Together We Escape

When a psychotic break lands a teen in the hospital, she is forced to navigate the mental health system. Eight years later, she meets a woman with similar experiences — and finds community and connection.

A faded collage of photos from left to right shows a girl with her head lowered into her hands, an enlarged pill bottle and pills spilling out, a long hallway in the centre, and a portrait of a woman smiling.

Listen to this story:

I tried my first escape room when I was 16 years old. Instead of being on a team, I did it alone. The room was small, with a bed in the centre and a large window against the back wall. I tore the bedding apart and found nothing, so I reached under the metal frame and searched for clues. There were serial code numbers and a trademark stamp, but I wasn’t sure how useful those would be. 

How am I supposed to get out if there aren’t any clues?

The door was clearly locked, and the window showed no obvious way to escape, so I did the only thing I could think of and jumped on top of the bed frame. I reached for the air vent on the ceiling but the four screws on each corner were stubbornly securing the cover in place. I couldn’t get it unscrewed, so there was definitely no escaping through the ventilation systems. I was so confused. 

Then, paranoia sank in. A feeling in my gut told me people were listening, watching, and recording me. I thought everyone was laughing at my pathetic attempt to find a way out. Anxiety gathered in my chest, and I started hyperventilating, thinking I was trapped forever. The fear outweighed any sane thoughts and swept me into a frenzy of manic behaviour.

For the next couple of weeks, I was locked inside. I relentlessly tried to escape until I came back to the same realization: this is not an escape room; this is your hospital room. The realization that I wasn’t in a fun game to solve puzzles and discover clues was earth-shattering.

You know those old movies that depict individuals in insane asylums, some roaming the halls muttering under their breath to no one, some locked in padded cells with strait jackets wrapped around them? I was living like that for some time. Absolute schizophrenic delirium. I still have many questions about that time in my life and most will go unanswered. There is one thing I’m sure of — I was in psychosis. 

In the sterile confines of that room, 

I was trapped in fear and unsettling doom.

Megan is wearing an all white outfit and hiding her face behind her brown hair in a distorted photo.

Psychosis is a condition that confuses the brain and affects a person’s grasp of reality. Oftentimes, people hear voices, hallucinate, and speak complete nonsense. I entered a state of temporary psychosis when I was 16, causing me to experience this escape room delusion.  

In the year leading up to this, I was an emotional wreck. At 15 I’d already been struggling with clinical depression that manifested as self-harm, thoughts of suicide, and other erratic behaviours. By the time I was 16, I wasn’t taking care of myself, had no appetite, and stopped sleeping properly. 

Psychosis can be brought on by many influencing factors. For example, someone with a severe mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is at a heightened risk of experiencing psychosis. Someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol may also experience psychosis. People who are severely sleep-deprived can also slip into a state of psychosis, which is what happened to me. 

According to a 2010 medical journal published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, lack of sleep can disrupt normal brain function and affect neurological signals. There’s a circuit in the brain called the mesolimbic pathway that is closely associated with the release of dopamine, which some people call the happy hormone. Sleep deprivation can increase levels of dopamine in the brain, which can trigger psychotic symptoms.

The signs of my psychosis were hard to decipher at first — I would whisper to myself and post a lot of nonsense on social media. Then I started drawing odd things on my walls and preaching inspirational messages to strangers. I got less than 10 hours of sleep in the week before I was hospitalized. The longer I stayed awake, the more elated I felt.

On the third or fourth day with no sleep, my mom tried to coax me into getting rest. Almost like I was a small child again, she sat in bed with me caressing my back and forehead, speaking soft, calm words. But nothing worked — I was still wide awake.  

According to 21 studies compiled and reported by the National Library of Medicine, going over 72 hours without sleeping or with a severe lack of sleep presents the same as acute psychosis or toxic delirium. This temporary stretch of insomnia gave me a sense of euphoria from the rush of dopamine entering my frontal lobe. It felt like this otherworldly energy was radiating from my mind, body, and soul. I was worried that if I slept, the high would wear off. So, I stayed awake. 

I began experiencing delusions, hallucinations, and auditory distortions (hearing voices). My family said I wasn’t making any sense, and they were worried. “Apart from you talking nonsense, you didn’t know right from wrong. You were so confused and unaware,” my mom said when I asked her about it recently. “It was completely unpredictable. You probably would’ve walked across the street into oncoming traffic out of obliviousness,” she said. 

Before I had the chance to get hit by a car, my mom forced me to the emergency room. I was assessed and finally admitted for monitoring. The nurses put me in a sleep lab — a unit of the hospital for patients with sleep disorders — but I was still restless. The doctors eventually had to administer sedatives to get me to fall asleep. Even with rest, the psychosis persisted, so they moved me to the intensive care psychiatric ward. 

