Poetry and peer support: How Amy Willans remade her life after mental illness

At 22, Amy Willans was a driven nursing student and champion figure skater. In 1996 she began to experience paranoid thoughts and depression and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. The poet and acclaimed peer support worker talks to Dr. Goldman about living with mental illness and her journey to recovery.
Peer support worker Amy Willians at her desk at The Roundhouse, a co-working space at MacEwan University. (Angelique Rodrigues/MacEwan University)
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Amy (in pink) as a young skater on the podium. After being hospitalized for mental illness, Amy gave up her place on Canada's national precision skating team and never skated again. (Submitted by Amy Willans)
At 22, Amy Willans was a driven nursing student with a part-time job and a spot on Canada's national precision skating team.

It was 1996, she was dating the varsity football quarterback and had her whole life planned out.

"I was going to be traveling and competing and representing my country, which was so exciting," Willans recalled.

To outsiders, the young Edmonton woman was on an upward trajectory.

But inside her own head, she was besieged by thoughts of worthlessness, self-doubt and, even more troubling, growing paranoia.

Amy Willans, age 21, in Egypt, 1995,. The year before she became ill, Amy travelled across Europe and through Egypt and Israel. (Submitted by Amy Willans)

"I began to believe that I was being watched and followed. I started to have these delusions that I was pregnant when I wasn't," Willans told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art.

She was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder: a condition that can be hard to diagnose, but which combines schizophrenia with a mood disorder — in her case, depression.

Paranoia took hold

Willans called police repeatedly to report she was being followed or her mail was stolen.

[Depression] yelled in my ear that I was nothing, that I was no one, that everybody hated me.- Amy Willans

As paranoia took hold, she locked herself in her apartment and had to be coaxed out by her mother, a psychiatric nurse, and hospitalized.

"[Depression] yelled in my ear that I was nothing, that I was no one, that everybody hated me … I stopped eating. I stopped showering."

In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience mental health issues according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, and stigma attached to the disease is seen as a major barrier to recovery. 

Willans' life as a "sister, and friend and athlete and student" was suddenly trumped by another title: psychiatric patient.

With that title came isolation. She recalled sitting by the door of her hospital room, waiting for visitors that never came.

"I didn't receive 'Get Well Soon' cards or pink balloons. There was just this silence."

From the multimedia installation Fighting Normal (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery, 2013), mounted by poet Amy Willans and artist Laurie MacFayden. The show explored the stigma that confronts anyone who does not present as ‘normal.’ See more of Amy's words and Laurie's art below this post. (Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden)

Isolation, loneliness and stigma

The loneliness was unbearable, but the stigma — even from health-care workers — made it worse, she said, recalling an incident in an Ontario hospital.  

"This nurse came in and she had a student and she said, 'This one's a schizophrenic.' I remember just sitting there with my head down feeling so incredibly humiliated by this experience."

The nurse found her crying because she'd been cut off her medication. As Willans begged for help, the nurse told the student she simply seeking drugs. 

"I've never abused medications in my life," Willans said.

Earlier this year, Willans  wrote about the biases she's faced in a Globe and Mail article.

Compassion helped recovery  

She slowly recovered, and learned to manage her disease after her family took her home to Alberta, where she found a new doctor and compassionate nurses.

One nurse took her out for ice cream, she said, while another let her father stay after visiting hours to help her get to sleep.

But she credits one nurse, who she calls "Nurse Mary," with helping her to find a new purpose, and a new identity as a writer.

Amy Willans with the women she met at her first writing workshop, which led to her becoming a published poet. Left to right: Kerry Mulholland, Amy, Cathy Hogdson, Laurie MacFayden. (Submitted by Amy Willans)

During her last hospital stay in 2001, Willans began writing verses on scraps of paper she hid around the hospital.

The nurse, a published poet, collected them and typed them out for her to display on a bulletin board.

She also led her to a women's writing workshop, which a "terrified" Willans attended once she was released.

Finding her voice through poetry

She loved the workshop, but was afraid to read her work in front of the group.

"I was shaking … One woman came and stood to my left and another one came to my right. They each just gently put a hand on my shoulder and it settled me. I was able to read a poem."

It [poetry] was one of the biggest gifts that I've ever been given.- Amy Willans

That, she said, was the moment she found her voice and lost some of the shame she'd felt over her illness.

"It was one of the biggest gifts that I've ever been given. I have Nurse Mary to thank for that."

Willans is now a published poet and an award-winning peer support worker. In 2012, she was the first peer support worker in Alberta to join a clinical team. 

Willans continues to work at recovery, using meditation, therapy and this mantra offered by a therapist:

"My first thought isn't always my best thought," she said with a laugh.

She uses it to deal with paranoid thoughts which still creep in now and then.

"I'll think, 'OK, I'm sitting here watching TV with the cat. Why would somebody be interested in watching me?'"

Finding the correct medication, after trying many combinations was also key.

"It was like somebody had turned the lights on," she said.

Her peer support has allowed her to help others understand the stigma mental health patients face.  

"There's so much more to a person than their illness. We don't call somebody with cancer, 'Cancer." So don't call somebody who has schizophrenia [their disease],'" said Willans.

Willans knows she's been blessed with a supportive family and good caregivers, but she believes recovery is possible for everyone, if given the right resources.

"You need encouragement, you need purpose, you need proper housing ... But everybody can get well."

Willans is currently working on a memoir about her life and experience with mental illness.


From Fighting Normal, a book of poetry and art by Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden.

From the multimedia installation Fighting Normal (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery, 2013), Words by Amy Willans, image by Laurie MacFayden. (Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden)
From the multimedia installation Fighting Normal (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery, 2013), Words by Amy Willans, image by Laurie MacFayden. (Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden)
From the multimedia installation Fighting Normal (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery, 2013), Words by Amy Willans, image by Laurie MacFayden. (Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden)
From the multimedia installation Fighting Normal (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery, 2013), Words by Amy Willans, image by Laurie MacFayden. (Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden)
From the multimedia installation Fighting Normal (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery, 2013), Words by Amy Willans, image by Laurie MacFayden. (Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden)
From the multimedia installation Fighting Normal (Visual Arts Alberta Gallery, 2013), Words by Amy Willans, image by Laurie MacFayden. (Amy Willans and Laurie MacFayden)

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