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Slaying personal demons, with courage as a weapon

Squamish resident to receive Courage to Come Back award

Amanda Schell woke up startled one night. When she looked outside her window, she could see ghosts and spiders creeping up to her. She was in Grade 2.

"They just felt so real," Schell said, recalling the first of many hallucinatory experiences that would slowly dissolve the core of her life.

"I just became extremely afraid of the dark and I could hardly sleep."

Next time it happened a decade later, the hallucination was auditory. Out on a camping trip with her friends in Grade 12, she heard a woman singing a slow mournful song as Schell made her way to the washroom alone.

When she looked behind, she could see no one. Yet, she could hear soft footsteps and the haunting voice.

"I told my friends about it and we all concluded that I had seen a ghost," Schell said.

What Schell experienced that day was not a ghost, but another sign of schizophrenia, a mental disorder that blurs the difference between real and unreal experiences and deludes the mind into seeing or hearing things that aren't there.

It would take Schell at least a decade to confront her medical condition but in doing so she not only helped herself she worked to raise awareness of mental health issues.

Now Schell is being honoured with a Courage to Come Back Award for her work around mental health issues.

In preparing to accept the award this month for her advocacy she is reflecting back on the time when she was too scared to seek medical help, even as her condition worsened.

Over time, the voices increased in frequency and ferocity, said Schell. She would hear background noises all the time- a running TV, whispering, and singing. They eventually mutated into one loud voice. By this time, Schell was convinced that she was haunted.

"I was hearing this voice on a daily basis and the voice said, I had forsaken Jesus and I was better off not knowing him," she said.

Newly pregnant, she had a nervous breakdown and had to be taken to the local hospital in Sarnia, Ont. She stayed in the psychiatric ward for two weeks, but left with a prescription for anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs.

She never explained her condition to the doctors, fearing she would be misunderstood.

"I was afraid of being called crazy," said Schnell.

"I was scared and confused.

"I'd just keep reading the Bible. I was obsessed with trying to find redemption."

Schell moved to Squamish in 1995, and once again, ended up in the psychiatric ward; she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was the first step of million little steps that Schell has since taken to reclaim her life.

Once she knew she was not "haunted," she worked with a psychiatrist, followed a course of medication, and expanded her circle of friends in Squamish. Gradually, the voices faded, but they haven't gone away completely.

"Now, I know what it all means when I hear it," she said.

Schell now works as a peer-support worker for Vancouver Coastal Health in Squamish. She trains mental health workers, who have also fought and overcome mental health issues themselves, to help others.

"Amanda is a role model for people with mental health issues and she proves that your diagnoses shouldn't have to be your destiny," said Angela Guy, a mental health case manager who works with Schell.

For those who are suffering from schizophrenia but might be too scared to face their fears, Schell has a simple message.

"Get help. Talk to someone."