Talking with Kevin Sheffield

Today is Kevin Sheffield’s birthday. He wrote to me recently from Canada and introduced himself as a young man whose social anxiety had led him on an uncomfortable path through the world _ releasing his bottled-up fears at home as a hyper and destructive kid, and later working a night shift, “obviously, a great hiding spot.” He hugged isolation. He did have a wife and two children, but family life was shaken when he was hospitalized and tried to kill himself.

Over the past year, he’s started to emerge. A friend he reconnected with on Facebook is introducing him to naturopathic remedies, including healthy eating. He has signed up for engineering school in the fall. And he wants to move on from support groups and be around people who don’t remind him of where he’s been for so long. “I’d rather be around a bunch of hippies just hanging out and having a good time than listening to people much older than me try to deal with their depression,” he says, not unkindly. “It’s such a reminder to myself of where I am, and it keeps me trapped in that negative position.”

He far prefers a more holistic approach to mental health and not the stark dictation of doctors and the blank hospital world of empty rooms with chairs and a single TV.

I had worried that he never leaves the house at all, but as it turns out in this conversation, Kevin had somewhere to go.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Kevin Sheffield. I live in Wasaga Beach, Ontario. I grew up in Brampton, Ontario, and moved up here when there was a job opening for me. My fiancée at the time had family up here, and it just kind of worked out for both of us to come up here, to start our family. This is, I’d say, about six and a half years ago that I moved up here. Also, my parents moved up here as well. And yeah, I was working for a retail company in Brampton and they opened another store close to Wasaga Beach in Collingwood, so I came here to work at the new store.

In your e-mail you, you mentioned that you don’t really go out. How do you work?

Well, I think, when I was married, I was working a night shift at Home Depot, and it was easy for me to travel back and forth at night because there was no one on the road. It was very quiet, and I’d work overnight with, like, five other people. So it was something I’d become accustomed to. But I guess as things progressed in my marriage, I found it really difficult to cope with having the responsibility to have to do things during the daytime. So, basically, when I started working 17 years ago, you know, I hid out on nights, and when I got married, I suddenly had to force myself to go out of my shell, and it became a little bit too much, too overwhelming, and it kind of led to me being hospitalized, me being put into Homewood (Health Centre) in Guelph in treatment, and my marriage falling apart, and me losing my job.

What was the worst episode for you?

My difficulties began at work. Basically, I would start to worry about little things, like, “Have I had enough sleep during the day? Am I going to be able to handle myself emotionally when working at night?” Those things would build up prior to me leaving for work. I’d be organizing myself, having everything laid out and ready at the door hours before I went to work, and this pattern continued for many months until I got to the point where I was actually driving into work at night and I’d be in a state of panic, breathing rapidly, and I’d have a lot of negative thinking through my head. That’s when suicidal thoughts would start to come up. If I would drive myself into a tree, or if I took some medications prior to leaving, if I overdosed on something, if there was any way to stop me from going into work. Then, you know, that would be my only way out.

The environment I was working in, along with being on nights, you know, I had a lot of difficulty with the people I was working with. And it just became very fearful to me to go into that environment. And I also had the inability to release any of that emotion when I got home because of my _ I had responsibilities to my wife at the time and to my children. And I was undertaking renovations on the house, trying to keep things organized and working at home. You know, I didn’t have any time to deal with this stuff. I had a counselor at the time, and I would go and see her once every other week. I would express my issues and she would listen to what I was saying. And I didn’t, I wasn’t hearing any of her advice because I was so trapped, so closed that I couldn’t act on anything that she was telling me. I was certain in my mind I wasn’t going to be around much longer. It came to the point when I came in to see her, after dealing with this panic every night, I kind of walked into her office, completely broken. I had convinced myself I was going to kill myself, and I pretty much told her, in a way, that I didn’t want to upset her or cause her any problems, and I thought that would be the end of me.

She immediately put me into a Form 1, took me to the hospital, had me admitted for observation and to see what medications they could put me on. And after that is when my application came through for Homewood Health Centre, where I went to try to figure things out in my life.

How did it work out?

