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.

 

 

 

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.