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Surviving the storm

From darkness and death to recovery and repentance, Brian Rose is now using his experience with mental illness to try and save others

After being found not criminally responsible for the killing of his grandmother in 2010, Brian Rose has been working hard to help others suffering with schizophrenia. He was recently named one of the “Faces of Mental Illness”, an advocacy role with the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel).

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Author’s note: In 2013, Brian Rose was found not criminally responsible in the killing of his grandmother. It was the darkest moment in his ongoing battle with schizophrenia.

Most recently, Rose was named one of the “Faces of Mental Illness” by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, an honour that allows him to help others suffering from the disease. It’s something he’s done ever since his NCR ruling and in his time spent at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences.

The Oshawa Express sat down with Rose to help him tell his story, from start to finish, in an effort to show those who may be suffering with schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses, that no matter how bad it gets, there is always hope.

Brian Rose sat in the jail cell, unmoving; the stillness betrayed nothing of the madness within him.

In his hand, he clutched a card from his mother. A large oak tree stood sentry in the middle. The inscription was about standing tall and weathering the storm.

From the start of his downward spiral, Rose had dropped over 50 pounds. His facial hair, left unkempt, had grown into a long, dishevelled beard. He rarely showered.

He stared at the card, the hurricane inside his head keeping him from fully comprehending its meaning.

The 32-year-old’s life had dissolved into a nightmare of which he couldn’t escape. A nightmare of delusion, hallucination and hearing voices that weren’t there. A nightmare that ended with Rose killing his grandmother with a shotgun and burning her body in the backyard of her home in Brant County.

Sitting in that cell, the storm continued to rage inside his head. It would be some time before he broke free.

That was seven years ago, and it was the darkest point in Rose’s ongoing battle with schizophrenia.

It was a battle that had been ongoing for years.

Before the incident

The trajectory matched that of many university graduates starting their careers.

Rose completed his degree in geography from McMaster University in 2006 and almost immediately landed a job as an environmental engineer in Alberta. His job entailed working and planning with teams to clean up patches of contaminated soil.

And while he worked to start a successful life for himself, there was something lingering in the background, a feeling that had followed him from university.

“I noticed that I had paranoia, I felt feelings of being followed,” Rose recalls, noting that this feeling became worse around the police or when he was drinking or taking drugs, vices he has struggled to control all of his life. “I believed microphones were being put in my house, even when I was in university.”

However, while out west, things only started to get worse, that feeling of paranoia growing arms, legs and a voice as his illness progressed into auditory and visual hallucinations.

“It was all the time,” Rose recalls. “I actually thought it was God speaking to me and it’s embarrassing sometimes, but it is what it is.”

And the voices terrified him, keeping him awake for hours, only allowing him to sleep when his body could physically no longer stay awake.

“People try and rationalize what they’re hearing and see and put it all together. It’s such an intricate illness and it devastates your brain,” he says. “It was such a tough period in my life and I could not get help.”

In 2009, Rose moved back to Ontario and eventually ended up staying on his grandmother’s farm.

The incident

Rose would later tell psychiatrists that God has spoken to him, saying that unless he went through with it, the world would end.

In the months leading up to the incident, media reports from the inevitable trial detail the more erratic of Rose’s behaviour, including telling his mother he thought he was Jesus Christ, and moving into the bedroom of a deceased uncle, who also suffered from schizophrenia, and painting it multiple colours.

“The thoughts of that time are very cloudy,” Rose says. “I was in such a state of delusion and hallucinating and hearing things.”

Before the tragic incident, there were warning signs that something was seriously wrong.

A week before the killing, Rose was arrested by Brantford police for waving a pick axe at cars on the side of the road. He was placed in a 72-hour mental health unit in a Brantford hospital before being released.

Upon his release, he walked the nearly 30 kilometres from the hospital to his grandmother’s home, where days later, he would take her life.

“My life was chaos,” Rose says.

