Her file is heavy, thick and pregnant with the details of over a decade of brokenness, pain, confusion and hopelessness.
I have been watching her for four days while she wanders though the hallways and the courtyard like a ghost without a plan. She breathes and moves and sees and knows to pause for the food cart and to step aside for a busy nurse, yet there is no one home. She is alive yet not alive. Not living, just existing.
In the hope I might be able to understand what would cause a woman so young to be so burdened, I pull her file and begin to read. I open up the transcript of her most recent admission interview. It makes no sense, her words are strung against words which were never meant to be partnered, it is nonsense and it is tragic. A woman admitted so mentally ill and tormented that the only verbal response she can give to any question is one that describes the fear of death and the certainty that the world is at an end. ‘Even if I tell you my name I will die‘
I can remember the first day of this clinical placement. I had spent several hours in the conference room with my student colleagues hearing of what we might expect over the next fortnight and yet our facilitators words of advice were punctuated with the unspoken message: ‘Nothing I say will prepare you for this.’
This is my mental health placement on the Acute Adult Psychiatric Ward, and unknowingly to me then, the most confronting experience in my life to date.
It is a 19 bed facility with 100% occupancy. The people admitted to this ward are very, very unwell. Schizophrenia, Bipolar affective disorder, Anorexia, Suicide attempts and Forensic clients who have murdered and raped and torn pieces from their own body in the throes of their psychosis…
Mental health in its rawest form, mental health patients in their most vulnerable, in their most hostile and unstable…. and my company for the next two weeks.
When I stood before the heavy, secure doors of the ward on that first day I was excited. My hands were rubbing together, my feet were restless to walk into the experience, yet as the doors opened before me and I stepped inside,( I can remember the excitement fall to the floor and a feeling which I still struggle to define hit me point blank in the chest with such force that my shoulders shrugged up and I drew a sudden breath in through clenched teeth. The best way to describe the sensation would be to say that it was like a deep, tangible sadness. You could hear it, you could feel it, and I suddenly didn’t want to be there anymore but to remain professional I straightened my shoulders and followed my guide inside.
I was attached to a personal alarm immediately. ‘If you come under personal attack’ they said ‘You push this button, and you push it hard…and we will come for you’
My God, where was this place I had found myself in?’
The next few hours were occupied by sitting and observing. How can I even describe to you what it is like to sit in a chair and watch a man your own age behave like an animal in the dust of a courtyard because he is a prisoner of a psychosis that resists all treatment, all drugs, all hope. Just a lost soul responding now only to the voices that dance about his head commanding him in one moment to kill, in the next to laugh, in the next to dance and in the next to weep. Hopeless, and completely sad.
How also can I describe to you what it was like to feel such an overwhelming love and compassion for them all, but more than that, a familiarity.
The ease in which I would transition into this new environment and communicate with the mentally unwell over the next several days can be only partially credited to the training and studying we had been doing on campus all semester. The real reason I feel no threat in the company of those 19 unwell souls and feel such a peace and enjoyment in being on the ward is because of the nostalgia.
You see, I myself suffer from a mental illness and have done so for most of my life.
I sometimes go back to that little house in Palm Beach in my mind. I can see the waxy shine on the leaves of the Peace Lilly that sits on the small wooden table in the living room and can smell the oil finish on the new chopping board and I can hear the gate tap, tap, tap against the latch in the wind. It is a Monday and my son is sitting at his drums and trying to reach the pedal of the bass drum with his little toes and the blonde curls that hug his ears are blowing back because the door is open and the breeze is inviting itself in.
I am standing back from the kitchen sink because my 7 month-pregnant belly is getting in my way and while I slowly wash the dishes I plan the suicide in my mind. By Friday night I will be no more and the relief of that thought is so overwhelming that I smile and sigh and feel such a peace. My husband comes home and I begin planting the seed. ‘Asa has been wanting to go camping for a while now’ I say ‘Why don’t you take him camping this weekend? You could leave on the friday and take him to that camp spot near the river’
My husband appears to hear me and while he doesn’t reply right away I can tell he is considering it.
