Glen Devlin now knows he started to experience signs of schizophrenia in childhood.
“It affected my sense of touch,” he explains. “Lying on the couch or bed, a blanket would feel like it weighed a ton and it felt bad on the skin.”
His tactile symptoms were quickly followed by visual ones.
“People’s heads looked really big. We used to call it the ‘big heads’. My mum took me to the doc, who just thought I had a wild imagination because I was normal in every other way.”
But what was dismissed as the figment of childhood fantasy grew into a real-life problem for Glen as he got older. He started having anxiety problems when surrounded by groups of people – like in the school lunchroom. It got so bad he started to eat lunch in the bathroom. His teachers didn’t know how to handle his behaviour, and neither did he.
Trying to escape, he tried drugs in high school.
“I thought it would be fun. But my illness started getting worse. Weed made me have lots of other symptoms – paranoia, delusions, isolating myself. Weed was my trigger.”
His problems spiraled into expulsion from high school and then several suicide attempts, beginning at age 16.
“Every few months I would take too many pills. It was a loss of my friendships and relationships with my family, my sister and brother. My behaviour was getting erratic and (my) problem with crowds was getting really bad. My family and friends couldn’t understand what was going on – they probably felt kind of ashamed, maybe it was their fault. We were always getting into arguments about things I thought were happening and they knew weren’t happening.”
At age 19, a suicide attempt put him in a coma for a week and a half. Then, he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia. He started seeing a therapist and taking medication. He started to stabilize, but it wasn’t all smooth.
It was in hospital after yet another suicide attempt that Glen heard about the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta (SSA) and heard a speaker with the SSA’s Partnership Education Program. He realized there were people who had dealt with what he was going through, and offered hope and support to others. It’s now part of his personal mission.
“We go to different places, talk about our illness and try to make people understand it’s not something to be scared of,” says Glen. “I talk about schizophrenia and try to get rid of the stigma and make (them) understand the illness.”
But even 25 years after Glen joined SSA, he still experiences the stigma of schizophrenia. He says family and friends he’s reconnected with still don’t want to learn too much about it.
“All they know is what they see on TV. I just wish we could reach more people. We go to classrooms, health care professionals, university students, some organizations, but we really need to reach people in the private sector. Employers, business owners, people who run welding shops – or a restaurant – try to get rid of misconceptions.”
Glen’s life is now full with a life partner, a job, a home and even a motorcycle. In addition to his speeches for the Partnership Education Program (*now called Community Education Program), Glen also works as a leader for the SSA’s peer support program.
“(It) makes you feel like you’re part of something again. Our group is just awesome. We’re really coming together. I feel very grateful and very proud that I’m leading them. We go out for coffee, we go do things like go to festivals, to the Muttart -- what we’re tackling is the isolation.”
It’s the SSA’s unique peer support structure that has allowed Glen to give back to the place that helped him.
“I get a real sense of worth for the work I do with the SSA. It means a lot to me (and) it’s given my life meaning. I’m succeeding through helping others.