Matthew Dickson developed schizophrenia at the age of 22. It was the early 1990s, and he was in the final year of his engineering degree at the University of New Brunswick.
Dickson was on the rowing team, had just finished a cross-country bicycle tour, and at that time, knew nothing about mental illness.
"When the disease hit, it hit hard," he said. "I went from sort of muddling through life a little bit, with some mild symptoms of the disease, to just flat on my back. And I really couldn't do anything."
His diagnosis began a 27-year battle that he believes is finally behind him. He has now joined forces with the Schizophrenia Society of New Brunswick to share his story and advocate for others who are in the throes of mental illness.
Dickson knew he needed help when he started thinking about taking his life. He was feeling disconnected from the world around him — as though he was watching his life on television.
"Visually, it felt like I was watching things in two dimensions, not three dimensions. It was sort of hard to explain, but this was part of the psychosis."
While he never had hallucinations or delusions, Dickson describes a dramatically altered sense of space, and severe depression and anxiety.
He spent time in the psychiatric ward of the hospital in Fredericton, and feels lucky he was able to find a medication that worked.
"I stayed on it, and I noticed an improvement in my health every single week for my whole 27 years of recovery. Every single week, I noticed an improvement … slowly and steadily like the tortoise winning the race."
'Like a machete through my chest'
Dickson describes the pain of his mental illness as "very intense emotions."
"The anxiety was like a machete through my chest," he said. "I yearned for something as beautiful as butterflies in my stomach."
It felt like the pain was just never going to stop. Like, when will this go away? I just wanted it to stop. - Matthew Dickson
He said other symptoms included feeling out of touch with his body and a mix of every negative emotion you can imagine.
"Guilt, embarrassment, feeling undignified. Anxiety, worry, stress — all these things. Frustration. Overwhelmed."
"I could sit in the psych ward in a room all by myself with nothing in it at my worst, on suicide watch. It just felt like I was going a million miles an hour."
"It felt like the pain was just never going to stop. Like, when will this go away? I just wanted it to stop."
Dickson said the support of his family, along with regular medication, counselling and healthy diet and exercise, helped him to finally get to a place where he feels like he can manage.
He is also a voracious reader, reading every book he can find that might help him to get better — information he wants to share with others.
Loneliness of mental illness
Throughout his adult life he has worked for the provincial government and was always open with others about his mental illness.
He feels lucky that he was able to work, and that he had the support of his family, but said it would have been nice to have more people to hang around with, as he often felt lonely.
"There's a very helpless feeling with the disease," he said. "But your family feels helpless, too."
Dickson said every time he walked into the room, he could feel the concern of his loved ones.
"I was lucky to have people to be concerned about me, but another part of me is like, I just wish people didn't have to worry about me. I just want to live my life and go and have fun."
People don't know what to say to someone with schizophrenia, Dickson explained, and it's difficult to take charge of a conversation yourself.
His advice to people with mental illness is to open up to others and share a "little bit about yourself" and tell them what you're going through.
"It may be hard. You don't have to share everything. Just — I find a little bit can go a long way to letting people know you a little bit."
Advocacy, speaking new focus
While Dickson knows he still has schizophrenia, he said he is "finally managing the disease," and he feels like his teenage self again.
"I know I'm not cured," he said, adding he will probably take his medication for the rest of his life.
"What I've got now is I've got the ability to think clearly and I have full and complete thoughts. I have peace and contentment and I get to enjoy life again and I get to reflect."
He is contacting mental health organizations across North America offering to speak and to share his story.
Amy Burns, an outreach worker with the Schizophrenia Society of New Brunswick, said that by sharing his experience Dickson is helping to lessen the stigma around mental illness that still exists.
"To have Matthew come and share his story and for people to see — he looks like everybody else. He is so well-spoken and educated and we need more of that representation and for people to be able to hear stories like his."
Dickson's perspective will only add to the programs that are already offered by the organization to people with schizophrenia and other mental illness, their family members and young people.
"I always say, I can tell as much as I can from books that I have and studies. But for somebody to share their life and their experience with this illness is amazing," said Burns.
For Dickson, going from feeling like he was "a burden" to now feeling he's helpful, with people wanting to hear him speak, is "incredible."
"It is nice to just feel useful," he said. "I really want to give people hope."
"It felt like I didn't even have a rope to hang on to," he said of his most difficult years. "I felt like I was clinging to a thread — like dental floss or something. Just barely hanging on. It's really scary… but people can get better. They can."