My name is Benjamin Dionne, most people call me Ben. Close friends sometimes call me Benny, and I’ve been called much worse. The usual stuff… Asshole, Dick Head, Scrotum Face, and yes, those are all proper names and capitalized on purpose. In actual fact, I’ve only really heard those a few times in my life, especially that last one, and they mostly came from my older brother, before we were “supposed” to act like so-called “responsible adults.” He has 4 kids now, so he best be on his best damn behaviour around my nieces and nephews. (He’s a great Dad.)
I make my home now and work as a do whatever makes my heart feel good-ographer
I was born and raised in a little slice of paradise in Quebec, Canada. I had the privilege and good fortune to grow up in a small community of good people. Surrounded by beautiful wooded hills that hid lakes and creeks, there really wasn’t too much trouble to get into, other than the usual scraped knees and chins. I was a lucky kid, I took it all for granted though of course. I miss it now though. I live in the nearest “big city.” Ottawa, Ontario Canada is where I make my home now and work as a Photographer/Cinematographer/Artisticographer/ Do whatever makes my heart feel good-ographer… There isn’t a lot of that type of work available where I’m from, so here I am at 31, doing my thing, which I’ve been doing for the better part of 10 years now. To be a little more specific, I’ve worked in the wild and wide world of film and television, wearing many different hats, which has moulded my skill-set into what it is today, physically, mentally, emotionally.
Schizophrenia… it’s a crazy word, pun-intended.
Schizophrenia… it’s a crazy word, pun-intended. But really, it carries a shit ton of baggage with it. It’s a label that in and of itself, without getting into the actual disease, is a heavy heavy sentence. I remember being in the school yard when I was younger and “schizo,” being an insult. It doesn’t take a very good or long memory to look back and remember a time when people were locked up in less-than human conditions, treated as “things” rather than people and just generally brutalized. When mental illness was believed to be something that could be literally cut out of a person. Ice-pic lobotomies aren’t just a myth, they were an actual procedure and they were aptly named so because they would insert (read: thrust) an ice-pick into your brain and slosh it around. Now doesn’t that sound NUTS?! (The “procedure” may have been a little more complex, but you get the gist of it.)
I feel as though in the world of mental illness, Schizophrenia is the black sheep of the family.
I feel as though in the world of mental illness, Schizophrenia is the black sheep of the family. It doesn’t seem to get treated by the public or the media in quite the same way that other mental illnesses do. Depression gets a lot of attention, as does Anxiety and rightfully so. They too can be incredibly devastating, crippling. Maybe it’s my own perception, but it would seem as though Depression and Anxiety have been taken in out of the cold to sit by the fire while the adults talk about what to do, meanwhile Schizophrenia is still freezing its ass off on the street, trying to peek in through a window. Some people may disagree with me, but next time there is a public discussion on Mental Illness and Mental Health, count how many times Schizophrenia is mentioned versus its cousins. I might be wrong but I’ll eat my hat if I am. They could video tape it and play it on the 6 o’clock news with the headline, “Person Eats Hat, Mental Health Being Questioned” -“That caps off the night, good night America.”
I turned inwards and it burnt me down.
If I really look hard, there were definitely signs while I was in my last year of high school at the age of 16, but I never told anyone how I was feeling. Many of my friends were a grade older than I was and I had found myself alone, for the most part. Or at least I felt alone. Even though I wasn’t and didn’t need to be. Shit hit the fan and I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia when I was 17. I had just gone away to college, (we graduate high school at grade 11 in Quebec.) it was the first time I was away from home and things really started to go south. I was smoking a lot of pot, drinking more than I was used to, generally not taking care of myself and didn’t have the self-awareness to pull back on the reigns. To add to the pile, I was questioning my sexuality and being from a small town had the (wrong) notion that anything but 100% straight was “not right” and unacceptable. A previously outgoing, social and creatively energetic me, suddenly couldn’t accept who he was. I got quiet, I stopped laughing, I restrained and jailed my creative fire. I turned inwards and it burnt me down.
I would sometimes catch myself day dreaming in public and would immediately become hyper self conscious and feel a ton of anxiety about what my outward appearance had just been.
