I am writing this at 30,000 feet on a flight to Montreal to participate on a panel related to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
I am quite uncomfortable in my seat primarily because of my weight, which is 400 pounds and an unfortunate direct side effect of medication for treatment of schizophrenia.
It is ironic because about three years ago my wife and I were referred to Dr Sharma’s weight loss clinic. We were passed over, I suspect, because of our underlining mental illnesses. The weight issue has contributed to ongoing humiliation for me — humiliation that first began at the age of five when my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
I am very conscious of the fear and loathing from some people when encountering a 6-foot-5, morbidly obese schizophrenic.
I don’t care for my appearance. Like in the book, I have a scarlet ‘S’ stamped on my forehead for all to see. Sometimes all I feel like I should do is stay in our small condo and shun society.
I guess I must be a real masochist to continue to engage with society. If it is this hard for me, it must be a living hell for people with mental illness living in societies with more overt and systemic discrimination. At least I have a loving wife, adopted son and many friends to lessen the burden.
When I was first hospitalized for schizophrenia and PTSD in 1992, I was told my life was ‘over’. But I faced the diagnosis with the same determination with which I had faced previous hardships. Like the extensive pain from frostbite and frozen lungs when crossing crevasse-laced fields in blinding windstorms on the Antarctic polar plateau, 12,000 feet up, beyond the South Pole.
We sledded 1,100 kilometers and recovered 700 meteorites. I thought facing death in Antarctica was difficult, but it was easy compared with the slings and arrows of outrageous scorn.
One month before I was told I would receive the Order of Canada, a career counselor said the only job he could get me was as an eight-hour-a-week ticket taker at a local movie theatre.
Employers will hire anyone but us, it seems. I went home and cried for two hours. Even when I received the Order of Canada, I noticed how the RCMP hovered closer to Governor General Michelle Jean when I was around. Even in receiving one of our country’s greatest honours, I was still perceived as a threat.
I still struggle at times to accept that my paid employment options are limited.
But I strive to contribute to society in other ways, through my papers, speeches and as an active advocate for those living with mental illness. At times, I have had to depend on organizations like the Food Bank. But while life in the inner city as an obese schizophrenic is not most people’s image of success, I take pride in my contributions to society; I take joy out of my relationships with family and friends.
And I will continue to be a strong and dedicated — if sometimes tired and disheveled — voice for the one per cent of the populace that lives with schizophrenia.
Austin Mardon has won numerous awards including the Order of Canada and is the only Canadian to find a meteorite from the Moon. He lives with his wife Catherine and Bassett hound Gandy in an Edmonton inner city condo.