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Embracing Life

Samantha Mercanti is a successful businesswoman, author and blogger who is candid about her struggles with mental illness. She wrote a book, Embracing Schizophrenia, in which she chronicles her life living with the disease. Samantha recently shared her remarkable journey, her life in Hamilton and why she refuses to let her diagnosis define who she is, and what she can do.

You were diagnosed with schizophrenia in your early 20s. What’s one thing you wish more people knew about a mental illness such as schizophrenia?

I wish that people knew that if you receive treatment earlier, it’s more beneficial in terms of recovery. I spiralled, and I wasn’t diagnosed until later in my illness. I also wish people knew that it’s OK to have a mental illness. There is nothing wrong with you. I’ve never understood labels and words; how you can define someone by a single word or diagnosis.

You wrote, and published, Embracing Schizophrenia – what made you decide to write a book?

To be honest, I don’t know why I wanted to write a book, I just wanted to. Like when I started speaking openly. I didn’t really think about it, I just did it. Maybe because I knew it was the right thing to do. 

I wanted to share a hopeful story. I find sometimes in mental health, it’s all so negative. Don’t get me wrong, my illness was horrible, but I chose to take it in a different direction and focus on what I thought would work for me. Instead of focusing on the awfulness of my diagnosis, I chose to focus on what I learned from it. Every negative experience has a lesson or many lessons. Sometimes when you’re in it, you can’t see those lessons, but they are there, and are there for a reason. The book was actually quite therapeutic for me, more than I ever thought it would be. 

Embracing Schizophrenia includes contributions, and reflections, from family and friends. Why did you decide to include them in the book?

My family and friends are as much of my story as me. I can’t even imagine what it was like watching me go through what I went through – and wanting so badly to help me and having no idea what to do. 

They told my mom to mourn me. So basically, I was dead. For a parent to hear that, it breaks my heart that she experienced that. My mom never gave up hope, and I guess, without knowing it, neither did I. 

I think my relationships with my family and friends are so much more special and stronger now because of this shared experience. Most of them have this crazy amount of compassion for me. Watching someone basically die can change you, and they treat me now with so much love and care. They knew what I went through, and I think that’s why I am a little more special to them. 

I also believe their voices needed to be heard.

Perspectives are a big thing for me. Everyone sees the world differently and everyone has a different perspective. My perspective is different than my friends and family, and their perspective is not wrong or right, just like mine isn’t wrong or right. But their perspective is theirs and always needs to be heard. I needed to understand what they felt because their voice matters to me. 

For every family or friend of a person suffering, they need to be heard and they need the resources to be able to know what to do when faced with a situation like mine. 

You were a patient at St. Joseph’s Cleghorn Early Intervention Clinic. Can you tell us a little more about this resource, and perhaps other local resources available to those dealing with mental illness?

Well, I like this question. I believe in a holistic and medical approach to mental illness. I 100 per cent needed the Cleghorn program in the beginning and they helped my parents and I immensely, but I realized along the way I needed a lot more to make my recovery work. And I actually wish more services were offered right away to those suffering with mental illness, even fitness and yoga classes, massage therapy, complete counselling, osteopathy or naturopathic medicine. These services need to be offered to everyone with a mental illness, or even before access to medical treatments and used in conjunction. 

I’m not going to share resources because every person is unique, and I want people – those suffering and/or friends and family – to figure it out like I had to. Empowerment is forgotten a bit in all of this. I think parents should take mental health training. And even those struggling should take training when they are able to. At first, I did need support, but I realized along the way that I had to do it for myself. It took me 10 years to figure it out, but I did it, and it worked. 

Do you have any words of advice, and hope, for others who might find themselves in a similar position and are perhaps looking for help?

So many words. But I think all I’m going to answer this question with is this: 

Promise me you won’t ever give up on yourself. Don’t believe that you can’t recover and don’t forget your worth and value and how important you are. 

Keep going. In the darkness we forget things sometimes. I forgot a lot in my darkness, but I never gave up. I got kicked down a lot, but every single time, sometimes with tears in my eyes, I got up and kept going. It won’t be easy. It will be awful, but don’t ever give up.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest misconception about schizophrenia?

This is funny. I sometimes call myself legally crazy. I think words like crazy and schizophrenia, labels we put on people are so unintelligent. See past it. If you do, then you will gain something pretty amazing. I have it and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

What has the response to your book been like? Have you heard from others who are in a similar position with regard to their mental health challenges?

The response has been amazing. I knew it was a good book, and a good read. I think it made people understand that life isn’t always easy or perfect. And there will be awfulness in it. But there will also be greatness, too. My illness will never define me. And it didn’t defeat me. My story is a positive and beautiful story, and I think people saw that. 

You also have a blog. How does writing help with your recovery? 

I can’t believe how much I love to write. I love the freedom of words. I never was able to journal, still to this day, as my mind is a little complex. But when I have goals, like to do a blog post, I can write. 

Sometimes expressing how I feel when speaking or texting, I can’t do it properly, I am learning, but when I sit down and prepare to write a blog post, the words just flow, it’s like when I write my advocacy speech, it just naturally happens – the words just fill the pages.

When you’re not advocating for mental health awareness, what do you like to spend your spare time doing?

I focus on work and school. However, I love, and I mean love, being active. Running, walking, hot yoga, biking. I love stillness practice. I can’t do meditation because my mind doesn’t like it. Dinners with family and friends. Great takeout. Reading. Shopping. I am trying to date, and I’m not doing the greatest (laughs), but learning many lessons. I like meeting new people and cherishing old ones. Oh, and I love to travel. 

If you had to plan a lazy Sunday in Hamilton, what would your ideal day off look like?

Well, I would wake up around 5:30 and go on my computer, put my phone away for an hour or two. Do a five-to-10K run; probably closer to 10K. Then put my phone away and focus on school. Possibly listen to a bit of an audio book, go to a hot yoga class or go shopping. Work on school some more, see family or friends or no one. Watch football or golf. Make dinner or get takeout. Possibly bake. Then go to bed early and watch Netflix.

Where’s your favourite local spot to go for a nice meal out?

Oh my goodness there are too many. For takeout I love Planted in Hamilton or The Burnt Tongue. For dinner out, again it would be Planted or The Burnt Tongue. Or Cima, I love their rigatoni;  The Mule, (because who doesn’t love tacos?!), La Cantina as it’s a classic and, of course, Radius. I also want to try the Electric Diner as I’ve heard so good things. For coffee and dessert, again it’s Planted in Hamilton, Bitten, Grandads Donuts, Donut Monster, Madam BonBon, Democracy/Mulberry, Starbucks, Chocolat on James, I like them all! I can’t pick just one. I do like eating out and dessert!

I try to follow the 80-20 rule. I did a lot of research on fitness years ago, and restrictive diets don’t work, so I believe in never refraining when you feel like something. So, every day I eat 80 per cent healthy and 20 per cent maybe not as healthy. It’s all about balance and non restriction while remaining fit and healthy. 

What’s the future look like for Samantha Mercanti?

Well, the future is uncertain for everyone, including me. I hope to be vice-president of Mercanti Management Inc. and graduate from my MBA program. I would like to make more of an impact through our foundation and continue to advocate. Possibly write another book. Maybe do a neuroscience degree – the one I was supposed to do before becoming sick. One thing I know, I will never stop, ever. Promise me, you will never stop, too.