Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Alone in the Crowd: Zerom's Quest to Reduce Stigma

I met an author named Zerom Seyoum who is on a quest to reduce stigma about the lost souls of society- people that have been marginalized and discriminated against. Zerom is mild-mannered, kind and respectful with a sense of humour. When I read his books, I was shocked at the experiences he's been through. Born in Ethiopia, he received a Bachelor of Science degree but was exposed to life-threatening situations. He moved to Canada with hope of a better life, however he became mentally ill, triggered by crises in his environment. Zerom committed a violent act, caused by paranoia and delusions, which was opposite to his nature. He wrote Not Guilty but Not Free a detailed description of many years spent at the Forensic Psychiatric Institute which later became the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

Imagine being in a secured facility for years on end, doing repetitive tasks and not being free. To endure the side effects of medication and the regulated schedule of activities takes perseverance. It is hard to keep motivated and maintain hope in such a setting.

Alone in the Crowd is a new book that he published this year. Again Zerom gives a rare inside view of the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital. He writes vignettes with honesty and sometimes humour about the patients, staff and the system. Some events are sad, shocking and bleak but I discovered that the patients weren't hardened criminals but people who didn't believe what they did, once they started to recover. Some did not recall their crimes or said that voices affected their behaviour. Some found sanctuary in the hospital because they felt protected and had shelter and food. Others were able to leave the hospital and live in the community.

He doesn't sugarcoat their experiences but shows many dimensions of his fellow patients. They have strengths and weaknesses, fears and dreams like the rest of us but some are trapped by their circumstances, lack of education, and their illnesses.

Zerom now lives independently and works as a peer support worker. After persevering for so long, he is sympathetic to the patients he knew and grateful for good things in his life. He isn't looking for pity for them but understanding and compassion. Some are misled but others like Zerom find their way. His story is remarkable- he is a true survivor.

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