This is a special feature for National Schizophrenia & Psychosis Awareness Day on May 24.
We often hear marriage vows recited at weddings where couples promise to love each other through sickness and health. Keeping these vows takes strength and perseverance, especially when mental illness is involved.
When Sean Miller was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2005, he says medical professionals wrote him off and advised his wife Doris to leave their marriage. But Doris held on to the hope that they would get through it somehow.
A year later, the couple found Dr. Don Colbert, an integrative specialist in Florida. The couple believes Colbert’s methods led Sean to complete recovery, thus crushing the prognosis of psychiatrists in Canada.
Fear of the stigma surrounding mental illness forced Sean and Doris to remain silent about the issue for years – but now they are finally ready to share their story.
When Sean and Doris met in 1998 Sean was a musician, held down a full time job and had lots of friends. Although he mentioned he had been hospitalized for a psychotic episode in the past, he didn’t display any signs of mental illness.
“At that time, it appeared that the episode was just a hiccup in the plan of life,” Doris said.
But two years after their wedding, Sean’s personality started changing.
“He wanted to spend more time on his own and started dropping out of life. He stopped playing music, didn’t want to volunteer anymore. He started struggling in social settings and had stopped hanging out with his friends,” Doris said.
Doris initially thought Sean was stressed.
“But it started to progress in to fears about dying. His thoughts were no longer rational.”
Schizophrenia is a biochemical brain disorder which results in disordered thinking, delusions, hallucinations, and a lack of energy and motivation. It affects one in every 100 Canadians, typically in their late teens or early 20s.
One day while cleaning, Doris found some of Sean’s six-year-old anti-psychotic pills. When confronted, Sean admitted he started taking the old pills.
“It was then that I realized that we were dealing with something a lot more serious than just stress,” Doris said.
Doris, who is a registered nurse, told Sean to stop taking the medication as he was unsupervised.
As soon as Sean stopped taking pills, things started falling apart. This was the beginning of the couple’s struggle with mental illness.
For the next few years, Sean was in and out of the psychiatric ward. He started having very serious psychotic episodes and succumbed to the thoughts and voices in his head. Doris said she feared for his life more than hers.
“He was very delusional so there was a possibility of him hurting himself. There was once where I had to call the police to help take Sean to the hospital as he had started kicking in the computer tower and the bed. He needed help.”
A lack of support
Doris felt excluded by the medical professionals who were treating her husband.
“Even though he was the patient, it was me who was eventually taking him home. It’s really important to include family members in the progress and treatment plan,” she said.
However, Sean’s condition did not get any better despite years of medication and frequent hospitalization. At one point even doctors gave up on him.
“The healthcare professionals were very negative about the prognosis,” Doris said. “On a number of occasions they suggested that I leave the marriage as Sean would have to be institutionalized for the rest of his life. They said he would never be the same again and wasn’t the same person that I married. It was hurtful because they wipe out all the hope you have,” she said.
Doris did not give up on her marriage – or on Sean. She believed in her heart that somewhere out there was an answer but she just hadn’t found it yet.
Sean was moved by Doris’s demonstration of unconditional love.
“A lot of people would have left the marriage. But Doris stayed by my side regardless of the circumstance. She held on to hope. What she did was an incredible demonstration of God’s unconditional love for us.”
Doris said remembering what Sean had been like before the illness helped her get through the difficult journey.
“When we were dating, he had written me many letters. During the time that he was hospitalized, I started reading those letters again.”
Doris said she felt very alone as many of their friends had left due to Sean’s behaviour – which was amplified by the fact the couple hid Sean’s illness.
“I was very hurt as they would just silently back off from our lives; they would treat us differently or avoid us altogether. In a journey like this you find out who your true friends are,” she said.
Seeking different answers
Doris wasn’t satisfied with the answers provided by the medical community. She knew there was more research and new treatments out there.
She stumbled upon a book written by Dr. Don Colbert, a physician from Florida who practices integrative medicine. Integrative medicine combines the practices and methods of alternative healthcare with evidence-based medicine.
Dr. Colbert’s approach identifies nutrient deficiencies through special testing. The patient is then given supplements based on those deficiencies.
Doris made an appointment to see Dr. Colbert, and the approach ended up being exactly what Sean needed.
“We were kind of underwhelmed with the approach but overwhelmed with the results,” Sean said.
“There is a gut-brain connection where the digestive system has a huge impact on mental health. If you can heal the gut you can heal the brain,” he explained.
The couple say they try to eat healthy and organic foods as much as possible. Sean is also on a gluten and dairy free diet as he has sensitivities towards these foods.
Sean and Doris emphasize that this new method works hand-in-hand with the medical approach.
“I had to be on medication throughout my treatment,” Sean said, adding that if he stopped eating healthy foods there is a possibility the mental illness might return.
Sean has been symptom free since 2008 and was able to get off his medication in 2011. He currently works full time in the service delivery department of a Human Resource Services firm.
Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said studies have shown that up to 70 per cent of people who develop schizophrenia recover and have few or no symptoms.
Sean and Doris have embarked on a self-funded documentary project to share their story of hope and educate others about mental illness. The couple believe there is a lot of misunderstanding about mental illness.
“When Sean was hospitalized for his mental illness in 2005, a few people came to visit him. But when he had an emergency abdominal surgery a few years later, we were flooded with Facebook messages and sympathy cards. But the illness in 2005 was far more serious. People don’t understand the severity of mental illness,” Doris said.
The biggest challenge for a person suffering from a mental illness is that society tends to see a person as an illness and not a person battling an illness, Sean said.
“There is a huge difference. I don’t call myself a ‘schizophrenic’. Schizophrenia is what I was battling, not my identity,” he said.
Many people have said that they can’t afford the treatment that Sean underwent but Sean says he hopes to change that. He says the treatment is an investment towards health.
“When I wasn’t working due to the illness, we were losing tens of thousands of dollars due to unemployment. The contrast between what we spent on the treatment [and] what we were losing due to unemployment was stark.”
He adds that the tests he had done in Florida can be performed in Canada.
“We hope to advocate to improve the quality of care and to seek expansion of the treatment option for people with mental illness,” said Sean.
Their documentary is scheduled to be completed this summer.
Visit Sean and Doris Miller’s website at thrivementalhealth.ca
Tune in to Information Radio on CBC Radio One 89.3 FM on Friday, May 24 to hear more of Sean and Doris’s story.