Editors note: This is last of a series of columns about the journey of Roger Carroll, managing editor of the Laconia Daily Sun, through New Hampshire’s mental health system, after a personal crisis brought him through an emergency room, a placement annex and, finally, a designated receiving facility at Franklin Regional Hospital.
Part 4 -- No secrets
A staff member had assured me earlier in the week that it would be OK for my granddaughters to visit, but during a Saturday morning meeting with the psychiatric nurse practitioner, she said it was contrary to the rules to allow visitors under 18.
She posited several reasons why they shouldn't be allowed to visit. It might not be appropriate for the children, she said, and there were concerns about patient privacy.
I felt myself growing frustrated, but tried not to get angry. I countered that it should be left up to their mother to decide what was best for the girls; and as for privacy, who were they going to tell?
“They know where I am and they know why I'm here,” I said. “We don't have a lot of secrets in my family.”
It was important for the girls to see that Grampa was OK, I continued. And not only that, it was important that they see me in this environment, so they know that it's OK to ask for help when you struggle.
I felt like the very system that seeks to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness was perpetuating that stigma by treating mental health care as something to be hidden from children.
I had a vision of going to visit my mother when she was institutionalized at New Hampshire Hospital in the early 1970s, when we were only allowed to see her through a small window in an external door at the end of a hallway. We stood outside and waved to her, and some of my siblings cried.
The practitioner said she would consider my request and let me know.
Great, I thought as the meeting broke up, as long as the answer is yes.
In the end, it was. She consulted with Dr. Suarez, who gave the OK to let the girls visit.
As I walked up the hall toward the locked doors that led to the visiting room, I received words of kindness and encouragement. The other patients were happy for me and knew how much the girls meant to me.
I passed through the doors just as the security guard finished patting down my future son-in-law. The guard then turned to the two little girls with flowing long brown hair.
“Do you have anything in your pockets?” he asked with a smile.
They shook their heads, and he gave them permission to enter the visiting area. I was grateful the guard had the good sense and decency not to subject them to a pat-down.
The visit started out with hugs and small talk and, after a period of time, I asked the girls why I was there.
“Because you're sad,” Gracie said.
“That's right, sweetie,” I replied. “It's called depression and it happens sometimes. And when it does, it's OK to ask for help.”
I told them the doctor said I was going to be OK.
Then I joked that I was in the hospital because of a bad reaction to bad meatloaf.
They laughed, but there was a kernel of truth to it, too.
My meatloaf has always been their favorite, and they ask for it every time they come for a sleepover, which is about once a month. One of the joys of making it has been involving them in the preparation. They crack the eggs, add the bread crumbs and liberal amounts of ketchup (the secret ingredient) and spices. Then they dig their little hands into the ground beef and mix it all up before spreading it out in a cake pan and glazing it.
The plan when they visited me the previous Sunday in Laconia—the day after I had gone to say goodbye to their mother—was to make meatloaf, steamed broccoli and boxed macaroni and cheese.
Maddie, the 9-year-old, begged off, so Gracie and I flew solo in the kitchen.
“Is this enough ketchup?” she asked, holding the squirt bottle upside down.
“That's fine,” I said, barely looking at the mixing bowl.
The depression had hit the day before like a tsunami, washing away thoughts of all of the things that normally brought me joy and leaving me feeling isolated and hopeless.
I managed to get the meatloaf in the oven, but everything after that seemed overwhelming.
“Janis?” I called, and she came down the stairs and knew immediately that I was in a bad state.
She flew into action, and we soon had broccoli and mac and cheese on the table.
The meatloaf, however, was easily the worst batch ever.
In other words, it was a reflection of my mindset. I had been there physically but not mentally, and two days later I was in the hospital.
Now the girls and I joked about the meatloaf, which they admitted was horrid. More importantly, for 45 minutes I was able to live completely in the moment in a way I hadn't done for weeks. I felt normalcy returning.
I hugged everyone goodbye and walked through the adjacent doors to the unit, where I saw the most uplifting sight.
Patients were in the hallway looking toward the external doors—like heads popping up in a prairie-dog village—hoping to catch a glimpse of my little treasures as they were leaving. It was further affirmation of just how lucky I was, a sensation I also experienced that night when I hugged Janis in the hallway as she was leaving. The other patients cooed and ooohed and aaahed.
The group sessions and antidepressant worked and my outlook improved quickly. I was discharged Monday and returned the same day to my job, where I explained my situation to my boss and co-workers and was met with support. Everybody should be so fortunate.
I honestly don't know if I would have killed myself. Given more time, I believe I probably would have bought the gun. After that, I think, it would have been a coin flip.
Instead, I sought help. I hope others in distress do the same, because help is out there.
My discharge from the psychiatric unit was not the end of my journey.
As a friend of mine said recently, “introspection is the heaviest of lifting.” I still have work to do. I continue to see a therapist, and a psychiatric nurse has been added to the mix, but I believe I'll come out the other end in good shape.
I decided to write about the experience for the same reason I wrote in 2015 (https://tinyurl.com/y9coenrk) about being physically and sexually abused: Because not talking about a subject doesn't make it better.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that one in five Americans has a mental illness, but only about half seek treatment, many because they are afraid of being stigmatized.
With numbers like that, we all know someone afflicted with mental illness, so ask yourself who you'd rather live or work next to: someone who knows they are struggling and gets treatment, or someone who doesn't?
It's in everyone's interest to remove the stigma that exists around mental health care.
I also decided to write about it because I agree with a movement started by former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, who has said we should end the stigma and make symptoms of mental illness as well-known as the signs of a heart attack or stroke.
Talking about it openly and honestly is the best way to do that, and I've tried to do that while also protecting the privacy of those I encountered along the way.