When you pass through the doors of a psychiatric ward or hospital, you enter a place with stark truths on display, in which illusions are to be stripped away and lives rebuilt. There's a profound and unsettling honesty in the struggles you see there. The deep stuff comes out: the anguish, the terror, the shifting sense of what is real and what is illusory, the loneliness, the grief, the anger, the pain. Amid it all, often, you see hope. But whatever you see, the truths carry a lot less varnish here than in the world outside.
The essence of compassion (literally, suffering with another) is to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in their pain. To look, together, at the hard things in their lives, doing our best not to flinch in the looking. To offer support and to be present in whatever comes.
Challenging under any circumstances. So much more so when offering compassion involves entering that space yourself, leaving your own grief and fears and pain outside in a dusty waiting-room locker, working to shape yourself into the support they asked you to be. It's tough, important, exhausting work. If _mitzvot_ are sacred kindnesses without hope of repayment, surely this must be one.
Laura's piece gazes with compassion at the act of visiting people in a hospital, looking with kindness and candor at the meaning and the costs of generosity and support. It admits that we cannot always fix what hurts those we care about, exhorts us to try anyway, and acknowledges that the emotional toll of caring can be huge.
Hollis Easter, MS
firstname.lastname@example.org / @adkpiper on Twitter
http://www.holliseaster.com/blog/ : articles about suicide intervention, teaching, instructional design, etc.
We were there as the only support structures that they had, the people they begged to see, begged to bring them new clothes, toothpaste, play a game for the short visiting hours. We drove from an hour away, or two hours, or five minutes and smiled and gave them hugs and they would tell us how their day went, how group therapy was, how art therapy was, if they’d managed to sleep in spite of room checks and lights on in the hallways.
Or we were desperately trying to get through to them even though they didn’t want to see us, even if they stared at us with dull eyes and sat in their chairs, unmoving, unresponsive as we tried to engage them, tried to remind them that we loved them. They wouldn’t answer our questions, or maybe they didn’t know the answers.
They hallucinated. Or they were suicidal. Or they could fly into a rage and threaten to kill. They were here because they had nowhere else to go, and we were here because we felt responsible for them. We were their brothers and sisters, their husbands or wives, and we brought their children or mothers or fathers and passed on messages to friends who were worried. Or we didn’t tell anybody because they didn’t want the public to know, so we bore our struggles in silence and tried to support them, tried to push aside how we felt so that we could take care of them.
They blamed us. Or they thanked us. They said they only tried it because of us, because we pushed them too much, because we had unreasonable expectations. That if we had been nicer to them, if we had listened when they talked, if we hadn’t been so wrapped up in ourselves, it never would have happened. They said it was because of us they were alive. We had listened when they most needed it, we had been there to support them, make sure they got the help they needed, insist that they go somewhere where they can’t harm anybody – including themselves – it was only then that they realized what a problem they had. How they hadn’t realized how far they had fallen, how dark their world was, how wrong it was that they wanted to end it. Or they wished we hadn’t helped them, that we had ignored them and let them die because living sucked and they were done with it and we had to wonder how soon after they were released they would try again or maybe this time succeed.
We had seen it coming. We knew they were depressed. Or that their breakup had been bad. We knew that they weren’t on medication for their schizophrenia, or they had stopped taking it because they were “fine.” Maybe we hadn’t seen it, though. Instead, we were too wrapped up in our own lives. We thought they should have been able to deal with the breakup. They should have been on their meds.
We blamed them. If only they had been stronger. Why couldn’t they deal with this? We’ve all been through it and we weren’t suicidal. Didn’t they know that bipolar disorder created extreme depression or mania? Why would anybody in their position stop taking their meds? Why would anybody with depression refuse to start taking meds? I don’t like doctors and I don’t like pills isn’t good enough, we thought. Why didn’t they come to us sooner? We would have listened.
We blamed ourselves. How couldn’t I have seen this? I should have known. We were glad we got there in time because how guilty would we feel? How terrible would it be, knowing the should-haves, would-haves, if-onlys? Why didn’t we make ourselves available to them? Why didn’t we ask how they were doing?
We left at the end of visiting hour, offering hugs and kisses, promises of future visits, hopes that the next day would be better, hopes that they would continue to heal. We asked that they continue taking their meds, that they talk to their doctors, talk to their psychiatrists, talk to each other. Whatever they needed to heal.
We left in pairs, offering each other comfort: we had done the right thing by visiting. We drove home, but we didn’t really talk to each other about what we were feeling. We didn’t want it to be our pain, because it was about them and their need to heal. So we stayed quiet. We pretended that we were okay. When they were released – if they were released – we didn’t tell them about the pain they had caused us. How their actions had damaged us.
We told ourselves it wasn’t about us. Maybe we even believed it. But we neglected ourselves. We neglected the real pain we suffered.
But we cannot neglect ourselves any longer. We must accept that we hurt, too. That it might have been about them, but we suffered too.
-- Laura Anderson
If you are thinking about dying by suicide, please, talk to someone.
This article can give you some ideas about what to expect when you call a suicide hotline: http://www.holliseaster.com/p/call-suicide-hotline/.
- In the US, anyone can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline free from anywhere at 1-800-273-TALK. You can also livechat from their website, http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
- In the US, LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. You can also text or chat: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/get-help-now#tt.
- In the US and Canada, transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people can also call the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860. Please see their website to confirm staffing times: http://www.translifeline.org/.
- In the UK, you can call the Samaritans anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 08457 90 90 90.
- In Scotland, you can call the Breathing Space phoneline, which is available 24 hours at weekends (6pm Friday - 6am Monday), and 6pm - 2am on weekdays (Monday - Thursday), on 0800 83 85 87.
You are sacred. Your life matters.