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Meet an adolescent dedicated to speaking out

This story was first printed May 4, 2007, just before Alyse Schacter was to receive a Courage to Come Back award

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When Alyse Schacter was in Grade 7, her classmates started piggybacking her to class so her feet wouldn't touch the floor.

Diagnosed at age 12 with both obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome, she would be constantly late because she could not bear to step on any cracks on the way from her locker to class, and would have to start the trip over if she did.

Now 16, the Ottawa student has more than 6,000 rituals she must adhere to each day, from washing her hands repeatedly to asking her friends and family: "You know I'm grateful, right?"

She hears a voice in her head that insists she repeat certain movements and words, and has an irrational sense of urgency that causes her to stop in the middle of a sentence to make sure she hasn't offended anyone.

But last night, she was preparing to hear a voice call her name to a roomful of applause. Alyse was honoured by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation's Courage to Come Back Awards.

Alyse, despite her challenges, has made a mark on her community through her efforts to raise awareness about mental illness, and to convey to other kids that "you can still be normal even if you're being weird."

Since her diagnosis, the effervescent strawberry blonde has been open about her struggles, explaining her condition to her friends, and instructing her parents to visit her school and explain the diagnoses to her class.

"To be honest, sometimes young people can be more understanding," Alyse said yesterday. "We tend to be more open-minded."

Her accomplishments are impressive because so many people treat mental illness as something to hide, or to be embarrassed about.

But her mother, Shereen Benzvy Miller, said that while the treatments Alyse has received so far have been largely ineffective, her struggles never seemed to slow her down.

"She has woken up with a smile on her face every day of her life," Ms. Benzvy Miller said.

The first sign that Alyse was different came when she began digging her nails into her thighs, and telling her parents that the voice in her head was hurting her.

Since then, Alyse finished Grades 7 and 8 in a hospital school, and attended Canterbury High School in Ottawa through Grade 9 and the first semester of Grade 10 before spending five more months in hospital.

Now she studies from home, taking classes via the Internet and earning grades that land her at the top of her class.

She has done much more than simply earn good grades. Fluently bilingual, Alyse won the francophone category in the Ottawa-wide public-speaking competition in 2005.On her 11th birthday, Alyse burst into tears at the thought of receiving 25 presents, one from each guest invited to her party, and insisted instead that they bring something to be donated to the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Along with her younger sister, 14-year-old Cara, Alyse fundraises for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Canada, and volunteers at a soup kitchen and a nursing home. She credits her sister with helping her when she gets stuck by a tic, keeping her trapped in the shower or unable to move down the street. "She rescues me," she says of Cara.

Yesterday, as she prepared to give her acceptance speech, Alyse said she was happy to have had her hair done at a Toronto salon, sparing her the struggle of getting ready herself.

"I don't have to worry about washing my hair," she said with relief.

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