Montreal Character Series: Greg Stroll

On Finding Peace and Staying Grounded

  • Photo Zach Goldberg

“It’s a journey either way, right? It’s gonna hang over you for a while, but it’s gonna help form a large portion of your life and you as a person.
“I mean, you can’t help what details impact us, right?”
Comparable to living life as a puzzle with missing pieces. A brain disorder, largely undefined and lacking medical certainty of treatment. It is as though there were a misinformation exchange between the brain and its thoughts, like perceptions are sent down the wrong path to the wrong conclusion. People with schizophrenia often suffer delusions, sensory and auditory hallucinations, social withdrawal, and “disturbed” thinking.

Greg Stroll
33 years old
Born and raised in Montreal

What were your parents like? What was your childhood like?
I’d say my parents were a very traditional sort of people, were what you’d expect from people who grew up in the 50s. They’re aware enough that over time they’ve grown through their children or their colleagues, but, you know, my mom was always the homemaker, my dad was the breadwinner.

They had very typical problems of people that age. They got divorced when I was four. There were marital troubles, but they’re the kind of people that ten, twenty years later, they could still love each other, still show signs of it. I don’t know if they were first loves, probably not, but they were young lovers who probably never should have split up. They had what it took to be together but due to circumstances they just couldn’t pull it together. There’d be things like my dad would come into town, he lives in B.C. now, and my mom would be sick, and he’d know exactly all the foods she’d need. Things that I didn’t even know, living with her my whole life. Like weird smelly fish that nobody’s ever heard of. So it’s a little heartwarming to see that, because I never got that, I never got to see them in a relationship.

You don’t remember them together?
Not really. At that age, my dad was travelling a lot. At the time, he was at the Canadian Jewish Congress. I used to ask him what he did for a living, and he’d say, “make money.” Right now he works at either a Second Cup or a Starbucks in B.C. My mom works in fundraising for a geriatric hospital and she’s very good at it. She’s always had a way with people, with creating contacts or networking. It’s weird because she’s the hardest working person I know, she takes her job really seriously. I don’t what else I can say about her except that that kind of dedication fosters a loyalty in people.

Is she still in Montreal?
Yeah. We actually rent a place together as that’s worked out to be convenient for us at this moment. I’m on a waiting list for Low Income Housing, have been for about six or seven years.

What’s it like in low-income housing? Are you moving from place to place?
No, no. You’re essentially there as long as you need to be. My situation is deemed long term, I guess? I’m a schizophrenic so it’s not something that they have a cure for. The situation’s not just for people on disabilities, it’s for people with low income, so immigrants with families or what have you. So, the urgency is how fast they’re going to get housing. So, my situation isn’t urgent, I can pay rent wherever I’m going, so it’s a long process. It’s really reasonable.

When was your first psychotic episode?
To preface that, I was diagnosed at 21. That was before my first episode. In the two years leading up to my first episode, the first signs I had weren’t clear to me. I didn’t believe at first that I was schizophrenic. I thought it was something the doctors made up, that I made up to get out of working. I hadn’t had the canon symptoms of hearing voices, hallucinating, delusions. I had very precursor symptoms, what I was experiencing is called Schizotypy, which is more like in-between symptoms. You’re not hearing voices, you’re mishearing voices. You’re getting paranoid, but you’re not having full-on paranoid delusions. Anyway, when I was 23 I started hearing voices, and I was like, “No, I’m actually crazy. I’ve lost my marbles.”

That must have been very frightening.
It was very scary. A lot of people don’t realize that nobody has the answers for you. Nobody knows what to tell you, what to think, what to do. It’s all on you. And it’s like, you’re in this situation, you have to do things to protect yourself but you’re not necessarily capable of it, and the people around you are trying to figure out what happened, and ultimately they’re either going to blame you or blame your family or blame the people around you, when it’s just that stuff happens to people. People get cancer, people get all kinds of things. Anyway, this was a very low percent chance to be passed down. I think my grandmother was undiagnosed or something like that. People just did not talk about stuff like that back then.

Thankfully I’ve been able to make my peace with it over the years. I give lectures for nursing students about my experiences, and they’ll ask me what it’s like now, and I’ll say it doesn’t really bother me. Most of the time, the voices are beneficial, in that they’ll help me do what I’m doing. Let’s say I’m writing a book or something, I’ll have that feedback of what is or isn’t good. Sometimes if I forget to do something they’ll get particularly active, and I’ll go back and think about it. It’s become a bit of a trigger. If I’m hearing them, what is it I’ve forgotten to do? I don’t know. It’s uncanny how it works out that way.

