I hurry into the inpatient psychiatric unit just in time to wait. It's smoke time on the patio. The nurse hands me a stack of charts representing residents in need of an assessment.
”Who is ready?” I ask.
She looks as if my brain misfired. “Everyone on the unit is smoking.”
It's been years since I visited my own loved one in the psychiatric hospital, but I still remember the loud clanking of the key as it enters the lock. The noise is deafening to one who painfully wishes their loved one is anywhere but here. Patients approach to ask if they can leave for our facility where there are no locks. There is much to learn from someone in the allocated twenty minutes. At the end of the day, there are 12 patients who appear ready to return to community living.
I exit the locked door which opens to the waiting room. Tired, I find a chair by the window and fall into it. A few minutes pass and then I see them. A familiar knot forms in my stomach reminding me of my own feelings of hopelessness in years gone by. Confusion and the nervous sensation when, a lifetime ago, I searched for the right thing to do for my loved one with mental illness.
Jolted into the present, I see staff lead a young man out to visit his waiting parents. The parents look in their fifties. Their grown son chooses to sit apart alienating himself from those whose hearts are visibly breaking. Where is the look which conveys that I love you and I remember you as Mom and Dad? His legs twitch incessantly and the rhythm of anxious fingers scrape the hollow of his neck. He never returns eye contact as his parents search for any hint of connection. The deafening silence - I've heard it all before.
“Son, did your day go okay?” The father is wearing a laborer's cap. He appears fragile as if all hope rests on his son’s response.
“Nope.” He averts their gaze. He wears a cross around his neck.
“Please, dear, come over here. You are trembling,” his mother whispers.
She starts to cry. Her fear takes me back to a time when I, too, searched for some feeling or expression from the man I loved. Our shared pain becomes palpable. “Your father and I miss you.”
Then the clamor of the metal key in the lock interrupts the silence. The door swings open. “Smoke time.” The father reaches forward to graze his child’s arm as his son bolts out the door. Mom and Dad look as if they've lost their last friend. It hurts to wear your heart on your sleeve. I know this to be true.
Moments pass. I see it again. The look is unmistakable. I met it, too, with the same sober presence, vigilance, and glassy-eyed turmoil. We feel alone in the battle with mental illness. They lower their bodies into a measured collapse. I want to tell them the emotional disconnect, a part of this illness, can improve. Recovery with medications and therapies is possible yet mental illness is complex.
Our invisible connection prompts one more look. I want to offer a promise of hope and understanding of the life they now live. Instead, I make eye contact and try to smile in support. As much for myself as for them.