In August of 2010, Rose shot his grandmother Janina Kurzyna, who was 85 at the time, with a 12-gauage shotgun at close-range. He then took her body into the backyard where it was burned almost beyond recognition.

When pressed, Rose says he doesn’t remember the incident itself, or removing the shotgun from the rack, shooting his grandmother in her bed, or taking her body outside to be incinerated.

“It was such confusion. It’s all blurry. When I look back it’s like looking into a tornado, my mind was just a mess. I couldn’t function,” he says.

It wasn’t until many days later, after sitting in jail, and then meeting with his lawyer that the full gravity of what he did sunk in. As they prepared for Rose’s first-degree murder trial, his lawyer opened a folder of newspaper clippings, many of them front page stories detailing the gruesome events from his grandmother’s farm.

“It was like being hit by a train,” Rose says. “She was my world, she used to call me her son…we had such a tight bond and a good relationship, and to know that I shot my grandmother, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

In March 2013, with the help of his lawyer Mike McArthur, Rose was found not criminally responsible (NCR) for the killing by a jury in a Norfolk courtroom.

When his treatment began, he was transferred to Ontario Shores, where things started to turn around

After the incident

The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health is a collective of organizations that work with those suffering from mental illness and their families to keep the mental health mandate on the national stage and to ensure that sufferers can continue to receive the care and support they need.

Rose will now take centre stage with the organization, alongside a small contingent of other “faces of mental illness” who will work to spread that message.

“It’s been a huge honour for me because I can share my story and help those Brians out there suffering in silence. Schizophrenia is not something talked about, it’s embarrassing to some, it’s wrong, people can’t get the help,” Rose says. “To be nominated for something and to talk about something, it makes me proud to overcome such an illness and be in a recovery state where I can give back.”

For Rose, the focus needs to be on ensuring that people stop falling through the cracks, like he did.

Several times, including in 2010 before the incident, Rose’s family tried to get him help. He was prescribed anti-depressants and anxiety medication. However, he wasn’t given anti-psychotic drugs to deal with his schizophrenia and the eventual psychosis that consumed him.

It’s an issue that has pushed schizophrenia into the realm of taboo, and for Rose, it doesn’t leave many options for people suffering with the disease, often leading them to take their own lives.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of schizophrenics, that’s the only way out for them. It’s so hard to live with and you can’t get help,” he says. “I find with anxiety and depression, they can talk about it openly, but when it comes to severe mental illness like bipolar or schizophrenia, people just don’t want to deal with it. They get Hollywood’s perception of what it is and that’s the way they learn.”

From early on in his treatment, Rose has been sharing his story and following a speech at the Education Celebration at Ontario Shores, he has turned his mind to consistent advocacy. Through a blog type e-journal, Rose writes in partnership with the University of Toronto on different mental health topics. He also worked with the Patient Advisory Recovery Committee at Ontario Shores and is part of a group at the hospital that is researching seclusion and restraining topics with the goal of eventually eliminating the practice.

Rose also spends time giving speeches about his experience and recovery as well as working with other patients as a mentor. He hopes to one day enter a peer support role with the hospital.

“I do this for the Brians that are suffering in silence, I do it for the next Brian so that he gets the early help and the treatment and that’s why I do this and I do it in my grandmother’s memory, beyond anything.”

Rose says he still has the card that his mother gave him. The one with the oak tree weathering the storm.

Now, Rose knows that the storm has passed.

He’s living in the Durham Region, has a job, and a girlfriend. He says at times it’s hard knowing that some people don’t believe in the NCR ruling, and think that he should instead be rotting in a jail cell.

However, just like in that jail cell so many years ago, Brian continues to hold onto the one thing that got him through.

Hope.

It’s something he wants to give to others now.

“It’s hard to tap into that, but you can’t quit, you can’t give up, you’ve always got to progress and push forward and I hope if somebody reads this story, they won’t give up, they’ll see that there is recovery from a major mental illness.”

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