Well, the environment I went into in the hospital scared the crap out of me. I didn’t want to be there. I couldn’t cope with others around me. I had no understanding of other illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar. It was a really shocking environment to go into. I basically made up stories, told lies to the psychologist that I was just having an episode and felt much better after taking Atavan, didn’t need to be there anymore. They only kept me there four days. The whole time there, the only thing to do was to sit in this room, which was just chairs, and a TV with one channel. And it was only on three or four hours a day. The rest of the time, you just sit there. You don’t do anything. After I got out of there, I moved into Homewood. You know, I was doing a lot of different things, a lot of activities, groups were discussing things and talking about their problems. I was managing. I was accepting everything they were explaining, doing all the activities. It felt good to be around people in similar situations. Everyone there was dealing with depression, anxiety. It was easy to talk to people, and to try and figure out things.

But I kind of, well, I did fall apart when in Homewood. Things were really difficult between me and my ex-wife, and I found it really hard to deal with that, to deal with a family at home that wants me to come back but has no understanding of what I was going through and dealing with. The assumption from my family and wife at the time was that this was just something simple, something I can ovecome really quickly, no problem with that. I guess I felt that maybe they were right, something was wrong with me that I can’t seem to get better, can’t seem to overcome this weakness. That’s when I tried to kill myself by overdosing on medication I had brought with me to Homewood. When I did, my roommate at the time came into the room and saw the bottle of pills and asked me what had happened, and he was able to get it out of me that I’d taken a number of these pills. He went and got help. The doctor came in with nurses and asked what I took, and they determined it was nothing threatening to my life. But they searched my room, looked for any more pills, things like that. And at the time, they decided that I should go through ECT treatment. So they did a 14-treatment plan over one month. So every other day I had a treatment. It was bilateral. And after having that done, I would wake up and wouldn’t remember anything about me, really. I wasn’t remembering my family, my friends, my past. I don’t feel that I was feeling any better, I just feel that I lost all the stresses in my past because I couldn’t recall any of them. And so I didn’t find that that treatment did any good for me.

But I came to the conclusion while at Homewood that I wasn’t going to be a good father or good husband anymore. So I made a phone call to my wife at the time and said I wanted a divorce. I didn’t think things were working out. And then at that point, I just turned myself off completely. So I mean, she didn’t really respond. Obviously she was upset with that, but I remember something about her saying pretty nasty words to my counselor, but she didn’t seem to fight for our relationship or anything. So when I got back from Homewood, when I was discharged, I gave a speech to everyone saying how well I was doing, how everything was fine. Again, I guess, I was not telling the truth. I was just trying to make everybody be OK with me so they didn’t have to worry about me.

And I came home, and I moved in with my parents into their condo. And basically, I kept working for the six months after my divorce, and I was having the same difficulties going into work, but I sucked it up and dealt with it until it got to the point where I couldn’t function at work. It used to be difficult driving into work, but when I got into work I could just focus. But then, when I was at work I realized I had no ability whatsoever to keep doing what I was doing there. So I was on and off work many times, many times that I was in the hospital or given notes from the doctor on short-term disability. I got to reach the point where I said, “You know, I’m hurting everybody around me. I can’t keep doing this to people, interfering with their business.” That’s when I resigned my position there.

Then I spent a long time just staying at home in the condo in my room. You know, I do get out occasionally. I do go to visit my sister with my parents. My parents have become very reliant on me. My mother is 67, my father is turning 70, so they kind of realize, “This is good, we have our son here, we can use him to help us out.” So I take my mom to get gas, to the grocery, drive her to work if the weather’s bad, things like that. But it still is a very difficult situation. My father as well suffers from depression, so it’s hard to again be in an environment where it’s very negative.

Then I reconnected with a good friend of mine, a naturopath. I found her on Facebook, and we became good friends. She’s the one who introduced me to spirituality, and she’s helped me, giving me a lot of books to read. And she’s helped me to discover that I’m not alone, I’m not the only one who’s dealing with these things, there are alternative treatments to the medications they have and had me on in the past. I had had a lot of difficulty with side effects.

So yeah, I spent these years in hiding at my parents, afraid to face the world, living in the same patterns as I did when I was a child. Living in fear every day. If the phone rings, who is it? Am I going to have enough money to get through the month? Do I have enough money to pay for child support? All these different worries. But I think I gained enough strength in myself from exploring spirituality that now I’m enrolled in school for engineering, which will start in September. And I’m looking to find a place that I can live, but again, it’s very difficult. Just like when I was at Home Depot, I had to immediately go to Ontario Works and fill out all the paperwork to get on disability, fill out paperwork for unemployment insurance, paperwork for getting on different disability. And so it’s a very time-consuming process for someone who’s having difficulty communicating with anyone or getting out. So it’s the same thing now with trying to find a place to live and get my life back together. Because now I’m only allowed to work so many hours a week if I want to continue my benefit. But if I work full-time and it doesn’t work for me, I could lose that benefit. And also, finding a place to live on such a limited budget is hard. I’d like to get out of this condo right now and have a place to live, but my only option is to wait until September when school starts and have help with rental costs and school fees.

