Madness that wouldn’t heal

Dear reader

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. 

with love…Leesa

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.

6 thoughts on “Madness that wouldn’t heal

  1. “What they couldn’t fix they wanted no part of.” That says it all… I understand that all people have limitations, but this is just wrong. And instead of trying to change this person’s perception they tried to mute it so they wouldn’t hear it. I can’t believe nothing would have worked, I believe that nobody has managed to figure out the way yet… So, what was she classified as, Leesa, out of curiosity, schizophrenic?

    • Oh they did tried to change her perceptions Margie but they had real trouble accepting nothing would work and often seemed angry at her for not ‘responding’ to treatment…thus the avoidance. Her diagnosis was simply psychotic disorder as she had no other symptoms beyond this one.

      Just to be anal I must say no one is ‘schizophrenic’…they have schizophrenia. Probably sounds pedantic but I think its so important that we don’t label the person as the illness whatever the illness is because often then that’s the only thing others focus on. People are so much more than one diagnosis but if called such things as schizophrenic are often perceived as only this…often by mental health professionals as well.

      Thanks for your comments my friend.

  2. Beautiful Leesa,

    Not all humans are teddy bear huggables. My daughter was beautiful to me, but to some others, she was difficult, offensive, and uncooperative. I believed, personally, I also lacked skills that would have been helpful to her. I used to pray that she and I could find a middle ground of interaction that gave us both an advantage of being able to embrace each other, as we were. I think we did the best we could. In the end, I saw the effects of her father’s obsessive quest to medicate the Down’s away… it broke her.

    All creatures, be they armadillos, brown bears, hummingbirds, humans… we all have a language. We all have a rhythm. To marginalize someone for their rhythm makes the world a harder place to live in–not easier.

    When I worked with persons disabled by an interruption in their rhythm, I felt challenged, but I also felt graced. I learned languages of depth I cannot explain. I learned that my way was not the way of All Things. I learned humility, and how to listen with reasonable compassion.

    Had I not been gifted with unique people in my world, I don’t know… I might have come to hate myself for being vulnerable, hard to communicate with, frustrating to control. That didn’t happen. I learned that even plasticizing and medicating the uncomfortable do not make life comfortable.

    Compassion and learning how to share the burdens and victories make like comfortable. I’m so glad you gathered yourself around an openness to compassion and sharing the burden of a friend with many needs. No one wants to “need” in such monumental ways. I’m so glad you were one of Marg’s nurses.



    • what a great reply Meredith. I love your line not all humans are teady bear huggables. I think Marg gave me much much more than I ever was able to give her.

  3. Leesa, you know my story by now. As a person living with manic depression, PTSD, and seasonal affective disorder (plus childhood sexual abuse), I consider myself lucky beyond measure that treatment has helped me. My grandmother was in and out of mental wards for years, and that was in the 30s and 40s and 50s, when lobotomies were routine (we have no record that she had one, though). She underwent more electricity in her lifetime than Frankenstein’s monster and was treated most inhumanely.

    I thank God I live in an age when stories like Marg’s can be told, not as though she were being gossiped about, but as baring the truth of how hard it can be to live with any mental disorder. Until my diagnosis, I was quite the party girl, self-medicating my pain. Now, after years of therapy and good psychiatry, I can truly call myself a survivor, not a victim. If only more of us were born with the raw materials to achieve balance. Thank God you were there for Marg… keep sharing the stories, and keep fighting the stigma! In solidarity and with gratitude, Amy

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