Every Parent’s Nightmare
I kept the following diary on my BlackBerry a week ago last Sunday. For reasons that should quickly become obvious to the reader, it took until now for me to decide to post it..
6:58am — The phone wakes me up. “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” the ringtone I assigned to my parents, who know I’m not an early riser. This isn’t good.
I’m groggy when I answer, and the laryngitis I have from a vicious week-long cold isn’t helping me sound better. It’s the Den Mother’s Father calling. As we exchange perfunctory greetings, he sounds fine. He always sounds fine, even now as he tells me that my son is at the hospital after cutting his wrists in a suicide attempt.
The Den Son lives with my parents, having declined to move a half hour away when I bought my house. Apparently he went out at an unknown pre-dawn hour and, at an unknown location, tried to do the deed. Afterward, for some unknown reason, he made his way to the police station. The police brought him to the hospital and sent a cruiser to the house to notify his family. That’s when DMF called me.
Everybody is short on details at this point.
I lie in bed letting everything sink in. If he had called needing my help, I’d have sprung immediately into action without so much as brushing my teeth. But the knowledge that he is being cared for allows me the luxury of time.
My first thought is, Thank God he’s alive. My second thought is how tired I am, which strikes me as strange. Not strange that I’m tired, but strange that I would really like to just roll over, go back to sleep, and escape from what is happening. My third thought is that we’ve done this dance before, except the first time was with sleeping pills, which fortunately aren’t as potent as they used to be or they would have done more damage. I’m picturing DS being calmly evaluated by a mental health clinician just like he was then, but this time, his forearms are bandaged. My fourth thought is anger at how he could do this to his grandparents, who are a week away from celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary party with an afternoon Mass followed by a (mostly) catered luncheon for 45 family and friends.
7:20am — Now that everything has sunk in, I’m crying. But I’m also getting out of bed. Since I showered just yesterday afternoon, I decide I can get by with quickly washing up, brushing my teeth, and combing my hair. I pause to decide what to wear, as if it matters how I look when I see DS. I go with jeans, sneakers, and a yellow t-shirt. Somehow I recall that Norman Rockwell used yellow in his paintings to signify hope.
7:38am — DMF calls again. DMM called the hospital and found out that DS has been transferred from the Emergency Room to the Emergency Mental Health unit. That’s standard operating procedure, I note.
I throw a few things into a tote bag, grab my pocketbook, and stop to consider whether or not I should bring the items I would need to make ravioli with DMM. She and I were going to do that all afternoon and freeze them for the party next Sunday. I decide that if possible we will stick with the plan, mostly because it will be a good way to keep busy.
8:02am — I pull into the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through (or, as they call it, “drive thru,” which makes me crazy) for a blueberry muffin and a bottle of apple juice. I’m not hungry, but I have to get my blood sugar up and get something solid into my stomach so I can take my sundry medications, two of which are antidepressants. Through no action or fault of my own, I’ve saddled my son with mental illness.
8:31am — I walk into the Emergency entrance and tell the woman at the desk why I’m there. She can’t find DS on the list of patients. I tell her twice that he has been transferred to Emergency Mental Health. She finally makes a call and directs me to a locked door, where a clinician greets me. She tells me to sit tight and wait for updates.
8:59am — Strobe lights start flashing and a detached (probably automated) voice comes over the public address system: “Attention, attention. Code red, floor 8,” and then something about a section. It’s been a long time since I worked in a hospital, but my recollection is that code red means fire, as opposed to the more common code blue (someone in cardiac arrest) and the rarer code gray (security emergency). EMH is on the first floor, so I don’t worry.
9:02am — My parents arrive. I told them not bother, but they’re here anyway. They have come “so you won’t be alone.” I don’t bother telling them that I want to be alone.
10:52am — The clinician informs me that she is looking into partial hospital programs that might have an opening for DS. Partial hospitalization is an intensive outpatient form of mental health treatment whereby patients spend all day in a combination of individual therapy and group therapy. It’s a lot like being an inpatient, but partial patients go home for the night. The question right now is whether it is safe for DS to be home overnight without a repeat of what brought him here in the first place.
Now is when I get to see him. I follow the clinician into the locked unit, where a small conference room is free. DS comes in, his shirt and pants stained with blood, gauze bandages around each lower forearm. I hug him and tell him that I’m glad he is alive. It’s the understatement of the year and I probably don’t have to say it, but I think he needs to hear it. Or I need to say it. The rest of the conversation involves my trying to fill in all the unknowns—what, when, where, how, and mostly, why—and I sense DS getting mildly annoyed. I am ordinarily a good communicator, but now, In the face of the worst crisis of either of our lives, I’m failing miserably. When my eyes tear up again, he pushes a box of tissues across the table toward me, which seems to signify a shred of a connection between us. After about ten minutes, I go back out into the waiting area.
12:14pm — The clinician comes out again, this time to sit with us and fill us in. A psychiatrist has now evaluated DS and recommended inpatient treatment, to which DS agrees. But there are no inpatient beds available at the moment—there might not be until later this evening or even tomorrow morning—and EMH isn’t equipped to handle frequent or long visits, so we collectively decide there is no point in hanging around the hospital until he is admitted. The staff will call when a bed opens up, which might not be until this evening or even tomorrow morning. In the meantime, they ask me to bring an immediate change of clothes as well as 2-3 days worth of clothing and toiletries.