How did you get the idea for engineering school?

I was pondering a career path for quite a while until one day, my friend, it dawned on her the career I should be in. I have a really knowledgable background when it comes to anything mechanical, technical. Not only my experience at Home Depot, knowing everything to know about electrical products, working with electricians. Also, how I am with technology. I use technology, and I can look at it, see what the flaws are. I’m always inventing, creating to make it work better. I’ve done a lot of different things. When I was 13, years ago, I sent off an e-mail, I had a great idea for a blind spot detection system and sent it off to Volvo, thinking it would make a lot of money. I got an e-mail back thanking me. Then I got a phone call from them saying they really liked the idea, that 90 percent of new product ideas comes from their customers. Then they tried to sell me a Volvo. I said, “I don’t make enough money to buy one, but I’m glad you like the idea.” Now it’s a common thing on a lot of cars. I just sent an e-mail to Dyson because I had an idea for a ceiling fan. Instead of having blades, just have a ring that blows. They sent an e-mail saying they can’t accept any intellectual property from individuals. I can have ideas, but unfortunately, I’m not in a place to bring them to life. And I’m not in a place where I have the finances I need to patent anything. I decided, you know, I’ll go into engineering and use the talent I have for creating things, find a career in that field.

You’ve been taking a lot of confidence from the …

… naturopathic approach, that’s what they call it. I have a lot of fear, I know how difficult it’s gonna be for me, but I also know the school does have resources for people with mental illness that I can use to my advantage. The first thing I intend to do is get tested for my ability to comprehend information, to see if there are different ways information can be presented to me. They have options where if you’re writing an exam, you can write in a private room with no one around. So there are things I think can help me achieve what I want to do. But again, I know as I get close to the time of going to school I’ll definitely be battling a lot of fear. I just have to make sure supports are in place when it comes to that time.

What supports do you have?

I have a counselor that I see on average about every three weeks. I have a mood disorders group once a month. I have a psychiatrist I see every two or three months. I also see them at the group every month as well in case of anything urgent. I also have CSP, it’s a community support program, another group that’s there Monday to Friday. I can drop in any time and get help from any of the members.

And then I have my friend. I’m lucky to have a friend who’s a naturopath. She’s also qualified as a nurse, so she can identify if someone needs treatment immediately and she can know to send them into the emergency department. And I think that’s my biggest thing, the thing that helped the most. The treatment, unfortunately, is not covered by our health care system, but it does have a tremendous impact. My first run of remedies completely detoxified my system, took out all the bad stuff. Now the next run will have movement in my life, help me with social anxiety, to work more effectively. Also the fact that it introduced me to things like spirituality, nutrition, exercise, yoga. To shed light on those things to someone in my position was really healthy for me.

You’ve been introduced to them, but do you follow up?

Yes, I have yoga books, a yoga mat, and I practice it when my parents aren’t home. And I’m looking into different groups that are available. I’m slowly building up my ability to do it well before attempting to go into a group environment. I want to find something that’s small, not like a YMCA, gym-style, but something more personal, five to 10 people max. Where I feel safe, comfortable.

In your e-mail, you said it’s not easy to have a healthy diet on a low income. How do you do it?

I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, “Food That Kills,” “Forks Over Knives,” “Supersize Me,” but I came to understand that the store that’s closest to me is the Wal-Mart, and I go in there and think, “All of this food is what’s attributed to me wanting to kill myself, sucking the life and motivation out of me.” I look around and see food filled with preservatives, pesticides, genetically modified. Eating food from Wal-Mart is like eating food from McDonalds or any of those places.

I started finding recipes online, not an easy thing to do, and I found there are superfoods out there that are really cheap and easy to cook. So I started with lentils, making lentil soup, lots of steamed vegetables like asparagus, spinach, different things like that that I’ve been able to throw together. But then again, I’m not 100 percent. It’s something where I need to find a place where I can learn to cook, where I can find meals, make meals that are inexpensive and yet healthy for me. It would be nice to find a nutritionist and get information from them, go to a cooking class that I wouldn’t have to pay for and learn this stuff. It’s very difficult to figure things out on your own when you have no experience in these things, and I think healthy eating is something that is so important to overcoming any kind of illness whatsoever. But it’s not something that’s practiced.

