Like my father and his father before him, I’ve battled anxiety all my life. I learned early how important it is to talk about it. It’s taken some time, but I’m finally ready to share my story.Bradley Bezan
Home and Second Home
I grew up in Kapuskasing, Ontario. Industry town. Remote. A great place to grow up, but also a tough place to grow up. Like most people from Kap, my dad worked at the local mill. It was hard work – constant noise, heavy machinery, long hours. Over time it wore him down.
Growing up in Kap, you didn’t talk about mental health. Alcoholism and depression were common, but you wouldn’t know it from the outside. Like his father before him, my dad had been battling anxiety and depression his whole life. The stress and exhaustion from work slowly made it worse. For years he managed without really dealing with it. He kept it hidden from us until, eventually, it became impossible to hide. That was around when I started high school. From then on, his illness was this constant presence in our home, like a thick fog.
I was never a great student. I’m the type of person who always asks, “Why?” “What’s the benefit of this?” School didn’t always have an answer to those questions. I didn’t fit there. What I really loved was working with kids. When I was 15, I worked my first summer at a camp run by Family Services. That’s where I found my passion. My purpose.
I was brought up to see a lot of potential in people, and I saw it in the kids at Camp Cadanac. Many came from the foster care system and low-income families. Many struggled with behavioural issues, ADHD, anxiety, and intellectual and physical disabilities. Many were already highly medicated. They were all unique, but they’d all been dealt a rough hand.
My camp name was Scuttle, after the seagull from The Little Mermaid – fun, goofy, and always ready with an idea for the next crazy thing. Camp was an outlet, a second home. I was surrounded by kids who I connected with. Kids I related to. In my third summer, I became the camp coordinator. It was the best time of my life. I met my future wife and mother of my two sons, Cooper and Preston. At home, though, the fog was getting thicker.
Heroic Through the Struggle
In the summer after my first year at Lakehead, it became clear that Dad needed the kind of help we couldn’t provide. We sat down as a family, pooled our resources together, and got him a spot in one of Canada’s most sought after rehab facilities.
My dad was heroic through the struggle. He went against the grain and spoke openly about his illness. He encouraged me to use my story to help the kids I was working with. He used to tell us, ‘If somebody breaks their arm or is diagnosed with cancer, we sympathize with them. If somebody has a mental illness, we back off; we don’t know how to deal with it. But they’re the same. They’re the same.’
That fall, I transferred to the Social Sciences program at Ottawa U. For the next three years, I pushed through, trying to finish my degree. During that time, my dad was in and out of rehab multiple times. One afternoon while I was studying, I got a call from my doctor. “If you don’t bring your dad into the hospital, he’s not going to make it through the weekend.” I made the 10-hour drive to Kapuskasing to check him into the hospital. He weighed only 80 lbs at the time. After that, I made the drive home as often as I could.
In the summer after my 3rd year at Ottawa U, I was given more bad news. Camp Cadanac had closed for restructuring. I was already providing respite care in my spare time and loving it. I was really connecting with kids who were struggling at home and in school and making a difference in their lives. With camp closed, I stayed in Ottawa for the summer to do respite full-time. I didn’t go back to school that fall.
I took my last ten thousand from my student loan and registered for the best training I could find on connecting with and inspiring individuals facing various challenges. I trained all over Canada, in Louisiana, London and Paris. At that time, I had no thought of starting a company, I just wanted to be the best respite caregiver I could be. But I quickly became frustrated.
I was a cog in a machine that wasn’t working particularly well. I would sit in committee meetings to represent a kid I was working with, and there would be 12 people there who didn’t really know him. Sometimes the parents wouldn’t even be invited. How can you provide good care if you don’t know the person and you’re not involving their family?
I was part of a care system that was all about making sure someone shows up, with little thought put into who shows up and what happens when they get there. To give an example: I once worked with a 12-year-old boy who had recently lost his dad. When care had to be discontinued, we weren’t allowed to see or speak to each other ever again. You don’t need to be a clinician to understand how upsetting this would be for any kid, let alone one who was already dealing with the pain of a huge loss. Needless to say, I did not follow procedure on this one.
There were a lot of ways my approach differed from my employer’s. The biggest one was my conviction that you have to build a relationship before you can have any impact as a caregiver. When my clients made it clear that they preferred my approach, I decided to set out on my own. Within a year, my schedule was full. Referral organizations started approaching me. They wanted to know what I was doing and why it was working so well.
