My soul wept when I walked into the cold sterile hospital room where my then partner sat slumped, rocking herself on a hard wooden rectangular box with no blankets or pillow. She looked up at me with anger in her eyes and I instantly knew what was coming…..this was my fault. The sobbing that she had been doing continually for the past two days had stopped and what remained of the tears were dry streaks running down her face. When she spoke, her angry words came out in a jumble….. committed…..can’t care for myself….hungry…..Baker Acted…. home….72 hours…. And before I could wrap my head around what was happening there it was: “Why did you do this to me?”
Earlier that day, I had raced home from work at lunchtime and found her on the floor crying uncontrollably as she had been for two days. We can’t go on like this I explained to her as I picked up the phone and dialed 911. When the paramedics came I explained that she had been like this since the psychiatrist changed her medication. They managed to get her off the floor and into the ambulance. I felt a wave of relief come over me. She’ll get help now…they’ll fix her…I’ll get some sleep tonight…..hopefully she’ll be home soon.
I went back to work for an afternoon meeting; a decision that I later regretted. As soon as I finished, I drove to the hospital. I had been to this hospital with her before which made it all the more surprising when I wasn’t directed to the emergency room. Instead, I was told to go down a different hall to an area known as the psychiatric hold area. My mind was trying to process this detail as I walked down the hall to the room where I found her.
When the nurse said the words Baker Acted they seared through my mind. “That can’t be,” I thought, “the only Baker Act people who…. oh….I see.”
I waited with my partner until the ambulance came to transport her to the psychiatric facility and I followed in my car as they drove her across town. When she arrived at the facility, the staff did not want to let me in but finally relented because she wasn’t cooperating and they needed her medical history.
The rules were different at this place. My soul wept yet again as I watched as they directed her to remove her shoelaces and belt….informed her that she could not have her favorite body washes and shampoos brought from home…..she could not keep her cellphone…..slowly layers of her humanity seem to peel away. I will never forget the scared, confused, sorrowful look on her face as they closed the door, leading her down a hall I was not allowed to enter. It was my eyes that wept all the way home to slow, steady beat of the windshield washers clearing away the falling rain.
From my own experience as a caregiver for someone with mental health challenges, I know that loneliness and isolation can be part of the journey. The stigma associated with mental illness casts a wide net often capturing within it the caregivers as well. Family and friends often fall away because it becomes too difficult to deal with the everyday realities. In my case, I found myself unable to let people close to me for fear of exposing just how chaotic my own life had become as I responded to each new crisis.
Caregiving does not have to be a lonely journey. At my church, we have formed a caregiver’s support group for family members and friends caring for those with mental health challenges. This sacred time and space is filled with tears, laughter, quiet reflection, prayers, and friendship. Participants become strengthened by listening to the stories of others and from being given the space to tell their own. The knowledge that they are not alone is empowering and life giving.
As we work to bring mental health out of the shadows and into the light, let’s remember the caregivers who travel these roads as well. May they also feel welcomed, supported, and embraced by our ministries.