The Mental Illness Awareness Week blog, sharing stories of recovery, personal experiences, and mental health/mental illness news.


Faces of Mental Illness
Andy Sibbald

Throughout my life I have had some very good jobs in the addiction’s field. These jobs have ranged from coordinating community based alcohol and drug programs to managing a Territorial alcohol and drug program. I have worked with some wonderful people who I have very fond memories of. Knowing what I know now it is surprising that I was able to function in such good jobs.

The first community I moved to in the N.W.T (now Nunavut) was Coppermine (now Kugluktuk). I was to serve as Coordinator of the local alcohol and drug program there. The community was 97% Inuit so culture shock should have come as no surprise. Many things I had learned in the south had no relevancy in the north and it took time to replace what didn’t work with what did work in my new setting. My whole psyche changed to accommodate my new reality. I felt lost at times because I had gone from being highly competent in the south to knowing very little of what mattered in my new northern environment.


Within the first week of my moving to Coppermine the local Anglican Minister knocked on my door and asked if I would help him. He was a thin little man with glasses who had a British accent and seemed highly energetic. I wanted to fit into the community so said I would be happy to help him. He said we would just need to go next door to a white trailer identical to mine and deal with a problem there. I had no idea what he was talking about and wondered what the problem could possibly be-did he think I was a plumber or something?
When we entered the trailer we walked into a totally unfurnished living room that had dark wooden paneling on the walls and some depressing brown carpet on the floor. It was quite dingy but I immediately noticed a young man about twenty lying on the floor besides a very large plywood box. I looked at the Minister and he said, “He killed himself yesterday and I need you to help me put him in the box”. He then said, “I hope he hasn’t stiffened up or we may have to break his legs to get him into the box.” I was quite surprised by the whole episode and certainly would have never experienced something like this in southern Canada. I liked to think experiences like this had no effect on me. I now realize they had a profound impact on me.

The north required I either make major changes psychologically or leave. I made the changes necessary to stay. After twenty years of working in northern alcohol and drug programs I moved to Nanaimo, BC. My new job would require me to develop an educational system for a number of addiction’s clinicians on Vancouver Island. It seemed like a good job and I was quite excited about working with my new boss and colleagues

The Meltdown

When I got to Nanaimo I could sense something was wrong. So many people knew so much more than me about living in the south. Much of what I had learned in the north simply did not matter in this new environment. Within three months of moving to Nanaimo a doctor determined that I was unable to work, a psychologist said my anxiety level was so high my test results could not be accurately interpreted and I felt vulnerable and alone. I had no idea what was wrong and was confused by my rapidly declining health. Within three months I had moved from an excellent job and contented lifestyle to someone on disability pension who was questioning their own sanity. I remain on disability three years later and for some reasons have not been able to get to a place where I am able to work in any type of job.

Changing Sides of the Desk

I found out about, and was referred into, a dialectical behavioral therapy group run by local mental health and addiction’s clinicians. Ironically, I was previously employed to design an educational system for the same clinicians from whom I now received service. The psychologist and psychiatrist I was seeing also worked for the same agency I had worked for. Now I had changed sides of the desk and was a client rather than an employee. I felt shame, guilt and embarrassment when I went to receive services from my colleagues. My memory was not very good and I found myself functioning at a comparatively low level. In spite of my feelings I continued to attend my appointments and group sessions and found the process very helpful! The clinicians with whom I had worked were both supportive and highly professional. They treated me very kindly which was important because my life as I had known it was shattered.

It was a humbling experience to require services from people I had worked with in the addictions and mental health field. I do not know if I have always been mentally ill but in my new southern environment have been unable to compensate for my illness. I know my life has forever changed. I believe my experience with the Anglican Minister and the dead young man, coupled with seeing hundreds of other comparable events first hand, traumatized me. In order to survive in the north I was required to make psychological and emotional shifts to adapt. These changes are now so well entrenched and specific to the north that I have been unable to adapt to the south. I still wonder what happened and probably will for the remainder of my life.

In spite of being on a disability pension I have developed a life worth living one day at a time. I am extremely grateful for the support of medical professionals, family and friends. I have become a writer and public speaker and am enjoying life very much.