Eventually, I had a decision to make: start turning down clients, or find someone to work alongside me. When I met Mike McNeil – whose importance to this story I don’t have space to do justice to here – the decision became an easy one. That’s when Spark was truly born: a social enterprise whose purpose would be to help people live happier, healthier lives.
I’m convinced that all of the credentials in the world mean nothing if you aren’t creating real, meaningful relationships with the people you’re supporting. I felt if we could build a business on a model that put relationships first; if we could find passionate and creative people who not only had the education and experience but who truly cared about their clients, that we could do something special.
Mike’s background in recreation therapy and incredible people skills were a godsend. After he joined the team, the referrals were coming in more quickly. We also started getting calls from other people like us. Caregivers who had a real passion for this work, who wanted to do it differently. We were growing fast and attracting attention for our innovative approach. In the fall of 2013, we received the Rising Star Award from Invest Ottawa for our contributions to the city’s startup ecosystem. It seemed like everything was falling into place. I was so excited about where we were headed.
8 months later, Michael “Buzz” Bezan lost his battle with mental illness. His body had been through too much. On July 11th, 2014, his heart suddenly stopped beating.
It Doesn’t Define Us
Growing up, my dad was always the life of the party. Constantly cracking jokes and making people feel comfortable. He loved sports, and was a great hockey player. We would have his homemade pizza at big family dinners and watch the world juniors, loudly informing the players what they really should’ve done with the puck. My parents were old school: strict on being polite and finishing what you started. We often saw things differently, but I never felt limited or pressured to walk a certain path. And I never doubted that they loved me.
I started Spark for a lot of reasons. I wanted to make people’s lives better, and this was the best way I knew how to do it. I also wanted to create a workplace that was a real community – a place where you feel valued and empowered. Where you can be yourself. But I also did it for me and my dad. To show him and everyone else that you can have a mental illness and still follow your dreams, that it doesn’t have to define you. I’m not going to lose this battle. I’m going to win it for him.
It took me a long time to begin to face my anxiety and slowly take back control of my life. When it was at its worst, I wouldn’t see anybody. I wouldn’t go out, answer my phone or do much of anything. But something amazing had begun happening. Whenever I was working with a kid, the anxiety would fade away. It turned out that the best treatment for my struggle was helping other people deal with theirs.
I’ve since combined that treatment with exercise, talk therapy, medication, hard work and the love and support of my family and friends. Time spent with Cooper and Preston is therapy in itself. I feel healthier and happier. I know my limitations. I’ll always have anxiety; it’s never going to disappear fully. But I’ve gone beyond surviving. I’ve finally learned how to live.
I’m a misfit. It’s OK to be a misfit. My thinking is: instead of letting the world force you to fit in somewhere, build a community where you and other misfits can fit in together. Spark is more than just a Monday to Friday for us. Spark is our vocation. It’s where we belong.
I’m sharing my story because mental illness is dark, and the only way to fight darkness is to shine a light on it. This July 14th would have been my dad’s 58th birthday. Starting this year, it will be a paid day off for employees, to spend with someone who struggles with mental illness. I encourage everyone across Spark to use this time to support someone they know who is experiencing challenges.
To talk with them, listen to them, laugh with them. A day to tell our stories and shine a light on the dark corners of our lives. Buzz Day. Named after my favourite misfit.
Thank you for sharing Sparklife is my lifeline ☺️ You and your team are the definition of excellence in care respite for our special needs children I find my answer about what make your service outstanding because you have it straight from your heart to our children’s hearts ♥️ thank you
Wow what a beautiful message. Thank you, Marie. It has been such a pleasure working with you and your family. Wishing you and the family a happy and safe holiday. See you in 2021.
Omg love it you are an inspiration to all keep up the good work will forward to my daughter in law from Ottawa who also struggles with anxiety as well as my grandson .
Thank you so much for your kind post, Lyn. Let’s hope we continue to create progress in talking about these tough things. Take care
You shine bright among many stars inspiring others to be the best they can possibly be
Thank you so much, Jennifer. This means a lot to me. All the best.
Very inspiring story. I never knew this about you. Sometimes as teachers and coaches we assume we can recognize this. Obviously i was wrong.
