I have spent quite a bit of time in the mental health units of a couple of Oregon hospitals. Not as a patient, mind you, and not as an employee either. I like to call it ‘patient advocate.’ My mother is 73 years old and is bipolar. She has been in the hospital multiple times, with the frequency increasing during the past decade or so. My brother and I are the chief witnesses to these events.
During my mother’s last couple of in-patient forays, the hospital staff has let me stay with her far past regular visiting hours. There aren’t enough of them, and they can see how I’m able to keep her out of their hair. So I become a quasi-staff member. Sometimes I’m mistaken for a staff member—occasionally assisting whoever my mother’s roommate happens to be; unflappable in the face of the naked man with dementia wandering through other patients’ rooms. I’m able to get away with sneaking in the good coffee and the cheeseburgers that make my mother’s hospital stay more bearable. I even know which of my winter coats has the sleeves that can accommodate a pound-box of See’s Candy.
Mania (they tell me) is incredibly seductive—at first. The rush of energy and creativity—even good memories make an appearance. Who doesn’t like the feeling of being at the top of one’s game, of bang-on clarity and awareness, of wit fueled by intellect? True confession: I find my mother a more interesting person when she’s in the early stages of mania (and I do emphasize ‘early’). I like hearing her stories of growing up in the New York City of the 1940s: of her father the civil engineer who worked on the Holland Tunnel; of her mother the secretary-typist who worked for Marsh and McClennan (long before the devastating events of 9/11/01); of vanilla cokes at the local drug store after a school day at Port Richmond High School.
Mania builds, and my mother can’t sleep. She rearranges the furniture in her apartment, and attempts major cleaning/reorganization projects. She buys all her Christmas presents regardless of the current date (she once bought everything in January). Then the paranoia arrives, and her friend Sharon, whom she has known for 30 years, has surely stolen that jacket she just bought. A call to Sharon to cuss her out. Then a 911 call to the police. They arrive and are able to locate the jacket. Sorry, Sharon!
Finally, the call comes to me — ‘Kelly, can you come to see me? I really need someone to hold my hand. I was up all night throwing up and having diarrhea. No, don’t come now…I can wait until the weekend.’ Then another call, three hours later: ‘Come now.’
Is it codependent of me to consider going, or is there legitimate need here? My mother doesn’t plan her manic episodes—they just happen. Yes, she’s on medication, but the medication doesn’t cure, it simply keeps the ship in the middle of the shipping lanes. Except for when it doesn’t, like right now.
One would think that the goal is to avoid the hospital stay. My mother has pretty decent care. Can’t they prevent these manic episodes from becoming full-blown? It would take a symphonic orchestration of medication to make that happen, I guess. “They” can’t do everything. And remember, one element of mania is denial that one has it.
My mom appears destined for yet another hospital stay, and it’s looking like I’ll be right there with her (a definite maybe). Oregon, ho!
Previously on this topic: Jessica Starr
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