Meet Marty Verlaan—He's Walked Backwards for 11 Years, Believing it Helps Others

Marty Verlaan's neighbors often see him around The Annex, Toronto, as he makes his way to Tim Hortons for a coffee twice a day. But his striking white hair is not the only reason Verlaan stands out.

Verlaan has been walking backwards for 11 years.

He is one of 300,000 Canadians living with schizophrenia, having been diagnosed with the condition after his mental health began deteriorating in 1995, at the age of 35.

Not long after, Verlaan found himself unemployed, homeless and facing divorce with his wife taking custody of their children.

It was around this time that he began to hear voices and to walk backwards.

Around that same time he met Stephen Hosier, who was a film student at Ryerson University, near Verlaan's homeless shelter. Hosier had been tasked with creating a short documentary on an interesting person—Verlaan was an obvious choice.

The Man Who Walks Backwards Marty Verlaan
Marty Verlaan is one of 300,000 Canadians living with schizophrenia. Thomas Skrlj

"He was well known on campus because he was the guy who walked backwards," says Hosier, "Every morning, around 10 a.m., you'd see Marty with his long white hair."

Together, they created The Vegetable Game, a short film that documented the intricacies of Verlaan's habits, including his manner of walking. This short film took its title from another of his customs: his refusal to eat vegetables.

In that first film, made around a decade ago, Verlaan says he tells people—or the police—who approach him that walking backwards is a kind of "game".

Now, having stayed in touch since 2011, Hosier has revisited Verlaan's story with a new short film, aptly titled The Man Who Walks Backwards. It's based on conversations the pair have had in which they explore Verlaan's game.

In the documentary, Verlaan explains: "I have a fear if I'm not walking backwards all the time that I would have no food on the table, my heaters would be turned off.

"By walking backwards I'm also helping people, helping people that are less fortunate. I've been trying to help them have a better life."

He also says: "When you walk backwards there's a guy that talks, telling me how to get out of here."

Walking backwards is also connected to Verlaan's hopes of being reunited with his family, as he says in the film: "If I could go back in time, the last time I've seen my family was about 27 years ago.

"My kids are currently up north, they're waiting for dad to come home, and get out of this dilemma, and hopefully, I'll get back to them."

Verlaan has since left the homeless shelter, where he lived for 18 years, and now lives in a residence that supports people living with mental illness.

But leaving the familiar area of the Ryerson campus, where the residents got to know him, posed new problems for Verlaan at first.

Josh Su, who has lived in the same neighborhood as Marty for three years, is working on marketing for the new documentary. "As an everyday Canadian, if you see someone walking backwards, obviously it's a strange thing to look at, right?," he says.

"And so, because of that, people are usually hesitant to go up to that person and talk to Marty."

More recently, once people got to know Verlaan, things have changed, Su says: "People have either waved to him or there are always people calling out his name, or people smiling when he's walking by. I would say that there is more of a tighter community here within The Annex."

Seeing a man walk backwards would naturally raise some questions, especially if you hadn't seen Verlaan before. But by exploring the reasons why he does it, the film hopes to offer an insight into his life—past, present, and future.

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'The Man Who Walks Backwards' is Stephen Hosier's second short film featuring Marty Verlaan. Thomas Skrlj

The new short film encourages viewers to reconsider their assumptions about mental illness and shatter any preconceptions about those who act in unconventional ways.

"I think people on the street or see a man walk backwards are obviously going to jump to some sort of conclusion," Hosier says.

"But when it comes down to it, as explained in the film, he's not just walking around aimlessly, he's got a past, which his kids are part of, he's in the present, which, unfortunately, [his kids are] not, they're not around, and he has hopes and goals for the future, that includes reuniting with his family."

Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, explained that walking backwards is not common in people living with schizophrenia, but: "In terms of schizophrenia, a lot of people with schizophrenia have high anxiety, and sometimes will have obsessive-compulsive behavior. And so this would be a compulsive behavior."

Summerville also says that by getting to know Verlaan and the meaning behind his walking backwards, "we're not just seeing a quote 'weird person walking backwards that has a diagnostic label of schizophrenia,' we're seeing a person that has some hopes and dreams that there can be unification with the family."

The Man Who Walks Backwards Marty Verlaan
Marty Verlaan has been walking backwards for 11 years. Thomas Skrlj

In the U.S., approximately 3.5 million people have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America. But it is often misunderstood, and there is a stigma attached to schizophrenia.

The confusion that someone may feel about seeing Verlaan walk backwards for the first time may be indicative of this wider lack of understanding about mental illness.

Stephen remembered a conversation he had with Verlaan: "Marty even pointed out during one of my conversations with him, another woman across the street from the coffee shop, he goes to we were standing on the sidewalk, may have been last year, and this woman was just kind of yelling and screaming on the street.

"And Marty kind of pointed her out, and I'm pretty sure he said something along the lines, 'She's not a whole lot different than me'."

"Everyone has a certain story that you don't really know about."

The new documentary aims to help viewers better understand schizophrenia.

Su explained that the objective of the film was: "to tell not only the story of a local Toronto man, but rather tell the story of schizophrenia, which is not talked about too often.

"You know, when you think about mental health and mental illness, you always hear about depression, and anxiety, and similar things like that, because that's most common and make sense.

"But our goal is, [to show that] everyone has a certain story that you don't really know about."

Summerville agrees, and hopes that people will reconsider their first assumption about people like Verlaan: "If you're in the car, downtown Toronto, and you see someone walking backwards, I mean, you're going to say, well, 'what's wrong with that person?'

"And the question that I always encourage people to think about is: what has happened to the person?"

The Man Who Walks Backwards Marty Verlaan
Marty Verlaan is well-known around his Toronto neighborhood. Thomas Skrlj

Verlaan's story may also help viewers understand and combat the stigma against schizophrenia, as Summerville says: "It is scientifically, academically demonstrated that one of the ways of reducing stigma is to get close to the person and get to know them."

Summerville also explained that reducing stigma towards one person can also be contagious: "When people choose to get to know Marty, in terms of his way of being, doing, knowing and becoming, then yeah, there's a ripple effect that they will be more compassionate and understanding of others."

Hosier says that he learned about what it's like living with schizophrenia from Verlaan, who told him: "Steven, you have to remember, as I'm giving you an answer. I'm hearing voices from over this side," gesturing to one side of his head saying: "I'm hearing voices from over this side of my head."

Verlaan then told him: "I kind of have to walk with a balancing beam and try to give you a straight answer."

This helped Hosier better understand Verlaan, he says. "As I'm talking to Marty, you'll ask him a question, and that balancing beam image really resonated, it seemed like he is kind of walking this line and trying to balance himself and tell you what he's thinking. There's a lot going on."

'The Man Who Walks Backwards' invites its viewers to consider why someone with a mental illness may behave in an atypical way and to recognize that they have their own story, and are merely trying to navigate life.

For Marty Verlaan, walking backwards is his way of looking forwards: "What keeps me positive is thinking one day I'm going to get picked up.

"My kids will probably pick me up. And all I hear is I'm going home."

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Marty Verlaan has been walking backwards for 11 years as he believes it helps people. Getty/Jordan Kennington