Before I learnt to balance my emotions, though, they were very negative, very hard to deal with, very controlling. Very demanding. Manipulative. A whole bunch of other adjectives I could just throw on there. That was a huge turning point. Learning how to balance myself emotionally changed everything, because…once you remove the pain from anything it’s just symptoms, right? Like, a soldier learns how to resist torture so they go into some kind of training, and they come out of it, and it’s like well, this is happening, and it’s not particularly pleasant, but…

It’s something I have to live with.

What have been your modes for staying grounded? How did you temper your emotions?
Well, okay, the first and most important thing was to remain objective. Because when I’m experiencing delusions or what not, it’s never really full-on I believe this or I don’t believe that. It’s sort of somewhere in between. It’s like being of two minds. It’s a little bit of both, and you’re somewhere in the middle. You have that delusion of reference, of grandeur, whatever it is. So that TV show said something that really relates to my life, but who am I that somebody would write something like that about me? So you go back and forth. So, being objective is really important. You’d say, “If I was doing well, what would I think right now?” Or, even if it’s not how I feel or what I believe, I’m in a situation where I have to be careful, to protect myself and protect the people around me. Like, I don’t want to commit to anything I believe. It’s that moment of stepping outside yourself and saying I do believe this, but I don’t have to act on this.

For grounding my emotions…okay, my first episode…I guess the theme of it was Nazis mentally torturing me to draw out psychic powers, so it was very, I guess, typical of what you’d think a psychosis was like. A few years later, I did take an interest in psychic development. They offered courses at a store in Montreal, and I took them and had a lot of fun, I got involved. Then a website found me because of a lecture I had given on knowing the difference between pathological and psychic phenomenon. Sometime afterward, at a Beltane Fair, which is a Pagan holiday. I’m involved with the Pagan community, but at that point I guess I didn’t identify as Pagan myself. Anyway, this website found me as a result of that talk. They just kind of added themselves as a friend of mine, to see if I was curious, and obviously I was, so I came the other half forward. They were a group for…I don’t want to say troubled people, but I guess anyone who takes an interest in that stuff is troubled in some way. So, I went there and I found a lot of like-minded people who wanted to train these sort of things that they were always experiencing. I did that for a number of years, but the very first thing that happened when I went in (it was a chat room), they told me, “your emotions are too intense…we’re going to teach you how to ground yourself.”
That’s essentially mediation, sometimes guided meditation. Everyone’s a little different in how they do it. But, the difference was immediate. It’s weird to say a sense of spirituality I developed on my own changed my life. The philosophies I’ve learned, which I guess is my distinction between spirituality and religion, are philosophical. It’s not performing rituals.

But it is something you can ground your life through.
Yes, exactly. It’s something that helped me decide who I wanted to be.

One summer I was particularly down, it was one of the worst summers of my life, so I decided I was going to reach out to people online and try to help them deal with their problems. And so I met all kinds of really interesting people that summer, like recovering heroin addicts, somebody who was…I don’t want to say stalking a celebrity but…I was just helping people deal with their problems. Every once in awhile you’d come upon a really screwed up situation, like somebody…his wife has a terminal illness. And I was like, oh, that’s terrible, how hard it must be to lose someone you share a life with, you know, they’re not responsive to you because they’re feeling so bad about themselves. And you don’t want to go out because you’d be leaving them alone. And I’d say yeah, I kind of get that, which sounds awful. And then they’d say something like “I wish she’d just die already,” and I’d be like, “Oh. I didn’t see that coming.”

It gave me a lot of perspective. People’s lives are really intricate. So people ask me why I do stuff like that, and it just falls into alignment with who I want to be. Whether I’m that person or not…I guess it’s just really important to me to make a positive impact on someone’s life. It’s not that I want to make a positive impact on everybody’s lives—that takes money or influence; it’s a whole other can of worms. But individual impact.

My friend gave me a cheque for my birthday, like $20 or $30. It’s cool cause I’m on social assistance, so money’s appropriate. So then, I saw someone online who said they were starving and thinking about going into prostitution. So I said, if you come my way and show that you’re actually going to buy food; I will buy you some food. So we met, and, you know, $30 of food doesn’t go too far for someone who actually needs groceries, but we shopped for a while. And, at the end of it, you know, I’m pretty sure I didn’t make a huge impact on this person’s life, whether they were going to eat or not eat, one day to the next…but…the hug we shared was so sincere, and so raw…I mean, there’re limited times in your life when you’re going to experience something that genuine.

