Bent not Broken

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.

 

 

 

Eve, I’m Sorry

Dear Eve,

Forgive me writing this note to you here on the blog but when we met on the beach yesterday I didn’t catch your last name, and I feel I must apologise. 

I’m so sorry that I became that person yesterday. Nitro bounded up to your dog and I hurried as best I could to reach you before you recoiled from the big black Lab bullet that he is. Thankfully, you didn’t recoil. Instead, we started chatting.

Well, you clocked my tear-soaked cheeks, and you listened as we walked the dogs.

Of course at first, we talked about the dogs.

-Sorry about him running up to you like that. He hasn’t been out and off the leash in days.

-It’s alright. He’s a lovely dog.

-Yes, and he’s normally well trained and generally comes back when I call but he’s just so pent up. My husband’s in hospital.

-Oh. Is he going to be OK?

-I don’t know.

You glanced at me and saw the tears escape. I have no idea if he or we are going to be alright.

-He’s in the mental health system and they won’t give me any details about his condition.

-What? Why? Are you the next-of-kin?

-I’m his wife.

-They should.

-Yeah, I know. But I’m just so tired now. If they don’t want me to know, or he doesn’t want me to know…..

-It’s hard. How long will he be in hospital for?

-I don’t know.

-You need to look after yourself. You’re burnt out. You need rest.

-Uh huh.

And then we talked some more and said goodbye and you wandered down the beach, your wings hidden inside your hoodie.

Eve, I’m so sorry I became that person who offloads on a complete stranger, but thank you so much for being there.

Vicki

Trust us we care, but not about you

In November ’17 and July ’18 our family experienced a brush with the Mental Health system in NZ. This is kinda how it went.

Ah Mrs Jeffels, great news. After a weekend that must have been most difficult for you, on account of your husband being a missing person and all that time you spent speaking to the Police, we are very pleased to be able to advise you that he is safe.

Cue relief. Some desperate grateful howling. A great deal of embarrassing snotting.

– Where is he?

-Ah well. We can tell you that this afternoon your husband acknowledged that after three days of being lost he did indeed have a broken leg and self-admitted himself into our regional hospital.

-I am beyond grateful to hear this news. (Cue – more howling and snotting.) So, how is he?

-He is safe and receiving treatment for his broken leg. He is not in great shape.

-Yes, I am aware of the broken leg. It’s the same broken leg you told me was a problem in November when you released him from Mental Health Respite, into my care. Though, I must say you missed a trick there as you didn’t hear him say that he was motivated to do away with the pain of the broken leg for good. You missed that bit because he entrusted that raw information to his wife. Along with the information that he’d out-psyched the Psych by the way. When I advised you, you released him into my care and advised me to hide all the pills and sharps in the house. For three months I had panic attacks if he was out of my presence for fear that he still wanted to do away with the broken leg pain, for good. You did follow up of course. You rang to ask him if he felt like causing himself harm. I was the one who put the sharps away and prayed for safety and desperately worked and begged for enough income to pay the bills and provide for us all.  How is the broken leg now?

-Well ah, that’s tricky. You see, as he self-admitted and he didn’t sign a release form we cannot tell you much except he’s here and he has a broken leg.

-Right. When can I see him?

-Can’t tell you that.

-When will he be transferred to Auckland?

-Can’t tell you that.

-You say he’s in ‘bad shape’. What does that mean?

-Can’t tell you that.

-But he drove his car down there, where is it and can I pick it up?

-Don’t know sorry. Don’t have details.

-Can you put me through to him.

-No.

-Can I talk with the nurse who was going to call me with all the details but kinda forgot. (I know, you’re busy!).

-No. I’m not Anita so I can’t say anything. Anita’s not here right now.

-But you are aware that he has been a missing person and has been missing for three days. That the police were concerned about his safety and his ability to deal with his broken leg without medication and yet they entrusted me with the details, because y’know,  I’m his wife. I’m the one who has been living this broken leg with him, day in day out in sickness and health, for the past ten years.

-Sorry. No form signed. There’s nothing I can do.

-But you are aware that this particular form of broken leg is clinically known as deceptive and sneaky and unpredictable? It lies, cheats, distorts reality? I mean, you’re a broken leg specialist, you know this, right?

-Yes. But we’ve examined him and our professional opinion is – we do not want to be held accountable for breaching patient confidentiality.

-But the police and other emergency services have acknowledged that I am the woman on the ground, the one who deals with the broken leg and all the pain and harm it causes him, me and our family, for the past ten years, why can’t you?

