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As a child growing up in Pointe St. Charles, Ray Barillaro feared the Douglas Hospital like it was the bogeyman. The cliché among neighbourhood kids was, if you acted too weird, you'd get sent to "the Dougie."
Today, Barillaro is an audiovisual technician at the Douglas, where he has worked for 25 years. He is among 125 employees, clients, volunteers, donors and client family members, present and past, who have contributed to 125 Douglas Stories and Drawings, a new book celebrating the 125th birthday of the McGill University-affiliated international leader in mental health care and research.
Barillaro writes that his boyhood fears of the "Dougie" dissipated when he first saw its peaceful grounds and met its friendly clients during his first day at work.
That reality behind the cliché comes through on every page of 125 Douglas Stories and Drawings. "People are curious about mental illness because for a long time it was kept hidden," said Caroline Dusablon, who edited the collection. "That's what we tried to do with this book, overcome the stigma."
To that end, the book presents intimate and enlightening perspectives on what it's like to live with mental illness or to care for someone who does. The entries are humorous, surprising, and poignant.
Researcher and clinician Michael Meaney describes a conversation he had with a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia. "While the drugs helped, the pain was constant and haunting. He lived in fear of the voices, and the aching awareness of how sick he really was," Meaney writes. " 'Please,' he said, 'find a cure.' And he cried."
While Meaney's story brings home how much despair mental illness can cause, many entries emphasize that there is hope — and effective treatment.
Elizabeth "Kiki" Tremain writes that support from the Douglas has helped her keep bipolar disorder in check. "With proper treatment and a full diagnosis, I am once again in touch with the world. An old friend who noticed the change said to my husband, 'Jim, the old Kiki is back'."
The book serves as a window into the Douglas and the lives of its clients not only through such reminiscences, but through the poetry and visual art it contains.
In a poem called "Within," an anonymous author writes of the agony of "living without a pulse" for four long years. At long last, the darkness began to lift: "As four years passed away / I finally found warmth I've never expected / I've found my own identity."
The stigma surrounding mental illness is a powerful force in our culture. But the hope and vitality expressed by the contributors to 125 Douglas Stories and Drawings are powerful, too, and will interest all kinds of readers.
As Dusablon said, "Mental illness is not something that has to be kept in the dark. It's you and me."
125 Douglas Stories and Drawings is available for $15 at the Douglas Hospital or through its website.