Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Impact of Mental Illness: A Story

A woman wearing her mother's nightgown and carrying a pot of coffee enters the room and finds a man slumped over on a desk.

She does a quick check of the "NBC"s of initial assessment: neck, back and collar.

Neck: present, discoloration to right lateral aspect, r/o hickey vs. birthmark

Back: present, shirt intact, alteration in fashion sense secondary to style and color noted.

Collar: alteration in cleanliness secondary to poor detergent selection resulting in "ring-around" syndrome.

What is your diagnosis?

a. Scapular arrest

b. Hysterical syncope secondary to the viewing of gram positive cocci and the inability to distinguish it from the couscous he had for dinner.

c. Pseudo-syncope secondary to not wanting to engage in marital relations due to wife wearing her mother's nightgown

d. Acute onset of somnolence following completion of compiling Grand Rounds submissions


This story violates no HIPPA violations.

I won't use real names.

The person involved was not my patient.

She was our next-door neighbor and gave me my first experience with mental illness.

I was twelve years old.


The summers are hot in the Stockton/Sacramento area and that year was no exception.

I spent most of my time outside, sitting on the grass with my transistor and listening to AM radio, having not yet discovered that "weird" stuff on FM. I would memorize the American Top 40 every week.

My life consisted of eagerly waiting for my Tiger Beat and 16 Magazines in the mail and running to the local JC Penneys to buy my 45s whenever I had babysitting money.

Bobby Sherman lined my walls. Three Dog Night was the coolest band ever.

I wrote to every single diploma nursing program in the United States that summer and received a bazillion catalogs back. I'd pore over every one and decide who had the best cap.

One must make informed decisions, even at the age of 12.

Other than people who "went" crazy due to drugs, mental illness was never on my radar.


We lived next door to a young couple, Amy and Dave, relative newlyweds. My parents became friends with them. Our cookie-cutter tract houses had opposite floorplans, so our front yards were sandwiched between the garages. We saw a lot of them as we came and went through our daily routines.

Everyone was very excited when Amy became pregnant. She had a baby boy.

And then it started.

She invited me over to see the baby. But she was talking in an odd way and the baby, just a week old, was laying in the bassinet without a diaper and urinating everywhere. I may have been a kid, but I sensed something wasn't right. I got out of the house as soon as I could.

And I told my mother what I had seen.

My parents were already suspicious as Amy had shown up at our door without the baby a couple of times that week. They had tried to talking to Dave, but being at work all day, he did not believe that there was anything to be concerned about. My parents could not believe his attitude, but didn't want to interfere in their business.

And, then as if my observations weren't enough to clinch it, the next day I was out in the front practicing cartwheels and gymnastics on the grass when Amy comes running across the street from another house and begins doing cartwheels next to me. I ran for my mom.

That was it. We got involved.

We went over and got the baby, brought Amy into the house, called my father (a police officer) to come home from work and called Dave home from the office. I guess there was no CPS back then.

We cared for the baby until that night, when Dave called Amy's family and his family and they all came over. My parents discussed their concern over Amy's odd change in affect and behavior. My dad, being a police officer had seen mental illness and was pretty sure that Amy had had what was then known as a "breakdown". This was hard for the families to accept as the idea of mental illness was even more "hush-hush" in their particular culture than it was in the general population back then.

All I remember was seeing these ten adults (including Amy) sitting in my family room discussing the situation in somber tones. Being twelve, I was told to go to my room. I went.

Amy was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized. Her family took over care of the baby until she was able to do so.


This story has a happy ending.

Amy and my mom have kept in touch since we moved away a couple of years later. Amy has had good periods and not-so-good periods over the last 35 years and my mom can tell by her letters how she is feeling.

She and Dave are still married and the baby we took care of that night was eventually joined by two siblings, now all successful adults. My mom gets pictures every year and Amy never fails to ask how we "kids" are doing.


I tell this story because I believe it has a lot to do with my ability to see the humanity behind "psych patients" and others who suffer with a mental illness.

A sense that mental illness was not something to be ignored or ashamed of, but something that could (and should) be dealt with.

This attitude followed me throughout my nursing education, throughout my life.

Not only because I saw the suffering, but because I witnessed compassion in how my parents responded.

Although I didn't appreciate it at the time, I was a lucky kid.


At 4/16/2006 05:48:00 PM, Blogger TC said...

You were a lucky kid and Amy was a lucky have people who looked out for her and her family and really helped instead of a)judging her or b)not getting involved. People with mental illness get the short end of the stick in our society and it's a real shame.

At 4/16/2006 08:41:00 PM, Blogger kenju said...

Indeed you were and so was she. I am glad the story had a happy ending.


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