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.

 

 

 

How can I help?

mental-illness

The Top Ten Things You Can do to Help Mental Illness sufferers

The crisis is over. The prayers and thoughts have, no doubt, been said and thought, and we are returned to normal life. Our new normal. It’s like the old normal, but if you peer closely at the window you can see the cracks – tiny, ominous cracks – in the glass pane.

mental-illness
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Someone once said that no-one brings a casserole to the family of someone who has had a Mental Health crisis, and that has been my experience. That’s not because they don’t care, but rather they don’t know what to do. Instead, they say –

“..let me know if I can help…”

“…what can I do?”

“…you’re in my thoughts and prayers…”

All good and all appreciated. After all, who doesn’t want to be prayed for and thought of? But the other phrases are problematic, and it’s not because they are uncaring. Most often, they are said with great love and thought.

They just don’t actually help.

In saying this, I’m not trying to get at anyone. I completely understand that life is busy and demanding and people have their own shit to wade through. Believe me, I understand. I don’t doubt that people are genuine and really want to help, it’s just there are better ways of helping. Here are a few ideas of how you can help when someone you know is suffering through *Dante’s tenth circle of hell – mental illness.

1/ Don’t ask how you can help

I’ve asked this question many times myself and thought I was being kind, but I’ve just recently thought of something that might dissuade you from asking this.

When you ask the person (usually the ill one or their close relative/friend) how you can help you are actually transferring the decision-making process to that already burdened one. Hell, the sick one doesn’t even know what day of the week it is and their spouse is likely to be too concerned about real practical matters – did I feed the dog this morning? Can the kids let themselves in? Will there be cops on the road who will pull me up for having an out-of-date rego?

They don’t know how you can help! Hell, they don’t even know what they need!

2/ Be practical

If the ill one is an adult member of a family you can be sure of one thing – the family is likely suffering financially. They probably have suffered financially for quite some time as the ill one has become increasingly unable to contribute to earning.  In some mental illnesses, an irrational attitude to money can take over and the ill one can end up spending the rent on library fines, or on Lotto because God told them they would win big this week, or maybe they stopped contributing to the household groceries because they thought everyone had to go on a starvation diet.

What you can do

Instead of asking if they need meals, perhaps give them a voucher for the local supermarket. This is likely more helpful than money, especially if the ill one has access to the family funds from the hospital. Or maybe offer to make a deposit into the relative’s private account – if you have access. One of the nicest things anyone has done for me was giving me some cash that I could spend on myself. Granted I spent most of it on groceries for the family, but the thought still makes me well up.

3/ Be moral support 

It can be easy to forget the ones left at home. After all, they’re not ill, are they? Actually, they could very well be ill, and only just coping. Research suggests that mental illness affects everyone in the family group and that often couples match when both of them suffer a mental illness. Bummer! It is not uncommon for the Bipolar sufferer to have a clinically depressed husband, or for the Schizophrenic patient to have an Anorexic girlfriend. Birds of a feather flock together.

What you can do

For the time being the hospitalised one is getting treatment and care (we hope!) but the ones left at home are usually left to cope with an extremely difficult situation. Things that can help – take them out for the day! Not for deep and meaningful conversations but rather to a movie or for a drink somewhere nice or even for a walk in the park or beach. Do something nice for them. Or if time is lacking, send them a pedicure voucher or a massage treatment voucher – something frivolous and mood-lifting.

5/ Ditch the shaming

No one asked for this! Not the ill one, or their spouse or their family. Whilst it’s understandable that some people in the extended family can feel huge embarrassment about one of their own suffering a mental illness, it really isn’t on in this day and age. Shame helps no-one. Just as the ill one shouldn’t be told to ‘sort themselves out ‘ so to their wife or husband shouldn’t be reprimanded for feeling sad, grieving, or sorry for themselves. Shaming people who are already suffering just isn’t helpful. Stop it! Our society has come a long way from the days of Bedlam and the looney bin, we need to start being more supportive and more open of families touched by mental illness. We can all start by calling it what it is – an illness! Not a character flaw, moral failing or demonic possession.

