Easy Rider

For Michael Schratter, cycling around the world to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association is a breeze. The hard part was going public with his own illness

January 7, 2011

By C.L. Caulfield / Photo: Michael Schratter

Last May, Michael Schratter stood before a group of students crammed into a classroom at David Oppenheimer Elementary, where he teaches fifth grade. He told them that in the summer he’d be leaving on a long bicycle trip. Outlining his projected route on a Smart Board, he described his plan to cycle 40,000 kilometres in 400 days to raise funds for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and help remove the stigma around those who’ve suffered from mental illness.

“Where will you go to the bathroom?” asked a 10-year-old boy.

“Like a bear, in the woods,” Schratter answered. (Loud chorus of “Eeeeewww!”)

“Where will you have a shower?”

“Mostly in lakes or rivers along the way.”

“So you’ll be naked?” (Uncontrollable giggles.)

A week earlier, when Schratter told his colleagues of his plans, it required nakedness of a different sort. Until then, he’d let only a few family members and friends know that he’d been diagnosed as hypomanic, a mild form of bipolar, in 1990, and with ADHD a few years after that. “People ask me how I have the courage to bike around the world,” he says. “That to me is the easy part. The hard part was when I had to admit to the staff at school that I suffered from mental illness.”

Built like a rugby winger-lean and compact, with a beaming smile and a shock of strawberry blond curls-Schratter, 41, makes a compelling, if complex, poster boy for mental illness, especially in a city that has practically made a tourist attraction of its outdoor insane asylum. “The Downtown Eastside,” he says, “these poor people muttering to themselves-that’s what most people think of. Yet one in five people will be treated for some form of mental illness in their lifetimes, and virtually everyone is affected by it.”

[List: 330 | Schratter set off on August 1, heading south. Click here for a selection of our favourite photos from his journey thus far.]

A couple of months later, at a fundraising event at the Buschlen-Mowatt Gallery, Senator Larry Campbell addressed the packed room. “When I was asked to speak tonight, I said, ‘Michael who?’ ‘You know, that guy that’s always telling you where to stand at events so he can take your picture.’ And I said, ‘That Michael? He’s mentally ill?'” Until then, Campbell had known Schratter as the society columnist and photographer for 24 Hours, a moonlighting gig from his teaching job. By this point, the CMHA had endorsed Schratter’s effort, numerous sponsors had stepped up, and the mayor had proclaimed August 1—Schratter’s departure date—Ride Don’t Hide Day. Schratter had started a website (Ridedonthide.com) and a Facebook page encouraging others to share their stories. At the event, Campbell told of how depression had impacted his life; a young family member had committed suicide a few weeks earlier.

Long-time CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers also spoke at the launch. Her own struggle with depression once culminated in a four-month leave of absence from the CBC. “I’d had surgery before,” she told the crowd, “and I’d broken my leg, and when I came back from those leaves, there were flowers and cake. Well, no one brings you flowers and cake when you come back from depression. No one wants to talk to you.”

That’s the sort of stigma Schratter has felt all his life. Growing up in Vernon, he knew he was different. “Socially, I was having difficulties. I had an inability to focus, I was bored, hyper at school. I was always in gifted classes, but I underperformed.” Intensely curious, he began a quest of self-diagnosis. “I was nine, maybe 10, and the magic knower of everything was Encyclopedia Britannica. Night after night I stayed up after bedtime with my little flashlight, scaring the shit out of myself reading about mental illness.”

His parents were respected educators. His father, Jack, had emigrated from Romania by lottery in 1962 at age 27. He’d worked at Army & Navy in Vancouver for a year until he raised enough money to bring his girlfriend, Margit, to join him. With a Ph.D in calculus and physics, Jack Schratter started teaching at the Okanagan University College. Margit became a high school teacher. Learning disabilities and mental illness were not much discussed in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and when Schratter tried to talk to his parents about his troubles at school he usually wound up angry and frustrated. The onset of bipolar disorder often coincides with the onset of adolescence; its manic symptoms—euphoria, extreme optimism, exaggerated self-esteem, rapid speech, racing thoughts, irritability, and impulsivity—are often chalked up to teenage hormones, rebellion, and withdrawal. “My father’s answer,” he recalls, “was always, ‘What’s wrong is you need to apply yourself. Stop being lazy.'”

Jack Schratter loved cycling. He bicycled to work every day, and summers were spent on family bike tours, which Michael loved. Once the school year started, though, his self-esteem plunged. “Through it all I was very unhappy. I was so concerned about being perceived as normal, I can’t imagine how much emotional and intellectual power I wasted trying to fit in.” In his senior year of high school he moved in with a friend and the friend’s father. “I never doubted that my parents loved me,” he says. “They just didn’t understand me.” He shrugs. “I didn’t understand myself.”

