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Talking About Mental Illness - continued

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For Michael Schratter, cycling around the world to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association is a breeze. The hard part was going public with his own illness.

His parents were respected educators. His father, Jack, had emigrated from Romania by lottery in 1962 at age 27. He'd worked at Army & Navy in Vancouver for a year until he raised enough money to bring his girlfriend, Margit, to join him. With a Ph.D in calculus and physics, Jack Schratter started teaching at the Okanagan University College. Margit became a high school teacher. Learning disabilities and mental illness were not much discussed in the late 1970s and early '80s, and when Schratter tried to talk to his parents about his troubles at school he usually wound up angry and frustrated. The onset of bipolar disorder often coincides with the onset of adolescence; its manic symptoms—euphoria, extreme optimism, exaggerated self-esteem, rapid speech, racing thoughts, irritability, and impulsivity—are often chalked up to teenage hormones, rebellion, and withdrawal. "My father's answer," he recalls, "was always, ‘What's wrong is you need to apply yourself. Stop being lazy.'"

Jack Schratter loved cycling. He bicycled to work every day, and summers were spent on family bike tours, which Michael loved. Once the school year started, though, his self-esteem plunged. "Through it all I was very unhappy. I was so concerned about being perceived as normal, I can't imagine how much emotional and intellectual power I wasted trying to fit in." In his senior year of high school he moved in with a friend and the friend's father. "I never doubted that my parents loved me," he says. "They just didn't understand me." He shrugs. "I didn't understand myself."

After high school Schratter moved to Vancouver, bartending and waiting tables, feeling a freedom he'd never known. After two years in the city, encouraged by his dad, he felt ready to return home, buckle down, and find the focus that had eluded him. He returned to Vernon and enrolled at Okanagan University College. "I really wanted to succeed, came back expecting to succeed, and also had a desire to please my parents. To make a long story short, it did not go well. Here I was, in my father's colleagues' classes, fucking up royally. I had my first really big depressive episode and made an attempt on my life."

Despondent after yet another fight with his father, Schratter got $400 from a cash machine, went to a drugstore, and bought chocolate milk and two bottles of Tylenol 3. He gave a group of homeless men the rest of his cash and his bank card, complete with PIN number. "I won't be needing this anymore," he explained. In nearby woods, he gulped the pills down with chocolate milk, then waited. "Time slows right down," he recalls, "and your mind starts playing games. I kept thinking about my grandmother, who had always represented unconditional love to me. I realized this would kill her." He made his way to the nearest house, knocked, and asked the person who answered to call 911. At the hospital, his stomach was pumped. Later he was told he was lucky to have drunk chocolate milk, which probably slowed absorption. 

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