I pull up to my home and hit the garage door opener. It sounds like a simple, mundane task but I am overwhelmed with fear and dread. I constantly fear I will find my husband "Joel" hanging in the garage. I tilt my head trying to peak at the base of the door as it goes up. Finally, the all clear, nothing but garden tools and old tires. I feel immense relief until the next time I return home from an outing.
Joel has been suicidal for years. I don't even know how long. His mother suicided in 1994, just six days before Christmas. I don't know if any of us has recovered from that painful ordeal. But, for many years, Joel did a masterful job of hiding his pain. I call it his game face; the world thought all was well when in fact he was enveloped in pain and sorrow.
I couldn't really tell anyone about this. Joel appeared fine to the rest of the world. I knew something was wrong in our home but couldn't put my finger on it. I often thought I was the problem; If I don't rock the boat, if I keep the house clean, if I keep quiet, all will be well. It never was enough. I didn't think any of my friends would believe me or understand. Even our dearest, closest friends couldn't believe it this spring when Joel was twice admitted to hospital for suicidal ideation.
Finally, others knew my secret.
But, the mental health care system can create a new painful existence for patients and loved ones. There's an eagerness to get a patient back home, regardless of whether he/she is ready. And, there are privacy laws that prevent even the most mundane information from being shared. I often lamented if Joel had cancer I'd be sitting with the doctor learning about his diagnosis, prognosis and how best to care for him at home. Not so with mental health care. In fact, there's an incredible lack of trust. Without knowing my story, a mental health nurse told me family members try to keep loved ones in hospital so they can steal from their bank accounts through a power of attorney. Suddenly, I understood why I felt more like a criminal when sharing concerns about Joel with the mental health team rather than a caring spouse. It was an awful experience and to this day I wonder how many family members really try to take advantage of a loved one in hospital and how many just want that person to get better.
Joel and I decided to separate within a month of his second hospitalization. I'm sad but also relieved. I can open the garage door now without fear and dread. I now realize I spent the past five years or more walking on egg shells. There is collateral damage though. Our children are each affected differently by Joel's mental illness, my reaction to his depression, and the eventual breakdown of our marriage. There is still a lot of healing that has to take place.
This experience has given me an intense passion for mental health care in this country. Each month, hundreds of Canadians suicide. That's horrendous yet we hardly ever hear about the problem in the news. Imagine if a jet plane went down in this country every month and everyone on board died. Every politician would be up in arms. Why aren't we up in arms about the loss of life to suicide? And, it isn't just loss of life. Mental illness costs our economy BILLIONS every year.
Next month (Oct 22-24) the CMHA is hosting a national conference called, "Thriving in 2010 and Beyond". It promises to provide a safe, sharing environment allowing everyone involved in and affected by the mental healthcare system to "thrive". I am not thriving yet, but I hope to one day. I plan to attend this conference as part of my road to recovery. Maybe my story will help other family members or somehow influence professionals end policy makers to improve the system.
If you have any involvement with the mental health care system as a consumer, service provider, care giver, educator, researcher, policy maker, family member, I'd urge you to attend too. This issue needs as many voices as possible to get the message to the masses that mental wellness in Canada MUST become a priority.