After high school Schratter moved to Vancouver, bartending and waiting tables, feeling a freedom he’d never known. After two years in the city, encouraged by his dad, he felt ready to return home, buckle down, and find the focus that had eluded him. He returned to Vernon and enrolled at Okanagan University College. “I really wanted to succeed, came back expecting to succeed, and also had a desire to please my parents. To make a long story short, it did not go well. Here I was, in my father’s colleagues’ classes, fucking up royally. I had my first really big depressive episode and made an attempt on my life.”

Despondent after yet another fight with his father, Schratter got $400 from a cash machine, went to a drugstore, and bought chocolate milk and two bottles of Tylenol 3. He gave a group of homeless men the rest of his cash and his bank card, complete with PIN number. “I won’t be needing this anymore,” he explained. In nearby woods, he gulped the pills down with chocolate milk, then waited. “Time slows right down,” he recalls, “and your mind starts playing games. I kept thinking about my grandmother, who had always represented unconditional love to me. I realized this would kill her.” He made his way to the nearest house, knocked, and asked the person who answered to call 911. At the hospital, his stomach was pumped. Later he was told he was lucky to have drunk chocolate milk, which probably slowed absorption.

Traumatic as it was, the suicide attempt led to Schratter getting the help he needed. A doctor diagnosed him as hypomanic; he started in therapy and, under supervision, began to experiement with medications. “Everyone agreed it was best I return to Vancouver, where I was happiest.” He was attending Douglas College. At Christmas, when he returned home, his dad offered to tutor him for exams. The old tensions surfaced, though, culminating in a blow up. Schratter cut short his visit. He was back at school when his father, commuting along Highway 97, lost control of his bike at high speed and hit his head. “I was called in to the office and told to come home immediately. They were keeping him on life support until I got there.”

His father’s death devastated his mother and his grandmother, who was starting to lose her faculties. Schratter and a friend rented a three-bedroom apartment and assumed responsibility for the elderly woman’s care. “My mom and brother say I’ve got it wrong,” he says, emotion welling up, “but I always felt that taking care of my dad’s mother was a way I could redeem myself in his eyes.”

Before long, Schratter found an old dream tugging at his sleeve. Inspired by the family bike trips he’d taken in the Okanagan, and later in Europe, he decided to cycle across Canada. “I wanted to explore my country, have an adventure, and gain confidence as a traveller—confidence to get myself into, and out of, any situation.” His brother agreed to look after their grandmother, and in 1994 Schratter set out to ride roughly 8,500 kilometres in less than four months. “My biggest fear, knowing my diagnosis, was being alone with myself, but that turned out to be the best part. It was really cool—I met so many great people and felt so free. My first thought, when I finally rode into St. John’s, Newfoundland, was: I want to do this around the world. As I crossed Canada, people kept asking me, ‘What cause are you doing this for?'” So it got in my head I’d do it for mental illness.”

Last spring, when Schratter approached Ronnie Ross, his principal at Oppenheimer, about a leave, she got on board at once. “Michael’s illness is part of him,” she says, “and what makes him special. He’s a gifted teacher because of his compassion. With his intensity and his passion, I had no doubt he’d achieve what he set out to do.”

What he wants to do is make us think differently about mental illness. Thirty years ago, before Terry Fox set off on his cross-Canada run, cancer occupied a similar place in the popular imagination: it was a frightful, poorly understood thing, a word rarely uttered and more often acknowledged with a curt, grim nod. Perhaps what gives mental illness its aversive power is that its symptoms are extensions of the normal human spectrum. Everyone has good days and sad days, knows the giddy pleasure of getting drunk and the adrenalin rush of high-risk activities. We’ve all dealt with the stresses of life by not getting out of bed, procrastinating, distracting ourselves. Schratter believes that if we talk openly about mental illness, demystify it, we’ll help many people function with their affliction, even flourish.

Last July, not long before he set off, Schratter stood amid the chaos of his West End condo, sorting and packing. There were books and magazines scattered about, and empty plastic totes, and piles of clothes and personal items. He’d sublet the condo to a friend, and his brother had already driven Schratter’s car to Kelowna.

“This is what I find difficult,” he said. “Just keeping it together to get organized. Focusing. And that’s with all the support I’ve been getting.” With the right help, Schratter has shown, mental illness needn’t be a barrier to living a rich, full life. But how do you connect the mentally ill to the help, when mental illness is shrouded in stigma and taboo? “When you think of how many people have these problems that go unrecognized…” He ticked off a list of achievers and prominent people who’ve been diagnosed with, or are thought to have suffered from, some form of mental illness: Mozart. Brooke Shields. Winston Churchill. Robin Williams. Ashley Judd. Margaret Trudeau. Jim Carrey.

A week later, when he crossed into the United States at Blaine, an American border guard asked when he’d be returning. Schratter explained that he’d be leaving the U.S. by cycling into Mexico. “He called me irresponsible,” Schratter reported on his blog, “and told me I was crazy. I said, ‘Tell me something I don’t know.'”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.