“And she shrank away again, back into her darkness, and for a long while remained blotted safely away from living.”
―D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow
The heavy door shuts with a "thwoop" and all that's left of your vision is the ken through a small rectangle fashioned from very thick, unbreakable glass. This is for your protection from the patients on the other side of the door. The thing is, just a moment ago you were on the other side of the door visiting a loved one, and you were utterly vulnerable. But once you've signed out, passed through that door, and heard that sound, and looked through that little rectangle at your loved one's face, now slightly distorted and growing ever smaller as she is escorted away, you are in another world. A safe world. The world of the sane. To say that a mental hospital is the world of the insane is inaccurate. Many mentally healthy people work there. They are the okay ones, there to help the not-okay ones. And then there are the big ones, there to protect you if a mentally unhealthy person, in his mental unhealth, attacks you. They protect the patients from themselves and from each other.
It is not unlike a prison, but most people there have not committed any crime. They have simply been unable to keep up the daily work of living. Some simmering pot they were tending in their minds has boiled over, and reinforcements were called in to clean up the mess. Even their most intimate friends and family, spouses, children, siblings, confidantes, have said "We cannot handle you anymore, so we must give you over to strangers now. And they will help you, and then give you back to us."
To visit someone you love in a mental hospital shifts, possibly forever, the dynamic of the relationship. Like seeing someone naked, there is a vulnerability now on the table that was not heretofore a part of your shared life. It is very different from visiting someone in a regular hospital, which can be lovely, like after someone has given birth, or can be horrid, like when someone is having an operation to remove a cancerous tumor. But with cancer or a heart attack, everyone knows who the enemy is: the physical illness, which must be rooted out and fought and is an outsider. The mental illness sits next to you during your visit and tells you, "I'm not really going anywhere. After she leaves here, you can try to manage me, medicate me, talk me away, but the fact is, we are going to know each other for a long time."
Mental illness is the unwelcome and unspoken visitor in so many lives, so many more than you would guess. Those of us with religious faith may feel like mental illness is demonic in nature and origin, and can be conquered by faith, by a miracle, by a divine healing. But mental illness doesn't sit still for even one second while you research that possibility. Mental illness is the most easily hidden thing and yet the most difficult from which to escape. The patient can go for years grooming and keeping mental illness in a crate, like a little dog. Then one day the dog gets out and goes wild, pisses all over the house, and bites your feet, and barks and barks. What do you do? Surely you can't desert your house, be driven out by this nasty little dog? That in itself sounds insane. So a decision must be made. Facts must be faced. The dog is disruptive -- the dog is violent, it keeps making noise and it won't shut up or be satisfied, ever. It can't be good anymore. It seems to be showing it that it WON'T be good anymore. It's time to get some help. Someone needs to remove the dog from your house.
But the dog and you are together now, and as it turns out you have to go with the dog. There's the rub. Mental illness is that vicious little thing, but you can't evict him because he's attached to you. He's in your head, and your head is on your body, and you are all together, and so you ALL have to go and you are all labeled mentally ill. And once you are out of the house, the truth is that everyone remaining behind will be happier and better off that you are gone. And you will not go nowhere. You will go somewhere. To the hospital, the special hospital, where they only treat people with mental illness, and protect them, and protect other people from them.
In a mental hospital, the violent and the nonviolent sit together to eat. They sleep with only a wall between them, and we hope that nothing goes wrong as the night wears on, and the nurse sits behind her desk, hoping for the continued silence of all the little dogs on her watch.
I see now as a woman of a certain age that we really never ever can know what someone is going through unless we have been through it. We can sympathize, even empathize. We can cry and give time and money. We can even be right about what needs to be done to help. But there is no knowledge of mental illness or anything else, really, without experience.
I know what it's like to talk to a loved one who was sane and then one day was not sane anymore. Well, that isn't really true, you say. There is always a problem brewing, there are signs. But I am telling you that, officially and literally, one moment you are sane and the next, after three signatures are dry on a form, you are insane. And you must go stay somewhere else, away from us, the sane ones, or, maybe more accurately stated, the ones who are still sane for now.
When we were kids, we had a cat who gave birth to a litter of kittens. She went crazy after that, and quite literally drove us all out of the house one afternoon. You couldn't catch her or even get near her. Her eyes changed. She was not herself anymore. She wanted to hurt us. She was now an animal, not a pet. She wasn't a friend; she was the enemy.
Talking to a loved one who has been remanded for her own good to a mental institution is best described as surreal. You are suddenly very aware of your own mental health as you try to have conversations with your loved ones that two mentally healthy people would have. These conversations don't work. Just when you get out a point about how Lorna Doones are good tasting cookies but so full of fat, she starts crying. "I want to die." Well, that wasn't the answer I was looking for. I really was hoping you'd say something about the cookies. So, a new topic. I tell my loved one that she needs to shower. Blank stare. "What's the point?" Now there's a tough one to answer. What ever the hell IS the point of showering when you're stuck in this hell? Does it really matter at all to anyone anymore? Will it ever matter again? But I have to answer as if we are both sane. Yes, you need to be clean, and show them that you can shower and eat and smile and walk around and do crafts. Then they will let you out, so you can come home and tend to your little dog again, and get him back in the crate.
People in mental hospitals may not want to pray, even if they used to laud prayer as a life changing activity in which to engage. People in mental hospitals may use profanity even if before they really didn't do so. Or if they used to use profanity jokingly before, they may now use profanity at YOU. So when you are visiting them, you are visiting strangers. It's like someone took over your loved one's body, and is residing there, and speaking out of your loved one's mouth, but has your loved one tied up in a warehouse somewhere. You can try to be hopeful and optimistic. That seems like a good way to be. Everyone wants to hear about good outcomes that may or may not happen, right?
"I hate it here. Get me out of here. I don't belong here. Do you see how big that guy is? He's going to come after me in the middle of the night." This is the statement of an insane person, so you can't do what she asks, but if the worm were turned, you would say the same thing. So what to answer. You'll be fine. The old standby. Everything will be fine. Really. It will. God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world. But still there you sit, and your loved one is sitting with her little vicious dog and you aren't scared at all. You just feel like you want it all to be over, different, not this. You have some pretty insane thoughts of your own. But no one hears them, so they don't count.
"Well, you better go." That is the toughest. That pains. The time to part. I go back to the land of the sane, and I leave you here, to be crazy, among the crazy. Feet of lead move me toward the desk to sign out, then toward the door. In her nightgown she embraces me, and it feels so familiar, because the body is the same. But then she looks at me, and her eyes are those of a stranger. Worse than a stranger. The eyes don't cry. She's not even sad. Just resigned for the moment. "I'll see you soon. Be careful driving home."
Don't look back. Don't look back. Don't look back. You tell yourself this as your heart pounds in your ears. To look through the rectangle is to see the world of the insane, so you beg Jesus, please make this something else, please let this not be true. But it is. And you do, you do look back and see her face. The loneliest, weakest, and most defeated face, certainly, that has ever existed. Don't wave. Just leave it. Leave it be. But you can't. You put your hand to the glass even though you aren't to touch the glass or the door or the world she's now a citizen of and you're not. Her hand waves feebly and then her back is to you as she is walked off by the orderly.
And I freeze. Time freezes, that is. How much pain can a person feels before something inside just breaks permanently? How many waves of sorrow can knock me under the water, how much noise and begging, and how many tears and ghastly images, can fill my ears and eyes before it becomes acceptable and normal that I will never get my head above water again? That she will always be there, and I will always be here, on opposite sides of the door, even though the only difference between us is that my dog is still in its cage?