What you can do

By all means, keep praying – everyone can do with some prayer – and thinking of them, especially if that thinking leads you to do practical things for them. Be open and honest about your own mental illness experience. Don’t give up on your friend or relative, they will get there, it just might take some time. Don’t be discouraged if they relapse. Don’t keep it a secret. Call it what it is and if that’s not possible, then be discreet. If you tell the curious that your loved one is in the hospital for treatment for a long-standing illness then they would have to be socially inept to push for more details. Let’s talk publically about mental illness, just as we talk about diabetes, cancer and broken femurs.

6/ Don’t speak

I admit it. I’ve been doing this one wrong for years. I always thought that sharing my understanding (and often, my story) with the suffering ones enhanced empathy, but reading this article blew me away. I didn’t mean to be conversationally narcissistic!

What you can do

We have two ears and one tongue for a reason. This is a very good time to employ the ears, not the tongue.

7/ Isolation

Mental illness, like divorce and cancer, is not contagious. There really is no need for the isolation ward. Whilst it’s true that some families prefer to suffer in silence and in private, others don’t need or want to be excluded from society. The same applies to the ill one when they return from the hospital. They do not need to be left alone, rather a great deal can be achieved with their return to normality. One of the most healing things we experienced as a family was spending a sunny afternoon with our neighbours, their kids and the dog, just hanging out. For a few brief hours, no one mentioned the war and it was bliss.

What you can do

Ask your friend if they’d like to join you on that trip out, or over for a BBQ. Don’t panic that the conversation will be awkward and there is no need to hide the ill one away from children, or elderly relatives. For a moment pretend they have a broken leg. Now, how ridiculous would it be to exclude them because their leg was in a cast?

8/ Don’t judge

Yes, it might be wildly inappropriate that your ill son’s wife drank a bottle of Chardonnay got messily drunk and wrote sadly passive-aggressive posts on Facebook, and that one of their kids punched the schoolyard Dennis the Menace in the nose. Inappropriate sure, but also understandable. People do weird things when they’re stressed, or grieving.

What you can do

Instead of judging (and seriously, who are you to judge?) be kind. Help them fix the mess and remind them that they are a fallible, stressed-out human who is struggling to cope. Remind them, they’re not on their own and you are there for them.

9/ Support Crew

There is this wonderful app out there called Support Crew which gathers together a posse of helpful humans and dishes out jobs they can actually do to help the family. Jobs like walking the dog, washing the car, registering the dog, making a meal, taking the kids out etc. I’ve not seen it used for Mental Illness only for families stricken by cancer or sudden death etc. but it should be used. It’s awesome. It completely takes away the need for the family to constantly ask for help. (see 1/)

10/ Don’t be obligated

It’s only natural you want to help, but if you were brutally honest with yourself, can you? Are you able to help? It seems the way of things that those who have too much on their plate end up being the helpers, and those who really could pitch in, don’t even think about it. Thing is if you go ahead and help out of your own lack and your own stressful situation that help will end up causing bitterness. Brene Brown talks about boundaries in her work and makes the salient point that if you give too much you’ll end up causing an indebtedness and eventually bitterness.

What you can do

Be realistic. What can you do that you actually want to do? Making a casserole might not be your thing right now with all those balls you got in the air, so why not schedule a coffee and cake with your friend. Or send them a take-good-care voucher. Or open your home. Or send them flowers (if they’re flower-liking folk) or chocolate or wine. Or take the kids out to play with yours. Or to school. Or make lunches for those kids. Or get Woop in for a week’s meals. Or walk the dog, wash the dog, feed the dog. Send them a card with true real tangible ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Or a Spotify Cheer Up Playlist. But whatever you choose to do, do it with love and in a way that’s mindful of your relationship with that person and what you can actually do.

So that’s my top ten things you can do to help someone and their family in a mental health crisis. Do you have any other things you’ve done that went down well? Would love to hear your thoughts on Facebook, or under this post in the comments.

*Dante didn’t mention Mental Health in his tome, but if he’d known about it he would have.