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.
-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.