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The son who vanished …

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Jay When he started to experience the recovery, it was like having your long-lost son return from someplace, after he had been presumed missing.

If you met Jesse Bigelow today, more than eight years since his release from the hospital, it would never cross your mind that he had a mental illness. He's tall and clean-shaven; his handshake is friendly, his eyes warm. He makes jokes. He tells his story frankly and with an easy eloquence.

Out for a walk, he offers to help a elderly man cross the street and waves at his hairdresser through the window of his salon.

Over the years, he has reclaimed his life, piece by piece, and in many ways started fresh. He falls within the lucky percentage of people with schizophrenia who are able, though medication, to control the disease.

Now 29, he attends a United Church faithfully (something he never would have done before his diagnosis) and sings with a band in a local pub on Sunday nights.

He is working toward his black belt in karate.

For two years, he has been dating a woman he met during a poker tournament; she knows that he has schizophrenia. And after three years at Burger King, he is now a peer-support worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association, helping young people who are suffering their first psychotic incidents, and speaking publicly about his illness. He encourages people to seek treatment early, a key factor in better outcomes.

He feels a sense of purpose he did not have before. "I am trying to be a good man now," he says. "Someone I can be proud of."

Melissa, now 34, has a newfound respect for her brother. She works as a property manager, having decided after his illness not to pursue a career in psychology: "I decided I couldn't sit there every day talking to people with these issues and not be sure I could get them to come out on the other side."

Healthy as he is, Jesse is not cured. At times, he has experienced "breakthrough symptoms," times when his medication, which comes with a risk of serious side effects, must be increased.

He recognizes them now — the sensation that his left arm feels detached from his body, or feeling overwhelmed and crowded by people on the street. And though his mother knows he can be trusted to take his medication, she still finds herself occasionally checking the pillbox in the morning.

She and Jay worry: Jesse may never have a full relapse, but what if some day it happens when they aren't around?

"That's the one lingering question mark," Jay says. "Can this last? Is this permanent?"

Three months ago, on the subway, Jesse heard the voice again. It was, he says, the scariest experience of his whole life, not because he would ever act on it, but because of what the voice was muttering to him: "Kill yourself. Kill others."

It felt so real when it happened that he still had to reason it through: "Logically, I know that I can't read people's minds. I am sure this is not what they are thinking. But I hear it nonetheless."

Susan The thing that bothers me is that there were so many times we could have said, "Just get out." And he would have been living on the street — or dying on the street. I think that's the most frightening. There are so many people on the street with mental illness, and that's what happened. I understand. You just can't put up with them any more. But you have to.

Jay Don't give up hope. When it looks really bleak, there is room to get better.

Jesse Nowadays, we can talk about schizophrenia, we can talk about bipolar, and hopefully it doesn't send a shiver up people's spine. I like to say "schizophrenia" 10 times a day, so eventually people can say it without even thinking twice.

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