I often say to my students that "teaching is learning" and the same is true of journalism and perhaps even more, of blogging. There is a visceral connection between you and me in the blogosphere, often it grows beyond a virtual connection, too. It's very affecting and inspiring.
This is the story of one of those times.
On Saturday night, I had a tough time falling asleep. My mind was whizzing.
The day before, on Friday, while achy, feverish and sleeping most of time, felled by some sort of bug, I received an email from a member of our community here at Coming Out Crazy named Sandra Dawson.
She was clearly upset and for good reason. Through a series of emails and then a five-hour telephone conversation on Saturday evening, I discovered that Sandra's recovery journey is nothing short of miraculous.
"When I was eight, my depression started. For no reason. I became glum, sad, moody cranky, often during the fall and spring. It was biological. I wasn't diagnosed at all until years later," she said.
Sandra grew up in a comfortable and "privileged" military family, and as she was moving all over the country growing up, her behaviour began changing along with her moods.
"When I was about 10, I wrote a Christmas play and my teacher decided that I could direct it, but she fired me as the director because I was too bossy," she said, laughing at the recollection, perhaps a harbinger of the more exuberant moods she would experience later.
Initially, her mood swings were characterized by short episodes of increasingly severe depression, and occasional suicidality – her first attempt was when she was 11 years old, in school, with a pair of blunt, round-edge scissors. "I just knew I wanted to die," she said. A schoolmate spotted her and called her "Freak!" Nothing else happened.
"We didn't talk about it in my family," she said. "We were repressed and didn't discuss our feelings or our emotions."
By the time she was in her early 20s, she was beginning to experience wildly euphoric manic moments as well as depression. Sometimes the two extreme moods occurred coincidentally, with "mixed episodes of mania/depression and hypomanic/euphoria. Depression with spikes of mania," she said.
Eventually, Sandra started seeing a counselor, to no avail, then a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. "I was misdiagnosed as being depressed," but because of her own ignorance and fears about mental illnesses, her prejudice and discrimination, her negative stereotypes, she wouldn't take those drugs, even though she was suicidal.
She never went back to that doctor.
Sandra is now 42. She has been hospitalized approximately 35 times, calling herself a classic 'revolving door.' Most of those hospital stays, she stresses, were for relatively short periods of time – from a few days to two months.
"There were many times when my doctors didn't know what to do with me," she said from her home in Vancouver. Sometimes, they still don't, she added.
Between these episodes, she typically has much longer periods of independence, emotional stability and productivity.
At 27, a GP misdiagnosed her again and prescribed Prozac. This time, Sandra decided to take the medication, but it was disastrous for her. "It made me more manic."
Coupled with the death of her father, insecure living arrangements, travel, and another serious manic episode, her life started spiraling out of control. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, unable to work, for the first time in her life, she experienced hidden homelessness.
Four out of five (80%) homeless people in Canada don't live on the street. Most are improperly housed or on the verge of eviction, far too many are children. Women who earn less than men are more vulnerable to homelessness. The hidden homeless live in cars, couch surf or find temporary shelter in church basements or abandoned factories.
Over the decade between 1994 and 2004, Sandra became homeless – but only four times. Years apart. Those episodes were short. She stayed in shelters for abused women, hospitals, or on friend's couches. She also lived in marginal housing like rooming houses and Single Room Occupancy hotels.
"I've been lucky," she said. "I've never lived 'on the streets' as in the stereotypical sleeping bag on a sidewalk. I am considered high functioning by my psychiatrists. Although my disorder is severe, I can look after my basic needs. Low functioning people need more help, but high functioning people can and do fall through the cracks and become homeless or at risk."
These experiences were so searing, they turned her into a crusader, a passionate advocate, working professionally and within the community as a volunteer to help to understand, enlighten and fight hidden homelessness, and to ensure that more supportive housing is available especially for people with mental health issues.
She has a steady part-time job on the Mental Health Commission of Canada as a consultant, a person with lived experience of hidden homelessness, working on its newly launched, national multi-city study called At Home/Chez Soi.
Sandra is also on the board of Vancouver's Marine View Housing Society, a licensed and supportive housing project that began in 1975 and owns residential buildings in Vancouver for people with mental health difficulties. For years, she has also volunteered with her local arts community in several capacities.
"It's so important to me. It makes me feel useful," she said.
Her work with the Mental Health Commission of Canada is one of her passions.
On Sunday, Sandra was a presenter at a major national Vancouver conference on homelessness called Into The Light, which winds up today. She participated on a National Consumer Panel of peers with lived experience of homelessness and/or mental health issues involved in the At Home/Chez Soi project. These panelists represented cities of all sizes and discussion focused on pressing local issues in their respective areas.
So why was she so upset when she wrote to me last Friday?
When this four-year Housing First study was launched at a media event last week, Sandra bravely spoke out, telling her story about her own experiences with homelessness. She gave an interview to the press. Somehow, she was misrepresented and her story was badly distorted, so much so that she feared her credibility would be damaged and her reputation besmirched.
So she reached out to me and I'm so glad she did. I knew virtually nothing about hidden homelessness. It wasn't on my radar screen. Indeed, it was hidden. Invisible. Buried under the stereotype of the homelessness we see. I have started to scratch the surface. I will keep digging.
Best of all, I've become acquainted with Sandra Dawson, one of the most courageous, generous-hearted people I have ever had the honour to engage with... and I sense we are more than acquainted. We have made a connection. I hope it will continue. There is so much more to share about the nature of homelessness – visible and hidden – especially among children and youth.
I have so much to learn.
Thank you, Sandra.