Courage to turn their lives around celebrated

By RON FANFAIR

The mental strength and courage of human beings to overcome obstacles and conquer fear are demonstrated by their ability to rise from the canvas after being knocked down several times.

Floored on many occasions, Brian Glasgow and Esther Mwangi lifted themselves up, dusted themselves off and are now sharing their triumphant stories.

They were among seven winners of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) Transforming Life Awards presented last Tuesday in Toronto. The recipients have overcome mental illness and addiction and are now using their experiences to help and inspire others.

A cigarette and marijuana smoker by age 12, Glasgow’s drug abuse led to homelessness and incarceration. He stayed clean for six months after completing CAMH’s 21-day in patient program, but was not able to maintain his sobriety permanently.

Fed up with lying to his probation officer, which he did frequently, Glasgow came clean one day and confronted his drug abuse head-on.

“I was in denial for many years and I finally felt that I had to tell the truth if I wanted to change my life,” said Glasgow, who was born in England to Guyanese parents. “The CAMH program helped me to see the light even though I did not recognize it at first, and subsequent programs have also helped me to be clean for the past four and a half years.”

Now settled in the small Ontario town of Campbellford with his longtime partner, Kathy Fillier and her 19-year-old son, Kyle, who is on a baseball scholarship at Connors State College in Oklahoma, the stable family man visits provincial penitentiaries to speak with inmates, works with high-risk young people and is enrolled in the social service diploma program at Loyalist College in Belleville.

“I have come a far way and sometimes I don’t even recognize myself,” admits Glasgow, who came to Canada at age one and was raised in Hamilton. “At age 16, I was still wetting my bed and that’s something I couldn’t share with anyone. Now, I can talk openly about any struggle I am having in life…When you look at where I was and the journey it took to get where I am, it’s quite amazing.”

During his acceptance speech, Glasgow invited Kathy on stage to share the proud moment.

“I met her 17 years ago and she has been there with me all the way,” he said. “She helped me enroll in CAMH and she’s one of the main reasons why I am here today to be celebrated. Kyle also gave me a reason to turn my life around. They have been pivotal influences in my life.”

Mwangi could hardly contain the excitement when her father announced he would send her to Canada to pursue post-secondary education. One of six children in a middle-class home in Nairobi, Kenya, Mwangi looked forward to the challenge since she attended private school and was raised in a sheltered environment.

As a young and naïve woman in a new country, Mwangi placed her trust in the wrong people and soon became entrenched in a religious cult that insulated her from experiencing life in Toronto for nearly four years.

At around the same time that she found the courage to leave the cult, her father – unable to establish contact with her – cut her funding, forcing the distraught young woman to leave York University two credits short of a degree.

Isolated and confused, Mwangi ended up in hospital where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She said the medication she received made her semi-catatonic for nearly three years. With help from a psychiatrist, she eventually found the right treatment and has been able to lead a normal life.

She volunteers with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, The Dream Team, Warm Life and Voices from the Street and visits educational institutions regularly to increase mental awareness. She also sits on the board of Accommodation Information Support, an organization that helps people with mental illness find housing.

“Life is good for me now and I owe this to two people in particular,” she said. “One of them is a social worker who suggested I should look for an apartment at the time that I was living in a shelter. And the other was an individual who made me aware that I had the skills and tools necessary to help other people who had been in a similar position to mine. That person helped me put a resume together and convinced me that I had what it took to apply for a position at the Rape Crisis centre. She was right because I got the job and has been with the organization since 1990.”

Last year, Mwangi returned to her homeland to reunite with her family for the first time since she left 23 years ago.

“They were excited to see me and I was happy to be back with my family,” said Mwangi, who spent three months in East Africa and is documenting her experiences in Canada which she hopes will be published.

This year’s Transforming Life Award winners were selected from nominations submitted by health professionals, community organizations and members of the public from across the province.

“The CAMH Awards is our chance to celebrate these seven strong and courageous individuals,” said CAMH Foundation president and chief executive officer, Darrell Gregersen. “They are helping to transform the lives of others by publicly sharing their personal experiences in an effort to break down stigma and redefine public understanding of mental illness and addiction.”

The other winners were Bill MacPhee, Kathy Bedard, Betty-Lou Kristy, Jesse Bigelow and Rick Green.

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