-No signed consent.

-Did it occur to you that he was so broken and ill and suffering in pain with the broken leg that he was not compos mentis enough to even think of signing a release form? Or perhaps the broken leg was whispering paranoid thoughts into his head. That’s happened before. I have been the bad guy when the broken leg is playing up, for the past ten years, in two countries. You’ve examined the broken leg for five minutes. I know this man, the good stuff and the bad. Despite all the crap – and believe me there’s been truckloads – you really think I can’t handle the truth and don’t deserve to be party to the information I need to care for my husband once he leaves your fine politically correct establishment?

-No form. Don’t get stroppy. We will not tolerate our staff being abused. There’s nothing I can tell you.

-So, it’s good enough for me to live under the extreme stress of this kind of broken leg, the trauma of a missing person and grave fears for his safety, and to be expected to cope and provide for the treatment and the day-to-day care of my husband and broken leg, but now that he has actually been found (thank God) and is alive I am not entitled to any information about his condition?

-No form. Sorry. It’s the rules.

 

And that my friends is why the mental health system is failing us as a community. You see the people on the frontline – the Mums, Dads, wives, husbands, children, brothers and sisters – we carry it all yet when we ask for the information we need to cope we are told we do not require that information. We are the broken down wine-drinking terrified ambulance at the bottom of the hill. We silently advocate, cry, love, pray for our very ill loved ones yet when it comes down to it, we are not privy to the information we need to provide our family members with our full support. We are the epitome of the nurses who clean up the shit and are never able to gain insight into the patient notes. Obviously, we wouldn’t understand them, doctor knows best.

Yet most of us know our loved one’s illnesses well. We know when it twists the truth in their heads and stirs them to fear us, or hate us or abuse us. We know when the glass turns fun-house glass and the truth is distorted. We dodge the verbal (and sometimes physical) punches and we keep going. Not because we are martyrs but because we truly love them and that’s what family does.

Beyond the social media campaigns that champion asking for help always shot in clean, warm kitchens, we are the unsung force that keeps our families going. Our kitchens are not clean, by the way. There’s dog fur on the tiles and last night’s chips left in the pan on the stove. We are tired and stressed and scared and yet no one thinks to ask us what we think is best and right for those we have sacrificed our peace, for.

When the Tvc’s and Facebook campaigns are done advocating for awareness about suicide and mental illness, we are the ones cleaning up the shit and the vomit and the drink and the mess. We are the ones who cry as we pray as we bargain for sleep. You’d think respect and access to the information we need to help our loved ones, would not be too much to ask for.

War Paint

A day after the Las Vegas shooting, a good friend of mine, who had cowered at the Mandalay all night, posted a pic of herself on Facebook, and I applauded.

She’s a good-looking woman Lori, and she looks good in pics, but in this pic she looked spectacular. Strong, Resilient, Determined.

Why?

She had her war paint on.

A flash of bright red defiance carefully outlining her lips, she looked every inch the Warrior Princess. Xena would have been so proud. I was, and in the month that followed, when everything turned to custard in my own DownUnder world, I had the need to follow her example.

The day after taking my man to the hospital I woke and dressed carefully. I was reeling. My face was wan, my eyes red and bagged, but on my lips, I applied my favourite red lipstick.

In applying the lippy I was screaming to myself, to the world, to God to everyone – I will not lie down and be defeated. I am strong. (Even though I don’t feel it.) I am hopeful. (Even though I can’t always see how it will be OK in the end.)

I. Am. Brave.

And all of a sudden I realised the power behind Rosie the Riveter’s red lips.

And the power of raising a generation’s morale during World War 11 with Victory Red (Elizabeth Arden). 

Perhaps, more movingly, I remembered this story about lipstick and the part it played in giving hope to the women in Bergen Belsen.

When the Allied forces freed Bergen Belsen on April 15, 1945, they were horrified by the brutal destruction. Men, women and children were dying at a rate of 500 per day. The soldiers were devastated by what they saw, and  Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945 said in his diary

I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.

But after the Red Cross visited the camp – no one knows if the visit was somehow connected with the event that came after – a large supply of red lipstick was donated to the female concentration camp survivors. As Gonin says, it was a stroke of genius.

I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Famed street artist and social commentator Banksy depicts the scene at Bergen Belsen.

Even at the brink of destruction women used their self-expression through the application of red lipstick, to scream – we are still here. We will not simply fade away.

We are still brave.

Then, and now, we can keep going.