Imagine waking up one morning in your own bed, but unable to remember where – or even who – you are. That was the confusing reality Jennifer Lee had to face, a decade ago.
“The person I was before I woke up that day in 2009 doesn’t exist anymore,” says Lee. “My brain doesn’t work the way it used to. There’s no going back to who I was before.”
Living in Brandon at the time, she awoke hearing unfamiliar voices in her bedroom. “It was really scary for me. I know now what was happening was psychosis,” she says. “I could only remember where I worked, for some reason. So, against better judgement I got out of bed and reported to work. With all this confusion in my head!”
It didn’t go well.
Acting erratically, Lee was asked to leave shortly after arriving. “It’s almost as if I was on drugs. I wasn’t, but that’s what it must have seemed like to them.” Lee remembers feeling like her body was being controlled by someone else.
Not knowing what else to do, Lee found her way back home and crawled into her bed. “I spent the next week or so alone, trying to pretend what was happening wasn’t happening. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Lee’s family and roommate came to understand something wasn’t right and helped her seek help in a Brandon hospital. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (subsequently changed years later to schizoaffective bipolar disorder, her current diagnosis).
It was a lot to process all at once. In the Brandon psychiatric ward, Lee’s mental illness caused her to become paranoid. She didn’t trust anyone and was deeply suspicious of the anti-psychotic medication she’d been prescribed, believing it to be poisonous. She feared for her life.
Then there were the voices. “They were unpredictable, unfamiliar, and kept telling me to do things,” she says.
“Having the voices was a big concern for me; they never went away.”
By the spring of 2012, Lee had been discharged and she wanted her independence back. She stopped taking her medication and moved to Winnipeg.
Again, it didn’t go well.
After a few months, her family once again became worried about her behaviour. “Things weren’t going well for me that October,” says Lee. “I hadn’t slept in two days.” Police were called, and she was admitted to the McEwen Building at St. Boniface Hospital, where mental health services are offered. It would be the first of two times Lee was admitted that year, to recover for three to four weeks at a time.
Learning to move forward
“When I got into the McEwen Building, right away things felt better for me,” she says. “Being admitted can be lonely and isolating, but in there I felt like everyone was an advocate for me. I wasn’t going to have to worry about my condition. I felt cared-for.”
Nonetheless, Lee was still fearful of being poisoned by her medication. “But the way things were explained to me made sense. For the first time, I was hopeful things would start to turn around for me. It was explained to me why the medication was prescribed, and how it compared with other medications. Everyone at St. Boniface Hospital was straightforward with me – if I had a question, they gave me an answer,” she says.
Inside the McEwen Building, Lee found a support system and sense of community that helped her focus on the positive aspects of her recovery, rather than the negativity associated with mental illnesses. “I got to know some of the other patients in the McEwen Building. For my 30th birthday, the nurses brought in cupcakes for everyone to celebrate. If a patient has a birthday, they acknowledge it. It’s kind of a positive thing for everybody there; it’s something else nice for us to focus on.”
“A lot of treatment is learning to trust,” she explains. “Everyone I’ve been introduced to and who has been a part of my ongoing care has been caring, friendly, open and honest with me. It helps, because it makes me want to continue with my treatment.”
Things are finally going well.
Ten years have passed since Lee became mentally ill. Today, she continues to live on her own in Winnipeg. “I’ve tried to hold different jobs over the years. It’s hard to do your job properly when you’re hearing voices,” she says. “I’ve had to leave some jobs because I was hearing them. When people are talking to me, so are they – it can be hard to concentrate and listen when you have different voices speaking to you.”
“I can only go forward,” she says. “My life keeps getting better. I’m always hopeful – I’d rather look ahead than behind.”