook as I was depressed and paralyzed with fear of being seen. I wanted her and her family to pretend I wasn’t there when they were home, so I remained quietly sitting in my “room” with nothing to do but live with my thoughts. When they were not home, I still stayed mostly in my room ,but did venture out to do my chores.

Neither the doctor nor her children believed in tidiness. Every day I was horrified at the mess they left after they went to school and work.

At first I felt obliged to clean up, but I grew more and more despondent at the impossibility of keeping order in their home, alone all day, with nothing to eat.

I wasn’t using. But I was white-knuckling it — avoiding huffing through sheer effort, still desperate to use.

My doctor’s medical office was opposite my basement room. In the evenings I started sneaking in, foraging for drugs and stealing samples I discovered in an office cupboard. My doctor made a few comments that made me realize that she suspected, but I didn’t care and didn’t stop. My goal was to accumulate enough pills to be able to kill myself, not to get high. And by the time I eventually left her house for a new place, I had a plastic bag full of the stolen pills.

Christmas came. The doctor’s family decorated the living room, but I was not invited to join in the festivities. I had no contact with either friends or my family. I felt I had been, once again, abandoned because everyone knew I at least had a roof over my head — for the moment, anyway. My dad never came around nor phoned, nor did my sisters. My belief was they were happy to have a holiday from me.

I was lonely, sad and angry. However, on Christmas Eve, the doctor and her children took me to the Mormon Church, where they were members, for the Christmas Eve service. I was fascinated by the warmth of their greeting of me, a non-Mormon, though I could not help but notice that there were parts of this church I was not allowed to enter. I did not understand their ceremony, yet I enjoyed it — it was so different and so refreshing a view of the Christmas story, and I was swept away by it.

After Christmas they all went back to school and work, and I was left to clean up the Christmas debris and put away the ornaments and tree. The windows had fake snow sprayed all over them and the doctor gave me a can of solvent and told me to clean them. I hated the idea — until I found that the snow remover was full of toluene.

Joyously, I began sniffing, my brief period of sobriety abandoned. My weakness disgusted me, yet I could not stop. In the evenings, when they frequently all went out, I would take the solvent tin hidden under my pillow and, often sitting out on their balcony with the sliding doors shut, I began inhaling, constantly listening for sounds of their return — slamming car doors, footsteps and voices. I thought they did not know what I was doing, but now I am sure it must have been obvious, although no one said anything to me during my stay there.

About a month later, long after I had drained the solvent tin and been dry for about a week, I could no longer resist going to the hardware store on Oak Bay’s small main street to buy thinner. With tin in hand that morning, I looked for a place where I could hide away and use. It was warmish, with a hint of spring, and I found a rock outcrop below the sidewalk near the Oak Bay Marina where I climbed down and huddled close to the salt water, trying to avoid detection. I do not know how long I was there, but by the time I belatedly noticed the tide was coming in I was almost too stoned to climb back up the rocks. Scared, panicky and holding onto the solvent tin with a strong grasp, I scrambled up the rocky slope on my knees. Once back on the sidewalk I stumbled home.

I learned early in my habit that once I started sniffing, I could not stop. There was still thinner left in the tin, so when I got back home I sat in a chair that was stuffed into my dark semi-room, and continued where I had left off at the marina. My roommate came home for a short time but seemed awfully eager to leave again. I didn’t care. We never talked to each other; we co-existed. Left alone in the basement once again, I continued my trek into oblivion.

My behaviour was causing a huge rift between my doctor, her family and me. I was given the coldest of shoulders and finally reached out to a social worker at the local mental health centre I attended sporadically. I told him about my living arrangements and he listened with great compassion and said he would find a new place for me to live — something more suitable than anything I had in the past.

Within a few weeks I was being driven by the mental health worker and my new case manager to Esquimalt to visit McAndrew Lodge, an independent psychiatric boarding home. They introduced me to the manager and staff, showed me around, and we left.

About a week later the workers picked me up from the doctor’s home once again and delivered me to the lodge, where I stayed for more than 18 months, never using, but often making suicidal gestures by scratching up my arms.

But during that period, for the first time ever, I felt that I could belong somewhere, even though I was standoffish because I was afraid of the people living in the lodge.

Life in the boarding home was challenging, and once again I felt lonely. In the first couple of months I ended up in the hospital at least three times because I could not get enough sleep. I shared a small, small room with two other very ill women. The roommate who slept closest to my bed, about an arm’s length away, talked non-stop to herself all night. I could not sleep with this going on and often would get so angry that I would throw my pillow at her and yell at her to shut up. The other roommate would constantly jump out of bed and open the door to the room, letting in all the light from the hall. As I was such a light sleeper and suffered terribly from insomnia, being kept awake pushed me into manic spaces. Instinctively I tried to work off the mania by doing the gardening at the home, working from dawn to dusk, day after day. Summer and warmer days was coming, but I couldn’t stand being indoors with all the “loonies.” I had no reason to explore the neighbourhood and was too afraid to walk anywhere anyway, knowing I had to remain sober. Gardening became my new addiction as I hauled out weeds and plants, practically devastating the front gardens. In the end, I was taken to the hospital to settle down. Medicated more and more, I would return back to the lodge depressed and still unable to fit in.

It took three visits to the hospital before the doctors recommended to the staff that I get my own room, and I did.

I found life in the boarding home intensely difficult. Often I felt like I was being constantly watched. On my first day, while doing the required bath, the manager walked into the bathroom with a pearl necklace in her hand to “give to me.” I realized instantly that personal privacy was not respected in this new place either. After that, the manager was always calling me into her office for one thing or other and I, not knowing her real aim, became cautious of her attentions and avoided her whenever I could.

However, it seemed God had a plan for me — a wonderful plan. Just like new life in a garden in spring, new life was beginning to take hold of me. I had been toying with the idea of returning to a small, wooden heritage church down the road from McAndrew Lodge — St. Paul’s on Esquimalt Road. Finally, I took the first steps to returning to the Anglican Church.  [Tyee]

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