Thanks Mitch. It definitely is something that is tough to talk about, especially in a small town. You get so used to putting on a different face hoping to get by just like everyone else.
Thank you for sharing your story. It is nice to know that we are not alone and everyone has similar trauma in their lives that has affected them in similar ways. I also share a very similar trauma. I suffered anxiety after my father lost his struggle to Mental illness 5 years ago. He was also from Kap as I. I watched many family members with this illness growing up but particularly my father. He to was involved in sports, smart and a great job, two beautiful daughters, but none of that mattered without his health. Growing up I tried to help him but feel I may have enabled him as did his family. I also learned through my experience is that if they don’t want to physically help themselves how can we help them. They have to want to. I also was tired of being the parent in the relationship. I was just tired and wanted to start living my own life. I never disowned my father. We spoke and we saw each other. Since his passing I have faced anxiety, anger, regret and the big question what more could have I done for him? I have learned to let go of all of this and have found a balance between my children, family, spirituality and health and wellness. My father may have went to school with your father. My Dad would have been 59 today! His name was Gerry Sonier.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. Enabling a loved one is a very very tough thing to try to wrap your head around and understand. My dad always taught me that you never ever give up on family but at a certain point you can’t sacrifice your own mental wellbeing. Towards the end, I found peace in finally realizing that I wasn’t going to be the one to change the circumstance but I did promise him one thing, I would never give up on loving him. There were days when I had to leave and days where I couldn’t bring myself to go but when he passed, I thanked god every day that I always answered when he called. Love was unconditional but how could I help him if I wasn’t caring for myself? I selfishly refused to bear the consequence of living with ignoring that last call or being mad at him during the last time that I saw him.
Wishing you the best!
Oh I like the story. I am very impressed. I personally worked in counselling… I often questioned the same systems you were not happy with.
Let me simply commend you for your initiative in and audacity to follow what is best for the person and not for the system.
Marius, thank you so much for the kind words!
What a great article. I went through school with your dad and remember him playing football.
I never realized what he was going through.
Thank you for sharing as I also have had some dark periods. It is great to know you are there wanting to help.
Thank you for sharing your message, Shirley. My dad had learned to be so great at making people happy and putting them first. The life of the party.
Bradley, you are an amazing young man … but then again I’m not surprised because you had two amazing parents! Thank you for writing this inspirational article. We had no idea what your Dad was struggling with … he was always the fun-loving, sports-loving guy at the rink or soccer field. But, most of all, he was a great Dad to both you and Corey and I’m sure you’re so grateful for all he did for you … especially now that you understand his struggle. That is the true essence of a parent … to give whatever you can to your children so that they may live a better life. Obviously, Mike managed to do just that while battling his own demons. And you’ll be a better parent because of this. And a better person … you’re already demonstrating this through your passion for working with kids. Kudos to you and God Bless!! xo (PS Give your Mom a big hug for me … she’s one of my favourite people on earth!)
Heather, what a beautiful message. Thank you! It’s so great to hear from you.
We were certainly blessed with two amazing parents. I really hope we get the chance to get together again some day soon. I recently saw a pic of the boys and barely recognized them!
Wow. Great story i suffer anxiety to been 30 years now and so is my grand. Daughter she is 11 just. Started to I love your story thank for sharing 👍
Thank you Colette. Keep up the hard work of overcoming the anxiety. Your daughter is lucky to have someone who she will be able to talk to during the tough times who has experienced it first hand. Wishing you and your family all the best.
I, too, grew up in Kap. In 1958, my mom had what was then called a nervous breakdown. Back then, there were no local resources, so our family doctor did his best and consulted with doctors at the Psych Hospital in North Bay. Despite his best efforts, mom ended up spending 10 months in hospital there, and she struggled with her nerves for the rest of her life. Her illness was not something we discussed; we just lived with it. Fortunately, I have been spared this illness, but now I talk about it openly. Thank you so much for sharing your family’s story, and bless you for the important work you are doing! The folks with whom you work are fortunate, indeed!
Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing your story and for all the kind words. Are we not so lucky at the end of the day that the tides are turning and we can speak about these things? I cannot imagine the isolation and mistreatment that your mother would have gone through. I’m happy to hear that you are doing well. Your generation plays an important role in educating the next and opening the lines of communication. Wishing you all the best!