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NAIRN CENTRE, ONTARIO – There is a Bantu proverb: Patience is the mother of a beautiful child.

After many years of turmoil, fear and frustration, Sandra Wannamaker knows her son, Kevin McKeegan, is still beautiful.

But there were many, many years of struggle. Finally, after nearly two decades, the pair has come to terms with his struggle to live with schizophrenia.

“It was very devastating when I found out he was a paranoid schizophrenic,” Wannamaker says. She is a feisty spitfire of a woman who looks at least 10 years younger than her 73 years. “He’s my only boy (she also has two daughters). Sometimes I get very frustrated and very angry.”

Wannamaker is a full-time caregiver to McKeegan, 49. She prepares all his meals and makes sure he keeps himself clean and, most importantly, takes all his medications. It is a non-stop job.

“It’s been a long, hard road,” Wannamaker says.

As a teenager, McKeegan was a stellar student and an excellent hockey player, but at the age of 18, he stopped attending classes and participating in extra-curricular activities. At home, he opted out of family life.

“He was a good kid, but he stopped doing ever ything,” Wannamaker says.

He could not take care of himself and was prone to “fits of anger” and aggression. McKeegan says he would hit and kick his mom if she did not do as he had asked. He also suffered from auditory hallucinations.

“It’s like hearing a TV blaring – loud noises, like watching a TV all day,” he says.

A DECADE OF HOMELESSNESS

McKeegan habitually ran away from home. Between the ages of 18 and 28, he lived on the streets of Toronto – an anonymous vagrant in a city that nearly swallowed him. He slept in parks and alcoves, or over subway grates during the winter months. What little money he acquired, he spent on food, but typically relied on soup kitchens.

After a decade on Toronto’s streets, Wannamaker knew the situation was desperate when she had not heard from McKeegan in more than a year.

“I just got to a point where I couldn’t handle it anymore, I had to get my son back home,” Wannamaker says. “All the police knew him. We literally went down to Toronto and started in North York – where the police had said they’d seen him. We were looking in dumpsters and everywhere. I got so freaked out. The police weren’t helping me and they weren’t looking for him.”

After two days scouring the streets with her daughter and grandson, she spotted her son near Yonge and Dundas Square. It was 1994 and McKeegan was 28 years old.

“You should have seen him,” she says, shaking her head as she recalls his appearance. “He had long hair – it looked like somebody had taken a can of oil and dumped it over his head. He was so dirty, so dirty. He was wearing shoes that were a size 14, and he only takes an eight. He had to hold up his pants with his hands. He was wearing an old winter coat. His feet were black. He was so, so dirty. And we couldn’t get him in the water (to bathe).”

But she recognized him immediately.

Wannamaker brought him back to Sudbury and had him committed for two months. He received the treatment he needed and, these days, McKeegan is stable. Gone are the hallucinations and bouts of anger, thanks in part to a daily cocktail of pharmaceuticals.

McKeegan has been sick for 31 years, more than half of his life, but has only tried to commit suicide once, in February of this year. He spent about a month in the hospital.

“I couldn’t find work,” he says by way of explanation.

Wannamaker worries for McKeegan’s well-being.

“My biggest worry is that I’ll die before him, and that he won’t be taken care of,” she says.

Wannamaker lives in Nairn Centre. McKeegan lives with her part of the time, but also keeps an apartment in Sudbury. They rely on the services of the Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACTT), a part of Health Sciences North.

Sue Bale, a clinical manager, says the ACTT teams are multidisciplinary and “provide intensive treatment and interventions” for individuals with serious mental illnesses. The program aims to stabilize the most severe and persistent symptoms, and to promote reintegration of mental health consumers back into their communities.

Bale says the teams play an important role in their clients’ lives.

“Because these clients are often long-term, they and their loved ones form very meaningful relationships with their professional partners,” she notes. “Working together, we can be successful in avoiding lengthy hospital admissions. Moreover, individuals can achieve an improved quality of life and symptom control.”

LCBO PARTNERS WITH SCHIZOPHRENIA SOCIETY

Wannamaker, who attends support group meetings organized by volunteers with the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (SSO), is not alone. According to SSO statistics, one in 100 people, or more than 1,600 Sudburians, live with schizophrenia.

Until Sept. 14, LCBO customers can donate their change at check-out drop boxes.

Stephanie Petroff, a communications consultant with the LCBO, says this is the fourth year the SSO is involved in the fundraising drive. Over that period, customers have donated more than $37,000 for the Peace of Mind campaign, which provides operational support for all of the SSO’s activities.

“The LCBO is pleased to partner with the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario and to provide support to a variety of worthy causes,” Petroff says. “It is through the generosity of LCBO customers and employees that we improve the lives of Ontarians and help the communities where we live and work.”

Irina Sytcheva, manager of policy and community relations at the SSO, says the organization’s programs are universally accessible within Ontario.

“Even in Sudbury, where we don’t have an office, every individual who wants support and services from us is able to call, email or connect with us online, and they’ll be directed to a counsellor right away. So there are no wait times,” she says.

The SSO takes a multidisciplinary approach – using social workers, psychiatrists and peer counsellors – to match experts with mental health consumers.

“We’re not just a referral agency, so when people call us, they get confidential support. As we’re helping them get connected to services, we actually walk with them on their journey,” Sytcheva says.

McKeegan has his mother’s beautiful blue eyes. They are pale, like chicory flowers, with sun-burst yellow centres. And after many years, his eyes shine once again.

STEREOTYPES NOT THE REALITY

Sytcheva notes media portrayals of schizophrenia have created stereotypes that do not necessarily mirror reality.

“The stereotypes that are most prevalent – people with schizophrenia are violent, or somebody with psychosis is going to attack you. Another one is split personality,” she says. “The third most prevalent is that people with schizophrenia have a life sentence – they will never be able to live productive lives and will always be a drain on our social and health systems.”

But with the right support and treatment, Sytcheva says people with schizophrenia can live “very happy and productive lives,” which includes well-paying jobs in many fields. The illness is highly individualized, but in general, she says people with schizophrenia are “like everybody else.”

“Unless somebody tells you they have schizophrenia, or they’re quite unwell when you meet them, you will never know,” Sytcheva says.

For more information on schizophrenia or to access support services, go to www.schizophrenia.on.ca or call the SSO toll-free at 1-800-449-6367.

Published in The Sudbury Star on Sept. 9, 2013