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The other face of mental illness

The mental health of our society is a growing concern that is affecting family life. Susan (not her real name) gave the following testimony of how she overcame her challenges.

My real name has been withheld because I believe that as a people, we have not yet reached the level of maturity that will allow me to tell my story without being stigmatised; and this is due to the fact that mental illness is associated with the torn and tattered man on the street, pelting stones at the public. I too felt that way until my own experience with mental illness.

As a child I witnessed my uncle undergoing episodes of confusion. I had no understanding of it then, but in my later years I was to correctly identify these episodes as mental illness.

I grew up in a home of religious confusion; my father saw the church door once a year on Old Year’s Night. My mother commenced her walk with religion as an adult with children; after which the girls followed her into the Catholic faith, while the boys remained with their father as non-practicing Anglicans.

As a family we followed the teachings of visiting evangelists and entertained Watchtower teaching sessions in our home. As for me, I had the added benefit of attending Sunday school in the Salvation Army, praying Anglican prayers at school and attending Methodist services in the company of my grandmother.

Eventually I grew up, and avoided all religion for several years, until I began my search for spirituality and was led back to the Catholic Church through a Life in the Spirit seminar and what I choose to call an encounter with God and the devil.

As I progressed through the weekly sessions of the Life in the Spirit seminar, I came face to face with the reality of a spirit world which existed alongside this material world, having had experiences which led me to believe in a living God, while at the same time feeling the pain of hell.

As I became consumed in my search for truth, questions raced through my mind; questions that led me through a desert of doubt and fear. My greatest fear being that my soul was destined for hell. I felt I was in purgatory since the peace I so desired seemed totally out of my reach and sleep evaded me, I lost my appetite for food and sexual activity.

Priest, pundit, obeah man

It was during this time that I sought the aid of the priest, the pundit, and yes, the ‘obeah man’. I was bathed in bush, prayed over, and rubbed with foul-smelling oils but the peace I was seeking continued to evade me.

Finally, exhausted due to sleep deprivation, I visited a medical practitioner (a Seventh Day Adventist pastor), who on seeing my condition took me to the Port of Spain General Hospital where I was admitted and sent to the Psychiatric Ward, thankful that I did not go to St Ann’s Hospital, also known by all as ‘de mad house’.

On admission I held on to the hope that the treatment would end my dilemma, that the medication would put me to sleep and end my problem, but my problems only escalated. My mind continued to soar out of this world of reality. Questions continued to race through my mind; questions that led to numerous other questions but offered no solutions.

While at hospital I felt like I was in the ‘Twilight Zone’. I experienced delusions, hallucinations, I stripped, palmed medication and pretended to swallow, I absconded, and I had thoughts of suicide. I remember standing in the porch of Ward 8 (the Psychiatric Ward) looking up at the fifth floor of the building opposite, and seeing myself fall to the ground without the slightest fear.

I remember hearing of persons dying in accidents and wondered why that was not me. In spite of these what now seem to me as frightening thoughts, the most devastating of all my experiences was my inability to sleep. Whenever I think of that experience, I usually say “you can take my food but never take my sleep”.

For those who have not experienced this phenomenon, don’t think you can imagine it. You can’t unless you have been there. Thank God that you have not, and pray that you never will.

All my bodily functions were affected by my illness; trips to the bathroom, heavy sweating, racing heart, rapid weight loss and blurred vision were some of the symptoms accompanying my illness.

Avoid stress

Thankfully family members stood by me all the way, in particular my wayward husband, to whom I will be eternally grateful, and to my understanding co-workers who supported me and who covered for me during the early days of my return to work.

That was not my only episode, but it was the most intense. The way back was long and hard but quite miraculously my feelings of fear and confusion began to disappear one day as I lay on my bed, and just as suddenly as I entered the ‘gates of hell’ I began my walk back to health and to a life in the Spirit. That day, I got up, made my bed and began to perform chores which previously I could not; my energy was back to a state of normalcy.

After my last episode in 2002, I was advised by my psychiatrist to ‘avoid stress’ and this became a mantra for me; when problems threatened to overwhelm me, I fought back. I began to place greater emphasis on things spiritual and gave up any attachment to material things. Most of all I let go of all the bitterness and resentment I felt for those I thought had wronged me.

Now when trials come, I depend on my brothers in the faith and my doctor, trusting in God to keep me symptom-free. I have a family; I have a job; I am well and I now know now that mental illness has another face because I look in the mirror and the face of mental illness looks back at me.

My experience has shown that psychiatry is important in treating mental illness, but because of my personal experience I know also that spirituality is impacted upon when mental illness is evident.

Thanks to my doctor, my parish priest, pastors of other religions, co-workers, and friends and to those who in their wisdom or lack thereof, tried to help me through my illness and today 30 years later, I thank God for His saving grace.