This is what happened that day.
When we arrived at the Hamilton Center in Terre Haute, we were immediately stopped at the door by a man pointing an object at my head. I knew it was a thermometer, even though he never said, I need to take your temperature. He just got in my face and started waving this thing around. It felt as though he couldn’t get to me fast enough. I was already on high alert that morning; nerves frayed and raw. We hadn’t slept much the night or weeks before.
I had to become a different person to do what I was getting ready to do- leave my husband as an inpatient at a mental health facility. I was able to compartmentalize on the drive over, and I did indeed become a different person. My strong husband was no longer able to take care of me; I was now taking care of him. It felt as if I had become his parent, making decisions for him.
He was scared. I was scared. He was not himself— not even close. I was in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively. I never drove Joe anywhere unless he’d been drinking; he was the driver. He rubbed his hands and his head incessantly on the way, just as he’d been doing for weeks. I noticed as we were on highway 46— I remember the moment— that he didn’t have his hat. Joe never went ANYWHERE without his hat. I asked him, where’s your hat? And he said, “it looks stupid, it’s too big for my head now.” I just shook my head in disbelief at what he had just said.
I remember thinking on the drive that NOW….NOW I can call the kids and tell them what was going on with their dad. Relief…I could finally speak. (You can’t check your husband into a mental health center and not tell his kids.)
The man at the door couldn’t get my temperature, and he continued waving the thermometer around my head. I finally had had enough and asked him, what are you doing? “I need to take your temperature,” he said. THEN DO IT! I said, AND GET THAT THING OUT OF MY FACE. As soon as he got a “normal” reading, I had to sign us in. The man sitting behind the table then handed me a mask. We’re not wearing masks, I told him firmly. “You have to,” he said. No, we don’t, I know our rights. “Well, you do if you want to come into this facility,” he said. Joe grabbed my arm and said, “let’s go.” I jerked away from him and raised my voice. I said something to the effect of, “my husband is in need of help! He is in crisis, and we’re not wearing masks!”
At this point, because of my raised voice, other people entered the corridor and wanted to see what was happening. Joe was insisting we leave, and I was insisting that we stay. The whole interaction was probably five minutes or less. Harsh words were spoken- from me to them. The last thing I wanted was for Joe to be under even more stress, and I knew that my causing a scene wasn’t going to help. But I told anyone that was listening as loud as I could- my husband needs help! He kept saying, “babe, let’s go.” And so we did.
I’m sure I said some things as we walked out the door- because I know me- and “those things” wouldn’t have been nice. I remember forcefully opening the door and walking in anger to the car steps ahead of Joe. I’m sure I had flames shooting out of my nostrils. I had done everything I could to get myself in a state of “OKAYNESS” about leaving him.
I couldn’t believe that a mental health facility had NO POLICY in place to accommodate someone who had anxiety issues around wearing a mask!
As I was peeling out of the parking lot, a woman came running up to the car waving her arms and yelling, “STOP! STOP!” Joe said, “do NOT stop- GO!” I told him to “SHUT UP! STFU!” I stopped, rolled down the window from my side, and listened to what she had to say. “Please come back. I want to help. I have a doctor on his way out, we’re drying the bench off and he’ll come outside and talk to you.” (It was a cold, gloomy morning, and it had been raining.) “NO!” Joe said. I told him, “YES! We are going to go talk to him!”
I parked the car again, and we walked to the bench and waited for the doctor. When he eventually came out, he had his mask pulled down below his mouth, where it remained for the duration of his “talk” with Joe. He sat on the bench and introduced himself. He asked Joe to sit down, and he did.
I stood a short distance in front of them. I wanted Joe to speak for himself. He looked up at me like a lost puppy- it was heartbreaking to see him this way. The doctor asked him what was going on, and he looked at me to speak for him. I said, “babe, just tell him what you’re thinking right now. Tell him exactly what’s on your mind.” (It’s important to note that as we waited for the doctor to come out, and as Joe sat on this bench, in the cold speaking from his heart to a complete stranger, others were walking in and out of the building- right there. ZERO privacy and everyone was wearing a mask.)
And Joe said, “I was an abused child.” That was the first time I had ever heard him say those words in this way. Like, “Hi, my name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” I just shook my head, yes, and encouraged him to keep going. And he did. He told the doctor that he was suicidal and had already had a gun in his mouth. He told him that he had given me his pistol to hide but that he knew if he wanted to kill himself, he still could. He talked about how much weight he had lost and how weak he was. He said, “just look at me. I’m pathetic.” The doctor told him he looked like a healthy man to him (he was a healthy weight, but not to him- he had lost a lot.) He told him what we did for a living and that our business had essentially been shut down because of COVID. He told him he didn’t understand what was happening.
The doctor asked him more questions, and Joe was very candid with him. I really thought we were getting somewhere. I thought, in my naivety, that as soon as Joe told him he was suicidal that he would, without question, be admitted-intake over.
