Thursday, June 19, 2014
Reactive Attachment Disorder (Part Two)
When crisis mode hit in our house, it looked like a nervous break down. I've heard the term "nervous break down" my whole life:
"After your great grandmother lost her son and husband to unexpected heart attacks, she had a nervous break down and was never the same again"
"If you're not careful, you're gonna have a nervous break down"
and my favorite: "You are so wound up, if you don't calm down, you're going to cause me to have a nervous break down".
The term was bantered around in my upbringing as often as sweet tea was served at the dinner table....and for those who are not from the south, that is a whole lot! I often wondered what a nervous break down was. Did my great grandmother actually mentally break and fall to the ground? I wasn't sure, but I knew I didn't want to have one or to see one because it sounded like a horrible thing.
Natalie had her break down in November of 2012. I recognized it when it happened, and it scared me half to death. It was in our great room, in front of our fireplace, and she did literally drop to the ground. She then pounded the floor with her fists over and over and over again while screaming: "Please, get me some help! I need help or I'm going to kill myself! Why won't anyone listen to me? Can't you see I need help?"
I knelt by my daughter's side and tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't respond. And when I touched her, trying to pull her to me, she didn't seem to have the ability to realize I was near her, trying to help her. Natalie's body was stiff and wouldn't be moved, and her face was red, covered in snot and tears, as she pounded the floor with her fists, screaming with an other-worldly guttural sound I had never heard before. Lydia, my other teenage daughter, was in the room as well, and she began to scream out in a frenzy: "Help her mom, do something....help her!" And all I could think to ask her was: "Lydia, oh God, what do I do?" I was in a panic too.
I finally gathered enough composure to think of dialing an emergency number; they immediately re-routed my call to a mental hospital in town where I was asked a series of questions. For the record, on a side note, I was unaware at the time that we had mental hospitals in the Nashville area. It is odd to me now to consider that I had never given mental health any thought at all until that day. During the entire phone call, which lasted for around fifteen minutes, Natalie never stopped screaming or hitting the floor. The person on the other end of the phone call seemed unfazed by it. Lydia, by this time, had taken her two younger siblings into a bedroom and locked the door to keep them from the scene.
"Bring her here and we'll admit her," the female who answered the call calmly instructed.
Meanwhile, my mind raced: "Admission.... into a mental hospital? Do you really think that's necessary?"
She continued: "Bring a few changes of clothes for her to stay for several days. She may even need to be here for a few weeks."
"Oh, no, that won't be necessary," I remember telling her while my daughter was wailing in the background, "maybe a doctor can just meet with us and get this all straightened out pretty fast."
I was such an air brain, wasn't I? Laughably ignorant. The red flag was waving in my face, but I still didn't want to see it.
"Mrs. Hollis, you've just given me the details of every member of your family, correct?" the woman asked firmly. I detected a hint of an attitude in her voice.
"Yes," I answered, feeling like the elementary school girl who had just been caught with gum in her mouth. Was I in trouble with this woman, or what?
"When you mentioned your daughter Hope and her heart condition, you said she has gone through multiple surgeries, life saving surgeries, is that correct?"
Yes, the lady on the other end of the line was becoming notably more agitated with me. And the entire time, Natalie's screams were simultaneously getting louder.
"That's right, Hope has had three open heart surgeries and still has an aneurysm in her heart," I managed.
"So, you are willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to save Hope's life, but not Natalie's. Why is that?" she asked.
Literally, I felt my heart sink to my feet. After hanging up the phone, I called my husband and told him where to meet me, and a few short hours later, Natalie, my daughter, was introduced to the mental health care system. And so was I.
When we first walked up to the electric doors, I expected them to open. We do it all the time, right? When entering a grocery store, Walmart, or Target, the doors automatically open. But not here. To my left I found a call button and pushed it:
"I'm here with my daughter, Natalie. I think you are expecting us?"
No answer. I heard a buzz, and the door opened. After an hour of questions with an intake nurse, Natalie and I were taken upstairs to the youth unit where we were surrounded by teenage boys and girls. The doors were bolted behind us when we entered.
The teenagers looked so normal. Oddly normal. They acted like friends, laughing and talking to one another, which took me off guard. I don't know what I expected....I'm sure I didn't expect for there to be so many in number, but I also didn't expect them to appear so happy and well-adjusted in a mental hospital. "Hello?" I thought, "you guys do know you are in a psyche ward, don't you?"
We were welcomed by a nurse who took us into another room to ask yet one more round of questions. At one point, I told her: "It's crazy how happy all these kids seem around here," and quickly followed my remark with: "Oh, I shouldn't have used the word 'crazy' in a mental hospital, I am so sorry for being inconsiderate. I'm going to have to get used to not using that word so much, because I use it all the time....." and I rambled on nervously until she finally interrupted: "It's OK, really, it is." To this day, I am careful about how I use that word.
After the second round of questioning, we were ushered into a private bathroom where Natalie was made to remove her clothing so cuts and abrasions could be noted in a folder. She was told her body would be checked on a regular basis.
"Is that really necessary?" I asked. "Isn't that embarrassing for these young girls?"
"She's in a hospital, and it's for her own protection," the nurse assured me.
