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I was a “mental patient” the other day.
It should not have come as a surprise; after all I have lived with depression all my adult life. I am 47. I have been in hospital many times over the years, on psychiatric wards, being treated with this or that, never with success.
I live with my mom, and most days I am not a “mental patient,” just Michael. I usually manage by reading, watching television, talking to friends and visiting the library. The library, with all its quiet activity, helps me feel part of the world.
Life is a struggle and each day a challenge. I am, as always, in treatment. I have a talk therapist and a psychiatrist who tries to help me with medication.
It was a new medication that caused all the fuss the other day.
My psychiatrist recommended I try a new pill. As always, I was eager to give it a go. He is a creative and bold doctor, and I like him a lot. He is totally optimistic and makes me feel sure that, as a team, we’ll come up with something. I also like that he takes calls from his wife during our meetings, and lets me know some days he will have to leave early to make it to his son’s hockey game. He helps me to feel part of the world. Anyway, he had this new idea from a recent publication that a certain pill commonly used for something completely different might help someone like me who has (so far) treatment-resistant depression.
I started taking the pill, increasing the dose every day, reporting by e-mail how I was doing. One day I felt a little bit better – a miracle. I hadn’t felt “a little bit better” in more than 10 years. I took an extra dose to improve on the improvement.
I had not actually overdosed (this is not a dangerous pill), but worried that I had.
At 7 a.m., my breathing was laboured. I felt weak, like I could barely walk. My body was trembling and sweating. Waves of what felt like paralysis pulsed through me. I was hyperventilating, but I didn’t know that. I had never experienced it before.
Thinking I was going to die, I woke my mom and we called an ambulance.
At the hospital, I explained as best I could what was happening. I expressed my fear. They found no heart problem, no overdose. I wasn’t trembling any more. I was sent home. There, the trembling and paralysis started again, and the laboured breathing. Another ambulance. Back at emergency, I was more frightened than before.
This time the reaction from the hospital staff was different.
No one explained to me that this was (just) hyperventilation, that I’d been overcome by anxiety. No. My file had been located, and a nurse informed me, “we have your file, we know about Dr. Brook.”
Dr. Brook? He was a psychiatrist I saw six years ago at a different hospital.
Ah. I had been outed as a “mental patient,” and that was how I would be treated from this point on.
I was told a nurse would speak with me. My stretcher was parked in a back hallway where I was isolated. I knew what was going on. I’d been here before. I struggled to manage my sadness and the impending indignity.
When the nurse finally approached, she wasn’t happy to see me. Her task, her bottom line, was to get me out of there: to make sure I was not admitted.
It is a sad truth that in Canada these days, psych wards are only for people who are so desperate they are about to kill themselves (or someone else). The rest of us suffer in the community without any real resources.
Even though time on a psych ward can be a great help to someone like me, giving me a breathing space in a supportive environment, hospitals frown on this.
But back to the other night.
The nurse was polite and professional. She had been trained to speak to me directly, show a little kindness, but not enough to encourage my behaviour. She saw me as an attention-seeker.
I was not regarded as a person who had been hyperventilating, and was terrified by it, but as a manipulator trying to squeeze an undeserved hug out of the system. I explained why I was there, told her I was afraid to go home. I told her about my disappointments, my feelings of shame and inadequacy. I cried.
She allowed that my life sounded difficult, but insisted home was the safest place for me. I told her I was afraid of hyperventilating again, and she seemed frustrated. At midnight, I was sent home. I dragged my mattress into my mother’s bedroom so I’d feel less lonely.
As I lay there with my eyes open, I recalled a better part of the day. Soon after I arrived in emergency, a staff social worker spoke with me. She happened to be a friend I’d not seen for years.
We talked about musical theatre, something I enjoy. She was off to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in Los Angeles. I told her I was envious. We discussed the upcoming season of musical theatre in a local park, where she’d been cast in a small role. I told her I’d try to go and see her.
She helped me to feel part of the world. And I thank her.
Michael Groberman lives in Vancouver.