Before we had driven to the Hamilton Center that morning, I had called them. They told me all beds were full but that if we came over, did an intake and the doctor thought he needed to be admitted that they would find a bed for him. I thought as soon as he told him he wanted to kill himself, that they would indeed find him a bed. But this became NOTHING about Joe, and his state of mind, and 100% about putting a mask on. Compliance.
The doctor then asked him about the masks- “Why won’t you wear a mask?” Joe said, “are you kidding me?” The doctor said, “is it because it’s a reminder of what you’ve lost?” Joe was dumbfounded, just as I was. He had just told him he wanted to kill himself! Why is even asking this question?!?!?! “They are destroying us, trying to silence us, and yes…it is a constant reminder of what we’ve lost. I have nothing left except my beautiful wife standing in front of me. Just look at her.” I remember that statement well because it embarrassed me so much.
The doctor then took it upon himself to tell us that he disagreed, and thought the masks were a good thing. (I really wanted to punch him in the mouth at that point.) He then said, “Joe, I am the doctor that’s over all of the HC facilities in the area, but I am not the CEO. I want to help you, but I will need to get special permission from the CEO for you to enter the building.”
“Let’s go,” Joe said.
And we did.
As if the shame and embarrassment already surrounding him weren’t enough. It was another kick- right in the gut. We walked back to the car, drove away, and came right back home.
And that was it.
He was dead four days later.
Say and think whatever you want about the masks, but if I haven’t made it clear enough through my other posts, Joe was not able to put a mask on. It caused him great anxiety! He was SICK!
As crazy as this sounds, when we got back to the car, I felt immediate relief. I remember thinking to myself… he’s coming home with me. Everything’s going to be OK. As quickly as I was able to “become” this other personality to do what needed to be done, I went right back into my “normal” self as soon as it was “over.” I really thought- and I don’t know why- that everything was going to be OK. Maybe because we had just spoken to a doctor, and Joe told him he wanted to kill himself, had a gun in his mouth, and wasn’t taken seriously; he wasn’t admitted.
Ironically, my brother told me that the day that Joe died, he was speaking to one of the police officers, and the officer said to him that anytime someone mentions suicide, they are immediately taken into custody. Police officers are trained for this, and our mental health doctors-that are in charge of multiple facilities- aren’t?
I don’t remember our conversation on the way home. Every day as the morning moved into the afternoon, Joe got better. Every day it was about getting him through the morning. And for a man like Joe to reach out for help, to admit that he couldn’t kick this himself… well that was huge. And to be turned away and basically told, unless you comply by putting a mask on, well, then we can’t help you.
When we got home from The Hamilton Center, I laid down on the couch- I was exhausted. I picked up my phone and wrote this in my notes:
This is what it looks like. Not me. I’m not depressed. I’m not anxious. I’m keeping my mental health in check… I’m pretty sure I am. Yes. Yes. I am.
From the outside looking in. Little sleep, unkempt hair, a bruised face (a door in the dark still half asleep), deeper wrinkles, a furrowed brow, naps before noon. It looks like pounds lost and loose clothes. It looks like black eyes, dark circles, and bags to highlight. It looks like a path worn into the floor from pacing back and forth; a bald head rubbed raw by the hands that hold it. Swollen eyes and misspelled texts—missed gatherings and hugs from friends.
It sounds like silence when there are no more words and primal screams when there’s nothing else. It tastes like salt from all of the tears and bitter from the bile. Like hot tea when it’s the only comfort and sweet as honey when there’s a glimpse of light. It feels like the deepest pain that could ever be felt, a stomach in knots, a black hole. It feels like hell because that’s what it is.
How I heard it… from a friend.
And I took this picture.
You can blame me, shame me, judge me, and or never speak to me again. That’s OK. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did the best I could. There were big misses. If I had it to do over again, of course, I would’ve done things differently. That’s the beauty of hindsight- when we know better, we (hopefully) do better. I’m sharing this now because although it’s too late for Joe, it may not be too late for someone you love. I know there’s someone that will learn from my mistakes and make better choices.
Shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown has studied the power of these intensely painful feelings as a professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. Brown says shame is the most primitive human emotion we all feel — and the one no one wants to talk about.
“I think shame is lethal,” she says. “I think shame is deadly. And I think we are swimming in it deep.”
Brown explains that feelings of shame can quietly marinate over a lifetime. “Here’s the bottom line with shame,” she says. “The less you talk about it, the more you got it. Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”
By keeping quiet, Brown says your shame will grow exponentially. “It will creep into every corner and crevice of your life,” she says.
The antidote, Brown says, is empathy. She explains that by talking about your shame with a friend who expresses empathy, the painful feeling cannot survive. “Shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone,” she says.
Here’s the bottom line: “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown says. “It cannot survive empathy.” (https://www.huffpost.com)
I kept all of Joe’s secrets because he felt shame around them- all of them. He felt weak and defeated. I was his wife. My job was to be his confidant, his support, his safe and soft place to land. And I did that well. I hope that someone will learn from my mistakes.
I never thought it would end this way.
xo, and peace.