Originally published Dec. 31.
Calgarian Anthonie Cote garners a lot of attention whenever he works.
Sporting jeans, T-shirt and black jacket, the 22-year-old sign flipper gets his feet moving as fast — and his knees as high — as he can, at several intersections around the city and surrounding communities.
It's in those moments, Cote says, he's on top of the world, high above the depths of the darkness his mental illness can take him to.
"There have been times where I danced, lots of times, I have a lot of anxiety, and honestly, I just felt like crying and shutting down the world and running away from the platform there," he said.
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"But I just got to keep going, going, going, and then eventually, my music and everybody smiling at me makes me feel better."
Cote was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 16. He says he has spent most of his life feeling isolated and suffering in pain.
"There's this thing you do call disassociating, when you have schizophrenia or schizoid," he said. "It's like you lose consciousness of everything around you, and you are not there at all and it's actually very painful ... in my head and yeah, emotionally mostly."
Dancing an outlet
Cote remembers times while growing up when he'd have disturbing thoughts and didn't care about those around him.
"I was really mean to bugs and stuff like that, if you know what I mean, and I feel terrible about all I've done," he said.
But Cote says he always loved to dance. It was his outlet and took away the pain because it kept his mind preoccupied.
He often recalls dancing alone, in the corner, at school functions. Now he's in the spotlight and gets paid to do it.
"I'm still dancing by myself, but it's way better. I'm dancing for everybody and they love it and sometimes they dance in the car with me. I love it, I just love it," he said.
'Doing a fantastic job'
Cote's current boss spotted him flipping a sign for another eatery about three years ago and was so moved, he offered him a job on the spot.
"He had that energy and he had that happy face and he was just dancing along forgetting about the world. He had something unique in him and he touched me," said Bilal Saghir, owner of a Pita Basket shop.
Saghir says he's aware of Cote's struggles, both with mental health issues and addictions. There are times Cote may not show up to work for days, or even weeks at a time.
But Saghir is always happy to welcome him back — as are his customers.
Plus he says Cote is good for business.
"Sometimes it doesn't work right away, but lots of people remember, I've seen Pita Basket, I've seen that guy flipping the sign," said Saghir.
"They tell me, 'You know, your guy is doing a fantastic job,' and some people actually stop and tip him on the road.... He's great."
The company recently posted a video of Cote on Facebook that went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of views.
Cote now hopes his story can help others facing similar struggles.
"Just a message for all those people that have mental illness: don't give up, there's hope, there's so much hope," he said. "And just share your heart as much as you can."