Sunday, January 31, 2010

Her life story goes from fearful to awesome

An article published in today's edition of The Province:
By Lora Grindlay

For the 11th year, Coast Mental Health will present six people with Courage to Come Back awards for overcoming injury, illness and adversity and for inspiring those around them while doing so. Recipients will be celebrated at a gala dinner at Vancouver's Hyatt Regency hotel on April 30. Today we profile the recipient in the mental-health category. Find more at


No longer is Tina Tomashiro's life ruled by fear.

Her days are now measured in achievement and accomplishment: Three years since she last used crack cocaine; four courses of the 11 she needs to be a paralegal completed; a full-time job as office manager of Pivot Legal Society; the correct medication and the self-awareness to control her depression and paranoid schizophrenia; mastering the art of doing perfect circles on her rollerblades.

And now a Courage to Come Back award -- a testament to her willingness and determination to change the life she once lived. It was the life of a homeless, drug-addicted woman with an untreated mental illness suffering severe trauma following a violent assault in 2002.

"I was totally unemployable four years ago because of my mental health, because of self-esteem. I had low self-worth, very little support," said Tomashiro, 39 (pictured).

Tomashiro struggled with mental illness for years and was diagnosed with depression in 1999 and with schizophrenia in 2005.

In the years between the diagnoses she was the victim of a violent attack at the hands of someone she thought she knew.

"I'm a little too trusting, a little too nice," she said. "I actually thought I was going to die that night."

Tomashiro believes the attack triggered something inside her.

"I started being scared all the time," she said. "I think that somehow I snapped."

Following the attack, she lost her job of over two years at BCIT, began using crack cocaine and moved to Calgary where, when she wasn't living on the streets, she was in the psychiatric ward of a hospital.

Tomashiro returned to Vancouver in late 2004 and moved into the Stanley Hotel, a supported-housing program in the Downtown Eastside operated by the Portland Hotel Society. It was there that she reached rock bottom with a suicide attempt, but it's also where she started her comeback.

Dr. Bill MacEwan, a psychiatrist familiar to many in the Downtown Eastside, got her stabilized on medication. And she quit crack.

"Everything that happened from when I was assaulted, I just lived for fear," she said. "I used to use [crack] and it made me really scared. I just reached a point where I was tired of being scared. I was scared that I was going to wake up scared again."

Tomashiro now lives at the Portland's Pennsylvania Hotel in the Downtown Eastside, has renewed contact with her 17-year-old daughter and credits the Portland Hotel Society, Pivot Legal Society and MacEwan for investing in her life.

She's renovated and painted her single-occupancy room, repaired clothes for her neighbours, secured a $500-grant to plant a community garden, and threw a barbeque for the neighbourhood.

Tomashiro started an art program at the Carnegie Centre, promoted Pivot's Hope in Shadows calendar and has spoken publicly about her struggles with mental illness.

"I've changed so much in the last few years," she said.

Photograph by Nick Procaylo, The Province.

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