If this is an emergency please hold

21 12 2012

old man crying

Winter Solstice. The longest night, and a time when people need a great deal of cheering up and reassurance. It’s why so many northern hemisphere cultures establish festivals this time of year involving themes of light, hope and new beginnings. We bloody well need that right now.

The news is full of the Newtown shooting. But every day all over the world tragedies occur. People in pain reach a breaking point and lash out, abusing themselves or someone else, killing themselves or someone else. And society wrings its collective hands and asks, “Why?”

Here’s a clue. People get lost. They need help. And everybody is too busy minding their own business.

Go ahead, tell us about all the social and psychiatric services available, grudgingly paid for by your tax dollars.

As Scrooge said, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

Sure, there are lots of services, covered by insurance. Why don’t people in mental turmoil make use of them, instead of turning to the bottle or the gun, staggering into despair, destruction, and headline-grabbing tragedy?  With so much help available, so many options, why do people in crisis make such bad choices?

Because they are in crisis.  Because the very faculty you seem to expect them to make use of doesn’t work right, namely their judgement.  Medical, insurance and governmental bureaucracies are frustrating and hard to deal with when you are sane, calm and rational.  Try doing it when you can’t think straight because your emotions are rioting and thoughts won’t slow down and stay in order.  When you can’t focus because of grief or trauma.  When you don’t have the card the person behind the desk wants, or you don’t know how to fill out the forms, or you can’t remember who you were supposed to talk to.

Those who are vulnerable, who need help the most, are expected to take the initiative, to navigate a complicated tangle of paperwork, phone calls, referrals and evaluations.  Those who are least able to take care of themselves are expected to do so. 

Well, you say, there’s always the Emergency Room.  Have you been to an Emergency Room?  Can you imagine a more upsetting, frightening, confusing place for a person in emotional anguish?  Never mind that it is the single most expensive option, for society or the individual. 

Six weeks ago I was in crisis. I even did the right thing and called my doctor. He even did the right thing and saw me immediately, referring me for counseling. But then it all broke down. I ended up in a frustrating maze of lost paperwork and phone tag. The recommended practice confronted a new patient with an automated menu, with promises of response within 48 hours at the latest, unless you called on Friday (the office administrator doesn’t work on Friday) and heaven help you if it’s a holiday weekend. But if it was an emergency, I could go to the nearest hospital ER.

Finally, two days ago, I saw someone. I went in hoping for Deanna Troi, and instead I got Nurse Ratched. I wanted someone to help me sort out confusion, doubts and anguish left in the wake of my sister’s death. She wanted to get me on drug therapy for mood disorder. She managed to misinterpret everything I said and did to presume I was a paranoid, hostile bipolar case refusing treatment. The more I protested, the more she was convinced I needed to be taken immediately to the ER for psychiatric evaluation. I became genuinely terrified that she wasn’t going to let me leave on my own. I finally managed to talk my way out.

I left more shaken than I was when I went in. I’m still shaken. And scared to try again. Do I really want to go through all that struggle and frustration only to risk another horror show?

As I sit here this morning after the longest night of the year, after one of the darkest months of my life, rain streaking the windows on a gray, dead, December day outside, I think to myself, How many others are there out there like me, and worse, maybe much worse? How many others scream for help, and are ignored, or so discouraged and spooked by a dysfunctional system that they never get the comfort and counseling they need? How many others who could have been saved by early, compassionate intervention instead give up and keep getting worse until the pot boils?

And it is as clear as crystal to me why the newspapers are full of tragedies, of people in pain who snap, lash out, resort to the bottle or the gun, make terrible choices and fall into violence and destruction.

And society wrings its collective hands, asks “why”, and then goes about its business the same as before.

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5 responses

21 12 2012
EMF

Wow, what a fantastic cautionary tale. You’re so right about the lack of mental resources people have when they’re in crisis, and how rationally you are expected to behave when asking for help. And the Nurse Ratcheds that inhabit the mental health system.

21 12 2012
EMF

… And hang in there. Christmas will be over soon, then winter. There is light at the end of the tunnel. It gets better.

21 12 2012
Terri Bruce

Thank you for sharing your story Justine – this is the BEST article I’ve ever read – anywhere – on violence in America and such. Setting aside issues such as guns and the like, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality for all forms of crisis (social, health, economic, etc.) contains an inherent paradox that only makes any such situation worse. THANK YOU!

21 12 2012
Haya

Mel, you must have friends who can recommend a humanistic therapist.
I hope that the circle of family and friends you have around you engulf you with love and warmth and see you through this crisis.
I remember a solstice day a few years ago full with love and hope, one of the the wondrous wedding ceremonies I ever had the privilege to be a witness to,

22 12 2012
twfendley

Justine — I know from your previous posts how incredibly difficult your life has been lately. It pains me to hear that you didn’t find the help you needed when you reached out. While I’m thankful for the safety nets we have, I know few distressed people who can reach them without assistance from someone who cares, or a lot of luck. But don’t give up….I don’t know if this applies, but sometimes the best thing you can do for your peace of mind is to not ask “why?”

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