people experiencing mental illness suffer as much…sometimes more…from the harshness and rejection of their fellow beings. In writing these particular posts I hope to open people’s hearts a little more thereby maybe encouraging a kinder response. For me uppermost in my mind has always been the thought ‘what if this were me’. Please ponder…what if this was you.
Marg was fairly short in stature. She was neither fat nor thin, had short slightly curly hair and an everyday face. She looked like a regular Aussie woman; to me anyway. But she looked anything but regular to herself.
One day, long before I met her, she looked in the mirror and saw herself shrinking. Distressed, as any of us would be should we find this happening to ourselves, she reached out for help. But no one could stop her shrinking for there was no evidence that she was. But this she could not believe and instead she continued to beg for help…loudly and persistently. Eventually they had to lock her up, medicate her, tell her that her belief she was shrinking was in fact a delusion and, when her distress became overwhelming, give her as much medication as the law would allow.
Days passed, weeks passed, months and years passed. She stayed locked up. She stayed medicated, she was given electroconvulsive therapy, she was talked to, talked at, sometimes yelled at. She was held down, distracted, hugged, analysed. The only thing that changed was that she didn’t need to look in the mirror anymore. She just knew…knew with all certainty that she was shrinking.
Marg was in her earlier forties when I first met her. I was a second year psychiatric nursing student. By this time Marg had become a walking text-book of the side effects of psychiatric medication, of madness, of what we couldn’t do.
Of course Marg wasn’t shrinking. As I once said to her (in a moment of naivety) if she had been shrinking all this time she would have disappeared altogether. Yes I was trying to use reason. I was young.
Marg taught me so much. You see Marg never accepted that we couldn’t help her. She never gave up. So day and night she would grab whoever passed her, pulling at our arms our hands our clothes. Crying, begging, often screaming for us to help her, to stop her shrinking. But we couldn’t help her. Psychotherapy, pharmacology nothing would touch this horrendous delusion/hallucination she suffered twenty-four seven.
Thirteen hour shifts, walking into the door of the locked ward and there she was, yelling, crying, grabbing. All the staff that dealt with Marg had to in some way deal with the emotions she evoked. The psychiatrists would duck and weave using back doors whenever they could. Avoiding her became their main goal on any given day. If they couldn’t avoid her completely they would insist we take her away from them. What they couldn’t fix they wanted no part of. Nurses on the other hand worked for thirteen hours straight on the ward and avoidance was impossible. We students were usually allocated Marg. The fact of the matter was nobody wanted her as a patient so we got her.
Despite our enthusiasm, our naivety, our sincere care, our greatest effort and striving nothing changed for Marg. For Marg saw and felt herself shrinking. She took the maximum dosages of several medications in any one day and then some (rarely by choice) and the most they ever did was make her sleep for an hour or so before she would wake and stumble out in distress grabbing at whoever was close and begging for help.
There is no happy ending to this true story. Ten years later when I left that hospital they were talking of giving Marg a partial lobotomy…something that had been ceased decades earlier. I suppose that sounds horrific to people who never met Marg. Personally I didn’t know. I only knew that nothing had changed for her and that her distress was as great, as constant and as overwhelming as the first day I had met her. I knew the medication was causing copious and horrible side effects and I knew that everything under the sun had been tried and nothing had helped. I still don’t know.
Marg you taught me patience, you taught me my own limitations and how to handle them in an emotionally mature manner. You taught some what it was to give into their worst impulses and it seemed to me your journey was the worst I had, and have, ever seen. Hopefully one day you will understand it was not for the lack of trying that we couldn’t help you. I think you thought we didn’t care. But we did. We were simply powerless in our caring. In this you were our greatest teacher.