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I Coped With My Father's Schizophrenia Through Photography

03/12/2014 09:05 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

I have never known my father, Phil, without mental illness.

When my parents met at McGill University my father was already diagnosed with schizophrenia. You couldn't see the illness on him then. They were just two beautiful young people in love. By the time my mother was 20, I was born.

Young and still naive, they did their best to sustain the relationship, and moved to the Laurentians together. My mother dreamt of living in the country and building a family with him, but soon after I was born Phil became increasingly ill. It would take years, and countless trips to psychiatric wards and jails to really understand it all, but my mother eventually realized that the hopes she had for a stable family would not be possible with my father.

There is a spectrum of experiences individuals can have when they suffer from schizophrenia and my father happened to be on the more extreme side. Being in this space on that continuum of the illness meant that Phil never believed he was sick. Rather, he believed in the voices he heard, the delusions he had and the things he saw. This also meant that he did not take the medications he was prescribed, and could not get the appropriate care required to reach stability. Back then, the only place Phil could find stability was if he broke the law in one of his delusions and found himself in jail where he could be treated.

Throughout my childhood, Phil was always a large presence in my life. Sometimes a terrifying presence, sometime a hilarious one. If he was well he could always make my mother and I laugh. While he was never able to be a father, hold a job, or remain steady, there was always a strong foundation of love within our broken, disjointed, and upside down family experience.

At 24, my mother began to move us across the country for job opportunities as an elementary school teacher and Phil would follow us ̶ from Montreal, to Ottawa, to Calgary, then Toronto and finally back to Montreal again. By the time I turned eight, my mother and I finally settled into a lovely neighbourhood in Montreal, the same neighbourhood both she and Phil had grown up in.

In that part of town, single-parent experiences were unique ̶ let alone having a parent who had frequent run-ins with the law, and would sometimes appear raving outside our door in the middle of the night. My friends at school didn't know anything about my father because I had completely compartmentalized my life -- one part was at school, and the other part at home -- which I instinctively kept secret.

I knew that what was happening for me at home was so different from my peers that I kept it secret, wanting to be "normal" at all costs. I felt alone and scared of absolutely everything. I was scared of Phil and the condition, scared of people finding out what was happening, scared of becoming ill like he was, and ultimately scared of losing him forever to the illness.

This is where photography saved me. My camera and photography became like a surrogate parent guiding me through the painful, emotional and complicated feelings I had towards my father and his schizophrenia.

With my camera I was able to feel in control of a situation that was completely out of my control. Through the photographs I was able to process feelings that I couldn't verbalize, and that were too overwhelming to experience fully in the moment. It helped me to untangle my feelings, and gain a deeper understanding of our relationship and his illness.

Photography ultimately allowed me to free myself from the tremendous shame I had around our experience. A shame that was not appropriate. A shame that was simply the result of a child's, and a teenager's internalization of the pervasive stigma that still exists around mental illness.

These feelings of fear, shame, love and isolation -- often difficult to pull apart -- are not unique to my experience with my father. Many families are going through the same things right now with their loved ones. They are struggling to understand, to help, to hold on, and to not be afraid.

It is hard enough for families to see their loved one suffering, and then to periodically loose them to a mental illness. It becomes almost unbearable to negotiate the collective shame that exists around these illnesses, while experiencing this loss and trying to get care for your loved one.

Finally, the stigma that surrounds mental illness often gets directly in the way of an individual's care. If we can all try to shift the fear and misunderstandings that cloud our perception of mental illness, and transform it into an environment of compassionate understanding -- we can help these families by freeing them from the pain of stigma.

This freedom could allow families the space and the support needed to focus on getting the necessary care and attention that they and their loved ones need to help manage the illness.

Today, I continue to meet with my father for coffee, and he is able to keep a room in Montreal. Phil is taking his medication, and makes almost daily visits to the Saint James Drop-in-Center where he can express himself freely through the art program. Aside from his drinking, Phil has reached his own place of stability. Most importantly, he is a survivor of a 37-year battle with schizophrenia.

For families touched by schizophrenia, schizophrenia24x7.ca is a website dedicated to helping those suffering from the illness and their loved ones by providing them with helpful resources and a dedicated support system. For those who use forms of creative expression as therapy, such as photography and painting, they can visit this page and upload a piece of their original artwork that represents their journey with schizophrenia. This journey is easier when you're not doing it alone, and you don't have to.

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