Writing as patient care

I remember a rough day, one of my last days in the hospital. I had a patient immobilized from the waist down and fresh out of surgery who could. Not. Stop. Peeing. In her amnesiac withdrawal from anesthesia, she was rapidly cycling through refusing to use a bedpan and demanding a bedpan. It was madness. An hour of back-wrenching linen changes and getting yelled at.

I can not tell you now how much I miss even those days. As a complete digression, I am made crazy by the challenges faced by nurses (and all clinicians) on the hospital floor, how it is everything but the patients that drives us mad. How many of us are forced to choose between the career we worked to hard for, our calling, and our own health and family. The American Journal of Nursing addresses the concern.

But hospital or no, I observe and I care and I’ll never not be a nurse.

Today I spent a minute in the Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Visiting with my son for a family event I just happened to pass the small room of framed letters and photos. I dragged him in, promised a treat if he’d chill for just 5 minutes, and let him tap sounds out of the installation of bell jars while I read.

In her letter, pinned just below a smiling photograph of Plath taken 6 months prior with her two very young children, I saw the lines that made it clear why a week from that day she would be dead by suicide.

She was getting over a terrible flu. After much distress, she had left her husband with babies in tow. Fled the comfort of their country home to a flat in London. It was the first week of godforsaken February. The longest, darkest, depressionest month.

February 4, 1963
“Everything has blown and bubbled and warped and split—accentuated by the light and heat suddenly going off for hours at unannounced intervals, frozen pipes, people getting drinking water in buckets and such stuff–that I am in a limbo between the old world and the very uncertain and rather grim new.”

So here is where writing can be patient care. Always be assessing, always be educating. You can do it with a dead mid-century poet if it makes a piece of writing.

Plath is in a volatile state, the responsibilities of motherhood on her shoulders, just separated from the comfort and support of friends and familiar places. The pipe freezing signals her loss of control. Her limbo between old and uncertain and grim? An expression of hopelessness.

It’s no revelation that Sylvia Plath was depressed a few days before her suicide. But by seeing her as not an hysterical artist inclined to shuffle off this mortal coil at a moment’s notice, and instead as a person, mother, a sufferer of a common condition, she is a

I recognize her words as if they were my own read back to me. Because they were my own, not long ago. The remark “I long to have somebody really play with and love the babies…They are so beautiful and dear and will in effect have no father.” This kind of loneliness, where you seek for someone to share love for your precious child, is crushing. And in the worst of depression: losing the ability to play with you babies, lacking energy, lacking interest. Having failed to mother, life’s most important task, why keep fighting? For me, someone noticed. And they got me help.

Hearing words like those of Sylvia Plath in her last days come from the mouths of friends and family should spur action. Recognize a mental health crisis. Help us take care of each other better. Be there at the bedside.

And as a writer, considering anyone who reads this my beloved patient, now you know. I’ve told a story that educates you. Listen for that tenor of in the speech of the people you care about. And to recognize it in yourself. Like a good nurse, assess, then act.

Also, why isn’t February Mental Health Awareness month? It is rough out there, folks. Take care of each other.

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