My personal journey with Schizophrenia may differ (or may not, I don’t know.) from most. My doctor used to call me her “poster child” for the disease. Upon diagnosis I was put on a powerful anti-psychotic medication called Risperdon. It had some pretty shitty side effects. But one of the good ones was that I seemed to be doing a lot better. I know I felt better. And the longer I was on the meds, the better I felt. I stayed on them, mostly out of fear. (FYI, “better” is a relative term.) I had no intention or want to feel the way I had felt. No intention or want to go back to the darkness in my head. Except for my closest friends and direct family (to my knowledge) people weren’t aware of my diagnosis. I had no interest in telling anyone out of fear of judgement. I already felt the squeeze of stigma and worked really hard at keeping “my secret.” I would sometimes catch myself day dreaming in public and would immediately become hyper self conscious and feel a ton of anxiety about what my outward appearance had just been. “Was I just talking to myself or acting weird or ‘schizo’ and didn’t know it?” I’d wonder. The feelings were magnified if someone close-by happened to be looking in my direction. They may not have even been looking at me, but my asshole brain would make me believe that they were staring straight at me and judging hard. The medication in itself was a bit of a catch-22. I was doing much much better having been put on it. But it was also the single biggest thing that reminded me that I was “different.” Every day that I had to pop that pill was a reminder. Every time I forgot them at home, if I was sleeping somewhere else, it was a reminder, a made up excuse for why I had to leave, and a long drive home to get them. Anytime I had to travel, it was an extra step to plan for. How many days would I be gone, do I have enough? I’d check my bag 100 times before I’d leave, just to make sure they were there. I’d check them after I left, repeatedly. Every time I would have a rush of anxiety until I put my hand on the bottle. Once, by accident while trying to open the bottle, I dropped a few down the sink at a hotel. To put it mildly, I didn’t feel good about it or get much sleep that night. They were a chain, a burden, a reminder of just how different I was. They were a crutch that I couldn’t walk without.
We weren’t just diminishing my dosage, we were slowly weening me off the medication completely.
I spent 11 years taking those meds. I took them out of necessity, out of the want for a “normal” existence but mostly I took them out of fear. Life was pretty damn good and I had no desire to rock the boat. I had a good job, an OK lifestyle, (although I was really physically unhealthy and treated my body like a garbage dump.) a loving girlfriend, a nice(ish) apartment and an all around independent life. So this is where my story starts to differ a wee bit. My doctor at that time retired and I luckily found one who was taking new patients. I had been doing so well for so long at managing my disease that the thought of reducing my meds had been floating around in my head for a while. My old doctor was not a fan of the idea, my new doctor was willing to explore it. I went to see a specialist and we talked. By the end of our conversation, I left the office feeling excited, terrified and with a new script in my hands. We weren’t just diminishing my dosage, we were slowly weening me off the medication completely. The thought being that as long as I continued to live a healthy lifestyle (at this point I was living much healthier and had lost nearly 100lbs), ate properly, stayed away from drugs and exercised my body and my brain, there was no reason for me to take the drugs, and that they may have been doing more harm than good. One of the biggest deciding factors for wanting to come off the meds was an ad I saw for a class action lawsuit representing men who had taken the same drug and developed boobs. Although I like boobs, I don’t want to see them in the mirror on my chest. The possible Parkinson’s “like” symptoms didn’t scare me, but man boobs… So over the next few months we gradually reduced my dosage. It’s now been nearly four years that I have lived medication free. Last year I went to see another professional at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, he told me that in his opinion, “the person sitting across the table from him (me), does not have schizophrenia.” Those words were deafening. I felt a load of relief. It was almost surreal. I had been “un-diagnosed” and given a clean bill of health. Does that even happen? Apparently. And what an opportunity.
I felt the need and the want to use my “2nd chance,” as an opportunity to help others. FireSide Blog is an attempt to reach out to other people so they know that they are not alone. The single biggest factor in my survival was the realization that others felt the way I did. As part of the blog I’ve also started a video series called FireSide Chats. The tradition of people coming together around a fire to talk and share stories is something that is missing in many of our lives. It’s around the fire that we can learn from our peers and our elders. There is something about the fire that helps draw people’s inner feelings out. It provides safety and security. Fire does not judge. With fire, we can burn old feelings and harboured negativity to make way for new creations, new life. Fire does not destroy, it creates and lights the way for us to find our tribes, our people, our purpose and ourselves. Fireside Chats is a simple sharing of stories and ideas to shed light on the fact that all people are the same. So we will know that there are people who do understand, who do care, who have lived and are living the same truths that you are. None of us are truly alone. You are NOT alone.
I have some fun projects in my head that are begging to come out.
2017 is promising to be a great year (they always promise that don’t they?) A part from my regular paid gigs as a photographer and cinematographer I’m looking forward to filming more FireSide Chats and really nurturing that project into something that can affect peoples lives and the way that we think about and approach mental health. Photography is more and more apart of my life and serves as a major creative outlet for me, I have some fun projects in my head that are begging to come out, it should be fun!
I’d like to say a huge thank you
There is one thing that I would like to add and that is this. I’d like to say a huge thank you to all the Moms and Dads. All the Brothers, Sisters, Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, Nieces, Nephews, Cousins, Friends and even Strangers who have at one time listened to someone who was reaching out, looking for help. Lending your ear, without judgement, to someone who is trying to make sense of the thoughts in their head is the single most important thing you can do to help in someone’s journey to better health. When you stick by someone who is struggling, when you let us know that we are not alone, you save our lives.