Doctors don’t know anything about nutrition. You go to the hospital for surgery and you get a glass of milk that’s, like, 60 percent sugar, and a muffin that’s like 100 percent sugar. They don’t know what these foods are doing to people. I think it’s something that’s changing right now, and that’s good. But it’s just beginning to change. So it’s difficult to find resources. Where I live, there’s just one health food store, and it’s very undersupplied. There’s no fresh produce store or farmers market. I have to drive outside of town.

I’m thinking a cooking class would be more productive than sitting in a room with just a TV and chairs.

Exactly. I’m reading a book now, it’s called “The One Plan.” It’s a week-by-week guide to restoring your health and happiness. It’s a process: Today do this, tomorrow do this, until you reinvent yourself and create new patterns in life. And those kinds of things need be taught when you’re in a long-term care environment. Otherwise it’s just, “Here, take these pills and go home and talk to your psychiatrist maybe in six months or a year, when it’s possible to get an appointment.”

If you were, like, Canada’s health minister, what would be your solution?

My solution? Hmm, I’m not sure. I believe that things happen with _ you know, it’s like dropping a rock in a pond. Once you start the process, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think what you’re doing, telling stories, is like that, dropping a rock in the pond so people can start to understand what people are going through, can stop and think a bit before they place judgement on how someone behaves because they don’t know the whole story. The biggest thing is to get people into an environment where people actually listen. Not, “OK, we should medicate you, give you ECT, lock you up because you’re going to kill yourself.” It should be more of, “Who are you? Why are you feeling this way? Let’s come up with a treatment plan that encompasses your whole life and understands your behavioral patterns, the proper way you should be eating, that gets you involved in the community where you’re not isolated, you don’t feel like you’re alone, like you’re the only one who’s not functioning the way that society expects you to be.”

That’s why I was mentioning we need an online forum where people can communicate about their problems and have a professional counselor seeing that. “Oh, you live in Wasaga Beach? There’s a group that happens every week on healthy choice cooking. There’s the address, get involved!” But I don’t think there’s any one answer, because mental illness is such a diverse thing and so new that just getting the message that there are people out there like me who are suffereing and dealing with this pain, people need to know this stuff. People need to know that there’s people that are dealing with this and that could use help.

You’re good with technical things, and you’re bright. And it’s not easy to go out. Could you create an online world and live online if needed?

I have a lot of social dysfunction, so me having acquaintances online is something I find difficult. I do send a lot of messages out to people, but again, it’s not anything, it’s me coming up with ideas and sending them out to app developers and stuff like that. It’s really difficult to get in touch with those people. I e-mailed Mike Zuckerberg, I think it is, with Facebook, with an idea for a website. I basically told him, “Let’s make a website like Facebook but basically a website that’s an online country, a virtual country. So anyone globally can join up to the site, log on and become a citizen, and the goal is to create a global constitution, global rights and responsibilities as individuals for the whole planet, not just the piece of land where you live, for all of humanity to live in, as a way of developing a template for eventually uniting everyone on the planet to one goal and purpose.” But yeah, I haven’t gotten a response to that yet. I’m sure he gets a billion e-mails a day.

What would you like to create to help yourself?

I think the biggest thing is finding friends, people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in, groups and activities close by, so not the only thing I do is go to a mood disorder group, so not the only thing I do is go sit in a room with a bunch of negative people who are lost and confused. It’s good because it’s support, but it’s bad because it’s negative and unhealthy. I’d rather be around a bunch of hippies just hanging out and having a good time than listening to people much older than me try to deal with their depression. I go in there and try to voice my opinion, do all I can to help out, but it’s such a reminder to myself of where I am, and it keeps me trapped in that negative position.

I went to a concert recently with my friend, because my friend is into all this stuff. She had me come along and meet her friends. It was a concert called Crystal Journey, David Hickey, you can look him up, but it’s a very uplifting, spiritual, high-energy concert. And everyone I met there was so open and at ease with themselves and happy, and you could walk up and introduce yourself and instantly be friends and have no fear of them being someone other than what you see in front of you. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy doing. I like obviously being in an environment where I feel safe, and where the energy is really good is something I had never done in my life.

You could travel around and follow these concerts.

Yes, I plan to. He does it far away, but yeah, I do plan to continue going.

It seems like a matter of finding the right people and getting out of the house.

Yes. My friend will be here in two minutes, so I’ve got to let you go. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

Sure, and how old will you be on Monday?

I’ll be 35.

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