I don’t know. I’ve shared lots of hugs. It’s rarely been that kind of emotionally satisfying. I had the same thing with the recovering heroin addict I mentioned. It took months and months for her to trust me enough to be able to have a straight conversation, to just be upfront with each other. I don’t know, she was very manipulative, and very hard to talk to. It took a lot of patience, a lot of tolerance, and I didn’t give up, I persisted. Eventually, we met and we talked about a lot of the stuff she was going through. And even then, like…she told me she was on trial for stealing ice cream, and that sounded a little fishy to me, except that’s what actually happened. So this person is telling me this story and after so many months of getting weird answers to things, it was like…well, this is what this person’s life is actually like. And, you know, again, we hugged at the end of it, and it’s helped me come to realize that there’s a certain feeling that comes with helping people, that you can’t replace. There’s just nothing like it. Maybe it’s selfish, maybe it’s not selfish, but you can always choose to do the thing, right? You can always choose to be a positive influence in somebody’s life; you can be there for them. And you don’t have to know them for the rest of your life, you don’t have to include everyone in your day to day, but that doesn’t mean that they’re faceless, they’re going to about doing whatever it is they do for the rest of their lives, and who knows what impact it makes, right?

What has your experience with the Montreal Healthcare system been like?
You know what, for better or for worse, I think it’s actually kind of great. We’re privileged in that in many ways we can get treatment for the things we need, it just takes time. Okay, maybe you have to wait a year for a procedure that really needs to be done in a couple months, and that’s true, but like, we have this perception of society that we’re so far advanced sociologically, economically, whatever, that we’re no longer barbarians. And then like, you realize that we’re just becoming aware of so many things in the social paradigm: social justice, social awareness, and it’s like no, I think we’re at the birthing point of greater communication. We’re not quite as far along as we think we are. We have these conversations and we read into things in two completely different contexts. It’s like, yeah, we’re definitely better at it than we were thousands of years ago, but we’re still growing.
So to say that we have this perfect healthcare system…of course we don’t, but it’s still amazing.

I’ve had bad experiences with psychiatric hospitalization. I’ve only been hospitalized a total of two days in my life. My experiences were bad enough that my doctors never made me go back. But, essentially…the very first thing that happened was the nurse, the first person I’d dealt with once I was actually in the psychiatric emergency ward, just past triage, she hands me a pill and she says, “Here, take this, it’s a sleeping pill.”

I was in there for having not slept in three days. I was in the middle of an episode. I wasn’t doing well, so I signed myself in. I recognized the pill as an anti-psychotic I used to take, and I did not do well with. And I called her out on it. I said, “That’s not a sleeping pill.” And she said, “Yes it is.” And I’m like, “No it’s not and I’m not taking it.” And she said, “Yes it is and if you don’t take it we’re going to force you.”
Okay, so, a few things about that. I had already taken my meds that day, so doubling up is not a good idea, but this is not doubling up—it’s the wrong medication. Something I didn’t do well with prior. On top of that, though, one of the main side effects of that medication is insomnia. It was just the most inappropriate medication for that.
Furthermore, when you’re dealing with somebody with paranoid delusions, the worst thing you want to do is become part of their delusions. And lie to them. It’s going to make you instantly part of whatever their villain is. You just said I’m giving you reason to be suspicious of me. The second I called her out on it, she should have recognized that I knew what it was, and we could have had a frank conversation about it. But that’s not the way it went. She threatened me. That changed the context of everything, and so my stay in the hospital ended up being very traumatic. The minute I left there, I felt fine again, because I wasn’t in the hospital anymore. It’s supposed to be a place of healing…

