Toronto Star

John Scully’s wars have followed him home

- Joe Fiorito

John Scully sat in a coffee shop across from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. His cup was hot and full to the brim. The day was bright and warm. The only sign of trouble? His hands, a bit unsteady. Scully, a retired television field producer, is 74 years old. He is a veteran of some 36 wars around the world, and by his count he has travelled to 76 countries, most of which were dangerous when he was there. He has worked for the BBC, for the CBC, for CTV and other networks. His working life has been as harrowing as that of any soldier.

He said, flatly and without emphasis, “I was once lined up for execution in El Salvador; clearly, that didn’t happen, but it was going to.

“I was with CBC at the time. We stumbled into a town that had been shot up. They thought I was a CIA spy.” A last-minute interventi­on by a senior soldier saved his life.

I pressed him for more stories. His response was a low-key, shorthand observatio­n: “I’ve seen all kinds of other stuff; bloated bodies, buried bodies, blown-apart bodies.” You cannot un-see those things. And there are no military medals for what he has done, and there is nothing to pin on his chest except the twin ribbons of our admiration and our gratitude.

He is living a quiet suburban life now, far away from the field of battle. But he is in trouble and the danger is as real as any war zone.

He has post-traumatic stress disorder.

He is prone to something that seems like deep depression but is much more severe; in the grip of it, he has been drawn to harm himself.

In the past, in order to save his life, he has relied on a short-term residentia­l program at CAMH.

The Alternativ­e Inpatient Milieu (AIM).

He said, “The purpose of AIM is to help destigmati­ze mental illness. Each patient gets their own room with a shower. It’s sort of like a hotel; it gives you the feeling of relaxation.

“There is a kind of camaraderi­e; you go for six weeks. There are staff available 24/7. The people are not in crisis, but they are ill. You have to get a referral.” Scully has been in the AIM program three times in the past 10 years. Each time, his life was on the line. Here’s the present peril: AIM will close at the end of this month.

The thought unnerves him. Scully was in Beirut 15 times during the civil war; he is not easily unnerved. “For people like me . . . I’ll have nowhere to go.”

He said, “It fills me with dread. When I get sick, I get suicidal.” He looked out the window. The sun was at its peak.

There is some darkness that the light cannot dispel.

“The program was my safeguard, my protection. I don’t know what I’ll do. They’ve talked about sending me to the geriatric unit; that’s just warehousin­g.

“They say they’ll turn it into a day program. They say the point of AIM won’t be lost. That’s bullsh--.”

The director of ambulatory care at CAMH is Neill Carson. AIM falls under his bailiwick. I asked Carson what might happen to John, and to the 300 others who use AIM yearly.

He said, “We are developing an enhanced outpatient service to work in a more flexible way.” Why? “The budget is frozen; costs are going up.” He said, “We have to think hard about ways to increase the number of people we care for.” So, it’s money, or the lack thereof. But what about John? Carson said, “He’ll still have access to a bed; if he can’t go home, he won’t go home.” It will not be the same.

AIM had 30 beds; who will get them now?

Carson said, “They could be used to facilitate the transition to supportive housing.” Oh, right, gosh, that’s swell. And I live in Parkdale and I have seen how well the promise of supportive housing has been fulfilled.

It isn’t that I have no sympathy for CAMH: fixed budgets, hard times, pressing demands, illness on the rise.

And yet I fear for John.

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