What did I know? At that point, I felt at a loss. Natalie was finally acting stable, and that was a good thing. We were given a few minutes alone before I was told to leave.
I looked Natalie straight in the face, holding her shoulders tightly with my hands: "Are you alright?"
She is such a beautiful girl. A turned up nose, dark brown eyes, and a soft voice have accompanied her since the first day we met. Although she is nearly sixteen, she looks to be about twelve or thirteen, so young and innocent:
"I hope this place will help me; I don't want to feel like this anymore, Mom."
We cried and hugged, said our good-byes, and I was escorted out. Again, the doors were bolted behind me. Group visitations were to be on Sunday afternoons for thirty minutes and all other visits would be on an 'as needed' basis determined by her therapists and doctors. Can you believe that day marked the first time Natalie spent the night away from home without me? Throughout the years she'd been asked to sleep overs, but had always refused to be away from me. The irony of it made me sick as I drove away and left her behind.
The following day, after calling and checking in with one of Natalie's nurses to make sure she had done well through the night, I decided to take Lydia shopping, hoping she would open up to me and be willing to discuss how she was processing what was going on with her sister. We entered a store and were promptly greeted by a girl who used to attend school with my older son, Caleb. We knew who she was, but she didn't know us.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"We're just looking around, but thanks," I answered.
She followed us back to the junior section, staying right on our heels:
"You both have very pretty hair. I hate my hair."
"No, you're hair is pretty too," I smiled, "I don't have curls like you and always wished I did."
"Could I pet your hair?" she asked. "I mean, would you mind if I touched it?"
Lydia immediately shot me a look of shock. Her jaw nearly hit the floor. The girl didn't notice; thankfully, her eyes were fixated on my hair. I don't know if it was because of the bizarre time I'd had with Natalie the day before or if it was a God-thing, but I didn't even hesitate. I answered as if her question was one I was asked every day of the week: "Of course you can," I said.
So we stood there in the back corner of the store with my hair in her hands. Lydia was a spectator, taking in the whole scene when she was suddenly pulled in:
"Can I pet your hair too?" she asked, admiring Lydia's long hair, "you both have gorgeous hair."
Lydia wasn't as poised as I was, but she murmured an: "Uhhhhm, sure, I guess."
The experience was surreal.
A few days later, I was allowed to take Lydia with me for a therapy visit with Natalie. I looked up at one point and caught a glance of that same girl who had petted our hair whisking by. I later learned from Natalie the girl had attempted suicide and daily pulled out globs of her own hair, leaving piles of blond curls hidden beneath her bed.
After a two week stay, Natalie was sent home. The mental hospital requested she stay longer, but insurance didn't cooperate. She was home just over twenty four hours when she melted again, hands pounding on the floor, screaming for help. On the second visit to the mental hospital, I was left in a holding area while Natalie was taken back to be questioned alone. The hospital wasn't as frightening to me the second time.
A man and his teenage son came in as I sat waiting for Natalie. They sat in the holding room with me, actually right next to me, even though there were several available chairs in the room. For the longest time I sat next to them in silence, wondering if I should say something. What do you say in a mental hospital, right? The man, who I assumed was the boys' father, appeared shaken. Bent over, his elbows rested on his knees as he rocked back and forth. His son, however, sat upright staring straight ahead. The difference between the two was glaring. After debating what to say, I finally broke the silence:
"This isn't the best place to visit, is it?" I offered a half smile. That simple question was all the man needed. He immediately began telling me all about his son, who he had adopted as a baby.
"He has always been a good student and an excellent baseball player," he said. "Several months ago, he was driving home....it wasn't a rainy night and he wasn't drinking or speeding, so we don't know what happened....but when we he was found, his car had hit a tree and he was unconscious. There wasn't a scratch on him, but it turned out he had a brain injury." At this point, the man's face was covered in tears and his hands were trembling. His son still sat upright, rather stoic, unmoving. He continued: "My wife and I could never have children, so when we adopted our son, he became the center of our world," he patted his son's leg, "we love him so much." For a few seconds he cried out loud, wiping the tears as fast as they fell. The son still showed no emotion; as for me, though, I was crying right along with my new friend. "He started having seizures and has lost his ability to learn. School used to be so easy for him, but not anymore. He had been offered a scholarship to play baseball, but now has lost it because he can't play anymore. The brain injury has taken his ability to learn and to play ball away from my boy and so he wants to die. And he's going to do it....I'm afraid he's going to kill himself."
Then, for the first time, the boy turned to me and spoke: "I am going to kill myself. I've got no reason to live anymore."
After those words, the father cried like I have never seen any grown man cry in my life. His whole body shook, and the stark room was filled with the sound of heartbreak.
Within minutes, Natalie was brought back into the room with an intake nurse and I was asked to come join them on the journey back up to the psyche floor. On my way out, the man rose to his feet and we gave each other an awkward hug. I whispered in his ear: "My daughter wants to take her life too....you pray for us and we'll be praying for you."
I still think of that teenage girl and boy often. Their brief time in my life has had a larger impact on me than some relationships that have lasted tens of years. They opened my eyes to the world around me in a brand new way, helping me to see humanity in the realm of mental illness. It was no longer a foreign subject to me, but it was three very real people now....and one of those three, was my daughter.