This is the first in a series of articles I will be writing about several serious issues. It is my personal journey on a road that deals with mental health, caregiving, and the state of the medical profession. It will also be a documentation of my spiritual journey, which has not always been a Hallmark moment. This will be real life, real struggles, real feelings. This journey is for those of us who have walked this road, and those who might yet set foot upon it.
Your friend, Linda
P.S. For those of you with similar experiences, it would be good to hear your stories, also, if you wish to share them.
It was tornado weather in Alabama that February of 1995. I had to grip the steering wheel of my white Dodge Spirit as the wind pummeled it relentlessly. On I-20, somewhere around the Anniston/Oxford exit, the streaming traffic raced at suicidal speed through the dark driving rain. It was homeward bound time for the nine-to-fives and nothing was going to slow them down. I couldn’t see very far ahead, even with the windshield wipers at full capacity, and the headlights were blinding me. Even going a minimum of 65 mph, the other motorists were stomping the gas as they swerved impatiently around me. I was shaking as I finally had to pull off on the shoulder. It was a dangerous maneuver, but even more dangerous to slow down on that hell-bent highway.
At 11 p.m. the night before, back home in Georgia, I had picked up my son Henry from the Deep South plant where he worked in Fitzgerald. While I was gone, Mike had taken a call from my sister Katie in Alabama. Mama was in a bad way. By the time I pulled into the Amerex parking lot in Trussville where Katie worked, I had driven over 300 miles, half of it in bad weather.
I spent the night with Katie and we drove to Mom and Dad’s house the next morning. Mom was worse than I had ever seen her. Her pupils were so dilated her eyes looked like black holes and her face seemed almost twisted. She had suffered from a mental disorder most of her life. It was later diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder.
Katie and I talked to Dad about taking her to the hospital, but it was late by the time we had gotten him to agree. It might seem a no-brainer to take Mom for help, but we just didn’t know how far such a decision might take her, or the family. And we hated to put her into the hands of strangers, especially those who are in the mental health field. We had been down that road before. And it wasn’t pretty.
February 18 was spent in a tiny room off the emergency ward of the Baptist Monclair Hospital – Dad, Mom, Katie, and me. There was no place to sit or get comfortable. Even with just the four of us it was crowded and claustrophobic. Mom was never still, never silent, with a sound like a hurt animal. Hour upon hour we spent that way. My 78-year-old dad, who was the epitome of calm all my life, was agitated and drawn. Nobody knew then that he had lung cancer and heart problems.
Katie and I took turns after what seemed an intolerable time, trying to tell those in charge how bad it was, and how desperately we needed help. Our vigil, which had begun that morning in that awful little room, ended at seven that night as we followed our guide to the psych ward. As she walked too fast to keep up with, one of us had to stay behind with Dad, who kept having to stop to breathe and clutch his chest. I can’t recall if it was Katie or me. And no one noticed but us.
In one of those little pocket organizers I carried with me then, I had written under the dates:
Feb 19 – Went to see Mama
Feb 20 – Mama, Baptist Montclair
Feb 21 – Mama, a good day for her
Feb 22 – Mama, a great day for her. She was watching the airplanes as they climbed from the Birmingham airport through the bright sun. “They look like gold,” she said softly. Many years later, she was well enough to board one of those “golden” planes for the first time, at the age of 84, for a trip to California.
Feb 23 – Seems more agitated. Don’t know why. When I asked the head nurse in the ward about mom’s “agitation”, she promptly let me know in no uncertain terms that the word “agitated” was a medical term, and that I could not use it.
Feb 24 – Mom worse than ever. Don’t know why.
Feb 25 – Katie and I went to spend the day with Dad. We talked to him about where he kept important documents. We also talked to him about his soul and if he had ever accepted Christ as his Savior. He listened politely.
Feb 26 – Katie and I went to church and went to visit her son, Corey, at Big Oak Ranch for troubled boys. We had called the hospital, but could not speak to Mama, so we left a message.
Feb 27 – Went to see Mama, who was better. She asked why we did not come or call Sunday. Said she never got the message I had left.
Feb 28 – Dad and I went to visit Mama, who was worse. She did not want us to stay and constantly clawed at her hands and clothes.
March 1 – Went to see Mama. Too nervous. She did not want me to stay. I left the hospital and went to see my cousin Joan (Allred), who lived in Birmingham. Joan has always been my staunch supporter.
March 2 – Started out to see Mama. But couldn’t do it. Couldn’t make myself walk one more time through those doors. My mind and my heart needed a break. I went to the Birmingham Library to the family history section to do some research. It is quiet and soothing there. It is another world. A better world.
March 3 – Katie and I went to see Mama. Talked to doctor. May be released this weekend. Planned for Sunday.
March 4 – Took Mama some clean clothes. Talked to doctor about medication and visiting nurse. Katie and I went to visit with Dad. Then went to Boaz to visit with Papa (our grandfather, Mom’s dad), and our Aunt Frances, who is his caregiver.
March 5 – Picked up Mama. Raining hard. Cold. Mama looks like a zombie, but at least her hands are finally still. Asks all the way home if we are lost. Dad assures her we are not. Roads don’t look familiar. Are you sure you know the way home, Linda? She needs constant reassurance. My uncle, James (Duncan), Mom’s brother, is waiting at Dad’s house when we get there. He has a new video camera and wants to welcome his sister home. But she turns away, her eyes pleading. It is not a day for documentation. His intentions are good, but It is not a happy homecoming.
March 6 – If anything, Mom looks worse than she did when she went in the hospital, her face even more drawn and twisted, cheekbones sharp as a knife-edge, skeletal. Went to courthouse to try to get a court order to get her back into some kind of facility. But she was better by the time I got home and Dad was more assertive with her about her medications and schedule. It may be that Dad got through to her that if she stayed in her dark world, she might not have the option of staying in ours. Something happened while I was gone. But my quiet Dad never said.
March 7, 1995 – Leaving for home today. Uncle James called and begged me not to leave. Bad weather. Tornado warnings. I came in on a whirlwind and it looked like I would go out the same way. But I had to go. I stopped at Sandra’s Restaurant in Ashville on my way out to see my cousin Cindy (Owens), Mom’s niece. It was a good trip home. No bad weather, or maybe I was just leaving it behind. Thank God.