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Man credits help, Judaism in overcoming mental illness

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Jobim Novak (Alex Rose photo)

Jobim Novak was a quiet student at United Synagogue Day School in Toronto, who was known for his love of old cars and his elaborate Purim costumes. Then, in Grade 7, he started hearing voices.

They would tell him to hurt others or himself, and were sometimes accompanied by tactile hallucinations that felt like invisible people touching him. Novak didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was that he couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

“In school, I wasn’t doing well academically, I didn’t feel understood by a lot of my peers. I mean, I had friends, but for the most part, I think I didn’t understand myself and people didn’t understand me, either,” he said.

He started dressing differently and speaking differently, emulating the rappers he obsessively listened to at the time. Novak is still passionate about music – it has helped him on his long road to recovery – but he does question some of his fashion choices back then, especially the sagging pants.

Novak’s classmates, being middle school students, didn’t respond by showing concern for their peer, but by judging him, compounding his sense of isolation. And then he entered high school.

“I made the choice to not only keep my mental health under the table, I also decided, ‘screw it, I’m just going to become this tough guy.’ And then within the first month, I started doing substances. Painkillers became my thing,” he said.

Novak likened the substances to a bandage – they masked his mental health issues in the moment, but failed to address the underlying problems. And he believes his addiction to painkillers and alcohol only made his psychosis worse in the long run.

Novak’s addictions landed him in rehab twice, but after another relapse, he was hospitalized. It was there that he was diagnosed for the first time with schizophrenia.

“It was like a load lifted. I finally knew what I was battling,” said Novak. But at the same time, “it was scary. Nobody likes to hear that they have schizophrenia.”

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From there, Novak was admitted to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where, for the first time since the onset of his mental illness, he was able to find a treatment that worked for him. He tried a number of different medications, beat his addictions and learned to stay on top of his mental health.

And there was another important element in his recovery. “Judaism definitely played a huge role in my recovery, because I prayed every day to ha-Shem and I read King David’s Psalms and (connected with a rabbi in the hospital),” Novak said. “I think if I didn’t have Judaism, I wouldn’t have made it out of my predicament.”

Today, Novak, 24, is working toward a child and youth care degree at George Brown College and has the highest GPA in his class. For the second consecutive year, he’s an ambassador for Bell Let’s Talk, an annual event that takes place on Jan. 30 that’s designed to stimulate public conversations around mental health.

When Novak speaks about his current relationship with mental illness, he uses the word “overcome.” It’s a strong contrast to the words a lot of people use – like “manage” or “process” – when they discuss their own struggles with mental illness. Novak agrees with that assessment, but he doesn’t shy away from his language of choice.

“The management is never done … recovery is just a process I’ll go through forever,” he said. “But overcoming is when you are able to take that misfortune, those struggles, and make something of your life.”

Novak shares his story to show people with similar struggles that improvement is possible. His message to them is that, “If you’re struggling, reach out to your loved ones … reach out to whatever mental health organizations you know in your area.…

“Keeping it in is the most toxic thing you can do. You can’t begin your road to recovery if you feel that you don’t have a voice. If you speak about it, not only are you helping yourself, but you’re also helping the people around you who don’t feel they can talk about it.”

Next up for Novak is a school trip at the end of January to work with troubled youth in New Delhi. Even though he recognizes that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he almost hoped the school would reject him.

“I was nervous about the trip,” he said. “I knew it would be a huge challenge and wasn’t sure I was ready for it. But now I know I’m ready for it.”