A Student nurse’s introduction to mental illness.
When I first met Jeannie she was lying quietly in a dark room staring up at the ceiling. The drapes were pulled and outside a late-winter snowstorm raged. She spoke slowly, haltingly, in an emotionless monotone. The nurses told me that she had been presenting like this for nearly two weeks.
Jeannie didn’t want to live. She was very matter of fact about it. When she’d finished relating the details of her life of neglect, sexual abuse, physical and mental illness, it was hard not to agree with her assessment of
“what do I have to live for?” She’d been on the receiving end of so much trauma, and far too little joy.
We spoke briefly, and I succeeded in luring her out for a walk on the unit. We talked about the need to forgive herself for long-past events over which she had had no control, and ultimately, for developing mental illness. I left that day feeling depressed myself, silently hoping that Jeannie would not be my assigned patient the following week. As a student brand-new to psych nursing, I didn’t think I could do anything to help her.
Much to my surprise, the following week, Jeannie was up, dressed, and looking brighter. Intensive efforts by the nursing staff and gentle encouragement from some of the other patients had brought her around. Jeannie told me she was attending group therapy but had a difficult time staying awake. We had a good interaction, focusing on the side-effects of one of her many medications.
“It’s an awful drug,” she told me. “It takes away your energy and makes you fall asleep when you don’t want to. I know if I stop taking it I’ll get sick again. But I can understand why people stop taking it — because they can’t stand it anymore.”
Jeannie was on a high dose of this drug, as well as three other psychotropic medications.
The other subject we discussed was Jeannie’s reluctance to socialize on the unit. It wasn’t that she didn’t like people, Jeannie told me. It was that she felt terrible when she struggled to build a friendship with another patient, began to feel close, and then one day they were gone — transferred or released, and she never saw them again. Jeannie had been in and out of institutions nearly all of her adult…