My Story: Ilyas

Student @ Trafalgar


I was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder a couple years ago, although my symptoms started a while before that. When things started getting bad I was at the University of Ottawa for Social Sciences and was just starting second year. I knew there was something wrong from the get-go and I tried making an appointment for a mental health screening, but the wait time was four months. As I was waiting I started to get some major emotional disturbances, one day I would be so down that I was contemplating suicide and the next day I would be appreciating the beauty in everything life has to offer. 

Throughout these shifts in mood I was constantly going to the drop-in health services on campus in order to figure out what was happening, and while I got one note asking the teacher to take my mental status into consideration, the majority of responses that I got were to “exercise more”. As my attempts to reach out for help from traditional services failed, I started to reach out to friends in the same city, but they wouldn’t say anything other than to go back to a doctor.

The cycle was perpetuated ad museum until my symptoms began to stop me from attending school. I would get paranoid thoughts of persecution and would ride around on the buses all night long. I wouldn’t sleep for days on end, locking myself in my room during the day and ruminating in a downward spiral of negative abstraction until life itself seemed distorted.

At this point my belief system began getting twisted into a state of psychosis fuelled by my fear of what was happening to me, the sadness I felt about my efforts to reach out for help being continuously spurned, and the shame of not being “normal”. 


It took a long time before I was able to get over my shame regarding my emotional state, but when I reached a point of desperation I reached out to my mother. When I told her vaguely about my cognitive distortions and suicidal ideation she rushed out and bought a plane ticket the same day to visit me in Ottawa. Her loving concern is what kept me alive then as she, my aunt, and my uncle brought me to the hospital.

I was taken there where I was diagnosed with psychosis NOS (not otherwise specified) and stayed on the inpatient mental health ward for around 2 weeks. The NOS of my diagnosis made it difficult to fully accept what was happening to me because even the doctors couldn’t tell me what specifically was wrong with me. The time directly after my hospitalization was filled with maladaptive coping, with my worst memory being when I woke up at a stranger’s house surrounded by people I didn’t know with no recollection of how I got there. Once I got my diagnosis, I started to think long and hard about how I could incorporate this into my worldview: did this define me now? Was my life just subservient to labels now? What would people think when I told them? I eventually realized that my diagnosis isn’t who I am because I am so much more than any sort of label could cover. I am as much of a human being as anyone else and, as soon as I started to believe this, I tested out how people would react when I brought forward my diagnosis. I was surprised when, instead of flurries of prejudice and vitriol, I started having real conversations with people about mental health. The inner sense of shame I had around what had happened in my life was no longer as strong. I found that the more I got positive reference points for people showing empathy around what I had gone through, the less I was relying on them for a positive reaction; I began to accept that this is a part of my life, although not fully history it is neither my current reality, and that I didn’t need people’s approval to be me. 

I started taking responsibility for my actions and my recovery until the point where the goals that seemed only a fevered dream not too long ago started becoming my reality. This process wasn’t easy by any means, and starting out speaking to people who had been by my side for long periods of time definitely helped, but it was realizing that I am a fallible human being who is allowed to have mixed epochs allowed me to see past the Pollyanna standards of happiness I had been holding myself to and accept who I am right now. 

The biggest things that have helped me cope are medications, utilizing the concepts of different psychotherapies, and building up a strong social support network. I don’t think I would be able to function without medications, but with them I am essentially my old self. I have a very stable mood, I am able to keep up with all my social roles, and I am fully in control of my own thoughts and actions. Implementing different aspects from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), rational emotive behavioural therapy (REBT), mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) have helped me to gain control of my mind. CBT has taught me that I can change any one of my thoughts, behaviours, or feelings to affect change on the other two. REBT taught me that I have automatic thoughts and that while I am a fallible human being, I can take control of where my thoughts lead. MBCT taught me that I can let go of a train of thoughts if I am not ready to confront them quite yet, and DBT has taught me to fill up my “toolbox” of coping mechanisms in order to speak with people about the things that perturb me later on. My social supports have allowed me to fuel my inner extrovert and allow me to have some social regulation (where people are able to give me constructive feedback on how I can improve myself).

My biggest outlet in all of this has been writing. Journaling has helped me to keep track of my thoughts and figure out which ones were harming me the most while serving as an outlet for addressing concerning emotions in a safe space. It has afforded me an area to test out certain ways of dealing with my emotions with respect to the different psychotherapies I have researched as well.


If I were to give advice to someone going through something similar I would have to know them very well.

One thing that has stood out to me in my recovery is that the things that have lasted the longest are the ones that came from within me.

I would tell them that they have the right to self-determination, but that the people in their life who have stuck with them throughout the years are the ones who care for you and may be able to provide an outside view of what has been happening.

I would say that, for me, addressing the shame of being a man with emotions has been the most important thing I have done to date; allowing myself the liberty to feel and not judging myself harshly for feeling has provided me with the freedom to live life authentically and take down large amounts of my walls, even if that will always be a work in progress.

One thing I would caution against is defining ourselves by our feelings though. When I was in a state of psychosis I felt more than I have ever felt in my lifetime, so when it was being managed I felt like I lost a large part of myself. It took a while before I realized that my feelings were something I wanted to augment the life I was living instead of take control over it.

I am grateful for my family and all the love in my life.

My biggest life goal is to become a psychotherapist who creates a new form of psychotherapy geared towards self-actualization.