The doctor fixed me with an unswerving gaze.
“I know you are not broken, just bent.”
And then she told me how she knew – something I have not forgotten over the past twenty-two years.
When someone is completely broken, she told me, the mind shatters and the patient doesn’t have enough mental cohesion to think of other people. They are entirely focussed on their own survival. Their mind has nothing left to navigate the course of reason or sympathy for those around them.
I had presented to the good doctor with my two-month-old baby, after a minor car accident. The baby was fine, but when the doctor asked me how I was doing I burst into tears. She offered me tissues and reassured me as she wrote the script for Prozac.
“You were reluctant to tell me you were upset because you desperately didn’t want to be separated from your kids,” she said as she wrote Post-natal Depression on her script pad.
“Those who are extremely unwell shuffle in here not caring about what happens to anyone else, they just want me to do something to help them! Your mind isn’t that broken it’s just a little bent out of shape.”
I remembered this story as I visited my husband in the garden of the Respite where he was staying. It was a beautiful late winter afternoon and we were sitting on the bench in the sun under the Magnolia blossoms while other patients were sitting on the villa’s verandah stairs sipping milky cups of tea.
I was smiling but sniffing, my arm around his shoulders. His eyes were glassy and unfocused. I told him as gently as I could that he was unwell, but he was very much loved and he would be home soon.
But for now, rest. Respite. For both of us.
It was not the time for arguments about why I hadn’t been able to see him or know where he was staying. I had asked three times for details and they refused to tell me anything. I tried to explain again and again – I’m his wife, I love him, in sickness and in health.
If they had told me his condition and that he wasn’t able to see me right now, I would have understood and let him be. After all, every time he’s been to Respite it’s the same old dance routine. At first, relief that he’s safe, then gratefulness that he’s in good hands and I can quietly go about trying to heal myself, and then lastly shame and pain as I realise he’s not well enough to want to see me.
I understood this. I am battle weary but wise. What I didn’t understand was the way the Mental Health system was dealing with the situation. In their treatment of me, the grief-stricken still in shock wife, they re-traumatised me. No one rang from community health to ask how I was. They simply didn’t care, but as painful as that was, my biggest concern was why they kept treating me as an enemy and not checking to verify the information he had given them in a highly distressed state. I couldn’t help but wonder why they would threaten his loving home whilst he was in Respite. Why malign the person who is willing to be there when the shit hits the fan and continue the marriage? Why shame me so completely that forgiveness and healing are painful to contemplate. Why pick sides? Simply put, where would he live after Respite if they were successful in presenting the situation as a complete relationship breakdown?
As someone told me from deep inside the organisation, they didn’t have that information and they weren’t going to ask for it, preferring instead to hide behind confidentiality concerns. Of course, the fact that I had previously made a formal complaint against those within that organisation could have had something to do with their stance.
Whilst the professional helpers were talking about facilitating an agreement they forgot to check whether the ill one and the relatively sane (though I confess pretty angry!) wife wanted to continue on with the marriage.
Despite my anger and shame after he went into Respite, I confirmed that the first thing was to get him mentally stable and then we could calmly address the issues. But I was in possession of the knowledge that only the night before he disappeared he had said he loved me. He had also said he wished he’d never been born and had been experiencing significant mental distress.
I suspect their split-second assessment of the situation was that there was a distraught man who had been involved in a domestic dispute.
The truth remains, rational people, do not disappear for two days, sleep in the car, go bush, turn off their phone and ensure they are not found, after a fight with their wife. Typically, angry but rational men, will head off to a mate’s place, trash-talk her till the wee hours maybe sink a few beers, and then come back to try and sort things out the next day. But then rational people also remember the entire conversation (including my angry instruction to go to a friend’s house) and remember that they have adult sons and good friends to whom they can go in a crisis.
But the experts didn’t ask those questions. Perhaps they were too rushed, or too pressured or under-resourced. Or perhaps they were simply too young, too inexperienced, too lacking in life experience. Or perhaps they were covering their professional arses.
Those who know us well, know that we love each other deeply and that despite the challenges we want to be together. After all, we promised to, in sickness and in health.
On that sunny winter’s afternoon, we sat in that garden quietly talking. As we sat there a young patient shuffled over to us. She was obviously heavily medicated and she spoke haltingly.
“Is that your partner?” She asked my husband.
“I’m his wife,” I quietly informed her.
She stared straight into my eyes and said:
“You have the most incredible bond.”
Thank God she could see it.
That bond (and God) is the reason that now, a month or so after the crisis, we are now healing together at home, after our visit to hell. In the past month, we have moved through pain and anger and grief with the help of his n hers psychologists. Good ones! We’ve taken time to reflect and reconsider and pray and try again.
Outside my window, the blossoms are forming on the cherry tree and there are white lilies and daffodils in the garden. It’s a new season outside, a new beginning, just as it is inside this little home.