But first, the Den Parents get to see DS briefly. I give DMM a pen and a gasoline receipt from my wallet and ask her to make a list of what he wants me to bring. After about 15 minutes, they emerge, DMM with list in hand, and we depart in our respective cars.
12:57pm — I have gathered up the clothing, toiletries, and several books that DS requested. Back at the hospital, I meet an EMH staff member I hadn’t seen before at the locked door and pass the bagged items to him. DS is with someone, I’m told, so no quick visit this time. When I leave the parking garage, I am pleasantly surprised to find out there is no charge for such a short stay. It occurs to me that I’ll be paying for a lot of parking over the next few days.
From the car, I call one of my sorority sisters whose young adult son has had multiple suicide attempts. I’ve been talking to people all day, but only she knows exactly what this is like for the mother.
1:45pm — Back at my parents’ house, I announce to DMM that it’s time to start making ravioli. She says she doesn’t feel up to it. I tell her that if I can pull myself together to make ravioli, she can too.
4:37pm — It’s EMH calling to tell me that a bed has opened up and DS should be up in the psych unit within 1-2 hours. The staff will call when DS is moved upstairs, at which time we can have a longer visit. They give me a phone number for the nurses’ desk so I can find out about visiting hours.
In the meantime, DMF remains in his study doing whatever he does in there and DMM and I wrap up operations on the ravioli assembly line. We have made, completely from scratch, 32 meatless ravioli and 69 with meat. These aren’t puny Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli, either. We make them the way my Sicilian grandmother made them, big and substantial. They will be in addition to all the food the caterer is doing. I’m also planning to make Italian cookies and cannolis, but I don’t stop to think about when I’ll find the time after working during the day and going to the hospital in the evening.
7:19pm — We have finished the ravs, cleaned up, ordered a pizza (suddenly, all three of us were hungry), and sat down together for the first time since we were all in the ER/EMH waiting area this morning. I have called the hospital twice, only to find that DS still hadn’t been moved to the inpatient psych unit. On the third call, I am told that he is finally up there. I am disappointed to learn that visiting hours ended at 7:00, but the nurse must feel sorry for me because she tells me to come down anyway.
7:40pm — I ride up the elevators to the hospital’s top floor. The inpatient mental health unit, like EMH, is a locked unit whose main entrance is next to the elevators. The only other people who would deliberately to up there are going to the bone marrow transplant unit, but they can’t miss the big red signs announcing the psych area. Beside the locked doors is a phone that rings directly to the nurses’ desk. I announce myself, tell them whom I’m there to visit, and wait about 30 seconds before someone comes and lets me in.
It’s different from other areas of the hospital, and not just because of the locks. For one thing, I have to sign in with my full name and the patient’s first name only, to protect privacy. The patients are all dressed in street clothes. About a half-dozen of them are gathered in what’s called the day room, a large room where patients eat their meals, watch TV, and visit with visitors and each other. Across from the day room is a little alcove with a small table and a couple of chairs. This is where the nurse has me sit while she gets DS.
He greets me, looking perfectly normal except for the bandages. He has changed into clean clothes. I ask him how he feels, and he tells me that with the exception of his arms, which obviously hurt, he feels fine. I tell him that I’m glad he is feeling better but that he should understand that he isn’t fine. That starts an argument, which I try to end by pointing out that even people with serious disease like cancer or diabetes can have no symptoms. He seems to accept the analogy.
I learn that the staff had to look over everything he brought onto the unit, as they will have to check anything visitors bring to him. We can bring him food and beverages, presuming they aren’t in plastic bags or glass bottles. Any utensils brought in must be plastic. No electronic devices are allowed. Visitors aren’t allowed in the patients’ rooms.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I hear noises from down the hall. A woman is yelling something about the wall; it was there before, but someone has moved it. I realize that the situation with DS could be worse; at least he isn’t suicidal and psychotic.
As our visit comes to an end, a nurse gives me a sheet of paper listing visiting hours, a phone number for patients to receive calls, the number to reach the nursing staff, and the name of the psychiatrist who will treat my son. I kiss DS good night and follow the nurse down the hall so she can let me out. I tell her I’m relieved that he is there. She said she thinks he is relieved, too. He told her that the cat was now out of the bag. I realize this problem didn’t develop overnight and it won’t be treated overnight.
10:35pm —I go to bed with a sense that everything is OK for now. I will sleep well, having no idea that the next eight days will be a roller coaster of emotions.
The Den Son spent a total of nine days in the hospital before being discharged to outpatient treatment. On his third full day on the unit, he had a sort of self-awareness breakthrough that the psychiatrist said takes most people a year. At the time of his discharge, he and the doctor had developed a plan of action for ongoing treatment. Everyone is satisfied that he is now safe, and the plan includes steps to keep him that way. He is on the right track but has a long way to go. I wonder if I will ever stop worrying about him.