In the wake of Robin Williams suicide many are asking why? Whenever I hear people ask this question, I am reminded of an elderly lady I nursed many years ago and how I learned that not everything is as we may see it.
The lady I speak of was in her eighties. She was admitted with chest pain, confusion, and a number of other medical issues. However it was not her ailments but her story which has remained with me.
She arrived into the geriatric ward the day I began there. She had a head of white hair with a natural curl, soft skin and a smile which took years off her when she showed it. However those first days we rarely saw it, as she lay in bed, back to the door, and showed little interest in what was going on around her.
In the room with her was another lady who was quite unwell. In order to look after her I was in and out of the room many times, and even though I was busy, this lady kept catching my eye. She rarely moved, despite being fully mobile. She never sat up, turned around, nor showed any interest in what was happening around her. The few times we spoke she barely answered me.
Over the next few days I spent more and more time with her. Slowly she began to unfold, and as she did so her character was revealed. She was one of those patients who would never ask you for anything, believing at all times that you were too busy, and that she would only be bothering you. She was quiet, but once engaged she was so happy to chat. In fact it was this willingness to chat and her wonderful story telling ability that kept me coming back for more, every chance I got.
We spoke about her past, her childhood and her family. However the majority of our conversations were about her early life with the man who would become her husband of almost fifty years. He had passed away two years previously, just short of their fifty year anniversary. At the time I had only recently met my now husband of over twenty years. We were enjoying those early heady days of love, and listening to me sharing my stories, brought this lady back in time to when she was a young girl. Together we shared many stories which were very similar, just years apart
As her test results began to come back doctors were puzzled. This lady had presented with a lot of medical issues, yet now after a week many seemed to have resolved. They had no idea why.
One morning we were chatting. Her family were coming to visit and she was doing her best to apply makeup and look ‘well’. I was brushing her hair and looking at her in the mirror. The conversation turned to my boyfriend and I remember I said something along the lines of ‘ ‘I’m no fool, I’ll keep him chasing’. As I did so she put down her make up and looked at me in the mirror. Then she said, ‘Don’t play games for too long my dear. I did that for seven years. Seven years I could have been with him, and I regret it every day’.
There was something in the way she said it that made me stop, just for a moment. Then, continuing on I asked, was she very lonely without him? As she began to answer me I watched her face crumble. Tears filled her eyes and spilled over. She never sobbed, just allowed her tears to fall unchecked. I knelt beside her and held her hand as she cried for a little while more. Watching her cry I realised just how alone and lonely she was. As quickly as she had begun she stopped, wiped her eyes and I knew she was closing down. I decided to press her, gently, so I asked her ‘Did she ever wish she was with him’ . She nodded, and over the next few minutes it all came out.
Living without her lifelong pal she found life unbearable. She felt a burden on her family, and could no longer find joy in any day. The idea of being with her husband had begun to appeal to her, and over time she had begun to overdose on her medication, hence her admission to hospital.
Listening to her story I was struck by the fact that this lady had lived a lie. She had said all the right things at the right time and had kept up a pretense for her family that she was coping. I too had been fooled by her, allowing myself to enjoy her stories but never asking the questions that would have allowed her to open up. Within the hospital she had been treated for her physical symptoms when in fact her real troubles did not need a series of tests to diagnose. What she really needed was someone who would ask her how she was, and take the time to really listen to her reply.
This week ten of our fellow Irish citizens with take their own life, by choice. They will be someones much loved daughter, son, mother, father, uncle or aunt. The methods they chose may vary, the reasons my differ, but the effects on the lives of all those who loved them will be the same. Devastating.
Something has got to change. It is time we all began to look around us, and ask questions. It is time for us to listen to those who are silently screaming, and let them know we are here, they are much loved and we care. It is time to discuss depression, and mental illness openly.
It is time for us all to play our part.
If we change nothing nothing changes. It is time.