By Al Beeber on October 23, 2021.
In a few months, Jason Wegner will be graduating from the University of Lethbridge with teaching degree in hand, an accomplishment that may not have seemed imaginable when he was hospitalized just four years ago because of bipolar disorder.
Wegner, now a 24-year-old student teacher at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, has chronicled his journey from the depths of despair of mental illness to life looking forward to a bright future in a memoir called “Manic Man: How to Live Successfully with a Severe Mental Illness,” co-written by his psychologist Dr. Kerry Bernes, a professor of Educational and Counselling Psychology in the Faculty of Education at the U of L.
Bernes encouraged Wegner to write the book who said that was a goal he wanted to accomplish in six years.
Bernes, who Wegner said diagnosed him within five minutes of talking to him, suggested six months.
The first draft was finished by the fall of 2019 and after one-and-half-years, Wegner secured a publishing deal with Cherish Editions, which is the self-publishing division of Trigger Publishing, a UK mental health and wellbeing publisher.
The book was released this week and is now available at Chapters, Analog Books, the U of L bookstore and on Amazon.
Wegner saw his life turn upside down when he was 20 years old and just beginning his university studies. He says that first manic episode was triggered by a combination of drugs, stress and genes – an uncle committed suicide a few years ago after dealing with his own mental health problems. An episode after doing LSD on Canada Day in 2017 was the first step in a perilous downhill slide for Wegner, who at 20 was highly driven and ambitious.
On a trip to Africa to build a school with the WE Foundation two weeks later, Wegner’s world began to collapse when he was nearly sent home for sneaking alcohol and cigarettes and other conduct.
“While I was in Africa, I’m in the middle of a manic episode and mania. A lot of stuff happened that I mention in the book, like 300 pages of notes in 16 days, over two hours of audio journal, antagonistic conversations with other people on the trip, almost getting sent home from the trip because of sneaking alcohol and smokes on the trip. And then I came home and my parents were really concerned. I got off the plane and the two-and-a-half hour drive home from Calgary airport to Lethbridge was just me stopping non stop and they knew something was wrong,” Wegner recalled in an interview this week.
Wegner had high hopes for himself, settling on a 10-year plan that included writing a novel, getting two PhDs and touring with a Pink Floyd cover band.
He moved out of his parent’s home three days later after the Africa trip to live with a friend, his plan being to pursue his ambitious dreams.
“I was living in complete squalor. I wasn’t eating, I was hardly sleeping, I didn’t unpack my bags. It was complete chaos. My parents knew something was wrong but they couldn’t pinpoint it.”
Eventually, they got him to see Bernes who gave Wegner’s mom a note urging her to call him right away.
While staying at his parents home one night, he was admitted to hospital after taking five books outside to the backyard on a sleepless night, when his family called paramedics. His mom begged them to take Jason to hospital but they told her there was nothing they could do. So she challenged Jason to prove he was fine by going to hospital with them, a challenge he couldn’t refuse, he recalled.
“I was a walking mental case,” Wegner said bluntly.
He spent 57 days in the acute psychiatry ward at the hospital, at first refusing to take medications until being threatened that he would get them by injection if he didn’t after a nurse saw him spit out his pills, which was his homage to Jack Nicholson’s character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“I was so sick,” he said.
After being released from hospital, he suffered severe depression for seven months and struggled for a year as the right dose of medication was worked out for him, at one point gaining 70 lbs.
He skipped the fall semester of 2017 but in 2018 went back to school, taking three courses that he would find interesting at the suggestion of Bernes. He took two more during summer school and then another three in the fall of 2018.
Before his manic episode, Wegner was taking five classes and working two jobs, putting in 20 hours a week on top of his studies to pay for the $5,000 Africa trip.
All these details and many more are included in his memoir.
Mens’ mental health, says Wegner, is not understood or acknowledged by many people.
“You’re told to man up and shut up. It’s toxic behaviour,” he says.
“It’s an invisible illness,” Wegner said of bipolar disorder, with no Band Aid that can be used to heal it.
Wegner knows he is one toke away from landing back in hospital and is focused on leading a healthy lifestyle. He follows the “Octagon of Life” approach, which focuses on exercise, nutrition exposure therapy, cognitive therapy, relationships, career, finances and mental health balance.
He knows he will always have bipolar disorder but has to learn to live with it. The longer he goes without a manic episode, the less likely he will have another one, he said of the disorder.
Since coming out public with his mental health problems on a friend’s Instagram page, he has launched a speaking career with seven appearances so far as a keynote speaker.
A lifelong Lethbridge resident, Wegner hopes to land a teaching job in Lethbridge after he graduates and stay in his hometown.
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