That’s really terrifying. Did it mar your vision of the mental healthcare system here?
It did. It took a very long time before I went anywhere near a hospital again. I used to have flashbacks and nightmares. I once wound up at a police station to ask them about some of the stuff that happened to me while I was there. I explained the story to her, the person that was there, and she said, “You understand that you’re mentally ill, right?” And I’m like, what? I came in here to get help because of stuff that was done to me. And it was that reaction, so I had no faith in the police system either. And it’s like, no, you meet people and everyone’s an individual. I’ve met really cool police officers, who I’ve told that I’m not doing well, this is my situation, this is what I’m feeling right now, what should I do? He asked if I had somebody at home, and I said I did. And he said, well, it’s really hot out today, maybe you should go inside and not overheat. I was like; yeah that actually makes a lot of sense. He probably didn’t realize it, but overheating expels your medication in your sweat very fast, so it was actually probably the right answer. Little things like that, human experiences.
Just going back to the hospital experience, they have something called a sitter, who’s like a volunteer who just watches the room. I wake up in the room, and I had been through a lot of awful experiences culminating in me asking for my rights as a Canadian citizen. Which should be a warning sign…if someone’s asking for their rights they’re feeling threatened. I was feeling trapped.
The first person I talked to was the sitter. He said, “You know, the soup’s really good.”
And I’m like, you know, I kind of hate soup. And he’s like I know, but they don’t make anything really good at this hospital, but the soup is really good. And I tried it, and it was really good. Just having that human experience changed everything.
A good eight years later, I ended up back at the hospital, just for a second opinion on something. I wasn’t in a position to trust my psychiatrist at the time…she knew me too well, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Anyway, when I went there it was a pretty long wait to see a psychiatrist for that second opinion. While I was waiting, I met this guy there. He said, “You know, no one’s ever been able to guess my official position here.” To me, he’s the staff con artist. Just this guy who talks to you about anything and everything, in the emergency psych entryway. He’ll just talk about whatever, and you’ll get swept up in these stories. And he’s not talking about your problems; he’s just talking to you. It’s just, again, this very human experience. By the time it came to be my turn, I was in complete control of my faculties. I was just focused and calm. When he had to leave me to help someone else, a suicide attempt had just walked in. He was like, “I gotta go take this.” That really changed my perceptions a lot. I would thank him if I knew who he was, but he was just this random person in my life. Who knows what brought him there, right?

You originally came into contact with my colleague Jon through a Craigslist ad. What made you comfortable to message a stranger on craigslist?
That’s where I’d find people to message anyway. It was just natural. I guess I’ve never had that stranger danger. I like meeting new people. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve never been mugged or accosted outside of high school fights. I’m pretty trusting of people, it’s part of my philosophy that I’d rather give everyone the benefit of the doubt and get burned sometimes than be cynical. That goes hand in hand a little with being a schizophrenic. I just want to give people the chance to be their better selves. It’s important to me that I can believe, that I can believe in people. It’s not because I’ve never been burned before. It’s just…I wouldn’t want to be treated like that, arbitrarily. I wouldn’t want to be associated with someone’s demons. At the end of the day…I don’t know. I just think everyone has something to offer, even if it’s a life lesson.

Why did you write your book?
I fell in love with somebody in college, my first love. She was a diabetic that worked at Chapters. She really liked to read. I wanted to give her a big token of my appreciation, a thank you, so I decided I was going to write a book to raise money for diabetes research. I started brainstorming ideas, and then I fell into my first psychosis. My doctor said there isn’t much literature written on schizophrenia by schizophrenics. I sort of wrote a stream-of-consciousness book during my first psychosis. That was my day to day. I’d dream about writing, I’d wake up, I’d start writing. Between that and the voices, for those two or three months, that was it. And I published it.
What’s interesting about that, actually, was originally, you know, I thought authors made money. I thought, oh, this is going to be great. So I was looking into what kind of research I was going to invest the profits in, because there were going to be profits. There was something called Islet Transplantation, where they put working white blood cells into your pancreas, and it stimulates your body to make them by itself. It’s not a permanent cure, it’s a long-term cure, so you have to get it done again every ten or fifteen years. But it’s a very simple procedure, so when I read about it, I was like yeah, that sounds great. So that’s where I put the money toward, and actually, in this past year, ten hospitals across North America have started offering it as a legit treatment. So it’s been about ten years between now and then, actually exactly ten years ago. So that’s kind of exciting. The treatment I was all gung-ho about has actually become a thing.

How do you channel a chaotic psychosis into positive work?
When I give my talks, sometimes they say “You must be really smart. You must be really disciplined.” But I don’t think that’s the case. I think somebody comes to channel stuff like that into a positive thing because they know what it’s like to be down. The first thing on the forefront of your mind is, “I don’t want to cause people around me harm.” It’s this constant feeling of like, “I don’t want to make life more difficult, I don’t want to make life harder for other people.” When you’re feeling that kind of passion, it only makes sense that you would try to make your life better.

What advice would you give to people living with mental disorders?
Learning how to remain objective is the most important thing. I’ve actually thought a little about how I would teach someone to be objective. Because beyond that, all you need is your eight hours sleep, and you’re going to have your symptoms. So beyond that, all you can control is who you are. You have to know that this is what’s important to me; I want to be this type of person, whoever you want to be. And you just remain objective. I’m trying to do this in spite of whatever’s happening. Those are essentially the two most important things I found that made the hugest impact.

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