Mental Health – Stigma in the Emergency Room
The Fourth House
by – Sheri de Grom
Journal Entry: Random entries beginning Dec. 7, 1987, Monterey, California.
My husband, Tom, and I had endured a year-long odyssey of medical exams for him.
Neither our internist nor specialist could find causes which rendered him unable to digest food. He also experienced irregular heartbeats and anxiety attacks with uncontrollable shaking.
Our internist always welcomed us and listened carefully and conscientiously, never suggesting that Tom might be a hypochondriac, or I, a hysterical wife. She met with both of us and conveyed her earnest desire to continue searching for the cause of his decline.
She’d guided us through the medical maze until we ran out of options. The day came when she suggested to me, “You might want to consider going through the Emergency Room for a mental health evaluation. It’s not the perfect solution but it’s the only choice you have.”
Our arrival at the emergency room that first time on December 7, 1987, seemed surreal. A stiffly starched nurse, features empty of emotion or sympathy, recorded Tom’s vital signs. She moved abruptly, and never spoke. Somehow, I knew this foray into mental health care would be barbaric compared to our previous health care experiences.
A no-nonsense orderly escorted us into a private room, with two chairs and a table. A holding cell couldn’t have been bleaker. I felt the loss of freedom and entrapment as brutally as if we had both been handcuffed and strip-searched.
Forty-five minutes dragged by. Then, without warning, a psychiatric nurse burst into the room and relentlessly fired questions at Tom, seeming oblivious to his emotional state and physical symptoms. Tom’s body shook with tremors so severe he could barely stay seated. He couldn’t speak to answer her questions. Where were her observation skills? Anger strangled me. Had we interrupted her gossiping at the nurse’s station? I gritted my teeth to suppress my rage. I struggled to stop myself from shouting: my husband is an ordinary human being in extraordinary pain!
When the nurse left, Tom remained locked inside his mind. I tried to no avail to see in there, too. Was it safe? Was it dark? What was it like on the inside looking out? Could he even see out or had the hatch been secured so tightly that only shadows, phantoms and gloom resided there? What happened when a mind was capable of only one thing – suffering? I felt powerless and interpreted the terror in his eyes, ‘what’s happening to me? Please help!’
A rumpled-looking admissions clerk entered the room and handed me some papers to read and sign. Wordless, with an air of false authority, the orderly reappeared and plunked Tom into a wheelchair.
“Wait!” I shouted. “Where are you taking my husband? You don’t have permission to move him.” I’d always had control of Tom’s care. Who told this brash stranger to remove Tom from my sight? No one could care as much for Tom’s well being as I did.
The admissions clerk returned and spoke in an unbearable monotone, “Mrs. de Grom, your husband is safe now. Come along and we’ll complete his paperwork. You might be able to see him later tonight.”
‘Come along?’ I was enraged but at his mercy.
A nerve-racking two hours later, I approached the admissions desk again. “When can I see Tom de Grom?”
The clerk looked up with a bored expression and an upside-down name tag. “Let me check.”
He made a call, then rested the phone in its cradle and advised, “The unit is processing Mr. de Grom tonight. You can see him during normal visiting hours tomorrow. That’ll be five to seven p.m.”
“What? What do you mean? That’s only two hours.”
“Tomorrow you’ll get information about how the unit operates. Have a good trip home.”
I’d been dismissed. Just like that. My world had forever changed.
As I left the hospital, I’d never felt so lost and alone. I’d always had a plan and a method for executing it. I’d always excelled in my profession but nothing had prepared me for this.
Clutching the leather steering wheel of my trusty Volkswagen, I slumped over and sobbed. I cried for Tom, for myself, for the life we had planned so carefully. I cried for the sweet promises we’d made to each other the day we’d wed and danced under the flower-covered gazebo overlooking the roaring turquoise Pacific Ocean. We’d laughed and declared the song, Strangers in the Night, our own. It was our song, our dance, our story.
Yip, my little Shih Tzu, snuggled into my lap as I started the drive home. He seemed unusually quiet, but the steady, familiar beat of his heart was bittersweet against my churning stomach. Would I ever feel the beat of Tom’s heart against mine again? How could I have left him there?
This blog as well as all my previous Fourth House series blogs are dedicated to every person suffering from a chronic mental illness and their families and loved ones.
A Canvas of the Minds is a unique collaboration of different perspectives on mental health and life. I’ve elected to continue my fight against the stigma that accompanies mental health.
With this post, I pledge my commitment to the ‘Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project.’ I will continue to blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. The time has come for everyone to set aside the stigma that haunts those with brain disorders and those of us who love them.
The blog I’ve posted today is taken from my journal notes beginning December 7, 1987 and moving forward approximately ten days. I was emotionally wrung out the night I left Tom at the hospital and drove home alone with the exception of my dog, not knowing if I’d ever see the man I married ever again. His haunting gaze, trembling body and inability to form words filled me with a terror I’d never encountered before. Tom’s illness brought me to my knees time and time again.
I was supposed to be the strong one. The one willing to take on the toughest case The Staff Judge Advocate could throw at me and obtain the conclusion he demanded in the government’s interest. I’d never lost. Failure was not a part of my world. I was fearless and never afraid. With Tom’s illness I’d met an enemy I had no idea how to conquer.
The professionals where Tom was admitted on his first of twenty-seven mental health admissions demonstrated to me how severe stigma is against the mentally ill and their loved ones. When the professionals in the mental health arena demonstrate inappropriate behavior, how will the child in the schoolyard learn to act differently?
Thank you for reading with me.
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