I speak of it casually the next day too. ‘There are small tents on sale at big W….I could pick one up for you?’
My husband nods.
Wednesday morning the camping plans are agreed on. Friday afternoon he would leave with Asa and come back saturday or sunday, weather permitting.
I tell him he will have fun and that Asa will enjoy the river and I decide I will commit the suicide late on friday night as that way they will be far, far away and even if it were to rain and they returned early on the saturday, it would be too late and I would be very, very gone.
The baby in my stomach moves around and I don’t feel any regret or love or sadness or shame. The fact that I am pregnant with my second son does not deter me from the plan any more than the fact I had just bought new shampoo, it was a shame, perhaps a waste, but nothing more.
My world had disappeared long before this day and I had been breathing in and out and eating and sleeping but I wasn’t really there. The lights were on but no one was home.
I needed something from the store so I put my son in his pram and we make our way up Palm beach Avenue. The sun is very hot and I remember thinking that sunscreen isn’t important for me anymore because sunburn doesn’t matter when you have a few days left to live.
I look up to see a large truck driving down the road.
The last thing I remember is the shiny grill on the front and then there is blackness.
There is a flash of me in a medical kind of room on a chair and I have a tissue in my hand and I can feel a tear dripping off my chin and then its black again and suddenly I am back in my house sitting on the lounge chair with my hands politely folded on my knees and I am watching the door and I wait for them to come. There is a knock at the door and my husband looks at me and sees I am not getting up to answer and wrinkles his forehead at me, confused.
At the door are the two men with clip boards and they come inside and they are speaking to my husband and as they speak, my husband is not looking at them, he is looking at me in disgust as he sees my blank and peaceful face make no response as my plans of suicide are read out. He shakes his head at me as they speak of my mental illness and how it’s been years now and I never told a soul. I must have given them this information but I don’t remember when. Maybe when I was in that office holding that tissue…
The next few months are broken pieces of memory. There are appointments with a man who wears a white coat and gives me the pills which make me tired and causes my jaw to clench up in the mornings and chatter uncontrollably at night and arrangements for me to fly home to New Zealand to be with my mother are made immediately.
So at 7 months pregnant, half way up Palm Beach Avenue, at about 11am on a wednesday morning, after many years of battling a deep and unrelenting depression I had a nervous breakdown. It would be the first time I was medicated for the depression, but not the last, it was not the first time I strategically planned my suicide and it would not be the last time and the nervous breakdown? That was a first, but would not be the last.
The factors that contributed to developing such a life threatening mental illness were a series of utterly unbearable circumstances and events and crimes which I never spoke of. I carried the memories of them on my shoulders but the burden took its toll and it was my mind that paid the price for it. I didn’t want to speak of any of it because I didn’t want anyone to ever think I wasn’t coping, that I wasn’t happy. I wanted people to think that I had it together, that I wasn’t a failure.
I hated the circumstances which made me sick. I hated the memories of nights sitting in my car at the top of hills trying to psych myself up to drive off the cliff because I couldn’t bear life anymore. I would sit there and snarl at the saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ because I felt that was a lie. What good could possibly come from living through circumstances so painful that you no longer have any hope that anything will ever be any better and that the pain will never subside and you don’t want to live anymore. What good could possibly come from that?
I am in the living room of the ward and I notice a new face come in through the doors. The woman seems small and not because she is short or slim but because she is shrinking into herself. Her arms are trembling and she is white as a ghost and looks lost and afraid. There is a canula in her arm, which means she has been treated medically in another ward and is now being transfered to us. I bet she took an overdose.
