ST. CATHARINES, Ont. - It was five in the morning when Austin Mardon was jolted awake by someone screaming his name.
"Austin," the voice yelled. It was loud. Right into his ear.
He knew who it was. Immediately recognized the voice.
It was himself. The voice came from inside his head.
Mardon is a 46-year-old married man from Edmonton who has a PhD in geography and a long list of scientific accomplishments to his name. He's given talks to scientist types. Even participated in a NASA expedition to the Antarctic to recover meteorites. And there's an Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honour, with his name on it.
He also has schizophrenia.
He was 30 when the diagnosis came in 1992.
Schizophrenia is a disease of the brain. It involves the loss of contact with reality, making it difficult for a person to tell what's real and what's not. It alters how people think. How they see the world. How they feel and how they behave.
It also carries with it a strong stigma. Mardon has seen it and felt it.
But he's determined to beat it.
He offers up his personal life, exposes himself in a way that he hopes people will get a more accurate understanding of schizophrenia. He writes stories for newspapers on the disease. Volunteers and advocates tirelessly for mental-health issues.
Tamara Leniew, family and community co-ordinator at the Hamilton/Niagara branch of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, said ahead of his recent presentation in nearby Beamsville, Ont., that it's helpful for the loved ones of those with mental illness to know "that there is life beyond the illness."
She wants people to understand that it's scary to have a mental illness. That many times people who are ill are not aware there's anything wrong.
"Their reality is so different," she says. "They feel threatened when people say you need to go to the hospital."
Threatened because in their reality they may think a nurse who's giving them a needle to help them is trying to poison them, she says.
People who have a mental illness are often victims of violence themselves, she says. By others and by their own hands. About 10 per cent die by suicide. About 40 per cent attempt to kill themselves.
Mardon doesn't know what caused his illness. His mother became ill with schizophrenia when he was five.
But it was after Mardon experienced several traumatic life events that symptoms began to show.
In the Antarctic, he lost control of a snowmobile and fell 150 metres down a glacier. Then on a trip to the former Soviet Union he had a run-in with security services. After that, he asked his girlfriend at the time to marry him. She said no.
It began with voices. They were pleasant. Angelic.
"In some ways, they're more dangerous," he says. "You don't want to get out of the delusion."
He became paranoid. Had bizarre thoughts like refusing to eat perogies because he feared the Soviets were trying to poison him.
He suffered from lethargy. Apathy. All he wanted to do was lounge around.
It hit him hard. Fast.
Two months before he became ill, he was presenting on space science at a conference in Washington, D.C.
Afterward he could barely form a coherent sentence.
"It can change you for a lifetime," he says.
He credits his recovery to his own perseverance, the support of his wife, Catherine, and the understanding that he is not his disease and a determination to work with his doctor and stick with his medication.
With acceptance comes peace.
"I accept where I'm at," he says. "When you accept, you can move on."
Mardon still hears voices. It's a compromise, a dance of sorts, between living with symptoms of the illness and not being medicated into a "permanent stupor."
"It's a balancing act," he says.
To get rid of them entirely would mean taking doses of drugs he's unwilling to take.
So he accepts that he must live with a constant nattering inside his head. Like being in a noisy restaurant, he tries to ignore it.
He has come out of it a better, stronger person. More creative. More empathetic. He enjoys helping a group of people who normally aren't the recipients of much help.
"You bring a little joy to someone who's had a tragedy in their lives."