During the four weeks I was in the hospital, my mom visited me every day to help ease me out of my psychotic state. Sometimes she’d stay with me for up to 18 hours. “I needed to stay with you because I was the only person who could calm you down,” she said. Sometimes my sister came with her, and they’d bring me markers and colouring books filled with geometric designs called mandalas. The three of us would spend hours filling in the lines and circles of the pages. “Colouring helped you focus, and it brought you back to reality,” my mom said. 

Megan is sitting on the ground drawing on a colouring page with markers scattered around her.

Peace came when I put pencil to paper,

paint to canvas, and markers to mandalas.

And I did eventually find my way back to reality. After a lot of sleep, rest, and recovery, plus a specialized concoction of antipsychotics, the doctors deemed me fit to be released into my mom’s care and leave the hospital. A nurse waved her swipe card in front of a scanner and the doors to the hallway opened. After four weeks, I finally left the escape room.

Leaving the hospital in 2016 was the beginning of a confusing phase of life for me. The impact of my psychosis had altered my brain chemistry. Toronto-based psychiatrist Kwame J McKenzie compiled information from researchers, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals into an online editorial that explores the effects of psychosis. McKenzie theorized that untreated psychosis has the potential to affect brain signals and pathways, which can lead to long-term effects like brain fog or overstimulation, even after exiting the psychotic state. 

After my time in hospital, the doctors sent me home with almost no further instruction. At 16, I was technically able to make my own medical decisions, but I wasn’t in the right state of mind to care for myself. My mom also had no experience caring for someone with a mental health condition, so she was just as lost as I was. Because we couldn’t afford private care, I tried government-funded treatment like group therapy and counselling, but they barely helped. 

Between the ages of 16 and 18, appointments with my psychiatrist and other mental health professionals were few and far between. I still needed consistent care, which was there for me not necessarily through the mental health system, but primarily through family and community support. “The institutional supports aren’t good. We were your daily support,” my mom said. 

When my mom and I think about that time, the worst memories come back. We remember my panic attacks, debilitating depression, and extreme mood swings. “We were exhausted. Everyone in the family was just tired… We don’t blame you because it was out of your control, but it was a hard time,” she said.

I only recently found out from my psychiatrist that I have a “loose” diagnosis of unspecified bipolar disorder. There are different degrees of severity to bipolar disorder, but overall it is a disease that fluctuates between elevated manic moods, called highs, with extremely depressive moods, called lows. Either stage can last hours, days, weeks, or even months.

Pills of reliance, in their tiny form,

Tether the mind, amidst a chemical storm.

A medication container is on a felt stool while a hand drops turquoise and yellow pills that scatter in a blurry motion.

While these experiences have been extremely difficult, the dramatic (and traumatic) manifestation of mental illness at a young age allowed me to squeeze right into the mental healthcare system and receive instant care. The acute nature of my illness meant that attention and care were easily accessible, but those who present as having less severe symptoms might wait years to be seen. 

As I searched for different ways to connect with people in Winnipeg’s mental health community, I came across Katrina Tinman. Like me, she has an excess of experience navigating the mental health system. She is diagnosed with a combination of schizoaffective disorder, with bipolar disorder as the mood disorder side, and a touch of OCD. “They packaged it all into a bundle of joy,” Katrina told me.

I met Katrina through a Winnipeg women’s support group on Facebook and we instantly connected. She’s nearly twice my age (I’m 24, she’s 50), yet I can draw so many parallels between the two of us and the similar mental health crises we’ve experienced.

When Katrina was growing up, her parents were very open with her about her mom’s mental illness and attempts at suicide. They navigated this carefully, but Katrina said it caused confusion and turmoil for her when she was a young girl. At 17, she found herself in a dark state of mind which made her confront the question: “Am I like my mom?”

At this point in her life, her parents had been fighting a lot, which was causing her mom’s health to deteriorate further. Seeing her mom become so unstable and vulnerable was hard on Katrina. To clear her mind, Katrina went for a walk on their property. She approached a run-down shed, which was old and rotting. There wasn’t much to look at except for broken windows and a collapsing frame. 

A reflective light caught her eye, and she looked down at shards of glass that were sprinkled across the ground. She picked up a piece, held it in the palm of her hands, and began to contemplate the idea of hurting herself. Katrina thought about her mom trying to end her life and wondered if she could do the same. While holding this piece of glass, thoughts of suicide and self-harm plagued Katrina’s mind.

“I felt torn. But I decided I wasn’t going to. And that carried me through for a long time,” she said. 

Six portrait photos of Katrina from ages eight to forty nine are arranged in a timeline from left to right.
Photos of Katrina from the 80s to now.

After this, Katrina was able to hold on to a sound state of mind until 2003 when she was nearing her thirties. She started to experience intrusive thoughts once again and people in her life were trying to convince her to get help. But Katrina didn’t want help, and her doctors struggled to care for her, which made finding the right balance of medication very difficult.