After she scribbles her name on the bottom of the forms she is left alone and she drifts into the living room and takes a seat beside me. After a few minutes I turn to her ‘Hello, my name is Vanessa, I am one of your student nurses’ She looks at me and bursts into tears ‘I don’t know why I’m here, I took so many pills and I don’t know why. Whats wrong with me? I feel like such a freak, I can’t bear this, I can’t bear this, I can’t bear this’ She is shaking her head and I put my hand on her arm and I tell her ‘Its okay, I know. I know.’ And in that moment I realise that I do know. I recognise that frightened look on her face because I have seen the same one looking back at me in my own mirror. I understand the confusion of having someone tell you you tried to take your own life and sitting there thinking ‘This isn’t me… is it? This isn’t the real me…’ and what that woman needed right in that moment was not someone who had been studying at university and would practice using the fancy new mental health terminology she had been memorising for months, she needed someone to grab her by the arm and say “I know’
There are thousands of degrees to choose from at hundreds of universities. Degrees which will teach you how to write or how to build a business or degrees which will teach you how to protect someones legal rights and degrees like mine where you learn how to make people well but there is no qualification quite like pain.
Experiencing deep and wrenching pain qualifies you in a way that no book or course or degree could ever hope to do because the memory of your pain and the way you may have beat at the walls with your fists at night with tears burning the makeup off your cheeks and demanding that God tell you what the meaning of this cruel and horrible circumstance in your life was, gives you a unique insight and compassion that enables you to take hold of someone who is falling apart beside you and say ‘I’ve been there’
On friday I came home emotionally exhausted. The week had been confronting and had caused me to reflect back on my own painful memories and wonder if perhaps there was a purpose for it all after all.
It took less than one hour at home for me to suddenly succumb to the tears and for a very long time I wept and wept and wept because I realised that I was no longer angry about the circumstances that had broken me as a child and the crime that had broken me as a teen and the abuse that had broken me as a wife and the breakdown that nearly cost me my life. I was weeping and realising that every last shred of compassion and love that I have the ability to feel, not only for those mentally unwell patients in that ward, but for every person I invite into my life is because I have known brokenness.
I said to my mother that night ‘The reason I think I am so upset is that for the first time since any of it happened, I don’t hate that it happened… For the first time I can honestly say I am glad it happened and if I could live my life again I would not change one thing, not even the worst of my suffering because it has become the best part of me, it is the only reason I know compassion and probably, love.
As a people we don’t typically speak of our pain. If we have suffered, or are suffering, we habitually keep it behind closed doors. Even you as you read this may have friends that you have known for a good part of your life that have no idea you are sleeping in a separate bed to your wife or that the house is getting sold by the bank because you lost your job and can’t afford it anymore or that you have had 3 miscarriages or that you were abused as a child… but if you keep it to yourself and pile it upon your shoulders never to speak of it again then it all happened for nothing. There is no fruit and that is when it really does become tragic.
When we are facing something unbearable we want to speak to someone who has been there, who has been bruised the same way and has survived so that we can have hope, and yet no one talks about it and so the suffering believe they are suffering alone.
It is terrifying to speak of things that may cause us to appear weak or vulnerable but if you do, you will find that people around you will trust you enough to tell you about their own pain or their own loss or their own disfunction and you will realise that maybe everyone isn’t as blissfully happy as they appear.
The story I have just told is obviously going to be new for the readers of this blog but also to my friends, even my close friends… Even my family.
I can count on one hand how many people know of what I have just described and for that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry that it took me all these years and it took me having to sit in the middle of a Psych ward to realise that my pain and my heartbreak is what makes me able to feel compassion and understanding for others who are weak and what a wonderful and blessed privilege that is. I am sorry for every person up until this point I may have been able to help had I just spoken about my own experience with depression and suicide and tears and disappointment and pain but didn’t because I wanted everyone to think I was coping just fine.
I wrote this because while it is lovely for people to praise you for your strength, I would much prefer someone draw comfort or hope from my survival.
If you suffer in any way and no one knows, if you are losing grip on peace and you feel you are getting weak or unwell or if someone has hurt you or is hurting you now, pick up the phone and talk to someone you trust about it. Get help because you need it and if you look about you and see only people who seem to have their life together and things perfectly happy then I promise you it is just because they are better actors than we are. Everyone has a story but what you are going through or what you have gone through in the past may very well be your highest qualification and a qualification the world desperately needs because you have no idea what it means to be in the depth of despair and have someone grab you by the arm and tell you ‘Its ok… I know.’