The numbers that have bounced around Erin Emiru’s world border on unimaginable, well past the breaking point of even the strongest among us.
Eight different psychoactive medications, 14 mental health hospitalizations, two abusive relationships, a suicide attempt, too many rats to count and more psychiatrists than she cares to remember.
And yet despite decades of internal and external strife, Emiru has found a way to shine.
The 40-year-old is approaching six years of wedded bliss and holds a master’s degree in neuroscience. Emiru has worked to surround herself with a supportive circle of friends and coworkers.
And, like any self-respecting Vancouverite, she loves yoga.
“I’ve got connections now,” Emiru tells the Courier.
For long stretches of Emiru’s life, connection was the enemy. She’s lived with schizophrenia since her early teenage years and purposely distanced herself from friends and family as the condition progressed.
“When I’m ill, I withdraw. I don’t want to interact with anyone,” Emiru said.
The lone connections Emiru maintained were the voices in her head. They were benevolent to begin with, but turned on her after the age of 12. The voices yelled at her, eventually convincing Emiru to self-harm and attempt suicide. Somewhere in the background, Emiru believed a homicidal sniper tracked her every move.
Schizophrenia became the norm in Emiru’s teenage years and early 20s, though it was difficult, if not impossible, for anyone around her to tell.
“I’ve always been perceived as very shy and quiet, kept to myself,” she said. “I did very well in school and I have a feeling that had my schoolwork been affected, someone would have intervened earlier. When you’re getting straight A-pluses, people don’t tend to question your mental health.”
Emiru was in her early 20s when she moved to Vancouver from her home in New Brunswick in order to study neuroscience at the University of B.C. The cross-continental trek was as much about pursuing education as it was trying to flee from her condition.
“I moved so far away partly in hopes of leaving it behind,” Emiru recalled. “But in my first month here, I saw my new psychiatrist and he, within 10 minutes of meeting me, certified me to Riverview.”
Emiru convinced herself the mechanics of her brain were being interrupted by rats inside her head. Those rats followed her to psychiatric wards at Riverview and Vancouver General hospitals. It was at VGH where Emiru would continually smash her head against a wall in an attempt to bleed the rats out.
From 2001 to 2014, Emiru had 14 mental health hospitalizations, many lasting months at a time. During this period, eight different medications were tried, along with multiple doses of many. In a frustrating cycle, progress and good times would spiral into psychotic episodes.
Emiru didn’t stopped pushing forward despite the vortex of chaos in her world. She continued studying at UBC, eventually graduating with a master’s degree in neuroscience.
Emiru is now peer support worker with Vancouver Coastal Health’s Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team and works with people living through mental health and addictions challenges.
She published a personal memoir, When Quietness Came: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey With Schizophrenia, and serves as a keynote speaker at conferences concerning mental health.
“Hope grows by giving hope to other people,” Emiru said.
Emiru is this year’s Courage To Come Back Award recipient in the Mental Health category, recognizing her commitment to those living with mental illness. Her efforts will be formally celebrated as part of the awards gala at the Vancouver Convention Centre on April 24.
All of this comes despite the short-sighted doubt instilled in her by one of the many psychiatrists Emiru has seen over the past two decades. There’s been so many, Emiru has since lost count.
“I would definitely go back to the psychiatrist who told me I would never be a productive member of society and tell him of my accomplishments,” Emiru said. “It would be a case of telling him, ‘Don’t say this to anyone else, because it can turn out to not be true.’ Saying anything so negative to someone can take away hope. Why take away hope?”
Those who’ve witnessed Emiru’s journey consider her a beacon of hope. Her nomination package for the Courage To Come Back Awards is full of testimonials from those who have seen her at various stages of her life.
A nurse at VGH at the time, Leanne Maylam met Emiru in the mid-2000s and consistently saw Emiru at her worst. Emiru was dubbed “Houdini” because of her uncanny ability to free herself from the restraints needed to prevent her from self-harming.
The pair now work together on the ACT team.
“I admire Erin. Through her courage, strength and tenacity, she has turned her struggle with her own mental health into a symbol of hope for those with their own struggles,” Maylam wrote. “Erin is not a ‘schizophrenic,’ she is a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a colleague… she is my friend.”
This excerpt comes from “Nigel,” one of Emiru’s clients who’s spent the bulk of his life in institutional settings:
“Erin understands me like I never thought anyone ever could. She is so kind and patient and compassionate and with her help I have been able to finally learn that my best is OK and to live a useful life,” Nigel wrote.
Empathy, hope and wellness are no longer abstract terms in Emiru’s world. She looks forward to starting a family with her husband and strengthening the bonds and friendships that once escaped her.
“I don’t like the word ‘recover,’ because it’s looking backwards — it’s asking what can I recover from my past and bring in to my present? No one can bring anything from the past to the present — it’s gone,” Emiru said. “But you can discover by looking to the future and saying, ‘OK, what do I have in my hands right at this moment and how do I discover what I can do with it?’”
For the past 20 years, the Courage To Come Back Awards have raised more than $16 million for Coast Mental Health to support people recovering from mental illness in the Lower Mainland, through housing, support services and employment. The awards celebration is a major fundraiser for Coast Mental Health, which believes that, through compassionate care and support, everyone can recover. More information at couragetocomeback.ca.