“It was an experiment; it was a gong show for the longest time. Because I couldn’t define what the mood disorder was, it took forever to find out what medication was right,” Katrina said. The side effects of some of the medications were detrimental to her health. She was experiencing hormonal imbalances, low sex drive, weight gain, extreme fatigue, and more. 

Between 2003 and 2009, Katrina was still in denial about being mentally ill and stopped taking her medication. Stopping antipsychotics can be very harmful, and Katrina went into psychosis. “It was a complete paradigm shift… I would see things that weren’t there, hear things that weren’t there sometimes.” The mania from the psychosis elevated her mood to an incredible sense of happiness. “I thought I was the queen of the planet and made myself a badge to match,” she remembers.

From an outsider’s perspective, someone in psychosis can seem dangerous, erratic, and unstable. All of these can be true, but it’s hard to reason with a person who’s lost touch with reality. Our imaginations can run so wild that we convince ourselves of the most outlandish and impractical things. But in the depths of psychosis, it’s almost impossible to understand that you need help.  

Around 2014, after a long struggle with homelessness and self-destructive behaviour, Katrina finally accepted the medical treatment she needed. She was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Life began making sense to her again as she started down the road to mental stability by staying consistent with her medication and maintaining a healthy routine. She said her diagnosis is ultimately a strength and helps her connect with people. “We’re more aware of ourselves, and we ask for help when we need it,” Katrina said.

Katrina has a Bachelor of Science degree focused on journalism and political science from North Dakota State University. She began volunteering with the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, now rebranded as Peer Connections Manitoba (PCM), in 2014 and got to know the organization and the people within. A year later, she started working for PCM. Within recent years, Katrina rekindled an old romance with her ex-husband, Victor. With him, she said she feels supported, loved, and cared for. He lives two hours away from Winnipeg, and when Katrina moved in with him this year, she had to give up her job with PCM in Winnipeg.  

But she loves the organization and is fighting to have the best of both worlds: living with Victor and working to support community-based mental healthcare for Manitobans. She’s bouncing around some ideas for a new PCM location in her new area, which is a small town called Gardenton right near the Canada/U.S. border. With some contacts from PCM Winnipeg, she’s been workshopping the name Southeastern Peer Support and Mental Health Services. Once things with the move settle down, Katrina hopes to work on developing this idea further — a new beginning. 

A page from The Sharing Tree Consumer Newsletter with a photo of Katrina and a short essay about living with mental illness.

An edition of The Sharing Tree newsletter written by Katrina in 2014 about her battle with schizoaffective disorder.

Seeing a more mature and established woman live and thrive with a similar diagnosis gives me hope for my future. She plays a huge role in contributing to mental healthcare in Manitoba through community support and connecting with others. I look up to her and hope I can have a similar effect on others. Hearing her share her story has helped me share my own. 

Right now, I’m managing my mental health through a community-based care plan. I feel better when I talk to people I relate with — Katrina for example. I can only see a school counsellor once every three weeks, and by that point, things have piled up so much that I don’t know where to begin. I mostly mumble and rant about nonsense and by the time I feel comfortable enough to really open up, my 50 minutes are up and I’m out the door. I feel more heard, seen, and connected to this woman I met on Facebook than to the professional counsellors I’ve seen. 

Maybe PCM is doing something right. Maybe the government needs to focus more spending on a community mental healthcare approach. Manitoba’s premier, Wab Kinew, and the NDP government have made some substantial promises to improve provincial healthcare. They pledged to spend over $500 million on recruitment, team-based care, and new facilities/equipment over the next four years. 

The NDP’s plan to focus on an involved care team approach is proven to be effective when treating patients with a variety of disabilities, injuries, and illnesses. An article on the National Library of Medicine’s website speaks on the evolution of patient care from “one all-knowing physician,” to what we see today; healthcare expansion and new specialists for every type of ailment. With so many medical professionals, there can be a lack of communication between everyone in the patient’s care circle which can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes. So, it would only make sense to solve this problem through interdepartmental communication as well as open lines of communication with everyone involved in patient care, including family practitioners, social workers, and doctors/nurses. 

There have been no updates on Kinew’s promise for the team-based model since his campaign in September before he was elected. As time goes on, it’s important to hold those in power responsible for their promises. We can already see the government pushing back healthcare projects as they blame the PC’s $1.3 billion deficit for delaying new healthcare plans. Accountability and action will help move mental healthcare forward ensuring faster treatment, easier access to care, and more affordability. 

For people with mental illnesses, there are two main ways to get help as soon as possible:

  1. Find yourself in a life-threatening situation that requires urgent medical attention. 
  2. Be able to afford immediate help from privatized mental health professionals. 

I can’t afford private care, and neither can a lot of people. This is known as a health gap. Mental illness can target anyone, but quick treatment is only available to those with deep pockets. Privatized mental healthcare assessments can range from $80 to $200 per 50-minute session. 

More affluent people who have insurance plans or the option to pay out of pocket typically seek private mental health services, which is quicker and more convenient. However, for a general referral to see a psychiatrist in Manitoba, the wait times vary. A database study shared in a 2023 medical article found Manitobans may wait between three months to two years for psychiatric evaluation covered by the government. This same study shows less than 11 per cent of annual government spending goes toward mental health treatment. 

Even people who have been in the system for decades — like Katrina — struggle to find support. Katrina said she’s frustrated about how nearly every community-based mental healthcare centre in Manitoba has a waitlist. “It can make you feel like you’re unimportant… Like your health means nothing,” she said. 

On social media, news outlets, and entertainment platforms, I frequently come across this concept — “normalize mental health.” Every human has mental health just like we have physical health, so we should normalize taking care of mental health. We all know the basics: eat well, get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, or engage in some kind of physical activity.

Then there’s the opposite of mental health self-care, which is self-destruction. For me, stewing and ruminating on negative emotions can pull me into a festering depression. On the other side, staying awake and feeding into delirium can induce a manic episode. We shouldn’t normalize these behaviours. They are extremely unhealthy. 

When I tell people I have a mental illness, a lot of the time I’m met with, “Me too!” or “Same!” 

Society has shifted toward normalizing conversations about mental health care, but more so in the context of “common” illnesses, like depression or anxiety. This online article, which is a collection of studies, texts, and research, suggests people are quick to label normal behaviours as issues needing intervention. For example, instead of claiming basic emotions like sadness or grief, some people misuse the term depression. This is called pathologizing. 

Illnesses like chronic anxiety and clinical depression can be debilitating, so when people self-diagnose, it can minimize the experiences of those with severe conditions. It’s not to diminish anyone’s emotions because we all feel pain, sadness, and fear. However, the article does pose the question: With concepts like depression, anxiety, and trauma becoming so normalized, is society unable to understand the severity of clinically diagnosed mental health conditions?

So yes, let’s normalize mental health care but please let’s not normalize the damaging fallout that can come from severe, untreated mental illnesses.

My mom and me in 2003,

Happy, healthy, and carefree.

In a photo from 20 years ago, Megan and her mother and both dressed in blue outfits as they stand in a forest and smile for a photo.

I’ve spent the last eight years trying to figure out how to escape harmful thoughts. It’s taken me a long time to realize obsessing over little things and normalizing destructive behaviours is only going to tear me down. Now, I feel my emotions with little to no avoidance, but I also know how to handle my overwhelming mood swings. Managing an illness is different for everyone. 

The world still has a long way to go in understanding complex disorders and disabilities. The lack of research about mood and psychotic disorders makes it difficult to receive proper treatment and in turn, makes it hard for patients to learn how to best take care of themselves.

It’s curious to me that my psychiatrist who has known me for nearly a decade still doesn’t have a clear diagnosis for me. Unspecified bipolar disorder is his guesstimate. He said that we may never understand what I went through when I was 16 and in that deep psychosis. But I feel like that’s the easy way out, to say, “We’ll never know.” That’s not good enough for me.

It took Katrina about ten years to receive an accurate diagnosis — a timeline that is mirroring my own. While medications and doctors contribute to recovery, so do personal and interpersonal connections. Finding Katrina and others who have similar mental health challenges helped me realize maybe I was never truly alone. Together we can complain about wait times, lack of funding, unkind doctors, and more, but when it comes down to it, support from those who relate and understand can be an essential resource in mental health treatment.

“That’s why support from friends and family is important because they’re always there. I was always there, and I still am,” my mom said to me over Facetime. I call her at least three times a week to check in. My entire family is scattered throughout southern Ontario in cities like Barrie, Bracebridge, and Toronto. Winnipeg is my home for now, but it’s lonely. 

Living away from my major support system has made me feel lost at times. Sometimes I still think I’m in the escape room — feeling trapped, alone, and anxious. I have no clues or keys or codes that will unlock the answers. The doctors can’t let me out of my own mind by pressing a button and saying, “Game over.” 

Finding your way through an escape room requires strategy and patience — just like how treating a mental illness requires healthy coping strategies developed over time. But unlike completing an escape room and feeling a sense of physical freedom, I will never truly achieve separation from my past trauma or my persisting mental illness.

My journey has never been about finding the easy way out. It’s not about finding an exit or escaping. Managing a complex mental illness is about learning to navigate the twists and turns of myself — and the mental health medical system — with resilience, self-awareness, and community support.

Black and white headshot of Megan Hederson.

Megan Hederson

Megan (she/her) is a tattooed hippie who loves eating vegetarian food, caring for houseplants, and creating diverse media. She finds power and purpose in community-driven storytelling.